The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Paul Gottfried vs. Neocon Mythology

Posted on | August 29, 2018 | 1 Comment


Last week, I received an email from Paul Gottfried, the retired professor who is president of the H.L. Mencken Club. Readers will recall that White House speechwriter Darren Beattie was recently purged for having spoken at the Club’s 2016 gathering, because of his alleged association with “white nationalists.” I later discussed Beattie’s speech to the Club (“Darren Beattie: Guilty of Intellectualism”). Professor Gottfried emailed me to contest the description of the Club as a “white nationalist” gathering. Although he has been called the “Godfather of the Alt-Right,” this itself highlights misunderstandings about the loose aggregation of those who dissent from what Gottfried calls “Conservative, Inc.”

Professor Gottfried spoke to me by phone Sunday evening — a conversation, not an interview — and I shared with him my own observations about the history of the quarrel between paleoconservatives and the neoconservatives who, over the past three decades, have obtained hegemonic authority in “Conservative, Inc.” As I hastened to point out to Professor Gottfried, I have friends on both sides of this quarrel, and believe this internecine conflict has been enormously damaging to the conservative cause overall. Years ago, I began jocularly threatening to write an essay on this subject, which I would entitle, “First, They Came for Mel Bradford.” If you don’t recognize that name, it was Bradford’s nomination to be Reagan’s Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities that was the first grand battle of the paleocon/neocon war. Bradford’s nomination was torpedoed by the neocons, who installed their man Bill Bennett in the NEH chairmanship, which was the making of one man’s career and unfairly inflicted permanent damage to Bradford’s reputation. If you want to understand how serious an injustice this was, go read Bradford’s Original Intentions: On the Making and Ratification of the United States Constitution, an invaluable work that ought to be required reading for constitutional scholars.

What happened in the Bradford affair was a continuation of a trend within the conservative movement of purging dissenters, a trend which was unfortunately pioneered by William F. Buckley Jr. during the years when National Review enjoyed a near-monopoly as a voice for the conservative movement. The prestige of National Review was mobilized to purge a number of conservatives and libertarians from the ranks of the “respectable” Right, and a false mythology about these purges has gained credence among many conservatives who ought to know better.

Professor Gottfried has striven to correct the historic record, and shared with me the draft a lengthy essay on this subject he has written for a forthcoming anthology. In this essay, he examines the controversy over Kevin Williamson’s hiring (and subsequent firing) at The Atlantic Monthly, and makes a crucial point:

[Williamson’s] firing, however, was only one of a multitude of such incidents, going back to the 1950’s, in which National Review and other fixtures of the conservative movement empire had released and sometimes subsequently humiliated employees and former allies, who had taken deviationist stands. It is astonishing how rarely this behavior received notice. Those whom the gatekeepers of the socially and professionally acceptable Right cast into perdition allegedly deserve their fate. After all, the nice conservatives, the ones who appear on network TV and on the Republican cable network and who write for the national press, have condemned those they expelled as “extremists.” Why should the liberal establishment even question these judgments?
On the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of National Review in 2005, senior editor Jonah Goldberg presented the authorized account of how the magazine’s founder William F. Buckley had sanitized the post-war conservative movement. In a commentary “Golden Days” Goldberg indicates the care with which Buckley scraped off the dross from what became a major political and cultural force in American life.

[Quoting Goldberg:] Buckley employed intellectual ruthlessness and relentless personal charm to keep that which is good about libertarianism, what we have come to call “social conservatism,” and what was necessary about anti-Communism in the movement. This meant throwing friends and allies off the bus from time to time. The Randians, the Rothbardian anarchists and isolationists, the Birchers, the anti-Semites, the me-too Republicans: all of these groups in various combinations were purged from the movement and masthead, sometimes painfully, sometimes easily, but always with the ideal of keeping the cause honest and pointed north to the ideal in his compass.

Professor Gottfried goes on to examine several examples of these purges, correcting the errors of those who have distorted the record. For example, many have claimed that Buckley’s 1965 denunciation of the John Birch Society was because the Birchers were guilty of anti-Semitism. This is simply slander. Whatever their other errors may have been, it wasn’t anti-Semitism that led Buckley to denounce the JBS, but rather their opposition to LBJ’s escalation of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

As we know, both Williamson and Jonah Goldberg belong to the “Never Trump” cult that National Review created in late 2015, and the anti-Trump fury of “the socially and professionally acceptable Right” illustrates how jealously they regard their status as Gnostic archons of the movement, with the authority to banish anyone they dislike. Trump won the GOP nomination despite the opposition of the National Review crowd and, while they predicted (and openly planned for the aftermath of) his defeat in November 2016, somehow Trump won again. We’ve had to endure the butthurt whining of the Never-Trumpers ever since.

How do we explain this? A major factor is the vanity and careerist ambitions of the intelligentsia. Those whom Ace of Spades has dubbed “the Cruise Ship Wing of fake conservatism” (a reference to the travel-with-pundits deals sold to subscribers of National Review and the Weekly Standard) are careful to protect their “respectable” reputations, and they cannot enhance their reputations by admitting they were wrong.

We must stipulate that the ultimate consequences of Trump’s presidency cannot be predicted. Perhaps we are headed toward disaster, in which case the professional know-it-all types — Bill Kristol, Tom Nichols, Rick Wilson, et al. — will be able to say, “See? We told you so.”

So far, however, the pundits who were wrong in 2016 are still wrong. “US consumer confidence rises to 18-year high” is the latest Associated Press headline, and the Democrats’ advantage in so-called “generic” congressional polls, which was 13 points in the December RCP average, has been whittled down to as low as 4 points in the most recent Reuters poll. With less than 10 weeks to go before the crucial Nov. 6 midterm elections, Democrats’ hopes of a “blue wave” may yet be disappointed and, if Republicans somehow manage to retain their majority in Congress, we can expect the Left to implode in hysterical madness that will only serve to increase Trump’s chances for a second term in the White House. At this point, however, we simply don’t know how the future will turn out, but the Never-Trump crowd is so devoted to pessimistic doomsaying that anything less than disaster for the GOP will make them look like utter fools. But I digress . . .

Conservatives deserve an honest analysis of their own movement’s history and, while you may not agree with Professor Gottfried on every issue, you should be grateful for his diligence and persistence in combating the establishment myth-makers of “Conservative, Inc.”



One Response to “Paul Gottfried vs. Neocon Mythology”

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