That has led some on the left to suggest, with perhaps a wee bit of schadenfreude, that the conservative movement never really cared about the hawkish free-marketry of conservative intellectuals.
In fact, ideological magazines always do better when their party is out of power and readers are fired up with outrage. But even if it’s true that the Weekly Standard’s troubles reflect the way Trump has divided the movement, there’s a more appropriate reaction than solemn finger-wagging about the true nature of conservatism. Instead, spare a moment to admire how many of the movement’s leading intellectuals held their ground, even as a substantial portion of the conservative base moved away.
Those conservatives opposed Trump early and often — earlier, in fact, than many liberals. When the Republican nomination was still contested, plenty of left-leaning public intellectuals argued that he was preferable to supposedly more extreme candidates such as Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) or Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). In fairness, many of those people later admitted that they’d been wrong, although many also implausibly tried to suggest that they’d been unaware of Trump’s character flaws when they praised him.
Many conservatives, by contrast, were consistent throughout. They condemned Trump from the start, and continued to even when it would have been easier to do a sheepish volte-face. They could have offered ample tactical justifications for rallying behind the nominee: Refusing to support Trump meant conceding control of the Supreme Court and the regulatory agencies to left-wing blocs cemented by Hillary Clinton’s nominees. On a more personal level, with Trump at the head of the party, denouncing him meant jeopardizing decades of investment in a career as a conservative pundit, politician or policy wonk.
Some of the movement’s stalwarts did turn into Trump boosters, if only half-hearted ones. What was stunning was how many refused, including those at the Weekly Standard.
That refusal came at substantial personal cost. Staying #NeverTrump meant losing lucrative television contracts and prestigious administration appointments. It meant that conservative authors could no longer plug their books on previously friendly television and radio shows. It meant trouble with donors who didn’t like to hear Trump-bashing at the institutions they supported, and with angry readers who canceled their subscriptions. And still, those #NeverTrump conservatives kept saying what they thought was true, instead of what the people with the money wanted to hear.
Liberal readers are probably not ready to feel much pity for their plight. But risking your livelihood for distant ideological goals deserves some recognition. You can think those goals are all wrong while still admiring these conservatives’ dedication.
Another acknowledgment is also due: The past two years have given the lie to many of the nastiest accusations the left levels against conservative intellectuals — that conservative ideas are little more than veils for personal greed, that conservative institutions are nothing but a grift racket, selling self-justification to the richest bidder. If that were true, there would be no civil war shattering the movement, and there would certainly be no #NeverTrump conservatives holding firm. I’m certainly not suggesting that everyone in the movement has stood fast against the Trump incursion. What’s impressive is how many did.
It’s probably fair to say that before Trump, the intellectual leaders of the conservative movement misunderstood both the depth and the nature of support for their ideas. But it’s also fair to say that many lost their illusions while keeping faith with their principles. Some of them may lose their jobs next week. But they should be applauded for holding on to their dignity.