Trump's Intellectuals: They're out there --- beyond the Beltway

Fred Barnes

By Fred Barnes

Published June 3, 2016

Inside the Beltway and along the Washington-to-Boston corridor, #NeverTrump has won the hearts and minds of conservative intellectuals and the high-toned media. The dissenters—yes, there are some—make a lot less noise.

But move away from the East Coast and it's a different story. Out there, the conservative intelligentsia isn't aligned against Donald Trump—quite the contrary. Roger L. Simon, the screenwriter, novelist, and former CEO of PJ Media, predicted last August that Trump would win the presidency. Nine months later, in May, he wrote that "it still holds true."

"Like others, I want things to change .. . . and Donald seems like the man with the courage and will to do it," Simon writes. "He's unafraid. He's upbeat. He's funny. He despises political correctness (as anybody with a brain does). .. . . I can think of no greater antidote to Obama than a Trump presidency."

Simon is only the most enthusiastic of the conservative highbrows not mired in the East who have grappled with the Trump phenomenon. Their views cover a wide range: from mere opposition to #NeverTrump to mildly pro-Trump to recognition of Trump's strengths to disclosing they intend to vote for him.

Dennis Prager, the L.A.-based syndicated talk radio host and columnist, said when the presidential debates started "that if Donald Trump wins the Republican nomination, I will vote for him over Hillary Clinton, or any Democrat for that matter." Last week, he took on #NeverTrump conservatives.

He disputed their "conscience" argument. "I don't find it compelling because it means that your conscience is clear after making it possible for Clinton or any other Democrat to win," he writes. "But if you wish to vanquish the bad, it's not possible—at least not on this side of the afterlife—to remain pure."

The most sweeping and impressive appraisal of Trump appears in the spring issue of the Claremont Review of Books, written by its editor Charles Kesler, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College and Claremont Graduate University. Kesler, too, disses the #NeverTrump movement. "Conservatives care too much about the party and the country to wash our hands of this election," he writes. "A third party bid would be quixotic."

That leaves conservatives with the task of "offering advice and help, whether or not [Trump] has the sense to take it." To find out if he's willing to learn, "conservatives will have to engage him," according to Kesler. Abstaining in 2016, "in hopes of stimulating a recovery of full-throated conservatism in 2020, is sheer desperation."

Kesler puts Trump in the context of earlier presidents. "Do obscenities fall from his lips more readily than they did from Lyndon Johnson's or Richard Nixon's?" he writes. "Are the circumstances of his three marriages more shameful than the circumstances of John F. Kennedy's pathologically unfaithful one—or that matter, Bill Clinton's humiliatingly unfaithful one? Have any of his egotistical excesses rivaled Andrew Jackson's killing a man in a duel over a racing bet and an insult to Jackson's wife?"

And there's a parallel, Kesler believes, between Trump and Woodrow Wilson's insistence that "the personal force of the President is perfectly constitutional to any extent he chooses to exercise it," Kesler writes. This is "not far from Trump's praise of high energy, toughness, and strength in the ideal chief executive."

Kesler rejects the notion that Trump is an authoritarian. "He talks the way a lot of bosses talk," Kesler told me in an interview. "I don't find it as some sort of sinister authoritarian streak." Nor is Trump a demagogue, Kesler says, though he expresses "a certain kind of bluster which is amateurish."

"If you compare different conservative presidents or would-be presidents to magazines," Kesler says, "Ronald Reagan was a National Review conservative. George W. Bush was a Weekly Standard conservative. Mitt Romney was a Wall Street Journal conservative. Trump will be the first tabloid conservative—the New York Post or Daily Mail. It's more a blue-collar or working-class sensibility."

Wilfred McClay, a prominent conservative scholar who holds the G.?T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma, hasn't decided whether he'll vote for Trump. "Although defeating the Clintons, and the toxic combination of ideology and criminality that they represent, seems to me to something pretty close to an imperative," he said.

His understanding of the Trump candidacy led to this conclusion: "There is a saying, variously attributed, that when a political culture forbids respectable politicians from raising essential topics, the electorate will soon turn to 'unrespectable' ones. It is no good now to keep on complaining that Trump is unrespectable. The real problem is that more mainstream Republicans were not respecting their own voters, and haven't been for a long time. The first thing they need to do is start paying attention."

Victor Davis Hanson, a military historian, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and whose column appears on JWR, wants conservatives to give Trump a chance to improve his act. What happens if by August, he's "reinvented himself into a more sober Trump and announced that if elected he'd like to appoint Ted Cruz to the Supreme Court, John Bolton as secretary of state, Larry Arnn as secretary of education, and General Jack Keane as secretary of defense?" Hanson asks in National Review.

Conservatives may be forced to decide not between two bad choices—Trump and Clinton—but between "a bad Trump and a far, far worse Clinton," he writes. "If it is the latter, then it's an easy choice in November."

Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, was criticized by National Review's Jonah Goldberg for supportive words about Trump on Hugh Hewitt's radio show in April. In response, Arnn cited in the college's newspaper the "chief things" he'd said about Trump. He liked Trump's comments about "the regulatory state" and praised "his confidence, self-direction (he seems to say what he says because he thinks it, rather than having been advised to say it), his sense of humor, and fearlessness." About Trump's character, Arnn has a few doubts.

Meanwhile, the Western eggheads have a biting website devoted to advising, analyzing, and touting Trump and zinging his conservative adversaries. It's called the Journal of American Greatness. Its authors are anonymous. But Kesler says they're in the "Claremont and Hillsdale orbit" and represent "a subset of Western Straussians"—that is, disciples of the late political philosopher Leo Strauss.

There is a major dissenter out West, Michael Medved. He's an author, columnist, and talk radio host whose show goes to 300 stations nationwide. "I've taken a lonely stand for the world of talk radio: I am not on board the Trump train and don't expect that I will get on board," he told me.

Medved's critique of Trump is withering. "The evidence—especially the man's own pronouncements—suggests that Trump would most likely be a disaster in every regard," he says. "The risks of Trump himself utterly shredding the Constitution seem to me more formidable than the risks of Clinton-appointed justices to the Supreme Court doing that sort of damage."

But Medved says he can imagine a cleaned-up Trump who appeals to "all thoughtful conservatives," including him. "I can imagine it, but I think it's a fantasy." Judgments on Trump are often tentative. Even Roger L. Simon says, "I could change my mind on a dime .. . . if other information comes to light or if Donald starts to act loony or, more precisely, excessively loony."

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Fred Barnes is Executive Editor at the Weekly Standard.