Neoconservatism is dead, long live American conservatism. That’s what I thought when I learned The Weekly Standard would be shuttered by longtime owner Clarity Media. The Standard was a creature of a particular time and place—the 1990s, the Bush-Clinton ascendancy, and Washington, D.C.’s insular, self-referential political class. As such, it never really fit within the broad flow of historic American conservatism. It was always, and intentionally, something different. So perhaps the magazine’s opposition to Donald Trump, his voters, and the America First agenda should come as no surprise.
Max Boot described the magazine as “a redoubt of neoconservatism” in 2002 and he was right. If the National Review of the 1970s and ’80s was the journal of Reaganism, The Weekly Standard carried the banner of Bushism. But the Bushes never carried the Reagan mantle and were never conservatives. They were always blithely unconstrained by any identifiable political philosophy other than the unwavering belief that they should run the country. They represented nothing so much as the mid-20th-century country club set that was content to see the size and scope of government expand as long as they got a piece of the action. And The Weekly Standard was there every step of the way, advocating so-called big-government conservatism at home and moral imperialism abroad. All of it failed. The Bush Administration was discredited by its failed policies and incompetence so it was just a matter of time before the chief organ of Bushism failed too.
But the life and death of The Weekly Standard is really the story of the death and rebirth of American conservatism, which is nothing more than the modern political expression of America’s founding principles.
As with other more virulent forms of Left-liberal politics, the neoconservatives maintain a sense of aristocratic entitlement to rule despite having killed almost everything they touched. It is their combination of titanic hubris and priggish moralism that is behind their aggressive advocacy of endless foreign wars and meddling in the internal affairs of other countries. For The Weekly Standard, it made sense to send thousands of Americans to their deaths defending Iraq’s borders, but they wouldn’t lift a finger to protect our own. As the real world results of their misadventures came home to roost, conservatives realized that The Weekly Standard didn’t represent them.
For years, neoconservatives undermined and discredited the work of conservatives from Lincoln to Reagan who held to a set of common principles and a common sense understanding that America is for Americans and it is the job of government to protect the rights and interests of the American people—and only the American people. But over the past few years, Bill Kristol became more transparent about his real beliefs. For example, he let us know in a tweet that he “Obviously strongly prefer(s) normal democratic and constitutional politics. But if it comes to it, prefer the deep state to the Trump state” and in another that, “The GOP tax bill’s bringing out my inner socialist.” The point is that Kristol and the Standard’s attachment to conservative principles was always provisional and transactional. The Republican Party and the conservative movement were a temporary vehicle for their personal and policy agendas. Now, Kristol and others have moved on in search of a new host organism.
That’s because the world of Beltway neoconservatism of which the Standard was the arch example is only partially about ideas, it’s also about power and more especially about privilege—and that means sinecures. That’s a nice way of saying that it’s what people hate about politics, that it often becomes self-serving and careerist rather than about the American ideal of building and maintaining the institutions of government that allow the individual, the family, and the church to thrive.
The reaction from supporters of The Weekly Standard, many of them former writers for the magazine, has been revealing. John Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary, hyperventilated in a quickly written post that the Standard had been “murdered” and called it’s closing “an intellectual and political crime.” Max Boot also decried, the “murder” of the magazine in the Washington Post describing it as “destructive, stupid, and cruel.” Worse, he infantilizes Phil Anschutz, The Weekly Standard’s longtime owner and one of the most successful American businessmen of his generation saying “there is nothing unusual in a rich owner losing interesting in one of his playthings.”
Get it? In their worldview, Phil Anschutz is a dilettante incapable of rising to their level. But they were plenty happy to take his money while it lasted. By all reports, Anschutz has subsidized many millions of losses at The Weekly Standard to say nothing of the embarrassment of the past few years. Perhaps the final nail in the coffin was the revelation by Julie Kelly that Bill Kristol and his claque of NeverTrump agitators did not have simply a principled difference, but in fact had become fifth columnists financed by left-wing billionaires like Pierre Omidyar.
Patrons beware: That’s how the Beltway elites view all of you. They’ll take your money and then laugh behind your back. It’s disgusting and it’s wrong.
The final years of The Weekly Standard, and of neoconservatism generally have been a sad coda on what had been an intellectually vibrant political initiative and ensure that its best-known legacy will be cheerleading endless, winless wars in the Middle East and carrying water for #TheResistance. Sometime in 2015, Kristol and the magazine he founded declared war on the American Right and the Republican Party. We just weren’t good enough for them and they never let us forget it. When Americans complained about his wars, about the destruction of the middle class, about mass immigration that upset the balance in their communities, Kristol said, “Look, to be totally honest, if things are so bad as you say with the white working class, don’t you want to get new Americans in?” No Bill, we have a responsibility to try to help our fellow Americans, not replace them. They’re not machines, they’re people. Our people. But things on the political and cultural landscape are changing quickly and the Standard paid a price for treating their fellow Americans like pieces on a board.
After a couple of decades of living like hell, the sclerotic mess known as Conservatism, Inc. is dying, in no small part due to its embrace of neoconservatism. In its youth it was vibrant, quick-witted, and purposeful, like David, ruddy and good-looking. By the 1970s and 1980s American conservatism was in the full flood of its manhood. It was full of ideas to reinvigorate America after its flirtation with statism and ready to face and defeat the existential threat of Communist imperialism. Reagan won the Cold War and kick-started the economy after the Carter malaise, but the leviathan state continued growing.
But the Bushes killed the Reagan legacy and rather than capitalizing on his victories abroad to achieve his goals at home, they instead embraced the social democratic impulse that replaces core human institutions like the family and the church with the government. This was the point at which institutional conservatism lost its way and slowly became a shadow of the progressive Left—following always just a few paces behind wherever it led.
Worse, a new generation of careerists, sycophants, and know-nothings flooded Washington eager to find a Beltway sinecure. The legacy conservative media began to change. Step by step it abandoned historic American principles and ultimately came to despise the American people. Their motto seems to come from Horace, the Roman poet, who wrote, Odi profanum vulgus et arceo (“I hate the common people and avoid them”).
But a new day dawns. The long neoconservative night is over and a renaissance in American constitutionalism is, if not yet at hand, then at least within sight. It is the prime objective of a new political movement on the Right and there are new institutions leading it. American Greatness is one of them.
There is much yet to be done. These new institutions are still young and they must grow and mature. The political movement whose vanguard Donald Trump has led, is still developing a new generation of cultural and political leaders. Leaving the Bushes, Paul Ryan, and The Weekly Standard behind is just part of a natural and felicitous reset.
The Republicans and independents who supported Reagan and now support Trump want their country back. And they’re tired of being lied to and misled by people who claim to speak for them but who don’t know them, don’t care about them, and not so secretly despise them. The struggle with the Left for the future of the country is ongoing, but part of that battle is unifying the Right around a common set of historic American principles.
Neoconservatism discredited itself as a political movement in Iraq just as much as the individuals behind its current incarnation have demonstrated their pride, pettiness, and political and emotional immaturity in the Age of Trump. In short, the people who claimed a natural right to rule, have proven that they can’t be trusted with power. But that knowledge strengthens the American Right and makes a restoration of the liberty and tranquility protected by American constitutionalism more likely.