Making Sense of the New American Right

Keeping track of the Jacksonians, Reformicons, Paleos, and Post-liberals.

I like to start my classes on conservative intellectual history by distinguishing between three groups. There is the Republican party, with its millions of adherents and spectrum of opinion from very conservative, somewhat conservative, moderate, and yes, liberal. There is the conservative movement, the constellation of single-issue nonprofits that sprung up in the 1970s

  • gun rights,
  • pro-life,
  • taxpayer,
  • right to work

— and continue to influence elected officials. Finally, there is the conservative intellectual movement: writers, scholars, and wonks whose journalistic and political work deals mainly with ideas and, if we’re lucky, their translation into public policy.

Conservative Facts

Conservative Facts

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.

 I’m not a fan of tu quoque arguments, but the idea that American Greatness has standing to position itself as an organ dedicated to larger principles and ideas is hilarious, given that the website’s only purpose is to attach itself like a remora to Donald Trump, a man who doesn’t even call himself a conservative, even for convenience, anymore. Just this week, American Greatness’s Julie Kelly mocked Nancy French’s childhood trauma of being sexually abused. When I criticized her for it, Kelly snarked back something about how “Never Trumpers” have a problem with the truth. It’s like these people don’t see it. You cannot claim to care about the truth while being a rabid defender of this president’s hourly mendacity.
.. 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.

When the Tide Comes In

In January of 1959, The Mercury had run an editorial “revealing” a Jewish conspiracy of world conquest along the lines of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Buckley was under pressure from backers of NR and others to publicly rebuke and denounce The Mercury. But some on the NR board worried that it would cost the fledgling magazine many of its subscribers. One board member, Mrs. A. E. Bonbrake, whom Judis describes as “a Forest Hills housewife whom Buckley had promoted to the board as a representative grass-roots activist,” asked, “Since when is it the job of National Review to attack supposedly anti-Semitic publications?”

(More about that “supposedly” later.)

“But Buckley felt hypocritical at remaining silent,” Judis recounts. “He wrote Bonbrake, “I do not feel comfortable criticizing Liberals . . . for not disavowing objectionable Liberals, when I do not myself [disavow objectionable conservatives].”

Buckley first settled for a compromise: National Review’s editors would not write for The Mercury nor would National Review publish anyone associated with it. If you were on their masthead, you couldn’t be on ours. Remember, The Mercury had long been a respected publication on the right, and many of the writers at National Review had cut their teeth writing for it. Many were on both mastheads, in one capacity or another. No longer. You can be with us or with them, but not both. All but one writer sided with National Review.

.. In January of 1959, The Mercury had run an editorial “revealing” a Jewish conspiracy of world conquest along the lines of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Buckley was under pressure from backers of NR and others to publicly rebuke and denounce The Mercury. But some on the NR board worried that it would cost the fledgling magazine many of its subscribers. One board member, Mrs. A. E. Bonbrake, whom Judis describes as “a Forest Hills housewife whom Buckley had promoted to the board as a representative grass-roots activist,” asked, “Since when is it the job of National Review to attack supposedly anti-Semitic publications?”

(More about that “supposedly” later.)

“But Buckley felt hypocritical at remaining silent,” Judis recounts. “He wrote Bonbrake, “I do not feel comfortable criticizing Liberals . . . for not disavowing objectionable Liberals, when I do not myself [disavow objectionable conservatives].”

Buckley first settled for a compromise: National Review’s editors would not write for The Mercury nor would National Review publish anyone associated with it. If you were on their masthead, you couldn’t be on ours. Remember, The Mercury had long been a respected publication on the right, and many of the writers at National Review had cut their teeth writing for it. Many were on both mastheads, in one capacity or another. No longer. You can be with us or with them, but not both. All but one writer sided with National Review.

.. What bothers me is how high these bucks had to go before anyone thought, “Maybe it should stop with me?”

..  the “I’d rather be a Russian than a Democrat” swag among supposed “America First” “nationalists,” Laura Ingraham’s nativist remarks the other night, and this sort of nonsense from Jeanine Pirro.

..  As institutions lose their hold on us, we put our faith in celebrities.

.. Fame becomes its own defense, and instead of invoking principles to stigmatize and shun the irresponsible famous, we yoke convenient principles to the cause of rationalizing our feelings. The round peg of the First Amendment is crammed into square holes. Populist and anti-elitist boilerplate is slapped together to protect the indefensible from criticism. So-and-so has an “authentic constituency,” “Who are you to say what is a legitimate point of view?” “Who put you in charge of policing speech?”

.. There was no legitimate defense of The Mercury against the charge of anti-Semitism. But by saying it was only “supposedly” anti-Semitic, Mrs. Bonbrake was really saying, “I choose not to care about the true or the good; instead I will let evil thrive, sheltered by a benefit of the doubt both unearned and unwanted by the rightly accused.”

.. I am not a huge fan of the argument that says, “The only cure for bad speech is more speech.” But if that argument is to mean anything at all, it must be applied seriously. In other words, if you want to defend the speech of Alex Jones or the bigots swarming out of the swamps, you cannot then denounce, belittle, or mock the exercise of anyone’s right to condemn that speech.

.. When it falls to a bunch of giant corporations — or the federal government — to decide what speech is permissible, it is usually a sign that the rest of civil society has failed to do its job. It is axiomatic that in a free society with a limited government, customs and norms should be strong and robust.

.. The same goes for cynical psychopaths such as Alex Jones. It was outrageous for Donald Trump to go on his show and praise him.
.. My objection is that she has been a guest on Alex Jones’s Infowars.
.. Oh, and if you think such niceties are unnecessary today because “winning” is the highest principle in an existential war with “the libs,” bear in mind that Buckley, Chambers, Burnham, and the other happy few conservatives at NR were far more outnumbered in 1955, and that the institutional forces arrayed against them were far more daunting, than anything conservatives face today. And yet Buckley understood, as he put it in Up from Liberalism, that “conservatism must be wiped clean of the parasitic cant that defaces it.”
.. Cultures are shaped by incentives. The GOP has been grievously wounded and deformed by the refusal of conservatives, in and out of elective office, to lay down the correct incentives. By refusing to defend conservative dogma against “supposedly” racist and nativist forces, our dogma is being erased like the battlements of a sand castle when the tide comes in.

Generation Shapiro

Ben Shapiro and the future of American conservatism

.. the person who appeared to be doing the most to shape the thinking of the new generation of Republican leaders was not the president of the United States—but Ben Shapiro, a 34-year-old anti-Trump conservative pundit who came up unprompted in more than a third of my conversations.”

.. More important, though, is what Shapiro’s celebrity tells us about the changing nature of media, the emerging sensibility of conservative youth, and indeed the future of American conservatism itself.

Shapiro owes a lot to social media. His appearances on Fox News Channel are not the cause but the consequence of his fame. It is by searching YouTube that teenagers come across his debates with campus lefties, his speeches, his appearances on like-minded podcasts, and his extended interviews with friends and other members of the so-called intellectual dark web.

.. Shapiro is a conservative pundit for a dis-intermediated age.

.. They are more interested in debating social and cultural issues than the problems of government or the midterm elections. They have a snarky sense of humor that appreciates the irony in trolling the Left or “owning the libs.

.. Nor is their consumption of media limited to conservative sources. They are well aware of the critiques of the right from the mainstream media and comedy hosts, and even laugh at some of the jokes on SNL and John Oliver.

.. The issue that motivates these young people is political correctness:

  • its denial of differences between the sexes, its
  • reduction of identity to ethnic and racial ancestry, its
  • stultifying effect on intellectual inquiry and free speech.

For them, President Trump and the constellation of social and political problems with which he is associated are secondary to larger questions of cultural and academic freedom.

..  Ben Shapiro resembles no one so much as the young William F. Buckley Jr.