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The “conservative wars” between neoconservatives and the Old Right became particularly bitter after a stormy session at the Philadelphia Society in 1986….

Paul Gottfried Liberty BellMr. Gleaves Whitney, the president of the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies and a Senior Contributor to this journal, has written about an event that I remember well.* I was involved in it, as a minor participant. This was the session devoted to neoconservatism at the April 1986 gathering of the Philadelphia Society at the Drake Hotel in Chicago. Two of the speeches made (one of them by me) were on the unfriendly relations between the neoconservatives, who were then coming to dominate the conservative movement, and the older Right. Although my remarks were generally critical, they were also bland and totally forgettable. I tried to temper my criticism with some mild praise, since at the time I was trying to maintain civil relations with some neocon journalists. I was also about to move from Illinois, where I had been working at Rockford College, to take a job with the Washington Times Corporation. Since I would have to deal with neoconservative colleagues in my new position, I tried not to be overtly offensive to a group that I viewed as suspiciously as most members of the Old Right.

But my speech was overshadowed by the one that ensued and was delivered by Stephen Tonsor, the only conservative (and perhaps the only non-leftist) professor of history at the University of Michigan. Stephen ripped into the neoconservative powerbrokers who were imposing their will on the American intellectual Right. He decried their arrogance in pushing around a movement they had supposedly just recently entered; and he noted the supercilious manner in which they dealt with those who had been dedicated conservatives before they arrived on the scene. Prof. Tonsor then went after the “modernist” tendencies that the neoconservatives had brought with them into the movement and to which they seemed permanently bound. This was typified by their attachment to the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche, ideas that Prof. Tonsor insisted had led to the Nazi Final Solution. Despite their passionate identification with their Jewishness, the neocons chose to enshrine a thinker whose influence brought doom to twentieth-century Jewry. According to Prof. Tonsor, every Concentration Camp guard had been contaminated by the same Nietzschean poison that the neocons were now infecting the conservative movement with.

It may have been the case that I was the only one on the panel who followed Prof. Tonsor’s argument about the Nietzschean template of neoconservatism. Everyone else on the panel and almost everyone else in the auditorium that afternoon only heard one thing: Prof. Tonsor’s memorable invectives against the neoconservative takeover of the conservative movement. David Frum, who attended the session, spread a charge that soon went viral, namely that Prof. Tonsor’s broadside against modernism was a thinly-veiled attack on Jews coming from an obvious right-wing anti-Semite. Although I’ve no idea what was anti-Semitic about Prof. Tonsor’s speech, the charge made was the familiar smear that neoconservatives have repeatedly leveled against everything on the Right that they’ve not been able to control.

Prof. Tonsor’s key argument was extremely questionable, but with a few omissions it might have appeared in the neoconservatives’ flagship magazine, Commentary, highlighting the German cultural danger to the Jewish people. It also made an appearance of sorts in Allan Bloom’s very neoconservative bestseller Closing of the American Mind, with its long rant on how Nietzsche was corrupting American universities after having wrought havoc on German democracy. But let me not stray too far. Pace Tonsor and Bloom, as a widely published author on such matters, I cannot find a straight line or even tortuous path leading from Nietzsche to Auschwitz. And even more to the point, as far as I can tell, neoconservatives do not seem to have been influenced, even minimally, by Nietzsche’s thought.

A reason these associations entered Prof. Tonsor’s speech, as I learned from Mr. Whitney (who may be planning a book partly on this theme) is that Prof. Tonsor shortly before his presentation had had a heated exchange with the Straussian professor of political theory at Cornell, Werner Dannhauser. Prof. Dannhauser was considered to be the expert on Nietzsche among disciples of Leo Strauss, and he had published widely on the German philosopher’s thought. It seems that Prof. Dannhauser, at least as Prof. Tonsor understood him (which may not have been inaccurately) was attracted to and therefore focused on Nietzsche’s revolt against religious and moral tradition. But there is no reason to treat this particular interpretation as the authoritative one for understanding the totality of Nietzsche’s work. Nor need we assume that when Prof. Dannhauser wrote positively about Nietzsche as an atheistic modernist, he was speaking for the neoconservative community. Prof. Tonsor may have inferred more from this exchange than seems to me justified. This occurred to me even while he was speaking.

Significantly, figures then identified with the Old Right whom I regarded as friends, such as Peter Stanlis and Henry Regnery, also took from Prof. Tonsor’s speech what they wanted to hear, in this case, a no-holds-barred attack on the hated neoconservatives. Stephen, to his credit, I was told, had not allowed himself to be muzzled; he went after those presumptuous gate-crashers and put them in their place. Note that since Prof. Tonsor was at most a very moderate member of the Right (in the 1970s, he described himself to me as a “Richard Nixon Republican”), his defiance of the neoconservatives seemed all the more remarkable to his colleagues farther on the Right. No one on this side of the spectrum, possibly except for me, bothered to consider Prof. Tonsor’s interpretations of Nietzsche and the neoconservatives, or his insistence that the American intellectual Right had been Thomist or Christian Aristotelian before the neocons trampled on it. (The latter statement was not entirely wrong, but may have been an act of mistaking the part for the whole.)

Ten minutes after the session closed, as I entered the elevator at the Drake Hotel, I heard R. Emmett Tyrell, editor of The American Spectator, railing against Prof. Tonsor’s speech. Much to my surprise Mr. Tyrrell put me in the company of my fellow-speaker, as someone who was gravely hurting the “movement.” Never again would I be allowed to write for his publication nor invited to speak at the Philadelphia Society. Moreover, after that fateful panel in April 1986, more and more of the Old Right withdrew from (or was forced out of) “conservative” enterprises, as the neoconservatives’ heavy hand became more unmistakable. Gleaves is right to view that controversial session as a watershed. It did not create disagreements within the ranks of the conservative movement. Rather it made them so evident that it would have been hard to patch them up afterwards. After that session the paleoconservative reaction to the neoconservative dominance of the movement intensified noticeably; “conservative wars,” to borrow the title of an essay by John Judis in The New Republic, broke out with a vengeance. This strife would last well into the 1990s and would end with the neoconservatives in firmer control of the movement and its resources than than they had been before.

What would change, however, is that the divisions would remain. Those groups that were only partially marginalized would continue to fight mightily with those holding power at the center. Further, the Old Right, which went back to the 1950s and even earlier, would become increasingly peripheral to the “conservative wars,” which became particularly bitter after the stormy session at the Philadelphia Society in 1986. Some who had been identified with the ousted Right drifted (with a sense of inevitability) toward the paleoconservative insurgents. (Prof. Tonsor was not one of them.) For the most part they did this reluctantly, after their side had been repudiated by the new leaders of their now-occupied movement. In 1992 the entire anti-neoconservative Right rallied to an explicitly paleoconservative presidential candidate—Pat Buchanan.

One might ask whether a stronger reaction against the neoconservatives from the huge audience at our session would have made a difference for the future of the intellectual Right. If memory serves, the most vocal respondents were the neoconservatives and stalwarts of the Old Right; the other auditors either held their peace or raised questions that were not meant to give offense. One might have seen in these disparate reactions why one side won and the other side lost. The old guard of the Old Right didn’t hold back, while those who worked for Republican foundations and Republican publications were mostly conflict-averse. This difference became clear when the question-and-answer period followed the speeches.

Special pressure was placed on those who would allow themselves to be intimidated; and it came from what might be described as the left wing of the neoconservative camp. David Frum in a comment from the floor charged Prof. Tonsor with sounding (what else?) “Anti-Semitic” and then turned on me for not stressing the “racism” of the Old Right. When I asked Mr. Frum for evidence of his charge, he referred to the fact that many in the Old Right had opposed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts in the 1960s. I retorted that Reagan also had not endorsed the 1964 Civil Rights Act (at the time I had, quite reluctantly); and yet presumably Mr. Frum and his patrons were big Reagan fans. By then I knew in which direction things were going. The expected smears had been made; and the struggle for the hearts and minds of the listeners was over. Most of them would predictably knuckle under.

*See the essay here.

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2 replies to this post
  1. As always, Dr. Gottfried pens an interesting piece. Nonetheless, I think we all know his views on the neoconservative usurpation of American conservatism. At this juncture it would be far more interesting if he wrote something about the new phenomenon known as the “alt-right”. For one thing Gottfried is apparently the first to have used the term “alternative-right”. In addition, it is my understanding that the learned scholar was something of mentor to Richard Spencer, currently one of the most controversial figures in American political life.

  2. Given all these abstract terms–conservative, neoconservative, paleoconservative, leftish neoconservative, alt-right–it would be nice to focus on something concrete. How, for example, should, say, Herbert Hoover be
    characterized and why? It is interesting that Hoover described himself as a liberal and was a supporter of Taft, who also considered himself a liberal.

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