In assessing the dawn of the Trump era, there are plots. There are subplots. And there are sub-subplots. Among the more intriguing of those sub-subplots is the fate of the conservative commentariat under a Republican president who is not conservative and whom most right-leaning pundits fulminated against during the past year and a half.
President Trump has the Fox News Channel, of course. I caught just enough Friday night to see Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson smirking and backslapping over their guy’s rise to power. Some post-Roger Ailes chaos aside, the enduring popularity of Fox may prove to be more than enough to offset the influence of conservatives who are appalled at the prospect of a president who exudes demagoguery as well as several varieties of nationalism, including economic and white.
Other than Fox, though, Trump has received little support from conservatives. As one of those conservatives, Peggy Noonan, put it in The Wall Street Journal Friday evening:
The mainstream legacy media oppose him, even hate him, and will not let up. The columnists, thinkers and magazines of the right were mostly NeverTrump; some came reluctantly to support him. His party is split or splitting. The new president has gradations of sympathy, respect or support from exactly one cable news channel, and some websites.
Thus in scanning the tubes this morning for conservative commentary after the “American Carnage” inaugural address (fact-checked and annotated by NPR), I found more anti-Trump material than I did pro-Trump.
I’ll start with George Will, a Ronald Reagan acolyte who actually quit the Republican Party last summer over its embrace of Trump. Writing for National Review (itself a hotbed of #NeverTrump conservatism), Will began, “Twenty minutes into his presidency, Donald Trump, who is always claiming to have made, or to be about to make, astonishing history, had done so. Living down to expectations, he had delivered the most dreadful inaugural address in history.”
Next up: Jennifer Rubin, a conservative columnist and blogger for The Washington Post who over the past year emerged as one of Trump’s fiercest critics. “Addressing a shockingly sparse crowd,” she wrote, “he painted a picture of a hellish America that can only be restored by turning inward, deciding the world is a burden and our allies are thieves.”
Taking a similar perspective was that most establishment of establishment conservatives, David Brooks of The New York Times, who wrote before the inauguration: “We’ve never had a major national leader as professionally unprepared, intellectually ill informed, morally compromised and temperamentally unfit as the man taking the oath on Friday. So let’s not lessen the shock factor that should reverberate across this extraordinary moment.”
Ditto David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, previewed Trump’s speech with this cheery observation in The Atlantic:
With full advance notice, and despite the failure to gain a plurality of the nation’s vote, the United States will soon inaugurate someone who owes his office in some large part to a hostile foreign intelligence operation. Who is, above and beyond that, a person whose character that leaves him unqualified to hold the presidency, and threatens the country with an impending sequence of financial and espionage scandals — a constitutional crisis on two legs.
Some conservatives were more restrained. Noonan supplied barely a hint of what she thinks of our new president. National Review editor Rich Lowry offered limited praise for Trump’s “incredibly optimistic address.” (Rubin, Will, and I were watching the same speech; Lowry may have switched to a different channel.) A sanguine Stephen Hayes of The Weekly Standard expressed the hope that if Trump veers too sharply from conservative orthodoxy, the Republican Congress will slap him down.
So who are Trump’s defenders outside of Fox News? Marc Thiessen seemed positively jovial in The Washington Post, writing, “This morning, as I watch Donald Trump standing on the steps of the Capitol taking the oath of office as the next president of the United States, one thought will be going through my mind: There, but for the grace of God, goes Hillary Rodham Clinton.” Former Mitt Romney campaign manager Eric Fehrnstrom, a Boston Globe columnist, praised Trump’s “energy” and “strong personality.” John Hinderaker of the hard-right Power Line Blog bubbled with enthusiasm, opening with this:
Donald Trump’s inaugural address was historic. Not because it was good, although it was very good indeed. But because it didn’t give an inch. Trump’s message to the world was: if you thought I wasn’t serious; if you thought I might go native; if you thought the weight of responsibility might force me to accept the conventional wisdom; forget it. I meant every word I’ve been saying for the last two years.
New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who aspires to thoughtful conservatism and occasionally succeeds, offered a useful if incomplete take, writing that Trump’s speech — and his overall appeal — veers between “fascism” and “pan-ethnic nationalism, a right-wing politics of solidarity.” Douthat also suspects that Trump won’t be able to reconcile his populism with the more traditional conservatism of congressional Republicans.
Bonus: Douthat becomes the first pundit of any ideological stripe to compare Trump to Jimmy Carter. If you had that in your drinking game, well, have a cold one on Ross.