This first month of summer I see movement and no-movement.
No movement: Donald Trump. He’s like someone caught in the first act who lurches into a second act—a solid, prepared speech, a subdued interview—then scrambles back to first-act antics. It’s easy to guess he’s surrounded by friends and supporters who know more is needed than popping off about “Crooked Hillary” but are afraid to mess with his swing. They fear taking the tang out of his secret sauce. Another guess: He’s not sure he can pull off a change of style—he’s afraid he’ll be boring if he’s serious, afraid he’ll bore himself if he knows what he’s going to say next. So he continues to rant, not to reassure fence sitters. Hillary Clinton hasn’t entered a second act either, but it’s partly situational: She’s trapped in a primary battle. When it comes to Mr. Trump she tries various attack lines—“divisive,” “dangerous,” “dangerously incoherent”—to see what resonates, as they say. She is plodding, unimaginative, stolid. She wishes she had secret sauce.
Closer to home I see movement. Friends who’d been for John Kasich or Marco Rubio now sunnily and without a headache declare themselves for Mr. Trump. An intellectual friend, previously disapproving, confided she’s for him too. But two friends who had been early, enthusiastic Trump backers now seem to be having doubts: They’ve lost their oomph, talk about him less. Nothing’s set in concrete this year, not that anything was.
A central predicament of 2016 continues. GOP elites and intellectual cadres may be clueless about America right now, but they have an informed and appropriately elevated sense of the demands of the presidency. They fear Mr. Trump’s temperament and depth do not meet its requirements. Trump supporters have a more grounded sense of America and its problems but too low a sense of what the presidency can demand in regard to personal virtues. If this problem is to be resolved, it is Mr. Trump who will resolve it. He shows little interest. This space said in February that his political fortunes would hinge on whether America came to think of him as a good man and a fully stable one. It is still true.
The Beltway intelligentsia of the conservative movement continues to be upset about Mr. Trump’s coming nomination and claim they’d support him but they have to be able to sleep at night. They slept well enough through two unwon wars, the great recession, and the refusal of Republican and Democratic administrations to stop illegal immigration. In a typically evenhanded piece in National Review, Ramesh Ponnuru writes of conservative infighting. Most back Mr. Trump, but others, “especially among conservative writers, activists, and think-tankers,” vow they’ll never vote for him. “This debate splits people who have heretofore been friends with similar views on almost all issues, and who on each side have reasonable arguments to hand. It is therefore being conducted in a spirit of mutual rage, bitterness, and contempt.”
That’s witty and true—I’ve seen it—but the division is also promising. Too much has long been “agreed on.” At some point conservative intellectuals are going to take their energy and start thinking about how we got here. How did a party that stood for regular people become a party that stood for platitudes regular people no longer found even vaguely pertinent? During the Bush administration, did the party intelligentsia muscle critics and silence needed dissent, making the party narrower, more rigid and embittered? What is the new conservatism for this era? How did the party of Main Street become the party of Donors’ Policy Preferences?
An anecdote. Two years ago at a birthday party for a mutual friend, I bumped into a hedge-fund billionaire who turned to me angrily and lashed out over something I’d written that seemed to him insufficiently conservative. I listened, merely blinking with surprise I’m sorry to say, and removed myself from his flight path. Afterward I thought about how he must have come to view himself. He is, as I said, vastly wealthy, but also generous, giving time and money to think tanks, groups, candidates. He must view all this, I thought, as a targeted investment. Maybe he sees himself as having . . . a controlling investment. Maybe he thinks he bought conservatism. I felt in a sharp new way that my criticisms of the donor class had been right. Inevitably they see to their own enthusiasms and policy priorities. This was how the GOP became the party of We Don’t Care What Americans Think About Illegal Immigration. Who do those Americans think they are—they think they own the place?
A great party needs give. It needs a kind of capaciousness and broadness. On that, the best example of movement I’ve seen in some time is what I discovered this week: a sophisticated, rather brilliant and anonymous website that is using this Trumpian moment to break out of the enforced conservative orthodoxy of the past 15 years.
It is called the Journal of American Greatness. Its contributors ask questions that need asking and make critiques that sting.
They describe themselves as “aghast at the stupidity and corruption of American politics, particularly in the Republican Party, and above all in what passes for the ‘conservative’ intellectual movement.” Who are they? “None of your damned business.” Why? “Because the times are so corrupt that simply stating certain truths is enough to make one unemployable for life.”
Where they stand: “We support Trumpism, defined as secure borders, economic nationalism, interests-based foreign policy, and above all judging every government action through a single lens: does this help or harm Americans? For now, the principal vehicle of Trumpism is Trump.”
They explore essential questions. “When—and why—did free trade become a sacred ritual of the Republican right?” They give neoconservatism its intellectual due but explore the “unwisdom” of the “Middle East democracy agenda.” Neoconservatives seem “incapable of learning from their mistakes or changing their minds.” The contributors hilariously score NeverTrumpers who claim to be standing at great cost on principle while others are “in the tank” for Mr. Trump: “Of all the opinions that require little courage to express, opposition to Trump is the lead one.” In the past two decades, they observe, “a new conservative intellectual superstructure,” including magazines, journals and think tanks, was built on the new base of the Republican Party. It “routinized the production of its self-justification.” But “the base no longer wants the superstructure.” Voters have their own ideas of what conservatism is.
I contacted JAG by social media and asked about their work. “If we had to characterize ourselves, we would like to think that our writing is informed by a mix of pragmatic experience and theory. What brings us together is our dismay at the stultification of political ideas in the United States. We see ourselves as challenging the intellectual rigidity that has come to characterize, in our view, so much of what passes for self-described ‘serious thinking’ today.”
Their reach and the reactions they’ve received “have thus far significantly exceeded our expectations.”
It’s encouraging they’re doing what they’re doing, and that there is a market for it.