I Bought Everything Advertised in National Review and All I Got Was This Bleak Odyssey Into the Rotten Heart of American Conservatism, America, and Also Myself

Sam Kriss

Before I started work on this enormous essay on the miserable fate of American conservatism, I don’t think I’d ever actually read National Review. Not one issue, not one article, not one word NR had ever published. NR is a very particular kind of publication for a very particular kind of person. It’s the bible of America’s conservative establishment. They run opera reviews. I don’t go to the opera. I am not a conservative. I’m not even American. It isn’t really for me. To be honest, I went into this knowing only two things about National Review. One was that it had helped launch the career of a California neurotic called Joan Didion. The other was its editor’s outburst to Gore Vidal on live television in 1968: “Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi, or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face, and you’ll stay plastered.” That was about it.

Sixteen thousand words later, I have still not read a single article ever published in National Review.

The story of NR goes something like this. The magazine was founded in 1955 by one William F. Buckley Jr., who’d had a brilliant idea: that he alone should get to decide the boundaries of acceptable, mainstream conservative thought. Anything he published would be part of the approved canon; everything he criticized would be completely beyond the pale. At the time, Buckley was 29 years old. As far as I can make out, his qualifications for the role of Ultimate Arbiter of the Bounds of American Conservatism were that he had a Yale degree, an affected mid-Atlantic accent, a smattering of Latin, and a very rich father. It was an act of such incredible untempered arrogance that I defy anyone not to admire it.

Buckley’s model of acceptable mainstream conservatism was a distinct one. He was, for instance, an upstanding paranoiac on the question of communism, which was to be resisted with secret police at home and bombs abroad. At the same time, he wasn’t interested in overt racism or anti-Semitism. He did pen a few early editorials justifying segregation and South African Apartheid but eventually thought better of it. Neo-Confederate nostalgia was tacky; racial doctrines were for hicks and boors; breathless speculation on the secret activities of the Jews was, as Ezra Pound late in life admitted, a “stupid, suburban prejudice.” Buckley did believe in religious social conservatism. Humble, hopeful families sharing wholesome values around the golden hearth. Men of firm principle. Women of willing duty. All the perverts and criminals snug and safe in jail. But he also believed in the abstract power of the unregulated free market, which would reshape nations and peoples according to its own strange and protean will. The disintegration of all values into exchange-value. A world in which there is nothing, not your tenderest hopes or most private passions, that is not wrenched open to the cold logic of exchange.

This package is, when you think about it, obviously insane. You can have your bucolic patriarchal idyll, or you can have your pitiless universal solvent reducing all human relations to mere utility. For what it’s worth, I would personally prefer to have neither. What you cannot have is both. But somehow, both ended up being the default position of American conservatism for much of the second half of the 20th century. They call it “fusionism.” And this was, more or less, Buckley’s doing. He was Reagan before Reagan and Goldwater before Goldwater. How did Buckley do it? Apparently, he was an incredibly witty, personable, persuasive columnist. (Having not read any of his columns, I wouldn’t know.) On Firing Line, his TV show, he was always erudite but appealingly louche, slouching and drawling. He played fair. He’d invite people like Noam Chomsky, Huey P. Newton, and Jesse Jackson for a civil, good-humored exchange of ideas. Whatever you thought of his politics, you had to respect his fundamental decency. As with much of the Buckley myth, I was mostly aware of this notion because of all the people scrambling to debunk it, usually via the “listen, you queer” incident. Still, according to his disciples, Buckley did what he did because he made the better case

I’m less sure, but it’s difficult to deny his achievement. In his final years, Buckley had some criticisms of the George W Bush administration: its debacle in Iraq, its willingness to throw federal money at social problems. He liked to say that Bush was “conservative, but not a conservative.” Still, this was a government in his image. Proudly committed to market capitalism, eager to throw America’s vast leaden military weight at any convenient cradle of civilization, and upholding the earthly glory of Christ. There was no other model out there. William F. Buckley Jr. died in 2008. He had won.

And then, very quickly, it all fell apart. 

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