The Right Wing

Neocons' Disastrous Decisions Helped Republicans Set the Stage for Trump

Trump is only a symptom of the damage done to American democracy by neocon bellicosity compounding conservative and neoliberal greed.

Photo Credit: Evan El-Amin / Shutterstock.com

"A Clarifying Moment in American History," announces The Atlantic magazine in a headline above a ringing condemnation of Trump’s presidency, by the neoconservative foreign-policy operative Eliot A. Cohen. But Cohen is muddying, not clarifying the present historic American moment, as badly as he muddied the one he and other neocons thought they were “clarifying” when they decided to go to war with Iraq.

On both occasions, Cohen and other arm-waving neocons have been disastrously half-right: Saddam was a despot and a menace to American interests. The clamorous response from the 1990s onward by Cohen and William Kristol, William J. Bennett, Midge Decter, Charles Hill, Donald Kagan, Robert Kagan, Charles Krauthammer, Richard Perle, Martin Peretz, Norman Podhoretz, Leon Wieseltier, and others was best clarified in a letter they signed and sent George W. Bush just few days after 9/11. It urged that “even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the attack, any strategy aiming at the eradication of terrorism and its sponsors must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. Failure to undertake such an effort will constitute an early and perhaps decisive surrender in the war on international terrorism.”

If that was Cohen’s first big “clarifying moment in American history,” what to make of his failure to recognize that Trump’s election owes much to millions of Americans who are still paying heavily for the Iraq war and for conservatives’ virtual deregulation and embrace of casino-style financing, predatory lending and hollow commercialism that have thrown them out of their homes and jobs more brutally than even globalization and technological change make necessary? Against all this, neocons uttered nary a word because they’d attached themselves like barnacles to Bush’s ship.

Now, most of them have jumped and/or been thrown overboard: The neocon tribune Robert Kagan held a fundraiser last year for Hillary Clinton in Washington! But Cohen has found a new clarifying moment while continuing to cling to the conservative ship. Trump, he has discovered, is a far more dangerous menace to America than Saddam was. So far, so good, and his Atlantic article urges conservative Republicans to take the bold step of denouncing and impeaching Trump, instead of scheming to enact large parts of their agenda under his deranged, deranging presidency:

“For the community of conservative thinkers and experts, and more importantly, conservative politicians, this is a testing time. Either you stand up for your principles and for what you know is decent behavior, or you go down, if not now, then years from now, as a coward or opportunist. Your reputation will never recover, nor should it.”

Again, so far, so good. (I recently urged precisely the same course.) But then Cohen once again muddies a supposedly clarifying, historic moment by telling us that what would discredit any conservative accommodation to Trump are “not Trump’s policies but his temperament; not his program but his character.”

Trump's temperament and character certainly disqualify him for the presidency. But Cohen seems not to have noticed, much less publicly acknowledged, that millions of Americans whose hopes and virtues the neocons celebrated while riding Bush’s horse to war voted for Trump because they had concluded since then that they'd been betrayed, not just by neoliberal Democrats but by the Republican/neoconservative foreign and domestic policies that brought on the Iraq war, the disastrous Hurricane Katrina response and the deregulated, rapacious assaults on good jobs and home-ownership that culminated in a near-meltdown of the American economy.

Cohen’s article muddies the reality that Trump isn't an aberration, but a symptom and decisive continuation of the damage done to American democracy by neoconservative bellicosity and plutocratic conservative austerity, both of which have failed and been rejected by Republican primary voters themselves. That damage was deepened by the calamitous presidency of George W. Bush that Cohen advised, quite as much as by Clintonite neoliberalism’s accommodation of the sleazy, turbo-capitalist, casino-like financed derangement that began under Reagan. Neocons made their Faustian bargain with those forces, and Cohen’s condemnation of Trump’s character makes no pretense of reconsidering their deal with dark powers that preceded, seeded and provoked Trump’s rise.

The only constructive solution in the current “clarifying moment” would be as painful for liberal Democrats as for conservative Republicans. It would begin by abandoning not just Trump but the floor plan of the 19th-century French Chamber of Deputies that gave us the left-vs.-right paradigm within which too many Americans remain imprisoned. Instead it would re-weave, from the bottom up, a republican fabric of trust, drawing from newly deep wellsprings of civic love, as Gandhi and King and Mandela and Havel and others led millions of unarmed people in doing.

It might need to be sparked by several brave, lonely acts of moral witness like that of Nathan Hale, and of nonviolent Vietnam draft resisters and civil-rights movement practitioners of civil disobedience. It would also require organizing disciplined campaigns that precede and strengthen such acts of moral witness.

Neither bellicose neocons nor “markets-uber-alles” neoliberals and conservatives can lead such a project, because neither side understands how unarmed, supposedly powerless peoples generated the power to bring down formidably armed regimes in British India, South Africa, the segregationist American South, Eastern Europe, and the Soviet Union itself. Such undertakings are described rigorously and colorfully in the late Jonathan Schell’s The Unconquerable World, which sketches similar dynamics in England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the American Revolution. But these achievements are beyond the imaginings, let alone the capacities, of most of today’s American politicians and public intellectuals, across the current spectrum. 

If you have just two more minutes to watch a humorous instance of a neoconservative’s tragic misunderstanding and miscarriage of democratic promise, watch this exchange, which I witnessed in Amsterdam in 2009, between Robert Kagan and one of the neocons’ favorite targets at that time, France’s then-foreign minister, Dominique DeVillepin, who had blocked Security Council approval of the Iraq War.

Watch Kagan exult that even though Americans have only “piggy-backed” on Western civilization and the Enlightenment instead of creating a civilization of their own, they’ve become, like Superman, the most trustworthy defenders of civilization from Europe itself. DeVillepin responds by explaining what Kagan (and Cohen, and George W. Bush) missed: The American Superman of today doesn’t rescue people from catastrophes as often he generates them financially, culturally and militarily, so much so that Superman has come to resemble Frankenstein. 

As you watch, think of the America that elected Trump, thanks to the misapprehensions and increasingly hollow bromides about patriotism and liberty that Superman’s Kaganite enthusiasts propagated so energetically. And join me in asking The Atlantic how much longer it intends to keep guiding its panicky readers toward half-truths about symptoms it highlights as if to disguise their systemic causes.

Jim Sleeper, a lecturer in political science at Yale, is the author of "Liberal Racism" (1997) and "The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York" (1990).

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