Left and Right
Who Are the Neocons?
Sometimes I get asked questions like “What exactly do you mean by neocons?”
I’d say the term “neocons” can be used on several levels.
The most narrow level is as a euphemism for the right-wing Trotskyists and social democrats originally associated with tendencies like the Schactmanites, Social Democrats USA, and their ideological and/or genetic progeny and descendants.
An intermediate level would be the wider alliance between the historic neocons, superhawks, unilateralists, war profiteers, right-wing plutocrats, AIPAC, and Christian Zionists on the “right end,” along with the neoliberal, aggressive liberal internationalist, and “human rights imperialist” sectors on the center/center-left end (e.g. figures like the Kagans, Clintons, or Power/Sunstein).
The broader definition would be what I call the “new popular front” consisting of all of the above, plus sectors further left (an-coms, social democrats, Trotskyists, revisionists, antifa, etc) who collectively position themselves as the faux defenders of “liberalism” and “democracy” against a supposedly insurgent “fascism” (a nebulous all-purposes bogeyman) manifested as “red-brown alliances” (populism)
Interestingly, Trumpism serves a dual purpose for the “narrow level neocons” because they are one hand use Trumpism as a whipping boy that supposedly constitutes some “fascist” threat, while at the same time working to (largely successfully) co-opt and embed themselves in Trumpism.
I should add that while Trumpism is the only significant semi-oppositional force to the “new popular front,” I wouldn’t consider Trumpism to be an ideology or philosophy as much as a personality cult built up around one individual. “Trumpism Lite” is like Joel Osteen, a lot of feel-good rhetoric that amounts to nothing. “Hard Trumpism” (e.g. QAnon) is more like Scientology. Trumpism is also easily co-opted by the neocons largely because of Trump’s family and business connections to Israel and Saudi Arabia, and fealty to the corporate class and MIC generally. In other words, while Trump is not personally a neocon, he might as well be much of the time, even if his Rockefeller liberal roots have functioned as a personal restraint that keeps him from going full neocon on every foreign policy issue or going as far as the neocons would prefer.
However, the impact of Trump’s movement has followed an interesting trajectory. Trump’s main impact has been to revive pre-Reaganite/Neocon Republican traditions: Ike centrism, Nixon plutocratic populism, Taftian isolationism, Know-Nothing conspiracism, Hoover-Coolidge protectionism, classical liberal libertarianism, basically the GOP as it was in the 1950s. The Buckleyite-Goldwaterite-Friedmanite-Reaganite-Kristolite alliance is pissed because they now have to share space with the revived versions of these older tendencies.
Neoconservatism is a political movement born in the United States during the 1960s among liberal hawks who became disenchanted with the increasingly pacifist foreign policy of the Democratic Party and with the growing New Left and counterculture of the 1960s, particularly the Vietnam protests. Some also began to question their liberal beliefs regarding domestic policies such as the Great Society. Neoconservatives typically advocate the promotion of democracy and interventionism in international affairs, including peace through strength (by means of military force), and are known for espousing disdain for communism and political radicalism.
Prominent neoconservatives in the George W. Bush administration included Paul Wolfowitz, Elliott Abrams, Richard Perle and Paul Bremer. While not identifying as neoconservatives, senior officials Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld listened closely to neoconservative advisers regarding foreign policy, especially the defense of Israel and the promotion of American influence in the Middle East. Many of its adherents became politically influential during the Republican presidential administrations of the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, peaking in influence during the administration of George W. Bush, when they played a major role in promoting and planning the 2003 invasion of Iraq and invasion of Afghanistan.
Critics of neoconservatism have used the term to describe foreign policy and war hawks who support aggressive militarism or neo-imperialism. Historically speaking, the term neoconservative refers to those who made the ideological journey from the anti-Stalinist left to the camp of American conservatism during the 1960s and 1970s. The movement had its intellectual roots in the magazine Commentary, edited by Norman Podhoretz. They spoke out against the New Left and in that way helped define the movement.