Wednesday, December 19, 2018

What's Become of Conservatism?

Some time ago I removed "neocon" from my Twitter profile. I'm still neoconservative, though.

"American Power" retains its founding epigram at top, "Commentary and analysis on American politics, culture, and national identity, U.S. foreign policy and international relations, and the state of education — from a neoconservative perspective!"

I wouldn't change it even if I knew how, lol. (Blogger's templates are completely changed and I haven't bothered to figure them out, although it's not a big deal, heh.)

I mention this not because attacks on neoconservatives are new (paleocons have despised neocons like forever). What's new is how the most fervent supporters of President Trump have taken to attacking Bill Kristol-style neocons with a fervor that's even more fanatical than what's reserved for the radical left. Why? I guess #MAGA conservatives not only see no difference between neocons and radical leftists, but they're absolutely livid at the perceived treason of those taking the moniker of a "right-winger" while (allegedly) simultaneously working for the destruction of the movement from within.

Longtime readers know that my neoconservativism has been genuine in a number of ways: For one, simply, it's really a "new conservatism" for me, as I was a registered Democrat until the 2004 presidential election — a Truman Democrat, but still. Moreover, I'm ideologically neoconservative across the board, on domestic and foreign policy, and not someone who glommed onto the movement as a rah-rah cheerleader for the (then popular) Iraq war and an ambitious and muscular foreign policy during the G.W. Bush administration. Frankly, most so-called conservatives or erstwhile bandwagoning "neoconservatives" would hardly recognize names like Irving Howe and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. It was Irving Kristol who famously defined a neoconservative as "a liberal who'd been mugged by reality."

There's a long pedigree there. I myself have never worried at being attacked as a "closet leftist" or "pseudo conservative" because I've never tried to prove anything to anyone who's purportedly on the right. My writing, blogging, tweeting, and teaching speak for themselves. That said, I've embraced Donald Trump not so much because he's a conservative ideologue (he's clearly and emphatically not) but because he stands up and fights for what he believes in, and what he believes in mostly and so clearly is America and the interests of Americans. If that puts me at odds with "genuine" conservatives, like Jonah Goldberg and the cruise-ship right-wing, so be it.

It's complicated being a neocon Trump supporter these days, heh.

So, why all these pixels to hash out some defense of my persuasions? Well, mostly because I'm disgusted with all the latest bickering, infighting, and hatred I've been seeing on the right. It's ugly and not flattering to those engaged in it, and it's besmirching the reputations of some serious institutions out there. The newfangled populist right flagship "American Greatness" comes to mind. I like the website. Victor Davis Hanson publishes there, and he's among the smartest, most principled conservatives working today (and no spring chicken of the movement at that). But American Greatness is in the business of settling scores, it seems, and policing the right for ideological purity. And it's unbecoming, to put it mildly.

Exhibit A is this over-the-top Trumpist-nationalist manifesto seen there earlier this week, "Death of The Weekly Standard Signals Rebirth of the Right." It's authored by Chris Buskirk, who's the publisher and editor of the website. I don't know Chris Buskirk. I've been involved in what's sometimes called "movement conservatism" for about a decade now, and I've never heard of the guy. Maybe he's paid his dues. I have no idea. But he's certainly got some ax to grind, or he's got something to prove, or you pick your neologism. Here's the first parts from the article, which might be labeled a screed:


Neoconservatism is dead, long live American conservatism. That’s what I thought when I learned The Weekly Standard would be shuttered by longtime owner Clarity Media. The Standard was a creature of a particular time and place—the 1990s, the Bush-Clinton ascendancy, and Washington, D.C.’s insular, self-referential political class. As such, it never really fit within the broad flow of historic American conservatism. It was always, and intentionally, something different. So perhaps the magazine’s opposition to Donald Trump, his voters, and the America First agenda should come as no surprise.

Max Boot described the magazine as “a redoubt of neoconservatism” in 2002 and he was right. If the National Review of the 1970s and ’80s was the journal of Reaganism, The Weekly Standard carried the banner of Bushism. But the Bushes never carried the Reagan mantle and were never conservatives. They were always blithely unconstrained by any identifiable political philosophy other than the unwavering belief that they should run the country. They represented nothing so much as the mid-20th-century country club set that was content to see the size and scope of government expand as long as they got a piece of the action. And The Weekly Standard was there every step of the way, advocating so-called big-government conservatism at home and moral imperialism abroad. All of it failed. The Bush Administration was discredited by its failed policies and incompetence so it was just a matter of time before the chief organ of Bushism failed too.

But the life and death of The Weekly Standard is really the story of the death and rebirth of American conservatism, which is nothing more than the modern political expression of America’s founding principles.

As with other more virulent forms of Left-liberal politics, the neoconservatives maintain a sense of aristocratic entitlement to rule despite having killed almost everything they touched. It is their combination of titanic hubris and priggish moralism that is behind their aggressive advocacy of endless foreign wars and meddling in the internal affairs of other countries. For The Weekly Standard, it made sense to send thousands of Americans to their deaths defending Iraq’s borders, but they wouldn’t lift a finger to protect our own. As the real world results of their misadventures came home to roost, conservatives realized that The Weekly Standard didn’t represent them.

For years, neoconservatives undermined and discredited the work of conservatives from Lincoln to Reagan who held to a set of common principles and a common sense understanding that America is for Americans and it is the job of government to protect the rights and interests of the American people—and only the American people. But over the past few years, Bill Kristol became more transparent about his real beliefs. For example, he let us know in a tweet that he “Obviously strongly prefer(s) normal democratic and constitutional politics. But if it comes to it, prefer the deep state to the Trump state” and in another that, “The GOP tax bill’s bringing out my inner socialist.” The point is that Kristol and the Standard’s attachment to conservative principles was always provisional and transactional. The Republican Party and the conservative movement were a temporary vehicle for their personal and policy agendas. Now, Kristol and others have moved on in search of a new host organism.

That’s because the world of Beltway neoconservatism of which the Standard was the arch example is only partially about ideas, it’s also about power and more especially about privilege—and that means sinecures. That’s a nice way of saying that it’s what people hate about politics, that it often becomes self-serving and careerist rather than about the American ideal of building and maintaining the institutions of government that allow the individual, the family, and the church to thrive...
There's more at the link, but you get the idea.

While I can agree with some of the attacks here on elitism and stupid establishment sinecures, the attack on "moral imperialism abroad" might as well have been written by Patrick Buchanan, if not Lew Rockwell. It's stupid. Who would ever argue that President Ronald Reagan failed to espouse a moral American foreign policy, which by virtue of its overwhelming materialist power and geographic stretch has been long characterized as a practical American imperialism by such august scholars as the historian Paul Kennedy and the late political scientist Chalmers Johnson (even in his pre-paleonservative days)?

Besides, it's just personal and nasty. Which brings me to this really ugly kerfuffle of the last few days seen on Twitter, featuring American Greatness feature writer Julie Kelly and National Review's David French and his wife Nancy. You can get up to speed by clicking through at the tweet below, but in short, this is the politics of personal destruction plain and simple, and in my experience it's been the ghouls on the left who've mastered this kind of no-hold-barred ideological combat (and now the so-called new wave warriors of the populist right). See also the Resurgent, "David French Defends Wife on Twitter," and "Julie Kelly of American Greatness Attacks a Victim of Sexual Abuse Because Trump."


So what has become of conservatism? Is a conservative someone who's a populist-nationalist, tough on trade type with "blood and soil" proclivities? Or is a conservative really just the old hardcore free-market libertarian with the social ethos of the old Ward Cleaver suburban cultural demographic?

Actually, it's neither of these things nowadays, if a look around at the right's contemporary ideological battlespace is any clue. It's Trump über alles these days. And that includes a lot of hatin' on those who haven't drunk the Kool-Aid. To be a "true" conservative you basically have to hate the "cruise ship" establishment crowd that's reigned in D.C. for a couple of decades now. But hey, forget small government ideology. I mean, what's that? President Trump recently said that he couldn't care less about the size of the federal budget, because "I won’t be here" when it blows up. I guess being "conservative" now is more about who you hate than what you stand for.

These debates over ideological purity come and go. We had a big schism on the right after Barack Obama was elected in 2008. We had more of that in 2012 when so-called "faux-conservative" Mitt Romney won the GOP nomination that year. Donald Trump's unpredictable victory in 2016 produced perhaps the most vociferous ideological schism of all. It's rather tiring to me, but then, I've been but a minor figure at the margins of the movement, it turns out. And when push comes to shove, being a political activist or operative isn't my first job: I'm a professor and teacher of politics first (and a father and family man); a blogger and ideological political combatant second.

But whenever these schisms over ideology break out I always refer to my favorite book on what it means to be a conservative, Barry Goldwater's 1960 masterpiece, The Conscience of a Conservative. What sticks out most for me in that book is Goldwater's unabashed and robust defense of the conservative ideal as epitomized as human freedom. And to achieve that human freedom --- the essential liberty of mankind --- government must be limited and reduced to its core functions, providing public order, basic public goods, most especially the vital protection of our nation's security against external enemies. Interestingly, Goldwater's last chapter is "The Soviet Menace," where he writes:
And still the awful truth remains: We can establish the domestic conditions for maximizing freedom, along the lines I have indicated [in the book's previous chapters], and yet become slaves. We can do this by losing the Cold War to the Soviet Union.
It's interesting to me, then, to finish by highlighting that the true "conscience of a conservative" is to be deeply concerned with America's forward moral role in the world, because by only making national security a core prerequisite for securing conservative ideals can a genuine and true "right wing" ideological program at home succeed. This isn't, therefore, the kind of ideology of the folks at American Greatness or other acolytes of the war on the cruise-ship elites. There are some great current conservative voices that might seem to be in the camp of the Chris Buskirks and Julie Kellys --- like the inimitable Kurt Schlichter, for example --- but they're not really, for they're distinctive in their strong moral advocacy for American economic and military power, and for a unabashed support for America's many forward strategic missions currently in operation around the world.

So with that I conclude. We have a strong and powerful current of conservative ideological belief on which to draw. For me it's less about being a "neocon" than being for a unique American philosophy of exceptionalism worth defending. A true exceptionalism as an ideal different from other so-called conservative countries. It's a frontier exceptionalism that's pure and most conducive to human freedom. And it's a conservatism that need not tear others down in vicious bursts of online ugliness nor a conservatism that wants to roll up the drawbridge, turning its back to the problems of the world. It's the conservatism of both ideals and action, and of standing as the beacon for right and a light unto others, at home and abroad.

That's what I believe.

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