Last week The Atlantic announced the addition of a collection of “Ideas” columnists, including National Review blogger, Kevin Williamson. Complaints about Williamson have focused on a few of his particularly outrageous comments over the years, like his support for hanging abortion doctors, ugly racial stereotypes, and his knuckle-dragging comments on trans activists. Focusing on these aspects of his portfolio overshadows the meaning of this awkward hire.
Along with The New Yorker, The Atlantic carries a sterling tradition of delivering some of the best essay writing in the English language. What’s unsettling about Williamson’s placement there is not that he holds extreme opinions. In fact, Williamson is so relatively moderate that he brings with him only a small Republican following. His hiring at The Atlantic is not so much a story about declining standards as a testament to the intellectual bankruptcy of the right. There are no smart, reasoned voices that retain any influence among Republicans. Williamson is the best available bad hire. To expose their audience to authentic conservative voices, The Atlantic should have chosen someone much worse.
Williamson’s shtick is writing provocatively contrarian material. Sometimes that means being ugly or snarky, but it rarely approaches anything resembling insight. Once you’ve calculated the angle his work gets boring, but his work is the closest you’ll get to thoughtful writing on the right. George Will, Jennifer Rubin, David Brooks, Kathleen Parker, Josh Barro, Bill Kristol, and David Frum have either openly left the GOP, or lost any influence in that realm. If you have a college education, an ability to resist the ALLCAPS, and you don’t hear the audible voice of Jesus Christ, you’re not a Republican anymore.
The problem facing editors looking to showcase reasoned political voices with influence on the right is that there aren’t any. In fact, there haven’t been any reasoned voices guided conservatives for more than a decade. There is nothing left of the Republican Party but the conservative movement, and there is nothing left of the conservative movement but white tribal rage.
Liberal thinkers are wrangling with universal health care, the implications of automation in the labor market, the possibility of gun insurance, carbon taxation, a universal basic income, and the nuanced role of free speech in an atmosphere of racial injustice. Meanwhile, Republicans’ most interesting “ideas” are arming teachers, harassing immigrants, banning abortion, and vote suppression. There is no fact-based, intelligent policy debate on the right.
It wasn’t that long ago that Milton Friedman designed conservative alternatives for universal health care, the safety net, pollution control, and other complex problems. It wasn’t that long ago that William F. Buckley sat down to have interesting, intelligent exchanges with figures like Gore Vidal, using complete sentences and three-dollar words. There was once a credible intellectual establishment on the right that made meaningful contributions to public policy.
Now Republicans have Mike Huckabee and Ben Carson, folksy figures devoid of ideas who earn extra income from scams aimed at their cult followers. They have Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter and Tucker Carlson. Republicans have bungling keystone crooks like Devin Nunes, and cynical manipulators like Mitch McConnell. The smartest, least-frightening people remaining in the conservative movement are the grifters.
The death of ideas on the right is an inconvenient fact with dangerous implications. Without a partner in reasoned debate, politics descends into a zero-sum game in which neither side retains any incentive toward compromise. Our reluctance to acknowledge this condition is not a dreamy-eyed virtue, but a failure of nerve. Until someone decides to challenge the GOP’s white nationalist agenda from the inside, there’s nothing on that side to engage. Liberals looking for intellectual argument on the issues of the day have no one to debate but themselves. In this setting, a quest for thoughtful engagement is worse than a waste of time, it’s a dangerous delusion.
Opinion content isn’t interesting without diversity. If The Atlantic doesn’t hire a guy like Williamson, then who should they hire? Hugh Hewitt is now posting praise of Donald Trump in small words at the Washington Post. Bret Stephens is writing for the New York Times. Major outlets have already dug deep into the slush pile to stock their pages with conservative commentators they can mostly trust not to drop N-bombs on Twitter. As a credible conservative who retains a modest right wing following, Williamson is probably the safest choice for The Atlantic. That doesn’t make it a good idea to hire him.
There is an alternative. If you have to give the right a forum, do it honestly. Pick figures like Ben Shapiro, Kurt Schlichter or Chuck Johnson, honest trolls with a significant following who dare to own the Republican agenda in all its white nationalist paranoia. They’ll stink up your magazine with falsehoods, slander and bigotry, but at least your audience will be seeing authentic conservative narratives, and understanding their enemy.
The problem with The Atlantic hiring Williamson is not that he lacks qualifications or insight, but that he isn’t enough of a troll to honestly represent Republican views. He isn’t even a Republican anymore. If their intent is to present their readers with conservative voices, The Atlantic should pick real ones in all their ranting, paranoid glory, not relatively house-broken figures like Williamson.