There was always a yin-yang thing to conservatism. Its hard-headedness and philosophical realism about human nature and the limits it imposes on utopian schemes appealed to some and repulsed others. For those who see politics as a romantic enterprise, a means of pursuing collective salvation, conservatism seems mean-spirited. As Emerson put it: “There is always a certain meanness in the argument of conservatism, joined with a certain superiority in its fact.” That’s what Ben Shapiro is getting at when he says “Facts don’t care about your feelings.” The hitch is that the reverse is also true: Feelings don’t care about your facts. Tell a young progressive activist we can’t afford socialism and the response will be overtly or subliminally emotional: “Why don’t you care about poor people!” or “Why do you love billionaires!?”
.. What Is Neoconservatism?
Here’s the opening paragraph of the Wikipedia page for neoconservatism:
Neoconservatism (commonly shortened to neocon when labelling its adherents) is a political movement born in the United States during the 1960s among liberal hawkswho became disenchanted with the increasingly pacifist foreign policy of the Democratic Party, and the growing New Left and counterculture, in particular the Vietnam protests. Some also began to question their liberal beliefs regarding domestic policies such as the Great Society.
.. The first neocons were intellectual rebels against the Great Society and the leftward drift of American liberalism (The Public Interest, the first neocon journal, was launched in 1965. It was dedicated entirely to domestic affairs, not foreign policy). Unable to reconcile the facts with the feelings of liberalism, a host of intellectuals decided they would stick with the facts, even if it meant that former friends and allies would call them mean for doing so.
.. The Harrington essay that cemented the term “neoconservatism” in American discourse was titled “The Welfare State and Its Neoconservative Critics.” In other words, the original neoconservative critique wasn’t about foreign policy, but domestic policy.
.. According to William F. Buckley, the neoconservatives brought the rigor and language of sociology to conservatism, which until then had been overly, or at least too uniformly, Aristotelian. The Buckleyites (though certainly not folks like Burnham) tended to talk from first principles and natural laws and rights. The neocons looked at the data and discovered that the numbers tended to back up a lot of the things the Aristotelians had been saying... The idea that neoconservatism was primarily about foreign policy, specifically anti-Communism, further complicates things. Part of this is a by-product of the second wave of neoconservatives who joined the movement and the right in the 1970s, mostly through the pages of Commentary. These were rebels against not the welfare state but détente on the right and the radical anti-anti-Communists of the New Left (National Review ran a headline in 1971 on the awakening at Commentary: “Come on In, the Water’s Fine.”) Many of those writers, most famously Jeanne Kirkpatrick, ended up leading the intellectual shock troops of the Reagan administration.
It is certainly true that the foreign-policy neocons emphasized certain things more than generic conservatives, specifically the promotion of democracy abroad. In ill-intentioned hands, this fact is often used as a cover for invidious arguments about the how the neocons never really shed their Trotskyism and were still determined to “export revolution.” But for the most part, it can’t be supported by what these people actually wrote. Moreover, the idea that only neocons care about promoting democracy simply glosses over everything from the stated purpose of the First World War, the Marshall Plan, stuff like JFK’s inaugural address (“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty”), and this thing called the Reagan Doctrine... And then there are the Joooooz. Outside of deranged comment sections and the swampy ecosystems of the “alt-right,” the sinister version of this theory is usually only hinted at or alluded to. Neocons only care about Israel is the Trojan horse that lets people get away with not saying the J-word. Those bagel-snarfing warmongers want real Americans to do their fighting for them. Pat Buchanan, when opposing the first Gulf War in 1992, listed only Jewish supporters of the war and then said they’d be sending “American kids with names like McAllister, Murphy, Gonzales and Leroy Brown” to do the fighting. Subtle... In his memoir, Irving Kristol, “the Godfather of the Neoconservatives,” argued that the movement had run its course and dissolved into the conservative movement generally.So today, neoconservatism has become what it started out as, an invidious term used by its opponents to single out and demonize people as inauthentic, un-American, unreliable, or otherwise suspicious heretics, traitors, or string-pullers. The chief difference is that they were once aliens in the midst of liberalism, now they are called aliens in the midst of conservatism. And it’s all bullsh**... The editor of American Greatness, a journal whose tagline should be “Coming Up with Reasons Why Donald Trump’s Sh** Doesn’t Stink 24/7” opens with “Neoconservatism is dead, long live American conservatism” and then, amazingly, proceeds to get dumber... A bit further on, he asserts that “for years, neoconservatives undermined and discredited the work of conservatives from Lincoln to Reagan . . .” This is so profoundly unserious that not only is it impossible to know where to begin, it’s a struggle to finish the sentence for fear the stupid will rub off. Does he have in mind the Straussians (Walter Berns, Robert Goldwin, et al.) at that neocon nest the American Enterprise Institute who wrote lovingly about Lincoln at book length for decades?
And what of the scores of neoconservatives who worked for Ronald Reagan and helped him advance the Reaganite agenda? Were they all fifth columnists? Or perhaps they were parasites attaching themselves to a “host organism,” as Buskirk repugnantly describes Kristol?
He doesn’t say, because Buskirk doesn’t rely on an argument. Save for a couple of Bill Kristol tweets out of context, he cites no writing and marshals no evidence. Instead, he lets a wink, or rather the stink, do all of his work. He knows his readers want to hear folderol about neocons. He knows they have their own insidious definitions of what they are and crave to have them confirmed. Bringing any definition or fact to his argument would get in the way of his naked assertions and slimy insinuations... American Greatness ran a piecefloating the idea that Trump’s “covfefe” tweet just might have been a brilliant piece of historically and linguistically literate statecraft. That’s actually plausible compared to the idea that Trump is Moses saving conservatism from a “a purified strain of backward idolatry.”
.. Who is in conflict with the best principles of America: the magazine that for 23 years lionized the founders, Lincoln, and Reagan or the website that rationalizes literally anything Donald Trump does — from crony capitalism to denigrating the First Amendment to paying off porn stars — as either the inventions of his enemies or a small price to pay for national greatness? Not every contributor to American Greatness is dedicated to the art of turd polishing, but that is the site’s larger mission.
.. Trump’s sense of persecution is as contagious as his debating style. Facts are being subordinated to feelings, and the dominant feelings among many Trumpists are simply ugly. And even those who have not turned ugly see no problem working hand in hand with those who have. And how could they, given who they herald as their Moses.
Fusionism was an idea championed most forcefully by Frank Meyer, the longtime literary editor of National Review. He argued that libertarianism — then often called “individualism” — and traditionalism are the twin pillars of conservatism and, more broadly, of a just and free society. The chief obligation of the state is to protect individual liberty, but the chief obligation of the individual is to live virtuously. Coerced virtue is tyrannical: Virtue not freely chosen is not virtuous.
.. But as both a philosophical and a prudential matter, we understand — just as Meyer did to some extent — that freedom is a concept with limits, that each principle must be circumscribed at the extremes by other important principles. A society where literally everything is permitted isn’t free except according to some quasi-Hobbesian or fully Rousseauian or Randian theory about the freedom inherent in a state of nature or an anarcho-capitalist utopia. Some forms of authority must be morally permissible, even to the lover of liberty.
.. Decisions made by others can profoundly affect the ease or difficulty of one’s pursuit of virtue or salvation. If I tell my daughter that her mother and I will not punish her if she uses drugs or ignores her responsibilities, I’m making it harder for her to live a decent, virtuous life. She will have the ultimate choice, but as an authority over her, I can make some choices easier or more difficult.
.. Here’s how I think about it: When presented with a political or philosophical challenge, the conservative, particularly the conservative of the Buckleyan variety, asks two important questions: Does the challenge threaten freedom? Does it hinder the practice of virtue? And he asks the same questions about the proposed response to the challenge.
.. Rothbardians, Randians, and other hyper-individualists are often inmates of their single idea, refusing to temper it with others. “An individualist,” Ayn Rand wrote, “is a man who says: ‘I’ll not run anyone’s life — nor let anyone run mine. I will not rule nor be ruled. I will not be a master nor a slave. I will not sacrifice myself to anyone — nor sacrifice anyone to myself.’” When thoughts are presented in such stark light, all nuance is lost in shadow. It is fine and good to say one will be neither master nor slave, but what about brother or sister, father or son? What about neighbor, friend, or simply fellow citizen? Social solidarity, whether at the intimate level of the family or the broad level of the nation, requires a vastly complex ecosystem of obligations and dependencies that fall to the cutting-room floor when we apply the razor of hyper-individualism.
.. The American tradition, as Tocqueville most famously chronicled, is a stew of both extreme individualism and remarkable associationism. Visitors such as Tocqueville have an easier time seeing this than do native-born Americans themselves. When you grow up in a tradition, that tradition becomes, if not entirely invisible, then certainly recessed into your background assumptions about how the world works.
.. Meyer understood that the strongest metal is an alloy. Steel is stronger than iron because of its blended nature. The Western tradition from antiquity onward was a conversation between two imperatives,
- freedom and order,
- liberty and virtue.
Prior to the Enlightenment, these imperatives were less of a tension and more of a process. Virtue was the way in which one achieved liberty, rightly understood. This conversation, Meyer wrote, was a “dialectic between doctrines which emphasize opposite sides of the same truth.”
.. When intellectuals such as Bozell and Rothbard emphasize one side of the coin, each side appears as a negation of the other. But, in reality, “on neither side is there a purposeful, philosophically founded rejection of the ends the other side proclaims,” Meyer wrote. “Rather, each side emphasizes so strongly the aspect of the great tradition of the West which it sees as decisive that distortion sets in.
.. The place of its goals in the total tradition of the West is lost sight of, and the complementary interdependence of freedom and virtue, of the individual person and political order, is forgotten.”
.. In short, tradition is not a philosophy but the arena in which competing philosophies shape the civilization around them. Libertarians and conservatives, despite all of their disagreements, can find common ground because they share some assumptions that Marxists, Randians, and others do not.
.. The libertarian individualists of the 1960s were more virtue-oriented than they appreciated. The traditionalists of the period were more concerned with freedom than they often let on. And many of the arguments about fusionism amounted to the sorts of squabbles we associate with the faculty lounge; they were so vicious because the stakes were so low.
Meanwhile, the more relevant debate was between populists and elitists. I say “elitists,” not “elites,” because this debate was also fought almost entirely among elites as well.
.. Kendall was an unapologetic majoritarian who believed that the masses were the virtuous citizens of “We the People.” He described himself as an “Appalachians-to-the-Rockies patriot.”
.. Conservatism, and America generally, got through the McCarthy period all right, in large part because elite institutions continued to play their role in constraining and channeling popular uprisings — though, as the 1960s demonstrated, there were also considerable failures. On the right, the competing elite factions disagreed about the extent to which populism should drive conservative political projects, but it was always assumed — if not always stated — that elites in the form of statesmen, intellectuals, etc. would still play an important role in channeling popular passions toward productive ends.
.. That system has largely broken down. The Internet and cable television deserve generous portions of blame, as do our educational system and the media generally. America is not immune to the tendency toward populism when high levels of immigration meet low or nonexistent levels of assimilation. The market itself is part of the problem, too. Division and anger are easily monetized, while moderation and prudence struggle to find a customer base.
.. Talk radio, cable news channels, and various PACs and interest groups have replaced the parties as the main educators of voters and drivers of turnout, and they have done so by stoking partisan anger, often collecting a tidy profit in the process. Much of the conservative movement has become a de facto consultant class for the Republican party, and any effort to provide intellectual correction from a critical distance is deemed an act of betrayal or heresy. What was once a healthy tension has become a kind of co-dependence, and in some instances little more than a racket.
.. Simply put, we live in a populist moment when many of the gatekeepers have either abandoned their posts to join the mob or stand lonely vigil at gates that are no longer needed because the walls are crumbling.
For Trump defenders, it requires incredible effort to keep yourself convinced that he’s the man you want him to be rather than the man he actually is. Orwell was right when he said, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” But the opposite is often true as well. It is incandescently obvious that Donald Trump is not the world’s best negotiator or an honest person, among other glaring truths. But for people either emotionally or professionally invested in Trump, any admission that the Trumpian eminence front is a put-on is a threat of one kind or another. Maintaining the fiction that the emperor’s new clothes are glorious and resplendent takes a lot of effort, too. (For instance, imagine the energy it takes even to attempt to argue that Trump’s accidental “covfefe” tweet was a “genius move that is a very powerful demonstration of his ability to persuade”).
I’m convinced that one of the things that causes Trump disciples to get so angry at conservative Trump critics is that we make it so much harder to sustain the fiction. Of course, Trump makes it much harder than we do, but Trump gets a pass because he is the object of the adulation, while we’re supposed to be in the pews yelling, “Amen.”
.. George Will, William F. Buckley, and numerous writers at National Review were personally fond of, or close to, Reagan, and usually supported him. But when the situation required it, they could be quite blistering in their criticisms. And yet, no one — or no one serious — claimed that Will and Buckley weren’t conservatives.
What changed? Well, lots of things. But one of them has been the populist takeover of the conservative movement. (I have an essay on this in the latest issue of NR.) Populist movements can vary in ideological content but they all share the same psychological passions. Independent thought, naysaying, and insufficient ardor are seen as a kind of disloyalty. Better and earlier than most, Matt Continetti recognized the crisis of the conservative intellectual this takeover represents.