The End of the Conservative Movement

The theme of an article and possibly a book (providing that I can find a suitable commercial press) is “The End of Triangulation and the American Conservative Movement.” My examination of this theme will draw on previous material that I’ve published on the transformations of American conservatism and will focus on the escalating divisions within the conservative movement and their implications. Since the 1980s, and arguably since the 1950s, conservative movement elites have built relations and, when possible, friendships with the Center Left, while marginalizing any hard or pesky Right that stands in its way professionally or programmatically. Thus from the time William F. Buckley founded National Review in 1955, he began expelling isolationists, mostly libertarian ones, from his movement. For the next thirty years Buckley established close personal ties with well-placed liberal politicians and journalists and frequently wrote for liberal publications. The value of this strategy can be seen in how easily onetime “conservative” journalists have been able to move into prestigious left-of-center newspapers and TV news channels. Bill Kristol, Bret Stephens, David Frum, David Brock, George Wills, Ross Doutat, and David Brookes are only a few names out of a very long list of illustrations.

As the neoconservatives in the 1980s rose to prominence in the conservative movement, they continued the triangulation pursued by Buckley, but did so with somewhat less finesse. Anyone who disagreed too noisily with well-connected neoconservative publicists could expect to be denounced as a racist and/or anti-Semite. It made no difference what the disagreement was over, whether foreign policy questions or suitable appointments to government posts favored by the neoconservatives. The accusation that came from the conservative establishment never varied, in large part because its most prominent figures were attacking their opponents on the Right in a manner that would be acceptable to those in the Left Center whom they were trying to persuade or impress. Not incidentally, the neoconservatives had come from the Left Center before they began their journey to the top of the establishment Right.

Time to buy old US gold coins

That said, the relationship of the elite groups in the conservative movement to what was on their left and right was more complicated than this initial sketch would suggest. A balancing act took place in which movement conservative elites would draw positions and rhetoric from the Right, including from those on the Right whom they expelled and marginalized, while trying to hold on to the favor of the moderate Left.  This strategy made perfectly good sense to those who pursued it. The Left Center could provide them with entrée into a world of sophisticated people and publications like the New York Times, Atlantic, New York Review of Books, New Yorker, and the Washington Post. A harder Right than the centrist one to which they were linked could only bring those associated with it obloquy and ostracism.  Of course marginalizing those who were on their Right did not keep neoconservatives and others on the respectable Right from plundering the phrases and ideas of those whom they deemed unworthy of mention. Fascism: The Career of... Gottfried, Paul Best Price: $41.28 Buy New $40.07 (as of 03:55 EST - Details)

One might notice the frequency with which movement conservative editors refer to the Republicans as the “stupid party” and to the Democrats as the “evil party,” a phrase that they borrowed from the late Sam Francis, albeit never with acknowledgment. A column posted by Lowry on July 19 may have taken its description of the Republicans as “the Stupid Party” from this now scorned paleoconservative author. Lowry then went on to state that while the GOP just drifts along and temporizes, the Democrats can be effective because “they are thoroughly committed to a vision.” A commentary featuring the same point of view had appeared on TAC website a few days earlier, by me. Sometimes a member of the unacceptable Right whom an authorized conservative intends to use has been so marginalized that he has to be “rediscovered” before being returned to the memory hole. For example, Rush Limbaugh, who is at most a peripheral member of Beltway conservatism, dragged up Sam Francis (after a number of leftist journalists did) when Donald Trump began to surge politically as a populist figure. Rush proclaimed Francis to be a forerunner of “populist conservatism,” but seemed genuinely surprised that his fellow-conservatives hardly ever referred to this stellar thinker. In fact they do quote Francis but don’t dare mention their controversial source.

This unacknowledged borrowing from the Right is part of the triangulating game that has been played by the conservative establishment for decades. The most successful members of this establishment seek to appeal to a right-of-center public, and therefore feed them Republican party-lines and occasionally more daring right-wing positions. But they also take every precaution to distance themselves from what they steadily denounce as the “far Right.” Political analyst George Hawley sees such publicists and media personalities as being engaged in a juggling act. They have to appear to be centrist, in order to maintain a professional relationship with the Left center, but they also feed raw meat to their aficionados on the Right in order to justify their claim to being true-blue conservatives. These “conservatives” also typically have to deal with sponsors and donors, most especially Rupert Murdoch and the Koch brothers, who bring their own set of positions. These donors are typically not interested in “traditionalist” social politics but are ardent Zionists and/or advocates of cheap labor from Third World countries.   Whether or not one respects these establishment conservatives, one has to admit that their juggling of interests has been truly remarkable.

Unfortunately for its practitioners their strategy for success may be exhausting its usefulness. The divisiveness of the Trump phenomenon, and the unexpected appearance of “Never Trump” conservatives and Republicans, has been an outward symptom of internal disintegration. Factionalism is now bedeviling the conservative establishment; and were it not for a semblance of solidarity provided by the Murdoch media, this establishment by now would look even more disunited.  One obvious reason for the disintegration is that identifiable neoconservatives have been in high places for too long; and their messages have worn thin. Whereas the first generation of this group displayed certain disturbing eccentricities such as obsessive Germanophobia and Russophobia, incessant Zionist partisanship and an unwillingness to treat opposition on the Right civilly, the neoconservatives of the 1980s also brought certain strengths to the conservative movement. They were relentlessly anti-Soviet, when anti-Communism was the end-all and be-all of the American Right; and their publications defended traditional family morality and never held back from criticizing “alternative” lifestyles.

The second generation, characterized by Bill Kristol, Max Boot, John Podhoretz and the editorial boards of most conservative movement publications have slid dramatically to the left on just about every social question, while going after mainstream conservatives who have not followed their leftward course. The recent attacks by Bill Kristol on his erstwhile employee Tucker Carlson, for opposing the dismantling of Confederate memorial statues and for treating the antifascist Left as co-responsible for the riot in Charlottesville, exemplifies the war that has broken out between second-generation neoconservatives and others in the Center Right. Second-generation neoconservatives show the same obsession with Israel that marked the first generation of their group. How this mixes with leftist politics is illustrated in an essay posted by Commentary– editor Seth Mandel on October 29, 2015. In this commentary Mandel praises Black Lives Matter and condemns the racism of the police force, but then complains that BLM has embraced the Palestinian cause.  Although Mandel’s position on BLM has not been characteristic of every neoconservative, he is not the only member of his persuasion who has Encounters: My Life wi... Paul Gottfried Best Price: $5.20 Buy New $5.60 (as of 08:10 EST - Details) moved in that direction. But even more interesting is his inflexible Zionist position, which may by itself qualify him as a conservative in a conservative media culture that has been dominated by neoconservatives and Rupert Murdoch’s funding.

The war between Trump’s supporters and the Never-Trumpers within the conservative movement has generated other battle-lines; and no matter what Never-Trumpers originally intended, the present polarity reveals clear ideological differences. Establishment Republicans, corporate interests favoring increased immigration, and a recognizable neoconservative foreign policy are on one side of the divide, while their more rightist sounding opponents are on the other. The two sides go at each other hammer and tongs; and the Never-Trumpers happily run to CNN, the Washington Post and other left-of-center media outlets in quest of allies. Entirely typical of the language that the Trump conservatives unleash on Never-Trumpers is this diatribe by Kurt Schlichter posted on townhall:

But the thing is, now we’re woke, and we’ve realized that our establishment sucks, and that we’re tired of being the suckers. They didn’t listen to us when we gave them the Tea Party, so now we gave them Trump. And they’re very, very upset with us. That’s a key reason they want to undercut Trump. Some people are just always going to want to trash the guy getting the attention and wielding the influence they think rightfully belongs to them. That’s true whether they are some donkey–looking senator from Arizona or Nebraska pimping a book about his agonizing moral struggles, or some tiresome op-ed scribbler serving as the domesticated house conservative on a failing liberal rag, or the invasion-happy beneficiary of his parents’ success who finds he can’t fill the cabins on his brochure’s cruises anymore.

Another regular contributor to townhall, Jack Kerwick, unleashes this attack on the virtue-signaling of the celebrities of the respectable Center Right:

In the America of 2017, it requires as much courage to issue public condemnations of “white supremacy” (whatever exactly this means), “racism” (again, not really sure what this means nowadays either), and neo-Nazism as is required to publicly condemn slavery, murder, genocide, and torturing little children solely for tricks.

Please note that both diatribes were posted on a website geared for a general Republican readership.

Of course there are equally nasty invectives launched against the pro-Trump Right in National Review, Weekly Standard and Wall Street Journal. And not at all surprisingly one finds Never-Trumper Jonah Goldberg as a guest on Fox-news expressing sympathy for a presidential run by Mark Zuckerberg or Mike Bloomberg against “the sclerotic party structure” and presumably Trump.   Clearly these feuds have not broken out between a unified conservative movement and those “cranks” and “wingnuts” on the Right, whom Jonah Goldberg thanked W.F. Buckley for “throwing off the bus” in a famous tribute to his onetime boss (National Review Online, October 27, 2005). A war has erupted among the passengers on the bus; and it doesn’t seem likely to end very soon.

This brings us back to the growing ineffectiveness of the triangulation strategy that served the conservative movement in the past. How can one triangulate when the conservative movement is at war with itself? The Right that the neoconservatives and establishment Republicans detest has moved into their camp; and increasingly second generation neoconservatives are becoming indistinguishable from the Left, from which they have to distinguish themselves in order to remain credible conservatives. To make matters even worse, the conservative media attract a mostly older white crowd. According to the British Daily Mail, the average age of a Fox-news viewer is 68; while the average age of a National Review reader is 66. Seeing that less than l.5 % of Fox-news viewers are black, the network’s outreach to minorities has had no success, any more than the efforts to reach young viewers.

Although some Fox-news viewers and some subscribers to magazines like National Review have deeply ingrained loyalty to the Multiculturalism and t... Paul Edward Gottfried Best Price: $14.51 Buy New $25.00 (as of 06:40 EST - Details) Republican Party and to Republican talking points, one must ask whether these senior citizens agree with the leftward drift shown by widely featured conservative celebrities on salient social issues. How many Southern white senior citizens are pleased to hear Charles Krauthammer, Bill Kristol, Rich Lowry, and Max Boot come out passionately in favor of dismantling Confederate memorial statues? How many senior citizens identifying themselves with the Right really care to engage Muslim countries in war because, as Sean Hannity and other Fox-news contributors tell us incessantly, “they throw gays off buildings”? Would these viewers see this as a call to arms, even if the accusation turns out to be true?

Finally one should note the persistence of baggage that the neoconservatives brought with them in their ascent to power over the Center Right in the 1980s. Can one still imagine a future conservative movement, particularly one that is becoming fractured, held together by such Cold War concepts, as America as an exceptional, creedal nation that is destined to transform the world? And what use is there in dragging out other trademark views of the neoconservatives that may have been shaped by their cultural and sociological situation: e.g., that the Central Powers were alone responsible for the Great War and, as one learn from reading New Criterion, were about to attack the US in 1917?

Readers might also wince at Rich Lowry’s cliché-ridden contrast of Russia and the US published in National Review Online (September 17, 2013). According to this well-worn script, Russia and the US both show “exceptionalism” but in glaringly different ways. “The danger of Russian execeptionalism” lies in its “tradition of autocracy,” which “Putin epitomizes.” By contrast, we are equally exceptional because we have set an example of liberal democratic practice that everyone should want to emulate.

Lest anyone doubt this thesis bears the marks of high scholarship, Lowry refers to a book by James Bennett and Michael Lotus that “demonstrates” that “American exceptionalism is an age-old phenomenon.” Needless to say, a polemicist can pull out genealogies whenever he wants to prove the inevitability of a political conflict, between the predestined good and predestined bad sides.   Yes we know that neoconservatives entertain historic grievances against certain countries and exalt the US as a creedal nation, but there is nothing particularly novel or even conservative about these platitudes. And there are other neoconservative practices that have marked the conservative movement since the 1980s that look even more shop-worn. For example, will self-identified conservatives go on believing that every foreign policy crisis faced by this country is a repetition of Munich in 1938 and that every opponent we confront is a new incarnation of Hitler?   Political movements change; and so do their grand narratives.

The extent to which things are changing for the conservative movement can be seen in the recent spat between Bill Kristol and Fox-news star Tucker Carlson. Kristol went after his former employee at Weekly Standard by accusing him of right-wing extremism. He scolded him for “rationalizing slavery,” by not taking what Kristol believes is the acceptable position on Confederate memorial statues. This resounding condemnation by a scion of the leading neoconservative family, one that still has considerable clout in the conservative movement, would have spelled doom for the accused twenty years ago. Then Kristol and his vassals and associates would have likely received the overwhelming support of the liberal media; and an intimidated Fox-news manager might well have demoted the target of Kristol’s rage. But this no longer is the case. The entire Right is united in its hatred of the “lying media,” a revulsion that helped propel Trump into the presidency. The Republican Congress and its “moderation,” which Kristol has praised, stands at a 17% popularity rating among Republicans, according to the latest Quinnipiac poll. Moreover, the attack on statues of Lee and Davis has very little resonance outside the Democratic Party and the liberal media, with which Kristol has already identified himself both ideologically and professionally.

Given such altered circumstances, Carlson could treat Kristol and his twitter invective in an unmistakably patronizing way. Carlson suggested that Bill’s capacity for serious thought had diminished over the years. He should cut down on his twittering before he starts behaving “like a slot-machine junkie.” In any case Tucker’s former boss should play more often with his grandchildren rather than hurl insults at him over the internet.

Nota bene: Although I’m associated with the Old Right, which lost control of the conservative movement decades ago, the proposed text will most certainly not try to demonstrate that my side will ever regain a commanding position on the Right. Political movements come and go in response to changing historical circumstances. Except for those bits and pieces that a new independent Right might try to extract from the wreckage, the Right to which I belonged is gone.