Last week, the editors of the National Review published an opinion piece and a series of articles excoriating Donald Trump's campaign for the presidency. This is a notable shift in an invisible primary season that has largely seen major Republican Party figures stay silent on the race. But it's also coming extremely late. What might we expect this message to achieve?
The National Review is, of course, probably the most important and influential organ of modern American conservatism. Since its founding in 1955, it has been helping to determine just what it means to be a conservative and seeking to mold the Republican Party in that image. So it's not a small thing for the journal to single out one candidate—the frontrunner, no less—and declare that he is not a True Conservative and that it would be a disaster for the GOP to nominate him.
Yet Trump's flaws and incompatibilities with conservative politics have been obvious for a long time. Why did the National Review wait until now, just days before the Iowa Caucuses, when Trump already has substantial support and infrastructure in place? Wouldn't it have made sense to strike at him early, before he really got going?
The people backing Trump love that party regulars hate him. Their ire just makes it look more like he's shaking up the status quo.
Possibly. But back in the summer of 2015, the editors of the National Review likely looked upon Trump's campaign the way many of the rest of us did—as something likely to flame out shortly. After all, the 2012 presidential cycle saw nearly every Republican presidential candidate, including some who would have been damaging to conservatism, enjoy a brief moment as the poll leader, but those insurgencies proved ephemeral. It was entirely rational, looking back on history, to think that Trump's campaign would collapse under its own weight before long.
Besides, an attack by the National Review on Trump could actually have helped his campaign at that point by substantiating the view of him as a populist operating against the wishes of elite insiders. The people backing Trump love that party regulars hate him. Their ire just makes it look more like he's shaking up the status quo.
It's also worth reflecting on what this move by the periodical does not represent. The National Review is not the Republican Party, even if it is an important part of it. The bulk of party endorsers have stayed very quiet so far, and those few who have endorsed have been split among several candidates.
This is actually consistent with what we've seen in some recent presidential cycles. In 2004, a lot of Democratic insiders backed John Kerry shortly after Iowa when it finally became clear that Howard Dean was in decline. In 2008, many Democratic insiders held back from supporting anyone until they saw Barack Obama's impressive showing in Iowa. Those who had endorsed prior to Iowa had tended to lean toward Hillary Clinton, but many silent insiders seemed to be leaning toward Obama; they just wanted to see if he could convert his supporters' enthusiasm into actual votes. We may be seeing something like that this year, possibly with Republican insiders flocking to someone who is neither Donald Trump nor Ted Cruz shortly after Iowa.
Another thing the National Review issue isn't: an advertisement. The publication is very good at discussing just what sorts of ideas are and aren't consistent with conservatism and laying out a vision for public policy. But an op/ed aimed at intellectuals is not the same as an advertising campaign aimed at voters in Iowa and New Hampshire. It simply may not get through to the people who are pivotal at this point in the race. (Kevin Drum has some ideas on how to actually hit Trump with ads, something no one has been doing much of so far.)
And yet another thing this issue isn't: an endorsement. The magazine has simply identified one candidate it hates in a crowded field. That's something, but as I noted last week, you can't really stop somebody with nobody. Unless party elites can actually coordinate behind a candidate, the vote will be split many different ways, and that's an environment that's highly favorable to a candidate with great name recognition, a lot of money, and an impressive ability to grab headlines.
The National Review's recent move is quite notable, and impressive in its execution. But it's also quite tardy, even if it's justified in being so. Its editors are at least on record in saying that if their party does nominate Trump, it will do so without their consent. But it also seems that their arguments are falling a bit late to be terribly influential.