Rusher at 100: Realism for the 21st Century

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“If Not Us, Who?”

If Not Us, Who? takes you on a journey into the life of William Rusher, a key player in shaping the modern conservative movement. Known for his long stint as the publisher of National Review, Rusher wasn't just a publisher—he was a crucial strategist and thinker in...

(June 23, 2023—revised December 21, 2023)

William Rusher, a dynamic force on the American right who passed away in 2011 after decades as comrade and mentor to many conservatives, was born a full century ago on July 19, 1923. His centenary comes at a hard time for conservatives, who should ponder his rich legacy and its lessons for the situation we are now in. Familiar to us as a great activist, debater, and spokesman, Rusher also remains significant for his realism—which is especially significant today, when the Trump-style activism that I suspect he would have come to deplore has failed badly. Over more than half a century, the longtime National Review publisher, American Conservative Union co-founder, mentor to Young Americans for Freedom, early Goldwater organizer, and very early Reagan advocate witnessed most of what there was to see in American politics. Experiencing much, Rusher also analyzed it with remarkable objectivity. Equally important, he did not flinch from deep worries about America’s future. His frequent anxiety and occasional pessimism made his frequent optimism more credible. With his unwavering goal of political dominance for the right, Rusher had to face many disappointments. All are good reasons why conservatives should heed his insights now.

Silent Majority Silence?

Rusher lived long enough to comment on the beginnings of our frightening century, one of whose main features is the left’s extreme virulence. In a 2003 column, he noted the increased “ferocity” of its verbal assaults against the right. He believed this was due to conservatives’ greater visibility, especially with the rise of talk radio and Fox News. Liberals had decided they could no longer “afford to give conservatism the silent treatment.” Rusher welcomed this harshness and loudness, saying it made their arguments easier to discredit. But twenty years later, many of us find ourselves asking these unsettling questions: Does the left’s power really depend on public agreement with its positions? How much has its raw arrogance really hurt it with the public? Is the Silent Majority silent because—as President Nixon’s then-White House aide Daniel Patrick Moynihan once regretfully told him—“it has nothing to say”?

Although Rusher shared to some extent the belief in a conservative Silent Majority that was so widespread in his day, he knew the power intense political minorities can exert over the far larger number of Americans who hold weaker views. In 1970, Senator Goldwater published a book of reflections called The Conscience of a Majority. Reviewing it, Rusher criticized him for excessive optimism about the era’s young people: “It is true … that the real troublemakers are in a minority; but they are, almost everywhere, a dominant minority, leading a bemused and plastic majority.” He worried about the Baby Boom generation’s impact: “When Goldwater calls for the eighteen-year-old vote and abolition of the draft, he is betting on strengths that simply aren’t there.” At the time, most conservatives probably agreed. In the Reagan era and later, with good Republican support among young people and the increased popularity of military service, Rusher’s remark would have seemed too negative. But today? Young voters are clearly on the left, while our armed forces are disturbingly short of recruits.

A fundamental question for the right, now requiring fresh thought, has always been whether most Americans agree with its principles. Conservatives have generally assumed the answer is: yes, a Silent Majority does. But in the 21st century, a cascade of developments—starting with the Democrats’ sweeping victory in 2008 with Barack Obama, their furthest-left nominee since George McGovern—has weakened that faith. This a crucial difference between conservatives’ attitudes throughout most of Rusher’s career and their attitudes now.

With all the relentless “wokeness” and cancel culture (this, not Trumpism, is the most powerful movement of recent years), we see America undergoing a cultural revolution that threatens to destroy our society. The real troublemakers—now more accurately called oppressors—are a tiny minority, but one which exerts constant pressure, very often gets its way, rarely sees its wins reversed, and is rarely punished. The sane if not conservative majority, whatever significance its sanity might theoretically have in American politics, has done little, on the whole, against this thugocracy and its “progressive” enablers in public office. In recent months, a modest pushback against the bullying anti-Israel “activism” and anti-Semitism following Hamas’s October 7 atrocity has occurred, but its ultimate result is far from clear. The hard left will, in any case, rampage on in other ways, with its brute fascist censorship and blatant power grabs. It may well be able to unleash widespread violence anytime it wishes at very slight cost to itself, as in the “mostly peaceful protests” of 2020. Meanwhile, the low-information voters who decide elections don’t understand what “wokeness” means, what DEI means, what CRT is. Nor do I think they grasp that the “administrative state”—yet another prominent buzzword on the right—is a grave danger to liberty, not just another term for government. How little it apparently matters that so much public policy runs to the left of what the majority seems to want, or that the majority doesn’t share the left’s extremism. But I doubt Rusher would be surprised by this undemocratic disconnect.

If the majority is more “plastic” than conservative, what is the best way for conservatives to influence it? And as we attempt that, can we find a Rusher-like balance between realism and persistent commitment? An overview of some of Rusher’s responses to his times may be instructive.

The Silent Majority concept gained currency in the late 1960s and early ‘70s for good reason. Certain trends were going well for the right. The Republicans’ quick recovery from their 1964 election debacle, growing disaffection from liberal policies and opposition to the New Left among traditional Democrats, and Richard Nixon’s landslide re-election in 1972 all tended to suggest the existence of a conservative majority. The 1972 results were, Rusher later wrote in The Rise of the Right, the “clearest possible” demonstration that “liberalism … commanded the allegiance of far less than a majority of American voters.” It appeared that a “precarious but powerful antiliberal coalition … was now the dominant fact in American politics.” But the coalition was indeed precarious. Less than two years later, Nixon—never a favorite of Rusher’s, to put it mildly—was forced from office. If the Democrats and the media overreacted (as Rusher believed and said) to Watergate, so eventually did the public, accepting their narrative of the scandal’s great magnitude. Even after Nixon resigned, with Gerald Ford in the White House, the Republicans took a real beating in the 1974 midterm election. Ronald Reagan challenged Ford for the 1976 nomination, but Rusher—despite his high opinion of Reagan, who had long been quite popular on the right—accurately predicted he would come up short because non-conservative forces remained too strong in the party.

In desperation amid the Republicans’ weak public support in these years, Rusher advocated the formation of a new right-of-center party to replace the stagnant GOP and, in the not-too-long run, was rather prophetic in doing so. Such a party should be designed, especially, to add what would later be called Reagan Democrats to most of the traditionally Republican voters. Although one of his objections to the Republican party then was its relative inattention to social issues, Rusher also thought it was still “designed to fight (and, one is tempted to add peevishly, to lose) a battle that ended, for most practical purposes, at least a quarter of a century ago.” The battle against the New Deal was over, “as irrevocably as Antietam and Gettysburg.” Businessmen and working people, united in the economy as “producers,” were now in conflict with “a new and powerful class of non-producers” composed of “a liberal verbalist elite … and a semi-permanent welfare constituency.” Rusher judged that his envisioned new party could win the 1976 election, and eventually reach majority status, if his preferred candidate were its initial nominee. Reagan, he pointed out, was unequaled in articulating millions of Americans’ concerns with “skill and good humor” while showing an ability, unique among nationally prominent conservatives, “to put the conservative case in terms that automatically command majority assent.” But the right’s uniquely able, unequaled leader has remained so ever since. There has been no equivalent, no political peer, in all that time. As Rusher remarked to me and presumably to others in his last years: “Reagans don’t grow on trees.”

And even then, Rusher and his new-party project lacked a good candidate. Reagan wouldn’t participate, so it failed. This was a painful disappointment to Rusher. “The hour is late—perhaps too late” for America, he had written in his short book The Making of the New Majority Party. “I do not want to pretend to an optimism I do not feel. But if there is still a chance, then the Great Coalition and a new major party based on it are its indispensable embodiments.” Not long afterward, two years before Reagan’s resounding victory of 1980, Rusher expressed pessimism about what another Republican president would accomplish. If one should be elected, he wrote in his syndicated column, “the most we can expect is four to eight years of debilitating squabbles with Democratic Congresses … a couple of dubious appointments to the Supreme Court,” and the new president’s “traditional sellout of all the principles for which he and his party campaigned.” Acknowledging that a more “honorable” candidate might be nominated and elected, Rusher cautioned that Republican presidents had never gotten Democratic Congresses to cooperate much with them. Experience suggested that the election of a Republican to the presidency “cures nothing … temporarily kills the pain” of the deeper reality, liberal rule.

Resigned to Certain Realities

Rusher was much happier about politics and government during the Reagan era and saw it as “a golden age,” but remained resigned to certain realities. While recognizing big government as a serious problem, he seemed to consider it an unfortunate price of democracy. Asked by NR editor William F. Buckley Jr. for his thoughts on a column by Irving Kristol in 1983, Rusher said it was unrealistic, among other things, to criticize Reagan for accepting an increase in the Social Security payroll tax. If Kristol meant to suggest cutting benefits instead, that just showed why Reagan was president and he wasn’t. Rusher even thought America was unlikely to elect anyone equally conservative again. His junior NR colleague and friend Rick Brookhiser would recall him saying, in effect: “This is the best guy we’re going to get. It will never be better; it will never be as good.” In 1986, Rusher told activist Brent Bozell III that he found it a little sad to hear movement-oriented “youngsters of 20 say … Reagan was a disgrace.” He’d admonished one of them that he could expect to feel “perfectly miserable in American politics, when he realizes what will be coming along after Reagan.” In a 1995 column on the need to pass conservative agenda items in the new Republican-controlled Congress, Rusher wrote that this was a “rare moment” produced by a midterm election in which so many voters had decided “to resist and if possible reverse the … expansion of federal power that has been the central theme of American politics for more than 60 years.” A comparable opportunity, he added, might never come again.

To whatever extent Rusher still believed in a silent conservative majority, then, his expectations for it were not high. He could live with lower ones. His willingness to adjust to the psychology and wishes of the American people is especially clear in his attitudes toward the 1988 election, when Reagan’s successor would be chosen. In May of that year, he reflected that the public “wasn’t in any mood or condition” to repeat the Reagan era’s rightward intensity. The main competitors for the Republican nomination, Vice President Bush and Senator Robert Dole, had been candidates “ready to defend and honor the Reagan legacy”—which he implied was enough. Rusher suggested how he thought serious conservatives should deal with typical Republican politicians, those who were right-of-center but not movement comrades. He had no use for deep suspicions about Bush, who had grown “substantially more conservative” on many issues. But he also warned in one of his columns that hostile attitudes could backfire terribly: “If conservatives insist on treating George Bush as an enemy, they might—just might—turn him into one.” Rusher saw a great difference between such hostility and firmness toward Reagan’s heir-apparent. Conservatives should “demand” a running mate from the right wing of the party, maintain an ideologically conservative GOP platform, and try to gain major input into Bush’s appointments if he won.

“Communicate as a Friend”

Rusher’s responses to Pat Buchanan’s 1992 primary race are another illustration of his elder-statesman role in conservative politics. He noted that a poorly conducted campaign by Buchanan might eventually hurt Bush in the general election, whereas a well-conducted one could lay the groundwork for a more successful 1996 candidacy. Not having denounced his insurgent candidacy, Rusher was in a good position to urge Buchanan to be magnanimous. As the Republican convention’s “Mr. Conservative,” he should give “a rousing salute to conservatism” while playing “the Happy Loser, preparing to do battle” for the president. There is, of course, no guarantee that good advice will be followed. Buchanan was a warrior in his 1992 convention speech, but not a happy one. Observers contrasted it with Reagan’s positive message in what turned out to be his last major address. As he considered the prospects for conservatives shortly after the election, Rusher thought the “non-threatening” quality Reagan exemplified was a must for whomever might arise to carry their banner. Several years later, looking back on the Republican Congress elected in 1994, he regretted that its leaders had called its agenda a “revolution,” since some potentially favorable voters had probably disliked the term.

An earlier instance of such a warning is his 1981 column titled “The Problem—and Strength—of Right to Life.” Cautioning his fellow pro-lifers that they “don’t always realize … how unreasonably intransigent and offensively smug we sometimes appear,” Rusher drew a parallel between the anti-abortion cause and the abolitionists who demanded the end of slavery. The abolitionists, he wrote, eventually triumphed not because they became popular, but because they were simply right about human equality—and deep down, the American people knew it. Abortion would eventually be outlawed for the same kind of reason, and without a civil war. Today, that looks like one of Rusher’s less realistic predictions. Following the 2022 Supreme Court ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, statewide elections have shown a strong public prejudice in favor of “pro-choice” laws, making abortion more entrenched than ever in some states (even as the incidence of abortion elsewhere declines, due to whatever pro-life laws survive the gauntlet of pro-choice courts). The steep price of the zealous opposition to abortion among conservatives—and of reducing abortions by outlawing as many as possible—is especially clear in the damage inflicted on the Republican party in the last midterm election by constant attacks on its allegedly extreme pro-life position. While Rusher’s prediction that pro-life would ultimately win seems like a stretch, his Reagan-era advice against intransigence on the issue seems as valid as ever.

A similar spirit was memorably evident in one of our interviews two decades later, when Rusher noted that George W. Bush, and “perhaps all presidents, are gentler than we ideologues would like them to be.” He thought this was “no accident.” Each president is, or starts out as, a repository of “the people’s trust,” elected partly because voters felt he wouldn’t “go too far” with it. As Rusher wrote in his New Majority Party book, a great plus for Reagan was his “ability to communicate as a friend to the average American,” a quality that would make him a “reassuring” nominee. Although I think Donald Trump deserves Americans’ lasting gratitude for defeating Hillary Clinton, did more than a little good as president, and should be remembered favorably for trying to reorient the Republican party toward working-class interests, it is a mistake to think indulgently of his post-presidency and his current campaign without judging them by the political wisdom of Rusher’s aforementioned points on presidents and on Reagan—“gentler than we ideologues would like them to be,” “the people’s trust,” “communicate as a friend, “reassuring.” Frontal assaults on stronger forces—“the Swamp,” all the rest—are likely to fail, and in this case it seems they have.

The tactical moderation in Rusher is especially notable because he could also be, as most who knew him will remember, an impatient man. As his longtime colleague, NR managing editor Priscilla Buckley, said: “He got things done because of his impatience.” But movement activist and historian Lee Edwards, who went about as far back with Rusher, made a point of stressing to me his “perseverance: this is not a 100-yard dash, this is a marathon.” In addition, Rusher tended to be patient with the American people—what good would impatience do there? His acute sense of political limits was also rooted in his knowledge of politicians. They are, he reflected in one of our interviews, “the grease on which society’s wheels turn. And they can’t be better, most of the time, than a sort of low competence and honor.”

We should, of course, always appreciate Rusher’s optimistic side and his sense that the conservative movement had achieved great things. He was proudest, I think, of its contribution—especially (though not only) by elevating Reagan to national prominence and the presidency—to the West’s victory in the Cold War. “Victories over Communism and socialism were tremendous,” he said in notes for a post-election speech in 1992, about the time I first met him. “At bottom, ideas count most.” After the elder Bush’s humiliating loss, Rusher took the view that the conservative movement had little at stake in the campaign. More important was the good condition he thought it was in.

He spoke optimistically about that condition for the rest of his life—writing in 1998, for example, that the movement was energetic, “positively awash with new ideas,” and had human and material resources “we never dreamed of 40 years ago.” In my last interview with him, in 2008, Rusher noted its encouraging ability to “create new organizations and new personalities.” He also remained confident for another, quite different reason: that conservatism had the great advantage, he believed, of reflecting the truth as to human affairs. For about his last 30 years, Rusher would recite after his many talks: “For want of me the world’s course will not fail / When all its work is done the lie shall rot / The truth is great, and shall prevail / When none cares whether it prevail or not.” These lines by a minor British poet aren’t optimistic in a naïve way, he told me, but rather taught a “harsh” lesson. “What it says is that the truth will damned well prevail … whether we like it or not. We had better get in accord with it, and then have confidence in it. It will not fail us.” Hard-boiled and perhaps unfamiliar, the optimism here is nonetheless real. A final point about the realism or modest expectations in Rusher’s wisdom is worth stressing: he doesn’t seem to have needed much of the more conventional kind of optimism to keep up the fight in which, to my knowledge, he never faltered. Nor am I aware of any situation where Rusher was not a team player. Part of that team spirit was his willingness to give full credit to anything positive he could see. Another movement elder, M. Stanton Evans, would recall as one of Rusher’s “great strengths” his tendency to “look on the bright side and try to cheer me up, or get me to be more supportive of whatever was going on.” This decided tendency toward encouragement was perfectly compatible with his realism. Such a balancing act, not an easy one, is high on the list of things for which William Rusher should be remembered.

Author

  • David B. Frisk

    David B. Frisk, Ph.D., is a Resident Fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization (AHI). He is the author of If Not Us, Who? William Rusher, National Review, and the Conservative Movement (ISI Books, 2012) and is writing an intellectual biography of the conservative political scientist Willmoore Kendall. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not represent positions of the AHI.

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