Few factions of American political life have suffered a fall as lamentable as the neoconservatives, a group of Reaganite intellectuals who held sway in Republican politics from the mid-1990s until the advent of Donald J. Trump. Idealists who pushed a globally managed new world order after the Cold War, they advocated failed nation-building around the world, compromised domestically with tax-and-spend neoliberals, contentedly ceded control of cultural politics to the Left, and ended up a dainty, bow-tied coterie of controlled opposition subsumed by Washington’s ossified elite.
Feckless, out of touch, out of power, and often quite happy to be that way in exchange for comfortable lives of blue-state social acceptability, neocons today are a preening remnant huddled in the capital’s vast pastureland of worthless think tanks, meaningless advisory boards, and distrusted legacy media. A vital part of what has derisively become known as “Conservatism, Inc.,” one rarely finds them outside the Washington suburbs, though some have retreated to heartland places to look authentic, reduce expenses, or avoid the real-life consequences of their many failed policies.
A decidedly baby-boomer movement, barely any are under 65, and those who are usually look and act twice that age. They have virtually no achievements of which to be proud, no mentorship networks to nurture, no winning personal qualities about which to boast, and no natural means to pass down their discredited ideas to a new generation. They have no acolytes, no protégés, no disciples, and therefore no successors. Younger conservatives think of them as sell-outs, hypocrites, and phonies, and easily ignore them. Older paleoconservatives who still care usually gesture toward them with well-deserved smirks that signal, “See, I told you so.”
Perceptions aside, more than a few neocons have become Democrats, or publicly endorse and vote for Democratic candidates, ironically because they object to the idea that without them, the Republican Party sometimes has the effrontery to represent the interests and values of its voters. Unappreciated by anyone but themselves, and conditioned by bitter experience to accept losing as a default position, many now reject the “neoconservative” label altogether. Some can even be found in the Biden Administration, perhaps compliantly announcing their pronouns when prompted by Kamala Harris.
In 2016, the neocons’ dominant national security wing committed a bizarre act of professional harakiri by declaring that they would never work for a Trump Administration. Most were likely grandstanding because they did not expect Trump to win the Republican nomination or that year’s presidential election, but all deluded themselves into believing that the voting public would admire their “virtue” as they dutifully cast their ballots for Hillary Clinton. A few especially unprincipled neocons managed to crawl back to serve Trump in peripheral posts, but if most had simply vanished when he entered office, the only noticeable result would have been the Democrats losing another few thousand votes in Northern Virginia.
The flagship neocon publication, the Weekly Standard, crashed and burned in 2018 when its publisher withdrew financing following a precipitous drop in subscriptions largely caused by the magazine’s obsessively anti-Trump editorial line. Successor publications such as The Bulwark and The Dispatch are largely produced by neocons, for neocons and hardly travel outside their limited bubble of cocktail party fondue except to solicit funding from leftist patrons. Neoconservatism was never a populist movement, and its late-hour attempts at public outreach predictably went nowhere. The most prominent attempt, the NeverTrumper-aligned “Lincoln Project,” founded in 2019, quickly degenerated into a sleazy morass of malfeasance accusations, gay sex scandals, George Conway, and an incredibly boring series on Showtime.
Paradoxically, it was the Trumpian steamroller that gave neocons a renewed platform. In the leftist hysteria that followed his election, some neocons made profitable comebacks in the mainstream media, where they suddenly became palatable to the Left as columnists, TV talking heads, and “respectable” conservative intellectuals who—often for the right price—could reliably amplify the anti-Trump chorus and at least superficially shield leftist outlets against accusations of bias, while not complaining too much about social and cultural issues that never mattered to them, anyway.
After the 2020 election, many neocons presumed that rank-and-file Republicans would automatically come to their senses and restore them to leadership as a matter of course. Instead, Trump remained the aggrieved heart and soul of the Republican Party, which proceeded to drive the few remaining neocons in active political life into virtual oblivion. Their intellectual leadership preserved an outsized voice, but it was so hopelessly compromised by its hasty marriage of convenience to the mainstream outlets that it became just another variant of fake news, a self-dealing “Vichy conservatism” collaborating with a hateful regime in the hope of reward, or at least mitigated loss. It didn’t help that one of its leading writers bears the surname “French.”
Neocon 2.0: A New Hope?
Now, after the 2022 midterm elections have delivered an underwhelming victory to Republicans—but a victory nevertheless—the hapless neocons have detected a new hope. As much of the blame for the lackluster results is laid at Trump’s doorstep, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has definitively emerged as the only credible alternative for the 2024 presidential race. Before, neocons looked down on him. Southern and working-class, he was a founding member of the House of Representatives’ Freedom Caucus, a populist right-wing group strongly associated with Trump, who never tires of pointing out that he endorsed DeSantis for governor in a race he narrowly won the first time.
DeSantis’ pandemic policies, which made him rightly beloved in Florida and a national hero to real conservatives, ran smack up against the dictates of the security-surveillance state the neocons are largely responsible for building and then handing over to the Democrats in a strange act of repressive bipartisanship. The Florida governor’s aggressive stances on cultural politics—which are identical to Trump’s in both content and style—strike neocons as an unnecessary distraction at best and illiberal tyranny at worst. His proud prizing of the values of Destin over Davos does not augur well for neocon dreams of realizing the new world order they still plot in Fairfax County salons now that they can no longer afford houses in Georgetown on their fixed incomes and penurious nonprofit gigs.
Nevertheless, neocons are jumping on the DeSantis bandwagon, hopeful that he will lead a Republican Party without Trump, one in which they might again find a respected, and perhaps even leading, place. David “Vichy” French, for one, tweeted after the election that he has “no doubt which is better for the nation and for the GOP.” He did not mean Trump. David Frum, once a high-level George W. Bush Administration official who has been reduced to writing for the wine moms who read the Atlantic, publicly urged DeSantis to get more aggressive about seizing the leadership mantle from Trump, arguing that “if DeSantis is in the game now, he has to play now.” Bill Kristol, who is perhaps more neoconservatism’s managing director than its godfather, is also spoiling for a fight for the soul of the party. “He’s gonna have to confront the madman head on,” he tweeted of DeSantis versus Trump, “for a stiff-armed mano a mano.”
It does not seem to have occurred to the neocon commentariat that a Republican civil war in the 2024 primary could be so destructive that whoever wins may emerge battered and overspent enough to allow an 82-year-old Joe Biden to stumble into a second term. Nor do they quite realize that while Trump will carry his supporters, the anti-Trump Republican vote will be divided not only with DeSantis, should he run, but with DeSantis and however many other Republicans throw their hats into the ring. A possible result is that Trump will sweep the primaries with the same pluralities he won in 2016.
The true neocon, however, doesn’t care as long as his own “relevance” is back in play. As long as it’s not led by Trump, even a losing party offers hope and at least a glimpse of junior-varsity power somewhere down the line, or within the controlled opposition neocons already inhabit. A winning party led by DeSantis, however, promises the opportunity to fall at the young governor’s feet to offer him their unequaled “wisdom” and decades of “expertise,” wrapped up in the sickening platitudes of Beltway flattery. If DeSantis is triumphant in 2024, let us hope he sees through them and sends them back to their urban pastureland.