Last week more than 130 right-wing thinkers put their names to a defiant document — a list of ‘Scholars and Writers for America’ in support of Donald Trump. It includes the editors of five of the country’s leading conservative journals of ideas: R.R. Reno of the Christian conservative First Things; Roger Kimball of the New Criterion, the right’s leading journal of the arts; Charles Kesler of the Claremont Review of Books; the American Spectator’s R. Emmett Tyrrell; and me, the editor of the American Conservative. (Notably lacking are names from America’s oldest conservative magazine, National Review, which has been as hostile to Trump as the columnists of the New York Times and Washington Post. NR, representing what now seems like the establishment wing of the right, published a ludicrously ineffective cover story in February demanding that Republicans not nominate Trump.)
The list of scholars and writers for Trump includes high-profile thinkers who have also succeeded in business and politics — such as Peter Thiel, Conrad Black and Newt Gingrich — as well as academics who are at the top of their fields, such as the philosophers Scott Soames, Robert Koons, Daniel N. Robinson and Daniel Bonevac. Predictably, the list elicited outraged and snarky social-network comments suggesting comparisons with a few other philosophers, notably the Nazis Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt. As a Twitter or Facebook remark, that may be merely in bad taste, but in the hard-left climate of opinion on many American -university campuses, it could be taken seriously. The risks that conservative scholars take in openly supporting Trump are real. Before the release of the list, there was much debate among its signatories about whether to include a statement about scholars who wanted to sign but feared for their careers.
The list was the brainchild of F.H. Buckley, a law professor at George Mason University near Washington DC. Buckley — no relation to William F. Buckley, the late founder of National Review — has occasionally written speeches for Trump, but the list was compiled and promoted without input from the campaign, a necessity given US election law. Given the official Trump campaign’s shambolic nature, the informal approach was best anyway.
What becomes obvious from comparing Buckley’s list with the roll call of ‘Never Trump’ journalists writing in the New York Times, Washington Post and magazines such as National Review and the Weekly Standard is how broad the intellectual support for Trump is compared with the narrow social and ideological range of the anti-Trump right. Buckley’s list includes nationalist conservatives, libertarian conservatives, neoconservatives and Christian right intellectuals from around the country, including deeply conservative states like Texas and unshakably liberal-Democratic ones like California. Hillsdale College in Michigan contributes several signers, including the president of the college, Larry Arnn. The anti-Trump right, by contrast, occupies what’s called the ‘Acela corridor’ served by the US passenger rail system’s fastest train, the Acela, which runs between Washington and New York.
But the divide among America’s right-leaning minds is not so much geographic as cultural — a divide between those who affirm the nation state and see liberal Republicanism (as much as the liberal Democratic party) as a threat to it and those who find Trump simply too brash and obnoxious to be presidential material. Anti-Trump conservatives might not identify as globalists, but they value the kind of polite disagreement one finds at Davos more than they worry about America’s borders or cultural solidarity.
The conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, responding to the list, correctly characterised the view of many of the signatories that ‘Trump is correct on particular issues (immigration, foreign policy, the importance of the nation-state) where the bipartisan consensus is often wrong, and his candidacy is a chance to vote against an elite worldview that desperately needs to be chastened and rebuked.’ But Douthat insists that however valid some of those concerns may be, the Donald is temperamentally unsuited to the White House. ‘Trump’s zest for self-sabotage, his wild swings, his inability to delegate or take advice, are not mere flaws; they are defining characteristics.’
And yet Trump has succeeded not just in one field but in many — in property, in television and now in politics, by winning the Republican nomination against well-funded rivals who had the support of the establishment right. Barack Obama won the White House in 2008 by promising ‘hope and change’. Trump — so temperamentally unlike every other recent Republican and Democratic nominee — promises to be a much greater force for change. Already he has changed the Republican party and the conservative movement, re-opening essential questions of foreign policy, immigration and the needs of the American workforce.
This is why I support him and why I signed on to ‘Scholars and Writers for America’. If President Trump does keep out of wars like the one the last Republican president started in Iraq, if he limits immigration and helps restore the US labour force to prosperity, he will have done what no other Republican or Democrat could do. On the other hand, should he live down to the worst expectations — getting into wars like Iraq to, as he puts it, ‘seize the oil’, or inflaming racial tensions at home — I have no doubt that he would be even more effectively opposed in his folly than George W. Bush was. The anti-war and civil-libertarian left, which has been conspicuously silent in the Obama years, would roar back to life.
The opposite would be true with President Hillary Clinton: in advancing globalist economics and pushing a foreign policy of interventionism and nation-building, she would have the support of many Republicans in Congress — and of Acela conservatives in the pages of the New York Times and Washington Post. She will reduce the left to sycophancy and make accomplices of the right’s ‘wets’. (Or ‘squishes’, as we call them here.) Whether Trump succeeds or fails as a president, he will force American politics to make a choice between globalism and the nation. With Clinton there will be no choice, only more of the same disastrous policies we have seen under both of the last two presidents. With Clinton, there is neither hope nor change.
This article first appeared in this week’s Spectator magazine.