THE BLOG
01/22/2016 01:42 pm ET Updated Jan 22, 2017

Can Kibitzers Stop Trump?

NYC 10016 is not in Iowa.

National Review editor Rich Lowry is now leading an effort urging conservatives to speak out against Donald Trump and oppose his candidacy. The "Against Trump" issue of National Review concludes: "Trump is a philosophically unmoored political opportunist who would trash the broad conservative ideological consensus within the GOP."

That statement may be true, but for many conservative voters it may be unintelligible, if not irrelevant. For them, Trump could still be the party nominee, and he might even be elected president. Fox News, Talk Radio, and the panoply of self-promoting conservative websites are not bastions of deep thought, and they have profoundly more impact than, say, National Review. Let me be bold. If NR editor Bill Buckley, more into ideas, and NR publisher Bill Rusher, more into power, were alive today, and I knew both men, WFB Jr. would argue against Trump and maybe tilt Rubio as acceptable and plausible, and Rusher would argue for Trump and maybe tilt Cruz as the preeminent conservative. Who knows what the magazine cover would look like?

I'm not writing to defend the conservative background of Donald Trump or his conservative credentials; that background and credentials do not exist. The conservatives who signed this Manifesto knew about Donald Trump and his history when he announced his candidacy. They did not take him seriously then, even as he advanced; nor could they unite behind a candidate. What we are seeing now is more than too little/too late. Their current approach may have the unintended effect of helping Trump.

Lowry is joined by major credible figures representing many strains within the conservative movement, among them: constitutional conservative Glenn Beck, former Ronald Reagan confidante and attorney general Ed Meese, neoconservatives Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard and John Podhoretz of Commentary, Christian right columnist Cal Thomas and also Russell Moore, one of the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention activist, and R.R. Reno, editor of the Catholic journal First Things; libertarian economist Tom Sowell and libertarian theorist David Boaz, supply-sider David McIntosh of the Club for Growth, and Tea Party activist Dana Loesch.

These are thoughtful people of integrity and intellect. Several are my friends. But most of them are not political strategists. I watched some of them last night as they floundered in frustration. They are no match for Donald Trump's most effective advocate -- Roger Stone -- who appeared on the same show. Roger speaks in consecutive, sharply honed sound bites geared expressly to the Republican primary electorate.

Based on my interviews with long-time movement conservative voters (for example, a pro-life protégé of icon Phyllis Schlafly) who enthusiastically support Donald Trump and will vote for him in Iowa or New Hampshire or maybe other states, they won't budge in response to this coalition composed mainly of conservative theorists and writers. The rebellious voter antagonism toward Mitch McConnell or John Boehner will now transfer to these apparently presumptuous conservatives who, the reasoning goes, must feel threatened by Trump and therefore want to bring him down. And what about the masses of self-described conservative voters who don't really understand the philosophical basis for, the values of, American conservatism? They could care less about this Conservative Manifesto. They remain angry and Trump is their outlet. Something else (what?) must happen for this Conservative Manifesto to lead to Trump's collapse. Trump voters are not offended by Mr. Trump's seeming incivility and supposed bad manners; what seems to be his obnoxiousness and insults represent to them understated responses to the disintegration of the middle class here and, as Trump would say, "they're beheading people" abroad. Indeed, this conservative coalition against Trump will effectively validate him: in the primary elections, as The Rebel against The Establishment (even the Conservative Establishment); in the general election, if he is the nominee, as The Independent not part of the right wing and thus socially acceptable to disaffected blue collar Democrats or even disillusioned African-American voters.

The "broad conservative ideological consensus" is already shattered. Does anyone think that Sarah Palin read Russell Kirk? Of course she would endorse Trump. And how can you explain Trump's evangelical support? Because he is a Presbyterian? This week Donald Trump's appearance at Liberty University and then at Tulsa's Oral Roberts University show that when it comes to Iowa, Trump gets it.

Ben Carson may be the only surgeon running, but Donald Trump is the surgical politician. He shows the triumph of style over substance, and he is technically adept. Observe that he precisely calibrates each news cycle. Thus, for days he raised to front and center whether Ted Cruz, his principal competitor, can be president, lee-gull-lee. Accordingly, The Donald (a) elevated the matter from obscurity; (b) threw Cruz off his stride; and (c) put Cruz on the defensive.

Trump operates at the margin, without BC (beltway consultants). Surgically, he calculated: Raise Doubt, enough to win a close election in Iowa. If Cruz is constitutionally flawed, why invest your vote in him? Much happens on the Iowa ground, sometimes frosty. Trump's gambit failed in the Talk Radio Primary, e.g., Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, and even Sean Hannity. And among South Carolina Republicans, some booed his attacks on Cruz, so he toned it down, for a couple of days.

Where all this ends, nobody knows for certain, but consider this sequence:

  • (1) Ted Cruz attacked Trump for his "New York values." It's always risky to attack a region, a state, a city. At best, Cruz figured that New York is a proxy for what Red State Republicans and Iowa social conservatives dislike. His assumption seemed a no-brainer. And he doesn't see New York in his general election calculus.
  • (2) Indeed, perhaps the high IQ Ted Cruz had a plan, because he then unveiled a new ad in Iowa. It features a Trump interview from 1999 with Tim Russert on Meet the Press. Trump: "I'm very pro-choice...it may be a little bit of my New York background... I live in New York City, there's a tremendous movement to allow gay marriage. It's just something too premature for me to comment on... [RE: gays in the military] ...It's not something that would disturb me. I mean, hey, I've lived in New York City and Manhattan all my life. My views are a little bit different than if I lived in Iowa, perhaps."
  • (3) Trump has said that Cuba does not produce evangelicals. In last week's debate Cruz said New York does not produce conservatives. Before the words came out of his mouth, I knew that Trump would say that New York City produced William F. Buckley, Jr. A long time ago, I helped elect Bill's brother, New York State's conservative U.S. Senator James L. Buckley. And as the saying goes, "I knew Bill Buckley. And Donald, you're no Bill Buckley." All this is esoteric for Trump voters.
  • (4) Possibly the Cruz ad may not penetrate Trump Teflon, even among Iowa evangelicals. Liberty College president Jerry Falwell Jr. and many of its students gave Trump glowing reviews. For some students, Trump's can-do leadership, such as it is, transcends (or Trumps) Christian values. "Maybe he needs to be forgiven...Possibly he has evolved...Who are we to judge, we all sinners... He says Christians are under attack...and we will say Merry Christmas again...We're not electing a Sunday school teacher." Will Iowans in their caucuses also prefer a tough-guy hedonist?
  • (5) Meanwhile, Trump asserts Cruz has an integrity deficit. Why did Cruz not renounce Canadian citizenship until 2014? How could he not properly report his loan from Goldman Sachs in 2010? The Cruz explanations almost don't matter, at this point. Trump has planted the seeds of doubt, and voters feel they know Trump better than they know Cruz.
Because of 9/11, Rudy Giuliani became "America's mayor"; but his presidential campaign failed. Criticized for her Wall Street money, Hillary invokes 9/11; but she is implausible. In last week's debate Trump recalled New York heroism in 9/11 as the stuff of "New York values"; he won the exchange with Cruz.

"I've never used that phrase," volunteered the seemingly gracious Marco Rubio. "I think we're all Americans. I'm campaigning on behalf of American values. And I don't seek to divide people against each other." Perhaps the politically incorrect Cruz should have said "liberal New York values" or "liberal elitists." It's sort of like not condemning all Muslims; instead say, "radical Islam" or "radical Islamic terrorism."

Speaking of religion, "America's rabbi" Schmuley Boteach reports that MSNBC asked if he was offended as a Jew by Ted Cruz's New York comment. Rabbi Boteach was offended -- certainly not by Cruz, but by the accusation that Cruz is anti-Semitic, a charge the rabbi called "the stupidest, most disgusting thing I've ever heard."

In all this obfuscation, the waters are quite muddy, and the beneficiary among conservative voters in the Iowa primary, and maybe beyond, is Trump, not Cruz. Here's a story about confusion: When I was a young man, I helped my friend David Keene, who also was a young man then, run for the State Legislature in Wisconsin. He was national chairman of the conservative youth organization, Young Americans for Freedom, in its glory days. David lost the legislative election in part because some rural, conservative voters thought "Young Americans for Freedom" sounded subversive. Their odd perception had turned reality on its head.

Donald Trump now will turn the tables. You can bet Mr. Trump will switch the dialogue back to the subject of New York, where -- he will say -- his enemies in The Establishment are based. Many of his supporters In Iowa and other states will instantly see a conspiracy of insiders, perhaps in this case, conservative power brokers presumably threatened by Trump's independence. Voter support for Trump is partly a protest vote against the powerful. And when it comes to magazines, plenty of Iowa voters are more familiar with People than National Review.

Iowa voters who are not fond of New York will figure this out, or Trump will remind them:

National Review is in midtown Manhattan, as in New York City. That's zip code 10016, to be exact.

A slightly different version posted earlier;
http://spectator.org/articles/65272/can-kibitzers-stop-trump