On Friday, National Review published a scathing editorial in opposition to Donald Trump as the Republican candidate for President, followed by the statements of 22 prominent conservatives ranging from neocons like Bill Kristol, to social conservatives like Cal Thomas and Michael Medved, to radio/television personalities like Glenn Beck. The editorial slammed Trump as “a philosophically unmoored political opportunist who would trash the broad conservative ideological consensus within the GOP in favor of a free-floating populism with strong-man overtones.”
True to pugnacious form, Trump fired back, asserting that “the late, great William F. Buckley would have been ashamed of what happened to his prize.” But would he?
His appointment as a United Nations delegate by President Nixon and his public appearances with Ronald Reagan notwithstanding, Buckley and his magazine did not sacrifice conservative principles for what played well in the polls. National Review often broke ranks with the GOP, and accepted the penalty of cancelled subscriptions.
To take an early example, when Ayn Rand and her Objectivist philosophy were in vogue in the 1950s, the magazine published an attack on it by Whittaker Chambers, one of the founding members of the postwar conservative movement (and chief witness against Soviet spy Alger Hiss). Writing of Rand’s bestsellers The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), Chambers said he regarded her elevation of free-market capitalism to a religion as a variant of the “godless materialism” preached by the Soviets. National Review readers denounced Chambers, calling him much more of a threat as a Christian conservative than he ever was when he shared a spy cell with Hiss. But Buckley defended Chambers, asserting that Rand’s atheism was inimical to conservatism.
In 1962, Buckley took on the John Birch Society, an ultra-Right group headed by Joseph Welch, who accused President Eisenhower of being a “conscious agent of the communist conspiracy.” In doing so, Buckley antagonized an organization at the peak of its influence. The society then had 100,000 members (including movie star John Wayne), all of whom voted GOP. Nevertheless, he blasted the Birchers as “far removed from common sense” and urged Republicans to distance themselves from the group.
He tried to sway Republicans to his arguments, but when it was best to break ranks with them, that is what he did. In 1974, at the height of Watergate, when figures like California Governor Ronald Reagan and Senator Barry Goldwater (R-AZ) were reluctantly defending President Nixon (Goldwater famously said that “every time he gets his ass in a sling he comes to us”), Buckley condemned Nixon’s shenanigans, even characterizing the President’s infamous “Enemies’ List” as the “work of a fascist.”
Buckley continued to buck his party toward the end of his life. He asserted his belief that the George W. Bush presidency would be a disaster for the conservative movement, this at a time when the President was popular. Opposing the Iraq War to the consternation of the GOP, he criticized Bush’s performance, declaring: “If you have a European prime minister who experienced what we’ve experienced it would be expected that he would retire or resign.” He even attacked the neoconservatives, who were the prime supporters of the war. Although he called them “bright, informed and idealistic,” he deplored their dragging America into a failed policy that was undoing the conservative movement.
In short, Buckley’s desire to protect the conservative movement he founded not infrequently put him at loggerheads with the Republican Party. His priority was what was best for the movement, and the country. Thus when Donald Trump confidently asserts that Buckley would have been ashamed of his magazine’s repudiating the Trump candidacy, he misfires. They are in fact merely following in Buckley’s footsteps. They are prioritizing conservatism over popularity.