“In every town large enough to have two traffic lights there is a bar at the back of which sits the local Donald Trump, nursing his fifth beer and innumerable delusions.” So wrote George Will in his attack on Donald Trump for having the temerity to threaten the legacy of William F. Buckley. [“Donald Trump Is an Affront to Anyone Devoted to William F. Buckley’s Legacy” by George F. Will, National Review Online, August 12, 2015]
This is not George Will’s first attempt to Archie Bunkerize an ideological opponent. Will once said of Pat Buchanan’s 1996 presidential campaign: “Were we picking not a president but the person among the candidates with whom it would be the most fun to kick back and kill a six pack, Pat Buchanan would win in a landslide.” [“Buchanan Offers Wrong Solution” by George F. Will, Gainsville Sun, November 3, 1995]
Denigrating your opponents—rather than simply challenging their arguments—is a standard tactic of the Left. Conservatives—that is, real conservatives—are supposed to be above that. It’s the ideas that matter, at least to some of us.
This brings us to William F. Buckley.
According to George Will: “[Donald Trump] is an affront to anyone devoted to the project William F. Buckley began six decades ago with the founding in 1955 of National Review—making conservatism intellectually respectable and politically palatable.”
It does not occur to George Will that very few people are still devoted to the project William F. Buckley started in 1955 with the founding of National Review.
According to its original mission statement, Buckley founded National Review with the stated purpose of standing “athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no other is inclined to do so.” Soon, however, the magazine would acquire a secondary—and increasingly primary—function as Buckley began to arrogate to himself the power to decide who or what is a true conservative.
Granted, defining what policies and principles should properly qualify as conservative is certainly legitimate. But one can expel an idea without necessarily expelling its proponent. Unfortunately, Buckley, whose intellect was always more image than substance, often chose to expel the individual instead of the idea.
When I interviewed Buckley on his relationship with Whittaker Chambers he expressed great pride in having published Chambers’s compelling review of Atlas Shrugged (“Big Sister Is Watching You”) in 1957.
While I also admire Chambers’s review, I suspected that Buckley admired it less for its substance than for the power it had to expel an individual from membership in the conservative camp. “Whittaker wrote Ayn Rand right out of the conservative movement with that one review,” he told me with a mile wide smile on his face.
According to Buckley, Rand never spoke to him again and refused to attend any gatherings at which Buckley was present.
In my opinion, it was at this point that William F. Buckley realized that he had the power to excommunicate individuals from the inner circle of the conservative movement at the center of which he stood largely alone, at least for a time.
In 1962, Buckley wrote a 5,000 word “excoriation” of Robert Welch and the John Birch Society for alleged anti-Communist extremism.[“The Question of Robert Welch” National Review, February 13, 1962] True, many of the Birchers ideas were quixotic—in style as much as content. But the real object of Welch’s ire was the self-absorption of the American political establishment whose statist goals he believed were akin to a creeping Sovietism.
However, Buckley had no quarrel with the political establishment and always desperately sought their approval. The constant effort to maintain this high social status was also part of the project that Buckley founded in 1955; it just took a while for some of his colleagues to catch on to it.
So in order to maintain his social standing and his position as the de facto leader of the conservative movement, Buckley had to periodically purge some of his best writers; most notably Joe Sobran, whose only crime was offending the foreign policy views of some prominent neoconservatives.
Moreover, as patriotic immigration reform fell out of favor with the elites during the 1990s, those conservatives who championed it fell out of favor with Buckley. Subsequently, Buckley fired John O’Sullivan both for his immigration hardline and for committing the cardinal sin of upstaging him at a magazine social gathering.
Many NR readers were subsequently stunned when Buckley replaced O’Sullivan with the virtually unknown Rich Lowry as editor. But Lowry had two advantages: he never threatened to overshadow Buckley and he was dedicated to a soft approach on immigration.
For example, in 1995, John J. Miller wrote a pro-immigration puff piece for the Wall Street Journal using bogus data [Immigration’s Golden Door, May 25, 1995]. In response, Peter Brimelow wrote an article in National Review exposing Miller’s data as false. So what did Rich Lowry do as soon as he became editor? He dropped Peter Brimelow and hired John Miller to write on immigration in his place.
That was the turning point. National Review then began to quietly write patriotic immigration reform out of the conservative movement. In so doing, writers like John Miller and Ramesh Ponnuru would also accept the Left’s narrative that immigration restrictionism was motivated by white racism, and was therefore unworthy of debate.
In 1999, Ramesh Ponnuru attempted to portray Pat Buchanan as an illegitimate conservative and compared his emphasis on patriotic immigration reform to “identity politics for white people.” [A Conservative No More: The Tribal Politics of Pat Buchanan, October 11, 1999] Ponnuru even derided Buchanan’s millions of supporters as “peasants.”
In a letter to Jared Taylor written in August, 2000, William F. Buckley openly admitted that he no longer opposed mass immigration because it was not politically-correct:
It seems to me that the idea traditionally defended of endeavoring to maintain existing ethnic balances simply doesn’t work any more.
But for whom does patriotic immigration reform no longer work? For the elites, of course. Here Buckley admits that it was more important for him to maintain his status than to maintain his country.
This is a naked admission that National Review no longer stood athwart history yelling stop—and that that part of the project that William F. Buckley founded in 1955 was undeniably over.
Indeed, more to the liking of Buckley and fellow elites were writers like George Will who supported the open borders policies of George W. Bush and derided Tom Tancredo as a “fire-breathing bantam rooster” and even compared him to Al Sharpton.
Today, National Review is at it once again as they strive to banish Donald Trump from conservative respectability for the sin of championing the cause they abandoned long ago: patriotic immigration reform. Their recent “Against Trump” issue is a desperate attempt to assert a strength it no longer has.
In due course—one of Buckley’s favorite phrases—many conservatives like Phyllis Schlafly and Laura Ingraham have begun to wash their hands of National Review. And so it seems, have many of their readers, if the scathing dissents regularly left in the comments section of National ReviewOnline are any indication.
The central question of our time is not who is or what is conservative. The real question is the National Question. And Donald Trump has risen to that challenge better than any candidate since Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The truth is that Donald Trump has filled an enormous political vacuum—one that National Review has refused to acknowledge even though they helped to create it in the first place.
Many people have complimented me on correctly predicting last April that Donald Trump would run for President—and run on patriotic immigration reform. So let me make another prediction: If Donald Trump is elected President in 2016 it will mark the permanent end of National Review’s influence over the conservative movement in America.