by Norman Birnbaum
Years ago, a tale was told of an experiment in which thousands of primates (chimpanzees and Hollywood scriptwriters) were set to work typing to see if Shakespearian texts would result. What came out was mostly gibberish, though occasional strands of English could be discerned here and there. A similar process seems to be at work inside certain sections of the Republican Party. Donald Trump certainly has the intelligence, if not the manners, of one of the higher primates—but it remains a considerable puzzle how he arrived at his foreign policy notions.
These opinions of Trump disturb the experts and ideologues who have attached themselves in recent decades to the Republican Party and who go by the name of “neoconservatives,” despite their remoteness from what remains of the nation’s conservative intellectual traditions and the civilized habits of discourse.
Their present dilemma may be as much a matter of the labor market as a concern about our national destiny. The electoral campaign has brought a recrudescence of the project of American renewal through investments in bridges and highways, urban and rural infrastructure, public transport, and high speed railways now so familiar to travelers to Asia and Europe. Those who bemoan our backwardness in these respects often overlook a striking American achievement—begun in 1940 and constantly expanded since. Our imperial resources include large and ever-increasing numbers of intellectual and political combatants. The budgets for the CIA, Department of Defense, State Department, and other federal agencies—known and less known, open and covert—include direct and indirect subsidies for an interminable project of explanation and justification of our global role—or, rather, several global roles since the projects are not infrequently in conflict. To actual employment in government there are added consultancies, appointments in centers of research and universities, and subsidized posts of all kinds. The physicists assure us that the universe is expanding, and it is singular that the neoconservatives should fear for their futures: none can sight a hand turning off a spigot.
Still, there is one respect in which they are right to worry. Eight years of Obama’s presidency, four each for secretaries of state Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, have brought forward a new cohort of official and semi-official thinkers, many able to claim governmental experience, all confident that they master assumptions and analyses with still-unexpired shelf dates. They occupy terrain they originally shared with the neoconservatives—but see no reason to call them back into service. The veterans of the Obama epoch have every reason to expect ample rewards in a Clinton administration. The neoconservatives are right to fear that they may be left floating in historical space. They are very unlikely to suffer materially, they will become ever more strident. But they will have to live with the realization that their time has come and gone.
I recollect meeting an American legend, Steve Nelson, who was political commissioner of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain, 1936-1938. He became a senior figure in an older persons’ group attending to its rights in Truro, Massachusetts. “At least,” he said, “I do not have to worry what Stalin thinks.” The neoconservatives can console themselves: Cheney will have been consigned to the historians.
The possibility that Trump may win is indeed alarming. The behavior of many in our educated elites in the years in which Senator Joseph McCarthy influenced the early Eisenhower administration is hardly a record of patrician political courage. The man from Manhattan’s gutter will not lack for better bred servants. However, sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. How disappointing that we have to wish for the ordinariness a Clinton administration will bring. The neoconservatives, finally, will have another consolation. The ideas they presented as epochal will not expire but will be systematically rephrased. After all, they inherited theirs from the late nineteenth century. And our history is marked by a great deal of continuity.
Photo of Donald Trump by Gage Skidmore via Flickr.
Norman Birnbaum, University Professor Emeritus at Georgetown University Law Center, marked his ninetieth birthday in July by completing a memoir, From The Bronx To Oxford—And Not Quite Back.