I began reading National Review (NR) in the late 1970s while studying political science at the University of Scranton in northeastern Pennsylvania. I started subscribing to the magazine in 1982, and I have been a subscriber and regular reader ever since. My current subscription ends in October 2021, and I won’t be renewing it. What was once a great journal of news and opinion and culture—a journal that courageously challenged conventional wisdom and unabashedly confronted the idiocies of liberalism—is now the voice of the Washington conservative establishment. It stands athwart history whispering, “GO.”(1)
Each issue was a literary, political, and geopolitical feast.
Forty years ago, and for many years thereafter, I would read each issue cover-to-cover: the informative and often humorous briefs of “The Week,” followed by editorials, John McLaughlin’s “From Washington Straight” columns, Brian Crozier’s “The Protracted Conflict,” Erik v. Kuehnelt-Leddihn’s “From the Continent,” articles by Tom Bethell, Russell Kirk, William Rusher, Jeffrey Hart, M. Stanton Evans, George Gilder, Forrest McDonald, Ralph de Toledano, Florence King, Michael Novak (religion), Ernest van den Haag, a few feature articles, back of the book pieces by Joseph Sobran, Richard Brookhiser, D. Keith Mano (The Gimlet Eye), John Simon (theater critic) and Chilton Williamson, Jr., and, finishing off with three columns by William F. Buckley, Jr. (A few years later, former Democrat-turned-conservative John P. Roche’s columns appeared alongside Buckley’s.)
Each issue was a literary, political, and geopolitical feast. Some of the more memorable feature articles examined the science underlying the faith in the Shroud of Turin(2); analyzed the feasibility of strategic defenses(3); uncovered the leftist organizations behind the nuclear freeze movement(4); demonstrated the link between faith, family, and economic progress(5); and revealed Soviet connections to international terrorist groups.(6) Occasionally, writers like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Edward Teller, Richard Nixon, Richard Grenier, Richard Pipes, Norman Podhoretz, Margaret Thatcher, Henry Kissinger, Milton Friedman, and Harry Jaffa would grace NR’s pages.
In the early 1980s, James Burnham’s name still appeared on the magazine’s masthead, but he had stopped writing for NR after suffering a stroke in 1978. Burnham was NR’s most important editor and writer (as William F. Buckley, Jr. acknowledged(7), and when he died in 1987, NR devoted a whole issue to remembering Burnham’s life and accomplishments.(8) In 1983, NR’s Brian Crozier wrote an appreciation of Burnham’s political thought—one of NR’s most memorable articles.(9) Seven years later, in NR’s 35th-anniversary issue, John O’Sullivan wrote a lengthy and brilliant piece on Burnham’s geopolitical thought.(10)
James Burnham’s political advice for the 23 years he actively worked at the magazine was for NR to support the most rightward-leaning, likely successful Republican candidate for president. In 2020, that candidate was Donald Trump. Perhaps it was no accident then that in last year’s 65th-anniversary issue, Burnham is mentioned only briefly—almost, it seemed, as an afterthought—by the current NR editorial team.
NATIONAL REVIEW TURNS ITS BACK ON REPUBLICANS
National Review is now run by a nest of never-Trumpers. During the past four years, almost every issue criticized Trump for something he said or the way he said it. The editors were against Trump in 2016 (indeed, that was the cover title of one issue) and again in 2020. In 2016, NR’s editors proclaimed, “Donald Trump is a menace to American conservatism who would take the work of generations and trample it underfoot in behalf of a populism as heedless and crude as the Donald himself.”
National Review, like the rest of the Washington establishment, disdains working-class populists.
In future, we can expect that the few Trump supporters that appear regularly in NR—Victor Davis Hanson and Conrad Black come to mind—will be making fewer appearances, or perhaps, writing on different topics altogether. Maybe the essence of NR’s anti-Trumpism is as simple as this: Donald Trump was a populist president who appealed to working-class Americans; National Review, like the rest of the Washington establishment, disdains working-class populists.
In the most recent issue of NR, the editors write, “The GOP is like a shell, occupied by the hermit crab of Trumpism, an increasingly obstinate and delusional thing. Recovering the party from its current inhabitant will be a task requiring years of work.”(11) Another editorial in that same issue criticizes the Democratic House impeachment managers for failing to bring an airtight case against Trump that would have proved his obvious guilt of inciting a riot on January 6. Trump’s conduct, the editors write, “in the post-election period and on January 6 will blight his reputation forevermore.”
Who would have thought that National Review would help the increasingly radical Democratic Party gain power and ridicule the 75 million Trump voters—a Democratic Party whose leadership has lock-downed the nation’s capital, freed up federal dollars to support abortion around the world, promoted transgenderism at the cost of womens’ and girls’ sports, made climate change the nation’s most important national security issue, allowed illegal immigrants to remain in the country, promoted seemingly unlimited immigration at the southern border, and supported and reinforced a “cancel culture” that seeks to silence all opposition to their agenda.
NR’s editors are simply tone-deaf. Donald Trump reshaped the Republican Party into an anti-globalist, populist movement that will outlive Trump’s political career. Trump’s supporters are willing to overlook style and vote for policies—conservative policies that NR once championed with intellectual argument and political realism. Sure, the intellectual argument—at least some of it—is still there in NR’s pages. But the political realism is missing. Political realism means supporting, or at least not opposing, the candidate that promotes the policies you favor.
The only question is, will National Review go the way of The Weekly Standard?
WE ARE LIVING THROUGH THE CONSEQUENCES OF NEVER-TRUMPISM
During the 1980s, the United States was blessed with a president (Ronald Reagan) who had been reading NR for years, but that didn’t prevent NR’s editors and writers from criticizing the President when they thought he strayed from conservative principles, such as raising taxes and failing to limit federal spending. Back then, it was policy that mattered most to NR’s editors.
For at least the last four years, however, NR placed respectability—Washington beltway respectability—ahead of policy. It withdrew its support for the most policy-conservative president since Reagan, presumably because it frowned upon Donald Trump’s style: his nasty tweets and un-presidential aura. Style over substance put Joe Biden in the White House—a president who, in his first two months in office, has used executive decrees and proposed legislation to radically transform America far faster and far greater than President Obama did. The country is reaping what National Review helped sow.
(1) NR’s first issue famously (and proudly) proclaimed that it was standing athwart history yelling, “STOP.”
(2) “The Shroud,” NR, April 16th, 1982, Jerome S. Goldblatt.
(3) “How to Decide About Strategic Defenses,” NR, January 31st, 1986, Lewis Lehrman and Gregory A. Fossedal.
(4) “A Rainbow in Central Park,” NR, July 9th, 1982, Joseph Sobran.
(5) “Family, Faith and Economic Progress,” NR, April 15th, 1983, George Gilder.
(6) “Reflections on Violence,” NR, June 12th, 1981, Brian Crozier.
(7) Buckley acknowledged this in a special issue commemorating Burnham following his death: NR, September 11th, 1987, pp. 31-32.
(8) NR, September 11th, 1987.
(9) “The Political Thought of James Burnham,” NR, April 15th, 1983, Brian Crozier.
(10) “Present Before the Creation: James Burnham and the New World Order,” NR, November 5th, 1990, John O’Sullivan.
(11) NR, March 8th, 2021.