It was a strange death. Some called it murder. Others, suicide. Either way, it was sudden and messy.
Like many friends and colleagues, I remember subscribing to The Weekly Standard at its start. Its history is that of the modern conservative movement. How one interprets its end serves as a Rorschach test for how one perceives the health of that movement today.
This week, Mark Hemingway offers a partial defense of the magazine from one who was there. Chris Bedford offers an account of why it is no more. Gladden Pappin explains why, for many younger thinkers on the right currently drawn to various forms of “non-liberalism,” it is an afterthought. As always, we are open to publishing responses to these pieces and more thoughts besides.
Hemingway proclaims, “it was first and foremost a place to be a writer.” The writing, both taut and joyful, and the crisp smartness of TWS over the years should be missed by all, whatever our current disagreements. It is a rare and extraordinarily difficult thing to create and maintain a publication worthy of readers, and this TWS accomplished for many years.
Yet, as I said last week, when it comes to politics, if the tagline of the new online home of some of its former employees is any indication—“Conservatism Conserved”—their version of the conservative movement is now merely trying to conserve itself. They named their new publication The Bulwark because presumably they see themselves as desperately defending the existence of something they are trying to conserve, which they understand to be under attack from the Right no less than the Left.
As the rest of the thinkers and writers of the now defunct TWS take on various new positions, the significant differences between them concerning its more controversial editorial stances will become apparent. What is now clear is that not only is there a dwindling constituency for such positions among Right-leaning audiences, but that their political influence among the elites on the Right is also increasingly in question. Perhaps some neo-neo-conservatives may move across the aisle to the Democratic party, but on the Left too a rising tide is angry with what was formerly establishment wisdom, especially regarding foreign and economic policy.
Some thus blame the death of TWS on what they deem an unthinking populism, combined with lamentations that intelligent analysis and commentary increasingly have no place in today’s frenetic media world. But this is too easy, even if it were partially true. And such statements are always partially true. The anecdotal history for much of TWS‘s core audience is more interesting.
The conservative audience’s relationship to the magazine began to drift as the nation drifted: through the financial crisis, a second decade of meandering Middle East interventions, and the Obama years, in which the Left ran rampant and the Right’s base finally lost faith in its leaders. Their readers’ shared opposition to the Left kept conservative publications alive but, post-cold war, it was apparent by the start of Obama’s second term that the American political Right had failed. It had squandered the Bush presidencies. It had lost American culture, education, and almost every political issue that readers cared about. As it had squashed various folk heroes from the base in primaries for decades, so it failed to harness the energies of the Tea Party’s organic resistance.
The Left spoke openly of deterministic political demography, and a coming era of one party domination of the nation.
And in the midst of increasingly obvious failure, in the view of many a reader, the Right’s political figures refused to fight at the level of principle and purpose. They refused to fight the media so that they could fight the Left on a more level playing field. They accepted the rhetorical framework of the ruling class, which prevented discussion of whatever issues the Left preferred not to discuss in public. Many have pointed out that Trump’s success consists in his willingness to fight all of the above. But there is another point lurking underneath this one.
The real problem holding back the American Right is its leaders who think there is no problem but for Donald Trump.
Consider the strange experience of reading TWS as the last few years dragged on, or whenever it was you stopped. Logically, it doesn’t make sense to have stopped reading articles self-contained from Trump concerning culture, books, and the like. Even much of the political writing was still excellent, and unconnected to matters of controversy. How, exactly, did the parts of the publication that became increasingly unhinged by Trump ruin the entirety of the publication for so many of us?
The answer, I suspect, is partly that many of us think—or, at least, inchoately feel—we are living in the midst of a regime-level crisis, and TWS did not reflect that reality. As Hemingway points out, there are exceptions. Christopher Caldwell’s work for TWS over the years “now looks astonishingly prescient regarding the rise of Donald Trump,” and his continuing essays for the Claremont Review of Books are essential reading. And the lack of curiosity and introspection on the part of others was a natural defense mechanism. No one wants to own up to their own failures, and thus many of them blamed the Trump and his base. To be sure, according to some ex-TWS employees, the conservative movement is a failure and we are living through a political crisis: the election of Trump, not whatever spurred his rise.
They are still blind to the positive factors—as opposed to supposed vices like anger, envy, and ingratitude on the part of the electorate—that caused many Americans to choose Trump.
In “Our House Divided: Multiculturalism vs. America,” Claremont Institute Board Chairman Tom Klingenstein points out that “most conservatives did not see Trump in 2016 as a man defending America,” largely “because they did not see that America was in need of defending.” As Pappin suggests, “even today, many conservative conferences are stuck in an endless loop of topics far removed from contemporary political reality,” and that at some point, “like all surrealist fiction,” TWS “obscured the line between reality and hyperreality.” We cannot export what we do not have to give. We cannot create democracies overseas even as our own democracy is terribly diseased and corrupt. Especially if we are too blind and ignorant, willfully or otherwise, to recognize our condition.
Many leaders on the Right initially missed the reality that, as Klingenstein argues, “Trump’s entire campaign was a defense of America,” and “the election was fought…over the meaning of America.” While parts of the Right have complained for years about how modern education and culture were enervating the very idea of citizenship and what it means to be an American, these diatribes became a sort of occasional pro forma rhetorical mantra in an establishment world. Bedford points out that “the whole notion of a conservative ‘fracture’ itself depends on the idea that the broadly interventionist, internationalist voice of the Standard was conservative to the core, instead of a passing ally.” After all, most leaders on the right had themselves received just such an education. And the post-Reagan, post-Cold War Right was often more comfortable talking about utilitarian policies of efficiency for the sake of globalism rather than justice and the common good of the American people.
In 2016, the chickens came home to roost. While those shamed by Trump’s election continue to point and wag their fingers at him, we stand at a juncture in which Americans have embraced profoundly different understandings of human nature, human governance, what a nation is—and ought to be. Such fundamental disagreements cannot long exist in direct contradiction with each other.
How can we speak of a national government operating for the sake of the common good of its citizens when many elite leaders refuse to support any meaningful understanding of citizenship, and often actively oppose it? How can we speak of government seeking to establish justice when elite educational institutions teach that justice either doesn’t exist, or consists in radical multiculturalist, identity politics?
As Klingenstein says,”Trump exposed this threat by standing up to it and its enforcement arm, political correctness.” Who can disagree with him that, at least, Trump’s political existence raises “the question, ‘Who are we as a nation?'”
At a time in which massive technological and economic changes have only just begun, with profound consequences for our political life, this is the central question we now face. And the only standards that survive the realigning tumult of contemporary American politics will directly and convincingly answer it.