The Republican Civil War
The GOP’s current identity crisis is the product of a long tradition of conservative insurgency.
But what has happened since to the kingdom that Buckley once presided over? In 2004 Sam Tanenhaus, writing in the New Republic, noted that with the bungled 2003 Iraq War, Buckley had become increasingly skeptical of the neocons and questioned “the wisdom of having opened the gates quite so wide.” Today, fights are erupting over how best to interpret Buckley’s own legacy (and, as Geoffrey Kabaservice cogently notes in this issue, others on the right are even looking all the way back to Jack Kemp, the champion of supply-side economics and reaching out to minorities, as an inspirational model for the GOP). The tohubohu centers on Trump’s conservative bona fides. Washington Post columnist George F. Will, for example, recently invoked Buckley’s shade to depict Trump as a counterfeit Republican. According to Will,
He is an affront to anyone devoted to the project William F. Buckley began six decades ago with the founding in 1955 of National Review—making conservatism intellectually respectable and politically palatable. Buckley’s legacy is being betrayed by invertebrate conservatives now saying that although Trump “goes too far,” he has “tapped into something,” and therefore . . .
Others on the right will have none of this high dudgeon. The talk show host Laura Ingraham, for example, recently depicted National Review as essentially consisting of conservative quislings for publishing an essay suggesting that Mitt Romney might enter the 2016 presidential race. She said, “What the establishment is doing is looking for a way to go backward. This piece about Mitt Romney today in National Review—National Review. I don’t know what’s happened to National Review, but this is not the publication of William F. Buckley.”
But this may not be quite right. Buckley himself evolved over the years, from scourge of the establishment to a more measured conservatism. Perhaps it should not be surprising, then, that National Review and others on the right at institutions such as the American Enterprise Institute are touting a “reformicon” agenda that focuses on the middle class. It savors strongly of a neoconservative message that seeks to reshape rather than overturn big government. As Irving Kristol put it in 2003 in a valedictory essay in the Weekly Standard, “the historical task and political purpose of neoconservatism would seem to be this: to convert the Republican party, and American conservatism in general, against their respective wills, into a new kind of conservative politics suitable to governing a modern democracy.” In an interesting development, some reformicons are beginning to view Trump with something other than hostility. The conservative intellectual Reihan Salam observes,
In an ideal world, the rise of Trump would force elite conservatives to recognize that voters, including GOP voters, care more about wage stagnation than about high-end tax cuts, and that the GOP base is not reflexively opposed to the safety net, provided it encourages those who can work to do so, and that it provides a decent minimum for those who cannot. . . . Without belaboring the point, I believe that there are more black, Hispanic, and Asian voters who are open to voting for a more populist GOP than is commonly understood. Conservative populism is the way to appeal to these voters and the voters who’ve been most energized by Trump.
Whether any of this will actually occur is of course another matter.
SO MUCH for domestic politics. What about foreign affairs? Here, there are even fewer signs of a glasnost taking place. Instead, the Republican candidates routinely indulge in chest-thumping. Carly Fiorina is a case in point. During the September presidential debate, she said, “Having met Vladimir Putin, I wouldn’t talk to him at all. We’ve talked way too much to him. What I would do immediately, I would begin rebuilding the Sixth Fleet, I would begin rebuilding the missile defense program in Poland, I would also conduct military exercises in the Baltic states, I’d probably send a few thousand more troops to Germany.” Actually, America has already conducted exercises in the Baltic states, and there’s no cogent reason to send more troops to Germany, unless Fiorina wants to help the Bundeswehr resettle Syrian refugees.
Nor is this all. The debate on Iran has been none at all, at least in the sense of any cogent, let alone potent, criticisms being voiced. As President Obama sailed ahead with the agreement, the GOP never landed a glove on him. Instead, it blustered about forging a better agreement with Iran. It’s hard to avoid the suspicion that what the detractors really want isn’t some elusive, superior agreement, but war.
Indeed, Dick and Liz Cheney resurfaced to depict Obama as uniquely indifferent to American national security. Speaking at the American Enterprise Institute on September 7, where Paul Wolfowitz, I. “Scooter” Libby and Michele Bachmann, among others, were in the audience, Cheney declared that the deal is “madness” and presented himself as a truth-teller who was compelled to dispute the “veracity of the president’s claims.” Cheney and his daughter Liz had already offered a manifesto on August 28, based on their new book, in the Wall Street Journal to restore, as they put it, American exceptionalism. Instead of explaining how to defang the Iran threat, however, the Cheneys repeated the hoariest of neocon clichés: “The Obama nuclear agreement with Iran is tragically reminiscent of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s Munich agreement in 1938.” They concluded their denunciation of Iran and Obama’s agreement with an exhortation for an educational program to inculcate America’s youth with neocon dogma. “We must ensure,” they write, “that our children know the truth about who we are, what we’ve done, and why it is uniquely America’s duty to be freedom’s defender.”
William F. Buckley knew better. For him such sentiments in the face of widespread hostility in the Arab world toward American intervention amounted to the real madness—tantamount to a declaration of intellectual suicide by the GOP. Bush’s utopian language, Buckley told the New Yorker in 2005, was to be viewed with skepticism because “It’s not, in my judgment, conservatism. Because conservatism is, to a considerable extent, the acknowledgment of realities. And this is surreal.” So far, however, surrealism appears to be more enticing to many in the GOP than sober realism.
Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of the National Interest.
Image: Flickr/Michael Vadon