I was one of 22 participants in National Review‘s instantly famous and controversial symposium in opposition to Donald Trump’s ascension. As soon as NR put the symposium out at the end of last week, the attacks came fast and furious. The most common lines of attack: 1) NR was being gravely disrespectful to Trump and Trump supporters and would be punished for it. 2) We just didn’t “get it.” 3) Ha, ha, this symposium would only strengthen Trump. 4) Trump is going to win and everyone who doesn’t get on the bandwagon is going to be left behind.
This is all as it should be: The whole thing was designed as a provocation in the literal sense—to provoke discussion, to shift the conversation on the Right from “I’m a conservative and hey, why not Trump” and “I”m a conservative and I like Trump” to “if you’re a conservative, you need to defend and explain why you are supporting or leaning toward supporting Trump.” This is why we have arguments and conduct them in the public space: To help direct the course of the conversation.
This is why magazines like COMMENTARY and National Review and The Weekly Standard, all of which I have been privileged to have an association with, exist and why they do what they do. There is a great deal of confusion about this—confusion about the aims and goals and missions and purposes of these sorts of publications. So I thought I’d maybe try to explain a little, especially to those who essentially agreed with the message of the symposium but feared that it would only benefit Trump to come under attack in this way just as being attacked by others had only seemed to deepen his support.
Magazines like ours—and magazines like The Nation and Harper’s and the gravely wounded New Republic on the other side of the political divide—do not actually exist to win elections. A magazine of this type—call it, for better or for worse, an intellectual journal—is dedicated to the examination and dissemination of ideas and policies. In our pages, we publish analysis and criticism. We defend that which we believe requires defense from hostile ideological assault and go on the attack ourselves against that which we believe undermines the workings of our society, our culture, and humanity overall. We are political and cultural diagnosticians, and at times, we prescribe solutions. That’s why I joked on Twitter last night that we’re more like medicine than candy. That’s why we’re a fiftieth as popular as People. It’s also why articles we publish can make a real difference in framing and changing the debate and be remembered for decades, whereas it’s unlikely you will remember a piece from People you read three days ago.
And here’s the other necessary corollary: We never win. We may help promote an idea that gets broad purchase or help build an argument against a bad idea that turns the tide against it, but for us as for The Nation, the political compromise necessary for the implementation of the ideas we champion usually muddy and weaken them. Politicians invariably disappoint, even the ones you like or admire. Culturally, great books are ignored and Fifty Shades of Grey makes its author $100 million in a year.
And there’s always more that could be done that isn’t done. Irving Howe, the Democratic socialist who founded Dissent, popularized a story set in the town of fools called Chelm about the man whose job it was to keep an eye on the coming of the Messiah. It didn’t pay much, he said, but it was steady work. And so it is for those who labor in the fields of intellectual critique. Thankless these labors may be, but they sure are steady work.
NR didn’t publish the symposium because it thought it would “win” the debate over Trump. In publishing what we’ve published about Trump, like Max Boot’s article that leads our February issue, we’ve given no thought to that either. Maybe we’ll be punished. Maybe we don’t get it. Maybe we’ll be left behind. But we are not going to abandon the intellectual spadework of a lifetime, and the readers who count on us to speak what we believe to be the truth fearlessly, to follow the Pied Piper out of Hamelin.