hat is a neocon? Do neocons, in fact, even exist? New York Times columnist David Brooks, who might himself be described as a kind of soft neoconor is that an oxymoron?tried his best to make light of the whole idea four years ago in a piece that mocked liberal notions of neocon influence on the Bush administration’s foreign policy:

Later, in the same column Brooks joked that the conspiracy theorists think “con is short for ‘conservative’ and neo is short for ‘Jewish.’” Or, at least, he said it was a joke later, after critics pounced on him: “I was careful not to say that Bush or neocon critics are anti-Semitic,” he backtracked.

As well he should have been. After all, the accusation that neoconservatism is primarily a Jewish phenomenon is a common one becausewell, because an awful lot of neocons are Jewish. After all, the roll call of influential contemporary neocons usually starts with Paul Wolfowitz and Bill Kristol and then rolls ponderously through Richard Perle, Doug Feith, Elliott Abrams, and others before finishing up with Charles Krauthammer and Marty Peretz. Not to mention one David Brooks. That’s a lot of Jewish names.

But wait! What about Jeanne Kirkpatrick and Patrick Moynihan? Or, among the current crop, Bill Bennett and Michael Novak? They aren’t Jewish.

Which brings us to Jacob Heilbrunn and his recently published history of neoconservatism, They Knew They Were Right. Heilbrunn, who is himself Jewish and who once went through his own youthful flirtation with neoconservatism, doesn’t shy away from diving directly into this most inflammatory of questions. No, Heilbrunn writes, not all neocons are Jewish, especially today, but there’s no question where the roots of neoconservatism lie:

Not everyone will agree with that particular gloss, but the origins of what Norman Podhoretz calls the neoconservative “persuasion” are unquestionably rooted in the Jewish immigrant world of New York City in the 1930s, a story that Heilbrunn lays out in a near blur of detail that, at times unfortunately, characterizes the entire book. It centers on the City College of New York, where Trotskyites dueled obsessively across the cafeteria alcoves with Stalinists about nearly everything: the New Deal, the Spanish civil war, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, a thousand arcane points of Marxist theory, and, of course, the future of the world. Always that. And always with no holds barred, no backsliding forgotten, and no allowances given. It was politics as intellectual street fight, where no slight was left unanswered and the only way to deal with an enemy was with a crushing blow.

Not all of these young Trotskyites went on to become neocons. In fact, only a few of them did. But in telling the story of the world in which they grew up, Heilbrunn is doing something more important than recounting dusty disputations between earnest Marxists: he’s telling the story of the temperament behind them, a temperament that, in a way, is more important than any of the varying ideologies it has inspired along the way.

Heilbrunn chronicles the neocon temperament with both a historian’s eye for the grand narrative and a reporter’s eye for the telling detail, and in doing so he deftly exposes both neoconservatism’s inherent contradictions as well as its inherent allure. In one revealing passage, for example, Heilbrunn makes clear the primacy of temperament over ideology in these young men (and they were mostly men) whose ideologies later turned out to be both so plastic and so influential. After World War II, with capitalism triumphant and the doctrinal disputes of 1930s-era socialism stale and irrelevant, what happened to these former Trotskyites? “They had always,” Heilbrunn says, “been anti-Stalinist. Now, somewhat to their own surprise, they became anticommunists tout court.”

But how did they become such fervent anticommunists? Heilbrunn can’t say, probably because there isn’t any how. Their conversion really did take them by surprise, and probably wasn’t the result of much in the way of deep thinking. It just was. In fact, for a group of people famous as intellectuals, one of the most notable features of Heilbrunn’s subjects is just how conventional they are. Socialism was popular in the 1930s, so they took up the banner of Trotskyite anti-Stalinism. Later they became “vital center” anticommunists, then anti-counterculture liberals, and later still antiterrorist conservatives. There’s no real ideological underpinning to this journey, just a long series of reactions and reactions to reactions.

It wasn’t until the 1970s, of course, that the Trotskyites-turned-cold-war-liberals became neocons. The switch that made them famous was the one that converted them from liberal critics of liberalism to conservative critics of liberalism, and the causes of that switch were varied. The initial spark, perhaps, was the left’s turn against Israel after the 1967 war, with the harshest criticism coming from black nationalists who equated Zionism with racism. The fraying of Jewish-black relations came at the same time that the counterculture revolution of the late 1960s seemed to turn the world upside down, and the former radicals, it turned out, were appalled at the prospect. “It was in the defense of the Western tradition that the neocons became true conservatives,” Heilbrunn says, though it took several years and a hapless Jimmy Carter presidency before the neocons finally gave up on liberalism entirely and cast their lot with Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party.

Until recently, this had been their high point. Neocons like Paul Wolfowitz, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, and Richard Perle were influential for several years in the hawkish confines of the Reagan administration, though some of them later felt betrayed by Reagan’s eventual rapprochement with Mikhail Gorbachev and his approval of the INF treaty in 1987. Then the collapse of the Iron Curtain, followed by the fall of the Soviet Union, removed their very raison d’tre. It was at this point that Francis Fukuyama wrote his famously self-congratulatory essay, “The End of History?,” which made the case not merely that the Soviet Union had fallen, but that Western liberalism had triumphed as a permanent, worldwide ideologyand that the neocons had been instrumental in that victory. This briefly bucked up their spirits, but there was still no escaping Fukuyama’s essential message: They had won. There was no one left to fight. For a movement whose emotional center had always been defined more by opposition than by a positive program, this was a death knell.

The younger generation of neocons tried to pick up the pieces by remaking neoconservatism into a movement of muscular democracy promotion, but without a central enemy on which to focus their energies they found themselves unable to generate any traction. Saddam Hussein was the best they could do, and during the 1990s he just wasn’t threatening enough to attract serious attention.

Later that changed, of course, and the end of this story is familiar: 9/11 offered up Islamic terrorism, and with it the war in Iraq, as a new focus for neocon energy. Having convinced themselves that they won the cold war, the neocons were now convinced that they also held the keys to defeating terrorism and remaking the Arab world. For a few years they were riding high once again, until it all came crashing down.

There are two prodigious ironies in all this. The first is that, as Heilbrunn says, the neocons, those stalwart defenders of muscular intervention and national greatness, “have quite possibly not only destroyed conservatism as a political force for years to come but also created an Iraq syndrome that tarnishes the idea of intervention for several decades.” The second is that despite this catastrophic failure, the neocons have essentially taken over the Republican Party without a fight. The younger generation of neocons has long argued that, lacking their elders’ epic transformation from liberal to conservative, they are really just conservatives, full stop. There’s nothing “neo” about them. Today, with their grandest project in tatters, they finally seem to be right. Despite their failure, it’s hard to find more than a tiny handful of Republicans who don’t support the neocon agenda wholeheartedly. From John McCain’s insistence on staying in Iraq forever to Rudy Giuliani’s invocation of the “terrorists’ war on us” to Mitt Romney’s call to “double Gitmo,” the neocon temperament is now, purely and simply, the conservative temperament. Israel, too, is now sacrosanct, even among Democratssomething that Heilbrunn argues must also be counted a neoconservative success.

Heilbrunn isn’t sure what to make of this. “The lack of accountability,” he says, “is, in fact, astonishing … But so far, the neoconservatives have essentially gotten off scot-free.” Partly this is because conservatives no longer have an alternative: as Heilbrunn notes elsewhere, there’s no new generation of foreign policy realists to replace the Scowcrofts and the Bakers of the old guard. In the absence of competition, neoconservatism has taken over almost by default. Partly, though, it’s because there was probably always less daylight between the neocons and the realists than either side thought. There are always easy cases, after all, when democracy promotion and national interest coincide, but outside of those cases, where the two collide, just how much democracy promotion has the neocon project really been responsible for? So far, practically none.

So perhaps it’s time to put the term to bed. In the same way that past political sects (Free Soilers, progressives, neoliberals) have eventually been subsumed into mainstream parties and lost their separate identities, so too has neoconservatism all but taken over present-day conservatism. The neocon temperament, far from being the mark of an embattled minority, is now the heart and soul of the modern Republican Party. Like it or not, it’s here to stay.