The same thing is happening in the conservative media. Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter and Breitbart News are all in for Trump. If he wins, they can rightly claim to be the voices of the party — or, at least, the wing of it — in power. If he loses, fierce Trump critics such as Glenn Beck, Bill Kristol and the National Review will enjoy a kind of told-you-so validation that could bolster their credibility going forward.
That’s how it looks to me, anyway. For perspective from someone who is actually a player in this high-stakes game, I talked to National Review editor Rich Lowry about what he thinks is on the line in this election for his publication and everyone else on the right side of the press who has taken a strong stance, one way or the other, on the polarizing Republican nominee.
The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
THE FIX: You guys came out strongly and quite early in the race with your “Against Trump” issue. When we spoke about that in January, you talked about how you think of yourselves as a conscience of conservatism. Let’s say Trump wins. Will you have lost that status because the conscience is now with him and not you?
LOWRY: Well, conservatism needs a conscience whether it’s in power or not. We’ve gone through these phases before. Richard Nixon was elected president twice, and we were never quite comfortable with him and were very often at odds with him. It was always a very fraught relationship. Kind of the same thing with George H. W. Bush, once he broke the tax pledge. So we’re here to hold up the banner for these ideas. We’d prefer that people in power believe in them and try to pass policies in accordance with them, but that’s not always the case. It’s our role to keep banging the drum, regardless.
THE FIX: That makes sense, but do you worry about a dent to your image or the influence that you wield?
LOWRY: Again, we’d prefer if there is going to be a Republican president that he be a conservative, but that’s not in the cards, one way or the other, this year. We’ve been in the wilderness before. In some ways, if Trump is president, we’ll be more important than if Ted Cruz were president.
THE FIX: National Review is an institution with a decades-long history of weathering these things, but what about individuals? What would a Trump victory mean for staunch opponents? A Glenn Beck? A Bill Kristol?
LOWRY: Plenty of people in the party are still going to be traditional conservatives. It would be awkward for everyone, but I don’t think it means instantly everyone who believes in limited-government conservatism is vaporized if Trump is president.
THE FIX: What about Breitbart News? I was just writing about how they’ve failed to take Trump to task for his softening on immigration, which runs counter to the principle they’ve espoused. But it seems not to be about principle; it’s all about the candidate. So what if the candidate loses?
LOWRY: There are people who believe in their kind of vile populism, and they’re not going to go away, no matter what happens in November. But I think Breitbart and some of the high-profile pundits who are behind Trump have to worry about the Dick Morris effect. In 2012, everyone loved to hear Dick Morris talk about how Mitt Romney was going to win in a landslide, right up the point where Mitt Romney didn’t win in a landslide. Quite the opposite. And then they never wanted to see Dick Morris again. (Note: Morris now writes and stars in online videos for the National Enquirer. This week’s installment: How Donald still Trumps the polls.)
They have to worry about the discrediting effect of a Trump defeat. It may be on Nov. 9, if he’s lost and lost badly, that everyone realizes the thing was a bit of a sham, and it wasn't a great idea to have a publication with no integrity that totally prostituted itself to a politician like Trump.
THE FIX: Could they just reinvent themselves, though? I’m thinking of Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter who I would describe as having been different shades of conservatives over the years, depending on the mood of the base. I don’t know if you agree with that characterization or not.
LOWRY: Yes. Yeah, Breitbart wasn’t what it is now five years ago, when Andrew was still with us. It’s quite possible it takes another turn. If in the wake of a Trump loss the market shifts, you could see a shift in the direction of the publication, as well.
THE FIX: Is there a distinction, in your mind, between people who are hoping Trump will win versus predicting he will win? Isn’t it one thing to say, “I think he's the best candidate” but another to do the Dick Morris thing you just described, saying he’s going to win in a landslide and then being proven totally wrong?
LOWRY: Yeah, predicting victory and being wrong will be more discrediting than simply saying he was better than the alternative. But there are a lot of people who have invested a lot in Trump’s candidacy, and it’s going to be painful for them if he falls flat in November.
THE FIX: What about the media’s breakout stars who have raised their profiles by being big Trump boosters? I’m thinking of the CNN crew, for instance. If Trump loses — especially if he loses badly — is there a media future for a Jeffrey Lord, a Kayleigh McEnany, a Corey Lewandowski, now that he's an analyst?
LOWRY: I gotta believe a lot of them will wash out. Being a professional Trump defender is not going to be an upwardly mobile position if Trump loses and is gone. But it’s possible CNN will find a couple pundits within that faction that they think are good enough to be worth keeping.