Last week in Commentary, neocon publicist Noah Rothman brazenly or stupidly denied the obvious. Having learned that Hillary Clinton, in a speech before the American Foreign Legion, trotted out such phrases as “America the indispensable nation” and “American the exceptional nation,” Rothman attributes the belief that the Democratic candidate is a “closet neo-conservative” to the “hysterical left.” Rothman assails a nutcase Left for what may be self-evident to the rest of us: “It is in Clinton’s implicit admission that the next president must begin the work of repairing the damage done to geopolitical stability and American preeminence by Barack Obama that has them in a tizzy. But that’s not neoconservatism; it’s not even ideological. It is simply reality.” Further: “The left isn’t just furious at Clinton for failing to denounce her neo-conservative endorsers; they’re aggravated by the fact that she’s undermining Barack Obama’s legacy.”
The Left may have discerned a very real connection between Hillary and her “neo-conservative endorsers.” These endorsers come in two kinds: the outright toadies like Max Boot and Robert Kagan who have jumped aboard the Hillary express; and those “conservative” publicists like Erick Erickson, Kevin Williamson, Bill Kristol, George Will and Jonah Goldberg who are doing everything humanly possible to blacken the reputation and political viability of Hillary’s opponent, without explicitly declaring for Shrillery. It is also totally disingenuous to ascribe the obvious conclusion entirely to critics on the Left. The Right that is supporting Trump has assumed the same thing as “the hysterical left” about the neocons’ extremely cozy relation to Hillary.
Rothman engages in more mystification when he tells us that Hillary is embracing “reality” when she sounds like a neocon, without really being one. But Rothman’s “simply reality” is profoundly “ideological,” his denials not to the contrary, and he asserts, even more misleadingly, that what he represents is a “conservative foreign policy.” Rothman’s “conservative foreign policy” means of course a neoconservative one, of the kind we encounter in explicitly neoconservative publications. But most Americans who view themselves as being on the Right might have second thoughts about Rothman’s “conservative” policy.
They might believe like Trump that we should destroy ISIS and stand by proven allies but unlike Commentary, Weekly Standard and the National Endowment for Democracy, these Americans whom Rothman pretends don’t exist are not interested in nation-building or exporting the present version of American liberal democracy to the far flung corners of the globe. Trump wins the support of such people because he seems to be reviving a realistic foreign policy (although I wish he would articulate it more consistently). There is nothing even vaguely “conservative” about what the neoconservatives intend to do internationally. Nor can I find anything that distinguishes them from Hillary on social policy. Whether the subject is immigration, gay marriage, or the rest of the LGBT agenda, neoconservative publicists stand with the Democrats or are at least delighted to accommodate them. Even more importantly, they don’t give a damn what kind of wackos President Clinton would appoint to federal courts.
Lest I be accused of painting with overly broad strokes, I should point out that some public figures long associated with the neocons have disengaged and are now enthusiastically backing Trump. Presumably these erstwhile friends of the neoconservatives, including Bill Bennett, John Bolton, Rudolph Giuliani, Newt Gingrich and David Horowitz, have ceased to be “conservatives” in the way in which the neocons would apply that term. That designation is now reserved for the Never-Trumpers and Hillary’s neocon advisers. This may be a dishonest move but it’s also a daring one. Given their vast media resources and relatively cordial relations with the liberal Left, especially since they’ve begun to work directly or indirectly for Hillary, neoconservatives who are fighting Trump or have declared for the Democratic candidate may still be able to shape the “conservative” public conversation. In the 1980s the founding generation of neoconservatives managed to occupy the establishment Right and to neutralize opposition on the Right. In the end, they used their extensive media and philanthropic contacts to become the most powerful force in the conservative movement.
But this success may be hard to match in the present circumstances. For one thing, as the commentator David Goldman (Spengler) has observed, the parents of John Podhoretz and Bill Kristol were much more talented, resourceful leaders than those who are now running the family business. Bill Kristol “makes the mistake of thinking that he still matters.” He heads a movement that engages “in cultish self-adoration” and which has been consistently foolish in its statements about foreign policy, especially when young Kristol compared the disastrous Arab spring to the American founding. Spengler also expresses disapproval for the infantile fashion in which the neoconservatives have “crushed dissent ruthlessly and declared anathema upon anyone who questioned them,” or at least on anyone on the Right who questions their doctrinal authority.
The neocon second generation are also hemorrhaging what is left of their older advocates, much of whom have defected to Trump and the populist Right. These older allies have been among the more prominent and more articulate representatives of their side; and what is left of the neocon camp is now being led by self-absorbed mediocrities, who, as Spengler notes, inherited the status they never worked for and for which they lack serious qualifications. Others in their camp may find it hard to pretend to be “conservatives,” except for being associated with a neoconservative foreign policy that is in no way conservative. Despite all their media and philanthropic assets, the minicons are not working from the same strength as those who set up their movement and brought it to power.
In fact these clumsy operators are setting the stage for a new alliance on Right that may eventually sideline them. This front is slowly taking shape around Trump’s campaign; and whether or not he wins, a Right that stands in opposition to the second generation of neoconservatives is already emerging. In all likelihood this movement will be far more successful in gaining influence and media accessibility than was the Old Right of the 1990s, of which I was a frustrated part. Although purges have been a constant aspect of the conservative establishment, particularly since the neocons took it over in the late 1980s, this ostracizing process may not work anymore against the critics of Jonah, Noah, Rich and Erick. The personalities on the other side may be too prominent to be simply purged or denied the use of the “conservative” label. Some things do change; and unfortunately for Commentary, this may be one of them.