March 11, 2017
The Intellectual Journal of Trumpism Is Born
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.
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