What’s the Point of the Bulwark?

Call it the Linus van Pelt blanket narrative. As soon as it seemed likely that Donald Trump would win the Republican presidential nomination, conservative intellectuals, GOP politicians, and the elite liberal commentators who dine with them wrapped themselves in a consoling narrative: Donald Trump “led a revolt” and ”took over” the Republican Party. His “base,” therefore, is distinct and separate from past Republican constituencies—and, as such, should be subjected to deep anthropological study by the national newspapers, pronto!

This “Mr. Magoo” view of history is cozy for conservatives. It insists that Trump was an unforeseeable calamity whose politics are wholly different from the traditional GOP’s, and that “principled” Republicans should be held in a tragic light, as men of character who are now victims of history’s cruel inequities.

The recent death of the Weekly Standard, the conservative intellectual flagship, added a touch of gravitas to this melodrama, despite its death being a remarkably accurate microcosm of the 2016 election: the magazine’s editors and writers went one way (anti-Trump), but its subscribers—and more importantly, the billionaire who owned it—went the other.

No other conservative publication has maintained a uniformly anti-Trump line. The National Review, which in 2016 published an anti-endorsement issue dedicated to castigating Trump, has since made a point of hosting pro-Trump commentators. Refusing to follow suit, a handful of former Standard writers and editors, under the leadership of Bill Kristol and Charlie Sykes, have regrouped at a new online publication, the Bulwark.

The Bulwark’s mission, as Sykes told the Atlantic‘s McKay Coppins, is to name and shame the “specific class of ‘grifters and trolls’—those opportunistic Trump enablers who still get invited on Meet the Press and write for prestigious newspapers.” The website’s motto—”Conservatism conserved”—is as stolid as its logo, the silhouette of a brig. (The logo is remarkably similar to the New Republic‘s.) So far, the site has followed through on its promise, albeit against easy targets like Laura Ingraham, Tomi Lahren, Steve King, and others. It also maintains meticulous lists of merit (e.g. Republicans who oppose Trump’s tinpot emergency declaration) and demerit (e.g. conservatives who cheered on Trump’s self-checkmating government shutdown strategy).

In the site’s founding manifesto, Sykes quotes that radical socialist George Orwell: “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” That he quotes that brave man immediately after quoting Ronald Reagan—and without a hint of embarrassment!—is the kind of foul that Standard readers were regularly forced to endure.

Doubly ironic, the Bulwark appears to insist upon the Linus van Pelt premise, which seems to me a flat out refusal to see what’s in front of their noses. “This sounds naive, but I quite frankly feel they [conservative Trump enablers] know better,” Sykes told Coppins. “And at certain points of moral clarity, I could see them coming back to the faith of their fathers.”

But what faith is that, exactly? And how have any of the Bulwark’s targets deviated from what they always plainly were? Steve King was always a racist who, until the last two years, was completely welcome among conservatives. Laura Ingraham was always a demagogue, but a useful and celebrated one when she was turning out votes for conservative Republicans.

Taking a slightly longer view, the Bulwark is defending an ideology that itself used to be on the fringes of American politics and was mainstreamed by a kooky presidential candidate who rode a wave of racist, paranoid resentment to the 1964 Republican nomination. Is it not interesting that William F. Buckley, the intellectual pope of conservatism, consistently defended white supremacy, including apartheid South Africa? Far from “excommunicating” them, he tried his best not to alienate the John Birch Society, which bought subscriptions to his small conservative magazine. Is it perhaps the case that it wasn’t the arcane theology of supply-side economics that drove turnout for Ronald Reagan in 1980, but rather his cry of “states’ rights” at the Neshoba County Fair and his insinuations that the real racism to worry about is “reverse” racism?

Did Trump and his supporters’ radical hatred of the media come out of nowhere, or was it weaned on a steady quarter-century-long diet of Fox News? And isn’t it interesting that Mitt Romney, the man the Bulwark wants to lead a “principled” conservative opposition to Donald Trump, is the same Mitt Romney who, in 2012, concluded that he had no chance at winning the presidency as a Republican without getting the endorsement of Donald Trump, then the crier-in-chief for birther conspiracy theorists?

The Bulwark appears resistant to such introspection. It is indeed the latest custodian of an empty ideology that was never popular and was always dependent on the racists, grifters, demagogues and hucksters that “principled” conservatives now claim to oppose.

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Joshua Alvarez

Joshua Alvarez is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal. He edits syndicated opinion columns at the Washington Post, and can be reached at joshuaalvarezmail@gmail.com.