Politics

The Weekly Standard’s Dismantling Is Terrible News for Conservatism and Journalism

Grid of Weekly Standard magazine covers.
Photo illustration by Slate. Covers via Weekly Standard.

The Weekly Standard shut down on Friday after 23 years of publication. In an unceremonious execution, MediaDC, the magazine’s owner, instructed staff to clear out their desks by the end of the day. According to co-founder John Podhoretz, MediaDC chose to kill the outlet so it could strip-mine its assets and subscriber list. The shuttering of the flagship conservative publication is a deeply unfortunate development in an era when right-leaning media is increasingly obsequious toward Donald Trump and hesitant to criticize his abuses of power. No critic of the president should cheer the Weekly Standard’s demise.

To many progressives, Friday’s news may seem to be just desserts for a magazine that has long espoused what the left views as noxious policy proposals. And there is no doubt that the Weekly Standard has published more than its share of dubious, specious, and offensive articles. The magazine was closely aligned with the George W. Bush administration and, notoriously, vigorously promoted the catastrophic war in Iraq. Its LGBTQ coverage is reliably atrocious—recall this 2009 classic titled “The Worst Thing About Gay Marriage,” which claims without evidence that the “most profound aspect of marriage” is “protecting and controlling the sexuality of the child-bearing sex.”

I could go on. The magazine is vehemently anti-abortion and anti-trans, pushing offensive falsehoods to mock and degrade transgender people. It has asserted that gay people, like me, who sought the right to marry will demand polyamory next. Writers routinely peddle climate change skepticism and denialism. These articles are dangerous and irresponsible.

There is obviously much to criticize here, and I do not expect liberals to praise a magazine that has derided their beliefs for more than two decades. But there is still nothing to celebrate about its untimely death. Over the last few years, the Weekly Standard has emerged as one of the very few conservative outlets to resist Trumpism, to defend a vision of conservatism that rejects Trump’s lawlessness, his authoritarian impulses, and his grotesque embrace of white nationalism. Even if the Never Trump movement represents a small segment of the Republican Party, it remains an important counter to the broader opportunistic conservative embrace of the president. And the Weekly Standard’s dissolution will only encourage other right-wing outlets to publish more irresponsible pro-Trump garbage.

That is not to say that every other conservative publication has entirely jettisoned its principles to defend Trump. If you’re interested in a reasonable take on, say, the Robert Mueller investigation or Trump’s trade wars, you can read David French in National Review or Gabriel Malor in the Federalist. But these voices are ever rarer and lonelier. As I write, the top story on National Review is an absurd defense of Michael Cohen’s crimes, which argues that prosecutors are “twisting campaign-finance law” to secure his conviction. Its purpose is not to defend Cohen himself, but the criminal acts to which he has confessed and in which he has implicated Trump. The Federalist has posted a similar article, as well as a dark warning that the FBI is “hiding the truth” about Michael Flynn, replete with a baseless intimation that Mueller’s team might be destroying documents that could exonerate Flynn.

The Federalist appears to be the new model for conservative media, a truly depressing development given its almost unrelenting dishonesty. In May, the Week’s Damon Linker wrote a devastating critique of the magazine’s many lies about the FBI. The Federalist, Linker wrote, “is a leading disseminator of pro-Trump conspiracies and up-is-down, funhouse-mirror distortions of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election meddling and potential Trump involvement.” If anything, that’s an understatement. The Federalist led the push to fire Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who long oversaw the probe. It has claimed, over and over again, that Mueller is leading a partisan “witch hunt.” Its authors have decried his “obsessive pursuit” of the president and condemned Mueller as “the clown prince of federal law enforcement.” At every turn, the Federalist seeks to reinforce Trump’s claim that the Mueller probe is illegitimate, if not illegal.

Click over to National Review and you’ll find a more mixed bag; French, for instance, writes eloquently and accurately about the investigation and its achievements. But his work is countered by Andrew McCarthy, a fantasist who describes Rosenstein as a “weasel,” declared that Mueller “stacked his staff with partisans,” wrote that Paul Manafort’s conviction was “good news for President Trump,” claimed Mueller set up Trump for a “perjury trap,” and indicated that the FBI is corrupt. McCarthy also champions the narrative that the Steele dossier “was the driving force behind the Trump–Russia investigation,” which is false.

There are plenty more examples. Byron York at the Washington Examiner humiliates himself by lying to help Trump and spreading conspiracy theories about the FBI. Kimberley Strassel, a member of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, writes toxic pro-Trump nonsense that sometimes contradicts the paper’s excellent reporting. I am sure that there are reasonable people at the Examiner and the Journal who are embarrassed by this drivel and wish their outlet did not publish it. But publish they do, aiding Trump’s effort to assault the integrity of Mueller, Rosenstein, and the FBI.

The Weekly Standard, by contrast, has remained profoundly skeptical toward Trump. Its reporting on the latest developments in the Russia probe are truthful and perceptive. One of its very last articles, published Friday, celebrates Trump’s inability to impede the investigation. There are exceptions—its executive editor, Fred Barnes, has penned some very silly criticisms of the special counsel. But the magazine has not slipped into the Federalist’s fever dream. It does not often carry water for the president and does not hesitate to condemn his dumbest ideas. The Weekly Standard is, in short, a conservative magazine rooted in reality.

Those are now in short supply. And while it is apparently untrue that the Weekly Standard bled readers because of its Never Trump stance—its web traffic has reportedly increased—other conservative outlets may view its death as a warning: Stray too far from the Trump party line, and readers will abandon you. We will see more writers like Byron York and Kimberley Strassel, and fewer like Weekly Standard star Haley Byrd, one of the finest congressional reporters working today.

It is healthy to have a magazine that challenges both Democrats and Republicans in good faith—a conservative outlet that progressives cannot simply write off as an asinine pro-Trump propaganda machine. And it is encouraging to know that the entire conservative movement has not latched itself to Trump’s cult of personality. American conservatism will always be with us, but Trump will not. What happens after he is gone? Will the Republican Party indefinitely adopt his cruelty, his know-nothingism, his contempt for the law? Or will a saner faction assert dominance in the GOP? The Weekly Standard made me optimistic for the latter possibility. Its demise suggests that the Trumpists will win out.