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What Next for Conservatives Who Engaged in Pre-Election Hand-Wringing?

Posted on Nov 20, 2016

By Peter Richardson

  Conservative columnist Matthew Continetti, right, made the media rounds before the election to talk about the rise of Donald Trump. (YouTube)

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Donald Trump’s presidential campaign startled many Americans, and not only Democrats. In the weeks leading up to the election, several conservative writers openly regretted their role in his ascent. These weren’t provincial screwballs; the soul-searching began at National Review, which opposed Trump across the board, and spread to the op-ed pages at The New York Times. With slight variations, three pundits—Matthew Continetti, Ross Douthat and David Brooks—described their plight as a crisis of conservative intellectuals.

Continetti began the confession in a column published Oct. 21 in The Washington Free Beacon. “After years of aligning with, trying to explain, sympathizing with the causes of, and occasionally ignoring the worst aspects of populism,” he wrote, conservative intellectuals now find themselves exiled from that political movement. Tracing various waves of conservative thought, Continetti takes no pleasure in the country’s current mood: “The triumph of populism has left conservatism marooned, confused, uncertain, depressed, anxious, searching for a tradition, for a program, for viability.”

Four days later, Ross Douthat echoed that message in his New York Times column, “What the Right’s Intellectuals Did Wrong.” For Douthat, three failures contributed to the right’s “disastrous rendezvous with Trumpism.” The first was a failure of “governance and wisdom” during George W. Bush’s presidency; the second was the inability to counter the “toxic tendencies of populism”; the third was the failure to connect with liberal lawyers, bureaucrats, academics and other thought leaders. Like Continetti, Douthat ends in a minor key: “Eventually a path for conservative intellectuals will open. But for now we find ourselves in a dark wood, with the straight way lost.”

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Two days after that, David Brooks added his voice to the chorus in “The Conservative Intellectual Crisis.” Like Continetti, Brooks began by waxing nostalgic for William F. Buckley, who stood up to the John Birch Society and anti-Semites in the days of yore. And like Douthat, his colleague at The New York Times, Brooks identified three reasons for the crisis. The first was an attempt to garner media attention through “perpetual hysteria and simple-minded polemics and by exploiting social resentment.” The second was a betrayal of the conservative principle that politics was less important than conscience, faith, culture, family and community. Finally, and most notably, conservative writers “were slow to acknowledge and even slower to address the central social problems of our time”—by which he means stagnant wages, meager opportunity, social isolation and household fragmentation.

Unlike his two colleagues, Brooks remains “insanely optimistic,” because young conservatives are “pretty great.” They don’t like Trump, they’re comfortable with ethnic diversity and they’re weary of Fox News and its ilk. “A Trump defeat could cleanse a lot of bad structures and open ground for new growth,” Brooks concluded. “It was good to be a young conservative back in my day. It’s great to be one right now.”

Did the prospect of a crushing GOP defeat prompt these pieces? Perhaps, but all three writers should be commended for their admissions. Were they too little too late? Yes, but better late than never. Is it suspicious that all three confessed in the same week? Yes, and not only because the media feeds on itself. Consider, for example, the mainstream media’s coverage of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; the major outlets later admitted that they missed the story but (falsely) maintained that everyone had missed it, so there were no negative consequences for any individual outlet.


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