The Corpse of Neoconservatism Is Buried
Over a month ago, I predicted in this space that the end of the neoconservative Never-Trump movement was near. Last Friday, The Weekly Standard—a magazine that served as the intellectual hub of neoconservativism for over 20 years and has led the right-wing "resistance" movement against President Trump—went under. President Trump, the instrument of neoconservatism's internment, was understandably elated, and took to Twitter to express his exuberance.
"Rest in peace" may seem harsh, but it hits the mark. Neoconservatism as an intellectual movement was already dead when Bill Kristol founded The Weekly Standard. During the magazine's lifespan, neoconservatism would only experience failure, culminating infamously in the disastrous Iraq War.
But, neoconservatism was not always a failure. The movement began in the 1970s, when a group of mostly-Jewish liberals abandoned the Democratic Party's idealistic views on foreign policy. Irving Kristol described the phenomenon as getting "mugged by reality." During the 1980s, this group of foreign policy realists joined forces with pro-American nationalist Ronald Reagan in his fight against the Soviet Union. The popularity of neoconservatism surged during this period (although you wouldn't know it from media coverage) as America achieved overwhelming victory in the Cold War and experienced an economic boom.
After the Reagan era, however, neoconservatism's downward spiral began. As economic competition with the failing Soviet Union became less relevant, President Bush promised to redirect Reagan's economic success toward a "kinder, gentler" America that would help lead a post-Soviet "new world order." When America rejected Bush's vision and elected Bill Clinton, the mantle of neoconservatism was passed to a new generation. In 1995, Norman Podhoretz stepped down as editor of Commentary (a role later to be filled by his son John), and The Weekly Standard was created by Irving's son Bill.
At this point, the neoconservatives became full-fledged proponents of what would become known as "compassionate conservatism" under President George W. Bush—a mild social liberalism on top of Reagan-style tax schemes. Instead of appealing to conservatives through Reagan's anti-Soviet, pro-America nationalism, they appealed to conservatives through the Bush family's WASP-y methodism. This barely achieved victory in 2000. But, in 2001, the 9/11 terrorist attack breathed new life into neoconservatism as America united, yet again, against a common foreign enemy.
Had the next generation of neoconservatives been as "realist" as their parents were, perhaps a misguided attempt to create a "democracy" in the Middle East could have been avoided. But, as it stands, the Iraq War discredited the new generation of neoconservatives. This utter failure is largely responsible for President Trump's victory in the 2016 Republican primary. Trump was the only candidate openly critical of the Iraq War, and also the only candidate who refused to perpetuate old, Cold War animosity toward a now-nationalist Russia. The message from Republican voters should have been clear: "we never wanted neoconservative globalism; we want Reagan's nationalism!"
In the wake of the failure of Kristol's magazine, Commentary editor John Podhoretz frantically denounced the corporate owner of the Standard for "murdering" his own publication. Perhaps Mr. Podhoretz is troubled because he sees the handwriting on the wall. If he wants his neoconservative magazine to remain relevant in future political discourse, perhaps he should consider publicly admitting neoconservatism's mistakes. Otherwise, Americans are likely interpret his anti-Trump sentiment as sour grapes, and might soon send his publication into oblivion, as well.