I have been a conservative my whole life. As a teenager, I idolized William F. Buckley, Jr. (and, upon graduating from college, started my career at his magazine). Later, I worked in the Reagan White House. My right-leaning syndicated column was featured in hundreds of newspapers and I was a regulator on TV chat shows.
Though raised in a Jewish, quasi-liberal home in a liberal state and surrounded by people who thought registering as a Republican was evidence of a mental defect, I was confident in my choices.
Being on the right in the 1970s and 1980s was an intellectual feast. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Democrat, noted in 1981, "Of a sudden, the GOP has become a party of ideas."
Irving Kristol brought his analytical skill to the pages of the Wall Street Journal and The Public Interest. James Q. Wilson was enlightening about crime. William F. Buckley hosted a high-brow interview show. George Will’s erudition shone through in his widely syndicated column. Free market guru Milton Friedman won the Nobel Prize. Antonin Scalia’s Supreme Court opinions transformed the legal world. Supply-side economics, championed by Robert Bartley and my old boss, Rep. Jack Kemp, seemed to promise a better approach than top-down government efforts to improve lives. Month after month, Commentary magazine, under Norman Podhoretz’s guidance, offered trenchant rebuttals to dominant liberal assumptions.
But what drew me to the right more than anything else was the left’s passivity about the Cold War. Many mainstream liberals took a pas d’ennemis a gauche stand toward the USSR and other communists.
Echoes of this are still evident in the career of Bernie Sanders, who has credulously repeated Fidel Castro’s propaganda about literacy rates and even excused bread lines in communist Nicaragua. My first book, Useful Idiots, took liberals to task for what I perceived to be their inexcusable naivete, or worse, regarding left-wing authoritarians.
Why was I such a committed Cold Warrior? Being Jewish played a role.
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As a teenager, I went through a phase during which I marinated in Holocaust studies. It shaped my worldview, alerting me to the depravity and savagery human beings are capable of and underscoring the importance of maintaining bulwarks against authoritarianism – the rule of law, the free press, individual rights, and an independent judiciary among other things.
The fate of Raoul Wallenberg was the perfect encapsulation of the twin horrors of the 20th century: he fought the Nazis and saved thousands of Jews, and he was arrested and murdered by the communists.
But the last five years though have caused me to sever my association with the Republican Party, and even to reject the label conservative.
The conservatism I embraced and helped to propagate was small-l liberal in all essential respects. It was distinct from European, throne and altar conservatism. American conservatism was based upon reverence for the American constitutional order. As recently as the Obama years, I was sounding an alarm at the then-president’s reliance on executive orders because they violate the spirit of the Constitution, which requires that Congress make the laws.
Like progressives, conservatives believe in reform, but are more likely to stress gradualism, small-scale experimentation, and prudence.
From the very outset of his run for the presidency, Donald Trump smashed those understandings of what conservatism was. His lies alone were enough to signal his unfitness. Flagrant lying is a key feature of authoritarianism.
His eagerness to sweep aside institutions, to violate the law (even on war crimes), to make common cause with dictators, and to demonize minorities signaled a frightening retreat from pretty much everything conservatives were supposed to revere.
That the Republican party could nominate him was enough to make me withdraw - and that the party would rapidly become his complete creature continues to disgust and mystify me to this day. Without saying that Trump was Hitler (which would be absurd), I will say that my Holocaust reading never seemed so relevant as in the past five years, particularly the lesson about how fragile democratic norms are.
I still believe in all the things I believed when I called myself a conservative. My perceptions about race have changed, though. In the past, I genuinely thought racism in America was a fringe phenomenon, soon to be relegated, as Reagan put it in another context, to the "ash heap of history." What I’ve witnessed in the past five years, including the death of George Floyd, has altered that perception. So that’s one area where I acknowledge that liberals had a better bead on what was happening in the country than I did.
But there are many areas where I continue to think conservatives have the better case. I think liberals put too much faith in the power of government to do good, and pay too little attention to the tendency of government to make things worse. I think capitalism is the greatest engine of human flourishing the world has ever devised, and that the two-parent family is key to a society’s well-being.
Why then do I reject the title conservative? Because we don’t exist in a vacuum. In America today the word is associated with white/Christian identity movements, hostility to immigrants, a personality cult, and openness to conspiracies. Since the attempted coup of January 6, many conservatives, along with high percentages of Republicans, have shown themselves to be enemies of the American constitutional order.
In opposing Trump and working for a Biden victory, many of us in the Never Trump camp have been happy to make alliances with progressives and others who are committed to decency and the rule of law.
Where we go from here is less clear. Some will become Democrats. Others will work to reform the Republican party. Still others will consider forming a new party.
America desperately needs a sane center right party. The matter is urgent because as things now stand, every general election between Democrats and the current Republican party will be a contest between democracy and its enemies.