If you are a novelist, you may abandon inconvenient reality for richly imagined fiction. Consider Evelyn Waugh, who converted to Roman Catholicism in 1930. Rather than embrace the low-born majority of his new fellow congregants, he wove the richly tragic Flyte family and their Brideshead Castle out of the thin threads of the surviving Catholic aristocracy in England. It must have been a great comfort to Waugh to spend his spiritual life among his creations rather than what Anthony Burgess called “Maynooth priests with brogues.”
The neocons are simply the first DC denizens to suffer delamination from their political base. But they won’t be the last.
Unfortunately, political hacks cannot conjure up their preferred adherents with the ease of a great writer. When Donald Trump won the 2016 election and delivered to the Republicans the working class in the industrial heartlands, the response of the Republican brain trust in DC was abject panic. Rather than celebrate the fact that the GOP had seized the traditional core constituency of the Democratic Party, self-anointed party intellectuals like Bill Kristol and Max Boot, along with the entire staff of National Review recoiled in horror at the boorishness of the new champion of rust belt voters. (READ MORE: The Madness of the Never-Trumpers)
These pundits were the lineal descendants of Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, who’d devoted their careers to “rescuing” conservatism from the know-nothing businessmen who dominated the traditional Republican party. Like Greeks tutoring the Romans, these highly educated refugees from the New Left inculcated a conservatism traditionally suspicious of foreign entanglements with a new taste for global engagement, military intervention, and a belief that American hegemony was worth paying a dear price for. They swooned over American military adventures in the 1980’s and 90’s, which appeared to eclipse the tragedy of Vietnam and placed the U.S. on the side of the angels fighting such monsters as Bernard Coard, Saddam Hussein, and Slobodan Milosovic.
Unfortunately, as good anti-Marxists would, they also ignored the economic underpinnings of this new hyper-global American power. Rather than consider the dire economic impact of cheap Chinese labor on the American industrial workforce, they cited comparative advantage theory and a historical linkage between economic development and political liberalization. Opening U.S. markets would engender democracy and stability because wealthier citizens demand political rights, as had happened in 19th century Britain. This argument may have appeared plausible in 1983, but by the election of 2016 it was obvious that free trade with the U.S. had not spurred political reform in China. What it had done is wreck the career trajectories of the working class in the American industrial heartland, which then voted decisively for Trump.
The decades of intellectual labor devoted to the transformation of the Republican Party into something one could claim open allegiance to at the Sidwell Friends PTA turned to dust in the hands of the neoconservatives. Their fondest dream, that the tax-paying Babbits of middle America would be led by conservative elites as brilliant and charming as any Democrat simply collapsed, trampled by an electoral stampede of Walmart shoppers.
Rather than continue the hard polemical graft of their predecessors, and attempt to tutor these recent arrivals on GOP shores in the ways of Washington and the importance of American leadership, the likes of Kristol and Boot indulged in an epic hissy fit that rendered their criticisms of the Trump Administration indistinguishable from a Rachel Maddow opening monologue. They were now stuck in a party with the American equivalent of the Irish laborers and Maynooth priests disdained by Evelyn Waugh but unlike him, they couldn’t simply invent an alternative. More distressing was the fact that these new Republicans considered them functionally indistinguishable from the Democrats. Viewed from say a union hall in Dubuque Iowa, the neocons were part of the Beltway cabal that protected bankers who blew holes in the national economy, shipped our industrial base overseas, wasted the lives of American soldiers, and couldn’t balance the federal budget even during economic booms. It was always going to be a tough sell explaining to middle Americans the complexities of free trade when they spent their days among abandoned factories that had within living memory generated middle class prosperity. (READ MORE: Neither Trump Nor Never Trumpers)
Compounding this alienation from the new GOP base was the emergence of a Washington uniparty on a range of divisive social issues. The neocons largely if often quietly side with their Democratic Party colleagues inside the Beltway on abortion rights, transsexualism, and a generally dubious view of evangelical Christianity. It always comes as a shock to Washington boffins like Thomas Frank that the working class in Kansas can be just as devoted to social issues as any wealthy yoga mom. From their point of view, Washington doesn’t share their values on important social policies, and so why should they defer to these elites and their economic proposals?
But rather than try to argue their corner, the heartbroken neocon project decided to rain insults down on Trump and his supporters. There was a clear element of class anxiety at work here. Late comers to social success are always the most insecure about retaining it, and the neoconservatives were the latest to scale the DC socio-political hierarchy. Not with complete success: the neocons were always more likely to be found at a Reston cocktail party huddled with a retired two-star general than at a Georgetown soiree hosted by Evangeline Bruce. The election of Trump exposed the neocons as what Texans call “all hat and no cattle,” with no genuine political constituency remaining behind their clever policy prescriptions. This is social death in DC, which runs on finely graded calculations of power. The neocons were now political orphans of no consequence, and they hated the party that declined to further their careers and influence. There is nothing more toxic among ambitious Americans than thwarted social aspiration.
The demise of the Brideshead Republicans should serve as a warning to Washington in general. The strength of a populist moment is a function of how badly governing elites have screwed up. In this case, the neocons lost their party after embroiling the country in ill-fated wars, neglecting the sources of national prosperity other than fat government consulting contracts, and generally conveying a sense that Americans in flyover country don’t matter on questions of high policy.
It’s probably safe to say that a blue blood like Franklin Roosevelt would not have welcomed his average supporter through the front door of Hyde Park. Yet he knew that his policies were only as good as his ability to persuade those average Americans of their value, and that required him to display a performative affinity for these people. Which he did.
Washington has lost this skill and indeed much of its respect for those average Americans. While this disdain for the deplorables may be popular social currency in Washington, it is not a sturdy basis for any political program. The neocons are simply the first DC denizens to suffer delamination from their political base. But they won’t be the last. The Left’s flirtation with unchecked migration, outré sexual identity politics, and admiration for the atrocities committed by Hamas threatens a similar delamination from the Democratic base, specifically black and Hispanic voters, who tend conservative on a range of social issues. Future left populism could pose as serious a challenge to the authority of DC elites as Trump’s right populism did. (READ MORE: Never Trumpers: The Real Putin Republicans)
Populism is what you get when “ideology-forward” elites in Washington prefer a fictional Brideshead to their actual countrymen out there far beyond Montgomery County, with all their deplorable opinions, lack of polish and appalling consumer preferences. Yet it is exactly those actual countrymen who suffer the actual consequences of bad policies conceived far away in Brideshead Castle, for the benefit of gracious, grateful Americans who don’t actually exist.
Karl Pfefferkorn served as Director, European Security Negotiations, Office of the Secretary of Defense (1990-93) as well as on US delegations to the CFE negotiations, the OSCE, and Incidents at Sea. After a second career in business, he now teaches a course on the European Union in the Politics Department at the University of Virginia. He lives near Free Union, Virginia.
Author: Karl Pfefferkorn