Since primary season, when Donald Trump was goosing establishmentarians with heretical talk about the betrayals of free trade and the evils of Wall Street, the Republican Party’s nerves have calmed. Trump remains Trump—prone to incoherent behavior and daily disregard for facts. But Republican lawmakers have accommodated themselves to Trump’s alternative reality. They seem to see him, finally, for what he is—neither the tycoon he once played on television nor the party-destroying populist they feared—but a type altogether better-suited to our time: a man who made his name by licensing the use of his name, a garish figurehead for a vulgar American oligarchy. Steve Bannon, who has been called “Trump’s Rasputin,” has applied the Trump brand to the apocalyptic stripe of white nationalism that typifies coverage at Breitbart News, Bannon’s former employer. House Speaker Paul Ryan looks poised to incorporate it into his passion project of enriching the wealthy at the expense of the poor. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, recently reported “a high level of satisfaction” among elected Republicans, citing “right-of-center” decisions from Trump that they’d have hoped for from any new Republican president.
From this disconcerting Republican rendition of Kumbaya there are, however, pronounced and telling absences. Most striking, perhaps, is that of the Republican foreign-policy establishment, which has been dominated for several decades by the ideological clique known as neocons. A group with many Jewish members, and hence often the object of anti-Semitism from both the left and the right, they are best known today for advocating military interventionism and the pushing of American-style electoral democracy. (See: the Iraq War.) Now, it seems unclear whether many of them are still Republicans.
The absence of neocons in the Trump Administration is a clear statement of purpose by the reigning powers in the Trump White House; it is also a sign of their inability to proceed with the most basic tasks of government. In a transition characterized by chaos, dozens upon dozens of positions in the Departments of State and Defense remain unfilled, in part because the neocons who expected to fill those jobs are routinely nixed. Defense Secretary James Mattis has repeatedly clashed with the administration over his staff, as Trump refused Mattis’s nominees, and Mattis rejected the names proposed by the Trump team. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also remains shorthanded. In February, Tillerson chose as his deputy Elliott Abrams, a leading neocon and a veteran of the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations. But after a reportedly-successful meeting with Abrams, Trump was reportedly told by Bannon that the prospective appointee had been critical of him during the campaign. Trump, insiders told CNN, then banished Abrams from consideration. (Abrams was also the stepson-in-law of Norman Podhoretz, one of the founders of neoconservatism and an outspoken Trump backer.)
The benching of the neocons by Trump may mean the end of the movement’s 40 years of influence in the Republican Party. Open hostilities between Trump and the neocons date to last March, when several dozen of them—strategists from the Bush and Reagan administrations, think-tank gurus, holders of prestigious professorships—signed a letter opposing Trump’s primary candidacy. When I spoke with several signers soon thereafter, many expressed two-pronged dismay. On one hand, Trump had made statements that were explicitly insulting—impugning the George W. Bush administration and denigrating the political professional class, celebrating Vladimir Putin, castigating allies, and suggesting a return to isolationism. On the other, he seemed to have no working framework for governing. For people who’d built their reputations on brainpower, and on the reliable political salability of a particular cast of mind, neither possibility looked promising.
Back then, Never-Trump sentiment within the party was a relatively low-stakes family affair. But in August, after Trump clinched the Republican nomination, a smaller group of neocons signed a second, more strongly-worded letter. One former senior Republican State Department official, who signed both letters, told me that the second one was circulated to fewer people, and therefore couldn’t have garnered as many signatures. But it also reached many signatories of the first letter who elected not to double down.
“I know some people who refused to sign [the second letter] because it was just insanity,” one senior official at a national Jewish organization told me, incredulous. “It was them saying ‘we hereby refuse to be relevant for the next four to eight years’?” Though Trump didn’t comment on the first letter, he clearly felt slighted by the second, calling its signers “nothing more than the failed Washington elite looking to hold onto their power.”
Kori Schake, a former aide to Condoleezza Rice, whose name appeared on both letters, told me, “It was a more dramatic statement by August, but that’s what made it important.” She continued, “I think the people who signed it understood that they were constraining their own subsequent range of choice.” Still, she acknowledged, at that point, no one dreamed that Trump would win the general election.
That’s when things got strange. Having reached the White House, Trump was magically cured of his allergies to insiders and elitists. In the space of a few weeks, he surrounded himself with Goldman Sachs alumni and assorted corporate kingpins rather than farmers with pitchforks. Where military matters were concerned, he also appeared less convinced that he knew more “than the generals,” as he’d once claimed. In addition to Mattis, he nominated Mike Pompeo, a fiercely partisan congressman from Kansas, to direct the CIA, and John Kelly, another retired Marine commander, to head the Department of Homeland Security.
Together, Trump’s national security appointments looked more or less like a neocon Dream Team. “It’s hard to think of exactly what the bad ones would be,” said David Adesnik, a former deputy director with the Defense Department and a signer of the March letter. “Mattis is exceptionally well-qualified. Mike Pompeo is very solid. John Kelly is a good choice.” Several other signers of one or both letters echoed Adesnik’s assessment, even as they all expressed reservations about the lately-ejected former National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn. Overall, as a function of policy and personnel, the differences between the president and the neocons that looked, to many, irreconcilable during the campaign began to seem increasingly cosmetic.
Yet the doors of the White House remained closed to neocons no matter how loudly they proclaimed a newfound willingness to carry water for Trump. Perhaps nothing suggests as much so well as the experience of John Bolton, an aggressively interventionist advisor who served in Ronald Reagan’s administration, as well under both Bushes. In December, Bolton was said to be under serious consideration for a top-tier spot with the State Department. (Though often described as a neocon, Bolton dislikes the label.) Unlike EIliott Abrams, he hadn’t spoken out against Trump during the election and couldn’t be disqualified on account of the president’s thin skin. If news reports can be believed, though, Bolton managed to undermine his prospects on even less substantive grounds—by offending Trump’s aesthetic sensibility. Explaining why Trump had decided, ultimately, not to offer him a job, the Washington Post reported that one key factor factor had been the President’s dislike of Bolton’s bushy white Colonel Sanders mustache.
Among neoconservative Never Trumpers these days, there is, understandably, a certain amount of nervousness about their future within the party. “A lot of these guys are really embarrassed,” said one D.C. think-tanker close to conservative circles. “In a sense, it’s tragic. There are a lot of extremely talented, gifted people who are unlikely ever to work in government again.” The official from the national Jewish organization added, “It’s one thing to oppose policy when your party is the opposition. It’s much more difficult when your party is in power, both politically and on a policy level. Many of the people who have influence are your friends and they believe what you believe, at least partially.”
Talk in conservative foreign policy circles suggests that the administration will consider hiring signers of the March letter, but that signatories to the August edition ought to seek other employment. That Elliott Abrams signed neither letter, however, and nonetheless finds himself persona non grata, would seem to imply that Trump has taken a blanket approach to identifying his enemies.
Of all the Never Trump veterans with whom I spoke, none was more contrite than Bryan McGrath, a co-organizer of the first open letter and a signer of the second. He emphasized, though, that he regretted only the pugilistic style he’d adopted, not the substance of his critiques. “What I am ashamed of in my conduct was the vitriol, the incivility,” he said. “I diminished myself because I allowed my ego and my anger to get the best of me.” Since the election, McGrath, a former Navy commander, has been visiting Virginia Rotary clubs to lecture on the importance of increasing American might at sea. But he worries he won’t get another chance to participate in government: “If Trump has two administrations and they decide that they don’t need to make use of my talents, and he’s succeeded by a Democrat, I could be a retiree by the time my name comes back up again.”
In a recent series of tweets, McGrath urged the president to “sweep the decks” of current advisors, in favor of insiders, “the Washington equivalent of the Wall Streeters you have elsewhere.” It’s an approach that several neocons have taken, albeit from a different angle—but without much success. In the days after the election, Eliot A. Cohen—McGrath’s partner in organizing the first letter, and a former aide to Condoleezza Rice—encouraged young conservative policy types to serve in the Trump administration. After communicating with presidential staff, he quickly reversed himself. In a column for the Washington Post, Cohen wrote that he’d found the transition team “seething with anger directed at those of us who had opposed Donald Trump—even those who stood ready to help steer good people to an administration,” concluding that “service in the early phase … would carry a high risk of compromising one’s integrity and reputation.”
But sources in Washington say that members of the Trump team offer an alternative version of the exchange, in which Cohen approached them with conditions for accepting a senior position, only to be rebuffed with extreme prejudice. (Cohen did not respond to interview requests.)
Writing in January for Foreign Policy, Max Boot—a March signatory and a policy advisor to the presidential campaigns of John McCain and Mitt Romney—registered dismay that his colleagues hadn’t been tapped for jobs: “I had, admittedly, briefly entertained the hope that, for the sake of the nation, Trump would let bygones be bygones” and call on “national security professionals for help, even those who opposed him during the campaign.”
Even some observers who tend to be sympathetic to neoconservative views are dismissive of such high-minded rhetoric. “I don’t buy this, ‘It’s my patriotic duty business,’ ” said Bret Stephens, the foreign affairs columnist and deputy editorial page editor for the Wall Street Journal. “The graveyards are filled with indispensable men.”
Still, even if neocons like Boot and Cohen are unlikely to be welcomed back into the Republican fold anytime soon, their voices are unlikely to fade away so fast. “In the short term, it was a blunder,” Jacob Heilbrunn, the author of They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons, told me. “They miscalculated. But at the same time, they have an infrastructure in place, and have survived for decades now.” In addition to think-tanks like the Hudson Institute and the American Enterprise Institute, conservative magazines including The Weekly Standard and Commentary provide them reliable shelter. “They also thrive on being in the opposition,” Heilbrunn continued. “That’s their favored posture.”
Indeed, the seeds of neoconservatism were planted, largely, in a kind of banishment, by Jewish students at the City College of New York, where they’d ended up in part due to the stringent anti-Semitic quotas that then guided Ivy League admissions offices. Writing for Tablet in 2010, Adam Kirsch characterized them as “mostly poor, first-generation American Jews, born in Brooklyn and the Bronx, who came of age during the Great Depression,” who trod a path from “early Marxist radicalism, through disenchantment with Stalinism… to the anti-Communist liberalism of the 1950s.” In a 1977 essay, Irving Kristol—a founding neocon and the father of Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol—recalled this youthful ferment nostalgically: “If I left City College with a better education than did many students at other and supposedly better colleges, it was because my involvement in radical politics … prompted me to read and think and argue with a furious energy.”
Born on the Left, neo-conservatism had, by the late 1970s, drifted right, where its home in the Republican Party was solidified largely as a result of Ronald Reagan’s confrontational stance toward the Soviet Union, which they also loathed. In a 1980 essay, Norman Podhoretz worried that the hostage crisis in Iran, and Soviet incursions in Afghanistan spelled “the final collapse of an American resolve to resist the forward surge of Soviet imperialism.” (It’s worth noting, perhaps, that for many American Jews born to European parents during and after the war, opposition to the advance of totalitarianism felt quite urgent; Dalliances with Stalin and his Cold War successors might have seemed not unlike the affection of elites in both parties for Hitler in the 1930s.)
In neoconservative critiques of the Obama administration’s foreign policy—on Iran, in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere—one can hear echoes of Podhoretz’s fretting over the demise of “American resolve.” But the intellectual environment in which modern neocons came to power bears little resemblance to the one in which the movement was conceived. Already in 1977, Kristol, who died in 2009, described a scene at a New York university campus that seemed to him finely-appointed but curiously torpid: “the main lounge was half empty; a few students were slumped in armchairs, reading or dozing. … I stood there gazing with wonder at the opulence of it all, and with puzzlement at the languor of it all.” The state of radical campus politics, too, had become unrecognizable to him: “It seems to be more psychological than a truly political phenomenon. There is a desperate quest for self-identity, an evident and acute involvement of one’s political beliefs with all kinds of personal anxieties and neuroses.”
Kristol was referring to liberal preoccupations—feminism, Black Power, gay liberation, etc.—of which he and other contemporary neocons were suspicious. But if the identity politics of the Left tends now to animate campus debate—and to encourage humanities professors toward reflexively liberal positions—the received wisdom of the original neocons has become, for their descendants, a brand unto itself. A kind of identity politics of ideas, it has traded for some time in academic elitism, and relied on the approbation of the establishment—qualities that brought it into direct conflict with Trump’s campaign rhetoric. In this light, it’s possible to see the neocons’ dismissal from the center of the Republican Party as an instance of poor brand management—which is, of course, one thing that Trump definitely understands. “Everyone from the Bush staff might be watching Fox News all the time, but the fact is, they all want to be in the Times or the Washington Post,” the D.C. think-tanker said. “They live in Washington. For many, there was a desire to be seen as the reasonable interlocutor—the reasonable conservative—not like those other rubes who are voting for Trump.”
In a last twist, many neoconservatives seem to be intent on outdoing the liberal media types they once disdained—in their disdain for Trump. Max Boot, who frequently launches blistering personal attacks on Trump and on his rumored ties with Russia, recently shared a video comparing the leader of what has long been his party unfavorably to Barack Obama; two days earlier Bill Kristol needled Trump with a tweet reminding him of Hillary Clinton’s margin in the popular vote. Eliot A. Cohen has meanwhile found a receptive audience with the editors of The Atlantic, which recently published two essays by Cohen on its website—a forum otherwise home mostly to left-leaning viewpoints.
It is tempting to see the counter-intuitive alliance of the neocons and their former tormentors in East Coast media outlets as a function of class—a bipartisan solidarity of the embattled urban elite. As Heilbrunn points out, though, the situation isn’t unique to the political moment. “The neocons are gifted polemicists and adept at forging alliances,” he wrote in an email. “They have always been prepared to attack the left or right. Patrick Buchanan, the lineal predecessor of Trump, in terms of style and policy, was frequently the target of neocon brickbats.” In the 1990s, he added, neocons aligned themselves with liberal hawks on interventions in Iraq and Bosnia.
There’s also the fact that Donald Trump’s blundering is clearly suboptimal for the neocons’ brand positioning, a fact of which they are not insensible, recent marketing missteps notwithstanding. “Trump’s bizarre antics allow the Ben Rhodes types to portray themselves as competent stewards of national security,” Cohen tweeted in March, referring to the former Obama Deputy National Security Advisor. “They were anything but.” What’s unclear is whether Cohen and his fellow neocons have an audience for such sentiments in either party.
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Chris Pomorski is a writer living in Brooklyn.