Can National Review Fairly Moderate a Debate?

When the Republican National Committee cancelled its debate agreement with NBC News in order to punish the network for the alleged bad behavior of its business news affiliate, CNBC, in the last GOP presidential debate, Reince Priebus went out of his way to make it clear NBC’s conservative “partner” in the previously scheduled debate would not be punished by exclusion:

While we are suspending our partnership with NBC News and its properties, we still fully intend to have a debate on that day, and will ensure that National Review remains part of it.

This “partnering” was part of the original RNC design for the debates, whereby various conservative movement entities would ensure that at least some of the debates were insulated from the ubiquitous, powerful “liberal media bias” that along with voter fraud and “free stuff” won the last two presidential elections for Barack Obama, doncha know.

But a problem has arisen with National Review‘s involvement in the February 26 debate, as noted by conservative journalist Byron York:

As the debate approaches, however, it’s likely that critics will raise questions about the participation of National Review, the venerable conservative publication, because of a number of comments made by its writers and editors about Donald Trump….

To put it mildly, a lot of NR writers don’t like Trump.

For example, on June 16, when Trump announced his candidacy, NR roving correspondent Kevin D. Williamson analyzed the event in a piece headlined “Witless Ape Rides Escalator.” Williamson called Trump “the most ridiculous buffoon with the worst taste since Caligula.” Also: ‘a reality-television grotesque with his plastic-surgery-disaster wife, grunting like a baboon about our country’s ‘brand’ and his own vast wealth.” And: “not just an ass, but an ass of exceptionally intense asininity.” And, of course, a “witless ape.”

In August, NR writer Charles C.W. Cooke called Trump a “virus.” “A plague is sweeping the land, gathering victims of all shapes and sizes and turning them into fools,” Cooke wrote. “Its name — for now — is Trumpism.” Cooke has also called Trump “a preposterous little trust-fund wuss” and “a thin-skinned performance artist.”

In July, NR’s “The Week” feature, written jointly by its staff, said of Trump’s candidacy: “‘Cometh the hour, cometh the reality-television star,'” or, as Stephen Sondheim put it, “‘Send in the clowns.'”

Also in July, NR senior editor Jonah Goldberg called Trump “a low-rent carnival barker.” In April, Goldberg hit Trump for hypocrisy in a Twitter exchange over attitudes toward women and added: “I think his hypocrisy is merely the Rose Window of the larger cathedral of Trumpian asininity here.” In January, Goldberg said on Fox News that Trump “has a long record of clownishly pretending he’ll run for president,” and, a moment later, called Trump “a bane of humanity.” (Goldberg later said — convincingly for those who follow him — that the “bane of humanity” part was “a bit tongue-in-cheek.”

Finally, in perhaps the most notorious hostile analysis of the presidential race so far, National Review editor Rich Lowry said on Fox News in September that rival candidate Carly Fiorina “cut [Trump’s] balls off with the precision of a surgeon” in the second Republican debate. Later, Lowry got into a heated Twitter exchange with Trump, saying, “I thought the Carly cut your balls off line might bother you, but you know it’s true …” and “A deal for you, Donald: if you apologize to Carly for your boorish insult, I might stop noting how she cut your b**** off.”

Seems you don’t have to be “liberal” to be “biased.”

In a fine brief history of the whole “liberal bias” meme among conservatives, TNR’s Jeet Heer notes the high irony of National Review–which arguably issued the very first complaints about the alleged ideological tilt of MSM organs like the New York Times–now become a target of similar complaints. “The snake has started eating its own tail,” say Heer.

But National Review‘s hatred of Trump, of course, emanates from its entirely correct analysis of his campaign as a enervating challenge to the very orthodox conservatism that NR has helped define and defend. That’s almost certainly why Fox News allowed (or encouraged) its moderators to turn the first debate into an extended (if very unsuccessful) effort to “take down” Trump. So you kind of get the sense these would-be commissars long for a situation where they could themselves “winnow the field” of all but the serious movement conservatives and then turn debates into a useful discussion of the fine points of supply-side economics, Christian nationalism, the needs of the Pentagon, and the relative capacity of various candidates to spit venom at Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

That’s the kind of “fair” debate conservatives seem to want: not one free of “bias,” but free of the wrong kind of bias, and not just from moderators but from candidates. It’s a hard thing to arrange.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.