The political plum on last year’s Christmas pudding, so to speak, was l’affaire Lott, which, erupting at the birthday party for retiring Sen. Strom Thurmond in early December and continuing until Trent Lott’s less-than-voluntary resignation as Senate majority leader three weeks later, threatened to ruin Kwanza for just about everybody. The Lott crisis was an unhappy one for President Bush and the Republican Party because it forced them to think about their real political base of middle-class whites—not a few of whom are Southerners—rather than twaddle on about the entirely fictitious coalition of blacks and Hispanics mobilized by the GOP’s ethnic sensitivity. The President could not simply dump Mr. Lott as unceremoniously as he would have liked, because that would have alienated the millions of white Southerners who saw nothing wrong with the senator’s comments. But neither could Mr. Bush keep Mr. Lott as majority leader, because keeping him would have been a plum pudding in the faces of the real custodians of the Republican conscience, namely, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Rev. Al Sharpton, and the millions of American blacks whose votes Mr. Bush continues to imagine he can win. The President was thus reduced to the coy stratagem of having his brother Jeb, governor of Florida, and Secretary of State Colin Powell denounce Mr. Lott; by allowing surrogates who had no business saying anything about the senator to say what they did, he slyly communicated to the nation, his party, and Mr. Lott himself that he wanted the majority leader to walk the plank. Once Governor Bush and Secretary Powell had spoken, it was clear that Mr. Lott would have to resign almost immediately, and so he did.
The Mississippi senator’s defenestration would have been a largely insignificant event had it not revealed some of the underlying realities of American politics and especially the realities of what currently passes for American conservatism. Mr. Lott had few defenders, and even those who did defend him hastened to do so not on the merits of what he said about Mr. Thurmond’s segregationist presidential campaign of 1948 but rather on the assumption that he did not really mean what he seemed to have said. That defense was probably accurate; you do not become Senate majority leader these days by saying what you really believe, and, if Mr. Lott really did disclose the fruits of his meditations on race, segregation, and the course of American history since 1948, it was likely the first and only time in his entire career that he spoke the unvarnished truth about much of anything.
What was significant about the Lott affair was not what he really meant or believes, nor what he and his supporters chose to say, but what his foes said—and not the obvious and predictable ones on the political left. Of course, Mr. Jackson and Mr. Sharpton chose to strut and rant about Mr. Lott’s remarks, and, of course, a good many Democrats eager to make what political gains they could from it did so as well. But the foes who really did Trent Lott in and made it impossible for the Republicans to defend him or for President Bush to keep him were the neoconservatives. Had they not immediately denounced Mr. Lott and demanded his resignation, he might well have come through the crisis successfully.
The neoconservative onslaught was immediate and total. Almost to a man, their spokesmen damned Mr. Lott’s remarks: “disgraceful” (David Frum); “indefensible” (Jonah Goldberg); “ludicrous” (William Kristol); “appalling” (Charles Kraut-ham-mer); “shameful” (a public statement issued by four Republican appointees to the Civil Rights Commission, led by neoconservative race guru Abigail Thernstrom); etc. Neoconservative ex-football-star Jack Kemp panted that, “until [Mr. Lott] totally repudiates segregation and every aspect of its evil manifestation,” the Republicans would continue to suffer damage from his remarks. According to the Washington Post, the quarterback demanded that Mr. Lott “go before a civil rights group and make a major speech about race and racial reconciliation in the New South to help clear the air.”
The hostility of the neocon press gang was essential to the collapse of whatever political support Mr. Lott could have garnered for himself. Had there existed a corps of conservative columnists and commentators willing either to defend what he said or to dismiss his remarks as irrelevant and harmless, the majority leader might have been able to retain his position. Facing the nearly unanimous opposition of those who now constitute the permissible “right,” however, he had no ground to stand on and no defenders to whom he could point. He could not say to President Bush or his fellow senators, “Stand up for me: My strong support in the media shows we can keep public opinion on our side,” because he had no support in the media even from the right (save Pat Buchanan and Robert Novak), and, without such support, he could hardly expect to win or even to keep any allies. Foolishly, having lost the right and whetted the salivary glands of the left, he tried to placate the black left by his ill-advised and disastrous interview on Black Entertainment Television, an act that only hastened his demise.
Mr. Lott’s collapse was unfortunate because, for all his personal weaknesses and evasions, he was a reasonably reliable conservative vote in Congress, as his record shows. We could expect nothing radical from Mr. Lott as majority leader, but we could also expect him to do little harm—far less harm, for example, than Newt Gingrich did when, in the 1980’s, he led House Republican support for such measures as the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday, extension of the Voting Rights Act, and sanctions on South Africa, all of which Mr. Lott opposed.
The difference in the voting records of Mr. Lott and Mr. Gingrich, a neoconservative hero, should tell us why the neocons were so eager to purge the Mississippian from the Senate leadership, and, if it does not, their motives soon became clear in their own columns. As Charles Kraut-hammer wrote, “Neocons have been the most passionate about the Lott affair and the most disturbed by its meaning.”
By itself, this is a fair statement of what neocons really want—much fairer than what most of them have said on the subject before, when they have tried to pretend that they were just regular old conservatives after all. The regular old conservatives, of course, as National Review and similar conservative organs of the 1950’s and 60’s consistently made clear, never defended either the “civil-rights movement as originally defined” or its political goals, which, quite aside from racial issues, involved a direct and transparent attack on constitutional principles as well as a concerted subversion of Southern social institutions.
Nevertheless, Mr. Krauthammer’s honest statement of neoconservative goals and the whole Lott episode generally served to set off yet another volley from his fellow neocons in another effort to redefine the American right along lines acceptable to, and congruent with, the left and to denounce and expel the paleoconservatives. That was the burden of columns appearing almost simultaneously with that of Mr. Krauthammer by such neocon sages as David Frum and Jonah Goldberg, who once again ranted and raved about the “racism of the past” to which the noble neoconservatives “feel no allegiance” (Goldberg) and the “inescapable racialism and the obsessive anti-semitism that one finds among the paleos” (Frum; the “racialist” and “antisemite” that he refers to are Steve Sailer and Charlie Reese, respectively, though you may be certain that Mr. Frum could find others if he cared to).
The neocons exploited the Lott episode to help discredit and expel paleoconservatives even further from the political mainstream. That much would be fine with paleos, who, for the most part, have long since abandoned any desire to share the same movement with the neoconservatives. Less and less does one hear among paleos the call for “taking back” the organs and institutions of the conservative movement; more and more paleos grasp that they and their rivals on the right are two different breeds that share about as much in common as German shepherds and Persian cats, and those paleos see the need to define themselves as an entirely separate movement, with their own organs and institutions. What the neocons were doing, however, went further than yet one more “purge” of the paleos.
By denying any allegiance to the “racism of the past,” however, the neocons were renouncing not just the real “racism of the past,” which most conservatives of every stripe have long done, but the perfectly legitimate conservatism of the past—the conservatism Senator Lott’s voting record represents. The neoconservatives were trying to create a conservatism that openly embraces not just the “civil-rights movements as originally defined” but most of what the “civil-rights movement as currently established” demands—the renunciation of the Confederacy and its symbols and icons; the acceptance of Martin Luther King, Jr., his holiday, and his creed of “radical reconstruction”; the extended Voting Rights Act of 1982; acts of international aggression against such nations as South Africa simply because their racial policies differ from those endorsed by the left and the pseudoright; and, finally, the mass immigration, multiculturalism, and anti-white hatred of today. Having swallowed virtually every claim of the left that European-American civilization is a “racist” order and that such “racism” is too wicked and irredeemable to be tolerated, the neocons move merrily and logically down the road built by the left to outright rejection of the entire civilization and the people who created it. What else does their insistence that America is an “idea,” a “proposition,” or a “creed” mean but the abandonment of the historic reality of American culture and tradition in favor of the most abstract and meaningless utopia and the embracing of the antithesis of what remains, even today, a respectable and defensible conservatism?
At least, it was respectable and defensible until the neocons invited themselves into the discussion. Their contribution—and this is what lent the Lott episode a significance beyond that of the ordinary cut and thrust of day-to-day politics—was to assist the left in delegitimizing the respectable and defensible conservatism that seeks to protect and defend a particular civilization and people. What neither the Democratic Party, the Reverends Jackson and Sharpton, the Washington Post, nor anyone else in the panoply of the left could accomplish, the neoconservatives were able to complete—because they had already established themselves, with the help of the left, as the legitimate voice of the permissible right.
It is likely that the long-term effect of the Lott episode—even more than the Republicans’ abandonment of the “Southern strategy” (denounced by Bill Kristol in the wake of the Lott affair) or their pretended adoption of the “Hispanic strategy”—will be to push the party even further to the left on race, immigration, and “civil rights.” As the dominant voice of the right, the neoconservatives have shown that they will not hesitate to destroy a senior conservative Republican leader if he deviates from their ideological preferences and premises on such issues and that there can be no media and, therefore, no significant political support for such a leader. The neoconservatives now define what is and what is not respectable and defensible conservatism, and their definition does not include the voting record of Mr. Lott—or of Barry Goldwater, Jesse Helms, Strom Thurmond, and most other conservatives. At the present, there is no significant political force in American politics able to challenge their claim that they are the only legitimate expression of the political right. Maybe it is time somebody started just such an alternative force.