‘National Review’ seems collectively incapable of seeing that it is no longer standing athwart history but is instead mostly athwart rank-and-file conservatives. NR is more liberal echo than conservative choice these days, and I don’t see any sign of recovery.
“Every young writer, I imagine,” wrote Ross Douthat, “has their first intellectual magazine, whose essays and articles are devoured all the more greedily for being slightly over one’s head. Mine was First Things.” That journal played an important role for me, too, especially theologically, but among political magazines National Review was the first one that really captivated me. During high school study hall, one could get a pass to go to the library. As a freshman, I would go down there and read various periodicals, starting with the newest issue of William F. Buckley’s magazine. The late eighties were still the time of the founder’s presence and the glory of Ronald Reagan who had declared “I got my job through National Review.” I kept reading it even through periods of mild college liberalism and have subscribed for many years to the print edition and enjoyed NRO’s blog, The Corner. I’ve even written a few pieces for the magazine over the years, something I have been proud enough to include in my writer’s bio.
Yet, like a great many conservatives I know, my love for the magazine has pretty much evaporated. I don’t look at The Corner anymore unless something is linked to it. Alas, too often I regret what I read. Though the print edition is still coming, I didn’t renew it myself. Somebody must have gifted it to me, a fact for which I am not very grateful.
What’s wrong with NR? No publication is problem free, and there are plenty of episodes in the history of a magazine that has been going for sixty-five-plus years that were regrettable. Many friends of mine think the magazine went bad in the early 2000s when it supported the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. That may well be. Though I was more of a neo-conservative who supported both conflicts at the time, David Frum’s attack on anti-Iraq War conservatives, titled “Unpatriotic Conservatives,” was especially irritating as I had a high degree of respect for a great many of the people he attacked, especially the journalist Robert Novak. To run this kind of oddly personal attack in the magazine of “the conservative movement” struck me as insanity.
Later, when Mark Steyn, the wittiest and most perceptive writer in the magazine and on the website at the time, was ejected and effectively disowned after lawsuits by Michael Mann concerning a blog post Mr. Steyn wrote, I was again seriously irritated. How does this manifest any kind of conservative principle? How does it manifest a “standing athwart” anything, much less history, as its founder famously declared it to be doing? It seemed less like the approach of a Happy Warrior (Mr. Steyn’s back-of-the-mag column’s title) and more like the approach of a group that lets lawyers run the show. Mr. Steyn himself agreed, writing in 2015 about the lawsuit based on a 270-word blog post:
There are times when I wish I had the same kind of co-defendants I had in my free-speech wars in Canada: “Maclean’s,” unlike “National Review,” is a dentist’s waiting-room mag not an ideological mission, but they and I were as one in our fight not just against the Canadian Islamic Congress but against the now repealed Section 13. By contrast, “National Review,” for whom I wrote for a decade and a half, are offering the curious and fainthearted defense that they were never my publisher but merely an “interactive computer service provider” to which I had the access code…. They’re a court filing or two from claiming they’re Lufthansa and I’m Andreas Lubitz—just some crazy guy who locked himself in the NR cockpit.
Rumors circled that Mr. Steyn might have been difficult to deal with. Maybe so, but principled conservatives would have worked through that.
I stuck with them, however. The point where the NR plane started to seem like it was heading downward was when the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision, declaring a right to have one’s same-sex union recognized as a “marriage,” was handed down. Literary editor Mike Potemra, a wonderful if somewhat eccentric guy, celebrated this decision on the website, as did managing editor Jason Lee Steorts—who might be a libertarian but is not really conservative and who declared that arguments that failed to satisfy his understanding took on “the air of an insult.” The three-legged stool of foreign-policy conservatives, free marketeers, and social conservatives seemed to be sagging quite a bit.
It was during the Trump era, however, that NR really lost its way. I was initially NeverTrump, but it was the magazine’s “Against Trump” issue that started me on the path to thinking that he might be worth supporting. I didn’t do it in 2016—just barely. Out of despair induced in part by NRO predictions of how badly he was going to be beaten, I thought there was no point. When he won, I began to question the objectivity of NR’s predictions. When Mr. Trump began to actually do many of the things the “movement” talked about, I noticed that NR’s editors kept their distance. It seemed less a matter of his performance than of his not having gotten his job through them—in fact, against their advice.
They seemed to become suckers for every accusation against him. The Russian Collusion story? They had to take it seriously even long after it proved to be nonsense. The Covington Catholic story based on edited video? Several of the editors jumped on that one, too, writing horrifying pieces about that bad Sandmann kid and his classmates that, like “Russian collusion,” turned out to be much ado about bad behavior by other people. While other writers in conservative media had already identified the disastrous character of Andrew Cuomo’s handling of COVID-19 in April 2020, NR writers were still writing as if he were a decisive, successful leader on the issue. Many also contributed support for lockdowns. Writers bashed Hungary and Poland despite the fact that these countries are fighting off the kind of woke progressivism that NR supposedly opposes.
Even after parting ways with the most fervent and obsessive anti-Trumpers, Jonah Goldberg and David French, the magazine still seemed to be operating in a kind of fantasyland in which a Trump loss would probably be very good for the country—or at least not that bad. Sure, there were a few pro-Trump writers, but most of the regulars—Ramesh Ponnoru, Jay Nordlinger, Michael Brendan Dougherty, Rick Brookhiser, Rob Long, Ross Douthat, Kevin Williamson—were all anti-Trump. There was a curious disconnect in much of their writing. Sure, the Democrats are getting crazy, but what could go wrong? Writer Dan McLaughlin wrote an endless Hamlet-like piece about why it was actually sensible to vote for Mr. Trump but how he wasn’t doing it because of… well, it wasn’t exactly clear why. There was often the hint that really what we need is to get rid of Mr. Trump and get back to some pristine version of “conservatism” that didn’t include him or any of the populist concerns that he brought to the fore. Mr. Trump was ruled out-of-court for not being Buckleyite, while the people at Buckley’s magazine ignored their founder’s own rule of supporting the most viable rightward-leaning candidate.
Post-Trump, of course, we live in a country where public intellectuals talk about using counterinsurgency measures against conservatives; Democrats are attempting to censor television channels that do not preach their gospel; executive orders command that bathrooms and locker rooms for women be open to men who believe they are women; Attorney General nominee Merrick Garland argues that attacking federal buildings at night, as Antifa has done, is not domestic terrorism and refuses to say whether illegally entering the country is a crime; and executive orders reverse rules that kept China out of our power grid and forbade critical race theory.
That little list is just off the top of my head. If I thought for a few minutes more, I could probably get a few more paragraphs of apocalyptic news. NR’s Alfred E. Neuman 2020 political stance seems even more ridiculous and destructive now than it did during the election season. What could go wrong? We’re not even one hundred days in, and that question has been answered many times over.
The piece that for me encapsulated NR’s decline was Michael Brendan Dougherty’s column posted the day after Rush Limbaugh’s death. Mr. Dougherty sniffed that he found his conservatism “in magazines and books, not on talk radio” and “had to overcome Rush Limbaugh to become a conservative.” Mr. Doughertty was and is a Roger Scruton man! While making a sensible point about the need to appeal to different parts of the conservative movement, Mr. Dougherty revealed the problem with the way he thinks when he noted that “too much dramatized retching and sniffing at populism among the bow-tie wearing, Edmund Burke-quoting intellectual weirdos that make up conservative intellectuals will drive the dittoheads into rebellion or into political non-participation.”
There are lots of Edmund Burke-quoting intellectual weirdos who like Rush Limbaugh and other popular and populist figures. Those weirdos, among whom I count myself, do not have control of the conservative movement such that not following our lead is “rebellion.” We understand that political questions are often intellectual but the best answers to which can be provided by obnoxious New York real estate moguls and ordinary folk far from the world of ivory towers, think tanks, and New York magazines. I know it was non-intellectuals who first pointed out to me the strengths of Donald Trump and the weaknesses of many Republican figures.
Most conservatives would rather be governed by the first 2000 names in the phone book than the staff at Bill Buckley’s magazine. National Review seems collectively incapable of seeing that it is no longer standing athwart history but is instead mostly athwart rank-and-file conservatives, even those of us who like Roger Scruton. Small intellectual magazines always depend on donors who believe that they will be influential with the right people. But to be influential, they have to have some popular base. At 50,000 subscriptions, The Weekly Standard’s funders decided that they were no longer worth bankrolling. NR had about 170,000 subscriptions a decade ago and is down to about 75,000 subscriptions now.
I don’t see any sign of recovery. Rich Lowry tweets articles from The Weekly Standard’s online successor The Bulwark. The magazine keeps hammering away at Donald Trump, claiming falsely that he wanted Republican officials to “throw the election to him.” Their writers seem more bothered by his claims of election malfeasance than they are by the policies and personnel of the Biden administration. And they keep accepting media falsehoods—such as the one that Officer Brian Sicknick was killed by a fire extinguisher on January 6—without investigating them. While Andrew McCarthy did finally write an article about the phony story, he initially said that Sicknick was “murdered” in the course of his urging a conviction of Mr. Trump in the second impeachment case. Meanwhile, there was never any editorial about, or deep-dive into, the story of Parler being forced off-line by a joint effort by big tech’s giants.
NR is more liberal echo than conservative choice these days.
It would be great if another generation discovered an intellectual and lively conservatism in National Review as I once did. But absent radical surgery to recover their position athwart history—and I think it will require replacing most of the staff—new generations will only find the magazine in the history books.
Author’s Correction: I was contacted by a representative of National Review who graciously did not argue with me about my institutional judgments but informed me of inaccuracies in two parts of my essay. On a minor note, there was only one NR piece, by Nicholas Frankovich, attacking Nick Sandmann and the Covington kids. It was later taken down. I looked back at the history and found that editor Rich Lowry did not write an article but tweeted approvingly of the Catholic Diocese of Covington and Covington Catholic High School apology that assumed the media narrative: “A necessary and appropriate apology.” A second tweet admitted things weren’t as bad as they seemed but claimed the “obnoxious, dumb, and disrespectful behavior of the teens needed an apology regardless.” He later deleted these tweets, but then-NR senior editor Jonah Goldberg retweeted Lowry’s original take. Thus, though there were several public comments assuming the false media narrative by NR editors, only one appeared on the magazine’s webpage.
The other correction has to do with my understanding of NR’s relationship with Mark Steyn. I wrote that Steyn was “ejected and effectively disowned” by NR. According to NR: 1) Mark Steyn was the one who decided to retain his own counsel in the Michael Mann case—at NR’s expense; and 2) Steyn was not an employee of NR but was at the end of his three-year contract in 2014 when the legal case was in its early stages. He was offered another contract to which he did not respond. Thus, whatever one thinks of the legal strategy which NR later took up, my account of its beginnings was inaccurate.
Though I stand by my judgments about the direction of the magazine, I apologize for these mistakes in facts.
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The featured image is a photograph of William F. Buckley, Jr. attending the second inauguration of President Ronald Reagan, 21 January 1985. This image is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.