The Intellectual Journal of Trumpism Is Born

March 11, 2017

The Intellectual Journal of Trumpism Is Born

by Jonah Goldberg
Image result for donald trump phenomenon

Can a new magazine launched to defend Trump take ideas seriously? Our former colleague Eliana Johnson has a short profile of the guy launching American Affairs, the forthcoming intellectual journal of Trumpism, rising Phoenix-like from the ashes of the Journal of American Greatness.

A 30-year-old conservative wunderkind is out to intellectualize Trumpism, the amorphous ideology that lifted its namesake to the presidency in November. Until recently, the idea itself was an oxymoron, since Trumpism has consisted in large part of the President-elect’s ruthless evisceration of the country’s intellectual elite. But next month, Julius Krein, a 2008 Harvard graduate who has spent most of his admittedly short career in finance, is launching a journal of public policy and political philosophy with an eye toward laying the intellectual foundation for the Trump movement. If his nerdy swagger is any indication, he has big ambitions: He noted wryly that he is — “coincidentally” — the same age that William F. Buckley Jr. was six decades ago when he founded National Review, the magazine that became the flagship of the conservative movement. No offense to Krein, but he should keep the comparisons to Bill Buckley to a minimum. No one wins from such comparisons (except Buckley), and raising expectations you can’t meet strikes me as a bad idea. But other than that, I’m glad someone is doing this.

The conservative movement needs more idea-development, not less. I agree with Yuval Levin, who tells Johnson, “Not nearly enough of that is happening around the changes we’ve seen in this election.” Also, a thing like “Trumpism” deserves an intellectual effort to define it in non-pejorative terms. That said, I’m skeptical of some of Krein’s larger ambitions. Johnson reports that American Affairs will “launch in both a print and digital version, and a substantial portion of the funding will come from Krein himself. He said donors to traditional conservative institutions have been ’surprisingly’ receptive to his pitch, though he declined to name the additional contributors.” How receptive could the donors be if the editor is largely self-funding?

But that’s nitpicking. Krein also said, “We hope not only to encourage a rethinking of the theoretical foundations of ‘conservatism’ but also to promote a broader realignment of American politics.” That’s a pretty tall order for a hedge-fund guy in his spare time. It’s even harder when Donald Trump is your lodestar. I’m quoted in the piece: “It will take a good deal of time for even Trump’s most gifted apologists to craft an intellectually or ideologically coherent theme or narrative to his program,” said Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review.

“Trump boasts that he wants to be unpredictable and insists that he will make all decisions on a case-by-case basis. That’s a hard approach for an intellectual journal to defend in every particular.” My point there is you beat ideas with ideas. You can challenge the “theoretical foundations of ‘conservatism’” (perhaps starting with an explanation for why you put it in scare quotes) or you can defend a theoretical program. Unless you’re just going to defend Pragmatism and/or the instinctual, infallible, wisdom of Donald Trump in all cases, you’ll either need your own theory of the case or you’ll need to allow for writers willing to criticize Trump outright.

There’s nothing wrong with that, except American Affairs is being launched to defend Trump and Trumpism. If Krein isn’t willing to tolerate serious criticism of Trump in furtherance of Trumpism, then he should skip the journal and go work directly for Sean Spicer. If he does allow criticism, (a) good for him and (b) he should be prepared for his pro-Trump journal to be denounced by Trump himself. While I am perfectly comfortable saying that Krein is no William F. Buckley — because no one is — I would note that great magazines and journals are often born out of such chaos and internal contradictions.

Irving Kristol and Daniel Bell founded The Public Interest (which was more of an inspiration for neoconservatives than was The National Interest, contrary to what Eliana wrote). But they had some pretty profound disagreements, causing Bell to walk away early on. Irving Kristol solved these, and similar, problems by making the PI a magazine for writers, not editors.

At National Review we had an even more stormy beginning, with libertarians, Machiavellians, Ultramontane Catholics, Straussian philosophers, social conservatives of every flavor, and a wide variety of ex-Communists squabbling and debating everything under the sun. The creative tension was invaluable in forming the foundation of modern conservatism. Bill Buckley made it work through sheer force of personality. We didn’t have a fan in the Oval Office until Ronald Reagan. Great magazines and journals are often born out of chaos and internal contradictions.

The New Republic (now a pale shadow of its former self) was always at its best when it was at war with itself. I grew up on it in the 1980s, when many of the editors hated one another’s guts and fought over Reagan, the Contras, etc. The magazine’s early years were even more chaotic. The New Republic was founded, according to Walter Lippmann (a one-time New Republic staffer as well as an aide to Woodrow Wilson), “to explore and develop and apply the ideas which had been advertised by Theodore Roosevelt when he was the leader of the Progressive party.”

Pretty much TR was to The New Republic as Trump is to American Affairs. But when Wilson was elected, and started leading us to war, The New Republic was all over the map because of disagreements among the editors. Eventually, their old ideological hero Teddy Roosevelt charged into the offices of The New Republic like a Bull Moose to chew them out for their disloyalty. Realizing he couldn’t set them straight, TR shouted that the magazine was “a negligible sheet, run by two anemic Gentiles and two uncircumcised Jews.” If Trump tweets something like that at Krein & Co., he’ll know he’s on his way to “greatness.”

— Jonah Goldberg is a senior editor of National Review.



3 thoughts on “The Intellectual Journal of Trumpism Is Born

  1. American Affairs is the new Republican intellectual journal to explore the meaning and shape of American nationalism in the age of Trump. In the pages of its first issue, I can feel the frisson of old pieties being punctured. In the opening sentence of the journal’s mission statement, the editors write: “The conventional party platforms no longer address or even comprehend the most pressing challenges facing American institutions.” What follows is a brisk tour of bipartisan incomprehension on globalization, economic policy, foreign affairs, and the meritocratic assumptions that have guided so much social policy since the 1950s. The editors describe the ideology of meritocracy as “a soothing lullaby that we sing to ourselves to avoid responsibility for … ever more rigid socioeconomic stratification.” The journal positions itself to shake things up in a sharp takedown of “Washington’s hollow sloganeering” and the “ossified intellectual orthodoxies” that prevail in our public life.

    If American Affairs had been launched years before Trump’s election, it might have been in a position analogous to the one staked out by National Review during the 1960s or The Public Interest during the 1970s, laying the ideological groundwork for a political movement that aimed to shift the parameters of discussion and debate in the nation’s capital and in American political life more generally. National Review accomplished this goal by helping to forge “fusionism”, the synthesis of economic libertarianism, moral and religious traditionalism, and hawkish anti-communism and American-led internationalism that Ronald Reagan rode to power in 1980 and that has defined “the conservative movement” ever since. The Public Interest built philosophical and public-policy bridges from the postwar consensus liberalism of Truman and Kennedy to the economic and social agenda advanced by the Reagan revolution.

    What both National Review and Public Interest separate from American Affairs was an anticipatory character. They sensed an ideological absence in America public life and sought to fill it with ideas and policy proposals, and ultimately force a change of direction in Washington. Reagan won his presidency in part by championing the ideas and proposals that had been refined in these journals, and vindicated the old-time conservative conviction that “ideas have consequences.”

    Things are very different this time around. Trump has gotten himself elected without much of an ideology at all. What Trump had were instincts about the yawning disconnect between Republican elites and rank-and-file voters that turned out to be just as sound than anyone else in the party. This means that the role of American Affairs is bound to be very different than the one played by an earlier generation of policy journals. Instead of leading the way or laying a foundation by fashioning a compelling ideology, those who publish in its pages can only play catch-up trying to make coherent sense of Trump’s ideologically heterodox instincts.

    That is likely to prove quite challenging. To begin with, Trump himself is a thoroughly anti-intellectual man who lacks the patience or interest to dabble even superficially in ideas, as he likes to tell everyone: “I love poorly educated people.” Then there’s the fact that his closest advisers have ideological commitments that place them in opposition to core liberal democratic ideals. When those tendencies are combined with Trump’s myriad ethical deficiencies and early signs of managerial incompetence, we’re left with the potentially fruitful ideas for reform ending up tarnished by a flawed tribune.

    One has to do with the profoundly contradictory character of Trumpism. Trumpian populism is far more ideologically unstable: deep tax cuts for the rich combined with hostility to immigration and free trade; draconian reductions in regulations combined with calls for massive infrastructure projects; moral tawdriness combined with unapologetic pandering to the religious right. Ideologically speaking, it’s a mess. Whether the journal pushes the administration to adjust its priorities or seeks to devise a way to make sense of this tangled jumble of policies, its editors will have their work cut out for them.

    The central paradox of the present historical moment is that nationalism is on the rise as a kind of inverse of internationalism. The trend is taking place simultaneously across the West. Any attempt to come to terms with the disruptions of the political present needs to look beyond the United States to try and make sense of why so many countries and cultures find themselves in the throes of such similar nationalist-populist convulsions at the same time. Until the intellectuals involved with American Affairs can provide a satisfactory explanation of the trend, there’s little chance they’ll be able to fashion a politically effective response.

  2. Preet Bharata fired by Trump. He was investigating 1MDB-linked illegal activities in the USA.
    Maybe now MO1 thinks he can breathe a little easier ?

  3. I should add that MO1 is badly mistaken if he thinks he can breathe a little easier after Mr Preet Bharata’s firing by Trump. (It was simply to fire the Obama legal appointees).

    The new public prosecutor who takes over the case will continue the investigations – there is rule of law in the USA, and the Americans do not take kindly to foreigners violating their financial laws.

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