Conservative gatekeeping loses its power as the New Right makes use of new media.
An examination of the “gatekeeping” that has taken place in the American conservative movement will bring me sooner or later to the subject of purges. This theme has engaged my interest as an historian of the conservative movement because it is key for understanding the vicissitudes of American conservatism. Purging unwanted dissenters has often been presented as the movement’s sensible reaction to extremism. It has supposedly allowed conservatism to become respectable—or at least so it seemed before the American media ceased to recognize anything as being respectable that was not recognizably part of the Left.
As late as October 27, 2005, on the fiftieth anniversary of National Review, Jonah Goldberg praised his magazine’s founder, William F. Buckley, Jr., for “throwing friends and allies off the bus from time to time.” Further: “The Randians, the Rothbardian anarchists and isolationists, the Birchers, the anti-Semites, the me-too-Republicans: all of these groups in various combinations were purged from the movement and masthead, sometimes painfully, sometimes easily, but always with the ideal of keeping the cause honest and pointed north to the ideal in his compass.”
Curiously, Goldberg’s praise was echoed in the New York Times and elsewhere in the national press, which depicted the by-then venerated WFB as a high-minded conservative who had dealt heroically with right-wing extremism among conservatives. Only a handful of commentators, either libertarians or on the far Left, bothered to notice that Buckley’s targets in the 1950s and 1960s were hardly neo-Nazis. Most of them were Jewish isolationists who differed with his view of foreign policy.
The common mission for Buckley, Frank Meyer, James Burnham, and others who founded National Review in 1955 and fashioned the postwar conservative movement, was seeing the Cold War pursued more decisively. NR’s longtime celebration of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his crusade against Communists in American government and the military reflected the “ideal in this compass.” In the 1950s and even later, Buckley went after antiwar libertarians including Murray Rothbard, Ron Hamowy, and, perhaps less ruthlessly, Frank Chodorov. Even the expulsion of the John Birch Society from the National Review communion, in July 1965, was based partly on divergent views about the Cold War. The Birchers opposed the Vietnam War and emphasized the domestic Communist threat. Their isolationism was not peculiar to the Birchers’ brand of conservatism but a pervasive characteristic of the Old Right during the interwar years. It was the hope of National Review’s founders to root out this isolationism as thoroughly as they could.
With the coming to power of the neoconservatives in the 1980s, the purges continued and even accelerated—albeit for reasons other than those that had occasioned the earlier ones. Acerbic critics of Israel, and those (like this writer) who mocked the neoconservative eagerness for a global democratic revolution, quickly lost standing in the movement. Designated heretics ceased to be invited to conservative conferences as presenters and were eventually purged from the mastheads and pages of conservative magazines.
The fate of Southern conservative literary scholar M.E. Bradford, who was pushed out of the running for the NEH Directorship in 1981 after a concerted neoconservative journalistic attack on him as a racist, has always been cited as a particularly ugly example of muscle flexing. After his removal from contention at the NEH, Bradford became a fallen celebrity; his subsequent attempt to become Librarian of Congress went absolutely nowhere. The attacks directed against him as a racist, repeated with widespread leftist cooperation, anticipated today’s standard leftist rhetoric against anyone on the Right. Not surprisingly, one of Bradford’s most outspoken defenders was his longtime debating partner, Harry V. Jaffa, who may have been the most famous Lincoln admirer of his time. Obviously, Jaffa noticed the power play at work in the defamatory assaults on a personal friend.
A New Right
While my earlier relevant writings detail conservative purges, here I am simply noting the fact that they occurred. Harsh, punitive gatekeeping has definitely left its mark on the conservative movement, and attempts to downplay it are like submitting a study of the Communist Party USA that avoids any mention of splits and excommunications in the long, tangled history of American Communism. Even more critical in this case has been the concealment of the real reasons that purges have been carried out, and the willingness of the liberal establishment to buy the pretexts given—providing they fit a leftist narrative.
Attacks on Pat Buchanan as “homophobic, in the Wall Street Journal in 1992 for a speech at the GOP presidential convention in which this former presidential candidate implicitly criticized the gay lobby, struck home with the liberal press. But it is hard to find any explicit assault on gays in this speech, and as the historian of neoconservatism Gary Dorrien notes, one can find far more direct and abrasive attacks on gays by reading what neoconservatives had said about them. But conservative movement leaders were going after Buchanan principally for his anti-Israeli statements, and they were doing so in language that would resonate with the Left. Stressing his alleged homophobia might have been thought more useful for marginalizing Buchanan, a traditionalist Catholic, than dwelling on his anti-Zionism. That was already then widely known and not likely to arouse new anger.
Unless I’m mistaken, much of what I have spent large chunks of my life exploring may already belong to the past. The neoconservatives who took control of the conservative movement in the 1980s and happily purged those who refused to follow their party lines no longer wield the influence they once did. The cooperation that existed between them and the liberal media, who helped neocons in going after an older Right, has ceased to exist. By now a radicalized woke Left has declared war on everything even slightly to its right. The most influential gatekeepers in what remains of the conservative movement, especially as a media phenomenon, may be its sponsors. In return for lavishing funds on pro-GOP media and certain foundations, these benefactors demand a price, which usually consists of reining in the more outspoken members of the Right. One of the frequently mentioned objects of such discipline is media star Tucker Carlson, who we are told is perpetually in the crosshair of sponsors for “going too far” in ridiculing the Republican establishment.
But this is different from and far less sinister than the purges I have written about. For one thing, this newest form of gatekeeping is widely reported and attracts considerable attention because of the fame of those who are being targeted. For another thing, the objects of the bullying are people who can fight back, unlike the more vulnerable victims of the older conservative purges. These victims of yesteryear were mostly defenseless; and if they were defamed, there was little they could do to redeem themselves. Tucker Carlson is in a far better position to fight his enemies than was M.E. Bradford or even Murray Rothbard.
Equally relevant is the emergence of a generation of younger members of the independent right who operate outside the channels of what they call Conservative, Inc. These youthful activists rarely write for National Review or attend Philadelphia Society meetings, but they do run their own substacks and podcasts and may even occasionally pop up in Steve Bannon’s War Room or on Tucker’s program. An army of self-proclaimed populists of the Right were hardly around in the 1980s; and if some of their forerunners could be found then, they were not particularly conspicuous in the public discussion. Now these unauthorized conservatives are very much in that discussion and beginning to command attention.
The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.