By 1989, William F. Buckley was more of a cold warrior than conservative. Once the Soviet Union had collapsed he found himself short of ideas and energy. Assuming, perhaps, that he should remould the conservative movement for the post-communist age he attempted to force out Pat Buchanan and his paleoconservative associates for alleged anti-semitism.
There is something to be said for Buckley’s famous, and notorious, policing of the borders of his tribe. There did have to be distance between, say, Ayn Rand’s objectivists and the conservative movement because, frankly, they were anti-conservative. Nonetheless, Buckley at best misjudged four decades later. Paleoconservatives were forced into exile and neoconservatives moved in and flourished.
“Neocon” has become such an idle slur that one can overlook how damaging this curious phenomenon has been. The neoconservatives had already attacked such pillars of the right as Mel Bradford and Russell Kirk and carried on assaulting traditionalists, nationalists and anti-interventionists up to and beyond David Frum’s infamous “Unpatriotic Conservatives” essay. (Frum appears to rethought his progressive imperialism, which gives hope to all who feel that humans can be saved.)
What did the neocons achieve in their preeminence? By the mid-90s they had lost the cultural conservatism that their sympathisers recall from their humbler beginnings. William Kristol, scion of the neoconservative theorist Irving, united with Robert Kagan to found the Project for the New American Century – a think tank that promoted an “elevated vision of America’s international role”, which entailed the invasion of Iraq. Along with future members of the Bush administration, such as Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld, the neoconservatives brought this idea to fruition and ensured that thousands died and trillions of dollars were squandered.
Meanwhile, so preoccupied was movement conservativism with events halfway around the globe that domestic policy was granted too little attention. The government created debt and failed to oversee the banks before the financial crisis. Millions of immigrants crossed America’s fragile borders while the state clamped down on the liberties of Americans. Conservatives supported John McCain as the successor to George Bush – a man who had opposed almost nothing the president had done. His failure was inevitable. Obama triumphed.
Once in opposition, the Republicans were remarkably ineffective. Neocons, having learned nothing, cheered on Obama’s intervention into Libya, which, almost four years on, is still a violent and chaotic place. Americans had grown tired of war by then. Republicans in the Gang of 8 united with their Democratic colleagues to devise an extremely liberal immigration reform bill – to the left of the left, never the mind the right. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney came and went with little fuss.
All of this is why Donald Trump enjoys success today. Right-leaning, largely lower-to-class Americans look on the job Conservatives have done with scorn. Their interests, to their minds, have been not represented but ignored by elitist ideologues and social climbers. The National Review has published an edition which aims to present a united front against the Donald, for his populism and his demagogeury, but only manages to illustrate the cluelessness of their senior staff. As Republican voters defy the Conservative establishment for being out of touch and narcissistic why does the cover look like the guest list of a dinner club? It is as fantastic a misreading of the times as if Marie Antoinette had thrown cakes from the balconies of Versailles.
I am less than thrilled by the prospect of Trump. His unapologetic combination of social conservatism and economic protectionism is appealing but I wish it was spoken by somebody more like Pat Buchanan. If anyone looks across the career of the Donald and finds a record of sagacity, honesty and decency, good luck to them, but they will have to point it out to me. Nonetheless, popular backlash was inevitable and, indeed, justifiable.
“Populism” is, to some extent, acknowledgement of the interests and ambitions of the common citizen. Would anyone like to claim that these have been well-represented? Such is the belated recognition of the fact that the Republican base is outraged at its representatives that someone like Bill Kristol has the audacity to suggest that Trump is a figure of the Republican establishment. If anyone is fooled by this, I have a bridge to sell to them. Several, in fact, from London to San Francisco.
Populism is not bad, then, but it is dangerous. People want to be told what is pleasant more than what is true, a fact that opportunists never tire of exploiting. One hopes, for states, that the desires of common men inform what should be done and the wisdom of great men determines what can be done. Great men can ignore the opinions of the masses if their wisdom is so keen that they can please them anyway. National Review Conservatives have failed on every count and have no one more than themselves to blame for the possible Trump triumph, and whatever such bizarre events might entail.