2016's unique environment: Why NR's "Against Trump" misses the mark

Come on — this would explain a few things, right? In attempting to make sense of what seems to be an inexplicable presidential nomination cycle, Andrew Malcolm wonders whether aliens are to blame. The GOP had an almost unprecedented amount of talent coming from its gubernatorial ranks, while Democrats had much less talent but the same heir presumptive to the throne as eight years earlier. He’s not saying it actually is aliens, but …


If this election cycle was a movie, no one would pay to see such a far-fetched tale of science fiction with aliens taking over the minds of American voters and politicians.

In the alleged year of the outsider with so many voters beyond sick of Washington gridlock, cronyism, non-stop partisan bickering and inept incumbents, with the first nomination voting less than a week away their dominant, unlikely presidential choices are at the moment shaping up as follows:

Three, maybe four New Yorkers joined by an incumbent senator roundly disliked by colleagues who was born in Canada. A Brooklyn-born socialist, a lifelong politician who honeymooned in the Soviet Union and proudly promises to raise taxes is handily leading a former first lady and senator under FBI investigation for possible corruption and national security crimes. Unlike eight years ago, Hillary Clinton is fervently supporting Obama, whose job approval has long been underwater. …

This was supposed to be the leap year election when executive experience outside the nation’s despised capital would vault another governor into the Oval Office, as four of the last six presidents have been. A fifth was sitting vice president.

But governors have been dropping from the contest like last weekend’s snowflakes. Scott Walker. Bobby Jindal. Rick Perry. Another, Martin O’Malley, labors in progressive obscurity on the Democrat stage.

Three GOP governors – Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee and John Kasich – also lag, despite scores of millions spent on organization and advertising.


It’s actually not so inexplicable — and the fade by experienced political leaders is a key indicator of the current political environment. In my column for The Week, I look back on the impact from National Review’s “Against Trump” issue, which fulfilled William F. Buckley’s intended mission for the magazine when he launched it 60 years ago. The editors and their contributors gave an impassioned defense of conservative ideology and policy and warned voters that Trump has no loyalty to either.

They’re not wrong on that. The problem is that voters have gone past caring about it, and the institutions which undergird it:

In three ways, the “Against Trump” issue misses the underlying passions in the electorates of both parties. First, it is no longer enough to stand athwart history and yell, “Stop!” The Republican Party and conservatism has done a good job of that since retaking control of the House, and it has been a necessary brake on the excesses of the Barack Obama agenda. But President Obama will retire in a year, and voters want to know what Republicans and conservatives are for.

That is especially true of voters in swing states, as I discovered in my research and travel for my upcoming book Going Red. They do not want a continuation of the ideological battles that have wracked American politics for the last 25 years or more. Voters want more competent governance, which to them means less intrusion in their lives, but also solutions to the issues that matter most to them — a lack of jobs and economic opportunity, failing education systems, and the sense that America’s place in the world has slipped. Conservatism offers insight into how we got here and what to do about it, but voters want a sense from their candidates that they share their dissatisfaction, and have the power to do something to resolve it.

Most importantly, though, is the sense that America’s institutions have failed them, including political parties and the so-called elites who populate the political system. Institutional endorsements usually mean little anyway — just ask all of the also-rans who got newspaper endorsements before primaries in the past few decades. Institutional denunciations probably mean even less in a normal cycle, but in an anti-establishment environment such as this cycle’s, it might wind up being a perverse kind of endorsement. It feeds into the very passions that have made Trump into a polling frontrunner in a Republican field where the extent of political experience provides an inverse correlation to popular standing. It’s not a coincidence that the plethora of governors in the race have either withdrawn or all but dropped off the radar screen.

National Review‘s “Against Trump” offers excellent questions about the ideological bent of Donald Trump. The problem for National Review and conservatism is that few are actually asking those questions or care about the answers. That is the challenge for conservatism: how to remain relevant in an anti-establishment era. Yelling “Stop!” will not be enough to answer it.


National Review has a key role to play in making conservatism relevant to voters again. But for that to happen, everyone has to realize that we are really starting at square one when it comes to trust and education on conservative principles. Attacking candidates, even when warranted, will only work when that trust has been rebuilt and when these institutions can present a positive vision and plan to make it a reality. As a long-time reader and fan of NR and its contributors, that’s a challenge I know they can and will meet — and hopefully so will the rest of the conservative movement’s intellectual institutions.

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