Conservative Gatekeeping

For those who may have missed a critical observation I’ve been making about the conservative movement since the Stone Age, here it is:

Conservatism Inc. has a long history of purging undesirables who challenge its party lines, but those in charge of the movement typically hide this practice. When the movement can no longer conceal the obvious, it provides justifications for its actions, hoping that such will play well in the court of liberal public opinion. Thus, the movement has lied about its early expulsion of Jewish libertarians and then its later campaign against the John Birch Society, pretending in both cases that it was distancing itself from racists and anti-Semites. The real reason for these excommunications, as far as I can determine, was that those who were expelled did not share the aggressively anti-Soviet and anti-Communist foreign policy that William F. Buckley Jr. and other editors at National Review were then promoting.

After the neoconservative takeover of the movement in the 1980s, those isolated few who resisted lost their access to conservative funding and were removed from the mastheads of conservative publications. This blacklisting was in line with the movement’s earlier history of expulsions, and such events became even more prevalent in the 1990s, as paleoconservatives were pushing back hard against the neoconservative takeover of the authorized right.

In the present century, actual expulsions have become less frequent, but the mainstream conservative movement has found quieter ways to exclude those who don’t fit in from participating in its programs and events. Jonah Goldberg famously justifies such exclusions from his movement on the grounds that the undesirables had to be “thrown off the bus,” which had no room for “wingnuts.” Goldberg’s statement teaches us a truth, but not one he may have intended to divulge. When Con Inc. leaders turn someone into a nonperson, the reason is typically framed in a way that will appeal to the media left. Goldberg implied as much when, in a column for National Review’s 50th anniversary edition in 2005, he claimed that purges are essential “for keeping the cause honest.”

Of course, the real reasons such rituals have occurred have zilch to do with keeping anyone “honest.” The pretexts given for kicking around and often defaming those who are no longer useful to “conservatism” are intended as music for leftist ears. No one is expelled for being insufficiently conservative or insufficiently populist or for smearing Donald Trump nonstop while taking money from Trump’s enemies in Big Tech. The reason that someone loses support in the conservative movement may be that its leaders see no value in protecting him or her against leftist assaults. Attacks by conventional conservatives unleashed on right-wing targets may also take place for personal or professional reasons but are always delivered in a manner that will win leftist approval.

This conduct stands in obvious contrast to that of the more principled woke left, which, to its credit, stands up for its own. But that loyalty to one’s own in no way fits the tradition of our conservative showmen. Willmoore Kendall’s caustic remark that the right “never retrieves its wounded” may be too mild a description for how the conservative movement treats politically expendable members. This stunningly opportunistic movement not only leaves its wounded on the battlefield but also goes out of its way to abuse the already battered in the sight of those who are technically the adversary.

Despite the unkindness of such an action, it does make some practical sense. It may convince those on the left who are already well-disposed that “moderate” conservatives want to be liked. As a goodwill gesture, they will turn on their comrades even without being asked. National Review praised its founder on the magazine’s 50th anniversary for exactly such conduct. The editors were proud that celebrities who wrote for The New York Times noted how efficiently Buckley dealt with the “wingnuts” on his side. (As a lifelong wingnut, I can testify to the relentlessness with which Buckley and his successors carried out their purging activities in deference to leftist comrades.)

But this older practice of excommunications among ambitious conservative publicists has now taken the form of “conservative gatekeeping.” This is not what it sounds like: namely, an attempt to preserve a received body of truths. No one here is being castigated for being insufficiently conservative, e.g., for arguing that gay marriage is a “human right” or for insisting that tearing down Confederate statues would be a fine tribute to the civil rights cause. Very few conservative celebrities even care that left-wing opinion has invaded their camp. Rather, they are going after what they tell us is inappropriately right-wing opinion. Respectable people supposedly won’t respect “our side” if we don’t restrain our “extremists.” Unless we guard against them, dignitaries whose high opinion we crave may not invite us out for drinks or allow us to write for their publications. The social and professional life of conservative leaders requires this precautionary gatekeeping.

Another reason that “conservative” gatekeeping goes on, besides currying favor with the left, is that competing conservative authors may want to gain ground on their competitors. Both motives may be at work in the attack unleashed by Douglas Murray on Pedro Gonzalez in early 2022, falsely accusing him of “playing” with anti-Semitism. (You can read Chroniclesaccount of that event in “That Old Anti-Semitism Smear,” by Edward Welsch, at Perhaps it was more than mere coincidence that Murray, right after this incident, became a regular contributor to the impeccably neoconservative opinion pages of The New York Post. It is hard to miss the obvious fact that Pedro and the Post have diametrically opposed positions on key foreign-policy questions. Murray and the Post do not.

More recently, Canadian author Jordan Peterson became unhappy with the degree of open discussion that Elon Musk is permitting on Twitter. Peterson has no patience for the “troll demons” to whom Musk has opened the door on his platform. A few years ago, Peterson was furious that leftist electronic media giants were driving him off their sites. Peterson was also then wailing about the thought control that prevailed at the University of Toronto, where he had been professing for some years. D’autres temps, d’autres moeurs (“Different customs for different times”), as the French say. Now Peterson, who is a conservative-movement celebrity, is concerned that anonymous posters, the equivalents of Hillary’s “basket of deplorables,” may be using Twitter in a hurtful way. It therefore behooves well-bred conservatives to censor the ruffians before they disgrace us all.

This concern seems to have been the justification for British “conservative” Piers Morgan’s going after Donald Trump as a politician who enjoys the company of virulent anti-Semites and who therefore agreed to dine with Kanye West and Nick Fuentes. Quite implausibly, Morgan depicts Trump as an anti-Semitic fellow-traveler, a charge that both Orthodox Rabbi Dov Fischer and the head of the Israeli government have vehemently disputed. Apparently, Morgan received his gig on Fox News’ “Fox Nation” with the proviso that he should criticize Trump to create some kind of balance among his colleagues. The British journalist has done this work shockingly well, and it might be an agreeable change of pace to see him assault the left with equally effusive malice.

From my experience, it seems that conservative fixtures sometimes purge you for reasons other than the ones they provide. In the last 10 years, two conservative publications removed me as a contributor. In one case, I was told that my expressed judgments did not coincide with the periodical’s global democratic persuasion, which its new editors were promoting. In the other case, I was rejected because I would not emphatically deny that cognitive differences exist among ethnic groups. This, despite the fact that my contributions to that magazine were studies in political theory that had nothing to do with questions of IQ, which, given my field of study, was not something I could discuss with any expertise.

In the first case, as I later learned, there had been a neoconservative takeover of the donor base, and critics of neoconservatism were being pushed out as editors and contributors. In the second and, for me, more disturbing case, I was one of many contributors on the masthead whom the sponsoring institute was dumping. It seems that none of us was favored by the predominantly neoconservative “friends” whom the institute was then trying to approach. In both cases, I was shocked by the unprincipled, morally hypocritical way in which these purges were conducted.

What goes almost without saying is that if this movement were truly appalled by racism and anti-Semitism, it would be targeting the left nonstop. Why not focus all one’s critical attention on the blatant, eliminationist, anti-white racism that emanates from the leftist media, leftist academics, and leftist politicians? Why bother to gatekeep vulnerable conservative comrades who are trying to survive in what is becoming a toxic leftist totalitarian political culture?

Yes, I know what “conservatives” would retort if they still spoke to me, which they don’t. They would tell me that they have to be “careful” because they are surrounded by leftist enemies, and any wrong move on their part may bring down the wrath of powerful foes. There is a certain truth in this. If the leftist bullies come after you, it may be better to sic them on the poor jerk standing next to you rather than to have them in your face. But I think there is more to why the righteous gatekeeping goes on. What most conservative celebrities want are respectability and lucrative careers. Clearly, they have figured out that they can advance those goals by beating up on “right-wingnuts.”

Is Nick Fuentes really more unmentionable than Raphael Warnock, who, like Obama, welcomed the company of Holocaust-denying Louis Farrakhan and who finds America “too white”? Is Richard Spencer more of a racist than Lori Lightfoot, who emphatically refused to take questions from white journalists and who makes excuses for murderous black gangs? Why is it fine to have “Black Lives Matter” signs gracing the lawns of woke neighbors in predominantly Republican boroughs, but not acceptable to have “White Lives Matter” signs? Why is it okay to flaunt what seem to be black-racist signs but not signs calling for the protection of those who are deliberately excluded because of their white pigmentation?

The conservative movement knows the real answers to my questions but hides behind its preposterous gatekeeping activities. Supposedly, the “big things” for us should be our unacceptable right-wing stances for which “our side” should be called to account. Yes, I know there are real Nazis on some websites, whom we should shun. But the mainstream left has become every bit as obnoxious as these outliers on the right, and has infinitely more control in Western countries.

I suspect that our gatekeeping friends on the right have noticed what I’m noticing, too, but may think that it does nothing for their careers if they make too much of inconvenient facts. Instead, they go on cannibalizing their own side, to the applause of their respectable leftist friends.

This playacting brings to mind the complaint voiced by Big Daddy, in the Tennessee Williams play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, as he notes with disgust the lying evasions of his offspring and their spouses. When he’s had enough, Big Daddy remarks: “There ain’t nothin’ more powerful than the odor of mendacity … You can smell it. It smells like death.”

So do the conservative gatekeepers, perhaps even more than Big Daddy’s lying children.

—Paul Gottfried

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