The Buzz

How Neocons Are Still Winning in 2016

By any standard, the 2016 U.S. presidential race has been extraordinary. The campaigns of maverick candidates such as Democrat Bernie Sanders and Republican Ted Cruz gained strong support, and in the end Donald Trump confounded expectations to become the Republican nominee. The underestimated popularity of these political outsiders highlights the depth of ill-feeling on both the right and left towards the so-called Washington establishment. Largely for this reason the main “establishment” candidate, Democrat nominee Hillary Clinton, still has a real fight on her hands.

Yet, amidst this antiestablishment fervor, one establishment characteristic of American politics and foreign policy is more likely than not to survive: neoconservatism. Beyond Robert Kagan’s statement of support for Clinton, neoconservatives have gone largely unnoticed this time around. Their significance is not entirely ignored; in this publication Michael Lind blames the rise of Trump on neoconservatives themselves, for example. However their vocal absence does not necessarily mean that neoconservatism has passed its use-by date in the United States. In fact, the contrary may be true.

Here we use the term neoconservatism not in its conventional and often derogatory sense. Indeed, in a recent academic article we argued that neoconservatism does not simply represent the ideas of a small band of readily identifiable neoconservatives. While Robert Kagan, William Kristol and other notable figures were instrumental to the rise of a particular strand of neoconservatism under the administration of George W. Bush, neoconservatism itself cannot be narrowly defined according to its individual leaders and followers, or their worldviews (which in any case vary between so-called neocons). Nor should it be simply equated with the now-infamous Bush Doctrine and its blueprint for the post–9/11 War on Terror.

Rather, at its core, neoconservatism is a broad and powerful discourse which is closely underpinned by two widely held and enduring ideas about the United States and the world around it: American virtue and American power. What defines neoconservatism is a largely unchallenged belief that the United States is a virtuous nation with a moral entitlement to superior power for the global good. Thus defined, neoconservatism gave rise to the Bush Doctrine, but the doctrine, which for many epitomizes the very essence of neoconservatism, was not the definitive neoconservatism. Making this distinction helps explain the longer and more mundane lineage of the present neoconservatism. Emerging from the extreme events of 9/11, it was an extreme articulation of long-ingrained ideas about American virtue and power. The perceived conflict of good versus evil, from which Bush’s War on Terror was executed, was not new but historically familiar, having previously guided popular wars against the uncivilized “barbarism” of Native Americans, Cold War communists and others, just as it has done against the Taliban and Islamic extremism today.

Neoconservatism as this form of discourse did not die out with the election of Barack Obama in 2008. Fewer identified “neocons” now occupy positions of influence in Washington, and Obama holds different ideas about the United States and the wider world from those of Bush and his friends. However, it is more accurate to say that in recent years the United States has returned to what we might call a baseline neoconservatism. The War on Terror has abated, but the use of military drones has escalated enormously, and almost ten thousand U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan. While Obama has criticized the 2003 invasion of Iraq, he never rejected the underlying validity of the War on Terror, and he firmly believes in “America’s moral authority.” In his book The Audacity of Hope he professes an admiration for (neocon) Ronald Reagan, giving “the old man his due” for achieving victory in the Cold War and with it the confirmation of American virtue and of global U.S. hegemony.

Today, as arguably the most antiestablishment presidential candidate, Donald Trump may be incoherent, incompetent and naive. Yet his campaign slogan “Make America Great Again,” as one of his few consistencies (alongside the foreign-policy tagline “America First”), plays to ingrained and seductive understandings about an American “greatness”—both of its virtues and its power. The (questionable) business credentials on which he runs lead him to promise defense cuts, but also “a military that’s going to be much stronger than it is right now,” so that “nobody’s going to mess with us.”