The Iran-Iraq War Among Conservatives
In some fights, you want to see both sides lose.
There’s currently an online duel between competing groups of spokesmen for “the Right.” On the surface it’s straightforward. Namely, a battle between “NeverTrump” neoconservatives and conservative nationalists. The lead voice of the NeverTrumpers is David French. The most prominent pro-Trump writer is Catholic convert Sohrab Ahmari. He speaks in defense of a manifesto published by First Things whose text I find persuasive. It seeks to restore a politics of “the Common Good.”
Sounds like a no-brainer so far. I’ve been criticizing the neoconservatives for their stripped-down, ideological version of America and her traditions since 2003. So I ought to be happy.
But there’s more here than meets the eye. Much more, and a lot of it’s troubling. Neither side in this conflict is being entirely honest. I’m afraid that well-meaning people are getting misled. I know too much of the real story to stand by and let that happen.
Respectability Über Alles
Neoconservatives were never quite what they claimed to be. That is, consistent, principled defenders of the American tradition. Or enemies of the multiculturalist, big-government, anti-religious left.
Instead, neocons cherry-picked among the various strands of conservative and classical liberal thinking. They would opportunistically lift a principle (such as the free market, or individual liberty) for a while and use it. Then it proved inconvenient. So they just as quickly dropped it. And accused those who cleaved to it more sincerely of being “extremists” or cranks. I will never forget the open mockery with which National Review’s hosts treated Ron Paul at the GOP presidential debate in 2008. They acted like they were auditioning for jobs with Buzzfeed.
The operating principle in neoconservative circles, it seems, was to always be respectable. Stay always just twenty or thirty degrees to the right of the mainstream media consensus. And dutifully follow the goalposts each time they move. For instance, National Review published a “compromise” on LGBT issues. It’s in essence a surrender. It stands athwart the march of history, shouting: “Stop! Wait for us!”
Go further, and you might lose invitations on talk shows. Or to parties in Park Slope and Adams Morgan. Your books might lose their reviews in The New York Times.
Instead of fighting the left, many saw their job as purging the Right: denouncing Iraq War opponents as “unpatriotic,” for instance. Lumping immigration critics in with poisonous white racists. Attacking conservatives who actually fought to win. Corralling Republicans behind such hapless candidates as John McCain, Mitt Romney and (in 2016) Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio.
Losing Graciously Each Time, to Make the Globetrotters Look Good
Essentially, the pre-Trump conservative establishment acted like the Washington Generals, whose job is to lose graciously every game and make the Globetrotters look good.
Yes, we must dump the ideas and tactics that gave us the Jeb! campaign. And the Bill Kristol conspiracy to steal Trump’s nomination at the convention. (That would have sealed Hillary’s victory.) And the whole NeverTrump insurgency that followed. It pretended to civic or Christian outrage at Donald Trump’s character. But in fact, it was mostly just neocons throwing a tantrum over losing control of the GOP’s Xerox machines.
So yes, the ideological “consensus” on which all that rested is as dead as First Things claims. Time to bury it.
A Popular Front for the Liberation of Conservistan?
But what if First Things’ manifesto is not what it claims to be either? At least, not for all of its signers. What if some of the people claiming to join this effort to renew American conservatism have another agenda entirely? Remember that on the left, secret Communists used to co-sign “popular front” appeals against Jim Crow, or other real abuses. However, for them, “the issue was never the issue.” They used such abuses and the idealism of real, patriotic reformers opportunistically. To advance their own quite alien priorities. Such as Marxist ideology. And the interests of the Soviet Communist Party.
Let me put this more concretely. Imagine if, alongside the professors from Catholic universities and respected conservative thinkers, we also saw names like “Richard Spencer” or “Paul Nehlen.” Or others who’ve elsewhere made clear their racist worldview. That would change how we read the manifesto, wouldn’t it? Places where it’s hazy would become painfully clear. We’d approach it with a “hermeneutic of suspicion.”
I think that’s what’s called for, alas. Now it’s trying to rebrand itself as a vehicle for socially conservative, responsible populist nationalism. But First Things under its current editor Rusty Reno has been advancing a pack of ideas that have nothing to do with that.
Rejecting the Free Market, Even Private Property
Over the past five years, First Things has been publishing essays that:
- Reject the core principles of the free market economy that made America great.
- Denounce private property itself as incompatible with Christianity.
- Undermine religious liberty. And promote instead an intolerant Catholic theocracy.
- Condemn the American founding itself as nihilistic and fundamentally anti-Christian.
Admittedly, most of the authors who signed the manifesto in question are admirable. But I’m grieved to see their names mixed together with people whose views contradict American conservatism. And frankly it outrages me to see the latter group step forward as candidates to “renew” American conservative thought.
Tradinistas and Other Socialists
First of all, let’s meet manifesto signatory (and First Things Senior Editor) Matthew Schmitz. A very mixed bag, this thinker. He’s one of the most eloquent traditionalist critics of Pope Francis, for instance. He has penned acid critiques of Francis’ efforts to dissolve traditional Catholic sexual ethics. But he is also, by his own admission, a “socialist.” He wrote in First Things defending a quasi-Marxist manifesto by the “Tradinista Collective.” It called for a borderless world dominated by an officially, intolerantly Catholic global government that fights “homophobia.” It called for the “elimination” of “the capitalist class.” It demanded free food, housing and cash for those (in Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s timeless words) “unable or unwilling to work.” Not, I think, what Tucker Carlson has in mind.
America: Wrong from the Beginning
Or Notre Dame professor and manifesto signer Patrick Deneen, who was once a speech writer at USIA during the Clinton administration. In Why Liberalism Failed, Deneen argues that our traditional Anglo-American liberties amount to no more than materialism and atomism. This is because, as Robert Reilly pointed out, Deneen reduces the whole American founding to the ideas of John Locke. (A thinker whom our founders rarely cited. His books didn’t see a new edition in the U.S. for almost 100 years after 1776.)
But Deneen claims that Locke isn’t even really Locke. That, for all his talk of Christianity as the basis for natural rights, Locke is really just a prettified version of Thomas Hobbes. That is, a radical individualist. His ideas, if followed consistently, really would grant us Roe v. Wade and worse. America was badly founded. We can’t rescue it or make it livable for Christians under its current Constitution. We must wait for it to collapse. Then found amidst America’s ruins something more like an authoritarian ancient Greek polis.
Why Liberalism Failed proudly bears a blurb from President Obama. And another from radical multiculturalist Prof. Cornell West. And why not? If someone with leftish credentials published a book urging progressives to give up on reforming America? And essentially pull out of politics? I’d get behind that book. I’d buy dozens of copies. Then hand them out on campuses. Again, Deneen seems an unlikely candidate for renewing American conservative politics.
An Empire, Not a Republic
Finally, how about signatory (and columnist for The Week) Matthew Walther? This tribalist condemns his fellow Catholics for sullying themselves by making political alliances with (egads!) Protestants. Likewise, he writes scathingly about a nation whose religious diversity offends him. He dismisses the whole notion of American nationalism. Why? Because, contra Pat Buchanan, America is not even a nation. It’s just a sprawling, ramshackle “empire.” In a column where he described himself as a “non-voter,” Walther had choice words for President Trump, two years into his term of office.
His rule is nakedly imperial; his will, mutable and frivolous. His authority is lawful not lovable. The capriciousness of his decisions, the hideousness of his conduct, and the visible descent of his mind and body into a ribald senescence are easier to bear if one sees him as a decadent potentate late in the decline of an empire rather than as the tribune of a conscientious citizenry in a flourishing republic.
So this guy’s going to help renew American conservative nationalism in the age of Donald Trump?
The Religious Alt-Right
These grim, pessimistic, un-American vapors are wafting in from the fever swamps of a bizarro-world Catholic right that rejects religious liberty. I don’t think they deserve any more mainstream welcome than their secular counterparts.
Whatever the American right will become in this age of shifting definitions, I know one thing certainly. It won’t be a mongrelized mix of theocratic socialism, Catholic authoritarianism, and despair or contempt for our country. That dog won’t hunt.