One of the most bizarre but important dynamics of Trump-era U.S. politics is that the most fanatical war-hungry neocons, who shaped Bush/Cheney militarism, have become the most popular pundits and thought leaders in American liberalism. They have not changed in the slightest — they are employing the same tactics they have always invoked, and for the same causes — but they have correctly perceived that their agenda is better served by migrating back to the Democratic Party which originally spawned their bloodthirsty ideology.
The excuse offered by Democrats for their embrace of neocons — we did it only as a temporary coalition of convenience to oppose Trump — is false for many reasons. This unholy alliance pre-dated Trump. In 2014 — long before anyone envisioned Trump descending down an escalator on his path to the White House — the journalist Jacob Heilbrunn wrote a New York Times op-ed entitled “The Next Act of the Neocons.” He predicted, correctly as it turned out, that “the neocons may be preparing a more brazen feat: aligning themselves with Hillary Rodham Clinton and her nascent presidential campaign, in a bid to return to the driver’s seat of American foreign policy.”
The corporate media outlets consumed most voraciously by liberals are filled to the brim with war-loving neocons. Liberals catapult their books to the top of best-seller lists, spread their viral tweets, build their credibility into contracts with CNN and NBC News or stints as columnists for The New York Times and The Washington Post, and giddily applaud their cover stories for The Atlantic and The New Yorker.
Bill Kristol’s frequent appearances on MSNBC are due to his high levels of popularity among its liberal audience. One of the most beloved hosts on that network is the former spokesperson of the Bush/Cheney White House and 2004 Bush campaign, Nicolle Wallace. The Lincoln Project’s Rick Wilson and Steve Schmidt went from producing commercials in 2002 accusing War on Terror critics of being on the side of Al Qaeda to wallowing in “generational wealth” from gullible liberal donors giddy over their similar Trump-era ads accusing their enemies of being Kremlin agents and traitors. Two of The Washington Post‘s most popular-among-liberal columnists are Jennifer Rubin and supreme war advocate (from a safe distance for him and his family) Max Boot. Security state officials like former CIA Director John Brennan, former Bush CIA and NSA Director Michael Hayden, and former National Intelligence Director James Clapper became liberal TV stars with their endless accusations that various Trump supporters were unpatriotic and treasonous. And on and on and on.
But perhaps the most influential and beloved pundit in U.S. liberal political life now is former Bush White House speechwriter David Frum, now at The Atlantic and CNN. His cover stories for that magazine warning that Trump is an unprecedented evil (which has the convenient benefit of absolving him and the rest of the D.C. establishment of all their past sins) were passed around and celebrated as if they were this generation’s Dead Sea scrolls. He frequently appears on CNN and MSNBC to speak solemnly about matters of war, authoritarianism, and patriotism, where he is treated like an elder statesman and the moral conscience of America. He was one of seemingly millions of charlatans who cashed in with a Trump-era book warning of the unique evils of the Orange Hitler; “Trumpocalypse,” his Amazon page promised, “is both a warning of danger and a guide to reform that will be read and discussed for years to come.” He catapulted from roughly 300,000 Twitter followers at the start of the Trump presidency to close to 1 million now. His tweets accusing people of being unpatriotic and treasonous routinely go viral among liberals. Democrats cannot get enough of David Frum and his worm-like tactics.
There are many common characteristics tying these neocons together and forming a cogent ideological strain. Two of the most toxic of these have been on full display over the last month. The first is that they are always — in every case — in favor of any opportunities for the U.S. to involve itself in a new war. You wind up a neocon, and they start inventing excuses for why the U.S. must either bomb and invade other countries or enter a new proxy war to arm and fund other countries to do so for it. It is, therefore, unnecessary to point out that they are all not just in favor of U.S. involvement in a potential war between Russia and Ukraine but fanatical and giddy about it.
Neocons derive purpose, self-esteem and arousal from watching other people’s children fight and die in wars. In 1776, Adam Smith warned of this demented mindset in The Wealth of Nations:
In great empires the people who live in the capital, and in the provinces remote from the scene of action, feel, many of them, scarce any inconveniency from the war; but enjoy, at their ease, the amusement of reading in the newspapers the exploits of their own fleets and armies. To them this amusement compensates the small difference between the taxes which they pay on account of the war, and those which they had been accustomed to pay in time of peace. They are commonly dissatisfied with the return of peace, which puts an end to their amusement, and to a thousand visionary hopes of conquest and national glory from a longer continuance of the war.
But the other, related attribute that binds them together is the way neocons smear anyone who opposes their plots to involve the U.S. in new wars as traitors, on the side of whichever Bad Leader they want (others) to fight. Frum is the most enthusiastic purveyor of this sleazy tactic, one he has perfected over more than two decades. Back in 2003, right after he left the Bush White House where he had authored speeches advocating for an invasion of Iraq and a broader War on Terror, he wrote a National Review article accusing right-wing opponents of the Iraq War of being on the side of America’s enemies. Aptly entitled “Unpatriotic Conservatives,” Frum cited Pat Buchanan, Robert Novak, Justin Raimondo and other anti-war “paleoconservatives” who went beyond what Frum deemed permissible dissent — namely, questioning how the U.S. could best topple Saddam’s government — and into treason:
The antiwar conservatives have gone far, far beyond the advocacy of alternative strategies. They have made common cause with the left-wing and Islamist antiwar movements in this country and in Europe. They deny and excuse terror. They espouse a potentially self-fulfilling defeatism. They publicize wild conspiracy theories. And some of them explicitly yearn for the victory of their nation’s enemies.
One of the crimes committed by these unpatriotic conservatives, argued Frum, was their willingness to join with anti-war voices on the left. “Common cause: The websites of the antiwar conservatives approvingly cite and link to the writings of John Pilger, Robert Fisk, Noam Chomsky, Ted Rall, Gore Vidal, Alexander Cockburn, and other anti-Americans of the far Left,” the Canadian-immigrant-turned-Super-American-Patriot wrote.
Condemning Buchanan’s version of “America First” foreign policy — which caused the former Nixon White House aide to become one of the most vocal opponents of the new war which Frum and his neocon comrades were desperate to send mostly working-class American families to go fight — Frum condemned these anti-war conservatives of being guilty of every bigotry he could think of: racism, anti-Hispanic animus, and anti-Semitism. He concluded his lengthy accusatory screed with rhetoric that should sound very familiar to anyone who has heard Frum cast similar aspersions over the last five years toward anyone not as obsessed with Trump as he is, or more recently, not as eager as he is to send other people’s kids or American resources to fight Russia:
They began by hating the neoconservatives. They came to hate their party and this president. They have finished by hating their country.
War is a great clarifier. It forces people to take sides. The paleoconservatives have chosen — and the rest of us must choose too. In a time of danger, they have turned their backs on their country. Now we turn our backs on them.
This rhetorical tactic — impugning the patriotism and loyalty of one’s opponents — is now the dominant theme in American liberalism precisely because liberals are now led by neocons. Under this rubric, anyone (on the right or the left) who opposed Hillary Clinton and then Joe Biden during the Trump years was deemed not just wrong but treasonous: a Kremlin agent. That included Bernie Sanders, Jill Stein, WikiLeaks, leftist critics of Democrats, right-wing critics of Democrats, and in general anyone who echoed President Obama’s long-standing view that Russia did not pose a serious threat to the U.S. I cannot count the number of times I have been accused of being a Kremlin agent or asset not by random social media trolls but by prominent Democratic Party and liberal media and political figures for expressing those views.
That is now, by far, the favorite attack against anyone who believes that Ukrainian borders are not important enough to U.S. interests to involve the U.S. in a war. The most vocal media opponent of U.S. involvement in Ukraine has been Fox News’ Tucker Carlson (though, as usual these days, war skepticism is also found on many Fox shows, including Laura Ingraham’s, where I recently appeared to make that case, but almost never on CNN or MSNBC). Carlson, on an almost nightly basis, has posed the question few others in corporate media are willing to ask: why is Ukraine a sufficiently vital interest to the U.S. to risk lives, resources and potentially war with Russia in defense of it?
As punishment for arguing against the neocons’ latest plan to involve the U.S. in a new war, Carlson has been widely vilified as a Kremlin asset or, at best, a mouthpiece. “You’re going to hear a lot of lying about Putin’s War from Putin apologists on the Carlson right and the Greenwald left,” warned Frum, adding: “Putin apologists in US, UK, Germany, etc. should not be allowed to get away with hanging Putin’s War on any other neck.” A former Obama official and now-Democratic Congressman from New Jersey who is often a voice for war — Tom Malinowski (who, ironically, was a top official of Human Rights Watch before running for office) — claimed on Monday that his office is being inundated with calls demanding that he and the U.S. “side with Russia,” and Malinowski asserts that Carlson is somehow to blame for this. That insinuation of treason predictably led to an immediate appearance on CNN, where Malinowski’s claims were converted into on-screen graphics from CNN suggesting that the Fox host is not on the side of America but its enemies:CNN’s New Day, Jan. 25, 2021
This framework is hardly new. In 2018, The Guardian published an article headlined: “Tucker Carlson says he’s rooting for Russia in conflict with Ukraine.” As usual, it was Frum who led the way in pushing this narrative of treason. “The endorsement of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine delivered tonight by Tucker Carlson is a pretty specialized form of Trump admiration,” the grizzled tough guy wrote back then, adding: “it’s not characteristic of very many of those who cast that misguided vote in 2016.” In 2019, a Media Matters employee whose job is to watch Fox News copied Frum’s tactic by writing: “Tucker Carlson defends Vladimir Putin and says American media hate the United States more than Putin.”