It’s been said that when Germany invaded Russia in June 1941, the Soviet military elite had been so hollowed out by Stalin’s purges that the Red Army had trouble mounting an initial counter-offensive. According to a new book, a similar thing has happened to the American conservative movement.
The Vanishing Tradition: Perspectives on American Conservatism is an anthology of essays curated by Paul E. Gottfried, one of America’s longest standing conservative critics of the right-wing establishment. Several of the essays call out the Beltway right for what the writers see as the blatant hypocrisy of their criticism of left-wing cancel culture. Cancel culture, the essayists contend, is at least as prevalent on the right and, more importantly, probably had a serious impact on conservatism’s ability to effectively oppose the left—so serious, perhaps, that it can even be blamed for many of the woke excesses of today.
Cancel Culture and the Left
In one of National Review’s many critiques of cancel culture, Fred Bauer breaks down the practice into three elements: the maligning of supposedly problematic work; the author’s removal from public platforms; and the rendering of the author unemployable. Shutting down inconvenient critics is certainly nothing new. The Anti-Defamation League, for example, would circulate smear-ridden dossiers on problematic people just before they were scheduled to give public talks.
Today, the practice is almost wholly associated with the left, fueling self-righteousness among conservative outlets as a result. Given the left’s hegemony in the university sector, on campus talks by even mildly mainstream conservatives have become hugely difficult. Liberals deemed insufficiently deferential to BLM and other hard-left movements are often attacked by woker elements—as the liberal establishment recently conceded in an open letter.
Conservative Cancel Culture and the Neoconservative/Old Right Split
But, as Gottfried writes, the phenomenon is as common on the right. This goes back to at least the late 1950s when so-called isolationists were attacked for being weak Cold Warriors. The attacks ramped up ferociously with the rise of neoconservatism, which left in its wake many from what became known as the old right.
Neoconservatism grew out of—of all places—communist circles in late 1960s New York, largely made up of Jewish intellectuals unhappy with both the Soviets’ divorce from Israel and black American leaders’ explicit solidarity with the PLO.
The neocon right made American exceptionalism its cardinal doctrine. Instead of defining America in terms of nationhood, as the old right had done—celebrating historic myths, social traditions, ancestral ties, key nation-builders, etc.—neoconservatives approached the nation as a set of abstract universal principles: liberal democracy, egalitarianism and individualism chief among them.
But, as Jack Kerwick notes in the book, this meant that America the idea could not and should not be geographically limited. Exporting American-style democracy became justifiable, as did free trade and open borders—ideas not generally associated with the old right.
The Case of Mel Bradford
The cancellation of Mel Bradford encapsulates the right’s internal struggle. In the years leading up to Reagan’s first term, when the neoconservative right had begun to exert its influence over the broader conservative movement, internal battles were being played out in periodicals like Commentary and Modern Age. At the forefront of these battles was Mel Bradford: a highly erudite anti-neocon professor of English.
In 1981, Bradford had been nominated by Reagan to lead the National Endowment for the Humanities. In typical cancel culture fashion, however, Washington Post columnist George Will lodged a hyperbolic attack against Bradford for his insufficient deference to Abraham Lincoln (a central founding figure for the neocons). Bradford was also attacked for having emphasized the fundamentally British character of the constitution—for neocons, America’s founding document has universal application. In addition, says Gottfried, there was the problem of Bradford’s Texan background and his perceived identity as an “unreconstructed southern patriot.”
Like the Twitter mobs of today, other neocon allies soon piled on, including heavy-hitters like The Heritage Foundation, Commentary founder Norman Podhoretz, Irving and Bill Kristol and the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal. Despite Bradford’s close relationship with Reagan, the coordinated offensive proved impossible to defeat. Bradford was deselected and exchanged for the neocons’ top pick, William Bennett. In addition to being a registered Democrat, Bennett was Bradford’s intellectual inferior—but he held the right views on the constitution, immigration and foreign policy.
This episode marked the neocons’ arrival. For decades, neoconservatism and the Republican establishment would become synonymous—a reality dented by Trump, but still largely intact.
Scores of other right-wing intellectuals were purged by the establishment, as the book relates. From the founders of American libertarianism, such as Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard, and the fathers of post-war US conservatism like Russell Kirk and Richard Weaver to proto-Trumpians like Samuel Huntingdon, Pat Buchanan, Samuel T. Francis and John Derbyshire, dissenters were shown the door and sometimes publicly and needlessly attacked for their views on globalism, mass immigration, foreign interventions and other issues on which they failed to fall in line with the neoconservative agenda.
Then there’s Gottfried’s own cancellation. Despite having written numerous scholarly works on American conservatism, he was labelled unpatriotic by David Frum for his criticism of neoconservatism. Detractors also managed to get him excluded from consideration for a professorship at Catholic University and persuaded Modern Age to no longer allow him to contribute to the magazine.
It would be easy to write off some of the cancelled as isolationists, unreconstructed traditionalists or chauvinistic cranks. Many, however, articulated issues that later found resonance with millions of voters. And since Trump’s 2016 victory, many of them have enjoyed renewed recognition.
Furthermore, such cancellations are troubling, independent of one’s opinion of their victims. As Gottfried notes, it is worse to be cancelled as a conservative than as a liberal because of the relative paucity of right-wing media outlets—indeed, many of the cancelled languished and died in obscurity following their ousters.
Many of these people were cancelled in response to left-wing pressure. Yielding to your opponents in this way is poor political strategy, as it just encourages them to demand further cancellations. As Mark Steyn puts it in his own defense of John Derbyshire: “The more sacrifices you offer up, the more ravenously the volcano belches.”
Understanding Conservative Cancel Culture
When National Review’s David French attacked The Atlantic in 2018 for firing his colleague Kevin Williamson, the New Republic surveyed the National Review’s own rich history of cancellations. A similar piece also appeared in the Guardian.
Other good accounts of establishment cancellations have been provided by Scott McConnell and Murray Rothbard. Rothbard details the neoconservatives’ cheap attacks on their opponents as obsessive, paranoid and crazy, and comments wryly that at least the Bolshevik tactic of condemning an opponent as an “agent of monopoly capital” had the “virtue of clarity and even a certain charm.”
Establishment attempts to derail Trumpism fall into this category too. GOP columnists like David Brooks, Jennifer Rubin, Max Boot, Bret Stephens and George Will have seethed over Trump. National Review even published an entire Never Trump issue, which they made available for free online. During the last general election, they attacked some young, pro-Trump congressional candidates. Neither the Democrats nor the flagship publications of the left cancel their own political candidates in this way.
Have Cancellations Helped Give Rise to Today’s Marxian Left?
These cancellations, Gottfried writes, removed a “generation of serious critical thinkers” from public debate and weakened the conservative movement: “the effect of the leftist shifts of the conservative movement, punctuated by widely publicized purges, has resulted in pushing permissible political discussion in the same direction. It is naïve to believe that their movement has veered toward the left only in response to where ‘the culture’ has drifted. The conservative movement … has contributed to where our political culture has moved.”
Would mainstream US conservatism have been more effective had it refrained from purging its dissidents over the last few decades? How would the country look today had the Republican leadership been more working class and Middle America-oriented, as so many of the old right were? Could the cancellations even have played a role in developments like BLM, Antifa, white wokeness and other political excesses?
Yoram Hazony has connected neoconservative free market liberalism to the economic deregulation which sparked the 2008 financial crisis, which both he and Douglas Murray posit pushed so many millennials towards wokery. (I’d add that years of unregulated trade contributed, too.) Hazony implies that a movement more tolerant of traditionalist, corporate-skeptic voices like Gottfried, Pat Buchanan, Ross Perot and Russell Kirk might have weakened the push.
Establishment conservatives have expressed surprise at the rise of woke capital, which has financed and legitimized movements like Black Lives Matter. Perhaps a better read right-wing movement would have understood that corporate America is, at best, a slippery ally. Old right philosopher George Grant and conservative Christopher Lasch predicted the rise of woke capital decades ago.
Would a less purged, more intellectual right have labelled the Democratic Party anti-black racists or fascists? The right-wing establishment’s unjust application of those slurs probably helped legitimize the widespread misuse of the word racist that we see today.
The right may also be responsible for the rise of political correctness since the early 1980s. Neoconservatives have always advocated high immigration numbers—in part, due to their free market ethos—but, as Gottfried has frequently argued, in order to welcome such vast numbers of newcomers and keep inter-group tensions down, the boundaries of permissible speech had to contract and a new therapeutic lexicon had to develop. The revisions to US history and the jettisoning of certain foundational myths and figures were also, as many of the purged proto-Trumpians have argued, an inevitable component of dramatic demographic change.
As Pat Buchanan has recently reminded us, demography is destiny. That is one of many reasons why old rightists are opposed to large-scale immigration, while Democrats take the opposite position. To paraphrase the long-cancelled Ann Coulter: Democrats don’t change people’s minds, they change the people.
Coulter’s 2015 book Adios America played a key role in shaping Trump’s approach to immigration during his 2016 campaign. As Coulter has often observed, failed neocon candidates like John McCain and Mitt Romney would have won by landslides had they faced the electorate of Reagan’s time. Such bracing honesty on this issue isn’t the done thing in polite establishment circles.
In 2016, David Brooks finally, begrudgingly admitted that the late Samuel Francis had been right, when Trump followed his advice to focus on the Rust Belt and “white plight.” Trump seemed to forget the wisdom of that approach during this last election—for which some commentators blame the usual Beltway suspects. Like Karl Rove and Jack Kemp before him, Trump spent billions trying to court minorities by way of racially pandering programs, while failing to deliver the heartland infrastructure investments he promised in 2016. While he made marginal to above marginal gains with racial minorities, Trump’s support among white working-class males—a major demographic in the Midwest—plummeted.
The Republican intellectual establishment has much to answer for. It has thoroughly failed to defeat the left in the war of ideas. If the establishment were more consistent about viewpoint diversity and the marketplace of ideas within the right, the ascendant Marxian left would surely be far smaller and much less confident than it is today.