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The New Right Is Neither New nor Right
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The New Right Is Neither New nor Right

When ‘timeless principles’ become inconvenient.

Theodore Roosevelt standing on a podium pointing into the crowd during a campaign rally speech. (Photo from Bettman Collection/Getty Images.)

Dear Reader (including any of you who might have caused earthquakes in Seattle last weekend), 

Greetings from the United Kingdom. I’ll save the travelogue stuff for the end. 

“We’re seeing a conservatism that emphasizes freedom give way to a conservatism that emphasizes authority,” a prominent, albeit somewhat heretical, conservative wrote a while ago. “For a hundred years we debated the economic reach of the state, but that debate’s basically done. The next one will be over where the state should erect guardrails in a mobile and fragmented world.”

In another column he wrote about the need to strengthen the state to combat new concentrations of corporate power and to promote a new standard of American “greatness.” Teddy Roosevelt was the lodestar for this new rethinking. 

Roosevelt believed that the problem of corporate power made a lot of free market arguments obsolete or at least unsuited to the times. This unorthodox conservative quoted Teddy Roosevelt favorably: “Every new social relation begets a new type of wrongdoing—of sin, to use an old-fashioned word—and many years always elapse before society is able to turn this sin into a crime which can be effectively punished by law.”

I should say this writer was hardly alone. He was joined by a host of intellectuals and activists—and some powerful politicians—who rejected the old Buckleyite formulation of “standing athwart history, yelling Stop!” Government needs to move. Government needs to be strong, even if that opens you up to complaints that you’re making government bigger. Size, by itself, doesn’t actually matter. These mavericks wanted to conceive of a new idea about government that drew deeply on Lincoln’s war powers and the zeal of the progressives at the beginning of the 20th century. 

So who am I talking about? 

Well, David Brooks of course. And Bill Kristol. Oh, and George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain. As a candidate in 2000, McCain ran to Bush’s left as a “Bull Moose” Republican. 

In 2003, Fred Barnes wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal explaining that President Bush was a “Big Government conservative” (Bush preferred “strong government conservative”). Bush rejected the Buckleyite approach, saying that conservatives needed to be “activists” and “lead.” So Bush and his “neoconservative” stalwarts were committed to “using what would normally be seen as liberal means—activist government—for conservative ends.” 

In some ways, they were playing catch-up to Newt Gingrich, who spent much of the 1990s arguing for a revivalism of the spirit of the Progressive Era to “transform” government. Lamar Alexander issued a book that promised to follow in the spirit of Herbert Croly (the godfather of progressivism whose book, The Promise of American Life, radicalized Teddy Roosevelt). The title of Alexander’s opus was The New Promise of American Life.

Now, I had some big problems with this stuff back in the day. I excoriated Bush’s expansion of government and big spending, and harshly criticized this nostalgia for progressivism. But I don’t bring this up to criticize those guys. Not all of their arguments were bad and many of their goals were good. Bush, to his credit, wanted to use the power of government to improve the choices of citizens in an “ownership society” and to hold government more accountable. Depending on the specifics, I can get behind that. 

I bring it up instead to note a few things. First, the irony of all of these New Right table thumpers—who, I think it’s fair to say, for the most part loathe Bush, McCain, Brooks, Kristol, “neocons,” et al.—aren’t even making new arguments on the timescale of relatively recent memory. I mean, Bush was the last Republican president before Trump and John McCain was the GOP nominee in 2008. 

Second, as I’ve often argued, a lot of the New Right stuff is less about principles or ideals or policies, and more about factional infighting and the desperate effort to climb to the top of the greasy pole of power. According to internal tribal rules, the last thing any of these people can do is begin a sentence, “As David Brooks brilliantly demonstrated …” They see those guys as icons of the old establishment they want to replace. So they pretend these debates never happened (or in some cases they don’t pretend, because they have the historical memory of gnats). 

And of course, as you move deeper into the swampier parts of the New Right, you can’t credit “neoconservatives” with anything because they’re Jooooooooz. 

Putting aside the issue of antisemitic and racist goons (of which there were many among leading progressives), and the unavoidable tendency of factions to instrumentally appropriate ideas that will given them political advantages in intrafactional squabbles, one of the main reasons for this convergence is that we simply live in a world defined by progressive assumptions about the role of the state. Before some nationalists respond, “Yes, and that’s the problem. We must reject these progressive assumptions,” let me just point out that American progressivism was deeply nationalist, and not just Teddy Roosevelt’s version. 

In 2006, I wrote:

Why has this happened? The answer is that we live in a progressive world. If you live in Japan, you’ll be hard-pressed to persuade people of anything if you don’t speak Japanese or understand the culture. Similarly, conservatives must speak the language of progressivism in order to persuade progressives that they are wrong. The danger in this is that you can go native. John Blackthorne in James Clavell’s Shogun becomes more Japanese than many Japanese people. So, too, conservatives can end up more progressive than the progressives.

Timeless until inconvenient.

I got to thinking about this because a friend sent me this piece by David Azerrad for a symposium in The American Conservative. Azerrad begins:

What is conservatism in America today? It’s hundreds of millions of dollars a year spent fiddling while Rome burns. It’s ideas with little to no consequence. It’s getting trampled all over by History, but while yelling Stop!

Conservatism is the seven cheers for capitalism and the deafening silence on demographic change, feminism, and corporate malfeasance. It’s the same tired cast of speakers blathering about limited government almost a century after the New Deal. It’s the platitudinous Reagan quotes and the worn-out Buckley anecdotes. It’s the mindless optimism and the childish exhortations—if something can’t go on forever, it won’t!

If it were only that, conservatism would simply be a harmless persuasion for nostalgic Baby Boomers. Or to be more generous, one big Benedict Option to offer a semblance of an alternative to the pervasive progressivism of our age.

He goes on railing and wailing about people—well, like me (though I am not named)—who are cowards and free trade fetishists, as well as the “foolish libertarianism that hates the government more than it loves America.”

We the “court eunuchs and other members of the controlled opposition” live in fear of being called racists. 

And so on. 

Now, I think the whole essay is self-congratulatory grandstanding nonsense in nearly every regard. But I’m grateful for it because it’s so illustrative. The “manly” New Right is “counter-revolutionary” and “understands not just ideas, but power,” he explains. What intellectual dissidents there are in the old right are “drowned out by those of the conservative establishment.” Someone has got to point out this conservative establishment at some point, because this strikes me as straw-manning for the benefit of some hotheads in a dorm room. 

Of course, there are no new ideas here. None. It’s all atmospherics and chest thumping about how they’re fighters who fight the way the left does. The only figure quoted by name is Patrick Buchanan, who didn’t offer any new ideas (he at least admitted his ideas were old) but said some stirring things about fighting. 

I’ve met Azerrad a few times and got along with him just fine back when he was at the Heritage Foundation. But one of the reasons I got along with him—other than the fact he was a fairly personable guy (as befits a Canadian)—was that his old routine was to talk a lot about “timeless principles.”

“The Framers may be dead and gone, but their timeless principles endure,” he wrote. He excoriated Barack Obama for his novel reinterpretations of the Constitution on the simple basis that “times change.” Those principles, as he explained at length over the years, were about limited government, free markets, etc. 

Now that it’s a “century” after the New Deal (more like 90 years, but whatever), talking about limited government is cowardly folly, the stuff of craven eunuchs and corrupt buffoons. The cause is lost, so we must become like the left and use the state for our purposes. 

Was the cause not lost when the New Deal was a mere 75 years old? What happened in the last 15 years that made it futile to fight for … checks notes … timeless principles?

Now, I understand that Azerrad will likely claim he and his fellow counterrevolutionaries are fighting to restore those timeless principles—or some such pabulum—once they get behind the wheel of the state. But that is wildly unpersuasive given the scorn he has for people who still talk about limited government and free markets. It’s also unpersuasive given how many of his confreres heap scorn on those timeless principles and the documents and thinkers that elucidate them. You can say I’m letting the bad apples define the New Right barrel, but Azerrad is the one denouncing criticism of “enemies to the right.” This presupposes that everyone who likes capitalism and limited government is somehow to his left—which makes it fine to call them cowards and eunuchs. But complaining about protectionists, living constitutionalists, and other statists of the right is a corrupt violation of this new popular front that he wants. 

But David knows his intellectual history. He knows that his definition of conservatism here is wholly contestable and he would have contested it a decade ago. 

The irony here is that less than a generation ago, the idea that you could adopt liberal (i.e., statist) means for conservative ends was precisely the sort of idea that aroused so much condemnation of “big government” and “compassionate” conservatism from the right. It was, in some quarters, even proof that the perfidious neoconservatives (which etymologically kind of means “new right”) were secretly closet Trotskyists. 

The important point is that the whole argument about “timeless principles” wasn’t to say that they would always endure, but that they were, axiomatically, timelessly correct and therefore timelessly worth fighting for. David’s position now is that it’s cowardly to keep fighting for them when the new priority is to fight for power as its own reward. Crushing your enemies—not persuading them—is another booby prize. 

The idea that the Progressive Era and the New Deal did lasting damage to the application of those timeless principles is hardly new—some of his colleagues at Hillsdale have been making that argument for decades. What is new is the idea that surrender is the new courage, and timeless principles can be checked at the door if that’s coverage charge for power.

Travelogue.

I’m in Potters Fields. Now, just to be clear, I’m not in a potter’s field (as some on the New Right might like). I’m in Potters Fields, a park of sorts near Tower Bridge in London. I think it’s very weird that they’d name it Potters Fields, because I thought the meaning of the term was pretty settled: It’s where you bury the unnamed, the indigent, the unloved, and in some circumstances, the unclean or unorthodox. In New York, if no one claimed your body, you’d be buried in a potter’s field on Hart Island. But given how often the term came up in movies and TV shows, I assumed it was a universal expression in English.  

But then I asked some Brits whether they understood the term that way and they said no. Huh? Okay.

But then I looked up “potter’s field” in Wikipedia and learned that it’s not a particularly American term but is derived from the New Testament. Judas was buried there. 

Anyway, it’s been an amazing, albeit at times arduous, trip. The most dramatic episode was our pilgrimage across the Alps. As I’ve mentioned before, my wife is writing a book about her father, a man who swam the Danube to flee communism and find a place where those timeless principles were still on offer. As part of her research, she found the trail where she believes Paul Gavora crossed the Alps into Italy from Austria. It’s called “The Peace Trail” because it’s the route many Jews took a little earlier to escape the Holocaust. 

The plan was for my wife, daughter, and my brother-in-law and his family to hike part of it, partly for fun, partly as an homage to Paul, and partly for research. I, meanwhile, was tasked with driving an enormous beast of a Sprinter van across the Alps and meeting everybody on the other side. The weather was rainy at the outset and we thought about calling it off. But they decided to brave the rain. 

Alas, the weather got worse. On my drive through the mountains, I was repeatedly caught in some epic hail storms. It got so bad that on the single lane road into Italy, the hail had been smoothed over by cars such that it became sheets of ice in parts. I white-knuckled it through. Made it to this little town where they were supposed to emerge and waited, full of manly self-congratulation.

Then I got the text from my brother-in-law, saying there’d been a hiccup. 

They had gotten trapped in a bad storm, with lots of lightning and hail. Everyone was freezing and losing sensation in their hands. The Fair Jessica was the worst off because her allegedly waterproof parka wasn’t. She got soaked and started to get hypothermia. They held up in a hut they found and tried to get warm. They couldn’t get the emergency fire stuff to work and actually huddled around a candle. They couldn’t get Jessica’s body temperature up, so they made the decision to send an SOS on my brother-in-law’s emergency doohickey. His wife and kids, and my daughter Lucy, opted to keep going because they’d recovered enough and the rain had abated. But Matt and Jessica stayed behind and got helicoptered out to a hospital. She was discharged after getting checked out and given an I.V.  

I retrieved the smaller group, whose members—once informed that Jessica was okay—were in great spirits singing Sound of Music ditties as the sun emerged and dried them off. 

The next day, I got up at dawn and drove back over the Alpine border and retrieved Jessica and Matt. 

Everyone is fine. Jessica was needlessly embarrassed and annoyed that she couldn’t finish her research trek. But I think it was a great way to learn that even the “easy” parts of Paul’s escape to freedom were fraught. 

Anyway, I’m grateful everyone is okay and that Matt and his wife Sharon were there. 

Various & Sundry

Canine update: I’m really pressed for time now. So very quickly, there’s much drama at home. Pippa and Zoë had a major falling out. I think the stress of being separated and the heat have something to do with it. But they basically got very jealous of who was Kirsten’s favorite. Pippa started getting all growly at Zoë. And while that has happened at home, it’s usually no big deal because Zoë shrugs it off. Not this time. Pippa kept talking smack to Zoë and the Dingo refused to take the high road. So, Kirsten banished Zoë to our house, where our house-and-cat sitter Maddie is attending to her (fortunately she loves Zoë). Still, Zoë seems to be grumpy about it. Kirsten still does the midday walks, but she takes Pippa with the small dog posse where she is a boss. Pippa loves the situation

It’s really dismaying. Until the spat, everything was going fine. What’s in store upon our return is anyone’s guess.

ICYMI

And now, the weird stuff

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.