Hard and Soft: Competing against the administrative state.
The Squandering of the Standard
Its team of gifted writers was finally squandered on a vendetta against a party that had moved on.
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2018 closed out with a fair share of shutdowns—from our federal government’s closure to the shuttering of The Weekly Standard, another creature of the District of Columbia. The shutdowns, as they do, came with all the politicking attributable to such things.
Mourners are right to laud the late magazine’s features, its instantly recognizable art, and its quirky personalities. Readers and reporters alike fondly recall Andrew Ferguson and Matt Labash, P.J. O’Rourke and Tucker Carlson. All were disturbed to hear how new and veteran staff alike were treated so terribly in the Christmas month, with little notice and swift executions.
As is often the case, most didn’t deserve it. Then again, others truly did.
As rumors circulated that time was up, a curious take on the cause of death popped up in liberal-leaning outlets.
“Weekly Standard faces uncertain future after holding its ground against Trump,” Politico reported Dec. 4. This position, the story goes, made the publication “appear out of sync with its conservative base of readers.
“A Conservative Magazine May Pay a Price for Being Unfriendly to Trump,” The New York Times declared on Dec. 5. “The Weekly Standard didn’t go along,” it reads, “and now its future is in danger.”
But appearing out of sync and declining to “go along” do not adequately describe the past three years of The Weekly Standard, which were characterized by constant attacks not just on media colleagues who agreed with the new president, but the entire party—and its voters—that supported him.
Similarly, “unfriendly to Trump” cannot capture the self-righteous assault that leading voices of the magazine launched in print, on television and, of course, on Twitter, against all those who disagreed.
In the years since Donald Trump has risen and the conservative movement has fractured, the masthead of the magazine made the decision to lash out—whether in a bid for new business or ideological purity. The Weekly Standard‘s business strategy, such as it was, has been quoted as “Let’s make sure we don’t lose too much money.” True, an industry visionary would struggle to turn a profit in the dying business of printed opinion magazines, where salaries and other costs run high and readership runs low. But it shouldn’t take a visionary to see the foolhardiness of a capitalist magazine spending its donor’s dime on attacking its shrinking subscriber base. The liberal left may let Kristol on their shows for now, but they’re unlikely to pay to read his magazine.
Philip Anschutz wanted a journal of opinion, and he wanted one that had influence. If not influence, he might at least expect a profit. The Standard didn’t turn a profit once under his ownership.
And while the authors of its obituaries point to its retained ability to get decent Washington interviews, the cultural and political influence its team of gifted writers once had was severely strained under the championing of the Bush presidency and Iraq War, and finally squandered on a vendetta against a party that had moved on. 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.
It would really be grand if the newest venture of the Standard’s core of remaining staff, The Bulwark, could capture the intellectual vigor and culture of the institution they left behind. We can always hope. But with Charles Sykes, the author of “How The Right Lost Their Mind” at the helm; Kristol on the masthead; and a day-one homepage entirely devoted to attacking the GOP, this seems unlikely.
More likely is a hard lesson to come. The right doesn’t want The Nation lite—certainly not from a band of ex-Republicans. And in two to six years, when President Donald Trump leaves office, the left won’t want it either.
These remarks have been edited since being posted to reflect the fact that Rupert Murdoch, not Bill Kristol, was quoted as saying “Let’s make sure we don’t lose too much money.” —Eds.