Trump’s Intellectuals and The Great Moving Right Show

R. R. Reno's recent missives at First Things illustrate the way that conservative intellectuals function to open ideological and political space for Trump. Despite the best efforts of Never Trumpers, Trump's intellectuals are increasingly shaping the future of American conservatism.
The obtuse, embarrassing commentary on the coronavirus pandemic offered by First Things editor R.R. Reno over the past few weeks has received a deserved thrashing from a wide range of critics. There’s no need to fully rehearse his attempts to “question” the U.S. response to the virus’s spread, nor to describe in detail his fever dream-like “diaries,” which feature him wandering around New York City’s East Side and wondering why so many are so worried. It’s obviously deranged to describe the measures taken so far as “an ill-conceived crusade against human finitude and the dolorous reality of death.” 

Most of the responses generated by Reno’s missives have understandably focused on showing that he’s wrong to be so complacent in the face of mass suffering. A number of them have emphasized the strangeness of an ostensibly “pro-life” writer shrugging at a wave of widespread death. Others, including Reno’s fellow conservatives, have argued that he’s simply wrong as a matter of epidemiology—that the pandemic is a public-health crisis, not a philosophical puzzle or occasion for contrarian moralizing.

Those with a better grasp of history than Reno also have noted his ignorant claims about how the United States responded to the 1918 influenza epidemic; unlike we secular, scared contemporary Americans, that earlier generation “did not want to live under Satan’s rule, not even for a season.” Alas for Reno, newspapers existed back then, so there’s ample record of many churches temporarily closing, football games being canceled, and social distancing being practiced—the precise opposite of what he asserted.

But the sorry episode is more than an example of Reno being dangerously wrong. After all, that’s no surprise. His pandemic polemics also exemplify the way right-wing intellectuals, and Reno especially, have operated during Donald Trump’s campaign and presidency.

Reno started out opposing Trump, even contributing to National Review’s famously ineffective “Against Trump” issue. He compared the then-candidate to “South American populist demagogues” and warned against going “Trumpster diving.” But that’s exactly what Reno ended up doing, endorsing Trump for president ahead of the general election and embracing the authoritarian nationalism he represents.

Take, for example, an interview Reno gave with the Atlantic’s Emma Green in January 2017, around the time of Trump’s inauguration. At one point she asked him about the Muslims and immigrants who might be concerned about their fate under President Trump, pointing to specific claims made by Trump and his surrogates. Reno replied, “I can never get my hands around what the concrete worry is. Mass deportations? That seems so far from anything that’s possible; it strikes me as an irrational worry.”

That kind of response points to one aspect of how Reno has maneuvered during the Trump presidency—pretending as if concerns about what Trump might do are just sentimental progressives once again clutching their pearls. As with the coronavirus, fear over what a grotesquely immoral and exceedingly incompetent president might do (or not do in the case of the pandemic) is waved away. Outrageous proposals, like the border wall that Trump promised Mexico would pay for, are similarly dismissed. “I never took the wall thing seriously. I took it as a dramatic symbol for taking control of our immigration,” Reno said.

Later in the interview, however, Reno made another revealing comment. During an exchange in which he discussed the dangers of so many Latin American invaders making their way to the United States, he asked if any Democrats backed any kind of restrictions on who could come to the here. This is what followed:


Green: Well, the Obama administration has deported more people than the George W. Bush administration did, or any other president.

Reno: But do they have a public policy on it? When you’re voting, public positions make a difference. If you’re concerned that we’re moving toward a post-national, globalist future where there are no borders—which is my concern—you’re going to vote for the candidate who is opposed to that future.

I hope Trump implements immigration policies in a humane way, and I’ll certainly be a spokesman against him if he doesn’t.

Of course, Reno has not spoken out against Trump’s deeply cruel immigration policies, which include separating families and ripping children from their parents arms to keep them in cages, while also depriving detained immigrants and would-be refugees of even basic medical care and other necessities. (That, apparently, is not as “demonic” as trying to keep hospitals from being overwhelmed during a pandemic.) 

There’s at least one more answer Reno gave to Green that needs to be underscored, again involving immigration:


Green: But what’s the argument against people from Nicaragua being able to come here, escape poverty and violence, and make a better life?

Reno: Well, how many?

Green: I guess that’s up to you. What’s your ideal level of legal immigration?

Reno: That’s a policy argument. I’m not sure I have any dog in that fight. We are a nation that has always had immigration—no one is arguing that we should not have immigrants.

The casual reader might have thought, given how exercised Reno was about immigration, that he’d taken the time to inform himself about different policy options when it comes to that issue. But that’s not the case—it turns out that he seems to know absolutely nothing about immigration policy, or have any concrete proposals for how our immigration system might be “reformed.” 

This is how right-wing intellectuals continue to legitimate Trump—and do the propaganda work that props him up. They pretend that his critics are hysterical, dismiss Trump’s more extravagantly obscene words and deeds, and then refuse to speak against him when he does the very things people like Reno suggested he wouldn’t. They mostly keep quiet about Trump’s manifest unfitness for high office, engaging what he does at a symbolic level—almost anything can be tolerated if it’s treated only as just one part of a cosmic battle against progressive elites who are doing Satan’s bidding. This clears political and ideological space for Trump, signaling to those who might be uncomfortable with him that whatever their hesitations might be, they should fear “the left” even more.

This pattern has repeated itself again and again, with Reno’s response to the coronavirus pandemic being just the latest example. He began by jeering at the Satanic forces that have possessed governments around the world who are trying to protect their people from mass sickness and death, treating the issue at such an abstract level that his comments no longer had anything to do with material reality. He doesn’t directly endorse Trump’s actions, but nor does he criticize Trump for his obvious failures and lies as the pandemic bore down upon us, and has not yet offered any of his own substantive recommendations for how to better handle the crisis.

This is a way of telling his readers: don’t think too hard about the two months Trump frittered away when he could have prepared for the pandemic; don’t pay too close attention to the hospitals quickly running out of ventilators; don’t worry about those exploiting the virus to already reap fortunes from other people’s suffering. 

The Trumpist intellectual faces an admittedly difficult task, figuring out how to denigrate whatever “elites” (in the case of COVID, those who have devoted their lives to public health) claim about an issue, while also taking into account the ever-shifting, uninformed blather of Trump. Reno, given his modest talents as a political pundit, has not fared well in this juggling act. He’s mostly shown his willingness to defend the very worst elements in our political life as long as they claim common cause against “globalist” elites. Such anti-anti-Trumpism always was pathetic, but now he’s actually willing to sacrifice the lives of our families, neighbors, and friends on the altar of his contrarianism.

But the essential question to ask about Reno’s efforts is not, “What does he actually believe about responding to pandemics?” That information might be useful, but it’s incidental to his aims. Instead, the question to ask is, “What is he giving himself and others permission to defend or tolerate?” The answer is almost always the willful, reckless cruelty that Trump inflicts on so many, especially the poor and vulnerable. This is “how it happens here.” The feeble band of Never Trump conservatives dwindles, while those who occupy right-wing institutions fall in line behind an increasingly far-right leader.

One thing this pandemic has not disrupted is the ongoing degeneration of conservative intellectuals as they serve the forces of reaction, providing intellectual scaffolding for the right’s slump towards Trumpism. Reno is fast becoming the rule, rather than the exception, for how conservatives justify the way material power is exercised by far-right politicians.



Matthew Sitman is the associate editor of Commonweal, and co-host of the Know Your Enemy podcast. You can follow him on Twitter at @matthewsitman.





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