The Skeptics

What Trump Means for the Future of Conservative Publications

In a recent interview with Politico, Republican congressman Mark Sanford remarked that conservative lawmakers are reluctant to criticize Trump “for fear of Breitbart.” How did Breitbart, a start-up publication on the populist fringe, become so powerful so quickly? And what does Breitbart’s rise portend more generally for the conservative press in the era of Trump?

Although Breitbart has honed a distinct message, its path to influence is hardly without precedent. Since the emergence of the modern conservative movement in the 1950s, the right’s most influential publications have followed trajectories similar to Breitbart’s.

Breitbart, like its successful predecessors, stumbled upon the three ingredients that conservative publications need to wield outsized influence.

First—contrarian, elite leadership with access to establishment institutions. Although Breitbart rails against “globalist” financial and entertainment elites, the publication’s former executive Stephen Bannon himself is a Harvard Business School graduate and former Goldman Sachs banker turned Hollywood producer. Before taking over Breitbart, Bannon developed his personal brand by rebelling against the dogmas of his social class, even while leveraging his establishment connections for financial and political support. Famed conservative editors throughout the late twentieth century became public intellectuals in much the same way. William F. Buckley Jr. is perhaps the most prominent example. Several years before launching National Review, Buckley achieved his national breakthrough with the publication of God and Man at Yalea “lover’s quarrel” with the university, as George Will described it. Buckley and his book may very well have remained in obscurity but for the endorsement of Life magazine’s John Chamberlain, a Yale alumnus himself. Finances were also critical: Buckley's father, a wealthy oil developer, funded a $19,000 (more than $155,000 in today’s dollars) book promotion and later invested $100,000 (over $750,000 today) behind National Review.

Second—an anti-establishment message with resonance in mainstream America. Although based in New York and Washington, the traditionalist, free-market arguments that conservative publications inveighed against the New Left gave intellectual imprimatur to sentiments prevalent across the country. Through trenchant dissents on issues such as crime, race relations and the Cold War, even highbrow magazines like Commentary and The Public Interest—initially confined to a Jewish literary-intellectual milieu—could help advance a coalescing conservative movement. As Benjamin Balint puts it in his history of Commentary, “A once marginal group of ex-leftists found that their ideas were extraordinarily relevant to the country at large. Their quarrels had foreshadowed larger political shifts; their ideas had become the politics of governments; their preoccupations had become the country’s.” The same happened to Breitbart as economic nationalism and hardline stances against immigration and political correctness gained traction amid a populist backlash.