A Paleo Epitaph

In October 2004, my longtime friend Sam Francis responded to a recent commentary by Franklin Foer in the New York Times about the paleoconservatives as a rising antiwar opposition to the neoconservatives. Foer, a New Republic editor, believed that a defeat for Bush in the fall 2004 election might lead to a repudiation of his neoconservative advisors, and the return of the Old Right to favor. Sam and I had our doubts. In a letter printed in the Times, I noted that the imbalance of forces between the two sides was so overwhelming that no matter what occurred in the election, the paleos would not likely gain influence. Sam offered this interpretation: “€œA Bush victory would more likely mean their [the paleocons”€™] obliteration since neo-conservative domination would be locked in. But even if Bush loses, it’s dubious very many Republicans would leap on the paleo bandwagon.”€ For Sam, this represented a glaring historical contradiction: despite the “€œbad press”€ the paleos received, he was convinced, “€œmore rank and file conservatives agree with them than with the neocons.”€ If they therefore “€œcould learn to play more effectively, they could deal themselves a better hand in the future, even if it’s outside the Republican Party.”€

With due regard for my now dead comrade, I don”€™t think the biggest problem for the paleos has been their inability to play cards effectively. Their lack of resources in the face of a truly grim opposition is so great that I”€™ve no idea what arrangement of cards would work for them in the foreseeable future. Their aging, embittered leaders have spent so long fighting in the trenches that they”€™ve taken to turning on each other. The unending tirade against Protestants that some Catholic paleos now engage in is both silly and counterproductive. We are living in a predominantly Protestant country whose institutions (before they became corrupted) were tied to a recognizably Calvinist society. (For the record, Calvinists held a majority among Southerners and Yankees alike.) Rhapsodizing about the glories of the Catholic Middle Ages played well in early 19th-century France and the Rhineland, but by now such lyrical outbursts (together with expressed revulsion for the Reformation) are a bit out of place. What American traditionalists need to defend is a badly denatured liberal Protestant polity that is going quickly to seed. I”€™ve no idea how appeals to Mary Queen of Scots and Pius IX will save our political society, or the even more badly deteriorated Catholic regions of Western and Southern Europe.

Note this is not a commentary on European counterrevolutionary thought and certainly not on the totality of medieval philosophy. I am only speaking about the degree to which some paleos have descended into a caricature of what Peter and Brigitte Berger wrote about them in Commentary in 1987, in a description that, incidentally, was not true at the time it was written. According to the Bergers, the rightwing opponents of the neoconservatives were neo-medieval Catholic Romantics who had nothing positive to say about the modern world. Because of age and frustration, the paleoconservatives might be moving toward actually deserving this stereotype.

There was a time, however, roughly between the mid-1980s and the early 1990s, when the paleos looked like an insurgent force. In 1992, they found in Pat Buchanan a powerful presidential contender, and one who listened to their advice. The paleoconservatives and the paleolibertarians had patched up old disputes and come together in the John Randolph Club, a group whose meetings in Washington drew journalistic dignitaries, including but by no means limited to Buchanan. Although National Review by the early 1990s had thrown in its fortunes with the Commentary crowd, Buckley himself did continue to keep lines open to the other camp. NR observers and the then-unknown David Frum came to Randolph Club meetings. A speech delivered by Murray Rothbard at one such gathering on Jan. 18, 1992, has become legendary. In it he famously envisioned the “€œrepealing the twentieth century”€:

 

With the inspiration of the death of the Soviet Union before us, we now know that it can be done. With Pat Buchanan as our leader, we shall break the clock of social democracy. We shall break the clock of the Great Society. We shall break the clock of the welfare state.

We shall break the clock of the New Deal. We shall break the clock of Woodrow Wilson’s New Freedom and perpetual war. We shall repeal the twentieth century.

Rothbard’s bold rhetoric gained considerable attention throughout the country.

So did a remark by a leftist reporter Daniel Lazare in 1989, that “€œdespite their backward-looking ideas, the traditionalists have all the vigor of youth, while the neocons after eight years of Reaganism and less than one year of Bush, are beginning to show their age.”€ This was also the impression that John Judis had given in his essays on the “€œConservative Wars,”€ which had been published in The New Republic three years earlier. Based on the research I had done for the second edition of The Conservative Movement, Pat Buchanan contemptuously observed in 1991, “€œneoconservatives are merely the fleas on the conservative dog,”€ and assumed that they were a problem that would soon be removed. Such an opinion did not seem out of the ordinary.

Although I thought Pat was overly optimistic, it seemed to me then that the paleos had wind in their sail. That was my conclusion in the second edition of TCM, although anyone who consulted the chapters on neocon funding would have learned that our enemies had at their disposal more than a hundred times the annual funding we did. They also had their columnists plastered all over the liberal press; and they had their followers running commercial presses and ensconced in elite universities. Neocons were obviously part of the liberal establishment, while we would soon be what we then called our opponents, “€œinterlopers on the right.”€

It was an unpalatable journeyman, then writing for National Review, William McGurn, who stressed the real disparity between the opposing sides in his condescending remarks about Murray’s speech at the Randolph Club. According to McGurn, the neocon panic, which came particularly from the president of Heritage, was unnecessary. The paleos would go nowhere “€œonce their presidential candidate had left.”€ Their spokesmen had flair, and they took reactionary positions that attracted notice, particularly on immigration, but they had few of the available resources of their adversaries.

A comparison that comes to mind here is between, on the one side, Holland and Sweden and, on the other, France and England as world powers around 1650. Although the two smaller powers looked impressive in the early modern period because of some particular, temporary advantage, such as an efficient commercial navy or a well-trained infantry force, the differences between these regional powers and the more populous and wealthier European countries would eventually become decisive. The ultimately weaker side could be made to look more powerful than its opponent, but only for a brief period of time. In a similar way, the paleos once briefly looked more threatening to the ascending neocons than they really were”€”and that illusion could be sustained from the end of the Reagan administration through the first term of the elder George Bush.

The weaknesses of the paleo side eventually came to show: excruciatingly limited funding, exclusion from the national media, vilification as “€œracists”€ and “€œanti-Semites,”€ and finally, strife within their own ranks. In retrospect, this was all predictable, although for me it was hard to grasp how totally the fall came when it did. An example of the disparity to which I”€™m referring is the differing fates that affected two recent books on American conservatism, one published by me, the other by David Frum. While my book has sold no more than 700 copies in English (although apparently it is doing better in Romanian translation), Frum’s work has sold about 100 times as many. It has also been widely reviewed in the national press, and has been slobbered over by liberal as well as neocon columnists, and most shamelessly by that predictable neocon sycophant E.J. Dionne in the (quasi-neocon) Washington Post. My own book has been hardly reviewed at all and the only ads for it I have seen are the ones I have paid for.

My publisher, Palgrave-Macmillan, suggests that there is little interest in my book among journalists, despite the noteworthy fact that it is simultaneously coming out in several foreign languages, including Russian. My ideas are clearly not acceptable to our national press, which has no interest in disseminating my “€œalternative interpretation”€ of what has happened on the American right since the 1950s. (Apparently convenient lies work better!) But my book is only an isolated example of a much larger problem for our side, namely the imbalance of resources that allows the liberals and neocons to blackout an entire political persuasion and the view of reality provided by those identified with it. Presumably if we had at our disposal the equivalent of FOX News, the Wall Street Journal, and about half the editorial space in the national press, our views would receive the same attention as those of David Frum.

Whatever the problems facing our side, however, it does not seem likely that the neoconservatives and their enablers will control “€œthe American Right”€ forever. Like the paleos, but in a much more dramatic and successful way, the neocons are products of changing historical conditions, and as Carl Schmitt once wisely observed, “€œAn historical truth is true only once.”€ There is no reason to assume that those particular circumstances that aided the neoconservatives in their rise to total control over the establishment Right will continue to prevail indefinitely. That rise depended on time-bound conditions: the domination of the media by sympathetic patrons (many of whom were the children and grandchildren of Eastern European Jewish immigrants), the conclusion of a bizarre alliance between elements of this media elite and Dispensationalist Christians, the descent of the Republican Party, and the postwar conservative movement into intellectual vacuity, and the fusion of the Right with Marxist and/or Jacobin revolutionary ideology. Therefore it is foolish to believe that the present power configuration will remain in place without change.

Even less likely is that the paleoconservatives will continue to play the role of the outnumbered, ridiculed opposition to the neocon-liberal establishment. This present Right opposition came into play when the neoconservative took over the conservative movement in the 1980s. Its achievement was to have gone on fighting against a formidable, world historical opponent, but it has not been able to make any headway in this confrontation. And even more certainly than its enemies, who are still drunk with the arrogance of power, the paleos will not be around forever.

Even now an alternative is coming into existence as a counterforce to neoconservative dominance. It consists mostly of younger (thirty-something) writers and political activists; and although they are still glaringly under-funded, this rising generation is building bridges on the right. Their contacts are with disenchanted, onetime allies of the “€œconservative movement”€ and with those who would gladly jump ship if there were professional alternatives to serving neocon masters. The Evil Empire is spongier than it looks, and if its younger opponents had more serious resources, this empire would be under siege, no matter how loudly the liberal press rallied to its neocon talking partners. Daniel Lazare was right when he noticed twenty years ago the limited shelf-life of neoconservative ideology. Despite all of their resources, the neocons have had nothing of interest to say for at least three decades. On FOX, when the bleached blonds aren”€™t on display, one is presented nonstop with the aging faces and tired voices of this neocon elite. In a less controlled society with more open discussion, these apparitions would have faded long ago.

The Ron Paul campaign was useful as a meeting point for a post-paleo right that drew in younger activists. Paul’s platform combined libertarian and traditionalist stands in a way that understandably upset the Republican regulars, that is, those who have presented us with the most decrepit exemplar of neocon ideology that one could have found for a presidential race. For these regulars and their neoconservative advisors, Ron Paul stood squarely against the policies of such unlikely “€œconservative”€ giants as Wilson, FDR, and Truman. This negative judgment is of course correct: Paul and his campaigners were harking back to the true American Right, identified with Taft Republicanism. And though Paul did not do as well as we had hoped, the contributions to his campaign and the millions of votes he picked up in elections suggest the beginnings of a new coalition on the right. It will no longer be a paleo coalition, but it will attract younger rightwing activists who wish to be rid of the present neocon hegemony and who are willing to cooperate in an alliance that can bring this about. On a practical level, we white-haired paleos can do nothing more to advance our cause. We have done so much fighting that we have become radioactive even from the standpoint of those who sympathize with us. Our opportunities to express our views have become limited by the pugnacity we have shown in the past. Only younger warriors can carry on our fight.

This post-paleo right will follow the paleos in breaking from the “€œconservative movement”€ as it now exists or as it has been reconstituted since the 1980s. It will seek to return to the constitutional liberal traditions of the anti-New Deal coalition. Decentralization, restriction on immigration as a source of social disorder and as an excuse for the expansion of the government’s social engineering, and the total rejection of a global democratic foreign policy will likely be the pillars of the new political alignment. Most importantly, its advocates will have no “€œpatriotic”€ illusions about our managerial regime. Unlike Bill Kristol and George Will, they will see the current American managerial state as a monstrous contrivance that must be dismantled. Judging by its direction, this youthful Right will be more libertarian than traditionalist. While no one would claim that this orientation has not influenced many paleoconservatives, among their successors it will become the focal point of their rebellious politics.

This younger generation exhibits nothing but contempt for the idea that one can make the regime better or more virtuous by trimming some of its excesses. Nor do they indulge those delusional or cynical “€œidealists”€ who exhort us to bring “€œdemocratic”€ values or institutions to non-Western societies. One can already recognize the mark of this younger generation in the call for punishing the Republicans by supporting Barack Obama in the presidential race. This identifiably Leninist tactic, summed up by the maxim “€œthe worst is the better,”€ may seem alien to most paleos; but it is the natural response of a younger, less inhibited generation of rightists to an intolerable political situation. Moreover, this new generation sees itself not as the latest phase of the post-World War II conservative movement but as a throwback to the interwar anti-New Deal Right. It has become contemptuous of the conservatism that arose in the 1950s under the auspices of National Review, because all it knows of this movement is the iron control of the neoconservative ruling class. Unlike the older generation, these younger rightists nurture no fond memories about the way things were before the 1980s or possibly before the1970s. To underline my point: in no way do these activists identify with the movement that is the subject of my recent, neglected book. According to Jeffrey Hart, writing in The American Conservative, William F. Buckley before his death came to the conclusion that the movement he had founded was already ending. For the post-paleo Right, that movement has not yet even begun.

Paul Gottfried is a professor of the humanities at Elizabethtown College. He is the author, most recently, of Conservative in America: Making Sense of the American Right.



Columnists

Sign Up to Receive Our Latest Updates!

SIGN UP

Daily updates with TM’s latest