Last year the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts signed the first #NeverTrump letter from GOP national security professionals. At the time I signed it, I noted two oddities about the phenomenon. First, it contravened the expectations of many that the GOP national security community would simply bandwagon with the GOP nominee. Second, many people on the left scorned the letter because “neoconservatives ginned this up because Trump isn’t as big a fan of Middle East conflicts.”
Eighteen months later, Donald Trump is president, and Middle East conflicts are still raging. The influence of neoconservatives has declined. The #NeverTrump movement has persisted. And people on the left still scorn neoconservatives. I am not entirely sure this last point makes political sense.
Consider William Kristol, circa 2017. No, seriously, look at this tweet:
This sounds like someone pretty opposed to Trump. He is hardly the only neoconservative to fall into this category; see, for example, Peter Wehner or Jennifer Rubin. Outside of John Bolton, most prominent foreign policy neoconservatives have been pretty opposed to the Trump administration.
Over at Vox, Robert Wright is having none of this. He goes to great length to explain why the left should not make peace with the neoconservatives:
I’ve advocated something called “mindful resistance,” and one thing it entails is figuring out what array of forces created Trumpism so we can attack the problem at its roots. Well, (IMHO) there are few people who have more influentially abetted those forces than Bill Kristol. …
This is the irony of Kristol’s Trump-era makeover into what Vox’s Matt Yglesias has called “woke Bill Kristol”: It began to take shape during the presidential campaign, when Trump was sounding like a neocon’s worst nightmare — criticizing US military entanglements and talking rapprochement with Russia; but, predictably, Trump has been engulfed by the Republican foreign policy establishment, which is to say the neoconservative foreign policy establishment. So Bill Kristol is getting much the kind of foreign policy he likes while absorbing the good will that comes from remaining officially anti-Trump. He is perfectly positioned to influentially encourage the next foreign policy disaster. …
This isn’t just about foreign policy, and it isn’t just about Kristol. The many areas of disagreement within “the resistance”— in foreign policy, tax policy, health care policy, and so on — are not things we can suspend discussion of if we’re serious about defeating Trumpism. Because the drift of policy in these areas will help determine whether the ground in America stays fertile for future versions of Trump — whether our policies continue to foment terrorism, income inequality, bad health care, uneven educational opportunity, and the many other things that leave many Americans feeling alienated.
There are ways in which Wright could have made an even stronger argument against Kristol in particular. For example, he failed to mention Kristol’s key role in vaulting Sarah Palin to the national stage. Palin was the politician that paved the way for someone like Trump to seek the GOP nomination. As late as 2014, Kristol suggested that Palin could be the 2016 GOP nominee because, “She has a real populist streak, and a real feel for, sort of, middle America in a way that very few politicians do.”
I am not on the left. As someone who views Trump as beclowning the executive branch, however, I find Wright’s arguments here a bit puzzling. For one thing, I have no idea what Wright is saying when he writes that, “Trump has been engulfed by the Republican foreign policy establishment.” There has been minimal reconciliation between team Trump and the GOP foreign policy crew. This is one reason Trump’s foreign policy team has been so shorthanded. GOP foreign policy stalwarts like Eliot Cohen or Max Boot are implacable opponents of the Trump administration and its foreign policy. Yes, they are still hawks, but to say they support Trump or his policies is simply wrong.
For another thing, I read Wright’s essay on mindful resistance to Trump, and there’s an awful lot in there on not demonizing others in different places on the political spectrum: “Outrage toward Trump often translates into a sense of antagonism toward his supporters. And antagonism toward people impedes cognitive empathy — it encourages you to depict their motivations in simplistically unflattering terms.” One could argue that this logic applies equally well to Kristol and other neoconservatives. Indeed, Wright implicitly makes that point when he quotes Andrés Miguel Rondón, a Venezuelan economist, stating that Hugo Chavez-style populism “can survive only amid polarization. It works through the unending vilification of a cartoonish enemy. Never forget that you’re that enemy. Trump needs you to be the enemy, just like all religions need a demon.”
I take Wright’s point that liberals need to come up with their own post-Trump policy platforms. That project, obviously, will not include neoconservatives. But it is worth pointing out that those in political opposition need all the allies they can muster. And it is also worth pointing out that neoconservatives like Kristol were implacable opponents of Trump at a time when some liberals kinda sorta liked him. It turned out that those liberals were way more wrong about Trump’s economic populism or dovish foreign policy instincts than anything Kristol has said about Trump in the last two years.
I am old enough to recall why Wright and other liberals believe that neoconservatism is the root of all evil. When compared with Trump’s political allies, however, I will ally with the group that still remains capable of genuine moral revulsion.