The Crocodile Tears of Neoconservatives

Reading Max Boot’s Washington Post column (The GOP is Now the Party of Neo-Confederates) this morning gave me occasion to revisit a piece I wrote on May 7, 2016 called The Resurrection of the Paleoconservatives. Donald Trump had effectively captured the Republican Party’s nomination on May 3rd when he won the primary in Indiana and Ted Cruz dropped out of the race. My paleoconservative piece was a first effort to understand what it would mean for Trump to be the GOP standard bearer.

On the whole, you could say my analysis was too optimistic, as I was explaining why significant party factions would never reconcile themselves to Trump’s leadership, with the strong implication that this lack of unity would be fatal to Trump’s chances of winning the presidency. But I’m actually quite pleased with the paleoconservative piece because I think it presciently predicted that the neoconservative faction would revolt and join the opposition.

Also, in fairness to me, I wasn’t attempting to explain a possible path to victory for Trump in that article. I had already done that with pieces on July 2, 2013 (The GOP is moving in the Wrong Direction), May 5, 2014, (A Deal With the Devil), and December 9, 2015 (Trump and the Missing White Voters), which all examined a possible attempt to overcome structural deficits by reordering the presidential electorate based on appeals to white identity.

Whatever their other faults, neoconservatives were pro civil rights from the inception of their movement in the Vietnam Era. They were always unlikely to align themselves with a party based on Neo-confederatism.

Here is how I sketched out the divisions in the party as I contemplated Donald Trump’s general election campaign:

There are elements of paleoconservativism that overlap with the progressive left, most prominently a skepticism about military adventurism and opposition to free trade. This is why some progressives will nod their heads in agreement when Trump makes certain critiques of the Democratic Party and the Washington Establishment. But the core of paleoconservatism is white and cultural supremacy with an accompanying panic about nonwhite immigration and a reactionary opposition to modern sexual mores. This not only limits the appeal of a paleoconservative candidate to a subset of the cultural right, it means that the philandering sexual objectifier Donald Trump is an imperfect representative of paleoconservatism.

From a historical perspective, you can consider Dwight D. Eisenhower to have marginalized paleoconservatives when he defeated the isolationist Ohio Senator Robert Taft at the 1952 Republican convention. As for more mainstream conservatives, they sidelined the paleos when William F. Buckley and the National Review ostracized members of the John Birch Society from the movement.

The elimination of the Jim Crow south further eroded their respectability, and the rise of neoconservatism in the 1970’s and their strong influence over the Reagan administration provided the paleos with a more powerful rival.

The presidential runs of Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot were a kind of last gasp, but skepticism about sexual liberation and free trade, as well as an isolationist foreign policy inclination, and white supremacist views have always had a wider appeal than just on the right.

For paleoconservatives who have been marginalized for over sixty years, Trump seems like a vindication and a revival of their worldview and their power.

This is also how the other factions of the Republican Party see things. The Eisenhower Republicans are nearly extinct, but they’re completely repelled by Trumpism. The neoconservatives consider the paleos to be anti-Semitic, which is usually true, and they’re utterly opposed to their isolationism. The business community has always hated their opposition to expanding markets along with the exercise of military and diplomatic muscle that makes those markets accessible. That the paleo politicians can sometimes adopt a smidgen of economic populism, for example (in Trump’s case), opposing cuts to entitlements that benefit Wall Street, is another reason they aren’t welcomed by the business community or Paul Ryan.

Donald Trump has personality quirks that turn off a lot of conservatives. His business model offends a lot of conservatives. Others just think he’s unelectable and bad for their brand. But these are all just added reasons why he cannot unite the Republican Party.

In my opinion, Trump has never understood all this history or the factions in the GOP, but he identified a weakness within the party that was ripe for exploitation. And it turned out that he was inadvertently taking up the banner of the paleoconservatives.

He might not have realized just how marginalized this faction has been or how long they’ve been marginalized. But even if Trump was an upstanding, polite, well-informed and prepared citizen, his policies would badly divide the Republicans. While the paleos have always been a part of the Conservative Movement, the ascendant and well-financed elements of the Movement have, in important ways, defined themselves in opposition to them. Trump represents a massive reversal and defeat.

It’s true that the Movement’s massive failures have brought this defeat on themselves, but that doesn’t mean they will reconcile themselves to it. When combined with Trump’s personality defects and transparent lack of preparedness for the job of the presidency, this party will not unite.

It turned out that the party did not have to unite since it could instead be reordered to appeal more to white identity. I had foreseen that the conservative movement might go in this direction as early as 2013, but I never envisioned that it would or could be done by someone like Trump.

The administration of George W. Bush had countless flaws, but chief among them was the influence of neoconservatives in foreign policy which led directly to the War on Terror and the catastrophic invasion of Iraq. When combined with the collapse of the housing market in 2007-8 and the ensuing Great Recession, the neoconservatives’ massive failures provided a massive opening for a revival of isolationism, trade protectionism, and (ultimately) Trump’s version of America First white nationalism. As a prominent and influential neoconservative in the Bush Era, Max Boot bears a lot of responsibility for the rise of Trumpism.

That is why I find the opening to his piece so objectionable:

The far left and far right have long been warning about neocons taking over the Republican Party. Turns out they are right. Only the “neocons” in question aren’t the neoconservatives — a small group of intellectuals, in whose ranks I have often been included, who have espoused a values-based foreign policy and a centrist domestic policy. Many of us have left the GOP in disgust over the rise of Trumpism. The neocons who are now in the ascendancy are the neo-Confederates who have been encouraged to come into the open by President Trump’s unabashed appeals to racist and xenophobic prejudices.

It’s impossible not to see in this an effort by Boot to vindicate himself and triumph over his critics who saw neoconservative influence as massively problematic. The far left and the far right warned about people like Max Boot because they are military adventurers and economic imperialists who, as William F. Buckley put it, “simply overrate the reach of U.S. power and influence.”

For Boot, the more significant problem is the influence of Neo-confederates in the Republican Party, but they were considered nothing worse than a necessary evil for the neoconservatives when they were helping Bush defeat Al Gore and John Kerry. Those of us who said this was a deal with the devil were dismissed or ignored, and it’s really not that clear that the Neo-confederates are the more dangerous faction. So far, at least, the neoconservatives have left more blood and treasure in foreign lands, and the current state of the Middle East is a direct result of their reckless ideology.

In truth, President Trump is not fully free of neoconservative influence. This can be seen most clearly by his choice of John Bolton to serve as his national security advisor and by Trump’s persistent alarmism and bellicosity towards Iran.  Trump’s decision to move the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, to give a free hand to Israeli settlers, and to align himself totally with an Israeli-Saudi alliance against Shi’a influence in the Middle East are all consistent with neoconservative practice and ideology.

Trump is actually giving us the worst of both the paleo- and neoconservative worlds.

Near the end of his column, Mr. Boot remarks, “It is hard to remember that Republicans were once the Party of Lincoln. But in the 1960s they sold out their birthright to court Southern voters smarting over desegregation.” Ironically, that is the precise period of time when a bunch of Democrats became disgusted by the countercultural excesses of the New Left and began flirting with the Republicans.

Perhaps some of the first neoconservatives were seeing clearly that the New Left was inspiring the kind of backlash that would soon result in the Reagan Revolution, and they were motivated primarily to protect the things about the Democratic Party that they valued by working to avert its electoral destruction.  But the ones that departed to join the Reagan Revolution really have no business now complaining that the GOP used to be the Party of Lincoln.  It’s really quite odd that they would use overt racism as a rationale for wandering back to the party of the left.

Maybe they’re also a bit more reconciled to the values of the counterculture these days, too, with gay marriage accepted, marijuana increasingly legal, and a black empowerment movement more associated with Barack Obama than Elijah Muhammad.

Still, there is no obvious home for Max Boot or Bill Kristol, David Frum, Jennifer Rubin, John Podhoretz, or other neoconservative critics of the Trump administration. They’re now flirting with the Democratic Party, but at a time when the Democratic Party is more McGovernite than ever.

If they want to join the fight against the modern Republican Party, they’re quite welcome to do so, but their foreign policy ideas are as objectionable and possibly lethal as the ideas espoused by Trump’s America Firsters. And I don’t think anyone should forget that the neoconservatives were for civil rights until they become inconvenient for their foreign policy preferences. They can cry about racism today, but they aren’t reliable allies on that issue or any other.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.