In April 2016, I attended a fortieth anniversary gala dinner in Washington, D.C., held by the Ethics and Public Policy Center at the St. Regis Hotel to honor House Speaker Paul Ryan. The master of ceremonies was William Kristol. Kristol noted that Donald Trump, who won the New York Republican primary that night to the dismay of the attendees who audibly groaned at the news, had described him as “dopey,” the editor of a “slightly failing magazine,” and “very embarrassed to even walk down the street” thanks to his refusal to endorse Trump. Kristol said, “It’s been a tough two or three months of rehabilitation for me.” After the audience stopped laughing, Kristol concluded: “This should be a Trump-free evening so that’s enough Trump.”
It hasn’t worked out that way. Instead, Kristol watched helplessly as Trump denounced the Iraq War as a fraud and trumpeted an America First doctrine that repudiated the neocon crusading foreign policy doctrine. This past Friday, the saga of the neocons took a fresh and unexpected turn with the demise of The Weekly Standard. Launched as a “redoubt of conservatism” by Kristol, Fred Barnes, and John Podhoretz, with the backing of the Australian billionaire Rupert Murdoch, the Standard, The New Yorker noted in May 1995, “will become the nation’s only weekly journal of conservative opinion… yet it will rely for editorial inspiration on a liberal model: The New Republic. Just as Herbert Croly began The New Republic, in 1914, to conduct the intellectual debate at the climax of the Progressive Era, The Standard appears at the dawn of a conservative one.”
That was then. Now Colorado billionaire Philip F. Anschutz, who bought the magazine from Murdoch in 2007, has decided to pull the plug, in part over the brickbats the Standard lobbed at Trump. If so, his move has pleased the president. On Saturday, Trump tweeted: “The pathetic and dishonest Weekly Standard, run by failed prognosticator Bill Kristol (who, like many others, never had a clue), is flat broke and out of business. Too bad. May it rest in peace!”
Even as Trump gloats over Anschutz’s move, however, a chorus of neocons is indicting Anschutz for willfully ending a golden age of journalism. Alfred Kazin observed in A Lifetime Burning in Every Moment, “Jews on the American scene. The neoconservatives have made it right with the boss their grandfathers used to picket.” But New York Times columnist David Brooks echoed Commentary editor John Podhoretz in angrily accusing Anschutz of, in effect, committing murder and behaving like a “run-of-the-mill arrogant billionaire,” On Monday, Podhoretz went on to deem Representative Steve King a “disgusting liar and a stain on American public life” for assenting with Trump’s claims about the Standard. Meanwhile, Max Boot, the author of The Corrosion of Conservatism, wrote in The Washington Post, “I devoutly hope a new Standard will arise to lead the Republican Party out of the moral and political oblivion to which the president is consigning it.”
It’s an unlikely prospect. The most provocative and inventive writing on the right about Trump doesn’t come from the neocons—who are essentially Johnny-come-latelies in their criticisms of the GOP—but from publications such as The American Conservative, American Affairs, or even National Review. In The American Conservative, Daniel Larison pillories the Trump administration for its recklessly high military budget—something no neocon would aver—and for repudiating the Iran nuclear deal, while William Ruger deems neocon historian Robert Kagan’s latest book, The Jungle Grows Back, a recipe for “forever war.”
At the same time, in The American Conservative’s latest issue, the historian Robert W. Merry declares that Trump will be a one-term president, partly because his foreign policy stands repudiate his campaign promises. His point is well-taken. It’s ironic that the Standard has imploded at the very moment when the neocons’ nemesis, Trump, has stolen their lunch money with an aggressively militarist foreign policy that is pro-Israel, hostile to Iran and China, and disdainful of the United Nations, the International Criminal Court, and other international institutions. The only thing missing from the Trump program is the patina of democracy promotion. Perhaps the neocons have become a victim of their own success; in Merry’s words:
Trump himself has already reversed his campaign stance regarding the country’s foreign policy, having installed Mike Pompeo as secretary of state and John Bolton as national security adviser—men who personify the prevailing establishment outlook of hegemonic liberalism. Thus, because of Trump’s political and leadership shortcomings, Trump voters will see their hopes of a new direction for America trampled and thwarted.
Julius Krein, the editor of American Affairs, disavowed his support for Trump after the Charlottesville demonstrations in The New York Times, but his journal continues to publish lengthy essays taking aim at neoliberal economic doctrines and includes well-known authors on the left such as John B. Judis. And in National Review, Michael Brendan Dougherty is attempting to formulate a populist approach toward workers and education. In a December 17 cover story, he politely acknowledges that the “Trump presidency is not what conservatives would have designed for themselves” but suggests “conservatives should allow themselves to see that America’s great middle class was the vessel for its previous electoral victories and the preservation of the American order.”
No such glasnost ever took place in the pages of the Standard whose reputation has become indelibly wedded to its cheerleading for the calamitous 2003 Iraq War. The neocons had confused the Soviet Union’s forfeiting of the cold war with American triumphalism, seizing upon its peaceful conclusion to search for new monsters to destroy abroad, whenever and wherever they could. The Standard itself constantly published taradiddles about the Middle East and Islam. Stephen F. Hayes, its last editor, lauded for his “integrity and courage” in the Trump era by David Brooks, wrote a phantasmagoric book called The Connection: How al Qaeda’s Connection With Saddam Hussein Has Endangered America, not to mention reverential biographies of Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz.
For his part, Kristol co-wrote a book with Lawrence F. Kaplan called The War Over Iraq that supported a worldwide crusade for democracy. Far from spreading democracy, the Iraq War ended up not only spreading chaos in the Middle East, but also enabling the rise of Trump. As Carlos Lozada recently observed in The Washington Post, “The Never Trumpers hold everyone culpable for the appeal of Trumpism except, in any worthwhile way, themselves.”
Indeed, it would be difficult to point to any significant essays that the Standard has published in recent years. Many of the more prominent neocons who originally wrote for it have moved on to more mainstream outlets. The Washington Post, whose editorial page championed the Iraq War, has become a kind of bulletin board for Never Trumpers, including Max Boot, a regular on CNN and a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Jennifer Rubin, a former contributor to Human Events, Commentary, and the Standard. Both Bari Weiss and Bret Stephens decamped from The Wall Street Journal for higher profile jobs at The New York Times. Robert Kagan has long since left the Standard and the Project for the New American Century behind to become a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. David Frum, who regularly wrote for the Standard and was a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is a staff writer at The Atlantic.
For most neocons, however, journalism has never been more than a Leninist means to an end—to form an intellectual vanguard. For it is political influence that the neocons crave. In his memoir, Boot proudly recounts that he served as an adviser to Senator Marco Rubio as well as to Mitt Romney during his run for the presidency in 2012. Kristol worked to destroy the 1993 Clinton Healthcare bill and sought to mold first Dan Quayle, then Sarah Palin, into his political homunculi. During the 2016 primary, he desperately cast about for a viable candidate to oppose Donald Trump and incurred much ridicule when he floated the name of David French, a writer for the National Review.
Kristol, Podhoretz, Boot, and others belong to a second generation of neocons that never drifted away from the Democrats toward the Republican Party. Instead, they were right from the beginning. While some have begun to duplicate the odyssey in reverse that neocon elder Norman Podhoretz chronicled in memoirs such as Breaking Ranks and Ex-Friends, many seem simply politically adrift, like Russian exiles stranded in Paris after the Bolshevik revolution pining for the ancien régime.
A conference attended by about a hundred people last week at the Niskanen Center, a small think tank located near Capitol Hill, offered a timely reminder of their losses. The conference was not, as one might have expected in the past, held at the American Enterprise Institute, whose senior vice president, Danielle Pletka, has suggested that fears of climate change may be overblown, or the Heritage Foundation. Rather, it is the Niskanen Center that has become the unofficial headquarters of what amounts to a rebel alliance of Democrats and Republicans united against Trump. Over the past year, they have met on Tuesday mornings for off-the-record events under the auspices of a group called the Meeting of the Concerned, whose members include George Conway, the husband of Kellyanne, and David Frum. In November, the group released a formal statement in support of Special Counsel Robert Mueller that was signed by Mickey Edwards, the former chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee, and Kristol, among others.
The conference, which opened with moderate Republican Maryland Governor Larry Hogan reminding the attendees that his father, a congressman, had helped kickstart the impeachment hearings against Richard M. Nixon, was titled “Starting Over: the Center-Right After Trump.” But Kristol, Jennifer Rubin, Mona Charen, the author of a book about liberals during the cold war titled Useful Idiots, and Peter Wehner, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, grappled uneasily with the historical legacy of the GOP and its implications for Trump’s rise.
The center’s president, Jerry Taylor, suggested, “There was a time not that long ago when you all… had the commanding heights of the world of conservative public intellectuals. Today, that’s not the case. You’ve have been displaced.” Rubin was incredulous. “Displaced, displaced!” she expostulated. Then she went on to blame the GOP. “Intellectuals don’t do well in a nativist, know-nothing party,” said Rubin. “The party is not going to accept public intellectuals in the way it did.”
For his part, Kristol refused to concede that the GOP was irredeemably tainted by Trump. He acknowledged, “there are recessive genes in the GOP. They were always there and a lot of us didn’t want to look too closely. There was a shining moment when the Bill Buckley conservatives came together with the neoconservatives and with Ronald Reagan,” but “that went away quickly.” Explaining his backing for Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running mate in 2008, he said: “The instinct I had was you had to have a more populist flavor… That would be a way to incorporate populist discontent.” He concluded, “It will be very different if this ends up being a parenthesis… or this is an inflection point where it becomes the culmination, or end point. That’s a very different story… We’re less doomed than what some people say as a party and a movement.”
So far, though, his efforts at regime change in Washington have proven as illusory as his dreams of transforming Iraq into a democracy overnight.