Conservatives horrified by Donald Trump’s seemingly unstoppable rise have developed a perfectly understandable habit of depicting him as an alien force. Trump may be a longtime (if idiosyncratic and inconsistent) Republican who has a conventionally Republican policy agenda and appeals to a broad swath of Republican voters, but conservatives insist upon seeing him as a creature of the left, or of Obama, or populist currents outside their movement. Matthew Continetti’s essay in Commentary sounds a version of this theme. Gloomily entitled “The Coming Conservative Dark Age,” Continetti cites, as his model of Golden Age conservatism, National Review’s founding editor, William F. Buckley. “By exiling anti-Semites, Birchers, and anti-American reactionaries from its pages,” writes Continetti, “the magazine and its editor determined which conservative arguments were legitimate and which were not.” Alas, he writes, gatekeepers like Buckley have disappeared, and “Cranky, conspiratorial, bigoted” conservatives of old have returned to conservatism and Republican politics.
Continetti’s idea, and its implication, are not completely wrong. But they are far more wrong than right. Begin with the fact that the much-celebrated antagonism between Buckley and the bigoted right rests upon far narrower disagreement than Continetti suggests. Bigotry against African-Americans flourished at NR, including by Buckley, who fervently supported apartheid and white supremacy both in the United States of the civil-rights era and later, after its domestic defeat, in South Africa. While he barred anti-Semitic conspiracy thinking, country-club anti-Semitism was fine:
National Review‘s Eichmann coverage then turned to anti-Semitic ‘humor.’ The magazine presented the imagined conversations of a vulgar Jewish couple: “Sylvie” spoke to “Myron” about Eichmann (and gold, and hairdressers) in their Central Park West apartment while “doing her nails … on an enormous crescent-shaped, gold-on-gold, French provincial Castro convertible.”
(Quote is from historian Peter Novick, via Jeet Heer.) Buckley himself decided he could not hire David Brooks, one of his prized protégés, to succeed him as National Review editor on account of Brooks’s Judaism.
Continetti’s point is not only about anti-Semitism, or even bigotry, but the broader role of gatekeepers in upholding conservative intellectual standards. “When an article alleging a Zionist conspiracy to control the banks was rejected,” he writes, “it meant the end for that article and for the writer’s future.” It is true that the modern conservative movement has made Zionist-banking conspiracies unwelcome. But many other kinds of conspiracy theories have flourished. Joe McCarthy is known mainly for smearing people, but his penchant for smearing grew out of a paranoid worldview in which a vast array of government actors encompassing both parties had deliberately conspired to weaken the United States on behalf of Moscow. Buckley did not cast McCarthy out of respectable conservatism; he wrote a book defending him. Tracts espousing themes like those proposed by McCarthy, like John Stormer’s None Dare Call It Treason or Phyllis Schlafly’s A Choice Not an Echo, described fantastical, secret plots by the Establishment, and sold millions of copies, attaining the status of quasi-official campaign literature for Barry Goldwater in 1964.
Conspiracy theories remain prominent in conservative thought today. Denying the theory of anthropogenic climate science, which is a matter of consensus among climate scientists, requires positing a massive conspiracy among scientists worldwide to falsify data in order to increase their power. This is why Republican James Inhofe, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, titled his book The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future. But gatekeeper organs like National Review don’t denounce Inhofe’s lunatic theories. Instead, they routinely publish columns with language describing things like “a shadowy network of charitable foundations that distribute billions to advance climate alarmism” and “the establishment has oversold a warming crisis.” Respected organs like The Wall Street Journal editorial page describe the scientific consensus on climate change as the product of “concerted and coordinated efforts by leading climatologists to fit the data to their conclusions while attempting to silence and discredit their critics.”
During the Obama era, conspiracy theories have sprung up everywhere on the right. Conservatives have discerned hidden links between Obama and communism, Obama and the Kenyan leftism of his absent father, Obama’s book and its supposed secret author Bill Ayers, and, of course, the conspiracy to falsify the location of Obama’s birth. It was his embrace of birtherism that catapulted Trump into his position as a top-tier Republican spokesperson. (This did not dissuade Mitt Romney — a gatekeeper of mainstream Republicans if ever there was one — from publicly soliciting Trump’s endorsement four years ago.)
Or consider Glenn Beck, who seems to have few theories other than conspiracy theories. During the Obama era, Beck has gained a mass following for his ability to articulate the raw fear perceived by conservatives at the social changes they could see all around them but could not understand. But National Review has not denounced Beck as a kook. Indeed, in that magazine’s special issue denouncing Trump, the first entry was written by Beck himself. When one of the gatekeepers against kookery at the magazine of Buckley is Glenn Beck, one must wonder whether the gatekeepers themselves are complicit in the problem.
Conservatives like Continetti are correct that Trump has altered the composition of the Republican coalition, to which he is loosely attached. But they have failed to come to grips with the authentic strains of conservatism that have propelled his enduring popularity among the faithful. And they have failed to recognize that his ideas merely amplify the bigotry and paranoia that has resided deep within the conservative icons they idolize.