Opinion

Trump’s Victory Dance on the Weekly Standard’s Grave Is Obnoxious, Foolish - and Dangerous

U.S. president claims a hollow victory over one of his most potent critics - principled American conservatism

U.S. President Donald Trump, November 17, 2018.
AFP

After the owners of the U.S. conservative magazine, the Weekly Standard, announced last Friday it was shutting down and firing dozens of people during the holiday season, U.S. President Donald Trump quickly took to Twitter to celebrate.

Trump wrote, “The pathetic and dishonest Weekly Standard, run by failed prognosticator Bill Kristol (who, like many others, never had a clue), is flat broke and out of business. Too bad. May it rest in peace!”

For Trump, his obnoxious glee was clearly justified. The end of the Weekly Standard further shrinks the space on the right for anti-Trump conservatives, and is yet another sign of just how much Trump has remade the Republican Party in his own image - a fundamentally different set of values and policies to those once proudly espoused by U.S. conservatives.

Founded by Kristol and Fred Barnes in 1995, just after the GOP’s historic Congressional sweep and Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America, the Weekly Standard grew to become the focal point of intellectual conservatism in the U.S. - nicknamed the “in-flight magazine of Air Force One” during the George W Bush administration.

The magazine featured some of the right’s most respected voices from Charles Krauthammer to David Frum to Christopher Hitchens to David Brooks and was a major force in pushing for and selling both the war on terror and the war in Iraq.  

However, it is likely to be best remembered for its last two years or so, in which it served as a platform for some of Trump’s most potent critics. The magazine’s writers, Kristol among them, serially called the president out for his “America First” agenda, his betrayal of conservative values, his mistruths, attacks on American institutions and traditions and lack of coherent policy. It appears that The Weekly Standard’s subscribers will be moved over to the relaunched Washington Examiner magazine, a publication far less committed to principled opposition to Trump.

Anti-Trump conservatives had become that rare voice in American media life: commentators, often with deep experience in government if not White House service under Republican presidents, offering fact and morality-based criticism of Trump, which could break though the partisan echo chambers and both left and right.

But the Weekly Standard’s demise is just one sign of how fragile and contested that ground is with many in the “Never Trump” movement becoming ever fiercer critics of the president as Trump loyalists close ranks behind him. Former top GOP strategists and policy makers who have consistently raised the alarm against Trump - such as Frum and Ana Navarro - are now considered irredeemably "fake news" by most Trump supporters, who also reject the calls to rethink and resurrect American conservatism from its deterioration and contamination by Trump.

Anti-Trump conservatives are now more likely to find a welcome and employment in mainstream centrist/center-left media such as the New York Times, the Atlantic and the Washington Post.

Indeed, the week preceding Friday’s announcement offered yet another example of the depths to which mainstream pro-Trump media has descended -  on Fox, Trump’s in-house cable network.

On Wednesday, on Laura Ingraham’s high-ratings Fox News show, Ann Coulter claimed that the Democratic party was constituted by “Muslims and the Jews and the various exotic sexual groups and the black church ladies with the college queers” united only by their hatred of “white men.” Coulter was quickly called out from across the political spectrum as a racist.  

Later that same day, Fox host Sean Hannity and ex-White House assistant and Fox News contributor Seb Gorka discussed the sentencing of disgraced former national security adviser Michael Flynn who plead guilty to lying to the FBI. Gorka and Hannity repeatedly attacked the integrity of the FBI, minimized Flynn’s actions and called the whole affair “entrapment.” Gorka’s spin went so far as to suggest Trump should pardon Flynn and make him his new chief of staff.

Then on Thursday to top it all off, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, whose popularity has surged since he took a sharp right-hand racist turn, declared immigrants make the United States “poorer and dirtier.” Ironically, Carlson was part of the Weekly Standard’s first staff and featured on the masthead of its first issue.

While the pro-Trump media is actively working to discredit Trump’s detractors and the legal challenges swirling around him, and attempting to make some of his more hardline policies - like his stance on immigration - seem more palatable and urgent, the Weekly Standard did none of that, its writers held fast to modern conservative principles: free trade, respect for rule of law and standing up to foreign despots.

The Weekly Standard also focused on enlarging the conservative movement to include women, minorities and younger voters. Ben Shapiro, in May this year, offered a prescription for how to win them back. He argues that young people should be attracted by the new GOP’s emphasis on fighting political correctness, “Freedom of speech is good because you have value as an individual human being with a unique point of view; you’re not reducible to your skin color, your ethnicity, or your income.”

The magazine became synonymous with neo-conservatism. While that term has become pejorative, its principles explain why many of the magazine’s writers never embraced Trump. Neoconservatives, many with Jewish roots, strove to ensure that the hard won victories of the twentieth century over fascism and communism, for human rights and against genocide, would be preserved, at all costs. Hitchens wrote in the Standard in September 2005, in defense of the war in Iraq, “Coexistence with aggressive regimes or expansionist, theocratic, and totalitarian ideologies is not in fact possible.”

Despite the obvious and tragic policy failures of neo-conservative policy not least in the Mideast, it still declared its fidelity to a moral backbone, the Constitution and what were once more universally accepted as conservative American values.

That was why the Weekly Standard had such a long-running feud with GOP Rep. Steve King, well-known as America’s white supremacist Congressman, who quickly jumped on the Trump bandwagon slamming the Weekly Standard after its demise. King tweeted, “.@RealDonaldTrump is right on The Weekly Standard’s deserved demise (“pathetic and dishonest”). If the articles targeting me were redacted until only truth remained, there would not be much left to read.”

The feud was particularly fierce regarding vile anti-immigrant remarks that the Standard reported King made. King later denied that the audio of his remarks existed and even taunted the magazine to release the tapes - which it eventually did.

Adam Rubenstein, the magazine’s former assistant opinion editor shot back at King on Twitter, “...We released the audio recording of what you said, after you dishonestly disputed my reporting. As Hayes [the magazine’s former editor-in-chief] put it, we "wouldn’t focus on your bigotry if you weren’t a bigot."

And the founding Weekly Standard deputy editor John Podhoretz had this to say about Steve King, once an unpleasant but gratifyingly outlier GOP congressman: “The problem with this tweet [dancing on the Standard’s grave] is that you are a foul, disgusting liar and a stain on American public life. The stench of your deceit and your views pollutes your district, your state, your party, and the United States.”

In a week when U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, who once passionately led the charge to impeach Bill Clinton in 1999, says of Trump today that he has “no problem” with the president “lying about sex.” And when the longest-serving GOP senator in history, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary committee, says he doesn’t care if the president commits a crime, there can be little doubt as to just how much conservative principles are quickly eroding.

While it’s a cheap win for the president to herald its collapse as a victory for Trumpism, it should also be noted that many of the Weekly Standard’s storied writers have gained vastly enlarged audiences for their anti-Trump columns and public events in the non-conservative media landscape - a far larger megaphone with which to righteously berate the president.