The War on the Brains of the Right
Five Things You Need to Read Today
1. The War on the Brains of the Right
At the very beginning of the Trump phenomenon, I warned about a war on the brains of the right.
Along with many friends and colleagues, I have found it grimly amusing to find myself dismissed as an "establishment" "elitist" motivated by contempt for the working man. None of this is based on our actual personal history or body of work. It is based only on the fact that we make a living thinking about politics, and therefore cannot be uncritically positive about a guy who is praised by Paul Krugman for being right about economics.
Note that this is not the old "RINO" charge—Republican in Name Only—which criticizes establishment leadership types like Mitch McConnell for failing to live up to the principles the party claims to stand for. If that were the complaint, the mercurial Trump, who has been all over the board on every issue, certainly wouldn’t measure up. Instead, this is an attack on anyone who asks questions that are inconvenient for the Great Leader and his supporters.
Now we can see the first big casualty of that war: The Weekly Standard, a 23-year-old conservative publication that refused to hop on board the Trump Train and has now been shuttered, with its employees reportedly told at a Friday morning meeting that they had until 5:00 PM to clean out their desks and disappear.
Jack Shafer, in an otherwise somewhat snide piece, says the magazine is being closed because of its failure to toe the Trump line.
The Standard has remained a determinedly never-Trump magazine in a time when fewer and fewer conservatives—especially elected conservatives—are willing to take that stand, and this has marginalized the magazine in the current conservative movement. Increasingly, it’s all political thought leader and no thought followers. The magazine has been unable or unwilling to tack with the Trump current the way National Review has.
John Podhoretz, one of the magazine's founders, claims—presumably based on inside information, about which he is not very specific—that the magazine was killed more out of bureaucratic spite. But that doesn't mean its stand on Trump has nothing to do with it.
I believe the fissures in the conservative movement and the Republican party that have opened up since Trump’s rise provided the company man with a convenient argument to make to the corporation’s owner, Philip Anschutz, that the company could perhaps harvest the Standard’s subscriber-base riches and then be done with it.
The compact between the Standard and its readership was that it would reflect an expansive conservative vision of America and the world and would evaluate the politics of the present moment as honestly as its writers and editors knew how. It would speak to, and from within, the conservative movement without being a Republican Party sheet. This approach was an immediate success. The Standard was the only successful high-end magazine launch of its time and, I believe, the last important print magazine created in America before the Internet began its search-and-destroy mission against those things published on the pulp products of dead trees.
To be sure, it has never made money. Magazines like it never make money. But its circulation has always been extraordinarily healthy in opinion-journal terms. And within the giant corporations run by the wealthy men who started the Standard and then bought it—Rupert Murdoch and then Anschutz—its annual losses were a rounding error, akin to the budget for the catering on one of their blockbuster movie productions. But if Anschutz had been motivated by an unwillingness to bear the cost any longer, he could have sold the Standard. He chose not to. He chose to kill it.
Looking at this as a question of whether or not a publication (or a writer) is sufficiently pro-Trump doesn't quite get to the real underlying issue.
I have experienced something similar over the last year and a half, losing two jobs in part because the digital media companies I was working for suddenly got really tight on cash and had to decide whether it was worthwhile to support a guy who just sits around and thinks about big ideas all day. Yet the most recent one was a publication that has veered toward reflexive Trump apologia. It's not merely that Trump has been bad for conservative intellectuals who don't take his side. He has been bad for the conservative intelligentsia across the board.
Trumpism does not need intellectuals. Trump does not start with the assumption that there are certain big ideas about public policy or the role of government that he has set out to champion. He starts with the assumption that whatever he happens to want to do at the moment must be a genius move that will result in an easy win, and anyone who contradicts him is a loser who should be ignored—or maybe tweeted at obsessively for the next three days.
Intellectuals do start with ideas, and they measure political leaders by how consistently they champion and implement those ideas. So Trump and Trumpism has no use for them. They just get in the way.
This is not a matter of animus against a certain set of ideas. It's animus against ideas as such.
It is all summed up in the kind of exchange I seem to have on Twitter all the time now. (And yes, Twitter is definitely part of the problem.) One of many online conservatives cheering the Weekly Standard's demise declared, "'Intellectuals' have screwed up the country royally. We need pragmatists and doers. F--- ideology—that's why Trump was elected." To which I replied: "Without ideology, how will we know where the doers and pragmatists are taking us—and whether we want to go there?"
Trump is just a symptom, of course, and ironically some of the blame lies with conservative intellectuals themselves. For years I remember them denouncing "ideology," and now they have gotten what they wished for.
That's why a lot of the back-and-forth over the merits and demerits of the Trump presidency misses the big picture. A temporary stay of execution on taxes or regulations won't do much good for a movement that rejects the need for intellectual substance--and for the people who provide it.
2. A Pen and a Smartphone
Speaking of evaluating President Trump's legacy, now seems a good time to do it because with a Democratic majority taking their place in the House next month, this is pretty much the end of this administration's ability to pass legislation.
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