As we enter the period of obituaries for 2018, they’re also being written for a publication whose demise is a troubling sign of the times: The Weekly Standard, a flagship of intellectual conservatism. The magazine’s fairly abrupt shutdown this week, first rumored about two weeks ago, reflects the conflicts on the right in the age of Donald Trump as well as the troubles of high-quality magazine publishing.
I have a personal stake in The Weekly Standard’s fortunes as a semiregular contributor for the past eleven years. But I mourn its loss for much bigger reasons.
Founded 23 years ago by conservative commentators William Kristol, Fred Barnes and John Podhoretz, The Weekly Standard was born as a center-right counterpart to the center-left New Republic. Yet, despite differences on social issues, the two magazines shared a strong belief in the international liberal order based on the principles of freedom and human rights — and on American global leadership. This outlook led to its support for interventionism, including the war in Iraq, a fateful error that was very much of its time.
One can criticize The Weekly Standard for many things (and foes of various stripes have done just that in their victory dances on its grave). At times, its social conservatism expressed itself in articles that took a regrettably inflexible view of such issues as same-sex marriage and women’s roles. Ten years ago, it championed Sarah Palin, the GOP vice presidential nominee whose grievance-fueled populism helped pave the way for Trump.
But The Weekly Standard also championed a nonparochial and open-minded conservatism; its authors included Stanford University scholar Michael McFaul, later Barack Obama’s ambassador to Russia, and Jake Tapper, currently of CNN. The magazine also strove, despite its biases, to be fact-based: While scathingly critical of Obama, it shot down conspiracy theories that depicted him as a Kenyan interloper or a secret communist.
In the past two years, this stance has brought The Weekly Standard into pitched conflict with the Trump wing of Republicanism. Unlike many on the right who started out as “never Trump” but ultimately reconciled themselves to a supposedly successful Republican president, this magazine continued to hammer Trump for both bad policies and bad behavior. It also debunked right-wing claims that the Trump-Russia investigation was a Democratic conspiracy.
Like all opinion journals, The Weekly Standard was unprofitable, though its revenues were reportedly quite decent for its field. The New Republic, in a similarly precarious position, was radically transformed a few years ago by a new owner’s whim; after a change of leadership that led to mass resignations, it was reinvented as a much more left-wing and much more digitally oriented publication. The Weekly Standard’s owner, billionaire Philip Anschutz, elected to shut it down — not quite because of its anti-Trump stance, but close. Anschutz apparently wanted to cultivate a new weekly magazine, a print version of the Washington Examiner website, and to use the Weekly Standard’s subscriber base to shore it up. The Examiner, which features various viewpoints, is not exactly pro-Trump but takes more of a compromise position.
The Weekly Standard’s destruction is not just the loss of an independent conservative voice. It also is the loss of a magazine that published thoughtful political analysis and sophisticated commentary on literature and the arts. And it is the loss of a publication that was willing to cross ideological lines — something desperately needed today.
May it make a comeback under a new name in 2019. Until then, its loss cements 2018’s status as an annus horribilis.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.