As someone only recently out of university, I’m not yet old enough to somberly announce the passing of an era without a little irony. Still, The Weekly Standard has been around for longer than I can remember. Beginning with the first issue in 1995, its ascendancy coincided with the culmination of neoconservative influence in politics during the Bush era and its subsequent decline under Presidents Obama and Trump.
In its time, the magazine has published some of the most important voices and most gifted writers on the American right. Should reports that it will close its doors in the coming weeks prove true, then lovers of subtle and independent commentary will have cause to mourn, whatever their politics.
But in reflecting on The Weekly Standard’s tenure as one of the American right’s premier publications, we are obliged to consider what the future of intellectual conservatism will look like. The end of one era necessitates the birth and definition of a new one. To shape this new era in a productive way, the American right must learn both from The Weekly Standard’s successes, as well as some of its failures. It is one of the latter that I want to draw attention to as a lesson for conservatism moving forward.
Conservatives Backing Away from Trump and Into Liberalism
The Weekly Standard includes a variety of perspectives, many of which I agree and sympathize with. But of all the publications on the American right, it more than any other champions a certain genre of commentary that, though incipient as part of the Never Trump coalition during the 2016 election, has further distinguished itself over the course of the past two years.
This genre, which we will call “progressive conservatism,” is exemplified by figures such as Bill Kristol, David Frum, and Max Boot, disgruntled neoconservatives who, rather than merely adopting the Never Trump label, have moved toward embracing progressivism in the wake of the Trump presidency.
Progressive conservatives are defined by two main characteristics: first, by their indignation over Trump’s takeover of the conservative movement, and second, by their abandonment of almost any discernible conservative principles. That the latter might in any way explain the former – in other words, that the weak commitments of the erstwhile conservative intelligentsia might have precipitated the Trumpist coup of 2016 – goes unexamined. To those two primary traits, therefore, we might add an emergent third: a stunning lack of self-awareness on this point.
The Left Unsurprisingly Applauds This Defection
Although some on the left, such as Maureen Dowd, have criticized the eagerness of many liberals to rehabilitate the hated backers of the Iraq War, far more common is the sentiment expressed by Paul Krugman that “on the whole the neocons – the people responsible for the Iraq war – have turned out to have genuine principles.”
Of course, principles alone don’t mean a whole lot: ideological purity and evil are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, in extreme cases they complement one another. What Krugman and other liberals seem to mean, however, is that the neoconservatives have the right principles – namely, an abiding faith in the metaphysics of progressivism.
David Frum provided the most explicit example of the progressive conservative ethos during his debate against Steve Bannon when he announced to Bannon and to right-wing populists more broadly, “You will lose. And when you lose, your children will be ashamed of you and they will disavow you. And the future will not belong to you.” Frum’s appeal to the judgment of history was telling in its affirmation of the Narrative of Progress—Liberalism’s doctrine of predestination. Estranged from a Trump-led GOP, and therefore free of the rhetorical prudence demanded by participation in a fusionist coalition, the progressive conservatives increasingly align with the left not only in their conviction that the arc of history bends toward justice, but in their sense of just what that justice entails.
Thus, we see Max Boot exhorting gun control and exercising his white privilege, or Bill Kristol’s feminist and socialist sympathies. Jonah Goldberg wrote a wonderful column criticizing Boot-style renunciation last week, but I would go a step further. Progressive conservatives are not reversing their opinions; rather, they finally feel free to express them.
What placed these figures on the “right” in the first place was always their hawkishness on foreign policy. But insofar as this conflicts with mainstream liberalism, it does so as a matter of tactics rather than philosophy. Adventurism in the Middle East is not incompatible with liberalism in principle. Indeed, the universalizing aspiration it represents may just as easily be interpreted as an expression of liberalism in and of itself. That liberalism must be spread is assumed—the only question is how best to spread it.
In 2010, Tunku Varadarajan identified the “polite-company conservative” as an archetypal figure “comforted by a sense that liberal interlocutors believe they are not like other conservatives, with their intolerance and boorishness, their shrillness and their talk radio…” Progressive conservatives are certainly that, but emphasizing their aesthetic affinity with the liberal elite risks downplaying how little of substance they disagreed on in the first place.
Progressive Conservatives Fed Into Trump's Rise
While no single cause is responsible for Trumpism, the domination of movement conservatism by an intelligentsia indifferent, if not outright hostile, to the interests of its base on issues like immigration, trade, and cultural alienation no doubt helped to breed the kind of desperation that Trump exploited. And while Trump himself appears to lack deep commitments of any kind, he—unlike the progressive conservatives—has nowhere to defect to.
Any viable conservatism going forward should be principled and philosophically rigorous. But it must be so in, rather than in spite of, the interests of its voters. Trumpism is unsustainable for conservatism in the long term, but when it fades, the American right cannot return to the progressive conservatism that enabled it in the first place.