Most of us, at some point or another, fall out with friends. It’s a painful and, perhaps, inevitable part of life. It’s especially disquieting when former friends turn on you suddenly and publicly, devoid of any goodwill, charity, or benefit of the doubt that one might think were warranted by years of amity. All this, however disagreeable, is at least “normal” in the sense that it has been going on forever—though it massively intensified in the Trump Derangement Era.
About four years ago, I was finishing a small book, the centerpiece of which was an article I had already published. The new material consisted of a shortish defense/explanation of the classical idea of “natural right”—that is, the doctrine or assertion that good and evil, right and wrong, just and unjust, legitimate and illegitimate, etc.—exist by nature and are not mere products of human will or preference. This idea undergirds not merely the regime of the American founders and the very idea of “human rights,” but also the entire notion that anything political can be good or bad, right or wrong. For example, when NeverTrumpers speak of the alleged danger from Donald Trump to “Our Democracy™” and declare this to be bad, they are—wittingly or not—endorsing natural right.
You’d think this would be, if not uncontroversial, at least well within the bounds of civic discourse. Nonetheless, I predicted to some friends that at least one of our former friends would denounce natural right simply because I had defended it.
I didn’t need to wait long for that prediction to come true. Shortly after the book’s publication, it was scathingly reviewed by Gabriel Schoenfeld, a man I had known for something like 20 years. We were never the best of friends, but we had been friendly, meeting occasionally for meals or otherwise seeing each other at events in Manhattan’s small but close-knit community of conservative intellectuals and fellow travelers.
Needless to say, Gabe and I no longer speak. Trump, naturally, is the reason. Still, given that long history, one might have assumed some charitable consideration in a review by a former friend. A good review was not necessarily expected; reviewers of course ought to say what they think. But it was odd, to say least, to see a review so jaundiced as to reject out of hand a core foundation of Western Civilization out of anti-Trump spite.
I let that review go at the time, and wouldn’t even mention it now, were it not for similar attacks from the same quarter. I am half-persuaded to let those go, too, but another friend pointed out that a continuous stream of libels not responded to eventually constitutes a kind of public record.
I’m also motivated to respond because, irrelevant or distasteful as one may think these people are, they are actually quite powerful. They, and many others like them, form authoritative opinion in our time. In an age, and a regime, in which propaganda and censorship are foundational sources of rule, the power to police opinion is quasi-governmental. They are information warfare specialists, backed by big money, and their role is to constrain what you get to hear in part by smearing and slandering dissidents. One may not pay them much heed, but others who also have power over what the public gets to hear do, hence their vitriol matters.
Viciousness and Vitriol Demanding a Handshake?
That out of the way, one astonishing feature of the present era is that it is now common for former friends to hurl the vilest insults, to make the wildest accusations, and then honestly expect to be treated in return like an old pal. This is not the Washington slogan “We’re all friends after five o’clock,” Ronnie and Tip getting a drink in the Oval as the sun sets (which anyway never happened). This is viciousness expecting to be reciprocated with oblivious graciousness.
Who does this? The answer turns out to be: a lot of people. Did people used to behave like this? Not in my experience, nor do I find examples in literature. I have experienced a few, however, in my own life.
This fall, I gave a speech at the Philadelphia Society, a notable conservative gathering founded in the wake of the 1964 Goldwater defeat. I was asked to answer the question “what do the founding principles require of us today?” I discussed my proposed talk in advance with Society President R.J. Pestritto, a longtime friend and now colleague. He and I agreed that I would address the increasing tendency of conservatism, or at least of conservatives, toward historicism: the idea that political right is contingent on its historical situation. In particular, I planned to criticize what I consider conservatism’s tendency toward so-called “rational historicism”: the notion that history has an upward direction, that “progress” somehow makes awful calamities in the human past impossible to recur in the future. The American founders, I would claim, did not believe this. They may have hoped that their revolution would, mirabile dictu, turn out to be permanent, but they did not assert that human nature had (or could) permanently change for the better, or that tyranny could never recur. Hence they claimed that the right of revolution—the right of the people to alter or abolish tyrannical government, and establish a new one—is the most fundamental of all political rights, the one on which all the others rest.
I predicted to R.J., and then predicted in the speech itself, that the right of revolution would be denounced simply because I cited it, and that I would be accused by “conservatives” and former friends of calling for violence. Right on cue, both predictions came true. Leading the charge was America’s foremost former conservative, Bill Kristol.
I have, or had, known Bill for almost 30 years. We were quite a bit friendlier than Gabe and I ever were. When Bill turned on me, he turned hard. No consideration was given for all that time, all those conversations, all those prior agreements. I know I am not nearly alone in this.
Despite Bill’s constant insults, calumnies, and attacks over the past six years, I’ve never once said or written a public word against him. I hesitated for many reasons, of which I will mention two. First, I admire his parents, both of whom I consider to be high intellects and benefactors of the nation. I even had lunch with his father when I was 23, a high point of my young life as a wannabe Washington intellectual.
Second, I’ve known Bill’s teacher Harvey Mansfield for a little longer than I’ve known Bill. I consider Professor Mansfield a great man, and in terms of conventional stature (to say nothing of just desserts), he towers over me. He has done me infinite kindnesses over the years, which I do not deserve and did not have any reason to expect. I hope that what I now relate will not wound him. It is, in any case, merely my side of the story.
In 2016, using a pseudonym, I published a controversial article. I didn’t hide my identity because I was ashamed of what I said; to the contrary, I was (and remain) proud of the piece and eager that its provenance be known. But in the immediate term, that would have had dire practical consequences. I needed a few months to sort things out. I wouldn’t get them.
A lot of people figured out I was the author, including people who hated the piece. But only one revealed my identity, that is to say, “doxxed” me: Bill Kristol. Bill may not know this, and almost certainly would claim it as a badge of honor if he did, but he lost a lot of friends with that action. Indeed, many people I know were angrier at him than I was.
My placidity began to give way when Bill first called me a Nazi—and then did it again, and again after that. As I have explained elsewhere, people who call you a Nazi are not your friends. They are your enemies. They mean to hurt you.
About two years after that, I attended a conference where Bill was present. I had not seen him at all in the intervening time. He greeted me with a big grin as though nothing had happened and said that, since he was sick, he would understand if I didn’t shake his hand. Of course I didn’t, but—the chutzpah! As if I would! More to the point, why would Bill himself want to shake a “Nazi’s” hand?
Perhaps only two other things are notable about that last encounter with Bill. First, he accused me of atheism. Second, he spent the entire weekend glued to his phone, scrolling Twitter.
On that favorite (really, only) venue of his, he recently repeated the lie that my Philadelphia Society speech “called for violence,” equated me with Roger Stone, and insulted me for dressing well. Should I be ashamed of not being a slob?
Be that as it may, that little aside reminded me of Bill’s, shall we say, “inconsistency” about matters of pecuniary interest. He likes to hurl insults at his enemies over every dollar they earn, as if making a living is somehow denied to them by virtue of their policy differences with Bill. What standing, anyway, does Bill Kristol, of all people, have to criticize others for raising money? Has there ever been a griftier grifter in Washington? Bill’s managed to suckle one billionaire sugar daddy after another, piling up wealth without ever having held job that profited anyone other than himself. In perhaps the supreme moment of Kristolism, Bill—who raked in millions selling cruises to boomers—attacked his enemies for . . . trying to raise money for their own shoestring non-profits via cruises.
Bill is a double Harvard graduate—A.B. and Ph.D. He was, as noted, a student of one of the three or four greatest conservative minds of the past 100 years. He wrote his dissertation on the Federalist. He ought, therefore, to know something about the American founding.
Why, then, does he deny the right of revolution? Actually, he didn’t—not explicitly. Granted, 280 characters doesn’t give one the latitude to say much. But that’s the clear implication of his attack. If my speech were so objectionable, it could only be because the assertion that the right of revolution exists—the only assertion I made—is objectionable.
Did Bill always feel this way about the right of revolution? Or is he only now against it because I’m for it? Does he think it wasn’t present in the founders’ thought? How then does he explain away the two specific explications of it in the Declaration of Independence?
In fact, I can find almost no position Bill used to hold that he hasn’t since repudiated. He was against abortion and Roe before he was for them. He used to be against the normalization of homosexuality. Do his new leftist allies know that? In almost every respect—from criminal justice to taxes and spending to the culture war—Bill not very long ago was not merely a Republican but a conservative Republican. He has not merely abandoned all these positions without explanation; he attacks with venom all his former friends who still hold them.
The only issue over which Bill has been consistent over the last 20 years is war. He’s for it! Here again is a grave issue where honest men can disagree. But Bill is not content to disagree, much less to give the benefit of the doubt to any of his former friends who question the wisdom of the last 20 years of war. You are either for maximalist interventionism—in the present context, that means arming Ukraine—or you are a wicked person. No leeway is allowed for genuine differences of opinion, or even prudential miscalculation. Bill is entirely Manichaean on this (and every other) topic.
This is perhaps understandable. Bill is best known for his vociferous support of the 2003 Iraq war. “Support” is really too mild a word because, while it may be hard to remember, Bill was extremely influential back then. More than anyone else outside of government, he made that war happen.
Full disclosure (which I have disclosed many times): I supported it, too. One difference is that by 2007, I saw clearly that it had been a horrible mistake. Bill never has. Not that he (or anyone) should repudiate a position he sincerely holds.
But it is reasonable to ask how anyone can still sincerely hold that position. The Iraq war was a catastrophe. It failed to accomplish its stated ends. It killed thousands of Americans, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, and crippled many more from both countries, many of them women and children. It cost trillions of dollars. It destabilized the Middle East for a generation and counting. It intensified deep divisions in the American public and the Republican Party. It got Barack Obama elected twice (against Bill’s stated wishes both times).
Even partial responsibility for a disaster of this magnitude is enough to break the psyche of anyone possessed of a modicum of introspection. If that’s what happened to Bill, he should have our pity. Not that he’s behaved in a way to deserve any.
Unleashing the Attack Dogs and Hacks
Bill is a great deal wilier than the average Swamp hack, and a genius at getting others to do his dirty work. One of his go-to attack dogs is a person called Christian Vanderbrouk who seems to be some sort of professional Twitter troll and goes by the handle UrbanAchievr. Spelling difficulties aside, I assume that’s a reference to “The Big Lebowski.” In any case, I am unaware of any of Vanderbrouk’s achievements.
Vanderbrouk’s specialty is the deliberate misreading, the willful distortion tantamount to a lie. For instance, earlier this year, I wrote a review of “Top Gun: Maverick” in which I enthused that one of the film’s great strengths was its utter lack of wokeness, of any kind of identity politics whatsoever—how it showed a multiracial, multiethnic team of men and women successfully working together without any discussion of their demographic categories.
To this, Vanderbrouk tweeted: “Michael Anton’s review of Top Gun: Maverick is an emotional diary of his feelings about each character’s racial background. Not a joke.”
He twists my review to mean the opposite of what it actually says. And does so, of course, in order to call me a “racist,” the go-to accusation of everyone out to libel, denigrate, and cancel people they don’t like.
Would that we could excuse Vanderbrouk on the ground of poor reading comprehension. But he knows what he’s doing. His purpose is to harm. This is not discourse or disagreement. It’s a kind of information warfare deployed explicitly to destroy reputations and, if successful, lives. It is done out of enmity, and it is evil.
Vanderbrouk’s latest is in the same vein, but much worse. To my contention that historicism has not obviated the right of revolution, Vanderbrouk retorts: “Anton complains that more conservatives aren’t lining up for violent revolution.”
This is also a lie and he knows it. I nowhere said any such thing, and said quite clearly that I hope—as men of goodwill should hope—that the right of revolution remains merely a matter of theoretical discussion.
Vanderbrouk falsely accuses me of calling for violence in order to paint a target on my back. He knows full well that the FBI and the national security state are looking to persecute people on the right for exercising their rights, insofar as the exercise of said rights goes against the diktats of the ruling class. He knows full well that there are dozens of Americans still being held, after more than 21 months, in pre-trial detention, many in gulag-like conditions, for, at worst, misdemeanors. He knows—how could anyone not know?—that the FBI is now doing guns-drawn, pre-dawn raids on peaceful religious family men. He knows, or should know, that the FBI and the Department of Homeland security are lying about the alleged prevalence of “white supremacist terrorism” and punishing whistleblowers who expose their lies.
Vanderbrouk—a self-proclaimed defender of liberty and rights and “democracy”—is fine with all this, as long as it’s done to destroy his enemies.
But Bill’s most prolific pit bull is Charles Sykes. I was an avid reader of Sykes’ books back in the late 1980s and early 1990s—especially The Hollow Men, among the best of a slew of volumes from that time exposing the miasma into which higher education was then sinking. (Things are much worse now.) Sykes authored, by my rough count, some eight genuinely conservative books—until he decided that “the right lost its mind” in voting for secure borders, better trade deals, and an end to pointless foreign war.
Sykes really isn’t that interesting anymore. I bring him up only because he was the source of Vanderbrouk’s (and later Bill’s) lie that I “called for violence” in my Philadelphia Society speech. These days anyway, Sykes is even less clever than Vanderbrouk, so it’s at least possible that he just didn’t understand what I said. I doubt that, though, because Sykes’ “second sailing” as a public intellectual is to be a feral attack dog against anyone and anything that offends his newfound liberal pieties. I’m unaware of anything even vaguely positive or constructive to come from his pen since Trump descended the escalator to announce his candidacy in 2015.
Vanderbrouk, I assume, has nothing better to do, but Sykes used to be a serious man. To see him reduced to a mere guided missile launched against his boss’ various pet hatreds makes me a bit sad.
Jonathan Last is a more measured member of Bill’s team. I’ve had but one interaction with him, when he edited a piece of mine for the now-defunct Weekly Standard. The experience was amicable, despite serious political disagreements.
Last lately weighed in to endorse Sykes’ contention that the American Right is all-in for political violence. His title “It’s Not Both Sides” pretty well sums up the content. In order to sell the idea that political violence is solely the province of the Right, Last must exclude such notable events as the Congressional softball practice shooting, in which a leftist almost killed Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), the more recent attack on New York gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin, Shannon Brandt deliberately running over and killing the teenaged Cayler Ellingson because the latter was a Republican, or the even more recent attacks on canvassers for Greg Abbott’s reelection. And that’s to say nothing of the 600-plus BLM riots in the summer of 2020 which were, to say the least, not committed by the Right.
Against these actual incidents of violence, Last demonstrates merely that the Right likes guns, is sometimes photographed with them, that anonymous kooks occasionally make threats, and that politicians use provocative metaphors.
Last claims that I said “violent revolution is an important part of the American tradition.” From the context, it appears that repetition of this claim is meant to scandalize. How could I say that?
Here’s what I actually said: “It’s just a historical fact that violence birthed America. Granted, that violence was justified, organized, careful, and the furthest thing from indiscriminate. But the American Revolution was still a war waged against a government that considered itself legitimate.”
Is Last denying this? If so, I have books I could recommend. Why not start with Edmund S. Morgan’s The Birth of the Republic, 1763-1789? It’s short and fun to read. All the highlights are there: Lexington and Concord, the “Shot Heard Round the World,” Bunker Hill and “Don’t Fire Until You See the Whites of Their Eyes,” Paul Revere’s ride, “One if by Land, Two if by Sea,” etc. I would encourage him to read up and get back to me about the alleged irrelevance of revolutionary force to the American tradition.
Last further accuses the Claremont Institute, with which I am affiliated, of “attempt[ing] to co-opt sheriffs into selectively enforcing laws.” He links a tendentious piece by our enemies but otherwise offers no supporting evidence. Well, I was at the sheriffs’ fellowship and I can tell you what we actually said. We said, among other things, that sheriffs are separately elected officials whose offices, in many cases, predate the American Revolution and/or stretch back to the founding of their respective states. Each elected sheriff takes an oath, the wordings of which can differ on the margins, but the gists of which are all the same: to faithfully and impartially enforce the laws and uphold the United States Constitution. We urged those sheriffs, as independently elected officials responsible to no one but their constituents and the constitutions of their states and of the country, to take their oaths seriously and not succumb to illegitimate political pressure—for instance, to selectively enforce the law against regime enemies while turning a blind eye to regime friends. And we explained some of the key documents in American history that reinforce these messages.
Bill’s hit squad aside, my biggest criticism of him is his blinkered field of vision. Bill enjoyed one of the greatest gifts anyone of an intellectual bent could wish for: a great teacher and exposure to the greatest books.
What has he done with all of that? Uncritical support of Biden, Kamala, Fauci, Mark “White Rage” Milley, “Admiral Rachel” Levine, COVID lockdowns, BLM riots, pre-dawn raids, pre-trial detention, pre-teen genital mutilation. This is where reading the Bible, Thucydides, Xenophon, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Montesquieu and the founders led him?
The great thinkers whom Bill once claimed as sources of inspiration were all dissidents—dissidents, especially, from the prevailing orthodoxies of their times. Bill, by contrast, is a supporter of orthodoxy, an enforcer of leftist pieties, a (well-paid) regime hitman.
There are, in the parlance of our times, many such cases. One worth mentioning at the present moment, though not nearly so influential as Bill at his peak, is Damon Linker. Linker is another frequent attacker, with whom I have a similarly (though much less consequential) unhappy personal history. And he is yet another about whom I have similarly never publicly spoken, until now.
Linker came from the same academic-intellectual milieu as Bill and I. He was closer to Bill, intellectually, in that his main teacher was also from Harvard. Along the way, Linker befriended several friends of mine, who set about doing what friends do: helping their friends.
In this context, I was asked, as a then-aide to New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, to help get Linker a job—which I eventually did, as a speechwriter to the mayor. It took some time to get Linker through the process, during which he called me frequently demanding to know what was the holdup and when the whole business would be resolved. I spent a great deal of internal political capital to get Linker that job. I did it because friends I trusted vouched for him and assured me that he needed help and was worthy of it.
I don’t recall exactly how long Linker lasted, but it wasn’t long. A few months? He quit, he said at the time, because he didn’t like how the whole City Hall operation was “all about one man.” What did he think being a political aide in an executive branch position was going to be like?
In reality, Linker quit to go work for the magazine First Things, which had been his real aim all along. He used his friends to get them to use me to get him a ticket to New York, where he knew he needed to be in order to infiltrate conservative intellectual circles and fulfill his plan. A year or so after that, he also quit First Things, allegedly shocked! shocked! that the conservative Catholic magazine, founded by an orthodox priest, advocated . . . religious orthodoxy and conservative Catholicism. Linker turned that “shock” into a tell-all memoir in which he related the astonishing news that the religious right is both religious and right-wing.
The whole thing was an op. But it successfully launched Linker’s career as a former conservative scourge of the Right, a schtick without which no one ever would have paid attention to anything he says.
Years later, after calling me various bad names, Linker approached me at a conference all smiles, apparently—just like Bill—expecting a warm reception. After I brushed him off, he complained on Twitter that I had been rude. The psychosis of thinking it’s just a friendly game to call people Nazis is fascinating. The expectation that spewed hatred be reciprocated with love is similarly bewildering.
Linker’s “philosophy,” insofar as he explained it to me all those many years ago, is illustrative of the thought of a certain type of intellectual: the above-it-all pose, the pretension of a privileged seat on the philosophic mountaintop from which to view the little people in all their befuddled stupidity.
Linker explained to me at length (to be fair, I had heard it all before) how morality is incoherent, justice isn’t real, and natural right is a coping device for the deluded who can’t handle the truth. To the extent that philosophers discuss those things, they do so “exoterically,” hiding their real opinions, and pimping myths to the suckers who need them and who aren’t smart enough to see through the surface to the core.
One of the stranger experiences of recent years has been to see people who have been expressing this view for years (many of them are much older than Linker) suddenly discover high principle and clutch their pearls over Donald Trump. On what basis? His allegedly low character? But you’ve assured me that morality is a sham, a crutch for the weak-minded. His alleged threat to “Our Democracy™”? But don’t Plato and Aristotle (and others) agree that democracy is a bad regime, the second-worst after tyranny?
In particular, the school (or sect) from which I emerged has long been mocked by these same people for our allegedly fanatical and obscurantist dedication to America’s founding principles. Don’t we know that America is a modern regime, that modernity is “low but solid,” and that therefore the United States is nothing but a mechanism to facilitate getting and spending, the “joyless quest for joy”? The founders may have held “these truths to be self-evident,” but they were wrong. The only self-evident truth is nihilism, or perhaps the superiority of the philosopher to all other human beings who, in the final analysis, aren’t really human.
Whatever one thinks of this view, it’s at least internally consistent. It is not, however, consistent with ostentatious fealty to the United States Constitution and grave warnings about the fate of “Our Democracy™.” I have to say, a quarter century ago in graduate school, when my teachers and colleagues were mocked routinely for our supposedly simplistic and anti-philosophic dedication to the American founding, I never imagined that those same mockers would one day turn around and accuse us of betraying the Constitution! Nor could I have imagined being accused of atheism and nihilism by actual atheists and nihilists. Having read the great books myself and learned the depths of which human nature is capable, I suppose I should have known better.
Linker’s latest effort is a multipart series in which he declares himself a political “moderate” and excoriates others who received a similar education but, in Linker’s view, misused it to study icky thinkers. The game is more or less given away by the self-application of the term “moderate.” In fact, Linker supports the present leftist regime and agenda tout court. This is “moderate”? Linker finds it disturbing that anyone could have read the same books he did and become a rightist opponent of administrative rule, security-state tyranny, corporate censorship and hyper-wokeness. I find it ridiculous that anyone could read those same books and end up a toady of the present illiberal ruling order, a regime that every author in the canon (save perhaps Marx and Kojève) would have despised. And which Nietzsche and Heidegger saw coming and did despise.
To reemphasize the point at the cost of a little repetition, because it really is amazing: Linker and Kristol and many others read the Bible, Homer, Thucydides, Xenophon, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Farabi, Maimonides, Aquinas, Machiavelli, Shakespeare, Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, and the American founders . . . only to end up as MSNBC-style talking heads. In Bill’s case, literally!
Linker’s objection to certain academics studying icky books is the most anti-philosophic stance imaginable. He appeals to Leo Strauss; did Strauss ever declare any book verboten? On the contrary, he consistently urged students to read the illiberal thinkers, to expose themselves to the full power of liberalism’s greatest opponents.
I have committed many sins in Linker’s eyes (though can sin really exist to one who rejects morality?). Not the latest, but the one he’s complaining about now, is my review of Bronze Age Mindset. I have to say, I don’t understand his problem with my take. My core criticism of that book was its rejection of natural right and the American founding. Linker also rejects these things. Is he angry that I criticized a book whose conclusion he admires? Or has he changed his mind? Is morality no longer an incoherent crutch for the weak? Has the United States somehow risen above its “low but solid” foundation?
I’d ask for clarification, but to be honest, I don’t care. Say what you will of Bronze Age Mindset, it’s infinitely more interesting than anything Linker has ever written, ever will, or ever could. It lays out its position starkly, forcing a confrontation with uncomfortable ideas. That’s what philosophy—what thinking—is supposed to be about. I learned that from the great books. Linker, apparently, learned to ape talking points from the New York Times editorial page. Imagine dedicating your life to studying classical thought, only to end up as a regurgitator of banal contemporary conventional wisdom.
Rule of the Anti-philosophic
Opinion is the element or medium of society. These people, and many others like them, work to constrain opinion in order to rule society, to mark off what can and cannot be said or thought. Their education should have taught them that this is a disaster for human freedom. The books they claim to love make this point forcefully.
But more prosaically, they are incapable of any honest disagreement. It will be their way or the highway, and woe unto him who dissents. These are the same people who speak of unity and democracy, but their unity is Xerxes’ unity of the lash, and their “democracy” is them getting their way on every issue while telling you how evil you are for disagreeing.
Just as I find it astonishing to be accused of anti-Americanism by longtime denigrators of America, I find it even more astonishing to be accused of divisiveness by people who casually throw around the term “Nazi.” Is the cause an utter lack of self-awareness? When I encounter genuine surprise that their hate is not reciprocated with love, I am tempted to think so.
Or is it deliberate, intended to provoke, so that those provoked can be more effectively identified and crushed? This explanation also fits the observable facts.
When even former friends of decades standing can’t civilly disagree, where are we as a country? Where are we heading?