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Conservatism June 2020 Magazine Politics The Month US Politics

Neocons come home to roost

Reagan was tarred as an extremist in much the same terms as Trump. Yet the neocons supported him

This article is in The Spectator’s June 2020 US edition. Subscribe here to get yours.

Dolphins returned to the canals of Venice during the COVID-19 lockdown, and neoconservatives are returning to the Democratic party. Bill Kristol and his colleagues at the Bulwark support Joe Biden for president, even though an anti-Trump Republican of sorts briefly jumped into the race. Michigan congressman Justin Amash earned the esteem of the Kristol crew when he collaborated with Democrats to impeach Donald Trump last year. But the Bulwark feared that if Amash was on the ballot as the Libertarian party’s presidential nominee, he’d take votes away from Biden. Two weeks before Amash announced he would seek the Libertarian nomination, Kristol’s webzine warned: ‘Could we be certain that a third-party campaign from a Constitutional conservative would not help Trump get reelected? The answer unfortunately is no.’

Early polls suggested the Bulwark was right to worry. A Monmouth University survey conducted between April 30 and May 4 found that the addition of Amash would change a 50 percent to 41 percent Biden lead over Trump to a 47 percent to 40 percent Biden lead, with Amash garnering 5 percent. That might not look too close at first glance, but recall that Trump beat Hillary Clinton easily in the Electoral College, even while losing the popular vote by just over two points.

Amash hails from Michigan, a state Trump won in 2016 by less than three-tenths of a point. The Libertarian wouldn’t have had to drain much from Biden to cost the Democrat 16 electoral votes. Then the neoconservatives and Democrats who hailed Amash as a man of principle for quitting the Republican party to vote for Trump’s impeachment would’ve suddenly change their tune. He would be 2020’s Jill Stein or Ralph Nader. Mercifully for the staff of the Bulwark, Amash ended his run after a matter of weeks.

In 2016, neocons didn’t support a Libertarian ticket with two ex-Republican governors on it. But instead of backing Hillary Clinton, they ran a hopeless candidate of their own, Evan McMullin, who won about half a point of the popular vote nationwide. Now, though, they are returning to their roots


The first generation of neoconservatives migrated from the Democratic party to the GOP after the Democrats nominated George McGovern for president in 1972. McGovern was a critic of the Vietnam War and not much of a critic of the left-wing counterculture of that era. The original neocons thought that Democrats had become too soft on crime at home and violent anti-western movements in the Third World abroad. Anti-Americanism and hostility towards Israel were characteristic of the radical movements that had come to be major players in the Democratic coalition. So the neocons, who had earlier been closely associated with Cold War Democrats such as Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson (a senator from Washington), switched their allegiance to the Republican party.

The neocons benefited from remaining friends with a network of liberals who were anti-McGovernite but had not abandoned the Democratic party or the mainstream media and educational institutions. The neocons were clubbable conservatives, in the eyes of the center-left, unlike the Goldwater supporters of an earlier era.

Ronald Reagan was tarred as an extremist and an imbecile unfit for office in very much the same terms as Trump has been. Yet the neocons supported him. Why now do they agree with the standard Democratic denunciations of a right-leaning Republican president? And why is the Democratic party of today, which is much more culturally radical than the party of McGovern, now acceptable to the sons and daughters of the neocons who left the party in the 1970s and 1980s?

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If crime is a key concern, today’s neocons should be supporting the president who made ‘American carnage’ a major campaign theme. If Israel is a paramount concern, why aren’t they supporting the president who moved America’s embassy to Jerusalem? Or again, if neoconservatives long ago became just regular conservatives, as they sometimes claim, why aren’t they on the side of a president who has delivered the largest tax cuts in a generation and whose judicial nominees strike fear into the hearts of those who want Roe v. Wade to stand forever? On religious liberty and military spending, too, Trump has delivered what neocons have long claimed they want. Biden, by contrast, will preserve Roe by nominating a justice just like Ruth Bader Ginsburg to replace her and will be worse on every bread-and-butter conservative issue. Yet he’s the neocons’ 2020 choice. Why?

If ‘character’ were their major hangup with Trump, they could have considered a vote for Amash. But they want Biden — despite his egregious lying (about being arrested in South Africa, for example) and the accusation of sexual assault. The most notable surviving first-generation neoconservative, the 90-year-old Norman Podhoretz, is pro-Trump. But modern neoconservatism is pro-Biden. What accounts for the generational divide?

What neoconservatism has become today is first and foremost a defense of the establishment. Neoconservatism is the class ideology of the right side of the ruling elite. Trump is anathema, as are his ‘deplorable’ supporters. They threaten the establishment and have nothing but contempt for its values. Populism is a return to constitutional democracy, in defiance of elite claims to moral superiority and technical expertise that convey a right to rule. Not only the deep state but all the prestige institutions in which neoconservatives roost are outraged by what Trump stands for. The attitude and disposition of Trump and his voters are heresy enough, no matter how little elite power may suffer in the short term. So Trump must be stopped at all costs, and Biden, a man who will restore the rule of the enlightened, must prevail at all costs. The neocons know their interests, and today those lie with a Democratic party far more culturally radical than the party of McGovern, but far less dangerous to the establishment’s control.

This article is in The Spectator’s June 2020 US edition. Subscribe here to get yours.


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