Streetwise Professor

February 27, 2016

The Last Shriek in the Retreat: Neocons Threaten to Leave the Republican Party

Filed under: History,Politics — The Professor @ 8:20 pm

Arch neoconservative Robert Kagan looks upon the Trump phenomenon with horror, and has declared his intention to leave the party and vote for Hillary Clinton. He has much company among fellow-neocons, and  #NeverTrump has become a thing on Twitter.

I guess Thomas Wolfe was wrong: you really can go home again. The neoconservative movement was begun by an assortment of leftists whose political home was the Democratic Party. They ranged from dyed-in-the-wool Trostskyists (or is it Trotskyites?) to New Deal Democrats. The rise of the New Left in the 1960s and 1970s left the soon-to-be-neocons marginalized within the Democratic Party, and they decamped to the Republican Party. Now that they are being marginalized in the Republican Party (such as it is) by a populist uprising, so they are looking to return to their old political home. Not that they will fit in comfortably there, either.

Kagan calls Trump a Frankenstein’s monster. This is rich with irony, because if that’s true, he, and his fellow neocons are Dr. Frankenstein, or at least Igor. The George W. Bush administration represented the neocon ascendency, especially in foreign policy. From that catastrophe was born Obama, and now Trump. The brutal repudiation of Jeb Bush, and the lack of widespread outrage among the hoi polloi at Trump’s borderline-Truther attack on George W., demonstrates how totally the Bushes, and their neocon advisors, have been rejected.

If Kagan et al want to go back to the Democrats, and embrace the Hildabeast, I reply as my grandfather would have: “Here’s your hat. What’s your hurry?” Or, more crudely: “Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out. I wouldn’t want you to damage the door.”

Why? Well, precisely because neoconservatives are antithetical to the classical liberal, small government, and libertarian types who are also called “conservative” in the American political lexicon.

There are two big points of contrast between neoconservatives and small government conservatives, Jacksonian populists, and other non-neoconservative elements on the right.

Neoconservatives are anti-individualist, and statist. Neoconservatives owe a considerable part of their philosophical foundation to Leo Strauss. Following Strauss, neoconservatives are hostile to individualism, and the natural rights of individuals. Individuals pursuing happiness are merely egotists, and lack virtue. Achieving virtue requires collective projects, carried out through the state, and guided by an elite.

These projects should be pharaonic in scope. In the 2000s, neoconservatives were pushing the “national greatness conservatism” agenda. The goal of policy should not be to promote the betterment of individuals’ lives, but to pursue great projects worthy of a great nation and a great people. New space programs. Massive infrastructure investments. Such projects can only be executed by the Federal government.

Neocon political heroes were men like Teddy Roosevelt–a progressive, remember.

For the neoconservatives, foreign affairs present the greatest opportunity for the pursuit of endeavors worthy of a great nation. Spreading democracy, through regime change and war if necessary, is such an endeavor.

To some, the phrase “war is the health of the state” is a damning criticism. To many neocons, it is anything but. Wars fought in a virtuous cause are a good thing, and require a strong and healthy state.

This, of course, is what impelled Bush foreign policy, and led to its ignominious repudiation among a large majority of Americans. Obama, remember, won primarily by running as the anti-Bush. It would be fair to say that he won by running as the anti-neocon.

In the current campaign, Rubio is the standard bearer for the neocon cause. Trump, and to some degree Cruz, are prospering in large part because of their opposition to that cause.

Neocons are elitist and anti-populist. Again reflecting their Straussian roots, neocons believe that a robust state pursuing grandiose national projects can only be led by an elite. The people are too fickle, too ignorant, and too self-regarding to be trusted to carry out great schemes. But to implement their agenda in a democratic system, neocons have to manipulate public opinion, in part by telling different “truths” to different groups.

One remarkable tell of this elitism is immigration policy. Kagan and other major neoconservatives (e.g., Jon Podhoretz) adamantly support open borders. (Keep that in mind when you parse what Rubio has to say on immigration.) Opposition to unlimited immigration has been the singlemost important issue in galvanizing Trump’s support.

Robert Kagan and his cabal find themselves in their current straits because of the disastrous effects of big government elitism. Again, the catastrophe of the Bush years, which began with a disastrous intervention in Iraq and ended with a financial crisis, utterly discredited the self-anointed elite. Interventions during the Obama years–notably in Libya–that neoconservatives strongly supported only cemented the popular revulsion.

And said people are rising up, pitchfork and torches in hand, with Trump at their head, to storm the neocon castle. Further evidence of the cluelessness of Kagan and his ilk, they don’t understand that in the popular mind they are Dr. Frankenstein. If the neoconservatives don’t like the current political environment, they have primarily themselves to blame. It is in large part a reaction to them, and what they wrought.

In some respects, it is remarkable that neoconservatives (whom Reagan did not like) and small/smallish-government types were able to coexist in the same party for so long. But the stresses that have accumulated in fifteen years of foreign policy failure and economic malaise are too much for whatever bonds held these disparate groups together to hold. So Kagan and his fellow neocons will go their own way, and will not be missed. If they are perceived as being instrumental in putting Hillary in the White House, they will be the target of even more enmity by those they left behind.

The fundamental fact is this. In the Republican Party or out of it, neoconservatives are not friends of individual liberty and a modest, constrained state. To the contrary, they are its enemies. Whatever else the Trump movement accomplishes, it has already succeeded in forcing the neoconservatives to drop their Straussian deceptions and reveal their true beliefs: a big state and an interventionist foreign policy that is more than comfortable with using war to achieve their messianic purpose.


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  1. Where does the claim that Reagan disliked neo-conservatives come from? He had quite a number in his administration, one of whom (Jeane Kirkpatrick) was an intellectual architect of his foreign policy. Bill Bennett was one of his most effective public advocates.

    Commentary magazine was the flagship neo-conservative publication, and they were second to none in their defense of Reagan’s policies, both foreign and domestic.

    By the way, didn’t that foreign policy lead to the collapse of the Red empire 9 months after Reagan finished his term? Was that a bad thing?

    It is unfair and misleading to conflate Podhoretz & Kristol peres et Podhoretz & Kristol, fils.

    Comment by JewishOdysseus — February 28, 2016 @ 12:19 am

  2. So, who is going to punish Russia then?

    Comment by LL — February 28, 2016 @ 9:54 am

  3. This is the best post you have ever written.

    Comment by Tom Hend — February 28, 2016 @ 10:48 am

  4. @JewishOdysseus-I think your memory is a little foggy on this. Here are some links to refresh it. This book discusses this issue as well. Several Tweets by the author of the last bio are also informative.

    In particular, you are forgetting that the neocons savagely attacked Reagan for negotiating with the Soviets. The linked articles go into this in some detail.

    Kirkpatrick is an interesting case. The seminal Commentary article that bought her to Reagan’s attention was antithetical to current-day neocons’ regime change and democracy promotion mania.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — February 28, 2016 @ 11:28 am

  5. Thanks, @Tom.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — February 28, 2016 @ 11:30 am

  6. From an article by Ron Radosh:

    Kagan served with a group of bipartisan foreign policy intellectuals who advised her at the State Department, where his wife Victoria Nuland worked under Clinton as an assistant secretary of state.

    Comment by Margaret Aten — February 28, 2016 @ 2:36 pm

  7. This is so silly. You are fighting neo-con statists with Trump? That’s just hilarious.
    By the way is Ben Sasse a neo-con, too?

    Comment by Krzys — February 29, 2016 @ 1:48 am

  8. Mr. Cagan may be right or may be wrong. But I find this paleocon rhetoric extremely disappointing.

    Comment by LL — February 29, 2016 @ 4:32 pm

  9. Read “Leviathan on the Right” by Mike Tanner, a little old, but on target.

    Comment by Tom Hend — February 29, 2016 @ 4:44 pm

  10. @LL-Paleocon? Seriously? No. Classical liberal/small state rhetoric/reasoning.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — February 29, 2016 @ 7:43 pm

  11. The neo-conservatives in the Reagan era were united on one thing they were AGAINST: the existence of the USSR. That objective led itself to many complementing strategies. They were without exception still- or ex-Democrats (Kirkpatrick & Bennett didn’t become Republicans until 1985) who brought a different approach to that goal from many Republicans.

    One of those strategies most favored by the original neo-conservatives was to pour weapons into any viable anti-Soviet armed movement anywhere on earth, from El Salvador to Cambodia, an approach which was widely supported by most conservatives. Was that a “restrained” foreign policy? Did Reagan really dislike Ed Rowny, Bill Casey, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Danny Graham and Richard Pipes who, amongst others, put the bulls-eye on the USSR? I’ll see you a Doug Bandow, and raise you a Peter Schweizer.

    The 21st century neo-conservatives have a much different perspective: rather than hseeking one limited (albeit lofty) objective, they have effectively, and unwisely, adopted an unlimited one. It’s much easier to develop a strategy to destroy a single tyranny than it is to build democracy world-wide.

    It is intellectually unserious to equate the original neo-conservatives with their epithet-successors of more than two decades later.

    Comment by JewishOdysseus — February 29, 2016 @ 8:26 pm

  12. Regardless of the extent to which neoconservatives ever embraced what some believe to be the defining issues of being Republicans, on the I’m a Republican And There’s NFW I’ll Vote For Trump issue this non-random sample suggests they currently have plenty of company:

    Comment by Phil Rothman — March 1, 2016 @ 8:14 am

  13. Finally, someone has said it! Neoconservative agenda being at the forefront of the Republican party during the Bush the Younger years did not advance true conservative ideas. Quite the opposite! The bureaucracy in Washington and elsewhere kept expanding. No one could point to a single evidence that, for example, setting up a business was made easier or that anyone stopped dancing around a campfire named “Global Warming Caused By Humans”. Furthermore, even in the area where neocons could actually be quick (I abstain from word “effective”), namely paying attention to a rising threat from Moscow, they failed miserably. “I looked at the eyes of Vladimir Putin…”, my ass!!! So, if neoconservatives are good for nothing, what purpose they even serve in the Republican party – scare true conservatives? Just a thought.

    Hence, the current sorry state of GOP is self-made. A disaster in-waiting! GOP had 8 (EIGHT, for G-d’s sake!!!) years to raise a decent candidate to lead in 2016 election. Can anyone beleive what Dems are presenting as their choices. It’s the worst lineup of what they could have mastered: practically a criminal (emails) and (still!!!) a wife of a former Sleek Willy vs. an old commies’ “useful idiot” red as a chimps female ass. Any decent candidate should have had an easy time beating any of them… but not the Reps! What a shame!

    Comment by Gene — March 1, 2016 @ 3:30 pm

  14. I don’t know, Professor, sounds a lot like Pat Buchannan. Regarding the foreign policy, I mean.

    Comment by LL — March 1, 2016 @ 5:02 pm

  15. sounds a lot like : The Neoconservative Threat To World Order BY Paul Craig Roberts and Pat Buchanan.

    The EU, somewhat controversially, responds by inviting the Russians to invade Norway (which isn’t an EU member, but is a trading partner), seize control of its energy resources and start them pumping again. This has been made possible by the fact that the USA has retreated across the Atlantic to its own self-sufficient energy supplies, and has withdrawn from NATO.

    Berg embodies the tortured choices that follow. From one point of view he’s a new Quisling, forbidding his armed forces from resisting the Russians and smoothing over the tensions of occupation as best he can. Yet from another standpoint he is a hero: Faced with this anachronistic manifestation of raw military power, he vows that not one Norwegian life will be lost.

    Comment by Anders — March 3, 2016 @ 4:38 am

  16. @anders & @LL. If you were to create a Venn diagram of Buchanan’s views and mine, yes, they would overlap on the issue of neoconservative foreign policy and in particular its obsession with regime change and intervention in places where US interests do not even come close to justifying the costs of intervention. But that overlap derives from different premises and philosophies, and there is much non-overlap in the Venn.

    In other words, all Buchananites oppose the neocons, but not all those who oppose neocons are BUchananites. Don’t fall into logical traps.

    Buchanan is a true isolationist. I am not. I would challenge China more forcefully in the South China Sea. I support a reinvigorated deterrence against Russia.

    That said, I do not have a zero sum mindset. For instance, Russia prevailing in Syria is not a US loss (as a zero-summer would believe, and the neocons definitely do believe) because US interests in Syria are minor. If the Israelis are all “whatever” about Russia in Syria, why should the US care?

    The world is full of horror stories, MENA and Africa in particular. These societies are so irretrievably broken, it is beyond American capacity to fix, and we wouldn’t profit by it anyways. One who hasn’t learned that from Iraq and Libya is hopeless. And that’s my issue with the neocons: they haven’t learned that. They are the poster children for Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing repeatedly, and expecting different results.

    US intervention should be predicated on American interests, period. A la Reagan, if some country/ruler steps over a line an interferes with US interests (e.g., Khaddafy, circa 1986, the Iranians during the tanker war) smack him around until he gets the message. But don’t be so stupid as to open the Pandora’s Box of regime change.

    In other words, follow the sage advice of John Quincy Adams, and avoid going “abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” Especially in the Middle East or Africa, where the monsters are most numerous and most horrible. Use the force necessary to persuade the monsters not to fuck with us.

    Neoconservatives are really heirs to Woodrow Wilson. Look at Max Boot and other neocons, who defend Wilson ardently. Wilson is everything an American president should not be, both domestically and in foreign policy. Spare me the Messiahs looking to remake the world.

    One more thing about the neocons. They are masters of despicable rhetorical tactics. Many neocons are Jewish. Not a secret. Many anti-Semites oppose neocons on that basis: perhaps that is one of Buchanan’s motivations. But just because many anti-Semites oppose neocons, it is not true that those who oppose neocons are anti-Semites. Yet the neocons are quick to deal the anti-Semitism card from the bottom of the deck in response to any criticism. That’s a manipulative and dishonest way of responding to substantive criticism.

    I believe my criticism is substantive, and clearly empirical. The neocons had their way under Bush 2000-2008, and even to some degree under Obama (they were major supporters of intervention in Libya). Look what catastrophes ensued.

    Obama’s foreign policy has in large part been a reaction to neocon foreign policy. As I said in an earlier post, he overlearned that lesson, and in so doing, made disastrous errors of his own. But because they engendered that reaction, neocons must bear some of the blame for Obama’s disasters. Their failures gave us Obama. Obama’s playing the opposite game created further disasters.

    And as much as the neocons scream about Trump, as I noted in my post, he is their creation too. They will deny it, because it was not their intent. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and the world is full of unintended consequences. And the unintended consequences of neoconservatism have been baleful, in the extreme.

    The US is perforce a world power, and it is inextricably connected to the world. Isolationism is not an option. But that does not imply that hyperinterventionism is a necessity. The world is not binary. There is a middle way. You need to pick and choose battles. The battles that I would pick differ from both Buchanan’s and the neocons.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — March 4, 2016 @ 6:39 pm

  17. There is some truth in this post, especially about domestic policy and the philosophical roots of neoconservatism, but the history is misleading. Up until 1989 the Republican/neocon fusion was driven entirely by anti-Communism. The neocons provided a much more robust critique and policy mix for dealing with the Soviets than the traditional realpolitik types–they understood the importance of ideological warfare, delegitimizing the Evil Empire, which appealed to Reagan greatly. They also were inclined to support the ideas of asymmetric strategy types like Andy Marshall and the SDI crowd.

    The big change in neocon foreign affairs thinking came when younger-generation, smaller-bore neocon Joshua Muravchik launched the post-Cold War democracy-promoting agenda. This group then formed and uneasy alliance with the humanitarian intervention crowed on the Dem side of the aisle. It really didn’t go too far (maybe Bosnia) until 9-11, when neoconservative democracy promotion suddenly turned out that only the neocons had a ready-made agenda and theory that even pretended to apply to the problem–the problem was a lack of democratic liberalism in the Arab world and the solution was toppling unpopular dictators and allowing reform forces to emerge and take over. As is often the case, people who have a responsive answer already prepared tend to win the post-crisis debate when there is a need to “do something” and nothing else looks remotely doable or relevant. Bush started out wanting to have a restrained and “humble” foreign policy, but after 9-11 the public wanted bold action and a demonstration that the U.S. would not take this sort of thing lying down. The only coherent actions of this sort that anyone had on tap were the neocon ones, and they had the additional benefit of pulling some of the idealistic Dems and the centrist Mideast security types who had been tracking Saddam with alarm for quite some time.

    Comment by srp — March 5, 2016 @ 5:10 am

  18. Dear Professor:

    I would agree with you in the most part about Syria and Lybia – I may differ from you in some details but those would be mostly irrelevant. It may be argued that the United States has very little or no vital interests at all in Ukraine either.

    But I am concerned abut the fresh round if the isolationist thinking in the public discourse, as represented by Trump, for a different reason. By taking Crimea Russia has broken the very basic rule of the established world order, as it has been defended and in great degree defined by the US for the last 70 years. This is a BIG DEAL, regardless of the actual issue who Crimea should belong to. This is something that cannot be put away under any pretense – there must be dire consequences coming in a timely manner.

    Therefore our refusal to punish Russia and to make it comply as absolutely unaccceptable in my opinion. It does not mean going to war – there are many peacful ways to achieve that goal and they should all be explored to the utmost. I resent the behavior of our leaders acting as if they are afraid of what Putin may do – I strongly beleive it is Putin who should be afraid of what we may do.

    China, for all its posturing, has yet not broken the basic rules of the world order grabbing other countries territories (those infamous islands are disputed territry at best). Russia did.

    So on this one I am with Max Boot. And that is precisely why I am not with Trump.

    Comment by LL — March 5, 2016 @ 5:25 pm

  19. Sad how political discourse so heavily relies on labeling opponents with simple ill defined titles. You know the ones-Isolationist,Racist, Denier, etc. Reality is more complex than can be captured with these simple labels but are convenient to those that model reality in a very simple minded way.

    Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton for God’s sake. I can easily imagine these two vying for power in some outback settlement in a Mad Max dystopian future. The entire Trump phenomena is due to a large swath of the US electorate being discontent with how they are governed and so not concerned with the quality of governance in Syria at this time.

    Comment by pahoben — March 6, 2016 @ 8:07 am

  20. SWP and readers might be interested in this, especially given the discussion about intervention throughout the world:

    There is also this:

    Hillary Clinton, who is bankrolled by heavy-duty neocons, holds chief responsibility for two calamities: the overthrow of Khadaffi and Syria’s terrible civil war. Khadaffi had been restraining numerous North African jihadist groups. After his overthrow, they poured south into the Sahel and sub-Saharan regions, menacing western-dominated governments.

    We also learn that Clinton’s State Department green lighted over $150 billion of arms sales to 16 repressive nations that had donated large sums to the Clinton Foundation – a sort of government in exile for the Clinton clan.

    Comment by elmer — March 6, 2016 @ 9:59 am

  21. Craig, I rather wish you’d left Leo Strauss out of this philippic. How were neo-conservatives following Leo Strauss by being hostile to individualism and the natural rights of individualism (assuming they were)? Strauss was primarily a teacher, who taught how to analyze the writings of great men. Since he was rarely expressing his own opinions, I don’t know if I can come up with a perfect quote on to dispute that, but Strauss did write, “Liberality is then only one aspect of, not to say the name for, human excellence or being honorable or decent. The liberal man on the highest level esteems most highly the mind and its excellence and is aware of the fact that man at his best is autonomous or not subject to any authority, while in every other respect he is subject to authority which, in order to deserve respect, or to be truly authority, must be a reflection through a dimming medium of what is simply the highest. The liberal man cannot be a subject to a tyrant or a master, and for almost all practical purposes he will be a republican.” (The Liberalism of Classical Political Philosophy, 1959.)

    Comment by David McFadden — March 7, 2016 @ 10:08 pm

  22. @David
    Your quote supports rather than refutes the NeoCon link. It implies some absolute standard that a Liberal is able to determine and apply. A Liberal man “esteems most highly the mind” and he accepts authority if it is a reflection of the highest. This acceptance implies that he is able to determine “the highest” and also that he would oppose a “tyrant or master” since not possibly a reflection of the highest as determined by the Liberal man. This further implies the Liberal man has special skills with respect to others and so presumably special responsibilities.

    No doubt that prominent NeoCons attended his lectures and found support for their actions in his ideas.

    Comment by pahoben — March 8, 2016 @ 6:38 am

  23. Rather than NeoCon substitute Paul Wolfowitz and others that had material roles in the Bush Administration.

    Comment by pahoben — March 9, 2016 @ 2:25 am

  24. The Professor and others are exceptions but really a lot of bad ideas have come from University of Chicago and Chicago in general. I am starting to view it as the Berkeley of the US midwest-a notable leftist enclave on the shore of the Great Lakes.

    Comment by pahoben — March 14, 2016 @ 8:06 am

  25. @pahoben. U of C used to be known as “the Little Red Schoolhouse.” This reputation dates back to the 1930s. My parents stroked out when they learned I was transferring from the Naval Academy to Chicago, precisely because of its well-deserved leftist reputation.

    The economics department and the business school, and once upon a time parts of the law school, were the clear exceptions. I was in econ and business. There you go!

    Funny story. When I was an undergrad I was approached by David Brooks, who was a year behind me. He had identified me as one of the few conservatives in The College, and was trying to recruit me into some group of like-minded people. I’m not a joiner, so I demurred. Point of the story: David Brooks is what passed for a conservative at UC.

    It’s not just Chicago, though. It is US private higher education in general.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — March 15, 2016 @ 3:49 am

  26. @Professor
    Very funny-little red schoolhouse and the school conservative that praises Obama.

    I have an undergrad degree from a private engineering school but quite the opposite. At that time no females and everyone in ROTC. The guy I respected the most was Sgt Hungerford that organized neat activities like parachuting, white water rafting etc. Sgt served in WW2, Korea, and Green Beret in Viet Nam. A quiet but very serious bad ass that had seen a lot.

    I remember one fat kid from Australia that labsolutely oved military history. He went with a group parachuting and first jump shattered both of his legs and was in the hospital for a period. I understand his parents were seriously upset. I did think that maybe it was bad judgement by the Sgt to let such a fat kid jump.

    Comment by pahoben — March 15, 2016 @ 2:50 pm

  27. @Professor
    Your grandfather’s saying “too late for herpacide” is a great line.

    Comment by pahoben — March 15, 2016 @ 2:59 pm

  28. @pahoben-I should have been more specific, and said private liberal arts education. Engineering a whole different ball of wax.

    The quiet ones deserve respect. I just finished reading With the Old Breed by Eugene “Sledgehammer” Sledge.He spoke in glowing terms of the good NCOS, and scathing terms of the bad ones. Like they say, NCOs are the backbone of the US (and British) military.

    He probably felt bad about the accident, but in the end figured that people (men, more accurately) have to make their own decisions and live with the consequences.

    My grandfather was a font of colloquialisms and idioms which live on through me and my kids, much to the puzzlement of many.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — March 15, 2016 @ 3:45 pm

  29. Too many nights spent reading about Operation Merkur and Operation Husky and couldn’t help himself-had to jump. 🙂

    Comment by pahoben — March 17, 2016 @ 6:02 am

  30. I worked at a very isolated location and someone had left a lot of UK biker magazines. I read through these time after time and developed an obsession to buy a Harley when back in the US. My wife said suicide but I couldn’t shake the obsession. I went to a class to obtain a motorcycle license and was the only student out of twenty to lay down the bike during practice in a parking lot. I was the only student out of twenty to have two instructors constantly yelling at them in frustration. My sense of balance was never the best. I grudgingly concluded I should never and would never have a Harley.

    Comment by pahoben — March 17, 2016 @ 6:28 am

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