Recently C. Bradley Thompson responded obliquely to my critical comments in Chronicles about his book and subsequent observations on the American Founding. Contrary to Thompson’s asides on Facebook and Twitter dismissing my criticism, I did read some of his tome, The Revolutionary Mind, and even commented on it—but I found its discussion of our state-builders so tendentious and unscholarly that after a few chapters I gave up. His attribution of recognizably Randian, agnostic, or atheistic views to the Founders was a bit much.
In any case, my critical analyses of Thompson’s writings are supposedly reducible to “smears” and even more ominously, to my identification with what he called the “TradCon reactionary Right.” Those on Thompson’s right remain unfit to mention, let alone deserve serious discussion from the conservative establishment, which supposedly praises Thompson as a brilliant researcher. Who am I to belittle anyone who has earned an interview on “The Dave Rubin Show” and whom National Review treats as a clubbable thinker?
This incident revealed only the most superficial tip of a gigantic iceberg, which is the conservative movement’s extensive cancel culture. Those who position themselves or are imagined to be situated even a millimeter to the right of where Conservative Inc. wants us to be at a particular moment are read out of the authorized “conservative” conversation. We are labeled the “TradCon reactionary right,” or some other equally disreputable label. As a scholar, I do not fly a “TradCon reactionary” flag. I take my information or insights wherever I find them. This means I am not dependent for my thoughts on a conservative establishment that is driven by political opportunism and the pleasure of its sponsors.
This intolerant behavior on the part of the conservative establishment goes back even before the established left took up this unsavory practice. Note that in the 1950s and 1960s, it was William F. Buckley, Jr., James Burnham, and Willmoore Kendall who were scolding liberals for believing in an “open society.” Post-World War II conservatives ridiculed those who believed in the creation of an America in which all views, even those of Communists, would be heard. In my anthology The Vanishing Tradition and in my book Conservatism in America: Making Sense of the American Right, I trace back to the 1950s the conservative movement’s tendency to ostracize those who defy party lines. It was then that conservatism reconstructed itself as a crusading, anti-Communist movement that had little time for qualified Cold Warriors. Of course, there was a credible Communist threat after World War II.
The first to go in the transformed conservative movement of the 1950s were so-called isolationists, like libertarian scholar Murray Rothbard. These early rejections are regrettable; later the purging assumed a much grimmer aspect. By the 1980s, with the dizzying ascent of the neoconservatives, expulsions were extended to critics of a global, democratic foreign policy and other features of the neoconservative agenda. Moreover, unlike the earlier attempts to nudge out pesky dissenters, the neocons added a Communist-like efficiency to their purges.
As in the cases of M. E. Bradford, Samuel T. Francis, Joe Sobran and many others, the neocon-controlled movement excommunicated critics on the right by smearing them as “anti-Semites,” “racists,” and “enemies of democracy.” These multiple purge victims often saw their professional prospects vanish overnight, as neocons and their subordinates managed to ruin their enemies professionally. Or so I heard from Bradford, after this happened to him. It also happened to me years ago, when Bradford’s enemies also poisoned the wells for me professionally, while leaving fingerprints all over their work.
The “establishment” keeps attacking old targets even after its first assaults has been completed. I learned this for the umpteenth time last year when media celebrity Mark Levin prohibited his staff from being on my Cotto/Gottfried podcast. Although the employee who refused to participate gave no reason other than Levin’s blanket prohibition, one may easily guess that someone in the movement took umbrage at something I said or suggested over the last 40 years. Once someone is on the proscription list, it’s next to impossible to get that person off. Levin hypocritically rants on Fox News against leftist intolerance, while glaringly exemplifying the very vice he condemns.
In fact, Conservative Inc.'s treatment of dissenters may grow worse over time, since there is no date of expiration attached to this ban. I personally experienced this problem, when I went from being dropped as a speaker by certain organizations in the 1990s to being canceled as a person and labeled as someone to whom authorized Conservative Inc. employees might only respond at their own peril. Although I can’t imagine my marginalization becoming more extreme, I may be underestimating the vindictiveness of those who do the ostracizing.
No one is denying that when the leftist captains of Silicon Valley electronic media suppress their conservative users, we should see it as an attempt to throttle legitimate political dissent. But Conservative Inc. has not treated its abused dissenters one whit better. Its marginalization of people may be even more ruinous than what the left does since those whom Conservative Inc. stigmatizes as right-wing bigots, will not find defenders on the other side. Conservative Inc., by contrast, will readily accept and enrich anyone who comes to its side from the left. I am not surprised this movement mistakes Thompson for a serious scholar.
Paul Gottfried is editor in chief of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is also the Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for 25 years, a Guggenheim recipient, and a Yale Ph.D. He is the author of 13 books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents.