Saturday, January 23, 2016

Low Intelligence Isn't the Answer: Donald Trump, National Review, and the collapse of serious conservatism

What can you say about a movement of people that stands and applauds the incoherent babbling of Sarah Palin in her endorsement of Donald Trump and then blindly dismisses the serious and reasoned arguments of twenty-two veteran conservative thinkers writing in the flagship conservative magazine without even addressing what they said?

What we are witnessing is a wholesale repudiation of thoughtful conservatism by a substantial faction of this nation's conservative political party. The late William F. Buckley, Jr., the founder and long-time editor of National Review said in the early 1980s that "all the philosophical action is on the right." He was right then. But he could not say that today, not in a national party that can't seem to understand any political thought longer than 140 characters, and which thinks that the assertion "It's going to be great" constitutes political eloquence.

The writers of National Review's special issue "Against Trump" wrote articles. Employing more than 140 characters. Using competent English. With subordinate clauses and multisyllabic words.

Jeb Bush may be low energy, but low intelligence isn't the answer.

Maybe that's the problem: Maybe the people supporting Trump have rendered themselves illiterate and simply can't understand what the National Review writers are saying. One piece of evidence for this thesis is that not a single Trump supporter critical of the National Review issue even bothered to offer a response to anything the writers actually said in the magazine. 

Not one.

On Fox News last night, no one criticizing National Review took up anything any of its  writers actually said. Instead, all the survey-addled commentators (and anchors) could talk about was how the National Review issue politically helped Trump. Someone on Bill O'Reilly's show asked something like "What did they think they were doing?" as if the publication of the issue was the mere product of some misguided campaign ploy to shoot down Trump's candidacy on the eve of Iowa.

It apparently didn't even occur to these people that there are serious, thoughtful conservatives out there who think that maybe, just maybe, rational arguments have some relevance to the discussion about who the party should nominate as its standard-bearer and that articulating these arguments in a careful and measured way might actually contribute to the immediate well-being of the party and the ultimate well-being of the country—or at least be worth addressing.


This is what happens when you trade in your critical thinking faculties for the kind of mindless populism that is willing to trade in principle for political success.

In fact, none of those commenting on the accursed National Review attack on Trump seemed aware that not only was William F. Buckley's National Review almost single-handedly responsible for the modern conservative movement, but that that few of them would even be conservatives at all if it wasn't for NR. As a matter of fact, the very forum in which they were voicing their Twitter length thoughts, Fox News, wouldn't even be in existence if it weren't for the influence of NR in the 60s, 70s, and 80s.

Here was Donald Trump's response to the multiple arguments—most of them fairly cogent, all of them serious and thoughtful:

The National Review is a dying, dying paper. It's circulation is way down. Not very many people read him anymore. People don't even think about The National Review. I guess they want to get a little publicity. But that's a dying paper. I got to tell you, it's pretty much a dead paper.

The first problem here is that it isn't even true, not that that ever stopped Trump from saying anything. In fact, even if it were dying, it isn't now. Their criticism of Trump (and the criticism of them by Trump) has gotten them more attention than anything they've published in recent memory. But note, like the conservative commentators who are now having to confront their consciences (unsuccessfully, I might add) in the face of the Trump juggernaut, that there is not a single response to anything the writers said in their articles. 

Trump's response is of the "neener-neener" variety of political rhetoric commonly encountered on elementary school playgrounds that now passes as competent argumentation among people who think that Frank Luntz is an objective political analyst. 

This is the state of conservatism in 2016. Conservative Republicans who still think that ideas matter can be excused while they weep for their party.


Anonymous said...

Two Corinthians and Sarah Palin walk into a bar.....

Chris Mallory said...

You are right. Ideas do matter and the ideas put forth by those 22 "conservative" thinkers have been weighed on the balances and found wanting. Those 22 "thinkers" have destroyed America, not defended it. They sold our our heritage for a mess of pottage. Those 22 "thinkers" brought us 15 years of war, the Patriot Act, and mass invasion by 3rd world savages. Maybe it is time they stopped "thinking" and got honest work for a change.

Anonymous said...

This entire post was of the "neener-neener" quality you attribute to Trump. The snarky disclaimer in all caps midway through the piece is the most obvious example. Blogs like this one have been an abject failure in converting people to the conservative cause; and, rather than come to terms with the Trump campaign's success and objectively look at why people are supporting him, they are holding a collective hissy fit as the ship slowly sinks.

Rob said...

I fail to see how this entire post is of "neener-neener" quality, although I'll grant it is highly critical of Trump's base. There are (at least) two factual claims in this post that require, by the standards of rational discourse, a response:

1. There are or have been no substantive responses to Trump's critics.
2. Trump made a factually incorrect and substantively irrelevant claim about NR.

A substantive response by a Trump supporter would be to document or demonstrate otherwise.

Bronwyn said...

I only wish they'd been as adamant against Obama.

Martin Cothran said...


I haven't "come to terms with the Trump campaign's success and objectively look at why people are supporting him"? Really? I have written on this blog about what accounts for Trump's appeal here: and here:

Not only did you not "comes to terms" with anything I actually said in this post, but you ignored other things I have said on this blog. In other words, you did exactly what I criticized Trump's supporters for doing.

Is there anything else you would like to say to confirm what I said in this post?

Martin Cothran said...


I agree with much of what you say here. I have had my own problems with NR, and have written about them on this blog a number of times. But when I did this, I addressed what they said and responded to it. Your litany of things NR has gotten wrong is not an excuse to ignore what they said about Trump. In fact, your response here is characteristic of what I criticized in this post: You completely ignored what NR said.

Just pointing out that someone has gotten a few things wrong in the past is not an excuse to dismiss everything else they say out of hand without actually coming to terms with it in its own right.

Just because someone is wrong on one thing, it does not ipso facto follow that everything else they say is wrong.

So I'm still waiting for someone to actually respond to anything NR actually said.

Anonymous said...

"serious, thoughtful conservatives"

Quite a concept. That term makes me think of:
"serious, thoughtful ideologues"
"serious, thoughtful believers in leprechauns"
"serious, thoughtful people who thought the Iraq War was a great idea".

Sorry I can't quite swallow it.

Martin Cothran said...

Translation: "Neener-neener."

Singring said...

The Conservative establishment has been fomenting the basest elements of the republican base for years and they are now taking the rewards: a fascist candidate for President who is being cheered on by people who see people from other countries as ' savages '.
Look to the Weimar Republic to see what could happen next....

You won't be surprised to hear that I hope Bernie Sanders can restore sanity to US politics.

Martin Cothran said...


We may, in fact, agree here. In fact I have made a similar point in earlier posts about the neoconservatives in the party who hold to a Hobbesian view of the common good.

Singring said...

Purely out of interest, is there someone in the current field of Republican candidates whom you see as acceptable or even representative of traditional American conservatism of the kind represented by the NR, for example? Kasich is quite socially conservative and has free market policies, Fiorina likewise... Or do you think (as I and probably most on the left do) that the Gop has collectively jumped the shark at the moment?

Anonymous said...

Speaking of jumping the shark, Singring, has Frau Merkel ordered that German girls cover their legs and desist from wearing perfume and drinking? Thank God that Heidi Klum lives in America now.

Martin Cothran said...


I am uncomfortable to some extent with all the candidates now running. Their foreign policy is mostly expansionist and even imperial. I don't think anyone except for maybe Rand Paul has a coherent Middle Eastern policy, for example. I think we need to do what the British did successfully for so many years: use our influence to maintain a balance of power between competing interests. In other words, let Iran and Saudi Arabia fight ISIS. We do not need to fight their battles for them.

In addition, the candidates' support for social conservatism is in many cases an inch deep.

I will probably vote for Rand Paul, but, in spite of some of their foreign policy views, I find Carly Fiorina and Marco Rubio appealing.

Also, I don't by any means think that NR reflects my views on a lot of things. I am suspicious of any person or political entity who supported the Iraq War, for example. They are largely now a bunch of neocon policy wonks who have lost a lot of their conservative cultural grounding.

My only point out NR in this post was that it is generally conservative and their writers brought some serious thoughts to the discussion which, whether they were right or wrong, deserved to be considered and weren't. NR has also contributed enough to the conservative movement over the last 60 years to deserve to be listened to.

KyCobb said...


Do you really imagine that people who support Donald Trump would even read the articles in The National Review, much less give serious consideration to them? These are people who think Trump's proposals to ban all Muslims and to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it are serious policy statements. The rightwing media, of which National Review is a part, have spent decades grooming these people to become Trump voters.

Martin Cothran said...


I don't think I disagree with you a whole lot here. In fact, I have said much the same thing in previous posts: that most modern "conservative" intellectuals are really liberals of the modern, Lockean/Hobbesian type. They believe that a community is a collection of atomistic individuals held together by nothing more than an implicit social contract. And if that's what a community is, then fundamentally everyone is out for himself. And when everyone accepts that everyone is out for himself, then they are attracted to candidates who basically admit that they are out for themselves, as Trump has said on a number of occasions.

I think National Review has become just that. My only point in this post is that they at least try to reason their way to whatever conclusions the purport to come up with while Trump and many (not all) of his supporters are satisfied with a tweet.