Pseudoconservatism Revisited


“Pseudoconservativism is among other things a disorder in relation to authority, characterized by an inability to find other modes for human relationship than those of more or less complete domination or submission. . . . The pseudo-conservative is a man who, in the name of upholding traditional American values and institutions and defending them against more or less fictitious dangers, consciously or unconsciously aims at their abolition. . . . [He] sees his own country as being so weak that it is constantly about to fall victim to subversion; and yet he feels that it is so all-powerful that any failure it may experience in getting its way in the world . . . cannot possibly be due to its limitations but must be attributed to its having been betrayed.”

Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays, 1965.

Conservatism: From Fringe to Mainstream

When Professor Hofstadter diagnosed pseudoconservatism from the dominant tradition of cold war liberalism, he was describing a fringe element, which is why he appended the “pseudo” prefix: Birchers, Minutemen, and McCarthyite remnants of the ideological wars of the 1950s. The only “conservatism” he was apparently comfortable with was the Eisenhower/Rockefeller variant of the New Deal consensus.

Writing 40 years ago, Hofstadter did not seem to grasp that a new political consensus based on conservative ideas would become the ascendant political expression in the United States. Beginning with Goldwater’s candidacy and culminating in Republican control of Congress in 1994, conservatism became as dominant in American politics as liberalism was in Hofstadter’s day.

Sincere or not, President Clinton’s statement that “the era of big government is over” was the definitive acknowledgment that conservative ideas had rhetorically triumphed. The statement would have been inconceivable coming from Roosevelt or Johnson – or even Eisenhower or Nixon or Ford.

Like any other political movement, for conservatism to make headway, it needed serious intellectual manifestos. As the liberal paradigm stagnated and ossified throughout the 1970s and 80s, hitherto little-known writers like George Gilder and Charles Murray changed the framework of political debate. Whatever one thinks of the political tenor of their books, these writers, and arguably others like Allan Bloom and Marvin Olasky, wrote serious works which attempted to grapple with public policy issues in a serious way. Their work built on a pre-existing intellectual foundation of conservative thinkers as varied as Hayek, Mises, Kirk, and Nisbet.

The Infantilization Process

With his ponderous heaving and groaning about thesis and antithesis, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel did no more than express a commonplace observation in the maximum number of words: just when a movement – be it political, intellectual, artistic, or religious – is at the stage of its greatest worldly success, the seeds of decay are already germinating. The decay springs from having no serious opposition, which in turn leads to complacency, stagnation, and a streak of self-righteousness. When opposition is heretical by definition, there is no need for rigorous intellectual justification of one’s own viewpoint.

Liberalism demonstrated this tendency in the 1960s and 70s. As an (apparently) unchallengeable consensus, liberals degenerated into arrogant defenders of the status quo; opponents were dismissed (or demonized) as ignorant racist rednecks. As intellectual stagnation ensued, mainstream liberalism gradually splintered into political dead-ends: identity politics, the cult of victimization, and cultural nihilism. As the Richard Hofstadters, Arthur Schlesingers, and Daniel Bells receded from defining liberalism, their place was taken by a bizarre coterie of crackpot feminists, cultural deconstructionists, guilt-mongers, and liberation theologists. By merely by asserting confidence and upholding the “normal,” Ronald Reagan was able to topple the liberal consensus.

From Friedrich von Hayek to Ann Coulter

At some point during the mid to late 1990s, dominant conservatism began to replicate the signs of intellectual decay that liberalism showed 30 years earlier. It probably started with movement conservatives’ growing obsession with the Clinton family: not as political opponents to be defeated in a war of ideas, but as demonic incarnations of evil who had to be destroyed by any means necessary. As movement conservatives rolled and snuffled in sexual scandal like felines in catnip, there was a corresponding decline in intellectual argumentation. Instead of Wealth and Poverty, bookstore shelves bent under the weight of scandal-mongering exposes of Clinton’s sexual dalliances.

As of this writing, more than three years after Clinton’s departure from office and two and a half years after the most devastating attack on American soil in history, the magazine Human Events has seen fit to e-mail me a special offer: the “blockbuster” book by R. Emmitt Tyrrell on – Osama bin Laden? A conservative policy analysis of Iraq? The looming fiscal crisis of Social Security and Medicare? Not a chance. Tyrrell’s magnificent opus is titled Madame Hillary. The offer promises that I “won’t be able to put this book down” as it exposes Mrs. Clinton’s diabolical machinations to enslave the guileless American people. And if I subscribe to Human Events for 70 weeks, I will receive this bonus: the “52 most dangerous liberals in America playing card set.” Tom Daschle, the American incarnation of Josef Stalin. One is already thinking about rustling up a fourth for whist. Whether the demon du jour is the Clintons or not, conservative books, conservative talk radio, and conservative web sites show a uniform intellectual deterioration.

The presumably ghost-written rehashes by the Limbaughs, Hannitys, and O’Reillys do not attempt sustained intellectual argumentation at all; they merely strike an attitude: belligerent, faux-populist, self-righteous. These would-be successors of Milton Friedman or Russell Kirk specialize in ad hominem outbursts, straw-man arguments, and circular reasoning. The tendency reaches its nadir in the hebephrenic Ann Coulter, who avers that liberals “have a preternatural tendency to commit treason.” The Likudnik Zionist Jonathan Pollard and the right-wing Catholic Opus Dei admirer Robert Hansen are no doubt chuckling from their maximum security cells.

The Triumph of Pseudoconservatism

In nominal control of the presidency, both houses of Congress, and the Supreme Court, so-called conservatism is as dominant at present as liberalism was in 1964. Yet the intellectual deterioration in the movement is so evident that it may be appropriate to consider the proposition that as a political platform, the so-called conservative movement is no longer conservative in any principled or systematic sense.

Ironically, Hofstadter’s term for the fringe element of conservatism in the 1960s, pseudoconservatism, may properly describe the dominant ideological strain among movement conservatives, (pseudo-) intellectuals of the David Frum category, and mainstream political satraps of the Republican Party. For a quarter century, this writer has had frequent contact with self-described conservative operatives in government and the private sector. The change in attitude and tenor among these adherents to so-called conservatism amounts to a major albeit unnoticed shift in the American political landscape.

I will now attempt to describe the most salient characteristics of the modern pseudoconservative landscape. It is important to keep in mind that these characteristics are not present in all pseudoconservatives all the time; a “pure” specimen who showed all eight traits all the time would be suitable for a museum, or a lunatic asylum.

But it bears noting just how distant the traits of the pseudoconservative are from the principles of limited government, constitutionalism, and traditional foreign policy.

Pseudoconservatism: a Psychopathology

1. Leader worship: let’s put Ronald Reagan on Mount Rushmore! A good friend and long-time Republican put it this way: “Your average enthusiastic movement conservative is basically so adolescent and emotionally fragile that he does not see political activity as a contest of principles. He needs a white knight who comes riding in on a horse in order to redeem America.”

The truth of his observation is illustrated by the fact that precisely when many of Ronald Reagan’s principles are being abandoned, his deification is reaching its zenith.

It is a matter of record that an Indiana Congressman has seriously stated as a justification for putting Reagan’s image on the dime the fact that the bullet extracted from the former president in the 1981 assassination attempt was the size and shape of a dime!

Likewise, Republican huckster Grover Norquist is spearheading a movement not only to carve Ronald Reagan’s image on Mount Rushmore, but to have a Reagan monument in every county of every state in the union. Apparently, a $500 billion deficit, a “war that will not end in our lifetimes” (so says the Vice President), and an immigration crisis are not sufficient to engage the attention of GOP cognoscenti like Norquist. This leader worship extends to the current claimant of the imperial purple. The American Conservative Union may yammer perpetually about out-of-control spending, but the critique is curiously disconnected from the president himself – the person who is supposed to be in charge of that spending. Perhaps career bureaucrats are holding the president hostage. Let Bush be Bush! All these arguments, of course, are merely a variation on the shopworn theme: “if only ze Fuhrer knew!”

While Democrat struggles for presidential nomination can occasionally be dog fights, Republican nominations, by definition, have become coronations. Following the hierarchical nature of pseudoconservative thinking, the capo di tutti capi must be an establishment figure who ascends the throne by virtue of family pedigree and service to the business oligarchy, rather than possessing a set of intelligible ideas, coherently expressed. As the dyspeptic Bob Dole, sounding like a Jacobite claimant, famously said, “it’s my turn now!” Psychologically connected with leader worship is a love of ritual and regalia. Hence the obsession with flag display, enamel lapel pins, and similar stigmata of the authoritarian personality. Or, perhaps, the adolescent love of gang colors. Many of the direct mail solicitations of the Republican National Committee read like a 1930s Ovaltine commercial: match your own personal number to see if you are a charter member of Ed Gillespie’s Junior Woodchucks!

Likewise the strong consumer demand for a George Bush action figure, complete with naval aviator flight suit. One has only to consider the unlikelihood of a Gerhard Schroder action figure in Germany or a Silvio Berlusconi doll in Italy, to reflect that when pseudoconservatives bray about American exceptionalism, they may have a point.

2. Rugged individualism – except when submission is called for Submission goes with leader worship like mustard on a ballpark hot dog, spicing up Hofstadter’s point that pseudoconservatism is a “disorder in relation to authority.”

The pseudoconservative is simply mass man (1), subject to all the conformist shibboleths and bugaboos that his type has prostrated himself before since paleolithic times. Whether it is the PATRIOT Act, the Defense of Marriage Act, flag-burning amendments, or the current presidential proposal for Federally-funded marriage counseling, the pseudoconservative does not trust individuals to get it right absent the caring hand of the Nanny State. In principle, Bill Bennett might be the most egregious caricature of an officious liberal; only the objects of his obsession are different.

The traits of submissiveness and mass conformity are clearly conducive to a disciplined party, but fail the test of creating an informed citizenry.

In theory the citizens of a constitutional republic ought to soberly inform themselves, e.g., whether Iraq really did have weapons of mass destruction; what is Al Qaeda and where did it come from; how did the most the most massive intelligence failure in the Nation’s history take place, followed barely a year later by yet another significant intelligence failure? That driving curiosity, worthy of Inspector Javert, which impelled pseudoconservatives to construct elaborate theories about the death of Vince Foster or precisely what President Clinton did with a cigar, is strangely absent when the stakes are higher. This incuriosity extends not merely to the average reader of National Review, but to pseudoconservative elected officials with the power to compel answers.

3. Chickenhawk militarism: “the military is not a part of government” Other than Quakers or the Amish, it is hard to find a group with less direct military experience than pseudoconservatives, particularly the neoconservative wing thereof. This phenomenon has been too widely noticed to require belaboring here, other than to note that an apparent guilt at not having served in Vietnam, combined with a need to compensate vicariously for the softness and security of the life of a white color apparatchik, has created a romanticized image of militarism unseen in advanced Western societies since the Wehrmacht folded its tent.

But the pseudoconservatives’ veneration of the military and “our men and women in uniform” can be deceiving. Should even a high-ranking soldier like Anthony Zinni stray from the party line, the pseudoconservative propaganda mill will unleash its attack dogs. (2)

Also characteristic of the pseudoconservative’s schizophrenic relation to government is his theoretical hatred of the state and state authority, always excepting, of course, the military; Federal law enforcement (when it is safely out of Janet Reno’s clutches); and the Department of Homeland Security, a newly-minted authority symbol suitable for secular worship. 4. Crackpot pseudoreligion: Elmer Gantry meets Armageddon Rather than draw up a bill of indictment on so inflammatory a subject, it is more instructive to let the evidence speak for itself. Herewith an opus by the Rev. Jerry Falwell with the fascinating title: “God is Pro-War“. Foreign policy messianism a/k/a revolutionary conservatism In the post-Enlightenment era, the number of persons who have sought comprehensively to reorder the global political structure is a restricted one: Napoleon, Wilson, Lenin, Hitler, perhaps a few other less renowned lunatics. One would hesitate a long time before pronouncing any of them a Burkean conservative. Yet the modern pseudoconservative seeks national redemption in good works delivered through the barrel of a gun. This contradiction of the small government principle of conservatism is so glaring that one would imagine it would be evident to a child. Yet it is a cornerstone of the pseudoconservative delusion. While many in the Republican base are viscerally opposed to foreign aid if not somewhat isolationistic, they apparently embrace a foreign policy that guarantees extensive foreign entanglement and expensive foreign aid (in many cases, the implicit commitments will have a far greater long-term cost than the explicit amount of aid in this year’s appropriation bill).

Several panjandrums of the neoconservative wing of pseudoconservatism have openly called for an American empire. Quite apart from their glaring betrayal of the principles of a constitutional republic, these Borscht Belt Bismarcks appeal to a strain in the populace that is at once inclined to seek empire and disinclined to run it rationally.

Those most ardently receptive to the idea of American empire are boorish, militaristic (as long as it is someone else being shot at; refer back to point 3), and provincial. Hardly the cosmopolitan outlook that, say, the British Colonial Office would have cultivated, and hardly the worldly wisdom required to administer the Punjab.

Likewise, empire could only succeed if the United States were to maintain tolerably good relations with third countries. But the pseudoconservative cannot forgo his compulsion to bait foreigners so as to enhance his credentials as a “man of the people” among the electorate. This technique is a favorite in political stump speeches and on talk radio. 6. Big government: for my purposes A half-trillion dollar deficit: an implicit lien against future taxpayers. This speaks for itself. 7. America first! – except for [insert your favorite country here] George Washington said that “the Nation, which indulges towards another an habitual hatred, or an habitual fondness, is in some degree a slave [emphasis added]. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest.”

While it has historically been the case that persons of the Left are tempted to transfer their patriotic loyalties to some fake utopia abroad (crackpot Jeffersonians to Jacobin France; the Old Left to the Soviet Union; the New Left to Cuba or North Vietnam), there has often been a minority strain within American conservatism which has manifested, if not a complete transfer of loyalty to some foreign power, a kind of exaggerated sympathy for it.

This tendency may have started at the end of the nineteenth century, as Gilded Age plumbing fixture magnates and breakfast cereal tycoons began marrying their daughters to the impecunious heirs of the British aristocracy. This entanglement of the plutocracies of the two English-speaking powers has had baneful results in American foreign policy during the twentieth century, as a glance at the casualty lists of the Meuse-Argonne offensive reveals. It is one strand in the skein of influences that has pushed American conservatism in the direction of pseudo-conservatism, even though it has minimal resonance among the great mass of human Chevrolets who listen to Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity. It has been, indeed, largely an upper class phenomenon: from the Vanderbilts down to the present Bush dynasty (whose current patriarch, Bush 41, once referred to England as “the mother country”). Perhaps its most enduring cultural legacy is the Cult of Churchill.

While the Old Right conservative tradition of Robert Taft resisted the siren call of Perfidious Albion (and Eisenhower told Anthony Eden to take a hike during the Suez crisis), pseudoconservative publications like National Review (reputedly founded with CIA money by agency alumnus William Buckley for the purpose of weaning mainstream conservatives of that time away from foreign policy realism and towards global messianism) contributed their bit for Blighty. NR is worth an extended exposition as an example of the evolution of pseudoconservatism.

There is hardly a corrupt despot or Third World caudillo NR hasn’t bathed in rhetorical adoration during its 50 years of existence. What a crew! Francisco Franco! Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek! President for Life Joseph Mobutu Sese Seko! Emperor of the Peacock Throne and Light of the Aryans Reza Shah Pahlavi! Ferdinand and the sartorially splendid Imelda Marcos! Saddam Hussein (when he was invading Iran rather than Kuwait)! The list is inexhaustible, but from this human menagerie three main tendencies emerge:

i. Anglophilia. As William Buckley’s stuttering imitation of a drunken member of the House of Lords makes evident, Anglophilia has frequently been a dominant note in the publication. It has always had a stable of English contributors who have struck just the right Pukka Sahib note. The rag started out wistful about the collapse of the British Empire and is now, in different editorial hands, touting the British Empire as a model for U.S. foreign policy. There was a point in the 1980s when NR’s sycophancy towards Margaret Thatcher would have made the Gracchi blush. Perhaps Mobutu, Papa Doc, and other guardians of Western Civilization were considered suitable stand-ins for the native viziers of British Empire.

ii. Corporate State Catholicism. As followers of the Holy Church Militant, Buckley and his College of Cardinals sought to imbue American foreign policy with the crusading zeal of the Conquistadores. This impulse led Buckley early on to regard Franco as a Christian gentlemen and Ortega y Gasset and Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera as philosophers of the caliber of Locke and Montesquieu.

The exigencies of the cold war not only required overlooking El Caudillo’s spotty adherence to the American constitutional tradition, but also to embrace the cause of Eastern and Southeastern European Austro-fascists whose work during World War II was of interest to the Nuremberg Tribunal. NR’s zeal of the steadfast soul reached an epiphany of sorts when it published an article in the 1970s claiming that the bombing of Guernica never really happened – not in the sight of God, at any rate. This mystical sense of rightness is also responsible for pseudoconservatism’s having elevated matters of private religious belief into urgent public policy questions.

iii. Jerusalem, my happy home. Despite the unmistakable Father Coughlin note during much of NR’s existence, it is unlikely these modern-day Conquistadores would have consciously betrayed American national interests to Madrid. But something happened in the 1980s both to change the location of NR’s foreign utopia and intensify the fanaticism of its editorial devotion. While several of its writers – Joseph Sobran and Patrick Buchanan, most notably – were political Catholics of the more-or-less militant type (one recalls reading in Buchanan’s autobiography that Franco was a household icon when Pat was growing up), around the time of Iran-Contra and the Jonathan Pollard affair, NR’s Falangist faction fell rapidly out of favor.

By the end of the decade, they had been purged by Buckley himself, a man whose ultramontanism is exceeded only by his cynical opportunism. In a meandering NR pronunciamento that was breathtaking in its betrayal, Buckley not only convicted the two of the gravest political crime in modern American jurisprudence – they were roundly disliked by Jewish neoconservatives – but managed to indict his own dead father of the same crime! So the old deities – Generalissimo Franco, Cardinal Mindszenty, Ezra Pound, Pious XII – were pulled down from Mount Olympus, to be replaced by new objects of worship: Benjamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon. The Alcazar was out, the Third Temple was in.

Not only was the shift in the party line abrupt, with the purged heretics declared unpersons (so like Communist Party feuds familiar to NR’s numerous “former” Trotskyite writers), the rhetorical amperage was increased several notches. Whereas NR’s former defenses of Austro-fascism were labored apologias, like G.K. Chesterton writing a Life of St. Francis, the new NR read more like Communist Party propaganda during the Popular Front period. The dissipated Buckley now seems to have lost all interest in NR, leaving it to a dreary cabal of Zionist lunatics.

Americans have seen this phenomenon before. From the Bolshevik Revolution till the end of the cold war, members of the CPUSA stood in much the same relation to a foreign power that the Zionistas at NR (and Weekly Standard and other pseudoconservative organs) do. It is worth noting that William Z. Foster, head of the CPUSA in the 1930s, stated that “Communism is twentieth century Americanism.” Doubtless the commissars at NR would say something analogous about Zionism in the twenty-first century. 8. Crony capitalism: none dare call it the corporate state Pseudoconservatives’ theoretical devotion to free market economics is exceeded only by their practical adherence to crony capitalism. Most of the panjandrums of the pseudoconservative network, beginning with Henry Kissinger, have almost zero connection with true entrepreneurial activity. Instead, their government positions prepared them for lucrative employment in archetypal crony capitalist enterprises: defense corporations, financial services, CIA-influenced “security” firms, K Street influence pedlars, and oil companies (the latter commodity is noteworthy in being exempt from free-market dogma: it is the only known substance demand for which does not automatically create a market; on the contrary, supplies have to be militarily conquered periodically.

The reader might ask what harm it does to the national interest if the pseudoconservative oligarchy does well by doing good. Contrary to current mythology, the Internal Revenue Code (26 <U.S.C>.) did not grow to 100 chapters and an appendix so that bureaucratic automata at the IRS could harass middle class families. In virtually all cases, U.S. tax law became the most complex in human history because it was written by the placemen of crony capitalists, i.e. the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance Committees. And their objective was to create, in many cases, zero tax liability for their corporate benefactors.

According to the General Accounting Office, corporate tax receipts have shrunk significantly as a share of total federal revenue in recent years. From an average of around 30 percent of all receipts in the first term of the Eisenhower administration, they had fallen by 2003 to just 7.4 percent. The basic federal corporate tax rate for large corporations is 35 percent. But GAO found that 94 percent of large U.S. controlled corporations (those with at least $250 million in assets) had tax liabilities of less than 5 percent of their total income. A large number had no tax liability whatsoever. (3) The most regressive federal taxes are payroll taxes for programs like Medicare and Social Security. They fall overwhelmingly on middle and working class Americans. During Eisenhower’s first term they made up a little over 10 percent of all federal receipts; by 2003 they reached 40 percent, nearly matching the amount received from individual income taxes. (4)

The pseudoconservative propaganda network, which never fails to strike populist “man of the people” note about the sorely tried, overtaxed, and overregulated common man, somehow manages to avoid mentioning the true correlation of power in the most fundamental aspect of politics: who gets what. We are supposed to believe the middle class taxpayer is beset by welfare queens, college professors, foreign aid recipients, and other straw men from the Limbaugh demonology, rather than Enron, Halliburton, or MCI/Worldcom Do the promoters of family values seriously believe the United States will remain a middle class nation with middle class mores if the income structure more nearly resembles Regency England?

Conclusion: A Self-Negating Belief System?

The pseudoconservative dogma is a grab-bag of popular delusions which seem almost anarchic in their contradictoriness. Anti-state rhetoric sits adjacent to authoritarian ukase, free market dogma jostles with corporate state plutocracy, and so on: religious devotion with militarist fervor, rugged individualism with leader worship, “family values” with plutocratic decadence, America first with global messianism.

How did it arise at the particular time and place as it did, and why has it metastasized after 11 September 2001?

Perhaps the myth of American exceptionalism, when combined with the semi-permanent military mobilization of the cold war, provided a particularly fertile seed-bed for the syndrome. Given the concomitant decay of education and popular culture (5), it would seem that the only additional ingredient necessary was a healthy dose of fear. Nine-eleven provided that.

Pseudoconservatism’s worship of force in human affairs is a particularly troubling and dangerous trait at this time, given that international terrorism has evolved into a self-organizing network that feeds off violence to gain more recruits. (6) For all his neurotic love of hierarchy and authoritarianism, the pseudoconservative has the potential to unleash the very chaos and anarchy he fears. We can only hope pseudoconservatism dies of its own contradictions before it consumes our peace of mind, our wallets, and our sons.

* WERTHER* is the pen name of a Northern Virginia based defense analyst.


(1) “Precisely because mass man does not recognize any sense of personal responsibility and does not care to distinguish between the intended and actual consequences of any action, he acquiesces in the control of all social efforts on the part of the state. Deceived into thinking that he is the state, mass man does not see that he will soon be living for the state (or the government), and not it for him.” Nicholas Capaldi, Ortega on the Crisis of Western Civilization, 1988.

(2) “General Zinni, what a Ninny” is the tasteful title of a representative piece published on-line here:

(3) Tax Administration Comparison of the Reported Tax Liabilities of Foreign- and <U.S.-Controlled> Corporations, 1996-2000, GAO-04-358.

(4) The phenomenon of upward redistribution of income by the IRS code is pursued at length in David Cay Johnston, Perfectly Legal: The Covert Campaign to Rig Our Tax System to Benefit the Super Rich – and Cheat Everybody Else.

(5) Has no one noticed that the Radio Moscow of pseudoconservatism – Fox – has achieved the difficult feat of being the most decadent major network in terms of program content? Why has this escaped the attention of Bill Bennett and Gary Bauer?

(6) Fourth generation warfare gains its strength precisely because its tactics invite overreaction by the state.

—-[End WERTHER* Report]—–