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Bye-Bye, Neocons

The Jewish conservatives and ‘nation builders’ who led us into Iraq and Afghanistan bet the farm against Donald Trump, and lost. What now?

David P. Goldman
December 15, 2016
Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

Israeli leaders of all major parties warn of two existential threats to Israel: a U.N. resolution forcing Israel back to the 1967 armistice line, and a nuclear-armed Iran. With Donald Trump’s election both threats have receded into the distance, and the State of Israel is more secure than it has been in its history. Yet American Jews, at least the majority of politically active Jews of high public profile, are miserable. America’s best-known Jewish conservatives—the “neocons”—have burnt their bridges to the incoming administration. It is one of the strangest, and silliest, episodes in Jewish political history.

An estimated 30 percent of American Jews voted for Trump, the highest Jewish vote for a Republican since 1988. Among religious Jews, anecdotal evidence suggests, support for Trump was overwhelming. But most Jewish Republican leaders backed Hillary Clinton or minor candidates in the general election while opposing Trump in terms that often climbed the walls of hysteria.

“Jews to this day continue to combine an almost pathologically intense concern for politics with a seemingly equally intense inclination toward political foolishness, often crossing over into the realm of the politically suicidal,” wrote the late Irving Kristol, the original neoconservative. His son Bill Kristol proved the Jewish proclivity for political hara-kiri remains undiminished in his generation by doing everything he could to prevent the election of Donald Trump—along with such high-profile Jewish conservatives as pundit Charles Krauthammer and Commentary Editor John Podhoretz. In the end, Kristol destroyed his own career. On Dec. 12 he resigned as editor of The Weekly Standard, the political journal he founded 20 years ago.

A Leninist mood of revolutionary defeatism swept the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party before the November election. Trump would “reenact Thelma and Louise’s visit to the bottom of a ravine,” as a National Review pundit predicted, and its intellectual elite would rebuild the party on the ruins of a discredited populism. In comfortable and well-funded opposition, the mandarins of mainstream Republicanism—The Weekly Standard, the American Enterprise Institute, Commentary , the National Review and so forth—would prepare a Republican comeback in 2020 or 2024, or whenever. The important thing is that they would be in charge of whatever was left and would still get their foundation grants.

George W. Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan became the graveyard of the intellectual movement that contributed so much to the Republican revolution under Ronald Reagan. So persuaded were the heirs of Irving Kristol that democracy and capitalism were the natural order of things that they bet the store on a global campaign of nation-building. In the end, they grasped at straws during the Arab Spring and the collapse of Libya and Syria.

To have been associated with the Bush “freedom agenda” became the kiss of death for Republican candidates during the 2016 primaries, and Donald Trump most effectively spoke to the party’s disillusionment with its intellectual leaders. Yet the neoconservatives couldn’t let go. They are a peculiar kind of right-wing Marxists, with a cultlike belief that the march of history dictated the triumph of liberal democracy. Being would determine consciousness, as democratic institutions transformed tribalist Muslims in the Middle East into Western-style democrats.

Kristol had formed the Emergency Committee for Israel in 2010 to counter liberal organizations like J Street that supported President Barack Obama’s Iran deal. Confronted with a candidate who repudiated the Iran deal, namely Donald Trump, Kristol’s Emergency Committee ran ads attacking him—for being too friendly to Vladimir Putin.

Iran was supposed to be the acid-test issue for Jewish conservatives. Donald Trump not only opposed Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran during the presidential campaign but gave his top national-security appointments to men Obama had fired for their opposition to the Iran deal, namely Marine Gen. James Mattis as secretary of defense and Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn as national security adviser.

The prematurely triumphant neocons imagined themselves sitting in judgment over the errant populists of the Republican Party, exacting apologies in emulation of Chinese Communist self-criticism sessions. At Commentary magazine, Noah Rothman proclaimed Oct. 5, “Donald Trump is likely to lose. As such, Republicans need to start thinking about the fallout from 2016 and how to heal the lingering divisions from a fractious year defined by internecine conflict.” The condition for membership in the reconstituted Republican Party, Rothman proclaimed, would be Maoist recantations:

Trumpism exists at odds with conservatism, and the party as reconstituted in 2017 must be one built up around conservative ideals of limited government, free trade, an internationalist foreign policy, and an unqualified rejection of identity politics. In short, Republicans of all stripes must be made to acknowledge and accept that Trumpism is an experiment that failed. That’s the price of admission, and it’s a modest one given the great costs associated with sacrificing a winnable race for the White House.

Right up until Charles Krauthammer called the election for Clinton early on Fox News on election night, the neoconservatives were secure in their belief that the ruins of the Republican Party would accrue to them. With Trump’s victory, their problem is to show their funders that they still matter. Like abandoned dogs, the neoconservatives do not know whether to lick or to bite the hand of the new masters in Washington.

That made the annual fundraising letter that Commentary magazine editor John Podhoretz sent out in November especially poignant reading. “There will be matters,” Podhoretz intoned “about which the Trump administration will look to Commentary to provide the clarity and insight and guidance that America’s conservative leaders—including many likely to take senior roles in the coming years—have come to rely upon from us, especially when it comes to the security and safety of Israel.”

Just where or why the new administration might require the advice of Commentary’s editors is unclear. Only two weeks earlier, Commentary Online Editor Noah Rothman got the attention of the incoming administration with a blast email claiming that Trump’s designated national security adviser, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, was “a dubious choice,” and “deeply unsettling.” Rothman went so far as to allege that Flynn had warned that America needed to work harder to keep Turkey in the Western alliance because his business had a Turkish consulting client. Flynn’s concerns about Turkey are hardly controversial, and a veteran national security specialist who has worked with Flynn dismissed the allegation as “McCarthyism.”

Rothman’s attempt to sandbag Flynn was restrained compared to the wrath that the neoconservatives poured on Trump adviser Steve Bannon. John Podhoretz inveighed, “The key problem with Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s newly named strategist, isn’t that he’s an anti-Semite. He may be. … The key moral problem with Steve Bannon is that as the CEO of Andrew Breitbart’s namesake organization, he is an aider and abettor of foul extremist views, including anti-Semitic ones.”

As it happens, I have spent some time with Steve Bannon, and I—like other Jews of his acquaintance—observe that he is exuberantly pro-Israel and as friendly to Jews as any Gentile I know. After reading Podhoretz’s accusation, I examined every article published on Bannon’s Breitbart website during the past years containing the search terms “Israel” or “Jews” and found that all were pro-Israel and friendly to Jews without a single exception. Facts are facts, and Commentary’s shrillness stems from hysteria more than outrage.

Shortly after the election, Bill Kristol published a manifesto together with the liberal scholar Bill Galston of the Brookings Institution in defense of democracy, implying that Donald Trump was a threat to liberty itself. They wrote:

We stand together against an alternative right disdainful of the traditions of American conservatism and a vocal left that blends socialist economics with identity politics. We stand together against a dangerous impatience with the legal forms and constitutional constraints that are guarantors of our liberty. We stand together in defense of an open, generous liberal democracy as the strongest foundation for addressing the very real challenges that we face and the legitimate frustrations with the status quo that we feel.

These were heady words in the wake of an election that neither Galston nor Kristol quite could believe had happened. But when the haze cleared, the hordes of the alt-right were nowhere in evidence; instead, Trump picked a cabinet of prominent businessmen and generals. I sat next to Galston at a Washington dinner recently and asked him whether he really detected a threat to democracy. “Absolutely!” he said. But where? “In Poland! In Hungary! In Eastern Europe!” Galston told me.

That leaves Kristol, Podhoretz, Krauthammer and the neoconservatives in the worst of all possible political worlds. They switched sides during the election and cheered for a Democratic victory. After their election defeat, they threw a collective tantrum, burning bridges to the winning side. That makes them a liability for the foreseeable future and leaves a giant lacuna in American Jewish political life.


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David P. Goldman, Tablet Magazine’s classical music critic, is the Spengler columnist for Asia Times Online, Washington Fellow of the Claremont Institute, and the author of How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam Is Dying, Too) and the new book You Will Be Assimilated: China’s Plan to Sino-Form the World.

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