Longing for the Neoconservatives?

Shadia B. Drury

The spineless corruption of the current Republican Party has led many liberals and Democrats to romanticize the good old days when the GOP was dominated by neoconservatives. Democrats picture the neoconservatives as men of principle, conviction, and intellect—patriots who cared about their country, unlike the pathetic crop of cowards eager to curry favor with a corrupt president. Not surprisingly, prominent neoconservatives such as William Kristol, Max Boot, and David Frum are the darlings of CNN, MSNBC, and other liberal-minded news outlets. However, there is no reason to long for the good old days. The neoconservatives are alive and well and in command of Trump’s Republican Party.

The devotion of William Barr, Mitch McConnell, and Mike Pompeo to Donald Trump can be explained only by the fact that the Trump administration is effective in advancing the neoconservative agenda. Irving Kristol, the intellectual father of neoconservatism, was alarmed by the cultural revolution of the 1960s. He regarded the increasing secularism of modern society as a threat to the family, morality, and civilization. He inspired a revolution intended to turn back the clock. For more than four decades, that revolution has been guided by three seamless pillars of neoconservatism: religion, capitalism, and nationalism.

In a speech delivered at the University of Notre Dame Law School on October 11, 2019, William Barr echoed Kristol’s alarm over the demise of religion. Barr claimed that the Founding Fathers had gambled that a republic could survive without religion—but they lost. They failed to understand that a secular society invites moral decay, despair, and dissolution. Barr blamed depression, mental illness, soaring suicide rates, drug overdoses, and other calamities on secular modernity. Barr argued that freedom requires self-restraint, but humanity is fallen, and that is why religion is necessary to promote moral discipline; it follows that only a religious people can be free. However, the claim that humanity is fallen is a religious thesis that assumes there is no rational foundation for morality or that children cannot be taught kindness, self-restraint, or justice without faith in God and the threat of hellfire.

Barr insisted that religion has not decayed but is being assaulted with “organized destruction” by the liberal elite in the media, universities, and courts. He added that religious people are being forced to “violate their consciences” by funding “contraceptive and abortifacient coverage” in their health plans. Barr vowed that as Attorney General, he would be “at the forefront” of the struggle against the “forces of secularization.”

Barr’s unstated assumption is that religious morality requires the faithful to be responsible for the conduct of their fellow citizens, even in the most private domains of their lives. It implies that they are culpable if they rent their apartments to the unwed or make cakes for gay couples. This perverse understanding of sin and responsibility cannot be satisfied by religious freedom. It requires religious dominance.

Barr’s nostalgia for religious domination is linked to his fallacious assumption that faith tends to have salutary effects on society. But the history of Europe and the current politics of the Middle East testify to the contrary—far from being the opium of the people, religion is a radicalizing force that inspires war and belligerence. But as we shall see, that is part of its appeal.

The second pillar of neoconservatism is faith that unregulated capitalism rewards industry and punishes sloth. Kristol referred to this as the “bourgeois ethos” and lamented its demise. He blamed Hollywood for turning businessmen into villains and longed for the novels of Horatio Alger, in which they were heroes. Barr is a true believer in Kristol’s bourgeois ethos. He denounces the modern state for mitigating the “cost of personal misconduct” by legalizing abortion and supplementing the income of single mothers.

In typical neoconservative fashion, Barr assumes that the poor and disenfranchised are invariably the authors of their own predicament; it follows that the state should do absolutely nothing to alleviate poverty or unemployment, because the poor deserve their poverty and the rich deserve their rewards. Let’s not forget that the Trump tax cuts were a classic neoconservative reward for the rich, understood as the industrious and worthy members of society.

Neoconservatism contains more than a hint of asceticism. So, it worries that the wealth capitalism creates would invite decadence. The solution is the alliance of religion with nationalism—the third pillar of neoconservatism. Together, nationalism and religion provide a sense of purpose that blunts nihilism. By wedding the cause of the nation to that of the divine, religion becomes the supreme asset to the nation. By dispelling the fear of death, religion creates a plethora of young men ready to die for the nation’s cause. In Soldiers of God, Robert D. Kaplan does not conceal his admiration for the manly resolve of the Islamic warriors fighting against the godless Soviets in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Their faith made these ragtag fighters formidable enough to defeat the mighty Soviet Union.

In contrast, Donald Trump is the embodiment of the culture of wealth that the neoconservatives abhor. He won the election of 2016 in no small part because he promised to end the wars that the neoconservatives started. None of the neoconservatives has apologized for concocting these wars of choice, nor do any of them seem to have regrets. So, foreign policy would appear to be where Trump and the neoconservatives part company—but that is not entirely the case. Trump’s delusions of grandeur make him relish the imperial presidency that the neoconservatives defended and that William Barr is assiduously preserving. Led by Mike Pompeo, the Trump administration has continued the neoconservative wars, the belligerent rhetoric, and the dualistic mindset.

The disdain of the Never-Trumpers is an affectation. Their contempt for Trump is largely cosmetic. They object to the overt crassness of his self-serving lies; they prefer bigger lies, subtle sugarcoated lies that plunge the nation into war and keep the masses dying in a pseudo-theocratic jihad. Trump’s Republican Party is their party.

Shadia B. Drury

Shadia B. Drury is professor emerita at the University of Regina in Canada. Her most recent book is The Bleak Political Implications of Socratic Religion (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).


The spineless corruption of the current Republican Party has led many liberals and Democrats to romanticize the good old days when the GOP was dominated by neoconservatives. Democrats picture the neoconservatives as men of principle, conviction, and intellect—patriots who cared about their country, unlike the pathetic crop of cowards eager to curry favor with a …

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