Neoconservatives, the architects of the War on Terror, are the political version of Jason in Friday the 13th: You can never bank on them being completely dead. They just hide under a log until the next funder appears.
The neocon media tribune, the Weekly Standard, did indeed fold recently. In no time they had a new voice: The Bulwark, edited by former Weekly Standard and current NBC/MSNBC contributor Charlie Sykes, with Weekly Standard founder Bill Kristol listed as “editor at large.”
The Bulwark features a quasi-Soviet realist title font, probably meant to be ironic. There’s also a three-masted ship for a logo, which senior editor Benjamin Parker tells me is a reference to the nautical definition of “bulwark,” i.e. the wall of a ship that extends higher than the top deck, to “keep things from going overboard.”
“Also, we thought it looked cool,” he said.
Lenin preferred the more landlocked symbolism of a political “vanguard,” but a “Bulwark of the people” was also pretty close to what he was shooting for. Depressingly, this is no coincidence.
The End of History author Francis Fukuyama once made the same comparison. He broke with the neocons three years into the Iraq War disaster, in 2006, via a New York Times article, “After Neoconservatism.”
Fukuyama explained he saw himself more like Marx, a historian who merely described a “long term process of social evolution,” only his End of History “terminates in liberal democracy rather than communism.”
But the neocons, Fukuyama explained, saw themselves more like Lenin: “They believed that history can be pushed along with the right application of power and will.”
Neocons began as liberal intellectuals. The likes of Bill Kristol’s father, Irving (who famously said a neoconservative was a liberal who’d been “mugged by reality”), drifted from the Democratic Party in the Seventies because it had become insufficiently hawkish after the Vietnam debacle.
They abhorred realpolitik and “containment,” hated Richard Nixon for going to China and preferred using force to spread American values, even if it meant removing an existing government. Reagan’s “evil empire” gibberish and semi-legal muscle-flexing in places like Nicaragua made neocons tingly and finalized their defection to the red party.
The neocon-Republican marriage wasn’t exactly smooth. After all, it required sanctimonious, left-leaning intellectuals to get into political bed with the Jerry Falwells of the world and embrace all sorts of positions they plainly felt were absurd. But they believed pretending to support religiosity or other popular passions was fine for ruling elites. This was supposedly a version of Plato’s “noble lie” concept, as Irving Kristol wrote in Commentary half a century ago:
“If religion is an illusion that the majority of men cannot live without…let men believe in the lies of religion… and let then a handful of sages, who know the truth and can live with it, keep it among themselves,” Kristol wrote, adding: “Men are then divided into the wise and the foolish, the philosophers and the common men.”
Using this strategy, this self-appointed “handful of sages” rode the mule of Republican politics all the way to the White House. By the early 2000s they achieved such status that David Frum, the speechwriter who coined George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil,” felt confident in publicly calling for the excommunication of libertarians, isolationists, nationalists and all sorts of other breeds from the Church of the GOP.
“Antiwar conservatives” had “turned their backs on the country,” Frum wrote. “Now we turn our backs on them.”
Having alienated big chunks of the Republican coalition, the group then sank the mainstream GOP politically with the idiotic prosecution of the Iraq war.
Because they started this Middle East disaster on a lie and even bragged about doing so — “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality” — they undermined faith in a smorgasbord of American institutions, from the news media to the presidency to the intelligence community to their own party.
This was a huge reason for the rise of Trump, who ran against “elites” and capitalized on voters’ loss of trust in institutions like the press. Conveniently, neocons had already begun tacking back to the Democrats by then.
The Bulwark’s first video reveals the new strategy. It shows editor Charlie Sykes taking on the difficult question of “What’s wrong with Trump’s wall?”
This should be a short vid — how long does Because it’s fucking stupid take? — but gets windy because the Bulwark claims to be opposed to Trump’s reported plan to use emergency powers to start construction.
“If [conservatives are] willing to go along with a president of the United States overriding the legislative process,” asks Sykes, “what will they think when there is a liberal Democratic president who simply declares a national emergency to invoke other sorts of progressive legislation?”
Cue scary shots of Bernie Sanders, Beto O’Rourke, Elizabeth Warren. In Warren’s case they show a recent video of her speaking in Iowa, when she was asked if she would roll back Trump’s tax cuts.
“For the billionaires and the big corporations, you bet!” Warren says.
If you’re wondering where you saw a similar message recently, it was in the New York Times, in a piece called “Democrats find a familiar foil in 2020: Billionaires (even liberal ones).”
The hand-wringing Times article noted it was “convenient” for Warren and Sanders to challenge billionaires, because “neither has the financial wherewithal to fund their own campaign” (read: neither are billionaires).
That piece went on to warn that while billionaire-bashing may feel good, it ignores that some of progressivism’s best friends are rich!
“While casting billionaires like Mr. Bloomberg as plutocrats may resonate among some Democrats, longtime party advisers point out… Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders are ignoring historical reality: Several of the party’s wealthiest leaders have been among its most progressive.”
So, longtime Democratic Party advisers are once again triangulating against their party’s own progressive wing, which was the core strategy of the original “Third Way” Democrats in the early Nineties. Party leaders now want to kick out populist, antiwar liberals in the same way Frum once wanted to excommunicate antiwar conservatives.
This overlaps nicely with neocons’ efforts to stake out the same turf between Trump and Sanders.
This is becoming a little like watching two people pretending not to be attracted to one another even though everyone knows they make each other horny. I’d say the Bulwark neocons and their Democratic allies need to get a room, except they already have MSNBC (as noted by recently resigned reporter William Arkin, who complained the network had become a forum for a “single war party”).
As Glenn Greenwald noted in the Intercept last year, the “most extreme and discredited neocons” began uniting with Democrats “long before the ascension of Donald Trump.”
These two groups came together over a common enemy: the insufficiently bloodthirsty Barack Obama. In July 2014, in “The Next Act of the Neocons,” New York Times writer Jacob Heilbrun predicted the future union:
“Even as they castigate Mr. Obama, the neocons may be preparing a more brazen feat: aligning themselves with Hillary Rodham Clinton and her nascent presidential campaign, in a bid to return to the driver’s seat of American foreign policy.”
Democracy Journal ran a similar piece in 2015, in which Robert Kagan talked about a union with Democrats, hoping to replace the term “neoconservative” with the less-infamous-sounding “liberal interventionist.”
The union achieved formal expression in 2016 with groups like the Alliance for Securing Democracy, which is backed by neocons like Kristol and Jamie Fly as well as former Joe Biden and Clinton campaign security adviser Jake Sullivan.
Both groups praised Trump’s early missile strikes on Syria (Kristol, echoing his dad, said Trump had been “mugged by reality”; Kagan said the strikes should just be an “opening salvo”). Both were horrified by Trump’s recent tweet about withdrawing from the Middle East.
The neocons are trying to create with Democrats a true political movement of shared goals and common adversaries. Apart from “liberal interventionism,” they’re emphasizing stridently anti-populist leanings, making little distinction between Trump and “mouth-breathers” like Rep. Steve King on the one hand, and Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the other.
Onetime neoconservative icon Max Boot even went so far as to compare Ocasio-Cortez to Sarah Palin, bemoaning the fact that she has more Twitter followers than Nancy Pelosi — more evidence of democracy’s imperfections!
Both groups get starry-eyed around generals and spooks and mourned the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis like music-lovers after the death of Prince (“I am shaken,” said Nancy Pelosi). There were even shared fantasies about a presidential run by the Nosferatoid ex-Defense Secretary, whose greatest achievements to date had been grimacing with military severity while standing next to Trump, and clamoring for an increased role in the bombing of Yemen.
If you’re not concerned about undead neocons making a comeback while Trump is in office, that’s understandable. Many people will take allies against Trump from wherever they can.
Just don’t be surprised if “liberal interventionists” are sitting in the White House once Trump leaves the scene. These are determined revolutionaries who’ve been scheming for years to throw a saddle on the Democratic Party after decades in bed with Republicans. Sadly, they have willing partners over there.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the Alliance for Securing Democracy as an agency that has been advising Facebook. We regret the error.