Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative and the author of Ex-Neocon: Dispatches From the Post-9/11 Ideological Wars.
TAC at 15: Still Fighting After All These Years
The American Conservative at its conception was a fighting countercultural magazine. Its founders and early contributors believed, in different but compatible ways, that what passed for conservatism in the United States wasn’t conserving much of anything. We were at odds with both liberalism and the conservative mainstream. The Republican Party in 2002 was nearly unanimous in gearing up for the Iraq war, and respected conservative commentators were calling for a whole series of “regime change” invasions throughout the Middle East.
Further, the GOP had no reservations about the increasingly visible downside to economic globalization, which was beginning to rip the guts out of many American working class communities. High and growing rates of immigration were having an unsettling effect on many Americans, economically and culturally. Yet there was little debate on the Right on these issues. In 2002 most of the magazine-reading class—those educated people who populate the Beltway and America’s major cities and regularly read the Times and Post—thought conservative opponents of war and globalization were entirely marginal.
TAC became possible because I knew Taki Theodoracopulos. John O’Sullivan had introduced us, and I had been writing for a section he ran in the New York Press, an interesting free weekly. I also knew Pat Buchanan, having worked in his 2000 campaign. Pat of course had performed credibly in the 1992 and 1996 GOP primaries, but in 2000 he received less than half a percent of the vote as a third party candidate. But my experience in the campaign reinforced my sense that there was a lot of latent conservative dissent within the GOP. Few were ready to go so far as to say (as Pat did) that there was no significant difference between Bush and Gore, and many inevitably raised the issue of judicial appointments. But more and more conservatives were getting uncomfortable with the neoconservative foreign policy and globalist domestic agenda then ascendant in the GOP.
Taki had long wanted to start a magazine. I’m not sure he knew exactly what he wanted it to be or how much money it would cost relative to his substantial but not vast fortune. But I had the notion that a magazine based on essentially Buchananite ideas, stylistically highbrow or at least middlebrow—aiming for something along the lines of Commentary or The New Republic—could be done fairly cheaply. The Weekly Standard, I had read, ran a deficit of $3 million a year in those days. The Atlantic, $8 million. No one in the Buchananite universe, including Taki, was able to spend money like that. But, in fact, you could put out a biweekly magazine with a small staff on Nation-style newsprint for a small fraction of that. The key question was whether there were enough talented people who wanted to write for it and enough readers who would buy it. Someone once joked that The Nation paid in “the high two figures” for pieces. We could do a little better than that. And there were, in 2002, a lot of good political writers who felt marginalized by a conservative media environment then led by The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, The Weekly Standard, and National Review, with little opportunity to write about what was important to them outside of the Internet.
So it was fairly straightforward: Taki and I flew down from New York in the spring of 2002, met for half an hour with PJB in his living room, came to a simple agreement, and I set to work hiring a staff and figuring out how to put out a magazine. Why call it The American Conservative? Some more edgy titles were suggested. One wag connected with the project, not one of the three of us, suggested, semi-ironically, Fifth Column. Others wanted something more generic. But The American Conservative contained a challenge to the GOP Beltway conservative establishment. We were actually seeking to conserve what was best about America and the West; they—the globalists then leading cheers for a foreign policy disaster—were taking the country in an unsustainable direction.
It’s necessary to recall the climate in those months after 9/11. Among some TAC contributors, though not all, there was a distinctive but rather ambivalent attitude regarding America’s relations with the Islamic world. These people believed there was at least a potential difficulty with mass Muslim immigration. They were mindful of the problems it already was causing in Europe. But they also realized—and here is the ambivalence—that there was something awry, which was not especially the fault of Islam, with America’s relations with the Arab and Muslim world. How was it respectful of Muslims, many conservatives were asking, to blast away with the notion that their culture was a mess, and they needed to be more like us? Also, based on my extensive reading about the Israeli-Palestinian issue in the 1990s, I had become a strong proponent of the two-state solution and the necessity of a Palestinian homeland. Pat had reached this conclusion earlier, during the First Intifada.
This certainly reflected no hostility of any kind toward the idea of Israel—a Jewish state in the Mideast. But what Henry Kissinger had said years ago I took to heart: America has a moral commitment to Israel’s existence, not to its conquests. But this view, if expressed in public with any sense of urgency, particularly if combined with any criticism of Israeli settlement construction on the West Bank (where a future Palestinian state would be), generated plenty of hostility from neoconservatives, then far and away the most powerful intellectual faction within the conservative world.
Essentially the neocons had managed to turn deference to Israel into a sort of core component of regular American conservatism, which it had never been before. In any event, soon after 9/11 it was clear to some of us that the neoconservatives were going to use the horror to try to leverage the Bush administration into an American rampage against Israel’s enemies throughout the Middle East. Buchanan wrote a memo to friends about this just days after the attack; it’s an historic document which I hope he includes in his memoirs. He analyzed the various factions vying for influence over Bush and the public role of Benjamin Netanyahu, a huge presence on the American media in his role as Israel’s foreign minister, and laid out very concretely the dangers we would face as the war party advanced. Opposition to this coming war helped galvanize the magazine. In our early years it was our raison d’être.
One important temperamental point that distinguished the early TAC from some more purely paleo or paleo-libertarian enterprises—such as, for example, Chronicles or antiwar.com—was our belief that we shared extensive views with the senescent, but not entirely dead, eastern WASP establishment and its protegés. We believed (as did James Baker and George H.W. Bush) that a two-state solution was important for both the Middle East and America. Some of that group also were implicitly or openly skeptical about mass immigration. George Kennan had been so famously in his book Around the Cragged Hill, but there were others: former New York Mayor John Lindsay, for instance, had been on the advisory board of FAIR, the restrictionist Washington lobby.
More importantly most TAC writers were not isolationist in the style of the Old Right. Most of us admired the realist foreign policy consensus that guided America during the Cold War, when America was very much engaged in the world. We weren’t in the least interested in waging old paleo battles against Lincoln or stressing the superiority of Robert Taft over Eisenhower. Perhaps for some of us it was a case of being pushed towards paleoconservatism by a sense that something had gone off the rails with the ascent of neoconservatism and neoliberalism. This had produced in the country an arrogance that grew recklessly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, generating a sense that there were no limits whatsoever to what America could do.
I sought to express this in our mission statement, printed in the first issue, which I was happily able to draft one afternoon without consulting anyone else: It paid respects to both the Robert Taft and Eisenhower traditions, adding, “So much of what passes for contemporary conservatism is wedded to a kind of radicalism—fantasies about global hegemony, the hubristic notion of America as a universal nation for all the world’s people.” In writing that, I believed that we eventually could lure a significant number of the so-called country club Republicans to our side.
TAC faced some painful choices in the early going. Pat, with my full agreement, had hoped that we could publish regularly Joe Sobran, the very talented Catholic writer who had run afoul of Midge Decter for writing critically about Israel in the late 1980s. Under pressure from Decter and Norman Podhoretz, neocon figures of powerful resolve, Bill Buckley had severed National Review’s association with Sobran (the story is related in an interesting section of Buckley’s book, In Search of Anti-Semitism). I didn’t think Sobran had written anything that had justified Buckley’s action, though Joe did phrase some of his criticisms of Israel in questionable ways. In the ensuing years, Sobran had written a book on Shakespeare while his columns appeared in his personal newsletter and in various low-circulation Catholic journals. He was, it was widely known, in financial difficulty.
A couple of months before our first issue I read in The Forward that Joe was slated to speak at a Holocaust denial congress. I called Pat immediately, and he agreed that this was both sad and deplorable. We separately called Joe on his cellphone, reaching him at the airport headed for David Irving land, and entreated him not to go. He was defiant, declaring his right to speak where he wanted. He told me the whole thing would soon blow over. Of course it wouldn’t and didn’t, and there really was zero chance that we would publish any writer who used “questions” about the Holocaust as a polemic against Zionism or Jews or anything of the sort. Sobran had made himself unacceptable to us, and that was the end of it.
In any case, by then I had hired one key editor, Kara Hopkins, a brilliant young woman I knew from the Buchanan campaign. She could do a million things at once and mostly shared my sensibilities. We would sometimes joke that together we constituted, perhaps in its entirety, the preppy WASP caucus of Buchananism. To say that she was my right hand in publishing the magazine does not say nearly enough.
The initial reception of TAC was of course mixed, more curious than favorable or welcoming. A Washington press conference featuring Pat and Taki, the conservative cultural warrior and European libertine playboy, introduced the magazine and attracted a good amount of media attention. Reaction of the Beltway establishment ranged from dismissive to hostile. The New Republic chortled about “Buchanan’s surefire flop,” mocking the notion that conservatives would ever read a magazine skeptical about America’s wars. To its shame, National Review ran a piece impugning the patriotism of many TAC writers and editors for opposing the Iraq war.
And of course enthusiasm for the war was running very high in 2002. For example, I recall one young writer, a generally courageous guy, a Yale grad and immigration restrictionist then working for Peter Thiel. Over drinks a few months before we started publishing he told me it would be far better to have a symposium about the war than oppose it outright. He feared our stance would marginalize us. For myself, having come of age during the hubris of Vietnam, I had zero doubts that the war would turn out to be a disaster. But I do recall a staff meeting in early April 2003—with our group of several mostly twenty-somethings in their first journalism jobs. National Review had just published a celebratory cover, a photo of unopposed tanks rolling toward Bagdhad. Saddam Hussein’s army had apparently vanished. And it would have been perfectly understandable that these bright kids would begin to wonder whether their promising careers would be nipped in the bud by their association with our antiwar publication. I told them not to worry, but I don’t think I reassured them.
What did we publish during those critical first six or seven months? A combination of the polemical and thoughtful, and in many cases both. In our second issue, in the fall of 2002, TAC published an 8,000-word essay by professor Paul Schroeder, an eminent diplomatic historian, arguing that the United States drew considerable benefits from a rules- and law-based international system and from not behaving like a bullying imperialist power. To launch a preemptive war against Iraq—regardless of its chances for success, which Schroeder believed small—would crack if not shatter that order. As soon as I heard Paul mention the piece on the phone, I knew I wanted to publish it, partially because his style was elegant and based on deep learning, but also because it was distinctly not populist and America First. I wanted to establish that TAC was, among other things, often a center-right voice with an academic bent, knowledgeable about history and international relations. These were elements of conservatism, we believed, that had been eclipsed in the GOP by the neocon ascendance.
Over the next six months we hit regularly on the war and its dubious rationales. But I wish to note another important piece—“Whose War?” by Pat Buchanan, published on the eve of the Iraq invasion. Pat tied the Iraq war to the cluster of neoconservatives who, as he documented precisely in the piece, had been lobbying for such a war for a decade. Some writers on the left (Jason Vest) and the center (Michael Lind and Harvard professor Stanley Hoffman) had noted the confluence of neoconservative aims in the Middle East and those of the Israeli right wing, led by Ariel Sharon. The aim: destroy various Arab nation states seen by Israel as threats.
But Buchanan’s piece was a powerhouse of research and unsparing polemic that other writers couldn’t match. He took note of mainstream press coverage, such as Robert Kaiser’s Washington Post article that quoted an unnamed U.S. official saying, “The Likudniks are really in charge now.” From there Pat concluded, “America is about to make a momentous decision: whether to launch a series of wars in the Middle East that could ignite the Clash of Civilizations against which Samuel Huntington warned, a war we believe would be a tragedy and a disaster for the Republic… We charge that a cabal of polemicists seek to ensnare our country in a series of wars that are not in America’s interests. We charge them with colluding with Israel to ignite those wars and destroy the Oslo Accords. We charge them with deliberately damaging U.S. relations with every state in the Arab world that defies Israel or supports the Palestinian people’s right to a homeland of their own.”
This was strong stuff, thoroughly documented from the neoconservatives’ own publications, journals, and op-eds, not to mention the Project for the New American Century’s open letters from the 1990s. He took notice of Netanyahu, “like some latter-day Citizen Genet, ubiquitous on American television,” calling for the United States to “crush the ‘Empire of Terror,’” consisting of Iraq, Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, and “the Palestinian enclave.” The neocons’ entreaties to Bush to attack came with a veiled political threat; a failure to strike, they warned, “will constitute an early and perhaps decisive surrender to the war on terrorism.”
It is striking to reread this piece today after the war has been sanitized in Beltway memory as a kind of mistake that just happened due to unfortunate but understandable intelligence failures. Often missing is an appreciation for the long-term ideological project that it actually was. Those involved in its propagation are, for the most part, comfortably ensconced in hawkish Beltway think tanks and publications. Some are easing their way into the Trump administration. But at the time of decision, the Iraq war had a clear origin in the thinking and actions of men. And TAC was a critical voice, certainly the most prominent publication on the Right, in identifying the men who gave us that thinking and those actions. In the pages of TAC, they were subjected to critical analysis.
But the Iraq war wasn’t our only subject. One early piece was an important essay on green conservatism by Britain’s Roger Scruton, a prescient and only slightly premature essay on the precarious financing of the housing bubble. Other early entries included a lengthy interview with Norman Mailer (Kara and I went up to Provincetown with Taki and spent the day with him); a beautiful essay on animal welfare and suffering entitled “Fear Factories” by Matthew Scully, who served improbably as a Cheney speechwriter; and a piece on the Somali refugee influx entitled, “The Great Somali Welfare Hunt,” by Roger McGrath, a hunt that ended in the democratic socialist state of Minnesota.
We also published Steve Sailer’s incisive essay on the political consequences of cousin marriage in the Middle East (later anthologized by Steven Pinker as one of the best science essays of the year) and also his widely cited exploration of the relationship between real estate prices, family formation, and political ideology in the United States. I believe nearly all of these pieces hold up well today, though I suspect that “Sex & Consequences” by Peter Wood, an anthropological defense of traditional marriage, might not be seen today as being as wry as it seemed fourteen years ago.
We started off with about 5,000 subscribers, most from Pat’s campaign lists, and with almost no promotion the rate began growing more than 50 percent a year. We were holding up our end of what we considered a vital and necessary debate.
But it wasn’t sustainable. Taki, who is smart and proud and contributed a sharp polemical column to every issue, was probably not delighted that the magazine which he co-founded and largely subsidized was known almost universally as Pat Buchanan’s magazine. So after fulfilling his initial financial commitment, he said essentially that unless we found other major donors he was done.
We thought the magazine was too. But my wife, Margaret Liu McConnell, who had recently left a great attorney position in New York to join me in Washington, noted we were cash flush from selling our New York apartment, and urged me to use that money to keep the magazine afloat while trying to find a buyer. Over a dinner with Pat and his wife Shelley at Georgetown’s Café Milano, we made the proposition: Pat and Taki (who later would agree) would transfer to me most of their ownership shares while I would keep the magazine open for two more years and search for an appropriate buyer. I assumed the grand title “Editor and Publisher,” a title with which Kara Hopkins greeted me daily in the office.
The search for an owner/benefactor looked hopeless until it suddenly succeeded. For several years I had known Ron Unz, the essayist, California political entrepreneur (most famously for his English for the Children ballot initiative) and software developer. We would occasionally have dinner when he passed through New York, and he had come to TAC’s first anniversary party. As my two-year commitment was reaching its end, Ron told me he and his partners were selling one of their software companies, and if all went as planned he might be able to step in for TAC.
I was thrilled. Ron is brilliant, had a stellar reputation in California politics, was with us on the war, on the neocons, and increasingly on immigration. And so it happened that in early 2007 Ron Unz became the effective owner of TAC. For many months, engaged in a new software project, he pretty much left the magazine alone. He looked at various initiatives to boost circulation and tried some, none of which was terribly successful.
It was unfortunate for Ron and for TAC that he took over at the moment when revenues for almost all print magazines, already in a long secular decline, suddenly began to crater as the 2008 Great Recession took hold. It was a terrible moment to try to expand a print-circulation magazine. I was by then beginning to run out of ideas as editor, and found it slightly difficult to answer to Ron, after having had a five-year run of not really having a boss. I vacated the editor’s chair, and Kara Hopkins stepped in.
On the publication front, I’d mention two salient things about the Unz era. One was TAC’s response to the 2007 publication of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. I considered this book to be the singular publishing event of the post-millennial decade, and of course it explained a lot about the Iraq debacle. I believe TAC was the only American publication of any stature to review the book favorably, a fact that, as Michael Desch pointed out, said something important about the influence of the lobby. (The book got a far better critical reception in Europe, Israel, and elsewhere.) In TAC’s first days, I had sought out the two international affairs realists for possible contributions to TAC (they were active academic Iraq war opponents), but they were, as we all would subsequently learn, embarking on a bigger project. But Mearsheimer helped nudge some of his academic colleagues and former students to write for TAC, greatly to the magazine’s benefit, and John himself in recent years has written several essays for us.
A second important aspect of the Unz era was Ron’s own writing, usually based upon deep dives into statistics that had been overlooked in the mass media and by most social scientists. These delved into controversial, often taboo subjects, but Ron’s essays were grounded in such pertinent data that their conclusions were always taken seriously and never refuted. His topics included Hispanic crime (not higher than white rates at comparable age and income levels), the malleability of average IQ rates in different societies (greater than many hard-core IQ analysts generally believed), and the corruption of the American meritocracy (where he argued, among other points, that the disproportionate number of Jews attending Ivy League colleges was little more objectively justified by “merit” than was the preponderance of WASPy prep school students a hundred years ago).
But apart from the fact that TAC was beginning to hemorrhage money at ever faster rates, a fate it shared with other print magazines, the Unz era was not an entirely tranquil one. Ron’s obviously stratospheric IQ was such that I sometimes felt he had difficulty dealing with people operating at two or more standard deviations below his level without talking to them as a teacher might address a very dull student. In any event, Kara Hopkins eventually tired of the new situation and left for a job she sometimes described as a boring position in the federal bureaucracy. Dan McCarthy, who had been with us most of the time since our inception, replaced her, doing an extraordinary job keeping TAC alive for several years on a bare bones budget.
Yet it was during the Unz era that the groundwork was eventually laid for TAC’s re-emergence as a financially solid and widely respected media organization. Because of our financial woes, we had cut our print circulation in half, and then in half again. Slowly, like many journals facing the same pressures, we became more of a website than a magazine. Jon Utley, a long-time friend and TAC supporter, regularly urged us to transform into a nonprofit (501c3) organization, so we could enhance our financial standing through tax deductible gifts and foundation donors. Ron Unz, finding TAC to be an increasing financial burden, was amenable.
During this period a new figure arrived on the scene. Wick Allison, a Texan and a very successful commercial publisher (he founded and owned D, a successful Dallas city magazine), had been publisher and a board member of National Review. A figure like Wick more or less epitomized my hopes of the type of people TAC could eventually attract to its team—individuals with proven business experience who had been part of the mainstream conservative movement and grown disgusted by the foreign policy bellicosity of the neoconservatives.
There weren’t many of these kinds of people by 2006, but by 2010 they were beginning to emerge in greater numbers. Conservatives who styled themselves “Obamacons” were part of this phenomenon, but so was this former publisher of National Review who now avidly brought to TAC his experience and networking abilities. Wick had apparently learned of TAC from his daughter Maisie, a young Harvard grad who had worked at The New Republic and for Andrew Sullivan. He brought to TAC an infusion of Texas financial contacts and a great deal of publishing savvy. I won’t go into the eventual parting of the ways between Wick and Ron, except to say that co-presidencies are inherently unstable, and this was no exception. Ron went on to establish the very interesting website unz.org, which offers some of the most wide-ranging coverage to be found anywhere in the Western world. I still consider his TAC essays to be among our greatest accomplishments, and some publisher would do well to gather them between hardcovers.
The present-day TAC, like most media organizations, is an institution in flux. There is, of course, a different tone today: the neocons and their war plans, while an ongoing danger for the Republic, are seldom perceived as the greatest national problem right now. Rod Dreher, the hugely popular author and prolific blogger, is probably the main voice associated with TAC, and he has few equals as an analyst of the American cultural moment. Various figures have joined us from the non-neocon conservative world: Jeremy Beer, who became president of the American Ideas Institute and is now chairman of the board; Johnny Burtka, now executive director and the force behind our increasingly successful fundraising; and Robert W. Merry, the historian, veteran journalist, and one of those rare persons capable of producing deeply researched books while holding down full time executive jobs. These three have assumed major responsibilities for keeping TAC going and growing, although Merry, who assumed the TAC editorship with an understanding that it would not be a long-term commitment, will soon relinquish the editorial reins to a successor, as yet unnamed.
The parent foundation which now publishes the magazine and website, The American Ideas Institute, has hosted a major foreign policy conference for the past several years, as well as smaller events discussing urbanism and crony capitalism. It’s not unreasonable to hope that this institute will become as established as larger Beltway institutions, with a substantial staff and large bodies of research. But that is for the future.
There remains a good deal of the early TAC in the current magazine. Andy Bacevich, whose writing I had first read in The National Interest and whose contributions I pursued, with some success, in TAC’s first months now writes regularly for us on American foreign policy. Pat Buchanan’s columns continue to be an anchor and big reader draw on the website. Taki has until recently owned the magazine’s back page. I continue to write essays for TAC, and Chris Layne, Bill Kauffman, and Paul Gottfried are all familiar names to current TAC readers, as they were to our readers in 2003.
But of course we live in a different media environment. The Internet has far surpassed print journalism as a means of disseminating written words, and far more readers see pieces on the web than they do in print. This has consequences for opinion journalism, and not entirely happy ones. Whereas before a journal of politics and opinion was a discrete entity, and one could easily discern one or several distinct editorial perspectives that make up a magazine, that is often less clear on the web. Websites are gauged in the public sphere, and by their proprietors, to a considerable degree by their traffic numbers, so any intelligent web manager will try to succeed in this metric by publishing many pieces. Inevitably this leads to some sense of diffusion in the editorial line. Is this piece on the site because the editors believe in it, or because it will drive traffic? It is a question now asked all over journalism, and I’m not sure the answer produces better opinion writing.
Secondly, the ideological success of TAC—we’ve come a long way from “Buchanan’s surefire flop”—has probably made its brand less distinct. Other journals have come to share much of our perspective. National Review in particular is not nearly as uniformly enthusiastic about war as it was when we began publishing. I consider that a huge plus, for NR and for American public opinion in general. So too are there now highly prominent voices in the conservative media—Ann Coulter, Tucker Carlson, and Ross Douthat, for example—who manifest a fair number of TACish attitudes, most particularly in their reluctance to automatically endorse neoconservative foreign policies. This is new—and worthy of celebration. When we started, there were certainly no right-wing media figures of that stature on our side except for Pat Buchanan and, far more quietly, Robert Novak. That poses a question: is this due, at least to some degree, to TAC’s persistent effort over 15 years to influence conservative discourse? I would like to think so.