Recently American Spectator-columnist Robert Stacy McCain issued a blistering response to Jonah Goldberg’s latest efforts at refurbishing his “Never-Trump conservative” credentials. McCain points out that Goldberg keeps reprising the same attacks against Trump that he’s been making for more than two years. Goldberg goes after Chris Buskirk at the American Greatness website for dismissing his brand of “conservatism” and for indicating that Goldbergism may be outdated. Despite the fact that Goldberg’s fans continue to devour his offerings, his invectives seem to have become tiresomely repetitive.
But Goldberg’s tirade segues into something more absorbing for those of us who find his “Never-Trumpism” to be less than newsworthy. He defends the neoconservative tradition against those on the Right who would dispute its moral and intellectual merits. He does this first by smearing the conservative critics of neoconservatism as anti-Semites (where have I heard this before?). Those who opposed the neoconservatives in the 1990s were mostly followers of Pat Buchanan; and they argued like Buchanan when they retreated into their isolationist mantra: “’Neocons care only about Israel’ is the Trojan horse that lets people get away with not saying the J word. Those bagel-snarfing warmongers want the real America to do their fighting for them.”
McCain responds to this charge by citing me as a “formidable spokesman” for the traditional Right and a friend of Buchanan, who fails to meet the conventional standard for being an anti-Semite. I am, after all, Jewish and my family fled from the Nazis. But there is a more obvious truth here that should be mentioned and which Jon Utley brings up in a recent commentary for American Conservative. What united the anti-neoconservative forces on the right in the 1990s was a disinclination for a global democratic foreign policy, which the neocons were and still are pushing. In the wake of the Cold War, paleoconservatives and libertarians of the right called for a more “realistic” foreign policy than the one that neoconservative “policy advisers” were then advocating.
It’s also true that most of the members of what back then could still be called “the Old Right” held more conservative positions on social issues than are common in today’s conservative establishment. They were generally immigration restrictionists for cultural as well as economic reasons, opposed feminism even in its “moderate” form, and believed that the civil rights revolution of the 1960s had tumbled into a bedlam of permanent social engineering. While the neoconservatives viewed the US as a near-perfect political and social model for the rest of the world, members of the Old Right were profoundly pessimistic about the direction in which they saw the US moving. But there were also members of the antiwar coalition of the 1990s, like Jon Utley, who favored even wider immigration; and nobody tried to expel him and other dissenters from our society.
In what for me is the most noteworthy part of his self-justification, Goldberg tries to show why, contrary to the opinions of people who remain unnamed, neoconservatives became the authentic conservatives in the 1980s: “According to William F. Buckley, the neoconservatives brought the rigor and language of sociology to conservatism, which until then had been overly, or at least too uniformly, Aristotelian. The Buckleyites (though certainly not folks like Burnham) tended to talk from first principles and natural laws and rights. The neocons looked at the data and discovered that the numbers tended to back up a lot of the things the Aristotelians had been saying.”
Who, might we ask, were all these Aristotelians who dominated the conservative movement before the neocons came on the scene? Frank Meyer, James Burnham, Frederick Hayek, Robert Nisbet? Although there was certainly an Aristotelian strain in the post-World War Two conservative movement, it was hardly its single all-encompassing worldview. Personally I incline strongly toward Aristotle’s view of social relations, but as someone who researched and wrote multiple books on the American conservative movement, I know that Aristotelianism was never as dominant among my subjects as Goldberg states categorically. Moreover, since most neoconservative leaders of the 1980s were journalists and fund-raisers, they were hardly in a position to bring “rigor” to conservative thought. They did start publications that featured number-crunching social scientists but this material was certainly not aimed specifically at confirming Aristotelian premises. This admirable research examined all the misdirected funding from Great Society programs. Whether or not such findings had Aristotelian implications is something Goldberg may want to discuss. But first I’d like him to explain what “Aristotelian” means.
Jonah sees himself in a position that is in some ways similar to that of Benjamin Disraeli. Thus he digs up the fact that in 1883 Karl Marx mocked the former Tory Prime Minster as a “neoconservative.” This is the sort of thing an undergraduate working on a term paper would pick up on Wikipedia and then try to build an argument around. Allow me to ask: What did the term “neoconservative” mean when it was used to describe a Tory prime minister one-hundred and thirty years ago? Did it signify someone of the persuasion of Jonah Goldberg, Max Boot, David French, or John Podhoretz? Both Michelle Obama and the Victorian English Prime Minister Lord Palmerston characterized themselves as “liberals.” Does this meant these two figures believed in the same principles or that someone applying the term “liberal’ to Michelle would mean the same thing if he used it to describe Palmerston or me (since I’ve no objection to Palmerston’s politics).
A question I’d like to address to Goldberg who has been reading my critical remarks about his supposed scholarship (naturally without responding directly) for the last twenty years is this: Could he conceive of anyone on his right who does not share his views as being a decent human being? I won’t hold my breath until he addresses my query.