In his speech on Tuesday announcing that he won’t seek reelection to the Senate, Jeff Flake denounced the “reckless, outrageous and undignified” behavior coming from “the top of our government.” Earlier the same day, Bob Corker—also retiring—said Donald Trump “debases the country.” In the days to come, George Will will likely say something similar on MSNBC. Charlie Sykes may do so on public radio. Bret Stephens may pen an anti-Trump column in The New York Times.
Notice a pattern? Plenty of high-profile conservatives still passionately denounce Donald Trump. But few still rely on conservative voters, conservative readers or conservative listeners for their livelihood. Anti-Trump conservatism has become a brain without a body. Intellectually, it remains alive; politically, it’s almost dead.
Eight months ago, I suggested that on the subject of Trump, you could divide conservative commentators into three categories. Category one were the Trump loyalists: Breitbart, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Ann Coulter.
Their base is talk radio. They pride themselves on speaking for those plainspoken, dirt-under-the-fingernails conservatives who loathe not only Hillary Clinton, but Paul Ryan. Their chief enemies are globalism and multiculturalism, which they believe infect both parties, and are destroying America from without and within. Their ideological forefathers are Joseph McCarthy, George Wallace and Pat Buchanan, who claimed that America’s cosmopolitan, deracinated ruling elite had betrayed the white Christians to whom the country truly belonged.
Category number two were Never Trump intellectuals who worked for non-conservative publications: David Frum, David Brooks, Ross Douthat, Jennifer Rubin.
For them, conservatism is about prudence, inherited wisdom, and a government that first does no harm; they see none of those virtues in Trump. They see themselves as the inheritors of a rich conservative intellectual tradition; Trump’s ignorance embarrasses them. And they believe America should stand for ideals that transcend race, religion and geography; they fear white Christian identity politics in their bones.
“In between,” I suggested, “are the conservatives who will tip the balance. Unlike Breitbart and company, they generally opposed Trump during the campaign. Unlike Brooks and company, they serve a conservative audience that now overwhelmingly backs him.”
We now know what has happened to this third group. It has all but disappeared.
The conservative commentators who could not stomach Trump have largely left conservative media. Last October, Charlie Sykes announced he was leaving his long-running conservative radio show. In January, he announced he was joining public radio. That same month, Megyn Kelly left Fox News for NBC. In January, Fox News announced that it was not renewing George Will’s contract. In May he joined MSNBC. In April, The Wall Street Journal’s most vehemently anti-Trump columnist, Bret Stephens, jumped to The New York Times. Now ensconced in liberal institutions, these commentators are free to condemn Trump with little fear of retribution.
Flake and Corker are their congressional analogues. Their criticism of Trump made them unpopular among conservative activists. And realizing that such opposition undermined their chances of renomination, they opted to retire. Which now leaves them free to criticize Trump with worrying what Steve Bannon thinks. “There may not be a place for a Republican like me in the current Republican climate,” said Flake in explaining his retirement. Keep your eye out for him on MSNBC.
If Flake, Corker, Will, Stephens, Kelly, and Sykes have chosen their principles over their constituents, a different set of conservatives have done the opposite. Take Ted Cruz. At last year’s Republican convention, he famously failed to endorse Trump. Now he’s so tight with the Trumpians that Steve Bannon has declared him the only GOP senator he won’t try to challenge in 2018. Paul Ryan has largely stopped criticizing Trump, too. The House speaker, who last June accused Trump of “textbook” racism for attacking Judge Gonzalo Curiel, on Tuesday told reporters to “forget about” Corker’s attacks on Trump. According to Ryan, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman accusing the president of leading America “towards World War III” isn’t worth discussing.