Watching a recent discussion on Fox News between Chris Stirewalt and Guy Benson concerning George Will's exhortation to Republican voters to support Democratic candidates in the upcoming congressional election, I thought of the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election. According to this teaching, those whom divine Providence elevates to sainthood can never lose their ascribed status. Once divinely elected, the sinner remains in a state of grace no matter how far he strays. The conservative movement offers a somewhat less dramatic, secular version of this dogma. It goes like this: someone whom the movement has raised to celebrity can never lose his "conservative" cachet no matter how far he deviates from the established party line. The only obvious exception to this rule concerns those who move inappropriately toward the right or else fail to move toward the left when the rest of the authorized movement does. Presumably, someone who still held to the view expressed by conservatives concerning Martin Luther King circa 1970 would no longer be acceptable as a conservative. Neither would someone who raised substantive objections to the civil rights legislation of the 1960s or who was preoccupied with I.Q. disparities.
But any conservative celebrity may lunge to the left without fear of being kicked out of the movement entirely or shunned by other conservative rock stars. Illustrations of my proposition reach my ears every time I flick on "conservative" TV. For example, Fox commentators still occasionally refer to David Frum as a "conservative" NeverTrump, although Frum happily joined the left years ago. They also don't quite know what to do with Bill Kristol and Max Boot, who are still recognized as conservatives, albeit conservatives who have ostentatiously turned their backs on the movement.
Kristol's son-in-law Matt Continetti is still featured as a Fox all-star, although the Washington Free Beacon, which Continetti ran with his father-in-law, hired Fusion GPS to work up a dossier against Trump. Continetti and Kristol did this before the Democratic National Committee received its anti-Trump fabrications. Presumably, Fox is allowing Matt to occupy Bill's position until their old pal can be induced to return to the fold. Fox also has tried to retain lots of anti-Trump commentators, lest viewers imagine that conservative TV is trying to keep these supposed conservatives out of the public conversation. As the Washington Post explains: "[e]ven with Will's departure, the contributor ranks remain stocked with folks who have frequently hammered the president, notably Stephen Hayes, Rich Lowry, Karl Rove, and Charles Krauthammer."
But the treatment of Will defies belief in terms of how far Conservatism, Inc. will indulge one of its own. Despite his obvious realignment with the left and his regular appearances on left-wing channels and despite the fact that Fox didn't renew Will's contract last year, he remains an object of admiring attention on his former network. His exhortation to Republicans to put the Democrats in power, despite their lunge toward the kook left, hardly aroused the Fox gatekeepers, except for a mildly deprecatory tweet by Laura Ingraham. Rather, Will's destructive advice occasioned a respectful discussion by leading Fox contributors. It was like watching lambs honoring the wolf that has come to eat them. One need only contrast this to the nonstop tirades from the conservative media that Roseanne Barr encountered when she tweeted unkind things about Valerie Jarrett in the middle of the night. But then, unlike Will, Roseanne was viewed as some kind of right-wing deviationist with her imprudent tweet. Moreover, she is not exactly a venerable "conservative" spokesperson.
There are two reasons why media conservatism (which is what we're speaking about) never fully rejects certain old friends, even after they stray. The first is that deviation toward the left not only is tolerable, but follows the general direction in which the conservative movement has been going, especially since the 1980s and the rise of neoconservatism. On just about every social issue, the movement has followed the general political culture toward the left. It has replaced the old anti-communist litmus test of post-World War II conservatism with new loyalty tests – e.g., a human rights-based foreign policy and the defense of positions that liberals took before they moved even farther toward the cultural left.
It was striking how the late Charles Krauthammer, when interviewed by his acolytes on Fox, treated his political outlook as remaining mostly the same since he wrote for the New Republic in the early 1980s. Krauthammer even back then was the person he later became on Fox: a champion of the civil rights revolution, a supporter of Israel, and the advocate of a foreign policy that aims at bringing democracy to the entire globe. The only change of heart that Krauthammer acknowledged was moving away from the "social democratic tendencies" of his youth to recognizing the benefit of a "restrained free market governance." This hardly amounted to a Damascus experience. But the Washington Examiner insists that Krauthammer "blessed conservatism with his conversion." If there was a "conversion," it was not Krauthammer, but the conservative movement that underwent the sea change.
An even more obvious reason for the unconditional election of certain prominent conservative figures is celebrity. Media conservatism with its print extensions has become a continuing show, with its pro- and NeverTrumps; military experts; and honored, well paid guests from the media left. It may be a safe assumption that the public has warmed up to the regular cast. Why start badmouthing club members because CNN or MSNBC celebrates them as well? It's not that George or Bill is a stranger to the group. These straying comrades and their forgiving critics are all media stars who know each other and have worked for the same bosses.
Editor's note: This article was originally published at American Thinker and has been rerun with its author's permission.
Paul E. Gottfried is Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for twenty-five years. He is a Guggenheim recipient and a Yale PhD. He writes for many websites and scholarly journals and is the author of thirteen books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents. His books have been translated into multiple languages and seem to enjoy special success in Eastern Europe. He serves as head of the editorial board of The San Francisco Review of Books.