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Panic on the American Right: Notes on Neocon Desperation

Trump’s tenure as president will one day come to an end, but prospects for a swift return to a stable and predictable world order, central to American neoconservative thinking, are dim.
Hans-Georg Betz, US neocon tradition, what is neoconservatism, Paul Wolfowitz, Eliot Cohen SAIS, David Frum The Atlantic, neocons versus Trump, US politics news, American neoconservatism, neocon publications

SAIS, Johns Hopkins University, Washington, DC, 3/9/2018 © Andriy Blokhin/ Shutterstock

June 24, 2020 12:11 EDT

Johns Hopkins University’s Paul Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, DC, is one of these institutions of higher learning that prides itself on being close to the locus of power, particularly to the who is who of American foreign policymaking. Or, at least, that was the case in the past. I should know. I had the privilege of teaching there for five years, during the time when Paul Wolfowitz, a leading neoconservative, was dean of the school.

One of my colleagues was Eliot Cohen. Not that I ever talked to him. He was part of the Washington insider crowd; I taught European politics — the academic version of “Children of a Lesser God.” He was plugged into various foreign policy networks, a part of the elusive circle that prided itself on having a genuine impact on American foreign policy. And he did: Together with Wolfowitz, Cohen was one of the most ardent supporters of the Iraq war — a role he would come to regret, at least to a certain extent.

In the meantime, Cohen’s influence on policy is close to zero, if not below. With Donald Trump, Washington’s bow-tied stuffy foreign policy wonks have been sidelined, relegated to the ranting margins of the American traditional right. In fact, in November 2016, after engaging with Trump’s transition team, Cohen sent off a tweet alerting his fellow foreign policy wonks to “stay away” from the Trump people. “They’re angry, arrogant, screaming ‘you LOST!’ Will be ugly.”

Conservatives May Never Recuperate From the Damage of Donald Trump


A few weeks later, in January 2017, his mood had become even more somber, his voice even more alarmist. Once again entreating his friends to stay away from Trump, Cohen warned: “To be associated with these people is going to be, for all but the strongest characters, an exercise in moral self-destruction.” For conservative thinkers, experts and politicians these were “testing” times. They could either stand up for their principles and “decent behavior” or “go down, if not now, then years from now, as a coward or opportunist.” One thing was sure, their “reputation will never recover, nor should it.”

Relegated to the Margins

For the scions of American neoconservatism, there is nothing worse than to be snubbed by the likes of Steve Bannon who could care less about the finesse of a Kissingerian realist approach to international relations and who would rather cozy up to Russian autocracy while courting the likes of Alain de Benoist and Marine Le Pen. That’s what has happened with Donald Trump, even after Bannon was banned from the court. In response, neocons have become Trump’s most scathing critics.

Their doyen is William (Bill) Kristol, son of Irving Kristol, founder of The Public Interest and spiritus rector of neoconservatism, and Gertrude Himmelfarb, a leading conservative historian. Neoconservatives like to found high-brow magazines. Bill Kristol is no exception. In 1995, he founded The Weekly Standard, which proved highly influential during George W. Bush’s administration. Yet, like the neocons’ influence in general, it failed to survive the Trump era. The Weekly Standard ceased publication in late 2018. Kristol attributed its demise to “the hostility it faced as an anti-Trump organ operating inside the Trump-dominated right — an antipathy he said extended to its financial backers.”

A third major figure on the anti-Trump intellectual traditional right is Adam Garfinkle, a founding editor, together with Francis Fukuyama (of “The End of History” fame and a one-time professor at SAIS), of The American Interest, a bimonthly magazine still in existence. To his credit, Garfinkle was among the first to understand and acknowledge what was at the root of Trump’s appeal: widespread anger and resentment among what he characterized as the “Trumpenproletariat” victimized by globalization — and particularly the fallout from China’s “unfair” trade practices — their plight ignored by the “Washington establishment.”

Three years or so later, Garfinkle, like his neocon brethren-in-arms, has become considerably more belligerent and alarmist. As early as 2018, Garfinkle characterized Trump as a demagogue feeding on the “ambient” fears of ordinary Americans: “Rattled people are easily manipulated by demagogues offering parsimonious, emotion-driven conflations — say, about ‘carnage’ caused by immigrants.” Unfortunately, more often than not, when demagogues “oozed their way to power by harvesting fear, they have often solved small problems — making the trains run on time, building a ‘big, beautiful wall’ — only at the cost of themselves soon becoming a much greater problem.”  

Collective Madness

For the neocons, this is exactly what has happened. As Anne Applebaum put it in The Atlantic (which, under the aegis of David Frum, the former speechwriter for George W. Bush, has become one of the leading outlets for the intellectual anti-Trumpistas), Trump “breaks all the rules and gets away with it. He lies; he cheats; he extorts; he refuses to show compassion, sympathy, or empathy; he does not pretend to believe in anything or to abide by any moral code.” Trump “simulates patriotism, with flags and gestures, but he does not behave like a patriot.”

Worse yet, Trump’s amoral behavior has nefarious consequences: for “some of those at the top of his administration, and of his party, these character traits might have a deep, unacknowledged appeal: If there is no such thing as moral and immoral, then everyone is implicitly released from the need to obey any rules.”

The result is, in Garfinkle’s words, a moment of collective madness of which Trump is both a “symptom,” “its engineer” and “great accelerator.” For this reason alone, the November 2020 election is crucial. As Garfinkle puts it, America stands “at the hinge point of our future as a nation: Will our ambient instability, lathered lately by new sources of stress, tip toward craziness and breakdown, or will we find a way to step back from the precipice?”

The prospects are not encouraging. In 2017, Eliot Cohen wrote in The Atlantic that Trump would fail “because he cannot corrupt the courts, and because even the most timid senator sooner or later will say ‘enough.’ He will fail most of all because at the end of the day most Americans, including most of those who voted for him, are decent people who have no desire to live in an American version of Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey, or Viktor Orban’s Hungary, or Vladimir Putin’s Russia.” Two years later, the verdict is out.

Few are courageous Republican senators who have dared to say “enough” — Mitt Romney is a lone example — out of fear of provoking Trump’s wrath or being ridiculed on Twitter. And let’s not forget the substantial minority of Americans who would not mind to live in an American version of Viktor Orban’s Hungary as long as it means “White America First.” After all, in late June, Trump’s approval rating still stood at around 40%. And this for a president whose callous response to one of the worst pandemics in recent history has unnecessarily cost the lives of over 120,000 of his citizens to date. But, then, most of his most ardent supporters don’t believe in science and, pace Fox News, consider COVID-19 to be a big hoax cooked up by the “liberal media.”

Penchant for Authoritarianism

In the meantime, Bill Kristol has used his new platform, The Bulwark, to warn of Trump’s penchant for authoritarianism. As Kristol put it in April somewhat sardonically, why should Americans worry, only because their “commander-in-chief — a man who seems not to understand anything about American government, or the Constitution, or the law — is claiming to have total authority at a moment when 23,000 Americans have died in the course of seven weeks from a pandemic this man did almost nothing to prepare for?”  

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Why indeed? For ages, Americans have told the rest of the world that theirs was the only true democracy, that theirs was the greatest country in the world. One year ahead of the 2016 presidential election, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, at the time traded as a leading Republican presidential contender, in true neoconservative fashion maintained that the 21st century “will be another American Century.”

A year later, Rubio was dead in the water and, with him, the next great American century. With Donald Trump, the foundations of American politics are in shambles. America’s traditional allies, from Canada to Germany, have nothing but contempt for the US president and with him the country he represents. In 2019, around two-thirds of Germans thought the relations between the two countries were bad. One year later, a bit more than a third of German respondents considered it important to have close relations with the United States — about the same number who thought the same with regard to China. And this despite widespread perceptions that the Chinese regime had been less than transparent and forthcoming in its initial response to the COVID-19 epidemic.

Trump’s tenure as president of the United States will one day come to an end, but the prospects for a swift return to a stable and predictable world order, central to American neoconservative thinking, are dim, to put it politely. The man who was elected to “Make America Great Again” has singlehandedly managed to accomplish the opposite. Rarely over the past decades has America’s image abroad been more degraded than during Trump’s presidency. In much of Europe, Trump is the subject of intense loathing. In Russia, I guess, he is considered a chump easily manipulated, and proud of it. In North Korea, as Lenin once purportedly put it, a “useful idiot.” And in China, I presume, he is seen as the representative of a washed-up nation that considers building a wall against Latino migrants its major civilizational accomplishment.

Under the circumstances, the neoconservative malaise is quite justified. It should not be forgotten, however, that neocons such as Kristol, Eliot, Wolfowitz and Garfinkle played their part in enabling and promoting a Republican Party whose vitriolic and toxic rhetoric paved the ground for Donald Trump. As the good book says, those who sow the wind will reap the whirlwind. We can only hope that in November, God will be merciful enough and grant us a reprieve.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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