Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.
This year’s annual ideas summit of the National Review Institute, the intellectual arm of the pre-eminent magazine of American conservatism, promised to be a fascinating and fractious event.
During the election season, National Review was the voice of conservative opposition to Donald Trump, publishing an “Against Trump” issue in January 2016. What does a “never Trump” conservative institution do in the age of President Donald Trump and intense partisan warfare?
The summit, held Thursday and Friday in Washington, D.C., offered potential answers and potential fireworks: The lineup featured some of Trump’s harshest critics, such as policy analyst Peter Wehner and writer Kevin Williamson, as well as White House officials Stephen Miller and Kellyanne Conway.
In the wake of Trump’s win, National Review has been accused of relaxing its principled stance against Trump — which was based on questions of character and on conservative principles such as small government, free trade and U.S. commitment to free world allies — and casting its lot with the winner. The magazine’s editor, Rich Lowry, whose address kicked off the summit, undoubtedly had the criticisms in mind when he said, “We never surrender our consciences to any man.”
Nonetheless, signs of accommodation were evident at the summit. The two major panels of the first day, “The Role of the U.S. in the World” and “Economics in an Age of Populism,” came across as efforts to prove that Trumpism is not that different from Ronald Reagan’s conservatism. Sebastian Gorka, deputy assistant to the president (who’s been at the center of controversies about anti-Muslim bias and affiliation with far-right Hungarian groups), asserted that Trump’s “America first” stance was a reassertion of American global leadership, which Gorka believes the Obama administration abdicated.
The panel on economics and populism downplayed conflicts between free trade and “fair trade,” spun protectionism as another aspect of the traditional conservative message of job creation, and treated populism as simply democratic self-government in opposition to elite rule. The tension between the populist philosophy that enshrines the collective will of the people and limited-government conservatism that stresses individual liberty went unmentioned.
The Trump positivity continued on the second day, not only with a panel on immigration (where National Review has long been on the restrictionist side of conservatism), but with one on culture, where Trump got points for authenticity and for fighting back against the media. “It may make us uncomfortable as people who speak more politely and don’t like the bullying, all of that stuff — but it works. It’s a treat and amazing to see,” gushed author and screenwriter Andrew Klavan.
And yet left for last was a session that seemed to negate much of the positivity: a conversation between Lowry and veteran pundit Charles Krauthammer, who stuck by his scathing criticism of Trump from last year: “On the night he announced, I called him a rodeo clown. I have since repented the ‘rodeo.’ ”
Krauthammer also noted that because Trump is president, it is patriotic to want him to succeed, and gave him credit for some deregulation initiatives and Neil Gorsuch’s Supreme Court nomination. Nonetheless, he stressed that he did not take back any of his statements about how bad Trump’s candidacy was for the Republican Party — and “how dangerous his presidency is to the republic,” especially on foreign policy, in which checks and balances have little effect.
The same audience that applauded Conway gave Krauthammer a standing ovation. Conservatism under Trump, it seems, is still at a crossroads.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.