The Wall Street Journal’s Desperate Search for the Perfect Anti-Trump Candidate

The Wall Street Journal’s Desperate Search for the Perfect Anti-Trump Candidate

As print fades, so do the old-fashioned joys of following the ideological contortions of a newspaper editorial page. The New York Times signaled the looming demise of the art form when it drastically cut back the frequency of its editorials. Fortunately, we still have the Rupert Murdoch–owned Wall Street Journal, as it desperately gropes toward finding a 2024 Republican presidential candidate who meets its many fine-grained specifications.

For all the obsessive attention lavished on Fox News, the Journal’s traditionally conservative editorial page offers a much clearer window into the Murdoch mindset. As the emails and memos released in the Dominion lawsuit demonstrated, the right-wing television network embraced nutcase conspiracy theories about the 2020 election because it feared losing viewers in the fever swamps of Trumpian hysteria. But about as many people subscribe to the Journal for its editorials as read Dickens for the sex scenes. That gives longtime editorial page editor Paul Gigot and his staff free range, with Murdoch looking distantly over their shoulders.

Always uncomfortable with Donald Trump’s America First populism and bombast, the Journal’s three-page print editorial section turned on the defrocked president with a fury the day after the 2022 midterm elections. Not only did the Journal headline its lead editorial “TRUMP IS THE REPUBLICAN PARTY’S BIGGEST LOSER,” but it also ran three other op-eds belittling the sneering face of the GOP. Since then, the edit page has not softened its view of Trump personally, although each indictment has been dismissed as prosecutorial overreach by forces aligned with Joe Biden. In early August, after federal prosecutor Jack Smith brought a four-count indictment against Trump for trying to overturn the election, the Journal began its editorial by declaring, “Donald Trump’s post-election behavior in 2020 was deceitful and destructive, and his malfeasance on Jan. 6, 2021, was disgraceful.” The Journal followed up the next week by flatly declaring, “The risk of nominating former President Trump is that everything else will be drowned out by arguments about whether he should go to prison for trying to overturn the 2020 election or delete Mar-a-Lago’s security tapes to hide documents.”

But if not Trump for president, then who? And can any non-Trump Republican candidate check all the boxes the Journal needs them to: hawkish, anti-populist and, perhaps above all, viable?

Even though the Journal does not formally endorse candidates, the editorial page is adept at putting a thumb on the scale. During the heady days of spring, the Journal’s editorial writers, like so many orthodox Republicans, were beguiled by the idea of Ron DeSantis. When the Florida governor declared his candidacy in May, the Journal burbled, “The acid test of leadership is how someone responds in a crisis, and Mr. DeSantis showed both the discipline to master the subject and the courage to defy elite opinion for the larger public good.”

But the Journal’s honeymoon with Trump’s leading challenger lasted about as long as the tenure of a DeSantis campaign manager. The Florida governor has flunked the editorial page’s litmus test issues as fast as the state banned advanced placement exams. The paper’s efforts to serve as the Henry Higgins to his floundering campaign came to naught.

In early July, the Journal, which has long taken a Chamber of Commerce pro-immigration position, criticized DeSantis for echoing the nativist right’s “fallacy that illegal immigrants are taking U.S. jobs.” Equally concerning for the hawkish Journal is the degree to which DeSantis has gone wobbly on Ukraine. The paper noted sadly in another July editorial about DeSantis, “[On] U.S. support for Ukraine he’s too often catered to the isolationist right that would, in Ronald Reagan’s words, play innocents abroad in a world that’s not innocent.” Then, in late July, the edit page complained, “The Governor has too often catered to putative conservative populists who want to unleash the force of government to ‘own the libs’ and win the culture war.”

But the Journal still resides in a place called hope. In yet another if-he’d-only-listen-to-us-and-not-his-consultants editorial in late July, the paper lectured the governor, “He’ll have to focus more on growth than on grievance. He needs a vision for American renewal that transcends Mr. Biden’s plans to use big government for income redistribution and Mr. Trump’s desire to use it for political ‘retribution.’” Good luck with that.

The problem for Gigot and company is that they want to be part of the GOP nomination conversation rather than quixotic crusaders. As the most prominent print voice of Reagan-era conservatism, the Journal is not about to lavish column inches on no-hope candidates like Asa Hutchinson. In DeSantis, the editorialists thought they had found their man: someone who would sucker the Trump enthusiasts, but who, deep down, was really just like them. But so far DeSantis has bamboozled no one.

Chris Christie, in particular, presents the Journal with a dilemma. His vitriol-dipped contempt for Trump undoubtedly appeals to Murdoch. When the former New Jersey governor entered the race in June, the Journal gushed, “Mr. Christie’s biggest appeal has always been his intelligence and tough-talking persona.” Peggy Noonan, the Journal’s Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist who operates independently of the rest of the edit page, hailed Christie’s executive abilities: “Love him or hate him, he knows what to do with power. He isn’t secretly frightened of it, as many politicians are.” Noonan, it should be pointed out, also earlier offered this worthy-of-Bartlett’s put-down of DeSantis: “He’s tough, unadorned, and carries a vibe, as I’ve said, that he might unplug your life support to recharge his cellphone.”

But Christie, despite his potential appeal to independents who can vote in the New Hampshire primary, does not have a plausible route to the nomination. Nor does Mike Pence, who, like Christie, appeals to the Journal partly because of his muscular support for the war in Ukraine and his free-market ideology. In mid-August, the editorial page went out of its way to praise the former veep’s drill-baby-drill energy policy. While Tim Scott and Nikki Haley are acceptable to the Journal on most issues—despite tiptoeing around Trump—they do not arouse much active enthusiasm and were barely mentioned in the editorial columns during a full month in midsummer. In June, though, the editorial page praised Scott, the leading African American in the GOP scrum, for wanting “to free minorities from union schools and escape poverty by giving them more economic opportunity.”

There is a trick for liberals in reading the Journal’s Opinion section without having to summon the paramedics because of apoplexy. Ignore any editorial or op-ed that mentions Hunter Biden, even if the author insists that the scandal and its cover-up are worse than the Visigoths sacking Rome. Chuckle indulgently when the Journal insists with pious certitude that Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito are pillars of ethical conduct who only forgot to fill out a few disclosure forms.

In exchange for glossing over this kind of right-wing claptrap, you get treats like an early August Karl Rove column that smartly pointed out, “Facing these multiple-front legal battles, Mr. Trump might not have enough campaign cash for the primaries, let alone a highly contested general election.” That same day, the Journal schooled Vivek Ramaswamy, the biotech entrepreneur paddling furiously in the GOP candidate pool, for indulging conspiracy theories about the 9/11 attacks. As an editorial put it, “More such flights into political exotica will encourage many voters to conclude that Mr. Ramaswamy isn’t ready for his close up, much less the demands of the Presidency.” Its influence may be fading, but the Journal retains a clear view into what animates a certain sect of Republican power brokers, very much including Murdoch himself.

However, the real joy in reading the Journal editorial pages all through the 2024 campaign season will be to wait for the inevitable eureka moment. That will be when the edit staffers finally realize to their dismay that the Republican Party of their dreams—a party devoted to small government and tax-cutting rather than election denying and an authoritarian cult of personality—no longer exists. I can’t wait for the angry Journal editorial entitled “THE PARTY’S OVER.”

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