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

Peter Richardson
Reviewer
Peter Richardson teaches humanities and American studies at San Francisco State University. He has written three critically acclaimed books: No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead (2015); A…
Peter Richardson

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

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.”

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.Finally, are their specific points valid? Not all of them, and a few raise other questions. Why, for example, couldn’t conservative intellectuals persuade liberals in the managerial class? Where did William F. Buckley and National Review stand on civil rights and Vietnam—arguably the central problems of his time? And so on.

My main objection, however, involves a more basic question: What do intellectuals actually do? None of these pieces even gestures in that direction. Instead, Continetti and Brooks resorted to genealogy: William F. Buckley begat X, who begat Y, and so on down to themselves. A more straightforward approach would have noted that intellectuals tell the truth and expose lies—not eventually, but in real time. If you’re ignoring the worst aspects of the movement you’re aligned with, or if you aren’t addressing (or even acknowledging) the central social problems of your time, you’re probably not an intellectual. Brooks seemed to sense this objection. Although the word “intellectual” appeared four times in his article, including in the title, it was always used as an adjective rather than as a noun. This leaves the impression that Brooks and his colleagues are intellectuals without actually claiming that title—or even discussing, however briefly, what it might mean. Perhaps that meaning is exactly what Brooks didn’t want to discuss.

My objection has nothing to do with sloppy diction or imprecise definitions; in fact, Brooks’ framing was nothing if not careful. Rather, it’s a question of motive. By presenting themselves as intellectuals even as they confessed their intellectual sins, these writers wanted to have it both ways. Their appeal was this: Please continue to regard us as intellectuals, even though we scrambled your understanding of the nation’s most urgent priorities—not here and there, from time to time, but systematically and for decades. In this concerted effort, we followed William F. Buckley and others, who were obviously intellectuals and not merely “conservative opinion-meisters” (the phrase was Brooks’) or partisan hacks.

I reject that appeal. Intellectual respectability can’t be inherited; it can only be earned by telling the truth and exposing lies, especially when the stakes are high. In all three cases, we should credit the admissions but reject the stealthy self-promotion. Given the writers’ indirect support for Trump and its likely consequences, one cheer for them is generous. When it comes to Trump’s victory, however, there’s plenty of blame to go around. The only question for these writers (and everyone else) is: What will you do to fix it?

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