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Jacob Heilbrunn Returns to the Neocons

The National Interest editor’s latest volume lacks both the tenability and generosity of his first. But he’s been nothing but rewarded.

Former President Trump Holds Event In South Carolina To Announce His Presidential Campaign Leadership Team For SC
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America Last: The Right’s Century-Long Romance with Foreign Dictators, Jacob Heilbrunn, Liveright, 264 pages

Jacob Heilbrunn’s first book was an attack on a faction of the right, and so is this one. The difference is that his earlier book, They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons (2008), was tempered by a grudging admiration for its subjects. The neocons were Heilbrunn’s sort of people, with whom he shared a sensibility, a demographic background, and professional connections. He feels no such fondness for the populists described in America Last. The tone of the book is one of unrelenting contempt.


Vituperation is the book’s biggest weakness. Abusive language abounds. Supporters of President Donald Trump are called “lackeys,” criticism of American policy is called “self-abasement before foreign tyrants,” opponents of open borders are credited with “simple hatred for migrants.” This editorializing tone would be forgivable if Heilbrunn made a solid case for his argument, based on facts, but he does not. He fails to draw any distinction between, for example, respectfully engaging with Hungary’s popular head of state and having “a man-crush on Orbán.” Can an American be curious about Fidesz’s domestic accomplishments without being a starstruck fanboy? The entire thesis of Heilbrunn’s book rests on a refusal to see any difference between the two.

Heilbrunn sees admiration for foreign strongmen as the primary motivation for conservative policy positions. On the Ukraine war, he writes, “The complaint about NATO was not about foreign policy realism. It was rooted in real admiration for Putin—for his disdain for LGBTQ rights, for his support for the Russian Orthodox church, and for his cult of masculinity.” In support of his contention, he cites an old column of Pat Buchanan’s and a few offhand remarks by Tucker Carlson about Putin, such as “He’s not Adolph Hitler.” (Does that qualify as admiration?) He ignores the literally millions of words published in this magazine alone explaining the folly of NATO expansion, not in terms of good guys and bad guys, but in terms of costs and benefits for each side of the conflict—small benefits for America, massive costs for Russia—and the likely result of this imbalance of interests.

Attempts to discredit foreign policy realism in this way are based on emotion, not reason. In 2019, journalist Bari Weiss, then still working at the New York Times, appeared on Joe Rogan’s podcast and said of Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a skeptic of Syrian intervention, “She’s an Assad toady.” When Rogan asked her, “What does that mean? What’s a toady?” Weiss replied, “I think I used that word correctly. Jamie, can you check what ‘toady’ means? ‘T-O-A-D-I-E.’ I think it means what I think it means.” She connected the congresswoman to the Syrian dictator using a word she could neither define nor spell. It was a slur, not an argument. 

Heilbrunn can spell “toady” correctly, but otherwise the ploy is the same. The test is simple: Is there any imaginable objective assessment of Vladimir Putin’s leadership, one that tallies the pluses and minuses as dispassionately as possible without proceeding from facts to moral judgment, that Heilbrunn would not deride as the work of a Putin-lover? There is not. We know this because a preeminent example of such an assessment, Christopher Caldwell’s 3,000-word essay in Hillsdale College’s magazine Imprimis, “How to Think About Vladimir Putin,” is enough to put Caldwell on Heilbrunn’s list of America Lasters. Does Heilbrunn not see the danger in walling off vitally important topics from rational analysis? Is America likely to make better decisions if debate is conducted in the hysterical tone he advocates rather than the pragmatic tone Caldwell exemplifies?

The book projects this putative right-wing love of dictators back over a century of political history. Heilbrunn opens his story with World War I and continues through the rise of fascism up to the Cold War and beyond. The biggest weakness of these historical chapters is a fixation on minor characters. Was Merwin K. Hart really such a titan that his name deserves to appear almost a hundred times in America Last? Lonnie Lawrence Dennis was a mixed-race Harvard graduate who chose to pass as white and left a diplomatic career to become a public speaker and author of such right-wing books as The Coming American Fascism. A fascinating story, no doubt, but does Heilbrunn really believe that any conservative alive today was influenced wittingly or unwittingly by Dennis’s example? If not, then in what sense is he evidence of a “long-standing tradition” to which Donald Trump also belongs?

The thinness of Heilbrunn’s case has not stopped the book from being a media sensation. He has had promotional interviews on MSNBC and CNN where he has publicized his fear that Trump “fetishizes the strongman” and represents “creeping fascism” and “a new world order based on tyranny.” His book is popular among many of the same journalists who promoted the Russiagate hoax, which Heilbrunn to this day endorses. He claims that Trump in 2016 “was plotting against America—with the not inconsiderable help of Russian president Vladimir Putin” and refers to “the so-called Russia hoax, which was none at all.” 

Clearly there is an appetite for public intellectuals who will argue, in the face of all exonerating evidence and common sense, that Trump is a Russian agent. It’s a living, I guess. But what’s good for Heilbrunn’s career is bad for the republic. Tearing down Trump on this false basis will have the effect, among others, of strengthening the same foreign policy establishment that brought us the Iraq war, the Libyan intervention, and other costly errors. Ironically, few people know better than Heilbrunn, the one-time dissector of the neocons, how much damage that establishment has done to American interests.

Heilbrunn ended his 2008 book with a prediction that, despite all of their manifest errors, the neocons would maintain their hold on the conservative movement because the young people were on their side. “Unlike the neoconservatives, the realists have cultivated no successor generation,” he wrote. “There has been no real attempt to create new generations of realists to replace the Scowcrofts and Bakers and Schlesingers.” How different the scene looks today. The young talent is “behind populism and nationalism, and it is the NeverTrumpers whose ranks are notably gray.