Assuming Mr. Trump’s indiscretions don’t bounce him out of office within a year, American foreign policy looks set to change “big league”. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hung a bit more flesh on Trump’s amorphous “America First” slogan when he announced the administration’s intention to seek “balance” in foreign affairs, focusing less on transforming other countries into paragons of Western political values and more on pursuing naked US interests. While the jury is still out on how this change will look in practice, one big casualty is likely to be an influential faction of the intelligentsia known as the “neoconservatives”.
The term “neoconservative” was first coined as an insult in 1973 when an American socialist levelled the charge at various leftists who, he claimed, had become right-wingers in all but name. In 1978 the American writer Irving Kristol (1920-2009) decided he liked the label and formally adopted it to describe himself and other like-minded ex-leftists. Kristol would become famous for his definition of a neoconservative as “a liberal who’s been mugged by reality”. He was such a prolific writer that he would later claim, credibly, to have forgotten many of his own essays.
Kristol hadn’t been simply an innocuous social democrat. As he would later explain, his Marxism as a university student in the early 1940s was really “neo-Marxism”, since he’d “never had a problem with God”. In practice, he distinguished himself from other Marxists by his anti-Stalinism. He joined the Trotkyist “Socialist Workers Party” and, in another instance of the “splittism” that always afflicts hard-left groups, broke away to join the “Workers Party”. By the time he finished service in WWII, he was on a trajectory toward mainstream liberalism, running a CIA-funded literary journal in London in the 1950s, voting Democrat for president until 1972. By the mid-1970s, as Ronald Reagan was rising, he’d fully embraced the Republican party.
By the late 1970s, belief that material wealth was an inevitable reward for fealty to the Protestant-Puritan work ethic had been waning in America, and the “neocons” thought they could fill the moral void. They saw “neoliberalism” as inadequate because – they believed – the market alone offered no ethical code to hold society together. So they constructed their own code, exalting the US corporation as a socially virtuous institution that could inspire fear and respect in ambitious US citizens, and depicting state socialism as the ultimate “undesirable other”.
Since the squalid rival superpower was defined by state socialism, this second part was easy. But the neocons took their campaign a step further. The antiwar movement in the 1960s had brought all kinds of peaceniks out of the woodwork, including those sympathetic to the Vietnamese communists. When some liberals united with Marxists against the war, all liberals became ideologically suspect, convenient targets for the charge of harboring secret sympathy for the USSR and a hidden agenda to impose Soviet-style socialism on America.
The accusation worked well. America’s liberal Left was a wilting opponent, and Jimmy Carter proved easy to paint as a limp-wristed wimp. Another of neoconservatism’s founding fathers, prolific author Norman Podhoretz, attributed the Left’s weak stance on Soviet totalitarianism to the influence of homosexuality – specifically, English homosexuality. According to Podhoretz, English homosexual writers had contributed to a “culture of appeasement” in WWI, leading Hitler to believe that Britain wouldn’t fight back if attacked. The same attitude, he claimed, could be seen among the Vietnam War’s opponents. He pointed to openly gay American writers as debilitating and disgusting antimilitarist influences. It wasn’t that the neocons were enthusiastic about the Vietnam War; it was that they resented the antiwar movement even more.
Neoconservatism’s “grandfather” – the 20th-century political philosopher Leo Strauss (1899-1973) – didn’t even think of himself as a conservative. After fleeing Weimar Germany, Strauss tried to settle in England in 1935 but left for America in 1937 with the help of his patron, British socialist Harold Laski, after the University of Cambridge refused him a permanent place. Strauss kicked around various American colleges for a few years, eventually landing an adjunct position at the newly founded New School for Social Research in New York. At his final destination, the University of Chicago, he acquired a large circle of followers, including Irving Kristol.
Strauss taught that “Anglo-American democracy” was the modern manifestation of “timeless ideals” embodied in the works of Ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle. “Liberal democracy” necessitated “philosopher-rule”, and while society’s inevitable division into classes led naturally to a de facto aristocracy that kept the flame of liberty alive, the “timeless ideals” were accessible to all human beings simply by virtue of being human, regardless of culture or origin. It was a “law of nature”: everyone on Earth could absorb the Athenian ideals of freedom.
What Strauss conveniently omitted was something that had emerged between Ancient Greece and Anglo-American civilization, namely, Christianity. This was no accidental omission: Christianity, like all religions in the Straussian universe, had no relevance to the formation of a polity reifying absolute truth because it was “historical”: it only applied to certain people and thus wasn’t “universal”. If it played any role, it was as a tool in the hands of Machiavellian leaders. Religious texts couldn’t legitimately influence political philosophy, since they were articles of faith – “revelation” as opposed to “reason” – and thus incorrigibly mysterious.
Strauss parsed the ugly aspects of Ancient Greece – slavery, infanticide, violence, rebellion, constant war – from the pristine thoughts of its central philosophers, and when critics charged that Plato and Aristotle hadn’t actively opposed slavery, Strauss explained that some people were slaves “by convention” (unjustly enslaved), while others were slaves “by nature” (naturally predisposed to slavery). To Straussians, the abolition of slavery had never had anything to do with spiritual sensibilities: Abraham Lincoln, for example, had merely followed the tradition of the “humane Plato”, of “timeless standards of decency” born in Ancient Greece.
Perhaps surprisingly, historical figures asserting the superiority of Christianity in eliminating antiquity’s horrors feature prominently in the Straussian pantheon of heroes. Hobbes and Locke held up “charity” as the standard of good citizenship, explicitly deriving it from the “Golden Rule” of Christian scripture (Matthew 7:12: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you…”). Alexander Hamilton condemned the Jacobins for renouncing Christianity and, thus, relapsing into “barbarism”. Thomas Jefferson (possessed of a few Machiavellian traits) referred to the Christian ethic of charity as superior to anything ancient pagan republicanism had ever conceived. Alexis de Tocqueville specifically credited Christianity with destroying slavery “by asserting the rights of the slave”, and Lincoln justified abolition with the Golden Rule. Even Winston Churchill, seldom seen as religious, credited Christianity with the moral foundations for the social contract of democracies. Yet Strauss dismissed all these and others as insincere. Whether or not charity, trust and other social virtues have Christian roots merits much discussion in day-to-day government, they are relevant to the fate of neoconservatism today.
Sign up for our FREE Reaction Weekend Email
Read the week's best-read articles on politics, business and geopolitics
Receive offers and exclusive invites
Plus uplifting cultural commentary
Irving Kristol translated Straussian thought into a “conservative” domestic and foreign policy program in the final decade of the Cold War. Conservatism in the US had always been an amorphous and unstable proposition: America had no Edmund Burke to construct a political philosophy in reaction to the French Revolution. In a country with no official religion, ethnicity or language – and no monarch to personify the nation – the danger posed by populist demagoguery to national stability and unity was ever-present. Evolving alongside progressive liberalism, America’s provincial and parochial conservatism risked eclipse by inefficient state socialism, advanced (the thinking went) by closet Communists at home and a rival superpower abroad. So Kristol fashioned a “new” conservatism, appealing directly to US corporations to commission intellectual champions (the neocons) to attack the “undesirable other”. His corporate network became legendary, and he won the informal title “godfather” for his skill at connecting people to sponsors, making him a potential goldmine for those willing to toe the line.
Kristol liked to describe neoconservatism more as a “persuasion” than an ideology. But the creed had tenets, championing “democratic capitalism” and fierce anti-communism (the USSR being the embodiment of communism). But he also viewed the growth of the state as natural and inevitable. Oddly, Kristol believed in both national health insurance (it didn’t discriminate between rich and poor) and the welfare state. He just thought the welfare state should serve the state’s ideological goals – as a “moral tutor” conditioning largesse on right-thinking behavior and acting less as a charitable institution than a social engineer. Imagine a pledge on a neocon-designed form for signature by welfare recipients: “I am not now, nor will I ever be, a member of the Communist Party.”
Although he was very clever, Kristol wasn’t necessarily any more prescient than most other Cold Warriors about how quickly the Soviet bloc would collapse. Less than a decade after neoconservatism’s christening as an ideological brand, the Cold War was over. Some of the most passionate neocons – notably Norman Podhoretz – refused at first to see Gorbachev’s reforms as anything but a ruse to trick the West. Finally, on a visit to the USSR in 1989, Podhoretz came face to face with glasnost, and disillusionment with his conviction that totalitarian communist regimes were incapable of even thinking about meaningful change set in quickly.
A few prominent neocons, including Irving Kristol and former UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, reverted to realism: the US could now return to “normalcy”, they claimed, looking out for its own interests and concentrating on its domestic arrangements. For them, there was no longer a credible enemy. As Kristol wrote in 1996:
“With the end of the Cold War, what we really need is an obvious ideological and threatening enemy, one worthy of our mettle, one that can unite us in opposition. Isn’t that what the most successful movie of the year, “Independence Day,” is telling us? Where are our aliens when we most need them?”
But Kristol had created a Frankenstein he didn’t control, and most neocons were having none of his glumness. They called for some form of “democratic globalism” to establish US world hegemony, arguing that, since America was founded on universal ideals, it had a unique mission to actively intervene around the world – by force if needed – even in the absence of an adversary with global reach. Their fevered imaginations reflected the strange provincialism of those who have never immersed themselves in foreign societies. Irving Kristol opposed their vision, describing it as “full of presumption”. But the post-godfather neocons “knew”: the “timeless ideals” were ready for transplant into the minds of everyone, everywhere, right now.
The aristocracy began to assume a vaguely hereditary air. The younger generation included Irving Kristol’s son, William, co-founder of The Weekly Standard, who adopted an unabashedly interventionist line (today he favours “liberal empire”). Norman Podhoretz’s son John would have a successful journalistic career, eventually becoming editor-in-chief of his father’s old periodical, Commentary. A new think tank, the (now-defunct) “Project for the New American Century”, was co-founded in 1997 by Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan, editor of New Republic, to promote democratic globalism. These and other younger neocons would effortlessly take their places as authoritative American talking heads, appearing regularly on TV from the 1990s on.
When British-American historian Paul Kennedy wrote of America’s inevitable decline in the post-Cold War era, neocons reacted angrily, pointing to the success of President George H. W. Bush’s operation to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1990 as proof that a robust, militaristic American globalism had a bright future. Kennedy clarified the “declinist” argument:
“They were concentrating too much of their energy and resources on defense and neglecting the state of American technical education, infrastructure, indebtedness, high-tech competitiveness, erosion of the social fabric and other problems. To say a swift battlefield victory proves the declinists wrong is a total misinterpretation.”
The neocon machine was undeterred, applauding the US-led intervention in Yugoslavia in 1999, and the political juggernaut that swept America to full-scale war following the terror attacks of September 2001 gave declinist ideas of “imperial overstretch” a sharp and painful rebuff. George W. Bush had surrounded himself with neoconservative advisers anxious for greater US military engagement abroad, and only a year after taking office, the new president would deliver his famous “Axis of Evil” speech to Congress (penned by neocon David Frum). The neocons already had the political upper hand in the rush to war in Iraq, and nothing serious would get in their way. The powerhouse think tank of the neocon network – the big-budgeted American Enterprise Institute – stepped up its global democracy-promotion rhetoric. But since the invasion turned out to be less than a “cakewalk”, as one neocon had predicted, action against the other two members of Frum’s “Axis” – Iran and North Korea – was postponed indefinitely. The eight years of the Obama presidency no doubt seemed interminable to the democratic globalists.
Then came the election of 2016. The neocons watched with revulsion during the campaign as their preferred choices dropped like flies before the “phenomenon” of Trump. The “erosion of the social fabric” to which Paul Kennedy had referred a quarter-century ago had reached a tipping point. Amid his blend of nativism and economic protectionism, Trump successfully played the “Christian card”. Death-cult theocratic movements like ISIS were rendering Straussian ideals of “liberal democracy” moot. Christian Americans were ready to rally behind the bleating celebrity billionaire with the funny orange hair who talked about “radical Islamic terrorism”. Evangelicals turned out for Trump in numbers not seen since Reagan.
Almost to a man, the neocons rejected Trump. While neocon elder Norman Podhoretz grudgingly endorsed The Donald (who repeatedly pledged to defend the State of Israel), son John teamed up with Bill Kristol for the “Against Trump” issue of National Review. Kristol even organized a rival “Republican” candidacy to deny Trump votes (the obscure figure he ran attracted little attention nationally). Charles Krauthammer declared he could vote for neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump, while Frum, Kagan and Max Boot went so far as to endorse Hillary. Daniel Pipes and George Will resigned from the Republican Party in protest. The battle lines were drawn against Trump in 2016, and they remain remarkably firm today.
The situation is not without irony: had Irving Kristol lived long enough, he might have endorsed Trump, just as his old friend Norman Podhoretz did. Kristol was an advocate of “unilateral nationalism”, favoring US intervention free of cumbersome coalitions. He thought the United Nations was “stupid” and faulted the Bush Sr. administration for jumping through hoops to secure UN approval for Operation Desert Storm. But Trump has signalled his administration’s readiness to “go it alone” in North Korea, and what could be more “unilaterally nationalist” than Trump’s strike on Syria, pulled off without informing even a single traditional ally?
In retrospect, the neocons (especially Irving Kristol) can be credited with lending a serious dose of “chutzpah” to the West’s political offensive in the Cold War. Further to their credit, the greatness of Anglo-American civilization is something many of us will agree on. Unfortunately, the neocons’ picture of what made that civilization great was always incomplete.
While Strauss was probably right that it serves no purpose to debate the rectitude of any interpretation of faith as it applies to politics, Christianity is about more than Jesus and the Bible. It is a social and cultural force that affects aspects of our lives we take for granted every day, including the law. This is partly why the self-styled British neocon Douglas Murray urged even non-believers to go to church on Easter Sunday this year: he and other highbrows might not take Christianity seriously, but, hey, it’s our civilization. To neglected blue-collar Americans with no time to read Plato and Aristotle, the highbrow neocon “bubble set” was just another out-of-touch “chattering class”. These Americans found their champion in Trump, who seems to be able to get away with anything in their eyes, even “loose lips” in front of the Russians.
To the extent genuine mass popular outrage still exists in America, it exists in the Trump movement, among the tens of millions mistrustful of Obama’s political correctness and unmoved by democratic-globalist presumptuousness amid social decay and domestic crises like the national drug overdose epidemic. For these angry, traumatized Americans, Trump is still a great man; for most others, he is a source of daily anxiety. At a time when many probably thought they’d left bad memories of secondary school behind forever, America’s head of state wears his hair like a Nike swoosh and uses the term “loser” as a pejorative. “Proletarian” revolts seldom look the way elites envision them, but that doesn’t make them any less real.
Once in a while an event or phenomenon occurs that can be described historically as a “spanner in the works”. President Donald J. Trump is a “spanner”. He has thumbed his nose at the PC-left establishment and sidelined universal neoconservative ideals as a policy guide. Along with the urban-liberal left, the cavalier neocon elite has been dismissing the Trump scenario for decades. Now they’re outraged. The neocons arguably received their first serious warning from Brexit, a (relatively civilized) revolt by ordinary citizens against a remote, high-handed elite presuming to act in their name. Trump, by contrast, has dealt the neocons a blunt-force blow to the head. Expect them to go on kicking and screaming until he is brought down – or they are.
Chad Nagle is an attorney and freelance writer living in the Washington, DC area.