Truman Capote’s great unfinished novel was called “Answered Prayers,” after a saying from Saint Teresa of Ávila: More tears are shed for answered prayers than for unanswered ones. I think she had the trials of God’s friendship in mind, but this lovely, pious saying now makes me think of Donald Trump. Getting what you want from politics is the worst thing that can be inflicted on an opinion journalist. Especially when you don’t expect it.
Factionalism on the American right is probably a political handicap for the Republican party but an intellectual boon for conservatives. The clash of neoconservatives, paleos, supply-siders, and libertarians keeps us sharp, I hope. It forces us to articulate and defend our views. Unfortunately, sometimes a president comes along and road-tests those views for us.
When I joined The American Conservative in 2006, nothing was farther from the minds of its editors and contributors than the possibility that the Republicans might nominate a candidate who espoused the “paleoconservative” views of the magazine and its co-founder, Patrick J. Buchanan. There were no elected Republicans with any prospects willing to say plainly that the Iraq War was an unnecessary disaster, that America needed to control its borders or it would cease to be a country, and that America’s post–Cold War trade deals had played a significant role in the sad fate of the American working class. Perhaps we’d get that nominee in 30 years or so. But in the meantime, I imagined we were there to preserve, test, and develop these ideas during an age in which the Republican party and the rest of the conservative movement remained hostile to them.
After the election of Barack Obama, some of us even tried to do a post-op on our movement. Why had we failed? Why were our prospects basically hopeless? I concluded that what had been called “paleoconservatism” had always been a mismatch between the intellectuals and the people whose interests they claimed to represent. Hadn’t it?
In the 1990s, thinkers such as Sam Francis had theorized that Buchanan or someone like him could connect with a political and social base of “middle-American radicals,” mainly composed of white ethnics who belonged to what Francis called the post-WWII “affluent proletariat.” These voters weren’t conservatives, but they returned the Left’s cultural disdain in spades. Only with the powers of the presidency and the attention it commanded could such a figure connect with that base and circumvent the mediating institutions of party, academia, and media that would threaten the survival of a truly potent movement of the Right. Looking back, it sounds more like Peronism than I think any of us wanted to admit. Yet, as it turned out, this was a highly prescient theory.
But we had to explain why no one else saw this opportunity for a charismatic paleo and capitalized on it. To me it seemed that paleoconservative intellectuals cared only about exotic pet causes that had no relation to the supposed market for our views. Open the journals of paleocons in the 1990s and you’ll find reflections on Sir Robert Filmer, the old Confederacy, 1930s isolationism, the literary criticism of Allen Tate, opposition to Eisenhower’s highway building. Would you rather talk to a paleocon about current events? Well, what do you have to say about the ability of Serbians to access all their historic monasteries and shrines?
This was a more exaggerated form of Buchanan’s long-standing and unsolvable political problem. He believes in a pitchfork rebellion of his peasants, but ultimately he wants to read Emily Dickinson in the morning, stick a reference to the snows of Canossa in his column after lunch, and read Oswald Spengler before bed. And you can tell just by listening to him.
But the unthinkable happened. An inexplicable figure emerged in the GOP, calling for an “America first” foreign policy, a border wall, and the renegotiation of NAFTA. And he became president. That it was Donald J. Trump was the slimy irony. My co-workers remembered well Trump’s calling Buchanan a “Hitler lover” for articulating similar views during their scramble for the Reform party’s nomination in 2000. Some of us imagined that Trump’s adviser Roger Stone was using the real-estate developer for ready cash and as a way of running interference for George W. Bush.
My paleo friends had emphasized the failures of neocon strategy in Iraq, to our advantage: You see now? Our factional enemies don’t know what they’re doing. They unleashed a demotic fury in the Middle East. They destroyed the GOP’s historic advantage over Democrats on foreign policy, along with the congressional majority.
And now, with Trump, I understand the problem with answered prayers. His conversion to our ideas (or, more likely, his cynical adoption of them) is as much our albatross as George W. Bush’s conversion became an albatross to our neoconservative rivals.
When Bush ditched his promise of “a humble foreign policy” and promised to “set a fire in the minds of men” during his second inaugural, every blunder in the Middle East served in some way to discredit neoconservatism, or “hard Wilsonianism,” or whatever we were calling it in those days. It wasn’t fair, but neither is life. Now it is our turn to get some of what we wanted and rue it. Every blunder on Trump’s Twitter account, or at a customs check in U.S. airports trying to implement his travel ban, is attributable to the Buchananites in some way.
This dynamic should be obvious to conservatives of every persuasion. None of us are utopians. We all know, deep down, that every vision of political life, every party platform, every factional catechism will only incompletely describe or address the problems of the real world. And it will likely create a few more. Further, we know all too well that the politicians and bureaucrats implementing our ideas will lack wisdom, or will slowly poison and weaken our movement with their self-interest or incompetence. We also know that leaders in modern democracies will naturally overpromise and underdeliver. That’s the nature of campaigning and running a bloated bureaucracy. So the best the “ideas people” can ever hope for is that our ideas address some of the real problems and defects of our time. And you just hope that the first president who tries them doesn’t crash and burn. I used to almost feel bad that intelligent neoconservatives got George W. Bush. Now, stuck with Donald J. Trump, I confess I envy them. He at least gave them their war. I doubt my sort will get even an immigration bill by the time this is over.
Of course nothing works out the way you expect it to in politics. I came to Washington motivated to get back at David Frum for a cover story he wrote in National Review. By the time I left, I considered him a mentor and one of the most generous men I’d known in that town. I’m sure we’ve surrendered none of our disagreements along the way.
After the Obama era, these factional differences seem more muted than they did during the early Bush years. Many of my colleagues at The American Conservative have retained their views and moved into conservative institutions that we once believed would exclude us: the Washington Examiner, the London Spectator, and National Review. Some of the main players who came out of neoconservative institutions are now enamored with the vitality of the populist conservatism Trump represents, even if I’m not anymore.
I still think there are ways for neos and paleos to get along and even collaborate. A decade ago I wrote that if we ever transcended our differences on foreign policy, or they were made moot, we had a lot to offer one another. We seemed to share a view of politics as driven by the elite class and their insatiable ambition to monopolize power and honor in their society. We seemed to share the same muted praise for capitalism.
And now I think we have a new overwhelmingly common interest. We need to make sure, at all costs, that the next Republican presidency, and its predictable grotesque failures, are somehow the responsibility of libertarians. They’ve been getting away with being happy losers for way too long. It is time their prayers were answered in the worst way imaginable, with success, power, and glory. While it lasts.