The Neocons Are Responsible for Trumpism
The possibility that Donald Trump will win the Republican party’s presidential nomination has inspired leading neoconservatives like Eliot A. Cohen, Robert Kagan and Max Boot to insist that they will never support him. But the neoconservatives of a generation ago like Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz are themselves partly to blame for the rise of Trump-style national populism in the United States. By spurning their natural constituency—the mostly-white working class—the neoconservative leadership deprived a substantial portion of the American electorate of its own sympathetic, moderating and technocratic intelligentsia.
As a result, in the last quarter century many of the blue collar voters who had been integrated into the FDR-to-LBJ Democrats and then became “Reagan Democrats” in the 1980s have had no intellectuals or policy wonks of their own, no think tanks and magazines that respected their values and interests. Organized labor, which once represented their interests, is nearly extinct outside of the public sector. The cultural left despises and vilifies working-class white men as privileged bigots, period. Neoliberal “New Democrats” focus on an audience of tech billionaires and Wall Street financiers. Conservatives praise the service of working-class men and women in uniform—but God forbid that the same heroic veterans should ask for a raise or a higher Social Security benefit or try to join a union or vote for paid family leave. Lacking any establishment advocates and sympathetic intellectuals, on left, right or center, many white working class Americans have therefore turned to demagogic outsiders like Trump. Where else are they to go?
Why did the neocons turn their backs on the working class in general, and working-class whites in particular? Many of the first generation of neoconservative thinkers came from working-class or lower-middle-class or small-town families. The two largest working-class groups in the Roosevelt coalition—northern “white ethnics” including Jewish, Irish- and Italian-Americans, on the one hand, and non-elite white Southerners and Southwesterners on the other—were over-represented among early neoconservative intellectuals. There was a working-class Northeastern Jewish contingent, represented by Irving Kristol and others, a Southwestern contingent represented by Jeane Kirkpatrick. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was an Irish-American whose childhood was divided between Oklahoma and Hell’s Kitchen in New York City.
Most of the original neoconservatives were “paleoliberals”—Roosevelt-Truman-Kennedy-Johnson Democrats. Some were moderate socialists. They rejected both the identity politics and anti-military fervor of the New Left. At the same time, they rejected the mainstream conservatism of Buckley, Goldwater and Reagan, which for first-wave neocons was tainted by opposition to the New Deal and support for segregation in the South. Many early neoconservatives had close ties which the culturally-conservative and staunchly anticommunist AFL-CIO.
Within the Democratic party in the 1970s and 1980s, neoconservatives in groups like the Coalition for a Democratic Majority and the early Democratic Leadership Council sought to win back working class whites alienated by the increasing liberalism of the McGovern wing of the Democratic party. For its part, the early Democratic Leadership Council, dominated by Southerners like Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia and Midwesterners like Missouri Senator Richard Gephardt, emphasized a national service proposal that sought to build on the popularity of the GI Bill among traditional white working class Democrats. The early DLC was quite different from the later DLC, the Progressive Policy Institute and the think tank Third Way, which were focused on Wall Street and Silicon Valley, not middle America.
I observed all this in the late 1980s and early 1990s, from a vantage-point as a research assistant to William F. Buckley Jr. and executive editor of the National Interest. At the time, there were four distinct ideological movements on the right: paleoconservatives, libertarians, the religious right, neoconservatives and movement conservatives. With the exception of the religious right, which was focused on a small number of issues like school prayer, pornography, abortion and gay rights, and had little to say about economics or foreign policy, each of these movements on the right represented a more or less coherent worldview combining domestic policy and foreign policy.
The paleoconservatives thought that everything had gone downhill with the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, if not with Woodrow Wilson and TR in 1912 or Lincoln in 1860. They wanted to repeal the New Deal at home in favor of some kind of decentralized pre-New Deal economic system. In foreign policy their spokesmen like Pat Buchanan wanted a return to the “America First” isolationism of Robert A. Taft and Charles Lindbergh. The paleocons had their own institutions and journals, like the magazine Chronicles.
Like the paleocons, the libertarians favored a minimalist foreign policy and the repeal of New Deal and Great Society programs like Social Security and Medicare. Unlike the paleocons, they opposed government regulation of sex and drugs, and favored mass immigration, which paleocons tended to oppose on racist grounds. The libertarians also had their own separate infrastructure: the Cato Institute, Reason magazine.