In January 1995, a Republican became speaker of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years—and the GOP found itself in control of the Senate for only the second time since 1955. Almost immediately, ideas that were incubated within conservative think tanks and publications coursed through parts of the government that had been immune or allergic to them for years if not decades.
Much of the right’s media infrastructure was being built around this time. A few years before the GOP takeover of Capitol Hill, Ronald Reagan identified radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh as the next conservative standard-bearer. In September 1995, media mogul Rupert Murdoch launched the D.C.-based Weekly Standard as a counterpart to the liberal New Republic. The editors of the Standard—former vice-presidential chief of staff Bill Kristol and journalists Fred Barnes and John Podhoretz (now the editor of this magazine)—hoped to guide the conservative movement and Republican leaders just as the original editors of the New Republic had influenced the Progressive movement in the 1910s and 1920s. And in 1996, Murdoch debuted Fox News Channel.
Conservative factionalism was barely evident in those triumphal early days of 1995. Both libertarians and traditionalists professed confidence in Speaker Newt Gingrich’s ambitions to govern from Congress and replace the bureaucratic welfare state with a conservative opportunity society. Both libertarians and traditionalists loathed President Clinton’s character. The group of ex-leftists and ex-Democrats known as neoconservatives had been integrated into the broader conservative movement. They didn’t like Clinton either.
In an early issue of the Standard, no less an authority than William F. Buckley Jr. wrote that “Neos are now just plain cons.” Buckley made that remark in a laudatory review of Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea, the fourth essay collection by neoconservative godfather Irving Kristol. Through his work at the American Enterprise Institute, the Wall Street Journal, the Public Interest, and the National Interest, Kristol had done more than anyone else to build the intellectually confident and politically ascendant conservatism of the era. For decades, he worked to modernize the Republican Party into a forward-looking, agenda-driven vehicle for “a new kind of conservative politics suitable to governing a modern democracy.”
His book Neoconservatism was the capstone to an extraordinary career. In the “autobiographical memoir” that opened it, Kristol wrote that the neoconservatives no longer were distinct from other conservatives. “It is clear that what can fairly be described as the neoconservative impulse (or, at most, the neoconservative persuasion) was a generational phenomenon,” Kristol wrote, “and has now been pretty much absorbed into a larger, more comprehensive conservatism.”
Kristol’s fellow neoconservative Norman Podhoretz agreed. In January 1996 the longtime editor of Commentary delivered a lecture at the American Enterprise Institute entitled “Neoconservatism: A Eulogy.” Even so, Podhoretz did suggest that neoconservatives might still remain different from their conservative brethren in at least two ways. For starters, neoconservatives rejected the neo-isolationism that was a growing force among Republicans and Democrats. And neoconservatives dismissed the cultural anxieties of immigration restrictionists.
Podhoretz had presciently named the two major forces that would tear apart Kristol’s “comprehensive conservatism” two decades later. And if Podhoretz had intuited that military intervention and immigration would catalyze a conservative crack-up, Kristol was the one who put his finger on the agents behind the chemical reaction. According to Kristol, American conservatism had grown beyond its anti-statist origins in the aftermath of World War II and become more effective thanks to two groups: the religious right and neoconservatives.
The arrival of the religious right in the late 1970s gave the GOP a new base of political support. It shifted the emphasis of conservatism from economics to morality. The religious right, Kristol continued, pushed the conservative movement and the Republican Party in a more populist, anti-elitist direction. Neoconservatives were uniquely situated to partner with the religious right because they, too, understood the importance of religious belief to social order.
No alliance lasts forever.
However strong the conservative consensus of the mid-1990s may have appeared at the dawn of the Republican Revolution, it soon came under sustained criticism from intellectuals excluded from Kristol’s “more comprehensive conservatism.”
The most coherent challenge came from the so-called paleoconservatives. Their main cause was the dramatic reduction of immigration. Their champion was the syndicated columnist, author, former White House official, and cable-television personality Patrick J. Buchanan. He had built his reputation as a smart, plainspoken pundit before making a transition into electoral politics. After a surprise showing as a protest presidential candidate in New Hampshire in 1992, Buchanan galvanized that year’s Republican National Convention with a speech both describing and advocating a “culture war” in the United States.
Buchanan launched his second run for the presidency on March 20, 1995. In his announcement, he singled out Senator Robert Dole of Kansas, the GOP front-runner, for supporting American membership in the World Trade Organization. Buchanan pledged to withdraw from the WTO and the newly minted North American Free Trade Agreement. He said he would remove U.S. troops participating in UN peacekeeping missions, build a wall along the southern border, and bar immigration for at least five years. “When I raise my hand to take the oath of office,” he said, “this whole New World Order is coming crashing down.”
Buchanan’s invocation of a sinister global conspiracy hinted at his populism’s dark side. He was a well-known opponent of the neoconservatives, and he laced his rhetoric with anti-Semitic tropes cleverly masked for plausible deniability precisely because he was so intelligent. He flirted with racists, anti-government extremists, and conspiracists. The chief theoretician of Buchanan’s movement, the newspaper columnist Samuel T. Francis, was fired from an editorial position at the Washington Times in 1995 after it was revealed that he had told an audience, “The civilization that we as whites created in Europe and America could not have developed apart from the genetic endowments of the creating people, nor is there any reason to believe that the civilization can be successfully transmitted to a different people.”
Francis believed that conservatism was defunct. The label “conservative” was meaningless, he said, because Buckley’s movement had failed to generate support among the masses. He argued that the future of American politics hinged on “Middle American Radicals,” also known as the men and women from MARs. These were non-college-educated blue-collar workers disaffected from the electoral process and contemptuous of political, business, social, and cultural elites. They decided elections because they had no allegiance to either party.
According to Francis, the MARs seesawed between the economic nationalism of the left and the cultural nationalism of the right. Buchanan was the first Republican of the post–Cold War era to understand the importance of MARs. He campaigned for their votes by combining economic and cultural nationalism into one angry package. He and Francis introduced many of the terms and concepts that would come to dominate political discourse on the right—phrases like “the ruling class” and “globalism” and slogans like “America First.”
For all their worries about Buchanan and what he represented, however, Republicans and conservatives were timid and uncertain in opposing him. They did not want to alienate him. They feared losing his voters.
One exception to this rule was the Weekly Standard. As early as December 1995, when it backed President Clinton’s deployment of ground troops to Bosnia, its editors bemoaned excessive populism. “When the ‘conservative street’ is wrong,” wrote the magazine’s opinion editor, David Tell, “it should be corrected—or ignored.” After Buchanan won the New Hampshire primary in February 1996, the Standard devoted much of an entire issue to critiquing his worldview and pugilistic manner. “Someone needs to stand up and defend the establishment,” editor Kristol told the Washington Post.
The establishment finally ended up winning in 1996. Buchanan’s victory in New Hampshire that winter proved to be the high-water mark of his populist movement. He won only three additional contests—including the caucus in Alaska, where a few months later a Republican city councilwoman named Sarah Palin was elected mayor of Wasilla.
By the time Buchanan had withdrawn from the presidential race, he had revealed that populists were just as angry at the leaders of the Republican Party and conservative movement as they were at Democrats and liberals. No less a conservative eminence than Rush Limbaugh came under attack when he declined to endorse Buchanan. Buchanan himself got a taste of the fury when he endorsed Dole on the eve of the Republican National Convention in San Diego that August. He laughed as a crowd of his own supporters booed him off the stage. The 1990s paleoconservatives failed to overturn the Republican and conservative consensus—but they exposed how fragile that consensus was.
The Claremont Institute in California was also associated with vocal criticism of the conservative consensus. This was a band of highly educated and literate outsiders devoted to the teachings of political philosopher Harry V. Jaffa, a pupil of the émigré philosopher Leo Strauss and author of the groundbreaking 1959 study of Abraham Lincoln, Crisis of the House Divided. More than anyone, Jaffa reoriented American conservatism toward the American Founding and the statesmanship of Abraham Lincoln. Yet he also had a vivid notion of crisis that veered toward catastrophism. And he was reflexively combative. He spent years mired in extended quarrels with former friends and would-be allies.
Jaffa’s students treated any deviation from his understanding of the Founding and of Lincoln as heresy. Because that understanding was so fixed, America continually fell short of Jaffa’s principles, often leading to despair and an openness to extremism. Jaffa’s followers came to believe that, beginning with the Progressive movement of the late 19th and earlier 20th centuries, bad German thought had displaced the noble public philosophy of the Founding. According to the Claremont Institute, Washington and Lincoln would not recognize modern America. Progressivism had corrupted it. In the Claremont imagination, the Civil War never really ended. Confederates turned into Progressives, who turned into FDR, who turned into the New Left, who turned into the nihilistic elites of both parties. It was always 1861.
Midway through 1998, Claremont Institute fellow Charles R. Kesler traveled to Washington to deliver a lecture at the American Enterprise Institute entitled “What’s Wrong with Conservatism.” As Kesler recalled many years later, the title was declarative rather than interrogatory. He knew precisely what the problem was. In his speech, Kesler brought Jaffa’s running critique of conservatism into the home of the conservative intellectual establishment. What was wrong with conservatism, Kesler said, was its inattention to principles. Grounding conservatism in the American Founding, he went on, provided a comprehensive set of ideas—“the rights of man under the laws of nature”—to direct political activity. Kesler acknowledged that the principles of the Founders “will not yield immediate solutions to every public policy issue.” Prudence or “practical wisdom” was necessary to apply their tenets correctly. And there were other obstacles to a recovery of the Founding. “Unfortunately,” Kesler said, “many conservatives, too, have renounced the central principles of the American Founding, leaving conservatism in many respects almost indistinguishable from liberalism.”
Kesler did not name any names. But Jaffa would have supplied a list of the many conservatives he accused of betraying the American Revolution. His rogue’s gallery included Supreme Court justices Antonin Scalia and William Rehnquist, the law professor Robert Bork, and neoconservatives such as Irving Kristol.
At first glance, Patrick Buchanan and Harry Jaffa shared nothing in common besides a taste for polemical combat. The paleoconservatives detested Lincoln, while the Claremont conservatives worshipped him. The paleoconservatives rooted themselves in historical tradition, while the Claremont conservatives devoted themselves to eternal principles of right. Both schools, however, blasted the same establishment consensus from different angles. Both schools found themselves on the same side of the policy and political debates that ripped apart the conservative movement. The trigger for this unexpected realignment wasn’t Bill Clinton, however. It was George W. Bush.
It is worth remembering that Bush first presented himself nationally as a corrective to conservative shortcomings during the 1990s. His philosophy of “compassionate conservatism” was an attempt to soften the edges of the Gingrich GOP. He criticized the perceived dominance of economic conservatives within the Republican coalition. Bush entered office in January 2001 as a tax-cutter, a social conservative, and a foreign-policy realist. But this phase of his presidency lasted eight months. The terrorist attacks of September 11 shattered preconceived notions of how Bush might lead. He turned into a war president. He embarked on a course that transformed his party and the conservative movement in unanticipated ways.
Bush’s most controversial decision was the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. Broadly supported by conservative institutions and Republican elected officials, the Iraq war also energized its paleoconservative opponents. Pat Buchanan, no longer a Republican, founded the American Conservative magazine in the autumn of 2002 to campaign against the war. Deploying the same invective that he had long used against the neoconservatives, Buchanan further alienated himself from the conservative mainstream. He failed to stop the invasion. But he succeeded in creating a durable platform for the anti-war right.
Paleoconservative insults were less surprising than criticism of Bush from the Lincolnians at the Claremont Institute. Bush’s War on Terror hardly had begun before contributors to the Claremont Review of Books, including Kesler, accused the president of strategic incoherence and political utopianism. The Claremont critique grew more heated as the occupation of Iraq dragged on. In a long essay on the “Bush Doctrine,” Kesler first applauded the president for exhibiting a “bracing” moral clarity and for reviving “natural or human rights as the foundation of political morality.” But, Kesler continued, Bush was promising more than he could deliver. The Bush Doctrine was doomed.
Many figures in the Claremont Institute’s orbit found themselves agreeing with paleoconservative defeatism, skepticism toward foreign entanglements, and bleak assessments of non-Western peoples. The international-relations scholar Angelo Codevilla, for instance, often quoted John Quincy Adams’s admonition that America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy—which was also a paleocon favorite.
This de facto alliance between the paleos and Claremont carried over into the immigration debate that occurred during Bush’s second term. The president maintained support for the war effort from most conservatives and Republicans, but on immigration he and the neoconservatives had few allies on the right. Republicans in the House of Representatives stood athwart Bush’s amnesty plans. The largest-circulation conservative journal, National Review, had been for restricted immigration for years. Only the Weekly Standard and Commentary backed Bush on the topic.
The conservative street was not pleased. In 2006, Pat Buchanan’s State of Emergency: The Third World Invasion and Conquest of America became a bestseller. Around the same time, in an essay for the Claremont Review, the classicist and military historian Victor Davis Hanson raised the possibility that the violence of Arab immigrants in French banlieues could be a preview of coming attractions in America’s barrios.
By the end of Bush’s presidency, Democrats controlled Congress. Compassionate conservatism was discredited. The public turned on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The global economy was on the verge of collapse. The neoconservatives who had been identified so closely with the Bush administration and its foreign policy became the object of scorn. House Republican Ron Paul of Texas, a libertarian gadfly who ran for president in 2008 based on his opposition to the wars and his call to end the Federal Reserve, exemplified this antagonism.
It is an irony of history that in 2008 one of the last major acts of the neoconservatives at the Weekly Standard in the Bush era was to recommend as John McCain’s vice-presidential nominee Alaska governor Sarah Palin. The electric grassroots response to Palin was a sign of where the party was headed. She was religious, populist, and a complete stranger to the college-educated coastal elites who populated the media and the upper echelons of both political parties.
Palin’s story stood in for the conservative grassroots. Her educational background and family life were complicated, to say the least. She was a working mother of five whose oldest son was beginning a military deployment. She wasn’t familiar with the details of national politics and policy. She relied on gut instinct and homespun charm. She anticipated the Republican Party’s turn against elitism and policy expertise.
I was not the only Palin supporter in 2008 who hoped that she would balance her populism with a respect for the establishment and its views of how politics ought to be conducted. We were wrong. What we missed—and what Palin understood—was that the establishment and its rules were on their way out the door.
Irving Kristol’s “comprehensive conservatism” collapsed during the presidency of Barack Obama. The 44th president had been in office only a few months before CNBC personality Rick Santelli announced his intention to hold a “Tea Party” protest against bank bailouts and tax increases. Denunciations of the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, filled congressional townhalls during the summer of 2009.
The Tea Party was born. What made this populist uprising notable was that, like the Buchanan phenomenon two decades earlier, it targeted both Democratic and Republican elites. The dominant attitude of Republican voters was that their party’s elected officials and leaders were not doing enough to stop Obama. Tea Partiers aimed their fire at Republicans they viewed as accommodationist, particularly Florida governor Charlie Crist; by backing the insurgent candidate Marco Rubio and seeing him march to a landslide primary victory, they showed their power and effectiveness. Their anger and determination to fight grew in intensity after the GOP won control of the House of Representatives in 2010.
At the same time, technological disruption and institutional change altered conservative habits and undermined the standing of conservative elites. YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter bypassed intermediary authorities and made the job of the populists easier. Andrew Breitbart launched his eponymous website with the stated mission of bringing down the media, cultural, and political establishments. Obama’s left-wing agenda, audience polarization, and new competition from Glenn Beck, Mark Levin, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham pushed Rush Limbaugh ever rightward. Email chains containing false and lurid accusations against Obama zipped around the Internet.
In his 2010 book, The Ruling Class, Claremont’s Angelo Codevilla provided the most popular theoretical account of the Tea Party’s origins, aims, and destiny. America was irreparably divided, Codevilla wrote, between a ruling class intertwined with government and a “country party” valiantly trying to resist elite control. Codevilla appropriated the framework and vocabulary of Marxism and reconceived political debate as class war—with conservatives as the exploited class. Limbaugh read Codevilla’s original essay on air.
By 2012, Claremont senior fellow John Marini had concluded that, while the Constitution was still treated as the supreme law of the land, constitutionalism as a governing doctrine was no more. Codevilla’s “country party” might still believe in the principles of the Founding and of constitutionalism, Marini argued, but the ruling class did not. Instead, he elaborated, Obama and the Democratic and Republican leadership favored the priorities and privileges of an invasive, unaccountable, and potentially totalitarian “administrative state.”
Obama’s reliance on executive orders, administrative diktats, judicial rulings, and bureaucratic pronouncements seemed to confirm Marini’s thesis. This anti-democratic turn inflamed populist outrage at both Democrats and a Republican Party unable to convert congressional power into national renewal. The arrival of tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors on the southern border in 2014 revived the immigration issue. Breitbart, now under the management of Steve Bannon after the untimely death of its namesake, adopted a paleoconservative stance in its coverage of immigration and foreign policy.
It is well known that, beginning with the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, the college-educated professionals at the pinnacle of the Democratic Party veered hard left on issues of race. What is less noticed is that the so-called Great Awokening had a right-wing doppelgänger—an online “dissident right” or “alt-right” emerged that promulgated neo-reactionary and white-nationalist views that would have made Sam Francis proud.
Black Lives Matter did not exist in a vacuum. It operated dialectically with the alt-right, radicalizing politics and dissolving the social bond, especially among young people online. These extreme views imperceptibly insinuated themselves into the political mainstream, shaping the contours of thought, action, and debate.
This was the corrosive landscape into which Donald Trump descended when he announced his candidacy for president on June 16, 2015. With the entirety of the Republican establishment and the editors of the Weekly Standard, Commentary, and National Review opposing him, Trump found support among paleoconservatives and the Claremont school. Trump’s anti-immigration, anti-Iraq, anti–free trade message was similar to paleoconservatism—but for the first time expressed without animosity toward Israel. Trump’s biggest fans were MARs. And Trump gave voice to the apocalyptic worldview of the Claremont writers by raising the stakes of politics to civilizational life or death.
In January 2016, as the editors of National Review prepared their “Against Trump” issue, Rush Limbaugh read aloud a 1996 Sam Francis essay to explain Trump’s appeal. “Angelo Codevilla in that original piece he did on the ruling class versus the country class, he predicted this as well,” Limbaugh said. The next month, Charles Kesler told a group of Claremont Institute alumni that Trump would be elected president and conservatives ought to support him.
The newly ascendent intellectual strains on the right seemed to melt into air what was left of neoconservatism. Conservatism became more Buchananite in belief and Jaffa-ite in expression. Washington-based writers were surprised and horrified at what was happening. “At times, I sometimes think I’m living in a weird remake of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” wrote National Review’s Jonah Goldberg. One by one, Goldberg said, conservatives would go to sleep at night opposing Trump and wake up in the morning intoning “Make America Great Again.”
But these body-snatched conservatives weren’t really aliens. Rather, they were responding to cues from their fellow partisans—and perhaps revealing what they had always actually believed. Powerful institutions and influence brokers within the conservative movement aligned themselves with Trump and the new ideological dispensation. By the time Rush Limbaugh read Claremont fellow Michael Anton’s “Flight 93 Election” on his program, an essay bemoaning demographic change and likening America to a hijacked plane about to crash due in part to the destructive ideas of the “Never Trumpers” at the Weekly Standard and National Review, power was flowing away from the conservatives in the Beltway.
The religion, nationalism, and populism of the American right that Irving Kristol had identified in 1995 had cascaded into the Trump phenomenon. If Trump had lost the 2016 election, his revolution within the form of conservatism might have been interrupted or even reversed. But that scenario belongs to an alternate timeline. Trump won. “The ideas made it, but I didn’t,” Pat Buchanan told Politico Magazine in the spring of 2017.
It shows. Much of today’s Republican Party and conservative movement would be unrecognizable to William F. Buckley Jr., who died in 2008, to Irving Kristol, who died in 2009, and perhaps even to Harry Jaffa, who died in 2015.
The conservative intellectuals and Republican politicians who did not make a separate peace with Trump are in exile, retired, or out of office. The Weekly Standard closed in 2018. Writers at the center of the conservative intellectual movement in the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s now criticize the GOP from the sidelines at the Dispatch, or have abandoned the GOP entirely, as is the case with several contributors to the Bulwark.
Trump’s four years in power did not moderate the views or temper the animosities of either the paleos or the Claremont figures who served Trump and argued on his behalf in public. By the time Trump departed Washington, Claremont figures had pronounced the American republic dead, convinced themselves that America was engaged in a “cold civil war,” and raised the possibility of secession. It was Claremont legal scholar John Eastman who persuaded Trump that Vice President Mike Pence had the power to sustain congressional challenges to the Electoral College vote and set in motion a scheme to keep Trump in office. Eastman spoke at the “Stop the Steal” rally on the Ellipse that preceded the riot at the Capitol on January 6, 2021. Paleos and Claremont agreed on the necessity of regime change—our own.
But this fusion of paleoconservatism and Claremont is unstable. Without the common enemy of neoconservatism, the two schools must confront their philosophical differences. Over the summer of 2021, for example, Michael Anton contributed a series of essays to the Claremont-affiliated American Greatness website making the theoretical case for such an alliance. But he did not seem to have many takers among the right’s most devoted southern partisans.
Like its predecessors, the new right has found it much easier to agree on what it opposes than on what it is for. It celebrates toughness, ferocity, and a willingness to confront liberals and the left. It believes that norms of discourse and procedure are nothing but obstacles to national salvation. Mollie Hemingway, editor in chief of The Federalist, quoted Pat Buchanan in her 2021 Bradley Prize acceptance speech. “All of a sudden,” she said, “the conservative project is not a conservative one, so much as a counterrevolutionary one.”
What will the counterrevolution look like? At the moment, it appears to involve encouraging child-rearing and building locally based counter-institutions, such as family cooperatives and traditional churches, to replace the “neoliberal” “regime” once it collapses. Or, as some thinkers darkly allude, perhaps the “regime” will have to be pushed aside. “Learn some useful skills, stay healthy, and get strong,” writes Harry Jaffa biographer Glenn Ellmers, adding, “America—as an identity or a political movement—might need to carry on without the United States.” Donald Trump will play some part in all this. So, apparently, will Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban.
A growing number of writers on the paleo- and Claremont-influenced “New Right” argue that the time has come to shed conservatism altogether. “Give up on the idea that ‘conservatives’ have anything useful to say,” wrote Glenn Ellmers. “Accept the fact that what we need is a counterrevolution.” One contributor to American Greatness wrote that “we need to abandon conservative and conservatism.”
Recently, Catholic writers Sohrab Ahmari and Matthew Schmitz teamed up with Marxist Edwin Aponte to launch Compact, “a radical American journal” intended to “challenge the overclass that controls government, culture, and capital.” Its columnists have ties to both the Claremont Review of Books and the American Conservative. The attitudinal difference between the Weekly Standard in 1995 and Compact in 2022 is instructive. The Standard attempted to direct the establishment toward beneficial ends. Compact wants to overthrow it.
And so, even as the institutional Republican Party gathers strength ahead of this November’s midterm elections, the intellectual right is confused, conflicted, uncertain, and anxious. The consensus of a generation ago is no more.
But there yet remain conservatives who think that a landlocked central European nation with fewer people than the state of North Carolina is no model for the United States of America. Who believe that Donald Trump’s post-election behavior disqualifies him from office. Who understand that conservatism was founded in opposition to the extremes of both revolution and counterrevolution. Who deny that America’s political, social, and cultural institutions are beyond repair. Who hold that this country remains worthy of our pride and our defense. Who profess that we are in neither a hot nor a cold civil war. Who declare that our partisan opponents are still our fellow countrymen. Who know that our (far too big) government is not some totalitarian regime. Who are convinced that the legacy of the Founders and of Lincoln is not the property of any one sect.
As a new consensus struggles to be born, there remain conservatives committed to the principles and institutions of the American Founding and to the ordered liberty at its heart. And we have our work cut out for us.
Photo: Gage Skidmore
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