Sam Tanenhaus leads a tour of the nooks and crannies of Rightist philosophy, thought, and activism since the Cold War. Ultimately, the tour ends with a vision of POTUS 45 (whose name rhymes with Chump) and the guiding principle of destroying a nation in order to save it, à la Vietnamese villages (1955-1975). This is a classic case of a cure that is far worse than the disease. If this is a (fair & balanced) demonstration of the consequences of bad ideas, so be it.
[x New Yorker]
Rise Of The Reactionary
By Sam Tanenhaus
TagCrowd cloud of the following piece of writing
A distrust of high theory used to be a mainstay of conservatism. Edmund Burke, scrutinizing support for the French Revolution, had seen connections with sinister “literary caballers, and intriguing philosophers, with political theologians and theological politicians.” Even in the middle of the past century, when American intellectuals on the right were publishing the books that buttressed a movement—Peter Viereck’s Conservatism Revisited (1949, 2005), Whittaker Chambers’s Witness (1952), and Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind (1953, 1986)—a shared aversion to grand philosophizing was palpable. What was needed, Viereck wrote, was a “revolt against ideology” and a defense of what Kirk called “permanent things,” to offset, if possible, drastic changes, whether wrought in the blood of the Russian Revolution or, as Chambers wrote of the New Deal, in “a revolution by bookkeeping and lawmaking.” Conservatives wanted, above all, to conserve. “The American political mind has never thought much along consciously radical lines,” the political scientist Clinton Rossiter wrote, in Conservatism in America: The Thankless Persuasian (1955, 1962).
Yet, at more or less the moment Rossiter wrote this, some on the right were making a different case, more strident and aggressive, and unafraid of world-historical theories. In the first issue of National Review, published in November, 1955, William F. Buckley, Jr., and his fellow-editors, several of them ex-Communists, announced that they were “radical conservatives” and vowed “to stand athwart history, yelling Stop.” Like more traditional conservatives, they looked back to a better time, but not in tones of gentle pining. They conveyed instead “strangely exhilarating despair,” as the intellectual historian Mark Lilla writes in his new book, The Shipwrecked Mind (2016), a collection of essays on philosophical and religious reaction. “The militancy of his nostalgia is what makes the reactionary a distinctly modern figure, not a traditional one,” he adds.
Lilla, a professor of the humanities at Columbia, skillfully untangles the apocalyptic “mytho-histories,” “just-so narratives,” and “political bedtime stories” favored by the modern right, in Europe and America. For him “reactionary” is not an insult. It is a taxonomic term. It describes an organic response to political and social revolution, and the quite sensible fear that the shared common life of a people has been wrenched out of its cherished patterns. Nor is the phenomenon limited to the ideological right. The left has reactionaries, too—including progressives in the nineteen-nineties who, Lilla wrote at the time, were convinced that Americans did not grasp the disastrous truth about the Reagan Revolution, “since if they did, they would overturn it.” But reactionaries on the right far outnumber those on the left. “The enduring vitality of the reactionary spirit even in the absence of a revolutionary political program,” he writes, arises from the feeling that “to live a modern life anywhere in the world today, subject to perpetual social and technological changes, is to experience the psychological equivalent of permanent revolution.”
In the six decades since Buckley and company took their stand, conservatives still speak the same militant language. We’re just more used to it now. “All this damage that he’s done to America is deliberate,” Marco Rubio, as a Presidential candidate, said of Obama, which sounds almost like an accusation of treason. The GOP warns that, as President, Hillary Clinton, despite her long record as a moderate-to-slightly-left Democrat, would try to lead us down the road to socialist perdition. Where do these passions come from? Lilla’s answer is bracingly direct. They come from the place that conservatives themselves often point to as the root of all ideological evil: Europe.
The best pages in The Shipwrecked Mind are elegant, concise portraits of refugees from Weimar Europe who fled to America after the Nazi takeover and brought with them “some very large and very dark ideas about the crisis of the age.” These ideas reached maturity in the first years of the Cold War. We often think of the nineteen-fifties as the decade of complacent conformism: a robust economy, a beloved war hero in the White House, slow but important progress on civil rights. But it was also “High Noon,” the doomsday thermonuclear clock ticking loudly even as a dangerous storm was brewing abroad: anti-American governments in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, ungrateful semi-socialist regimes in Europe living under the protection of our troops and dollars, Soviet leaps in missile and aerospace technology, and a shooting war in Korea. There were even overtones of Weimar “stab in the back” conspiracy lore in Senator Joseph McCarthy’s accusation that Democrats were guilty of “twenty years of treason.”
In most accounts of the period, including Mark Greif’s recent book The Age of the Crisis of Man (2015), the dominant refugee is Hannah Arendt, whose The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951, 1973) depicted the rise of Hitlerism and Stalinism as twin modernities, engines of mass terror built to effect “the transformation of human nature itself.” Its blend of history, philosophy, and intellectual drama—a postwar addendum to Spengler’s The Decline of the West (1926, 2014)—was keyed to the mood of chastened leftists. But conservatives had their own pantheon of foreign-born exotics, who dispensed very different lessons and left a deeper and more lasting imprint on our politics.
Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom (1944, 2010), a potent critique of centralized government planning, was a best-seller in 1944 (and again in 2010, at the zenith of the Tea Party revolt). His mentor Ludwig von Mises, dean of the Austrian School of economics, gave theNYU seminars—extensions of the celebrated “private” seminars he had convened in prewar Vienna—that planted the seeds of the libertarian movement still flourishing today. And the Russian émigrée Ayn Rand and her young “collective,” including Alan Greenspan, gathered at her Murray Hill apartment on Saturday nights to hear fresh pages of her novel in progress, Atlas Shrugged (1957, 2005). (It remains a sacred text on the American right, a favorite of Paul Ryan, although Gary Johnson prefers her previous novel, The Fountainhead (1943, 1996), and Rand Paul “cut his teeth” on her entire œuvre.)
Lilla enlarges and subtilizes the picture by working through the legacies of two other refugees, the political philosophers Eric Voegelin and Leo Strauss. Voegelin was born in Cologne but grew up in Vienna and, in the nineteen-twenties, spent two years in America, where he heard John Dewey lecture at Columbia. He returned to Vienna to teach. (He also attended Mises’s private seminars there.) When Hitler rose to power, Voegelin bravely published an attack on biological racism. After the Anschluss, he escaped by train to Switzerland while Gestapo agents were searching his apartment. In America, he bounced from Harvard and Bennington to Northwestern and Alabama, before finding a longer-term berth at Louisiana State University.
In the fifties, he wrote a backward-looking prophecy that had a Vico-like sweep and title, The New Science of Politics (1952, 1987) . Its argument was elegant and powerful. The decline of the West had its origins in the early days of Christianity, “the first world religion to offer theological principles for distinguishing divine and political orders.” It filled men with thoughts of divinity, but its promise of final deliverance, or “eschaton,” bred impatient dreams of secular cities of God, built here and now. Voegelin, who had a weakness for odd coinages, called this “the fallacious immanentization of the Christian eschaton”—Heaven on earth, achieved through “political religion.”
Secular ideologies were all “gnostic” creeds, each a perversion of the old faith but curiously like it, with its own mythology, its prophets and priests, its holy scripture spelled out in Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopédie, Marx’s Das Kapital, and other “new korans.” Science and technology were the new gnostic faiths. Voegelin’s “secularization thesis,” as it was later called, emphasized family connections between the radical left and liberalism. “How indignant a humanistic liberal will be when he is told that his particular type of immanentism is one step on the road to Marxism,” he wrote. This was more or less what American conservatives had been saying since the New Deal, but now the argument had philosophical heft and had been updated for the twilight struggle.
Voegelin’s thesis excited intellectuals at National Review. “Immanentization of the eschaton” became a catchphrase for Buckley, who adored baroque locutions. Grimmer minds, like that of Frank Meyer, the magazine’s—and later the conservative movement’s—chief ideologue, grabbed Voegelin and made him a cudgel. The Cold War could not be won by middle-of-the-roaders in the Eisenhower Administration, who didn’t see how “the bloody terror of the Lubyanka cellars” converged with “the dry terror of social-engineered conformity” in Washington. Meyer was one of many on the right who were all but unhinged by the Sputnik launch, in 1957. The Soviets, supposed to be enslaved automatons, had emerged as sorcerers who conquered the mysteries of the booster rocket while American scientists were still firing duds. Voegelin offered spiritual balm. Sputnik was just a metal capsule, after all, a false image spinning in pointless orbit through the godless wastes. To be dazzled was to join the fallen world in which “technology becomes the god by which we live,” and the Communists would win because they chase “to its logical conclusion the positivistic glorification of control and power as the end of man’s existence.”
Voegelin’s books were not meant to be entries in the Cold War ideological ledger, Lilla notes. But conservatives read Voegelin attentively, and set about trying to spread his arcane message to the masses. The Conservative Rally for World Liberation, held in March, 1962, at Madison Square Garden, drew a crowd of eighteen thousand, with picketers and protesters gathered outside. Organized by a new rightist group, the Young Americans for Freedom, the event was greeted as evidence that the “silent generation” might be shaking off its apathy and finding a political voice. (The Times published a front-page report on the “spectacular” rally, and followed up with a four-part series on campus activism.) The star of the event was L. Brent Bozell, the ghostwriter of Barry Goldwater’s best-selling manifesto The Conscience of a Conservative (1960, 2007). Bozell gave a speech that unpacked Voegelin’s thesis, equating the “heresy of gnosticism” in Kennedy’s liberalism with Khrushchev’s Communism, and then summoned conservatives to reject both in order to “build a Christian civilization.” Its divine mission was to harry Communists across the globe—in Africa, in Cuba, in Europe. One of Bozell’s marching orders, addressed “to our commander in Berlin,” was “Tear down the wall.”
Voegelin inspired the first wave of conservative intellectuals, who rose to prominence in the nineteen-fifties and sixties, but it was Leo Strauss, with his backward-looking prophecies, who dominated the movement’s next phase. Unlike Voegelin, Strauss is still famous, thanks to his position at the University of Chicago, the intellectual citadel of neoconservative thought in the seventies and eighties. Less a grand theorist than a scholar, he was a wizard of “esoteric” reading who extracted rich ore from a spectrum of thinkers—the ancient Greeks but also Jewish and Islamic scholars, and secular moderns such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Max Weber. For Strauss, it was all part of a massive clearance project, meant to return philosophy to its ancient founders, Plato and Aristotle. Exemplars of the life of reason, they made philosophy “the humanizing quest for the eternal order, and hence it had been a pure source of humane inspiration and aspiration,” until the moderns came along and debased it, making it a utilitarian “instrument” and an ideological “weapon.” The culprits were largely social scientists, who had lost sight of reason and confused it with the fetish for knowledge, data, and quantifiable facts, which they separated out from “ultimate values.” What looked like the road to progress, from the ancient world of superstition up to the sunstruck heights of the Enlightenment, had been the opposite, a descent from Olympian reason to the quicksand of modernity: liberal “relativism,” “nihilism.” Reading Strauss “produced the kind of shock that is a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Irving Kristol recalled in 1995.
Voegelin had readers; Strauss had apostles. And they spread the gospel to “another generation of political theorists, many of whom have relocated to Washington, DC,” Irving Kristol noted with satisfaction. Among them was his son, William, who studied at Harvard with the Straussian Harvey Mansfield before going to Washington and becoming a major player in the GOP. This history appalls Lilla. His normal approach is that of a courtly sommelier, decanting his intellectual elixir and then stepping back to enjoy our pleasure in it. But not when it comes to the neocons. “The path that led from the seminar rooms in Chicago to the right-wing political-media-foundation complex in Washington,” he writes, “has transformed American politics over the past five decades,” and very much for the worse. Elsewhere, he has written unsparingly of “the remarkable transmutation of neoconservatism from intellectual movement to rabble-rousing Republican court ideology.” He has his reasons. In the nineteen-eighties, while he was in his twenties, he was himself a neoconservative princeling, the managing editor of The Public Interest, under its editor Irving Kristol (who was also, briefly, Lilla’s father-in-law). By his account, the movement’s combination of belligerence and intellectual sloppiness set him on the path of moderation he urges in so much of his work.
Meanwhile, the Straussians were honing their “political catechism” and imparting their own hand-me-down message of Weimar-inflected Kulturpessimismus, complete with images of brown-shirted hordes. “Whether it be Nuremberg or Woodstock, the principle is the same,” Strauss’s disciple Allan Bloom thundered in his best-seller The Closing of the American Mind (1987, 2012). It wasn’t remotely the same, of course, and the overstatement rebounded against Strauss, who had never said anything of the kind but was soon being held accountable for the rashest words of his admirers. The peak moment came during George W. Bush’s Presidency. Journalists and writers, their blades whetted, accused Strauss, who had died in 1973, of being the secret cabalist or “master thinker” of the Iraq invasion, acting through the deputy secretary of defense, Paul Wolfowitz, who had studied with Bloom. It was intellectual libel. A new book, Modernity and Its Discontents (2016), by the Yale political philosopher Steven B. Smith, concludes that Strauss had no appetite for ideological combat. Strauss, Smith says, was an Anglophile, who cherished “the English ideal of the gentleman.” In an earlier book, Smith reports, with touching hopefulness, “I have heard that he voted twice for Adlai Stevenson during the 1950s.”
The fixation in the Bush years on the Chicago-Cambridge-Washington axis of Straussianism obscured a more enduring line of influence, which is only now getting the attention it deserves. This was a new conservative politics that celebrated the “American regime,” with the Founders cast as ancients betrayed by successive generations of liberals and progressives as they contrived to eat away at the nation’s moral core. It’s a preachment we hear today from many on the right. The argument begins with Strauss’s observation that the Declaration of Independence, with its assertion of “self-evident” truths and “unalienable Rights,” was a classic statement of natural right, in keeping with Aristotle and Plato. Up-to-date moderns, heads stuffed with the dogmas of social science, might allow that humans were endowed with “urges and aspirations, but certainly with no natural right.” But, Lilla notes, Strauss’s hope for returning philosophy to its classical beginnings could—with a little “esoteric” stretching—be read into a messianism “wrapped up with American destiny.”
This was the strategy employed by one of Strauss’s first and most gifted disciples, Harry Jaffa, who studied at the New School for Social Research, in Manhattan, where Strauss taught for a decade before he went to Chicago. In the fifties, Jaffa distilled Straussian textual analysis into a pioneering book, Crisis of the House Divided (1959, 2009), which ingeniously reframed the Lincoln-Douglas debates as a nineteenth-century Platonic dialogue. Lincoln emerges from it as a serious moral philosopher, and the book remains a touchstone in the vast Lincoln literature. It is a high instance of Straussian thought.
Jaffa was not just a political philosopher. He was also a “politics fanatic,” as he later said, a Kennedy Democrat who switched parties after the Bay of Pigs and then got involved in Goldwater’s Presidential campaign. At the Republican National Convention in 1964, Jaffa witnessed bitter platform debates between Goldwaterites and moderate Republicans. The moderates, having lost the brutal nomination fight, were now trying to keep the Party closer to the center. After one session loud with “constant drum-drumming against extremism,” Jaffa recalled, he drafted a memo and gave it to anyone who was interested.
“I had no idea that Goldwater would ever see it or anybody near him would see it,” he said in 2010, when he was ninety-two. (He died last year.) Goldwater set aside the speech he had and let Jaffa compose a new one, much of it lifted from his memo, including two blunt sentences: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” These remain Goldwater’s best-known, and most reviled, words. But Jaffa stood by them and the speech until the end of his life. “I wrote it in such a way that there was nothing there that I didn’t believe was true, and you can see places which reflect Aristotle,” he told me.
This is not far-fetched. Strip away the emotions of the moment—the raw memory of Kennedy’s assassination, the controversies surrounding the ultra-right John Birch Society—and the formulation becomes a homily on the moral logic of political decision-making. The statesman, facing a dire threat, has two choices: To embrace extremism is to acknowledge the magnitude of the danger in absolute terms. To embrace moderation implies weak commitment and potential compromise with the enemy. Jaffa’s speech can be read as a Strauss-inflected affirmation of “ultimate values.” Variations of Jaffa’s either/or have recurred in the election this year. Why, we’re asked, are President Obama and Hillary Clinton so squeamish about the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism”? Don’t they see that, in Strauss’s words, “historical objectivity” requires “calling a spade a spade”?
In 1964, Jaffa began teaching at Claremont McKenna College, in California, and in the next decades nurtured a new school of “West Coast Straussians,” who devoted themselves to “vindicating the Founders” and itemizing the full record of liberal treason against them. Strauss had carefully distinguished reason from revelation. Jaffa’s “Claremonsters”—as they came to be known, sometimes affectionately—blended the two. The Declaration’s parchment was touched, if you angled it correctly, with theological fire. It adduced “Nature’s God” and also the “Creator.” Jaffa disciples took these hints and ran with them and are still at it, in Claremont and on other campuses, such as Hillsdale College, in Michigan, and the University of Dallas. When Clarence Thomas was the chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, he hired two Jaffa disciples, Ken Masugi and John Marini, to be “special assistants”—that is, ideological tutors. (Thomas has since cited Jaffa’s influence on his juridical thinking.)
In the past two decades, the Claremont colony has been a hotbed of “constitutional conservatism.” In its best-known just-so story, the demiurge of modern decline was Woodrow Wilson, who in his pre-Presidential days, when he was a political scientist, argued that the Constitution wasn’t engraved national scripture but a flexible living document open to interpretation and amendment as American democracy evolved. Attacks on Wilson became a major theme on the right during Obama’s first term, seized on by Tea Partiers and their ideological preceptors. R. J. Pestritto, a Hillsdale professor and the author of a critique of Wilson’s scholarly writings, made several appearances on Glenn Beck’s Fox News show in the past decade. So did the National Review writer Jonah Goldberg, who popularized Claremont doctrine in his 2008 best-seller Liberal Fascism. In a 2012 book, I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism, the Claremont McKenna professor Charles Kesler accused Wilson of not only diverting the republic from its founding principles but then lying about it, making him—like progressives ever since—guilty of both “crime” and “cover-up.”
Wilson is an irresistible target because he was both theorist and President, which makes the lines of cause and effect especially legible. It also allows intellectuals to believe that their ideas—or other, wrong ideas—really do have consequences. But the historical record is muddier. It seems reasonable to say that neoconservative ideas influenced decision-making in the Bush White House, especially after September 11, 2001, when the President and policymakers were looking for answers. In other idea-saturated Presidencies—Kennedy’s and Reagan’s, for instance—the mood was set at the top, by the charismatic leader; intellectuals were as spellbound as everyone else. The treason of the intellectuals begins, in most cases, not with the fanciful image of them as secret authors or puppeteers but in their abject surrender to power and its lures. They become bandwagoners and camp followers.
The phenomenon is still with us. One of the strangest developments in the 2016 election has been the spectacle of West Coast Straussians who champion Trump—and lustily denounce his critics—in various forums, including the Claremont Review of Books, a well-written quarterly edited by Charles Kesler, and on Web sites like the Journal of American Greatness, billed as the “first scholarly journal of radical #Trumpism,” since reborn as the Web site American Greatness. Twenty or so Claremonsters are also among the more than a hundred “Scholars and Writers for America” who recently declared Trump “the candidate most likely to restore the promise of America.”
Imperfect though Trump may be, the argument goes, he has all the right enemies: Beltway insiders, academics, “social scientists, media pundits, and policy professionals,” as Clarence Thomas’s tutor John Marini wrote. These are Strauss’s relativists and nihilists, who have perpetrated “regime change” at home, destroying the republic, or trying to. Trump’s redemptive greatness begins in his fearless opposition to political correctness, “a serious and totalist politics, aspiring to open the equivalent of a vast reeducation camp for the millions of defective Americans,” Kesler says. It would seem that reactionaries, while they inhabit our world, are not really of it. “They believe that the only sane response to an apocalypse is to provoke another, in hopes of starting over,” Lilla writes. This, too, is a lesson of Weimar. With luck, we won’t have to learn it in real time. ###
[Sam Tanenhaus is currently the senior editor of The New York Times Book Review (since 2004) and Week in Review. Tanenhaus was an assistant editor at The New York Times (1997-1999) and a contributing editor at Vanity Fair (1999-2004). He is the author of Whittaker Chambers: A Biography (1997) as well as The Death of Conservatism (2009); he currently is working on a biography of William F. Buckley Jr. Tanenhaus received a BA (English) from Grinnell College and an MA (English literature) from Yale University. His biography of Whittaker Chambers won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and was a finalist for both the National Book Award for Nonfiction and the Pulitzer Prize for Biography.]
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