The Neocons Are Responsible for Trumpism

The Neocons Are Responsible for Trumpism

For years, neoconservatives turned their backs on white working class Americans.

On March 3, Jonah Goldberg of National Review published an op-ed in USA Today entitled “Trump Redefining ‘So-Called Conservatism.’” Goldberg concludes his indictment of Trump by writing:

“Democrats can’t see it, but Trump represents a massive victory for the left in so far as he’s the first major Republican figure to successfully reject libertarianism, even rhetorically. If Trump is successful, liberty-oriented conservatism will be replaced by so-called common sense statism.”

Now think about how peculiar that statement is. According to Goldberg, Trump is a deadly threat to conservatism because he distinguishes between conservatism and libertarianism. But all schools on the right which are not libertarian by definition reject libertarianism, in whole or in part. To return to the 1980s—movement conservatives, paleocons, neocons and the religious right all rejected one or another aspect of libertarianism, as the pure libertarians of the time, gathered around the townhouse that was then the home of the Cato Institute on Capitol Hill, never ceased to remind anyone who would listen.

Goldberg knows this. I don’t remember him, but Goldberg worked for the Public Interest at the time I worked for the National Interest, in shared offices. At the time, around 1990, not being a libertarian was not considered a disqualification for being a conservative. And yet now Goldberg claims that even “rhetorically” rejecting libertarianism will get you booted from movement conservatism like the heresiarch of Mar-a-Lago.

But Goldberg in 2016 is not confused. From his perspective, he is correct. He is implicitly referring to the rules of post-Reagan Fusionism 2.0—conservatism as an alliance of single-issue movements, not conservatism as a coherent, multi-issue worldview or movement. Under the rules of Fusionism 2.0, the libertarians of the Cato Institute set the “conservative” line on economic policy, the belligerent neoconservative hawks of AEI set the “conservative” line on foreign policy, and the religious activists of Focus on the Family and similar groups set the party line on social issues.

There are two ways to lose your credentials as a true conservative, according to arbiters of Fusionist 2.0 orthodoxy like Goldberg. One is to question the official party line in one of the three areas—say, by criticizing neoconservative foreign policy, or rejecting libertarian schemes to privatize Social Security or Medicare, or opposing the outlawing of abortion and gay marriage. To be a conservative, you have to sign up for the whole Fusionist 2.0 package, no questions asked, no thinking allowed. It’s not enough to want to privatize Social Security and outlaw gay marriage. You have to want to go to war with Assad in Syria, as well.

But there is another way to be purged from the Fusionist 2.0 establishment. A conservative can be brought up on heresy charges for insisting that one of its three constituents—the libertarians, the religious right and the neocons—change from a single-issue movement in a broad alliance into a full-fledged political-ideological movement with distinctive policy positions on all issues, foreign and domestic.

The libertarian movement has always been a multi-subject movement like this. Libertarians reject neoconservative foreign policy for more restrained alternatives (they don’t like being called isolationists). And they reject religious-right moralism and favor sexual freedom and the decriminalization of most or all drugs. So the libertarians get the best of both worlds—they get to have their own movement, and they also get to write the economic policy for the Fusionist 2.0 conservative alliance.

In contrast, the neocons and the theocons are One-Note Johnnies. What is neoconservative policy toward entitlements? Toward the minimum wage? Toward trade? Not their department. Neocons are too busy calling for the escalation of existing wars or the launching of new wars. Domestic policy? Down the hall. AEI, thought of as a neoconservative think tank, has its own Social Security expert, Andrew Biggs. Naturally he is a libertarian who worked at Cato from 1999-2003.

Trump or no Trump, Fusionism 2.0 was bound to collapse. The number of Americans who really, sincerely, passionately want to privatize Social Security and invade Syria and ban gay marriage is pretty small, if there are any such individuals at all. The same is true of the conservative intellectuals, most if not all of whom are really libertarians or foreign policy hawks or religious conservatives first, and members of the broader conservative movement second. Conservatism is a coalition of movements, it is not a movement itself.

To return to the neoconservatives. By abandoning their own full-spectrum movement in the 1990s, in order to specialize as the resident foreign policy hawks in the Fusionism 2.0 coalition, they dissolved their own winning team in order to join a losing team.

Think about it. Most neocons in the 1980s and 1990s were social liberals or centrists, not social conservatives. The social conservatives have lost every battle since then. Roe v. Wade has not been overturned. The Supreme Court has made gay marriage the law of the land. What have the second-wave neoconservatives gained, by joining the unpopular losing side on these issues?     

Then there’s economics. For all their doubts about utopian social engineering, the first-wave neocons like Pat Moynihan and Jeane Kirkpatrick and Nathan Glazer and Daniel Bell thought that Social Security and Medicare were triumphs of American social policy. But the second-wave neocons teamed up with the Social Security privatizers and the Medicare voucherizers. What did they gain, from their alliance on domestic policy with the earnest, unworldly followers of Hayek and Mises and Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand? When Jonah Goldberg, champion of libertarianism and “liberty-oriented conservatism,” is old enough to be eligible, I predict that Social Security and Medicare will be there for him, in more or less their present form. All those Social Security privatization plans, all those articles about abolishing Medicare with a completely different “market-oriented” system—all for nothing.

And foreign policy, the one area in which second-wave neocons insisted on the deference of other members of the establishment conservative coalition, the one area they reserved for themselves, the one area in which they claimed to be the experts? The neoconservatives who rejected the restraint of Pat Moynihan and Jeane Kirkpatrick and followed the triumphalism of Krauthammer, Kristol and Kagan have contributed to one foreign policy debacle after another: Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Egypt (many neocons cheered when Mubarak fell and was replaced by the Muslim Brotherhood).

We cannot go back to 1990 and take a different historical path. But we can recognize that Fusionism 2.0 took the American right down a dead end alley at ninety miles an hour to crash into a brick wall.

I do not consider myself to be on the right, and I may never do so again. But the U.S. needs an intelligent right that has reconciled itself to contemporary social mores, the modern welfare state and a multipolar world. Serious American conservatives would not waste their energy on deranged crusades to build a global American empire, repeal the New Deal or promote a return to the sexual norms of the 1950s. Those are all crazy utopian projects, of the kind that prudent conservatives are supposed to oppose.

When an intelligent and moderate American right finally does appear it will look a lot more like the first-generation neoconservatism of the 1970s and 1980s than like today’s crumbling establishment right. Among other things, like first-generation neoconservatism, the next American conservatism might actually look at the economy from the perspective of the working-class majority of all races in the United States, not solely from the vantage point of the capitalist or the corporate manager.

It is possible to imagine a future American right which would take an approach to the needs of working class Americans different from those of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Cato Institute and the billionaires who fund Republican politicians. Why not? Gaullists in France, Christian Democrats in Germany, High Tories in Britain and Japanese conservatives are all “statists” by libertarian standards. What is “conservative” about immiserating most of your own nation’s population by abolishing the minimum wage, flooding the labor market with low-wage immigrants, and lowering the median annual Social Security benefit of $1,275.28 or roughly $15,000 a year?

Most Americans are working class people without college educations. If their values and interests are not represented or taken seriously in any think tanks or any scholarly journals or any political party factions, they will find someone to represent them eventually, perhaps a reality TV star. In a crude and demagogic way, Trump is representing a constituency that the original neoconservatives, with their modest social backgrounds and ties to organized labor, once represented in a sober and enlightened way.

Jonah Goldberg cannot imagine a pro-blue-collar American right that is not just donor-class libertarianism camouflaged by flags and Bibles. But I can, because I belonged to such a movement once. It was called neoconservatism.

Michael Lind is a fellow at New America and a contributing editor to the National Interest and the author of Up From Conservatism.

Image: Flickr/Gage Skidmore.