Following the fiery disaster that was the 2003 Iraq War, all the big U.S. publishers pumped out books seeking to explain the rise of the neoconservative Right. Penned mostly by liberal commentators, each seemed to follow a set formula: assail the influence of think tanks in Washington, D.C.; impugn the Bush family’s financial interests in the Middle East; and, of course, conveniently step over the numerous liberal military interventions in U.S. history, from Woodrow Wilson to Bill Clinton.
But no analyst, then or since, has come as close to getting to the core of the neoconservative movement as Dr. Paul E. Gottfried. The professor emeritus of humanities at Elizabethtown College and publisher of numerous scholarly books on American conservatism long has been considered by serious right-wing thinkers to be the foremost authority on the subject; both its “neo” and “paleo” varieties—Gottfried actually coined the term “paleoconservatism” to describe the older, non-neocon Right.
His latest work, The Vanishing Tradition: Perspectives on American Conservatism, is a selection of essays from conservative academics who burrow down into what was truly a revolution within intellectual conservatism in the mid-1960s. The book provides key insights into political developments since, including, of course, the rise of anti-neocon Trumpism and even the twin developments of white wokeness and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Gottfried introduces the volume with a short precis on the founders of neoconservatism: formerly Trotskyite intellectuals in the late 1960s unhappy with the Democrats’ increasing radicalism, especially toward the state of Israel. From these roots—set down in outlets like Commentary magazine—grew a gradual appropriation of the American intellectual Right. With the help of amenable institutions like National Review, the Heritage Foundation, and the American Enterprise Institute, the takeover essentially was complete by Ronald Reagan’s first term.
The fundamental change the neocon Right brought to conservatism in the ’60s was the elevation of American Exceptionalism as the movement’s cardinal doctrine. Instead of defining America in more traditional terms of nationhood—historic myths, social traditions, ancestral ties, celebrating key nation-builders, etc.—the neocons reduced it down to a set of abstract ideas and moral principles, chief among them egalitarianism. Defining a nation as a mere proposition, however, writes Rowan College philosophy professor Jack Kerwick in the book’s lead essay, is a purely rationalist construct; something previously pursued by radicals like the French revolutionaries and railed against by conservatives.
By dismissing tradition, habit, and custom as sources of knowledge, rationalists pursue the accrual of knowledge as if it “consist[s] of principles and rules that can be learned or discovered by anyone.” For rationalists, said preeminent 20th-century conservative thinker Michael Oakeshott, the past is treated as an “encumbrance.” As such, group distinctions are leveled rather than maintained, and denigrated rather than celebrated.
This was not how the pre-neocon Right—thinkers such as Richard Weaver, Mel Bradford, Willmoore Kendall, Murray Rothbard, and Russell Kirk—understood nationhood. Kirk, for instance, thought the Constitution was not a defense of abstract ideas, but rather an expansion of the settlers’ British heritage.
Other essayists from the selection, such as Russell Kirk’s former assistant, Boyd Cathey, cite numerous establishment conservatives, all mouthing the same phraseology of the Left, extolling the virtues of equality, demanding human rights, pushing to export “our values” abroad, etc. When deployed, Gottfried notes, it’s usually either aimed at shaming their paleoconservative detractors or simply appeasing their opponents.
In any case, decades of such posturing has naturally led to a solidification of liberal, egalitarian values until they became what they are today: America’s national “political religion.”
The dangerous implications of American exceptionalism are manifold. As Kerwick writes: “The creed that America is an Idea implies that America, like any other idea, cannot be limited geographically.”
According to neocons, of course, it shouldn’t. Although some pundits have attempted to expiate their identification with neoconservatism following the Iraq debacle, Cathey cites numerous “right-wing” pundits today still pushing for “crusades . . . in the name of spreading global equality and freedom and other benefits of American democracy.”
And as the saying goes, in addition to “invading the world,” neocons push to “invite the world” as well. Since anyone believing in the right set of propositions can become an American, Times columnist David Brooks, for instance, was perfectly in keeping with his neocon bona fides when he charged that resistance to mass immigration failed to honor “the American Idea.” For him, to be against American displacement is to “look backward to an America that is being lost” and this is based on a “desire to exclude.”
Black Hills State professor Nicholas Drummond reminds readers that the neocon positions on mass immigration and ethnic diversity contrasted directly with what founders like James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay thought about large, diverse, and heavily centralized states. Madison, for instance, feared too much diversity potentially could lead to a kind of divide-and-conquer despotism “taking advantage of all prejudices, local, political, and occupational, that may prevent or disturb a general coalition of sentiments.” Such prescience is remarkable, of course, especially given that ethnic factionalization in Madison’s time was still well outside the American experience.
Unfortunately, absent in The Vanishing Tradition is a thorough treatment of the logical reduction of abstract, propositional nations to mere economic entities. Few nations elevate mass consumerism and growth for growth’s sake to the degree that post-war America did. For most of today’s conservative establishment, it’s not the economy that serves the nation, but the other way around. This is something even hyper-materialist, nouveau riche nations like China and Russia do not follow.
In the lead-up to Trump’s election win, for instance, National Review’s Kevin Williamson addressed Midwestern grievances over what decades of “free trade” had done to their communities by ridiculing their “lack of competitiveness” and dehumanized them by referring to them as “negative assets.” Showing himself to be perfectly fine with mass deracination and one of “the sophistors, economists, and calculators” that Burke criticized, Williamson is one of the more consistently pilloried establishment types in Gottfried’s book.
When National Review ran an entire issue against the prospect of a Trump presidency (making it available for free online, no less), the editorial board asked, “If Trump were to become the president . . . what would that say about conservatives?
Putting aside that neocons actively and successfully purged much of the traditionalist Right from establishment circles—which Gottfried closely chronicles in his second essay—the notion that Trump somehow could sully or subvert American conservatism is belied by polls showing what average conservatives actually think and care about. As University of Alabama political scientist George Hawley points out in his chapter, the majority of conservatives thought invading Iraq was a serious mistake and believe that hiking taxes against the wealthiest elite is far from a terrible idea.
These sorts of gaps between the Beltway and mainstream Right, of course, are particularly apparent when it comes to the immigration issue. Like people all over the world, most Americans consider their communities and group identities to be sacrosanct. They know that, in the words of philosopher Michael Walzer, “neighborhoods can be open only if countries are at least potentially closed” and that “the distinctiveness of cultures and groups depends upon closure and without it cannot be conceived as a stable feature of human life.” Neocons like David Brooks, Jennifer Rubin, Max Boot, Bret Stephens, and George Will, however, apparently can’t comprehend this.
In today’s social chaos, we might be witnessing the logical culmination of the idea of propositional nationhood. By failing to oppose, and sometimes even supporting the Left’s project of turning egalitarianism into the nation’s utmost moral good (as if protecting heritage, tradition, and our posterity isn’t moral), the neocon Right has allowed the pursuit of equality to reach truly puritanical levels. Meanwhile, decades of open-borders and multiculturalism has set up the kind of racial tension and polarization that Madison feared.
Hawley instructively writes in the book that most Republicans do not support their party because of policy goals like ending the estate tax. For years, he writes, the party has merely been a repository for right-wing and independent voters who begrudgingly preferred, in the words of M. Stanton Evans, the “stupid party” over the “evil party.” Unfortunately, this cannot make for an effective political movement or a counterweight against the hard Left, and indeed it hasn’t.
Trump’s election did much to change this, however. For decades, the conservative establishment tried teaching the mainstream Right that to be a good nationalist, you had to be a globalist. Trump reversed this. On each of the aforementioned neocon concerns—war, “free trade,” mass immigration—Trump promised a changed course and, as a result, won genuine, enthusiastic support from across the conservative base. Let us hope that what he started has permanence and that the enemies both within and without American conservatism don’t derail it.