The Atlantic

Can Conservative Journalism Survive?

The right’s old guard faces an existential threat in populism. But it isn’t yet clear that they understand the stakes or possess the confidence to fight back.
Source: Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Donald Trump’s rise to power put National Review, The Weekly Standard, and the sorts of journalists who work there in a distressing bind. Neither the president nor the #MAGA loyalists who staff his White House adhere to conservative principles. Yet many donors, subscribers, and readers who sustain their publications prefer Trump’s blustering, bombastic project, massively shifting the center of gravity on the right.

Tribalist populism is ascendant––and conservative publications no longer thereby benefit, in part because newer magazines and web sites are more closely aligned with it.

During the 1950s, when the postwar governing establishment presumed a liberal consensus and the right was as internally divided as it is now, William F. Buckley built a competing coalition in part by winning converts on the right to conservatism, famously declaring himself to be standing athwart history yelling, “Stop!”

Today, as populists pose the more potent challenge, many conservative journalists are too timid to yell. A few institutions and writers have shown spine by opposing Trump himself; but even they fear alienating the rank-and-file supporters who fueled his victory, many of whom they want reading their articles and subscribing to their magazines. Full-throated challenges to the populist ethos are accordingly rare.  

And appeasement is common, as if by accommodating the populists they can at least secure peace on the right in our time, a strategy doomed to cede ever more ground.

There are historical reasons why conservatives don’t see that. As counterbalances to a liberal order, National Review and its imitators trained readers to look upon intellectual elites with skepticism if not hostility. They sought to harness populist impulses for conservative ends. And the approach bore fruit. Without populist allies there would not have been a Reagan Revolution or a successful push to take back the House.

Having so long exploited populist energy––and having never been part of the minority communities that suffered from its excesses––many conservatives are blind to its dangers. Their reflexive focus on the left’s excesses render them unprepared to confront an enemy every bit as incompatible with their philosophy and attacking daily. They dither even as its worst elements savage conservative insights and journalists, some of whom find themselves photoshopped into Holocaust ovens.

Their right flank is overrun.

So I’ve been wondering whether conservative journalism can survive this populist moment––and never so much as after this Labor Day weekend in San Francisco, California, when the Claremont Institute, a historically conservative think tank, sponsored a series of clarifying panels at the American Political Science Association conference. One included the Trump administration staffer Michael Anton, author of the influential pro-Trump campaign essay, “The Flight 93 Election.” Another featured editors from two publications founded in sympathetic response to Trump’s rise—Gladden J. Pappin for American Affairs and Christopher Buskirk for American Greatness—alongside two representatives of the old guard, The Weekly Standard’s Mark Hemingway and Washington Free Beacon’s Matthew Continetti.

Heated clashes would have been a sign of health.

Here were discussions about the future of an ideological movement and its journalism among people with sharply conflicting assessments of what they ought to look like.

And fiery criticism was offered. Anton and Buskirk were both blunt about the low regard in which they hold movement conservatism’s old

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