What happened? If these intellectuals were so influential in the conservative movement, then why has their apostasy garnered so little attention? A Ramesh Ponnuru editorial in Bloomberg blurted out this truth: “In 2016 we found out that conservative elites didn’t speak for Republican voters.” This split between the party’s base and its donor class (as well as the donor-funded intellectuals) was years in the making, but it became obvious once Trump became the nominee. Then the truth became obvious and damning: the Never Trumpers represented no one but themselves.
Looking back, it now seems self-evident that conservative pundits were preposterously out of touch. (Who isn’t amused by the poindexter pretentiousness of George Will’s bow-ties or the pseudo-scholarly piffle of Jonah Goldberg’s byline as “the inaugural holder of the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty?”). These intellectuals barely noticed the opioid crisis running through small town America; or the base’s anger regarding illegal immigration; and they were adamantly opposed to any restriction of free trade while working class frustrations mounted over NAFTA and its ilk. (This explains why J. D. Vance and his book Hillbilly Elegy was Washington’s must-read book of 2017: it provided a portrait of rural America that the political class could digest without condescending to visit such places, or talk to such voters.) It turns out that conservative intellectuals, living inside the “Acela Corridor” and funded exclusively by think tanks and foundations, are poor barometers of Republican voter concerns.