Picking Sides in the Battle of Conservative Media Members in the Era of Trump
This week, a pre-Christmas battle broke out among conservative commentators. It is one which has been simmering for quite a while in this bizarre era where somehow a life-long New York liberal, with a long history of conning people, is not just the president of the United States, but the leader of the Republican Party. In short, it is between those conservatives who have decided to begrudgingly support Trump (at least most of the time) and those who have remained in the “Never Trump” category.
The first major shots were fired when former “Never Trump” conservative columnist Charles Cooke, of the formerly “Never Trump” National Review, attacked Washington Post “Still Never Trump” conservative Jennifer Rubin. The primary basis of his very strong criticism of Rubin is that she so hates Trump that she has changed her positions on policy simply because she is blinded by being “Never Trump,” no matter what.
“Never Trump” conservative columnist David Frum then largely rushed to Rubin’s defense in The Atlantic with an excellent analysis of why so many “Never Trump” commentators have caved to the economic pressures and become far more accepting of our president. He also persuasively argues that through this issue we can see that conservatism itself will not likely survive its volatile romance with Trump.
There is little question that I would fit in the “Never Trump” camp of conservatives, though I have written numerous columns defending him on the rare occasion when I thought it was warranted. After starting out somewhat hopeful that he could somehow rise to his new position, and seeing that quickly fade like a pipe dream, I still have tried exceedingly hard to be fair to Trump.
I am very much aware that I have disdain for him as a human being and have factored that into every evaluation I have made about him. While I’m sure I have not always succeeded in that quest, as a guy who is well-known for defending people he doesn’t remotely like, I believe that I had done better than most others have in this realm. But obviously, when it comes to this skirmish, I am inherently biased towards Frum’s take on it.
With that said, Cooke’s charge of hypocrisy is indeed legitimate, if not, rather ironically, also hypocritical (it is rather rich for conservatives, who would be on fire 24/7 if President Hillary Clinton was credibly accused of Russian collusion and had two very key people from her inner circle indicted, to charge “Never Trumpers” with duplicity). It does indeed appear as if Rubin has both opposed Trump, or at least not given him credit for, stances which she would supported if they had come from virtually any other Republican.
I have probably engaged in some of the same “hypocrisy.” For instance, if President Romney or Rubio was about to sign a large tax reform bill, I am sure that I would be far more excited about that prospect. I also would give them more credit than I have Trump for the apparent strong current state of the economy and the relatively peaceful state of international affairs (pending nuclear war with North Korea, of course).
However, there are some rather rational reasons for this apparent dichotomy.
The first is that, for good reason, I simply do not trust Trump. So even when he is doing something that seems good, I am always bracing for the con.
The second is that I believe that the long-term price that conservatism and the country will pay for whatever gains may come about because of Trump are simply not worth it. In short, we are likely getting a very bad deal because in five-to-ten years from now liberal Democrats will control everything in Washington and conservatism will likely, for all intents and purposes, not exist because it will have given up almost all of its principles for Trump.
Personally, I think part of why this important debate within conservatism is so combustible is that those commentators not in the Trump “Cult 45” group, but who have decided to mostly support him, feel some guilt or insecurity about this. Consequently, the existence of “Never Trump” conservatives makes them feel badly about themselves, and therefore they must be knocked off their high horse of principle.
I am also firmly in the camp of those who see what has happened with conservative commentary in the era of Trump having far more to do with the nature of the media business than with anything having to do directly with Trump’s philosophy (assuming there is one). Here are some of the more illuminative examples of the different varieties of “conservatives” when it comes to Trump:
Sean Hannity: Sold out early and hard because he saw where the ratings were and is now totally invested in Trump not failing because then it would cause consequences for him personally. The entire Breitbart.com website is in this same category of what I would call “Full Cult 45.”
Matt Drudge: Saw Trump as good for his business and his love of chaos. He was right.
Rush Limbaugh: Never really believed the Trump movement was real until it was too late (not that he would have ever risked his diminishing capital to try and stop it). Now, he has no choice but to be almost always pro-Trump, but behind the scenes he is also laughing at his audience.
Tucker Carlson: Not nearly as dumb as Hannity, he knows it is all a show and he is calculating everything based on what is best for his Fox News ratings, which means he is far more likely to jump off the Trump ship if the ratings ever dictate it.
Mark Levin: As a guy I once admired, this was probably the most disheartening of the “Never Trump” conversions. Once known as “The Great One,” the same man who spent the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal condemning unfounded attacks on special counsel Ken Starr, is now leading them against Robert Mueller because it is what the “Cult 45” audience wants. In this hyper-fragmented media era you must give your cult only what they desire, or they will go elsewhere.
Ben Shapiro: Has, far more successfully than anyone else, straddled the fence between the pro and anti-Trump factions with his “Good Trump, Bad Trump” shtick. While Ben is super smart and largely sincere, a lot of this is well calculated to appeal to an audience.
Erick Erickson: Showed how difficult Shapiro’s balancing act is to pull off by attempting to do the same, but, apparently since he wasn’t pro-Trump enough, failing. He just lost his contract with Fox News.
Glenn Beck: The most ardent and famous of the very few “commercial conservatives” who dared to not get on the Trump train. While he and TheBlaze have softened somewhat on Trump, they are still strong critics and have suffered economically more than any other media outlet because of this issue.
Bill Kristol: The biggest name of the very small “Never Trump” media category, he has managed to compliment Trump on occasion when also keeping his principles and good humor intact. However, there is little doubt that even he has endured some consequences for his unpopular position among a movement for which he was once a leading voice.
John Ziegler hosts a weekly podcast focusing on news media issues and is a documentary filmmaker. You can follow him on Twitter at @ZigManFreud or email him at [email protected]
[image via Christopher Halloran / Shutterstock.com]
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.