The Neocons Have Gone From GOP Thought-Leaders to Outcasts

Jonathan Chait writes:

On February 29, Max Boot, a neoconservative columnist and then a foreign-policy adviser to Marco Rubio, wrote that if Donald Trump were to win his party’s nomination, it would “confirm everything bad that Democrats have ever said about the GOP.” In May, he pronounced the Republican Party “dead” and announced that “[Hillary] Clinton would be far preferable to Trump.” By July, he was admitting in the New York Times that Trump was the most noxious manifestation of “the party’s anti-intellectual drift.” The rise of Trump has provoked similar reactions from other neoconservatives, including David Frum, Dan Senor, James Kirchick, Michael Gerson, Jennifer Rubin, Eliot A. Cohen, John Podhoretz, Bret Stephens, Robert Kagan, and even the Republican operator William Kristol (who has tried, without success, to organize a Republican Party–in–exile). Not all these figures have endorsed Clinton, but every one has treated the Republican nominee as something much worse than a suboptimal choice or a surefire loser; Trump is, in their estimation, a threat to democracy itself and a symptom of deep rot within the party…

The original neoconservatives were a small faction of formerly liberal or left-wing intellectuals, disproportionately Jewish, who defected to the GOP in the 1970s. (One of them, Kristol’s father, Irving, famously quipped that a neoconservative was a liberal who had been “mugged by reality.”) Their complaints with the left centered on foreign policy, on how the Democratic Party had grown more dovish in the wake of Vietnam. Over time, they adapted themselves to the whole Republican litany, carving out a useful role defending supply-side economics, the conspiratorial ravings of Pat Robertson, and pretty much any lunacy attached to the party. Yet foreign affairs remained the distinctive field in which they largely dictated conservative doctrine. Neocons saw a black-and-white morality as the foundation of the American victory in World War II and then the Cold War; indeed, they believed it could be applied to every foreign conflict and, with the appropriate application of willpower and righteousness, result in the inevitable spread of democracy everywhere. Neoconservatives famously developed the master plan to defeat Al Qaeda via democratic regime change throughout the Middle East.

The fall of Baghdad represented the apogee of neoconservative influence within the party. In April 2003, Frum, who had previously been a speechwriter for the Bush administration, wrote a cover essay for National Review, the conservative movement’s flagship publication, excommunicating the isolationist paleoconservatives. At the time, it hardly seemed worth the effort, as the objects of Frum’s banishment consisted mostly of obscure cranks lacking any channels of influence. During the Bush era, neoconservatism was riding so high it had essentially grown synonymous with conservatism. Many liberals learned to read the neo- prefix as a kind of intensifier: A neoconservative seemed to mean an ultraconservative, the most fanatical and dangerous strain…

Not all neoconservatives are Jewish — in fact the Gentile ones, like Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, William Bennett, and Steve Forbes, still tend to support Trump. But Trump has struck at the heart of Jewish neoconservatism at a level deeper than mere doctrine. The original neocons were influenced by Leo Strauss, a Jewish philosopher who fled Nazi Germany and feared the power of demagogues to manipulate the masses. They were elitists who cultivated an aura of erudition and believed in ­intellectualism — or at least pseudo-intellectualism.

And while neocons have always joined standard conservatives in downplaying white racism, they never opposed the civil-rights movement like William F. Buckley did, instead arguing that it went offtrack after dismantling legal apartheid in the South. Trump’s blunt appeal to white identity politics has pried open this divide. Frum’s 2003 essay attacking the paleoconservatives denounced the very sort of people now flocking to Trump — “white racialists” for whom “race and ethnicity were from the start essential and defining issues.” The whiff of Herrenvolk democracy (a democracy representing only the interests of the dominant race) is an especially frightening phenomenon to those who suspect they’re not included among the Volk. “This is how fascism comes to America,” Kagan wrote in May.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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