in 2015—when the American right was more or less definable. No more. Major political parties are always riven by internal disputes, but even during
George W. Bush’s
second term, at the nadir of the Iraq war, the Republican coalition seemed to hang together better than it has these past six years. Mr. Trump’s candidacy was a sign of that fracturing rather than its cause, but his presidency wasn’t marked by unity in the GOP.
Quite the opposite. A significant faction of the party now advocates aggressive industrial policy as a means of alleviating social ills wrought by “unregulated” capitalism. Another demeans the party’s traditional predilection for hawkish foreign policy as an obsession with “forever wars.” The right’s leading media personalities, meanwhile, would rather talk about the latest cultural outrage—an androgynous Mr. Potato Head!—than explain the perils of turning social welfare into a middle-class entitlement.
Are the challenges facing conservatives really so different from what they were 50, 60 or 70 years ago? Most of the architects of postwar conservatism aren’t around to ask anymore, but Norman Podhoretz—editor of the Jewish intellectual magazine Commentary from 1960 to 1995 and one of the founders of neoconservatism—is 91 and as talkative as ever. I visited his book-laden Upper East Side apartment last month with the vague premonition that he might have something to say about the fractured state of American conservatism.
My timing was good. The day before, voters had elected a Republican governor in a state most observers considered blue, and indisputably blue New Jersey had come within a few percentage points of doing the same. “I wasn’t sure they were still out there,” Mr. Podhoretz says. Who? “The ‘deplorables,’ ” he says, gesturing quotation marks as he employs
famous term from 2016. “I really didn’t know. If the results had gone the other way, I wouldn’t have been that surprised. Our troops were not as visible, at least to me, because the media and the culture are all on the other side . . . The other side has won the culture—that’s one battlefield—but they haven’t yet won the polity. That’s very encouraging.”
Mr. Podhoretz says he uses the word “deplorables” loosely, to mean Americans of all classes who refuse to be told what to do and how to live by the nation’s well-heeled progressive elite. “The question for me was whether the sources of health and vitality I used to know existed in this country were still there. I fell in love with Americans when I was in the Army. I was born in Brooklyn; I lived in England”—Mr. Podhoretz studied English literature at Cambridge on a Fulbright Scholarship in the early 1950s—“but I hadn’t been to very many places in my country. Being in the Army, you get shuffled around. That’s where I discovered Americans. Especially the deplorables. They were great.”
This is a theme, aside from the word “deplorables,” that runs through Mr. Podhoretz’s first memoir, “Making It” (1967). In the Army in 1953-55, he wrote in that book, “usually my closest friends were back-country Southern boys, real rednecks.” (As a Southern redneck myself, I marked the passage in pencil many years ago.) “They’re sane,” he says to me. “They know there’s something wrong, let’s say, when a guy says he’s a girl. They look at that and say, What are you, f— crazy?” He waves as if to suggest this is only one among many instances of insanity. “All that stuff.”
He contrasts these deplorables with something like what the Russians called the “intelligentsia.” “The intelligentsia thought it was wrong that people who’ve made a lot of money in business should be our leaders,” he says. “They resented it. They were not being accorded the power they thought they deserved. But as time went on, they were accorded more and more power—and they stayed resentful. The intelligentsia in America is still resentful.”
This gets us to the subject of Mr. Trump. Mr. Podhoretz’s admiration for the 45th president, when it crept out a few years ago, surprised some observers on the left and right. Hadn’t Mr. Trump harshly criticized the Iraq war, which Mr. Podhoretz fervently supported? Yes, but the pre-eminent themes of Mr. Podhoretz’s journalism were always gratitude to the United States and skepticism of credentialed experts.
“I was, to begin with, anti-anti-Trump,” he says. “I was not crazy about the guy. I had never met him, and still I’ve never met him. But I thought the animosity against him was way out of proportion and, on the right, a big mistake. I went from anti-anti-Trump to pro-Trump. . . . I still think—and it’s been the same fight going on in my lifetime since, I would say, 1965—I still think there’s only one question: Is America good or bad?”
He pauses, leans back in his sofa chair, and restates the formulation. “A force for good in the world—or not?”
Mr. Podhoretz was only 30 when he became editor of Commentary, then a magazine of the left. Over the next several years he began to reject the Marxian attitude of his fellow New York intellectuals. “I broke with the left mainly because of its anti-Americanism. When you’re hanging around with people, you hear things they don’t say in public. I knew what they thought, what they didn’t say except in private. And what they thought was horrendous to me.” Each of his four autobiographical books—“Making It,” “Breaking Ranks” (1979), “Ex-Friends” (1999) and “My Love Affair With America” (2000)—is in some way an account of his estrangement from the left as a consequence of its refusal, as he saw it, to embrace the U.S., its history and its culture.
His essays in Commentary, not only on domestic politics and foreign policy but also, perhaps especially, on literature, were always distinguished by a graceful pugnacity. He takes bold positions, expresses them fluently, and hits hard. So his description of conservative voters as “troops” didn’t surprise me. “It’s a war, in my view,” Mr. Podhoretz says. “Many people are reluctant to see it in those terms. I mean, people say it’s a lot like 1858 and so on, but I don’t see it as a prelude to a civil war and 600,000 Americans dead. That’s not my meaning. But spiritually it’s a war.”
The term “culture war” has been thrown around for 30 years, but Mr. Podhoretz takes the martial metaphor seriously: “We’re in a war, and it’s a war to the death. Now they actually admit it. They used to pretend. Not anymore. ‘Dissent’ was the real patriotism—so being against America meant you were for America, if you remember all that. Now they’re happy to say what they think.”
The left wants to win, he says, but “I’m not sure anymore what our side wants. The right, as I used to understand it, no longer exists. So you’ve got one very clear side, and one very muddled side.”
Would it be accurate to say that the right’s muddled state consists in a division between those who understand that we’re in a war and those who don’t? A sizeable contingent of the right, such as it is, still believes that solid reporting, thorough scholarship and careful argumentation will win the respect of their ideological adversaries on the basis of fairness and merit. Is that way of thinking a failure to understand the nature of the conflict?
“I think so,” Mr. Podhoretz says. “And I think Trump was the only guy who understood the situation in those terms, whether by instinct or whatever.”
What about Mr. Trump’s claim, during the 2016 campaign, that the Bush administration “lied” to justify an invasion of Iraq? “That was one of the main things that kept me from becoming pro-Trump,” Mr. Podhoretz says. “And I still get very angry on that whole business. First of all, it’s not true. It’s also crazy. Why would they lie about weapons of mass destruction? If they were lying, they knew they would be exposed a week after our troops got in. So what was the sense of it? Nobody was lying. Seventeen intelligence agencies, something like that, thought Saddam was hiding them.”
Here Mr. Podhoretz laughs. “Look,” he says, “Trump is a type of person . . . there’s a wonderful Yiddish slang word: bulvan. A bully, doesn’t care, crashes through. Trump’s bad side is a necessary accompaniment to his good side.”
Mr. Podhoretz doesn’t like everything about the populist right. “I heard
the other day call neoconservatives ‘cowards.’ That’s funny—I never met any neocons who were cowards.” (The term “neocons” in this context refers broadly to those who hold the view that the U.S. and the world are better served by the assertive use of American power abroad.) He takes up the Fox host’s taunt: “I served in this country’s military. Did Carlson? I don’t think so.”
Mr. Trump’s behavior after the 2020 election notwithstanding, Mr. Podhoretz has no apologies. “Maybe Trump’s outlived his usefulness, I don’t know,” Mr. Podhoretz says. “And the way he gave away Georgia”—he means the two Jan. 5 runoff elections that cost the Republicans the Senate majority—“was pretty hard to forgive. But if I thought he could win, I wouldn’t hesitate to vote for him.”
Mr. Podhoretz keeps returning to the theme of war, a war made necessary, in his view, by the anti-Americanism of the political left. Is the hatred of America worse than it used to be? “Unquestionably,” he says. “The left of the 1930s, which was the first time it had significant power and influence, was anti-American to begin with. But it had an alternative—the Soviet Union.” The U.S.S.R. turned out to be a disappointment when it allied with Hitler in 1939, although some on the left never gave up on Russian communism. “Then, after the war, especially in the 1960s and later, they had a series of alternatives—Cuba one week, Mao’s China the next, or Nicaragua, or North Vietnam, or whatever.” The left liked Sweden for a while, he laughs, but Sweden has a market economy. “And”—he laughs again—“somebody found out about the suicide rate.”
But now, he notes, there’s no alternative, no pretense that some other place does things better. “This ‘woke’ business—critical race theory, Black Lives Matter, all of it—is just pure anti-American hatred. And I think [its proponents] would admit that. Which is why I keep saying it’s a war. If you don’t understand that, you don’t know what the hell is going on.”
What about the claim that the war is over, and the right lost? Mr. Podhoretz points out that things were pretty bad for conservatives in the late 1970s, but the reaction was explosive. Magazines like Commentary, he thinks, changed the way intellectuals and academics thought about welfare and foreign policy: “People used to accuse me of being self-important when I said this, but the change in the political culture that the neoconservative movement helped to foster was a necessary precondition for the election of Ronald Reagan.”
That can happen again? “It could.”
Maybe, after all, the right’s internal divisions aren’t fatal. Mr. Podhoretz notes that
“who used to call me his worst enemy,” is now a close friend. So, until his death in 2008, was
William F. Buckley Jr.
, with whom Mr. Podhoretz had several fierce disagreements. Wars, including “spiritual” ones, tend to force co-belligerents back into the same camp.
“People make everything complicated,” he says, “when mostly it’s simple.”
Mr. Swaim is a Journal editorial page writer.
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