The high-low fusion was risky—a kind of unsafe political sex. With each compromise, movement elites gave up more ground. “You can tell this story as one of a changing media environment,” says Ross Douthat. “From Buckley to Roger Ailes”—the longtime head of Fox News—“you go from a time when the leading media impresario was intellectual and high-minded to someone who was primarily interested in making money.” Buckley and company had an old-fashioned belief in institutions, and were confident the movement would remain a top-down operation. The ideas began with them. Why wouldn’t power accrue to them, too? “What you have in Buckley and Reagan is a desire to have what the liberals have had,” says Geoffrey Kabaservice. “Buckley doesn’t want a second-rate New York Times. He wants an actual conservative Times that has the same standing, same quality and reputation as the liberal Times. Reagan does not want a conservative president in office who’s going to have a less capable government than the liberals have had before.”
That illusion crumbled in 2016. “The election proved elite conservative media doesn’t matter,” says Douthat. “Every major non–Wall Street Journal columnist was against Trump. The Weekly Standard was against Trump. National Review was against Trump. None of it mattered.”
And if those publications don’t matter, why fund them? Even as Trump taunts the “failing” New York Times, it’s the boutique right-wing media that’s truly in peril, now that its lack of influence has been exposed.