Neo-conservatism: The Seductive Lure of Lying About History

Anne Applebaum through her publications in the Atlantic and most recently in her book, Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism, has articulated a perplexed disappointment with Republican politicians and colleagues endorsing Trumpism. She poses a series of questions in her recent Atlantic article History Will Judge the Complicit: why have Republicans abandoned their principle in support of a dangerous and immoral president. How could “Each violation of our Constitution and our civic peace gets absorbed, rationalized, and accepted by people who once upon a time knew better”? How can the fear of a Twitter tirade silence members of once honorable elite, men like John Bolton and Paul Ryan, from intervention against the slide to totalitarianism. Her Atlantic article, Laura Ingraham’s Descent into Despair, begins with puzzlement of how a deeply idealistic iconoclast could evolve into an end-of-days Trumpist, stoked by fatalism over American decline, by liberal deracination, and from Catholic unlapsing. How indeed?

Applebaum begins her article on the transformation of Laura Ingraham, the Fox News professional racist and COVID-19 denier, by describing a celebratory Georgetown cocktail party of the neo-conservative elite in 1995. There the recognition of American exceptionalism and its appropriate distillation throughout the world was seamlessly enunciated. In attendance were David Brock (in his Clinton tormentor phase), David Frum, Danielle Crittendon, David Brooks, John Podhoretz, Roger Kimball, William Kristol, Dinesh D’Souza, and James Atlas, and Laura Ingraham. The reader can best decide whether this group is more aptly characterized as a self-congratulatory rogues gallery or post-Reaganite translators of the language of anti-totalitarianism, personal liberty and property rights, and American exceptionalism. In Anne Applebaum’s astigmatic eyes, focused by Eastern European analogies, the assumptions and simplistic confidences of the American liberal left about labor rights and wealth distribution may have seemed, unserious if not contemptible. The neo-conservative world view was curious. A modest level of irony, if not humility, might have led to pondering how a self-appointed elite became the intellectual center of the modern Republican Party. Here was a new conservative generation of columnists and editorial writers who overnight became public intellectuals and political theoreticians without ever having produced disciplined work on policy, or having achieved formal academic accomplishment or even having had extensive experience with legislation. And yet, William Kristol et al., could later credit themselves with the identification of and selection of Sarah Palin as a potential president. The totalistic adoption of an ideology and its self-appointed spokespersons might have recalled for Applebaum the permutated trans-slavism of the Comminform, given her affinity for analogies to sovietized Eastern Europe. It did not.

American neo-conservatives and its avatars have with a few notable exceptions repeatedly and knowingly refused to know better. Consider David Frum’s Trumpocracy. While I do not admire his earlier writings, given the abundance of conceits and glibness which were so characteristic of the neo-conservative elites, Frum has undertaken a serious reappraisal of his Republican Party allegiance in its historical context and recognizes that he and other neo-conservatives became the intelligentsia of the Party with an unbarricaded acceptance that should have aroused suspicion about their new home. Another neo-conservative journalist, Jennifer Rubin seems to be following a similar course of re-examination which is both convincing and critically insightful. They appear to recognize that the tribunes of liberty and market solutions to real crises’ – Rubio, Hawley, Graham, Sasse– are not part of a rejuvenation, and that their contempt for liberal and social democratic positions did not constitute an alternative (small-d) democratic policy. To their credit, the journey of these formerly complicit neo-conservative intellectuals are accompanied by serious perspectives on the chronic American banes: racism, economic division, educational sieving and environmental destruction. As important, they are recognizing that their once coherent ideology was not only false, it contributed to the dismantling of democratic society. The pretense that the Republican senatoriat stands for much beyond economic privilege, vanity and self-reward seems for them to be rapidly dropping as the real heart of Republicanism reveals itself – a corrupt corporate elite and a fascistically fomented electorate.

Contrast this with Applebaum. She is a highly intelligent writer/historian who spent intellectually formative years in post-Solidarity Poland where her husband served as a government minister. She is a rare Jewish neo-conservative intellectual, residing in and having a shared a political worldview with a country whose core history was so settled in anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism. To be a participant in the events of an evolving liberal and internationalist society in Poland must have been heady, and the post-Solidarity liberal government that appointed her Jewish husband to a ministerial position must have seemed to represent a cleansing of Poland’s past. In part, it was that, at least for a while. Her presumptive context was not anti-capitalist or rooted in the anti-Soviet social democratic left. It appeared to be an elemental contempt for the cruelty, ineptitude and deformed language of the Soviet Eastern European world. Her outlook reflected optimism towards the possibilities of transformation and towards the transnationality of open-society and liberal values.

Along the way, she acquired a deep and learned passion describing the terrors of the Stalinist age – famine, the gulag. On these, she has written with authority and scholarly thoroughness. The tone resembles that of other Eastern Europeans who aligned themselves with neo-conservatism and American Republicanism of the 1980s and 1990s. The language of anti-totalitarianism, personal liberty and property rights seems to have been what was most alluring. Under those eyes the assumptions and simplistic confidences of the American liberal left seemed, by comparison, unserious if not contemptible. More recently, she has written thoughtfully and with plaintive disillusion about the Freedom and Justice Party in Poland with its disciplining of the press and the courts and its fondness for the symbols of Polish reaction: anti-Semitism without Jews, religion without rite, and the symbols of aristocracy and hierarchy coupled with contempt for Russians. She has written with shock and regret on how personal affections and common values among her post-Solidarity cohort, once seemingly based on a vision of a new liberal Poland, had been replaced by sectarian animosities.

Which brings us to the present. Applebaum’s disillusionment with post-Solidarity Eastern Europe now extends to her erstwhile comrades on the Republican Right, whom she tries to understand by cataloguing varieties of Soviet totalitarian complicity and French collaborationism. Her disappointment with Trumpist accomplices like Lindsay Graham and Laura Ingraham rests on their in-the-moment psychological disposition and character weakness and analogizing to the American. This is an evasion not analysis.

Analogies often suffer the faults of limited imagination. Still, it is usually preferable to resort to national experience over less familiar histories when considering precedent. Applebaum’s examples of collaboration from Vichy France, and communist Poland and East Germany would seem to have limited application to modern Republicanism. As Marcel Bloch had observed, France had lost a war due to a lack of imagination not complicity. It was fully expecting the aftermath of Germany’s WW I defeat to repeat itself in France: withdrawal of the German Army, demilitarization, and an onerous debt burden. Only the latter occurred. Vichy was an ambiguous entity, in that security and police functions remained with the Germans even in the unoccupied zone, and by November 1942 with the invasion of North Africa by the Americans, even that fiction of independence was discarded. Moreover, the German Army of occupation exceeded 300,000 men and 3 million Frenchmen had been exported to Germany as wartime labor and as national hostages. Petain was not Trump. He was a war hero, Eisenhower-like, and was supported by the majority of Frenchmen. The Republican Senate is not a diet of half-willing compradors, gradually seduced Vichyites compelled by occupation and repression. Modern Republicanism has roots and a rationale that are characteristically and intrinsically American. It is not a new strangeness fed by unpredicted and emergent national catastrophe, although it is a product of long-standing crises’ and a significant architect of unfolding catastrophe.

Anne Applebaum’s accusation offers weak comparisons with collaboration formed by war and occupation: if senators had not been scared of their donors; if Pence, Pompeo, and Barr had not believed that God had chosen them to play special roles in this “biblical moment”—if any of these things had gone differently, then thousands of deaths and a historic economic collapse might have been avoided. Lindsay Graham is not a betrayer. Senatorial Republicans are inbred and consistent. Careening self-interest and self-infatuation do not require conversion to sustain themselves. Jared Kusher is a purebred thoroughbred in a new venturist/vulturist world order, not a man of mystery.

The deeper currents of American reaction, tied to race and attributed conspiracy, precede Trump and the Reagan majorities. The majority of Americans and much of the Republican Party supported Joseph McCarthy until the military, Murrow, and the networks media dissented. After World War I, federal troops occupied Washington and fired on the peaceful demonstrators of the bonus army. The Justice Department launched a rampage against traitors and saboteurs, and the 1921 immigration and race laws were exceptional in the western world, exceeding Nazi extent of 1933. Anne Applebaum in her current re-examination does not acknowledge the power and the ruthlessness of ruling wealth in the United States, and the sophistication of its reaction to the income and wealth flattening and workforce representation that took place after World War II. That and the shift in political affiliation of the Democratic South established a climate for the neo-conservative politics and neo-liberal economics that were characteristic of her Republican wise men. From her Eastern European perspective, this curious mix of classical liberal ideology with electorally successful politics may have appeared to be the natural order of things, rather than a willed and strategic stew or oligarchical rule, racism, and anti-democratic nationalism.

The litany is familiar. The attack on federal agencies and experts on the environment and health began under Reagan. The congressional Republicans shut down the government, impeached a president, seized an election and populated the courts with what should have been seen as judicial apparatchiks. And we have a sophisticated right wing media creation which is intentionally propagandistic and intrinsically fascist when needed. All of this is not the creation of moderately cowardly senators who only recently and unwisely exchanged their oath of office and principles for a few blandishments.

The current political climate is not of course just a question of Trump and Barr or their creation of a federal secret police force. There are old themes stationed in a deeply problematic future (already arrived). This is not so-called Eastern European ethnic nationalism, resurrected or displaced across a border. The collusion between powerful elites and white minorities with a furious grudge is social at its core. It is unnecessary to recite the historic European tension between state, nation, and minority to situate American conflicts. The distortions of uncontained corporate power, the dominance of wealth over law and politics, and the institutionalization of race are American issues whose durability and resolution rests on the democratization of political power. This is why we are seeing a powerful response by those elements in society who do not have that political power.

Anne Applebaum’s disillusionment is worthy of pity rather than disdain. It is also a likely misreading of her purported Eastern European mentors, whose actual messages are a powerful indictment of the treachery of neo-conservative intellectual.

A feature of the neo-conservative disposition is the vicarious default to an Eastern European perspective. In principle, understanding longer term currents in American political and social life should be more difficult for an Eastern European or post-Soviet intellectual. There is such antipathy to language and forms that characterized Soviet socialism and to the perceived indifference and intellectual naivete of Western liberals, the discovery of an anti-Soviet post-enlightenment Republican Party may have seemed a revelation. They may have been secure in the certainties about uncritical western folly on the left. Moving beyond these sensibilities is difficult, except of course, for Masha Gessen, who always seems to end up on the right side of everything. Max Boot has struggled with this and has offered insight rather than recantation. His process of understanding is worth reading. Anne Applebaum’s resort to Eastern European analogy is less earned.

Oddly her recantation recalls the epigone of the ‘captive mind’. The slow step by step turning away from certainties and loyalties and intellectual sensitivities, differs from the renunciation by, for example, the anti-communists Whitaker Chambers and former Trotskyite, James Burnham. Both defected from their former world view abruptly and decisively. Anne Applebaum allows a more genial and flabbier neo-conservative self- interrogation as an alternative to shedding of consistency from a too-easily-assumed and too comfortable intellectual armor. Better a lamentation on Trump’s cult of personality and personal foibles than acknowledgement of being wrong from the beginning. Her analogies are infuriatingly shallow and deceptive.

An example is her recollections of Wolfgang Leonhard and a ‘Child of the Revolution’ line of thought to which I have only seldom returned over the past 50 years. (Applebaum and I share experiences here.) His personal story and defection from the East German Communist Party seemed to be a lodestar for her, amply referred to in her article Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism, as an intellectual turning point. In particular, she returns to his representation of three course meals in the special dining hall for the political elite as a discrete moment of moral reckoning, coming from recognition of the corruptions of privilege. Perhaps, but I well remember the menu in the special dining rooms from my own residence in Moscow in 1977. I doubt that it had changed appreciably from 1947 or between Moscow and Berlin. While true that there were three servings and a uniformed wait staff of older women who spooned fruit jam on the ice cream, the food quality was not recognizably different from what was served from vats in the student cafeteria.

I attended Wolfgang Leonhard’s course in the year of its inception. I did not in 1969 detect that culinary considerations provided sufficient reason for conversion and defection. I was entertained but not particularly impressed with his insights for a couple of reasons. At Yale, he constantly touted his credentials as a free thinker and independent journalist attached to the Frankfurter Zeitung. Two years later he attended the Korcula summer school, convened by the periodical Praxis. It was a heroic but doomed last expression of the third way of Yugloslav socialism. The effort to reconstruct a democratic Marxism attracted leading figures from the West and Eastern Europe. I found it off-putting that this time Wolfgang Leonhard presented himself as a professor and scholar at Yale University and not as a European journalist. I was not then sufficiently generous to transformations that I wrongly attributed to the customs house. I can now appreciate the obstacles to making a living and having an honorable intellectual life for a post-Stalinist intellectual, unwilling and probably unable to engage in full recantation. Considering other leading attendees, Mihailo Markovic who ended up as a Greater Serbia nationalist, Leszek Kolakowki, whose brilliance rested on an extraordinary base of Marxist and philosophical scholarship, Leonhard acquitted himself well and honorably. So, my aversion to what was taken as showmanship and glibness was misplaced. His independence deserved more respect and presents a good example of compromise without loss of integrity.

However, there was a second and more complex reason for sensing some dissimulation in Leonhard’s description of his defection after returning to Berlin with Walter Ulbricht. I suspect that this was sly allusion to the Finland Station and a tacit acknowledgment of the factors of loyalty and deception. The reminiscences of the Yugoslavs, and the biographies of other Western Communists attached to the Commintern during the times of the Terror and until 1943, present a milieu of fear, ethical conflict and core philosophical dilemma that is considerably more contradictory and multi-leveled than seduction by New Class prerogatives. The Yugoslavs may have been appalled by Stalin’ s nocturnal feasts and Russian drinking, but there were deeper crises’. They had been immersed in the acceptance of the certain collapse of Western capitalism with its twin legacies of World War and the willing tolerance if not encouragement of German fascism. Moreover, there was no alternative to the realization that the proletarian revolution, no matter how distorted would lead to the final resolutions – theory and practice, “is” versus “ought”, humanity transforming itself in the process of deconstructing a property based legal system and elite based morality. In The Revolution Betrayed, in a dark moment, Trotsky weighed the possibility that the proletariat would not be the agent of reconciling reason and history, that it would not be the agent for revolutionary transformation, that the precepts of a closed and final post-ideology condition might be wrong. The consequences were unbearable as they had been for Rosa Luxembourg. That torment belongs to a different order of magnitude than loss of funding from Sheldon Adelson or David Koch.

And that brings us to the Germans in Moscow, in particular Pieck and Ulbricht. Anne Applebaum wishes to inflate the East German Sovietization into a parable for a Trumpian road to tyranny. She recites as an object lesson the well-known and well-worn Ulbrichtian comment about maintaining the appearance of democratic forms after 1948 while proceeding to construct a state under Soviet agency. As we now know, there was no whittling away. Stalin was quite willing to dispense with the GDR altogether had he been able to politically neutralize the Western Zones. There is more to it. As a student of Eastern Europe, Anne Applebaum should have recognized that no one took Walter Ulbricht’s dictums very seriously. A volume of this and other insights were published as the “Quotations of Walter Ulbricht” for purposes of comedy and ridicule. Beria called Ulbricht the ‘the most outstanding idiot’ he had ever seen. Ulbricht was no Togliatti. There appeared to be no method or consistency in his political career other than betrayal of allies and personal survival. He was in exile in Moscow from 1937-45. This was interrupted by his tenure in Spain, where his sole purpose has been described as identifying non-Stalinist German republicans to facilitate their execution by the NKVD. Later he rose by betraying potential rivals. In 1953, he hid with the occupying Soviet military during the German worker’s uprising because he was so despised by every party. Hence the man to whom Wolfgang Leonhard would owe his survival after disembarking. I suspect that recognition of this danger rather than the ice cream may have had greater influence of Leonhard’s defection.

And that brings us to another misrepresentation in Applebaum’s story, where her seminal loyalties may have been slightly off. She accords Czeslaw Milocz, the great poet and Polish defector, another analogous and satisfying (to her) explanation for the betrayal of the Republican senators. She describes the piecemeal seduction of a moral man orchestrated through the material blandishments of graduated privilege. The ‘Captive Mind’ is a great book and its insights into the corruption of Mind through prevarication, is profound, unique in its insight, particularly of the inability of the Western intellectual to grasp the complexity of the Soviet mind. Milocz was exceptional as a man of liberal, even classical, education, who was set for incantation in the Soviet Marxist closed intellectual landscape. His famous dichotomy of the allure of the ‘clever devil’ (Soviet thinking), versus adoption by the ‘smiling idiot’ (the West), accords with a different kind of blandishment than dessert or a car. Milocz describes the methodical, highly intelligent impositions of the hyper-rational seducer, the cultural and political inquisitor who is always one intellectual step ahead. Milocz describes how as a journalist working in the new Polish State and for an ideologically culled publication, he would at first be given free rein while writing solely about literary life in the West. Next, he would be gradually steered to uncensored text as long as it was critical of acknowledged problems in Western life. Ever so gradually, he would assume the terminology of cant coming subtly injected by his editor. Finally, he would recognize in his output, something parallel to, but altogether non-intersecting with, his former ways of thought. The material privileges were a secondary component of conversion and betrayal.

Applebaum trivializes Milocz and evades the real issues. Even so, she unwittingly may be on to something Do we better understand Lindsey Graham as an elegant intellectual like Czeslaw Milocz, or as a Walter Ulbricht, someone driven by career in a dangerous and corrupted system, by survivalist vanity, by vindictiveness, and having no guiding principles but an infinite ideological flexibility, masquerading as dogma?

Anne Applebaum advises resistance to the urge to simplify the story. This good general advice is subverted when analogy and historical anecdote rest on convolution and misrepresentation. She is by no means the worst of the problematic neoconservative clan. She ends, History will Judge the Complicit, by identifying with the integrity of the dissident and with the most important denomination being human decency. Her honored individuals — Czeslaw Milocz, Alexander Vindeman, Fiona Hill –represent good choices in what seems to be an honest and contrite effort to put morality at the center of an alternative perspective. However, the failure to examine the deceptions, selfishness and viciousness of the neo-conservative worldview camouflages the shifting opportunism of less scrupulous peers. In the featured article of the New York Times Week in Review (8/9/20), David Brooks writes about the future of Republicanism after the Trump ‘cult of personality’ is extirpated. Tom Cotton, Marco Rubio, Ben Sasse, and Josh Hawley are presented as the senatorial core of an idea-driven and principled worker-centric Republican Party, with Tucker Carlson, albeit with slight caveat, as their tribune. The implausible resurrection of a group of Ivy-league educated jerks and would-be gauleiters does not merit rebuttal. It does indicate that members of the neo-conservative elite are again hedging and more than willing to reapply as providers of an intellectual veneer for barbarism. That is the sinister duplicity that Anne Applebaum obfuscates with her political metaphors and analogies.

Anne Applebaum provides a useful exercise in the inability to give up the neo-conservative vista and accept the pain of a lost worldview based on an anti-democratic alliance with evil. She might do better to listen and re-examine rather resuscitate a body of borrowed examples. She seems poorly equipped to understand the historic currents which underlay the Trump times and the evolution of the Republican Party over the past 55 years. . Finding hidden virtues in Republican politicians and looking for deliberation or mysterious loss of integrity in their embrace of the worst national qualities does not qualify as generosity. It is obfuscation. These is a more plausible alternative explanation that does not require a nuanced betrayal by a political elite, but is steeped in a different complicity: the insidious outpouring from the neo-conservatism in its three decade long camouflage of tyranny, a movement to which Anne Applebaum once adhered

On the other hand, there are former conservatives who may provide an important bridge if a democratic left is to become the principle mechanism for change. For example, we can see some of the ‘liberated’ neo-conservatives becoming public advocates of the types of changes advocated by Thomas Piketty and others like him. Immersion in past failed efforts to overcome the prerogatives of property and class and temperance towards the expectation that human contradiction is easily reconcilable are helpful virtues.

Martin Cherniack is a Professor of Medicine at the University of Connecticut.