Jonah Goldberg’s Flawed Litmus Test

Never-Trumper pokes at Roy Moore's conservatism. Here's what he gets wrong.

Although I rarely agree with National Review columnist and conservative author Jonah Goldberg on social issues, foreign policy, or the nature of fascism—a topic on which both of us have written—I do enjoy his pleasantly glib style. But then he inevitably goes and says something that causes me to scratch my head in wonder.

The most recent example of this comes from a column in which Jonah expresses astonishment that anyone would consider Luther Strange’s victorious opponent in the Alabama Republican primary, Judge Roy Moore, to be the more “conservative” of the two candidates. According to Goldberg, “Strange was more conservative than Moore but less bombastic.” The only proof we’re given for such a counterintuitive statement is this: Moore opposed the president’s proposal to repeal Obamacare, while Strange, we are led to believe, was a big fan of that bill.


There are two important qualifications here. First, Strange was initially opposed to the repeal bill and only changed his mind after Trump leaned on him in a much-publicized telephone call. Trump mentioned this incident during his pre-election endorsement of Strange, in which he reportedly thanked Strange for coming around as a result of his call. Second, while Judge Moore opposed the repeal, he did so because it didn’t go far enough in removing the government from the health care system. He was praised for this stand not by Chuck Schumer, but by Rand Paul, who extolled Moore for taking his own position.


So why the attack on Moore? There is a more fundamental reason that Goldberg might not consider the “bombastic” Moore to be his kind of conservative: Goldberg has no sympathy for the social issues that define Moore’s public persona. For example, the Judge’s biblically based views on homosexuality and by extension his rejection of gay marriage. Like other fashionable conservatives, Goldberg was an advocate of gay marriage even before it became the Supreme Court’s “law of the land.”

The attitude of the Republican establishment on this matter was summarized recently by Chris Stirewalt on Fox News when he cast Moore as some kind of Neanderthal for not affirming what presumably all right-thinking anthropoids must accept: that gay marriage is here to stay. For several years, Fox personalities Dana Perino and Greg Gutfeld have boasted about how well ahead of Obama they were in supporting gay marriage as a human right. Presumably only reactionaries, like just about every politician in both national parties until a few years ago, would have opposed Perino’s and Gutfeld’s advocacy of marriage equality. (Gay marriage’s opponents even included Dana’s much-beloved boss George W. Bush.)

Clearly a veritable gulf exists between Never-Trumper Goldberg and his like-minded friends, and Judge Moore and his supporters. Save for varying degrees of loyalty to the GOP and the continued use of the “conservative” label, less and less holds these two sides together. One of them is extremely flexible on social issues, but high on deregulating commerce, lowering marginal tax rates, and pursuing a foreign policy predicated on exporting our democratic values and confronting foreign dictators depicted as Hitler look-alikes. The other side prioritizes social initiatives, like preserving traditional marriage, countering the offensives of the LGBT lobby, and restricting immigration. It is also less missionary towards the rest of the world than its rivals, partly because it is far more concerned with social decay at home. Although there are undoubtedly Fox News viewers and subscribers to conservative magazines who hold views characteristic of both camps, one can easily recognize the difference between them. And it’s not likely that either will go away in the foreseeable future.

One side dominates the Republican media and enjoys the patronage of such benefactors as Rupert Murdoch, who clearly represents the pro-corporate, socially liberal, pro-interventionist side of the conservative spectrum. Among its organs are the Weekly Standard, the Wall Street Journal, and National Review. The other side is found among the Trump constituency, which, as in the case of Judge Moore’s victory, is willing to act against the wishes of its leader in order to advance what is rightly or wrongly assumed to be his cause.

Lest I be accused of drawing overly stark contrasts, let me state the obvious. I’m fully aware that most organs of Conservatism, Inc. try to represent in some fashion both sides of the ideological divide. I know that Fox News features such celebrities as Ben Carson and Laura Ingraham who campaigned for Moore in Alabama, while National Review still publishes authors who voted for Trump along with its Never-Trump editors. Yet the divide is real and will likely continue to grow. The defection of prominent neoconservatives from what they perceive as the Trump-influenced right, and the fact that a growing army of defectors is now making common cause with the left, suggests that the wounds won’t heal.

Moreover, it may be harder for Conservatism, Inc. to deal with defections from their left flank than with cutting off and denouncing those from their right. The right-wingers have nowhere to go in our present media and academic culture. But leftist defectors who wish to combine liberal social politics with calls for a militant foreign policy against the “fascist” Putin will be happily absorbed into the world of CNN, MSNBC, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. Depending on what they’re offered and how distasteful they find the company of the Deplorables, that defection may occur sooner rather than later.

Although not an ideal solution, this split will inevitably come. It will also end the illusion of a big tent, which in reality is already full of holes and continuing to shrink.

Paul Gottfried is Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for twenty-five years. He is a Guggenheim recipient and a Yale PhD. He writes for many websites and scholarly journals and is the author of thirteen books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents. His books have been translated into multiple languages and seem to enjoy special success in Eastern Europe.

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17 Responses to Jonah Goldberg’s Flawed Litmus Test

  1. Chris C. says:

    Nice backhanded Putin apologism there towards the end.

    I’m sure that there’s a big enough tent in the GOP to hold all of Roy Moore’s $180,000 a year salary, funded by the generosity of his non-profit. If opposing these kinds of ostensibly religious grifters (see also strong pro-lifers Tim Murphy and Scott DesJarlis) means that one is no longer a “true” conservative and is a weak fashionable tool of the establishment, so be it.

  2. redfish says:

    Jonah Goldberg lost me completely when he claimed neo-conservativism was the real conservativism because it lined up more with Buckley and Goldwater, and that paleo- was a kind of revisionism — as if Buckley and Goldwater invented what conservativism was and there was no conservative tradition before the Cold War era.

    Ever since then, I’ve noticed he follows a kind of make-it-up-as-you-go theory of history that ended always being about serving his own partisan interests.

    As for fascism, I have to depart with the shared affinity on that issue by the author here and think that’s just more of the same. Fascism did owe some debt to the Left and to progressives, and because those on the Left have buried this and have overstated the links between fascism and conservatives, there is some proper “comeuppance” in pushing this back in their faces. However, what would be an honest reading of history is to say that fascism was a kind of right-wing socialism and as a reactionary movement had had both elements of the Left and the Right. (So did progressives, by the way; but as Teddy Roosevelt said in his own time, “every reform movement has its lunatic fringe”, you can’t find guilt just by this association).

  3. collin says:

    Judge Moore is the definition of a modern True Conservative which is making some grift off his religious charity!

  4. Steve Powell says:

    Greetings. Are you not making the same mistake you accuse of Goldberg? You define the level of conservatism on a single topic which is gay marriage. In terms of the split you observe in the Republican party is this not the manifestation of the tension that has existed since Jefferson and Hamilton had their split. There will always be a battle of wills between elite and populist for the heart and sole of any political organization.

  5. Kent says:

    I believe Mr. Gottfried mischaracterizes and simplifies the various wings of “Conservativism, Inc” by lumping the socially liberal libertarians with the neo-cons. Yes, the neo-cons tend to be socially liberal also, but I believe libertarians in general oppose the use of militarism as a governing principle.

    “Conservatism Inc.” is a coalition very broadly and successfully put together by large corporate interests. They created an ideology, libertarianism, which provides license for deregulation, immigration, off-shoring and breaking unions and the middle class. The militarists allow a place to funnel massive amounts of highly profitable federal spending to the corporate community. And the religious wing brings in the numbers necessary for electoral victory.

    While certainly divisions exist, the system is designed to NOT give you any other options. None of these factions are going to suddenly become democrats or liberals. You can only have two parties in the US. Third parties exist, but the structure of the electoral system ensures they can never get more than a fraction of the vote.

    So, um, suck it up buttercup.

  6. Old West says:

    Jonah Goldberg lost me forever when, at the height of neocon ascendancy and arrogance, assuming that our existing wars would be a snap, he argued (quite seriously) for America to militarily conquer and recolonize sub-saharan Africa — out of charity toward them and for their benefit, of course.

  7. Dan Phillips says:

    That Strange is more conservative than Moore is a laughable assertion to anyone familiar with right-wing politics in America. It makes Goldberg seem intellectually unserious. Moore, following his initial rise to prominence on the Ten Commamdments issue, flirted with seeking the Constitution Party nomination, which would have been handed to him on a silver platter. He has maintained some ties with the party since. Moore is a genuine Constitutionalist. His stand on the Ten Commandments indicates he rejects the incorporation doctrine. His stand on gay “marriage” indicates he rejects judicial supremacy. Goldberg is either intentionally attempting to deceive, or he doesn’t have a clue.

  8. Sweet Bird of Youth says:

    Goldberg is incompetent to formulate conservative litmus tests. It may be useful to know what some influential group of idiots are saying at a given moment, but that moment passed for NR quite some time ago. About the time that Goldberg and others of the “neo” stripe started writing for it, come to think of it.

  9. Mary Myers says:

    Great article by Mr. Gottfried. He nails it. Big Tent Republicanism isn’t working.

    “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

  10. Ken Zaretzke says:

    “Great article by Mr. Gottfried. He nails it.”

    Carthage must be destroyed–the GOP establishment. The new target for populists should be Ben Sasse. He’s acting like John McCain on steroids.

  11. EliteCommInc. says:

    In last months Atlantic I read Mr Frum’s defense of Susan Rice. It was strange to hear someone ameliorate potential violations of the law because the target was the Trump campaign and admin.

    Her violations were an act of patriotic duty.

    Of course the Russians are engaged in spying on the US that’s the goal of countries world around. And should we catch them, then we are going to prosecute the matter with full vigor.

    That is not the issue. The issue was and remains any participation by US citizens to collude with the Russians in violating the law. Thus far there remains not a spot of evidence that any US citizen, members of the Trump campaign had anything to do with spying or sabotaging the US election process.

    While unseemly, asking the Russians for dirt about Sec Clinton is not a violation of the law. And more than Sen Kerry’s comments that our foreign allies suggested that the democrats have to beat Pres Bush in the 2004 election.

    If anything it appears that the democratic party’s careless of handing of information would have been more damaging when in office.

  12. Scott says:

    Same-sex marriage is a freedom that hurts no one. Freedoms that hurt no one are as American as it gets.

  13. Still Waiting says:

    I like the general idea of dumping Trump Republicans and Establishment Republicans and replacing them with some combination of Rand Paul and Steve Bannon Republicans. If Moore’s win is a harbinger of that, fine with me.

    As an aside, it’s a shame the old guard Bush the Elder GOP is no more. What the GOP needs now more than anything are people like Jim Baker or Brent Scowcroft in their prime. Hard headed American gentlemen who looked after America’s interests instead of doing the bidding of parasites like the Saudis and Israelis … Instead we’ve got this pathetic gang of loser neocons and Trump’s New York cronies. A low point for the republic.

  14. Janek says:

    There is so many ‘definitions’ of the ‘conservatism’ that one can get dizzy just trying to list them. I think that today conservatism is replaced by the worst sort of sophistry. If you can win elections by convincing the electorate to your point of view it is sufficient never mind the real meanings what politicians call themselves. The next election will be fought between another sophists (relativists) using sophistry for another version of ‘conservatism’. Politics in the USA and in the West become an exercise in sophistry (relativism) not in logic and principles.

  15. jk says:

    All Trump has to say is BOMB IRAN and chickenhawks like Goldberg, Kristol et al. start salivating and start reconsidering Trump.

  16. Colm J says:

    Every revolution needs a conservative wing; as Engels noted there’s nothing more authoritarian than a revolution. Neocons are revolutionaries but they know that they must appeal to conservative values like patriotism and respect for authority in order to gull traditionalists into thinking their cause is the real right-wing deal. Most Neocons are well to the left of even 1980s far left Trotskyist student activists on most cultural issues. That they have managed to pass themselves off as conservatives says something very unflattering about the knee-jerk unreflective mentality of most grassroots right-wingers.

  17. EliteCommInc. says:

    I am not challenging the right of people to engage in same relational behavior — I think the most essential and first right is privacy of mind and body. That’s is certainly a personal choice.

    Skin color is not. However, whn one want to define their behavior’s value in the pubic space, such as issuance of marriage licences, there are several factors in play/;

    the purpose of license
    the reason the public supports marriage in a public arena
    and the purpose of marriage

    when examining all three —

    same relational marriages simply don’t qualify. When the entire social order is modified in such a manner — in this case an embrace of a wholly retorgade, or ‘entrpoic’ dynamic it turns the meaning o n it head.

    One can stand on one’s for a while but eventually the least of one’s concerns will be a headache.

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