The Ghost of William F. Buckley

jonah goldberg
Jonah Goldberg and several of his associates from National Review and the Standard launched The Dispatch in 2019. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Tina Nguyen
September 28, 2022

Back in college, during my days as a fledgling right-leaning reporter, I applied for an internship at National Review, the flagship magazine of the conservative movement. At the time, National Review Online was run by Jonah Goldberg, and as a digital native obsessed with the early internet, “The Corner”—NRO’s daily blog, which featured musings from across the masthead—was my first interaction with the work of the decades-old magazine, and the conservative movement in general. I was obsessed with Rich Lowry and Kathryn Jean Lopez, pored over William F. Buckley’s past work, and I even managed to get a satirical video of mine posted on the site in 2010. In my internship application, I described the magazine as a “roadmap of the right” and an example of what conservatism can do at its best: not just stand athwart history yelling stop, but offer thoughtful political alternatives when the march of progress occasionally heads over a cliff.

In the decade-plus since then, of course, the world has changed drastically, and the “conservative” movement with it. National Review now competes with a multiplying number of right-wing media publications that push hyperpartisan content (Breitbart, The Daily Caller) and conspiracy theories (Gateway Pundit, Infowars), along with a slew of independent writers and Substackers who’ve gone solo (Bari Weiss, Andrew Sullivan) and disaffected liberals who’ve veered into a right-wing audience (Glenn Greenwald, Joe Rogan). The Weekly Standard shut down and was partially reincarnated as the staunchly anti-Trump site The Bulwark. National Review itself, after publishing a major 2015 editorial declaring the magazine “Against Trump,” also divided into pro- and anti-Trump factions. Today, the “road map of the right” is largely dictated by social media posts and memes, not to mention the mercurial whims of one Donald J. Trump.

But Goldberg never deviated from the mission. In 2019, Goldberg and several of his associates from National Review and the Standard launched The Dispatch, a subscription media site combining rigorous reporting with center-right commentary. As editor-in-chief, Goldberg has built the site into a powerhouse that reflects the ethos of those early days of right-wing magazine journalism: thoughtful, rigorous and relatively free of partisan electioneering. With 27 employees and counting, more than 200,000 free subscribers, and 40,000 paid subscribers, The Dispatch is now one of the top revenue-generating publications on Substack.

The Dispatch has been so successful, in fact, that it’s leaving Substack next month to build out its own web presence. “It was absolutely the right decision to partner with them when we launched,” Goldberg told me, saying he was “grateful” for the partnership. “But our interests diverged and we’ve decided their model doesn’t work for what we’re trying to do as a full-fledged, independent, media company. We wish them nothing but the best.”

Goldberg also agreed to share his thoughts over the phone about the various political and media trends animating the right, and boy did he deliver. Our conversation, below, has been edited for length and clarity.

Tina Nguyen: Let’s talk about Ron DeSantis. There was a hot second where he was positioned as the more tolerable, less crazy Trump who could return the G.O.P. to a tenuous status quo and still speak MAGA at the same time. What do you make of the “DeSantasy”? Does it still hold after he publicly transported several dozen illegal immigrants to Martha’s Vineyard to make a political point?

I wouldn’t call it a fantasy, I would call it flawed. Look, I’m not a huge fan of Ron DeSantis. I think what he did with Martha’s Vineyard was a political stunt and not really defensible, even though I think he’s got an underlying good point to make about immigration, as does Greg Abbott, another guy I’m not a huge fan of. But I think there are a lot of people—call them resistance liberals or Never Trump conservatives or whatever—in this sort of anti-Trump universe who I think have gotten themselves into a conceptual and rhetorical cul-de-sac, insofar as they want to argue that DeSantis is as bad as Trump or worse than Trump, or would be a continuation of Trump. 

But I think that there’s a real problem with that, both tactically and conceptually. Because tactically, it’s very much like Joe Biden’s effort to proclaim that run-of-the-mill conservatism or standard Republican positions are MAGA. First of all, they’re not. But when you do that, it lets a lot of people write all of this off as partisan hysteria. I’m sure it wasn’t him who wrote it, but Biden had this line in one of his official tweets, where he was talking about “MAGA thinks that billionaires made this country. Working people did,” or something like that. Basically, this was a rehash of the talking points against Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney in 2012. The more you try to blur the lines between the crazy MAGA stuff and conventional Republican policies and positions, the more a lot of Republicans are just going to write this off and say, “Oh, you guys said this stuff about Reagan, you said this stuff about Bush and Romney, and now you’re saying it about Trump. It’s just partisan bullshit.” 

And I think that’s a really dangerous thing to do… Democrats may think anybody to their right is a MAGA Republican. Most run-of-the-mill Republicans don’t think that way. They think the MAGA guys are Flynn and Bannon, and these other buffoons and demagogues. And they think that the Republicans they want to vote for are normal Republicans. So they get permission to vote for normal Republicans, by the Biden campaign’s use of the MAGA stuff. 

DeSantis is not Trump. I honestly and sincerely think that, and I have the scars to prove that I’ve been consistent on this. But Trump is a unique problem. In Trump, the man is the problem. He is unfit to be a president in ways that Ron DeSantis is not unfit. You can say that DeSantis believes all sorts of terrible things, and that his version of politics is gross. But it’s sort of like what P.J. O’Rourke said about Hillary Clinton in 2016: Hillary Clinton was awful, but within normal parameters; Donald Trump was awful, but outside of normal parameters. I think that’s a distinction that can be made about DeSantis that liberals and anti-Trump people should keep in mind there. Like, Steve Schmidt recently said, “I’m being totally serious, but I think that DeSantis would not hesitate to murder political opponents.” That kind of talk does not actually achieve any of the political or strategic ends that people want to make. 

As much as I would have criticisms for Ron DeSantis, it would be a great and good thing for this country if DeSantis beat Trump in the primaries. And I just don’t think you can plug and play all the rhetoric about Trump and just attach it to the next Republican you don’t like. It’s a bad tactic and it’s not correct analytically.

Would you extend that analytic criticism to the way that Democrats, and some media outlets, seem to be pinning their hopes on the possibility that Trump’s legal woes will dislodge his hold on the party?

I hope Trump’s legal woes will detach him from the party. I’m not at all convinced that there are a lot of people out there [who will detach from him]. I mean, there are a lot of people who honestly and sincerely and viscerally in their gut want to see Trump in an orange jumpsuit and go to jail, and I get that. That’s all fine. It’s all understandable. But the Democratic Party is spending a lot of time boosting Trump and MAGA Republicans. They spent tens of millions of dollars in the [G.O.P.] primaries to get these buffoons and trolls and demagogues and bigots nominated. This is part of the dysfunction of our political system right now, where Joe Biden benefits from Trump being in the news. Whenever Trump dominates the news, Democrats do well, and that’s why they pour a lot of time and energy into elevating the MAGA threat and all of that.

I think there’s a lot of media that is still addicted to Trump. Every four o’clock to seven o’clock, as far as I can tell, MSNBC is basically fanservice for Trump haters. And I may agree with a lot of things that they’re saying about him—Trump is unfit and a horrible person and all that. But like, if you give truth serum to a bunch of Democratic political operatives, do they want Trump to go away? I think the answer is no, because they know if Biden runs again, the one Republican he can beat is Donald Trump. And so I think there’s just an enormous amount of dysfunction. There’s an enormous amount of addiction to anti-Trumpism in all sorts of places that is either institutional or psychological or partisan. And Trump thrives on it. Trump benefits from all Biden’s and the Democrats’ attention, and the Democrats benefit from it. The people who are hurt by it are American voters and the country, in general.

I was hoping to get your view on the electoral impact of the Dobbs decision. Do you think it cancels out the Republican backlash you’re describing?  

If you look at some of the most important issue polling recently, abortion’s not as high up as you would think, given the media coverage. That said, I do think that the abortion decision hurt the Republican Party in a bunch of ways. And I think the smartest pro-lifers acknowledge that, and they’re perfectly happy to take the win and say we have work to do. 

For years, politicians got to say whatever base-pleasing things they wanted on the left or the right about abortion without any consequence, because so long as Roe was around, it wasn’t like they could do anything significant, legislatively, to change the abortion status quo. And so a lot of Republicans do not have any muscle memory or any experience in talking about abortion when it actually matters as an issue. And so a bunch of Republicans took the pro-life position because it was cheap and easy to do. But they don’t know how to make pro-life arguments. 

It’s telling to me that the two of the savviest Republicans at navigating the Trumpian landscape, Ron DeSantis, and Glenn Youngkin, basically announced a 15 week limit, and then shut up about abortion. Because that’s actually fairly supported in the polls. Americans basically have very similar views to Europeans: they hate late-term abortion. But they also don’t like banning abortion at conception, and they really hate the idea of making 10 year old girls give birth to their rapist’s babies. The problem was that a lot of the sane Republicans just basically went quiet and went to ground on the issue, and a lot of the idiots filled the void by saying crazy stuff about forcing little girls to have their rapist’s babies and all that kind of thing. It allowed Democrats to say, See, this is what they believe, this is what’s at stake in this election!, and that works for the Democrats’ benefit.

The change in polling and voter sentiment has been significant.

The Dobbs decision was a decision that would have been impossible without three Trump-appointed justices. So it makes the court seem like part of partisan politics in a way that it otherwise might not. But, moreover, the Dobbs decision all of a sudden put all of these Republican-controlled state legislatures in the driver’s seat, and they started making policy—they started banning abortion, they started putting in all these limits. And the result was that it just doesn’t feel like Republicans are out of power. 

Regarding all the Mar-a-Lago stuff: All of a sudden, everybody’s talking about “executive privilege” and what Trump can do and what he can’t do, “the witch hunt,” and “Russia, Russia, Russia,” all this kind of stuff. And it reminded a lot of people who don’t approve of Biden and don’t approve of what the Democrats are doing, why they voted for Biden over Trump. Because all of a sudden Trump was back in everybody’s headspace. And he had all of these idiot Republicans coming out saying, well, because the F.B.I. raided Mar-a-Lago, we have to nominate Trump, and everybody has to get out of Trump’s way. I mean, like, what’s his face, Mike Huckabee—his capacity to beclown himself is really impressive. Right after Mar-a-Lago, he said, “Look, I think that in response to this, we need to just simply re-nominate Trump by acclamation and essentially not have primaries.”

That kind of messaging created this sense of like, oh, my gosh, this isn’t a referendum on the first two years of Democrats having total control. It’s a choice between MAGA and Democrats. And that’s good for Democrats. A referendum on Biden is bad for Democrats. So I think the abortion component was a big part of that sort of vibe shift. It’s possible that is now ending and things are reverting back in Republicans’ favor. It’s just kind of hard to tell, because everything’s so churn-y and different, and Trump insists on staying in the news. 

Do you think it costs Republicans control of Congress in the midterms?

If I had to bet, Republicans still take the House. The Senate, if I click on the map, I still usually get to 51 Republicans. But you can totally see it going the other way, given how so many of these MAGA candidates are just bad candidates.

I’m an avid fan of The Dispatch and love how you’re trying to keep the tradition of conservative magazine journalism alive. What do you think it’s going to take for the culture of strong, facts-based conservative journalism to thrive in this era of right-wing media fragmentation? 

Part of that has to do with the business model of the internet itself, which monetizes anger and outrage. As I often put it, Twitter monetizes dopamine hits, and the incentive structure of so much of the internet is to make people angry, because angry people click on more links, and hang around longer. And that’s one of the reasons why we refuse to do any sort of clickbait advertising at all. The Dispatch doesn’t take any advertising of any kind. 

As for thriving, we’re much more modest. We think we can thrive. But there’s something like, I don’t know, more than 10 million right-of-center people who are willing to pay for good journalism that’s fact-based and all that kind of stuff. And if we can get 10 percent of that market, we will be this hugely successful, profitable business and we think that’s a very modest goal. If you’re willing to forego those kinds of massive returns that you can get from just trying to grab every eyeball possible, you can actually do responsible journalism, as we see it, and, and we’re more than happy with that decision. 

I think one of the problems that conservative journalism and conservatism generally got into—and I think this is true for liberal media, and for media generally—is they think they have to be sort of on a partisan team. You have all of these young, very smart conservative pundits, who think their job is to figure out ways to make the best argument possible for the G.O.P. And lots of liberals will think their job is to make the best argument possible for Democrats. You wouldn’t necessarily expect every sports writer to say, “here’s why the Yankees really did to win that game.” You don’t have to have a rooting interest in the Republican Party to be a conservative. When National Review was founded, it had an adversarial relationship with the Republican Party. It was an insurgent thing that was trying to move the Republican Party to the right. And that’s what conservatism was, for a very, very long time. It didn’t control any of the major institutions of American life. The conservative movement has been floundering for a while now, because it’s the dog that caught the car. And it doesn’t really know how to drive.

The specific problem for the conservative movement is that it no longer has a real adversarial role, sort of a truth-squadding role with the Republican Party, that it once did. I mean, obviously, there are individuals who I think are still beneficial and right, but like, you just look at what’s happening with the Heritage Foundation, where Heritage is just declaring itself an appendage of the MAGA universe these days. You saw this with a lot of institutions on the right, in 2016, that just caved into Trumpism because their donor bases were going that way. And you can hear the pain in Rush Limbaugh’s voice as he sort of realized, Oh, my audience likes Trump. So I’m going to have to like Trump too. 

And I think that’s one of the real problems on the right: We don’t have enough institutions that serve as circuit breakers against populism, which is what institutions, properly understood, are supposed to do. They’re supposed to stand up to political passion, and either channel it towards productive ends, or educate the people that while their passion may be well-founded, passion in and of itself can really take you in bad directions.