Sometime in December 2015 — well after Donald Trump had vented his dislike of mixed martial artist Ronda Rousey (“not a nice person”) but before he’d attacked the New Hampshire Union Leader (“pile of garbage”) and its publisher (“Stinky”) — Rich Lowry decided it was time to make it stop. Or at least try. Lowry is the editor of National Review, the country’s preeminent conservative magazine, and Trump, in the view of Lowry and most of his colleagues, had neither the character nor the qualifications to be president. “We have a voice, and we’ve always used it, and it’s been most effective in opposition,” Lowry recalled to me recently. “And this” — Trump — “was a uniquely powerful threat.”
Lowry reached out to a wide range of conservatives, hoping to hit Trump from as many angles as possible. The eventual collection, titled “Against Trump,” featured essays by 22 contributors — many of them editors of other conservative publications, including William Kristol, then editor of the Weekly Standard; John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary; R.R. Reno, editor of First Things; Yuval Levin, editor of National Affairs; and Ben Domenech, co-founder of the conservative website the Federalist. The issue came out on Jan. 21, 2016, 11 days before the Iowa caucuses, and it generated enough notice that Trump himself felt compelled to respond. “National Review is a failing publication that has lost it’s way,” he tweeted. “It’s circulation is way down w its influence being at an all time low. Sad!”
The following Monday, late-night host Stephen Colbert propped the “Against Trump” issue on his desk. “Last week, a conservative journal, the National Review, came out with an entire issue against Trump,” Colbert explained, to laughter. “It’s filled with anti-Trump essays by conservatives across the political spectrum — Bill Kristol, Michael Medved, Erick Erickson, the Dowager Countess, the Monopoly guy.”
Sitting in the front rows of Colbert’s taping that night, by coincidence, was Domenech, who watched as Colbert lampooned Trump for his antics and conservatives for their desperation. “I think back to that sometimes when I see the latest Stephen-Colbert-sets-aside-the-jokes-to-give-impassioned-monologue kind of thing,” says Domenech. “It’s like, Stephen, you should have listened to us then!”
Trump survived, of course, and won, big-league. For perhaps the first time in modern conservative politics, National Review and many of its peers looked completely ineffectual. Today, a man who calls himself “really very conservative” occupies the Oval Office, but he pays these magazines no apparent heed. Meanwhile, beyond D.C., all the power on the right seems to have migrated to outlets like Fox News and Breitbart News as well as polemicists like Ann Coulter — at the expense of National Review and its bookish cousins. (Recently, Fox dropped Lowry as a commentator.)
Such exile can feel like death to small political magazines, which even in the best of times frequently ask themselves if anyone cares what they have to say. In 2012, reflecting on the 10th anniversary of the American Conservative — an anti-interventionist magazine that he had bankrolled for its first couple of years, in part to try to prevent the invasion of Iraq — Greek multimillionaire Taki Theodoracopulos declared that he wished he’d bought a yacht instead. “A boat,” he wrote, “will at least get you some attention from the fairer sex — if it’s large and vulgar enough, that is — whereas a political fortnightly might attract some bores with lotsa dandruff on their collars.”
And yet, these struggling, money-losing, quarrelsome, small-circulation constructions of pixels and paper do, sometimes, manage to affect the course of history. “It’s a mysterious process, and if you were Nate Silver trying to come up with some big-data proof of it you could never do it,” says Podhoretz, of Commentary, circulation 26,000. In the 1970s, he notes, Time magazine had several million subscribers. “But nothing Time did then had any enduring value or effect, whereas the publication of ‘Dictatorships & Double Standards’ by Jeane Kirkpatrick in this magazine in 1979 arguably had an enormous effect on American political history. So how does that work?”
In fact, the wilderness can be helpful. When Kirkpatrick wrote her essay, she was a Christian and Democrat dissenting from the policies of Jimmy Carter in the pages of a conservative Jewish monthly, arguably as far from immediate influence as someone in her position could be. But periods of alienation from power are when creative political thought seems to thrive, like wildflower seeds planted in winter. Kirkpatrick’s article gained the attention of Ronald Reagan, who later made her his U.N. ambassador.
Conversely, political magazines, of any persuasion, can be at their worst when ideological team spirit is strongest. (I don’t speak from on high: Looking back, I probably went into all-hands-on-deck mode for John Kerry when I was at the New Republic in October 2004.) For conservative magazines, the years after Sept. 11, 2001, when patriotism seemed to demand loyalty to the White House, were such a time. “We did allow ourselves to become house organs for the Republican Party and the conservative movement,” says American Conservative blogger Rod Dreher, who worked at National Review from 2002 to 2003. “I would have denied it at the time, but that really happened.”
This also made many conservatives reluctant to confront the flaws of George W. Bush, even years after his presidency. “What did we think about compassionate conservatism? About No Child Left Behind? About the Iraq War? The truth is a lot of conservatives thought they were basically a mistake and badly considered,” says Domenech, of the Federalist. “And I think that was something the right had failed to wrestle with. They hadn’t had those conversations.”
Now that Donald Trump has made such conversations, and many others, unavoidable, conservative magazines have become oddly vital once more. While Sean Hannity and Breitbart News carry water for Trump, and many liberal publications dodge introspection in favor of anti-Trump primal screams, right-of-center magazines have been debating and reassessing the soul of their political philosophy. Trumpism has torn down the conservative house and broken it up for parts. Conservative magazines are working to bring a plausible intellectual order to this new reality — and figure out what comes next.
Stephen F. Hayes, editor of the Weekly Standard since Kristol stepped down in December 2016, is hard on himself for underestimating Trump, whom he’d hoped and expected would lose. “It is humbling,” he told me, “and ought to be humbling, to lose a big argument like that.”
The Standard, located about half a mile north of the White House, shares a quiet full-floor space with the conservative Washington Examiner. Both are owned by MediaDC, part of the empire of billionaire Phil Anschutz, who acquired the Standard from Rupert Murdoch in 2009.
Hayes, 47 — wearing jeans and a blue fleece over a button-down shirt on the day we met — came to Washington in 1993, right after graduating from DePauw University in Indiana. Too broke to lodge himself anywhere but in a tent at a rural campsite in Virginia, he ruined his lone suit, a tan number, when a pen exploded in his vest pocket. For job interviews, therefore, “I went with the jacket over my arm.”
(Magazine journalism is a small world, and this is probably a good place for some disclosures. I’ve written for the Weekly Standard, and commissioned and edited work from Jacob Heilbrunn, now editor of the National Interest, and Michael Brendan Dougherty, now a writer at National Review. I’ve discussed possible collaborations with Reihan Salam, National Review’s executive editor, whom I’ve known for over a decade. And three editors I spoke to for this article — Julius Krein, Yuval Levin and R.R. Reno — wrote for a special issue of The Washington Post Magazine this past October.)
Hayes landed a long-desired job at the Weekly Standard in early 2001 and began focusing on national security after Sept. 11 — gaining notice as an especially strong proponent of the argument that Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda had ties that ran deeper than most believed. Eventually he published a book on the subject that received skeptical but respectful reviews. Like his magazine, Hayes is strongly interventionist.
Trump has repeatedly tangled with Hayes, calling him a “failed writer” and “a joke”; Hayes said that the episodes of being under attack from Trump’s multitudes have been “challenging,” but he left it at that. “I don’t want to whine about it,” he told me. What bothers him more is a sense that ordinary approaches to debate are imperiled. “I’ve been a big critic of mainstream-media ideological blinders and biases, and I still am,” he said. “But we also have a president who lies aggressively, who lies casually, who lies about things that matter in huge ways and about things that don’t matter at all.”
In response, Hayes has increased the magazine’s focus on reporting, he said, less for the purpose of winning debates than to rescue a sense of shared premises. “We thought it was important to focus on reporting and facts and try to determine what the facts are, so that we can have a big debate about policies we should pursue as a country based on a common understanding of those facts,” he said. Hayes hopes that when a reader of the liberal magazine the Nation or a watcher of MSNBC seeks out an “intellectually honest conservative take,” that person will go to the Weekly Standard.
The bulk of a typical issue of the Weekly Standard is still devoted to analysis and essays, as these are the specialties of many of its most prominent writers, such as Andrew Ferguson and Christopher Caldwell. But reporting appears to be a growing share of the magazine’s content. The past year has seen the hiring of veteran reporters Peter J. Boyer and Tony Mecia, the latter of whom has penned cover stories on topics ranging from Immigration and Customs Enforcement operations to telemarketing abuses. Longtime writers at the magazine have also been making waves through their reporting, such as when Matt Labash followed a group of free-speech demonstrators in Berkeley, Calif., only to see them beaten up by antifa rioters and arrested instead of protected by the police. The shift to reporting has been even more pronounced on the magazine’s website, which now reliably offers a half dozen reported articles daily.
A day after speaking to Hayes, I met his predecessor, Bill Kristol, at the Jefferson hotel’s bar, Quill. Kristol, who remains staunchly anti-Trump, attracts extremes of enmity and admiration that are foreign to most of humanity: enmity because he is partisan, sometimes flip, and supportive of all manner of military intervention, most notoriously in Iraq; admiration because he is given to self-deprecating humor and, as a rule, civility to ideological foes. (“Bill is just an extraordinarily polite person, very different from his public persona, which is grating and awful,” former Weekly Standard writer and current Fox News host Tucker Carlson told me.)
I shared with Kristol my impression that the rise of Trump, which left the Standard out in the cold, had made the magazine more interesting. Perhaps out of consideration to his successor, Kristol said he was reluctant to assess the present-day magazine as a whole, but he agreed that such a change was possible. “I feel now like I was unconsciously constraining the ways I was thinking,” he said. “You had friends. You had allies. You didn’t want to look too closely at the less savory parts of them.”
As we talked, two women caught sight of Kristol from outside and walked in to greet him. The older turned out to be Juleanna Glover, an early Weekly Standard employee who is now a prominent political strategist, and the younger was Shoshana Weissmann, a recent Weekly Standard alum now at a libertarian think tank.
“We were literally just talking about why we love Bill Kristol,” said Glover, who knelt down next to Kristol’s chair to chat.
I asked her to elaborate.
“He’s one of the most noble, principled, thoughtful, brave —”
“Check’s in the mail,” Kristol broke in.
As Glover and Kristol caught up, Weissmann, whose hair had a wide purple streak, told me that she had worked for the Weekly Standard for a year and become a big Kristol fan. “I’m a libertarian, so it was a little different, but he’s become like my grandpa, and I love him and he’s adorable,” she said, adding, “I will love you forever if you quote me saying he’s adorable.”
Moments like this can be a reminder of how echo chambers form. But Weissmann’s perspective on Kristol points to another reality as well: While the Weekly Standard has generally reflected a conventionally hawkish Republican worldview, it has also been willing to entertain varying political outlooks, with its writers landing in different places on Trump and many other matters. Labash, for instance, never hid his opposition to the war in Iraq. “It’s a magazine, not a cult,” he says. “You’re free to think freely.”
While in Washington, I also paid a visit to Jonah Goldberg, senior editor of National Review and a fierce critic of Trump who has drawn fire from other conservatives. We met at the American Enterprise Institute, where he is a fellow. I had asked him to suggest an interesting setting for our interview; he proposed having cigars on AEI’s roof.
Goldberg told me that he had been spared any pressure from his employers to line up with the White House — “not a peep from a soul” at AEI or National Review — but that other employers were less tolerant. “One of the things I have much less respect for is Conservatism Inc.,” he said. “When the real histories of this period are done, one of the more important points is that institutions, both in the media and the think- tank universe, that are dependent on really large donor bases, they were among the first to give way.”
This was a point to which Goldberg returned repeatedly: that so many people on his side had, in his view, sold out unexpectedly to Trump. It galled him especially that many of these same people, before Trump came along, had resisted sensible new ideas from “reformicons” like Yuval Levin and Ramesh Ponnuru — policy wonks who have tried to get the GOP to focus more on the middle class. If they’d listened, said Goldberg, “maybe we could have introduced people to a healthy form of conservatism and helped their lives so they wouldn’t be so angry that they’d sign on with this demagogue.”
Goldberg and writers Jay Nordlinger and Kevin D. Williamson are perhaps the most conspicuous members of National Review’s anti-Trump camp. Other contributors, like Dennis Prager and Victor Davis Hanson, reliably line up behind Trump, arguing he’s the only defense against an overpowering left. Most of the magazine’s writers are somewhere in between. “We have a number of writers who are vehemently anti-Trump; I’m one of them,” says National Review Online editor Charles C.W. Cooke. “That doesn’t mean he can’t do anything right. That would be to throw my brain away.”
From the perspective of a reader, these tensions make National Review as lively as it has been in a long time. In September, when Donald Trump stirred up the country with a condemnation of football players who take the knee during the national anthem to protest racism and police brutality, senior writer David French wrote a post calling Trump’s words an “attempted vulgar display of strength”; Jay Nordlinger called Trump “an arsonist in American politics”; Rich Lowry countered with a post headlined “If Donald Trump Said Don’t Jump Off a F****** Bridge, Would You Do the Opposite?”; and Jonah Goldberg retorted that, regardless of whether he was right or wrong on the issue, “Trump made the problem worse.”
Lowry has run the magazine for two decades now, taking up his role in 1998, when he was only 29 years old. (“I’m going to swing with you” was what National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr. told him during a quick phone call at the time. It was, says Lowry, “terrifying.”) When I met Lowry in New York, where National Review is based, it was the day before the magazine was due to move from Murray Hill to Midtown, and the office was stacked high with boxes. Lowry had just welcomed a son to the world a few weeks earlier, but he seemed rested and alert, clean-shaven and tie-wearing.
“One of the giant ironies of this whole phenomenon for us is that Trump represents a cartoonish, often exaggerated, version of the direction we wanted to see the party go in,” Lowry said. “Trump was in a very different place on regulation and trade, but we had been widening the lens of mainstream conservatism and arguing that the party needed to be more populist.” Indeed, in the years immediately preceding Trump’s run for office, the magazine had featured Jeff Sessions writing that Republicans should “free themselves from the corporate consultants,” author J.D. Vance noting that one could no longer “square the new data with the old way of talking about opportunity,” and Lowry and Reihan Salam arguing that the GOP should be the “party of work.”
Still, the politics of National Review from a few years back felt slightly more cautious. Lowry and Salam’s article on work offered original policy ideas but also steered clear of the thorniest questions of how much a “party of work” should prioritize the concerns of the working class. The magazine could offer a brilliantly vivid account by Kevin Williamson of impoverished white Appalachia, a Trumpist constituency, but its pages would have been far less likely to spotlight populist remedies for their circumstances. During primary season, when writer Michael Brendan Dougherty got into a dispute with Williamson over whether Williamson’s solution for those in rural poverty — that they should move to places with jobs — was condescending, Dougherty was writing at the Week and attacking from the outside. Today, Dougherty works for National Review and, sticking to his own brand of conservatism, has fast become one of its most prominent voices.
“National Review has absolutely become more interesting,” says Helen Andrews, an essayist who has written for nearly all of the publications mentioned in this article. “When Trump won, I thought that’s it. National Review is done. There’s no way they can bounce back. But it turns out that all the folks over there that I thought were peacetime consiglieres were actually ready to seize the moment.”
I observed to Lowry that I enjoyed National Review’s vigorous, sometimes heated exchanges, such as the one over Trump and the NFL. “It’s always healthy,” Lowry said, seeming to grimace. “But it can be a little strained. Your juices get flowing, and you want to use every means fair or foul. Then you remember this is a colleague you might see in the hallway tomorrow and rein it in a bit.”
Since a mind-set of consistent support or opposition is impossible with Trump, Lowry says, National Review has been focused, generally, on three things: the substance of Trump’s policies, Trump’s character, and reactions from the left to Trump. His shorthand description of each of these, respectively: good, not good, crazed. Broadly speaking, National Review’s writers are fans of conservative judges, and most are restrictionist on immigration; they do not like Trump’s behavior; they also consider the uproar from Trump’s enemies to be far out of proportion to the threat. “Which of those three things” — substance, character, opposition — “do you focus on?” Lowry asked. “It’s a balancing act.”
Much of what made candidate Trump frightening sprang from how indifferent he seemed to the fragility of social order, like someone waving a cigarette in a room full of zeppelins. But part of the shock came from hearing fundamental ideas rather than platitudes. While some of these ideas — that families of terrorists should be killed, that victors in war should grab spoils as compensation — were self-evidently appalling, others were overdue for debate. Should America come first, and if so, what does that mean? How important are strong borders to nationhood? Has trade liberalization done more harm than good?
It was in the name of giving Trump’s gut impulses an intellectual framework that a young Harvard alumnus named Julius Krein joined forces with a few other nonconformists, including George W. Bush White House veteran Michael Anton (now a national security official in the Trump administration), to post articles at a site that called itself the Journal of American Greatness. It lasted only a few months, until June 2016, but thousands of readers took an interest. This inspired Krein to resurrect the effort in the form of a Trumpist quarterly, American Affairs, which debuted in February 2017.
Krein’s journal is small, but it was unveiled to notable fanfare, with a launch party at New York’s Harvard Club and speakers such as investor Peter Thiel and New America Foundation President Anne-Marie Slaughter. Also among the guests was Bill Kristol, who has been supportive of Krein since the two were introduced by Harvard philosopher Harvey Mansfield. (“Of course, he’s been wrong about every significant policy decision for the past 25 years,” Krein says of Kristol. “Someday he’s going to have to admit that, but I’d like to think we can still be friends personally.”) How the journal is funded, Krein would not tell me, offering only, “Let’s just say there’s a lot of things that only I can do.”
I arranged with Krein to meet in front of the White House in early October, and take a walk to the Jefferson hotel, about half a mile north. As we strolled through Washington’s downtown, Krein explained that he’d been liberal as a youngster in conservative South Dakota and conservative at liberal Harvard. Like his magazine, he is now a peculiar mix of both, which to begin with had been the promise of Trump as well.
Compared with the more pugnacious Journal of American Greatness, American Affairs is a subdued affair; essay titles like “Excellence and Equality in Mathematics Education” don’t sink immediate hooks into a reader. But the journal is redeemed by the power and novelty of its ideas — with contributors like William Mitchell and Thomas Fazi arguing that a revived leftism depends on a strong nation-state and that “global institutions have in many ways been used to roll back” societal advances; or Michael Lind contending that the Cold War has been followed by a “transatlantic class war.”
The tendency to sacrifice flair on the altar of wonkery is consistent with Krein the man, who, while we walked, drew on examples from Africa and Brazil to undergird his arguments in favor of targeted protectionism. As we waited for a light to change and a helicopter nearly drowned out his voice, Krein was advocating “getting rid of the debt-interest deduction and maybe creating a capital expenditure investment deduction, stuff like that.”
When settled at a table at the Jefferson, where I was due to meet Kristol later, Krein explained that his journal was founded on the assumption that Trump would not become president. “Everyone thought Trump would lose and that they’d get to define Trumpism,” Krein said. “But then Trump won, and now he gets to define it.” After Trump’s tone-deaf response to the outbreak of violence in Charlottesville, last August, Krein felt compelled to pen an op-ed for the New York Times renouncing his former endorsement of the president.
But Krein seemed more sanguine than most conservative intellectuals I met, viewing the changed policy discourse as a good in itself. “We have an honest question — what the role of the nation-state is,” Krein said. “This is a world of nation-states, but we no longer have any positive rationale for them. Those questions need to be worked out.”
Another publication with some sympathy for Trumpism is the American Conservative, founded in 2002 as Washington was laying the groundwork for war against Iraq. Its first editor was Scott McConnell, a former editorial page editor of the New York Post, who brought together two of his acquaintances: wealthy socialite Taki Theodoracopulos (universally known as Taki) and former presidential aspirant Pat Buchanan. Taki offered funds and Buchanan offered fame, but McConnell took care of putting out the magazine. (“Pat was getting a lot of credit, even though he barely knew where the office was,” laughs McConnell, noting that Buchanan was busy with books and television.)
As a rare right-wing voice against military intervention in those years, the American Conservative was reviled by many of its peers, and its founders were among those attacked in a venomous 2003 National Review article by David Frum titled “Unpatriotic Conservatives.”
Today the magazine, which has a print circulation of roughly 5,000, ought to be, in many ways, pleased. A doctrine of national self-containment — including opposition to frequent foreign intervention and high immigration — has always been part of its agenda. The election of Trump, who seemed to be embracing such ideas, put many of TAC’s aims within reach for the first time. But Trump’s erratic behavior and the magazine’s devotion to high-mindedness — “Principles over Party” is in its printed slogan — arguably makes it hard to bank a win. The magazine’s writers were always divided on Trump, with some on staff giving him credit for his message and others, like religious conservative Rod Dreher and foreign-policy realist Daniel Larison, expressing disgust from the start.
The office of the American Conservative takes up four modest rooms on the third floor of a building near Farragut Square in downtown Washington. Its vibe — worn gray carpeting and fluorescent lights — is pleasantly familiar to anyone who has ever worked for a tiny magazine. Its current editor is historian Robert W. Merry, who was at one point president and chief executive of Congressional Quarterly. Merry’s hope, in the face of what he feels are increasingly unfavorable odds, is that Trump will fulfill some of his promises. Assessing that will be one of the main goals of the magazine in the coming years. “We’re interested in the Trump constituency,” Merry says. “The question for us is whether Trump is proving worthy of his voters.”
One curse of the American Conservative, starting with Iraq, has been to serve as an unheeded voice in the face of indifferent or hostile elite opinion. In 2011, Larison was sounding repeated warnings against intervening in Libya, and for several years, before more famous names took notice, he was a lonely voice against the Saudi war in Yemen. Back in June 2016, the magazine ran a cover story by McConnell, “Why Trump Wins,” which argued that globalism vs. nationalism was the new defining issue in our politics and that GOP elites would be unable to “put the lid on the aspirations Trump has unleashed.” The magazine’s most recent cover story, “Trump’s Empty Governance,” is from Merry, who argues that Trump, by abandoning much of what he campaigned on, is laying the ground for a powerful comeback of the left.
Many of the smallest conservative journals are unadorned and low in circulation. But, in keeping with the rule that what’s in the wilderness today can be most influential tomorrow, they too are awash in fresh ideas. “There’s still a pretty substantial community that relies on these publications as a channel of communications within the conservative neural network,” observes Daniel McCarthy, editor of one such journal, Modern Age. “They’re even more relevant today than they were in 2012.”
Each of them is playing a distinct role on the right. Modern Age, founded by conservative luminary Russell Kirk in 1957 and operated by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, takes what may be the most high-toned approach to politics, with many academic contributors, and McCarthy hopes to see its pages synthesizing ideas from different strains of conservatism. The National Interest, co-founded in 1985 by the late Irving Kristol, father of Bill, remains devoted to foreign-policy realism, offering thoughtful articles on what role the United States should play on a changed world stage. Its editor, Jacob Heilbrunn, told me that the age of Trump, in whom he always saw disaster, has at least stirred necessary debate once more and “made the kinds of arguments that have been aired in the magazine more pertinent.” National Affairs, founded by former George W. Bush policy staffer Yuval Levin in 2009 as a venue in which conservative policy could be considered more deeply, spent the Obama years offering broad philosophical articles along with wonkier explorations of policymaking, from housing to public broadcasting. This continues, but after the rise of Trump, the journal has become even more introspective, running articles with titles like “Redeeming Ourselves” and “Is the Party Over?”
These publications are highly unlikely to affect the course of Trump, but, by making plausible sense of this moment sooner rather than later, they may affect the course of his successors. “Conservatism, both mainstream and dissident factions, can easily become a calcified checklist of doctrines and dogmas that can become a free-standing idol,” McCarthy says. “I want a conservatism that is more organic and deals with a reality that doesn’t fit into neat ideological boxes. And as difficult as Trump may be for some people, he’s a necessary step for getting back to that.”
Two surprising stars of the Trump era have been the Claremont Review of Books and the religious journal First Things. It was in the normally restrained Claremont Review of Books that someone going by the name “Publius Decius Mus” (later revealed to be Michael Anton) published “The Flight 93 Election,” an influential essay arguing that the election of Trump, however extreme the risks, was the only hope of preventing a complete surrender to the cultural left.
The trajectory of First Things, a journal of religion and public life founded in 1990, has been even more striking. Its editor, R.R. Reno, contributed to the “Against Trump” issue of National Review but became increasingly frustrated by what he felt was the failure of his fellow conservatives to understand the nature of the rebellion taking place. Eventually, Reno wound up signing on to a “Statement of Unity” in support of Trump by a group called Scholars & Writers for America. First Things is now devoting itself to understanding the altered political and cultural landscape. “The conservative intellectual infrastructure is like a city after the neutron bomb goes off,” says Reno. “There’s a whole network of ideas, and it turns out there are no voters for those ideas.”
When John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, made his case for National Review’s “Against Trump” issue, he focused on culture, grouping Trump with the rise of Andrew Dice Clay and Howard Stern in the 1980s and calling him “the politicized American id.” Politics and culture have always had a close, if complex, connection, and in recent years it has only grown closer, giving literary publications a rising political significance. The monthly conservative magazine the New Criterion, edited by Roger Kimball, may devote the bulk of its pages to reviews of things like symphonies or art exhibits, but it was also among the first journals to take Trump seriously and understand, as contributor James Bowman put it in October 2015, that Trump spoke for “those whom the progressives have sought to shut out of decent society, which encompasses a much larger universe than that of the movement conservatives.”
Commentary, founded in 1945 by the American Jewish Committee — from which it separated in 2007, becoming a stand-alone nonprofit — has always balanced its forays into politics with grander musings on Western civilization, Judaism and high culture. This seems to be a successful combination in the Trump era, because the circulation, according to Podhoretz, has risen by over 20 percent since the 2016 election. Podhoretz, who has edited the magazine since 2009 (his father, Norman Podhoretz, edited it from 1960 to 1995), is known for a prickly and combative approach to public life, but when I visited Commentary’s offices, a spacious suite of rooms 16 floors above Times Square, the ambiance was serene, as was Podhoretz himself.
“The insurgent counterculture takeover of the Republican Party was very sudden and very fast. It then makes those who are not part of it a counter-counterculture,” Podhoretz said, seeming to think out loud. “It may be that Commentary is uniquely suited to the weirdness of this position because it has been a countercultural publication for close to 50 years. It is a Jewish publication on the right. It is a conservative publication in a liberal Jewish community. It remains a journal with literary, cultural and intellectual interests, which makes it a minority in the world of conservative opinion, which tends not to focus on the life of the cultural mind.”
Commentary has had several high-profile articles in the past year. In February 2017, it published “Our Miserable 21st Century,” by Nicholas N. Eberstadt, who argued that the economic insecurity of Americans spiked after 2000 and never recovered. In September, DePaul University professor Jason D. Hill, an immigrant from Jamaica, wrote an open letter to Ta-Nehisi Coates arguing that the United States was a place of welcoming opportunity rather than bigotry. Both went viral, although Podhoretz is the first to admit he can’t predict such things. “You can’t edit a hit,” he said..
A sense of the political power of cultural conversations likewise inspired former Senate staffer Ben Domenech, now 36, to launch the Federalist in the fall of 2013. Meeting me at the top floor of Hillsdale College’s Kirby Center, a collection of three rowhouses on Capitol Hill, where he records a daily podcast, Domenech told me he started to envision a new kind of conservative opinion site after observing that more and more areas of our culture — movies, talk shows, sports — were becoming politicized. Also, when established conservative magazines did venture into culture, the writers, usually older and white, “tended to speak primarily to the concerns of people of their age bracket and demo.”
The Federalist has no offices, and Domenech told me that whenever there’s an infusion of revenue or funding he has preferred to spend it on hiring rather than on leasing space. (Where that funding comes from, Domenech would not reveal, saying merely that there was “no large bag of money.”) The staff of the Federalist is majority female, half millennial, and a quarter minority, according to Domenech, and youthfulness was reflected in the publication’s design. “We made sure to build something that branding-wise and in terms of its positions would not be the bald eagle and the American flag as soon as you come to the site,” he said.
By engaging in pop-culture debates, going on television, and focusing on engagement with writers and voices outside the conservative sphere, the Federalist hopes to reach audiences that might normally be dismissive. Conservative magazines, Domenech said, had been mistaken to think they spoke for voters on the right. “This battle was not over whether we’re going to have a Chamber of Commerce agenda or a constitutionalist agenda,” Domenech said. “It left out this huge swath of people who weren’t interested in either of those things.”
As much as their contributors may differ in opinion or even dislike one another, what unites these magazines — and distinguishes them from right-wing outlets like Breitbart — is an almost quaint belief in debate as an instrument of enlightenment rather than as a mere tool of political warfare. “There’s an argument on part of the right that the left is utterly remorseless and we need to be like that,” says Lowry. “That’s the way you lose your soul and you have no standards.”
As the Weekly Standard’s Labash sees it, disinterest — at a time when media outlets on the right “constantly applaud Trump like trained chimps, congratulating themselves that they’re part of some new revolutionary vanguard” — is the new subversion. “You want to be a revolutionary on the right?” asks Labash. “Tell the truth. Call honest balls and strikes. That’s become pretty revolutionary behavior in these hopelessly tribal times.”
With so many Americans today engaged in partisan war, any publication with a commitment to honesty in argument becomes a potential peacemaker. It also becomes an indispensable forum for working out which ideas merit a fight in the first place. This is what, in their best moments, the conservative magazines are now doing. None will realistically exercise much immediate influence on this White House. But perhaps what matters more is whether they’ll manage to influence the political discussion writ large. Ultimately, that won’t be up to Donald Trump but to those, of any political stripe, who have preserved enough modesty and curiosity to allow their views to be unsettled. Serious conservative magazines will matter a lot, if we want them to.
T.A. Frank is a writer at large for the Hive at Vanity Fair.