For a man who has just been, in his eyes, excommunicated from both a magazine and a movement founded by his father half a century ago, Chris Buckley, son of the sainted William F., is doing a creditable job of keeping his upper lip stiff. “I’m still sort of getting my apostate act down,” Buckley says with a chuckle when I phone him a few days after the unpleasantness unfolded. “I’m reading Apostasy for Dummies.” The apostasy in question is, of course, his endorsement of Barack Obama, which provoked such a torrent of outrage and abuse from the right that Buckley felt it only proper to offer to quit his column at National Review—an offer that was taken up, to his great surprise, “rather briskly,” as he puts it. “I guess it shows, be careful to whom you tender your resignation, because they just might accept it!”
Buckley’s good humor does nothing to conceal his melancholy and bewilderment at this turn of events. “I was really quite amazed by the reaction, and I think it shows just how bloody calcified the political discourse has become, and tribalist, and snarling,” he tells me. “I want to say that it’s a tempest in a teapot, but there seems to be something going on here, and maybe this has accidentally tapped into it.”
If the Buckley affair were an isolated incident, such talk would be easy to dismiss as self-flattery—but it isn’t. With the prospect of defeat for John McCain growing more likely every day, the GOP destined to see its numbers reduced in both the House and Senate, and the Republican brand debased to the point of bankruptcy, the conservative intelligentsia is factionalized and feuding, criminating and recriminating, in a way that few of its members can recall in their political lifetimes. Populists attack Establishmentarians. Neocons assail theocons. And virtually everyone has something harsh to say about the party’s standard-bearer. Election Day may still be two weeks away, but already the idea-merchants of the right have formed a circular firing squad.
When the weapons of choice shift from pistols to Uzis after November 4, the ensuing massacre will be for Democrats a source of political opportunity, not to mention endless entertainment. But for Republicans it will be a necessary passage toward either the revival or reinvention of conservatism. Nobody serious on the right doubts that the overhaul is at once required and bound to be arduous—but it may take longer and prove even bloodier than anyone now imagines.
To get a sense of the struggle ahead, a good place to start is with Sarah Palin, who has been the flashpoint for the most severe intra-conservative contretemps so far. In the weeks since her selection as McCain’s running mate, a startling assortment of name-brand pundits on the right—Kathleen Parker, George Will, David Frum, David Brooks—have pronounced themselves displeased with the pick. Brooks went so far as to declaim that Palin “represents a fatal cancer to the Republican Party.” Buckley, for his part, tells me that McCain’s vice-presidential choice was roughly 60 percent of the reason that he decided to endorse Obama. “I will readily confess that I was one of many who swooned the day after the announcement,” he says. “But it’s kind of like dating a supermodel. There comes a moment, unfortunately, where they start talking.”
Yet Palin retains the fierce loyalty of a cadre of more populist, grassrootsy voices in the right-wing punditocracy who have denounced the main-line-conservative criticisms of Palin as the snooty, disloyal, and craven attempts of faux Republicans to curry favor with the ascendant liberal elite. “They … believe as intellectuals,” writes one pro-Palin opinionator, Victor Davis Hanson, “that the similarly astute Obamians may on occasion inspire, or admire them as the like-minded who cultivate the life of the mind—in contrast to the ‘cancer’ Sarah Palin, who, with her husband Todd, could hardly discuss Proust with them or could offer little if any sophisticated table talk other than the proper chokes on shotguns or optimum RPMs on snow-machines.”
Not surprisingly, Sarracuda’s foes on the right dismiss the counter-backlash more or less out of hand. When I ask Frum about the apparent class overtones of the anti-anti-Palin argument, he deems it a mere “rhetorical trope.” What he hears instead is the sound of defeatism. “The people who defend her have already given up any serious thought of Republicans’ wielding governmental power anytime soon,” Frum says. “They have already moved to a position of pure cultural symbolic opposition to a new majority. The people who criticize her do so because we have some hope that we could be in contention in 2012, and there’s some risk that she could be the party’s nominee, and she’d probably lose—and even if by some miracle she won, she’d be a terrible president.”