It’s one thing to publish an editorial denouncing Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump; any news outlet can do that, and plenty have. It’s another to get almost two dozen leading conservative thinkers to write essays arguing against the Manhattan billionaire’s nomination and agree to print them under a single banner: “Against Trump.”
That’s what the National Review and its editor, Rich Lowry, just pulled off. Lowry spoke with The Fix about how the special issue came together, what he hopes it will accomplish and the price that the conservative magazine was willing to pay in its relationship with the Republican National Committee, which has removed the magazine as co-sponsor of a debate in response to this issue.
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
FIX: How long ago did you start this project? It must have been quite the undertaking.
LOWRY: It was a month in the making. We started around the holidays, which turned out to be a bad idea. It’s hard to get people. We were aiming for the first issue in January, and that just became impossible, so it got bumped in issue. But it really turned out to be fortuitous because we’re in that period now of intense, hour-by-hour focus on the race.
FIX: At what point did you arrive at the conclusion that this was the right approach? “We as a conservative collective need to stand up and say, ‘This isn’t the guy for us.’”
LOWRY: Again, about a month or so. Endorsements are done collectively by our top editors. We’re a little all-over-the-map on the other guys, but we’re convinced that Trump is a mistake. So we were ready to make this mistake. That’s one. Two, it’s been irritating over the last eight months hearing that it’s the “establishment” that opposes Trump. All along, there have been principled conservatives opposing him. So we wanted to gather together a group to make that point quite dramatically. And there are people in this group who’ve criticized each other, who I’m sure don’t like each other very much, who’ve criticized National Review over the years — but they all thought making a statement about Trump was more important than those past rivalries.
FIX: Did anyone take a lot of coaxing? I’m thinking of someone like [Weekly Standard editor William] Kristol, who is a competitor. Why would he want to put anything in your pages?
LOWRY: Oh, this is so ironic. He’s actually calling me on the other line as we speak. Could you hold on a sec?
FIX: Of course.
LOWRY: … Sorry about that. I mean, we’re friendly competitors and both in the same place on Trump. It may seem more surprising than it really is; we’ve collaborated on stuff in the past. It was good to have him to create that sense of ecumenism.
FIX: You mentioned the “establishment” complaint. What is the establishment, and is the National Review part of it?
LOWRY: It’s a term that’s very hard to nail down, which makes it very useful for the people who throw it around. I think a fair, extremely rough definition of the establishment is office-holders — especially high office-holders — consultants who’ve been around a long time, lobbyists and donors. But even that definition that’s somewhat legitimate is highly simplistic because you have all sorts of fissures among all of those people. It’s really a slippery term. Our role is to try to represent the conscience of conservatism. At times we’re hell on the establishment; at other times, we defend it when we think it’s being attacked unfairly.
FIX: So if Trump paints you as part of the establishment, you would resist that label?
LOWRY: We’re not the Republican establishment; we’re conservative. We’re coming at it from a perspective of conservatism. We’re not a business interest. We’re not a donor. We exist outside the system, in that sense, and always have and always will.
FIX: What do you hope to accomplish with this issue? So far, Trump seems to be bulletproof when it comes to media criticism.
LOWRY: The most important thing is putting a marker down and saying, “He’s not one of us. He’s not a conservative, and he’s not what conservatism is.” Just making that point is important, but obviously we want to persuade people. There are a lot of Trump voters who aren’t going to be persuadable. Maybe some are at the margins, and if we can make a difference with them, we’ll be delighted.
FIX: Did you know this would cost you a debate sponsorship? [The Republican National Committee dropped the National Review from a Feb. 25 debate in Houston.]
LOWRY: That was pretty expected. We priced it in. I was going over the final press release with our publisher and was like, “You know this is going to cost us the debate, right?” He was like, “Yeah.”
FIX: But it wasn’t something you had discussed with the RNC in advance?
LOWRY: Correct. They saw it like everyone else, but reacted very quickly.