My old friend David Horowitz is having another moment in the sun.
The one-time stalwart of the 1960’s New Left is raising his hand to retroactively claim credit as a founding father of the Trump revolution.
Here he is at Breitbart, boasting about his long friendship with Steven Bannon and about grooming a young Stephen Miller, who Horowitz calls a “general” in the “White House battle tank” and his personal “conduit to (then Senator, now Attorney General Jeff) Sessions.” At his own Frontpage Magazine, Horowitz pays tribute to its man of the year, Bannon “the unsung hero.”
His new book, Big Agenda: President Trump’s Plan to Save America, “a guide to fighting the opponents of the conservative restoration,” has been on Amazon’s best-seller list for weeks.
Among its singular contributions to our current political culture is that a prominent conservative intellectual now proposes Republicans take lessons in electoral strategy from Mike Tyson: “Everybody has a game plan until you punch them in the mouth.” From this bon mot Horowitz concludes that in order to win the struggle for America’s future, “conservatives must begin every confrontation by punching progressives in the mouth.” Elsewhere in the book, Horowitz writes: “Republicans must adhere to a strategy that begins with a punch in the mouth.”
Of course, of course, I understand what’s going on here. I have known David Horowitz for more than 50 years and will testify that he’s a gentle soul, a man of the mind without any personal lust for violence. Still, common readers can’t avoid being, err, struck by his endless references to violent combat (“the strategy is to go for the jugular;” “it’s time to take the gloves off; “take no prisoners; stay on the attack,” and on and on and on) in this first major manifesto for the month-old Trump administration already reveling in whacking its perceived enemies in the mouth (metaphorically of course).
Horowitz’s fighting words serve his overall narrative that up to now (that is before the glorious Trump victory and coming conservative restoration) only the Democrats understood that “politics is a form of warfare,” while mainstream Republicans were—sadly—too squeamish to fight fire with fire. Or, as Trump would say, those Republican officeholders are a bunch of low-energy wimps and losers.
Among all the Republican candidates it was Trump’s willingness to take up the tools of war, to hit Hillary where it hurt, that turned Horowitz into an early and fervent supporter of the politically inexperienced, vulgar billionaire. “Before Trump’s entry into the presidential primaries,” Horowitz writes, “there was not a single Republican figure with a national platform who would have called Hillary Clinton a crook or a liar to her face.”
According to Horowitz, conservative intellectuals were also too gentlemanly, too attached to civil discourse and respect for truth, to fight back against the Democrats, the party of the radical left now hellbent on destroying our country. For those spineless “never Trump” conservatives, “no-holds-barred, in-your-face brawling [was] problematic to begin with,” Horowitz laments.
So Horowitz delivered his own proverbial “punches in the mouth,” as when he attacked William Kristol, the neoconservative editor of The Weekly Standard as a “renegade Jew.” According to Horowitz, Kristol “betrayed” the Jewish people when he sought a candidate other than Trump for Republicans to rally around, thus giving aid and comfort to that known enemy of Israel, Hillary Clinton. The truth is that Horowitz is a Johnny-come-lately to the pro-Israel ranks and has never even visited the Jewish state. But that didn’t deter him from delivering a rabbit punch to a life-long Zionist and supporter of Israel.
As a “never Trump” conservative myself, I hereby plead guilty to Horowitz’s charge of insufficient enthusiasm for the Mike Tyson school of politics. From the beginning I abhorred the “in-your-face, brawling” presidential election Horowitz cheered. I blamed candidate Trump almost exclusively for turning the election, our most hallowed republican institution, into a clown show.
I did not think there was anything conservative about Trump’s habit of leading his howling supporters in chants of “lock her up.” Nor did I regard it as an expression of American patriotism when Trump stirred up his campaign rallies with an exceptionally disgusting lie about General John Pershing executing 50 captured Muslim insurgents in the Philippines with bullets dipped in pigs’ blood—suggesting that such war crimes might be a useful tactic in America’s current war against Islamic terrorism. In those instances, at least, there was nothing metaphorical about the blood lust erupting at Trump’s rallies.
Certainly this was not the conservatism I had in mind when I made my political journey out of the Left starting in the mid-1970s. Nor could I have imagined that this might be the brand of conservatism that my friend David Horowitz would eventually embrace when he embarked on the same political journey all those years ago.
David and I first met as graduate students at the University of California at Berkeley in 1962. We were both radical New York Jews whose parents were part of the old, pro-Soviet left who’d found our separate ways to the Berkeley campus in part because of its reputation as a seedbed of student protest. With our friend Robert Scheer, a third New York Jewish radical and Berkeley grad student, we founded one of the first New Left student magazines. We called it Root and Branch (the name taken from the writings of the 18th century English revolutionary thinker Gerrard Winstanly) and put the first issue together with a stapler and a mimeograph machine in the home of one of our editors.
Our little magazine survived for all of three issues, but it briefly captured the youthful idealism and naiveté of the early ’60s New Left. In the first issue, I wrote an article critical of George F. Kennan’s Cold War “containment” policy and David wrote a precocious philosophical essay about the theme of alienation in the works of Martin Buber and Karl Marx. Scheer wrote about San Francisco’s beat poets. This was not the street fighting New Left that would soon emerge on the campuses.
In our first editorial statement we promised to steer an ideological course rejecting both free world capitalism and repressive Soviet communism. We were well schooled in the influential anti-totalitarian works produced by the great writers of the 1930s and ’40s who had tragically been lured to Stalinism by the false dream of world revolution. Among our favorite texts were The Captive Mind, by the dissident Czech philosopher Czeslaw Milosz and The God That Failed, containing essays about the corruptions of communism by writers such as Arthur Koestler, Richard Wright, and Stephen Spender. We pledged that our new generation of radical intellectuals would never succumb to the totalitarian temptation.
Yet we enthusiastically supported the Cuban Revolution, believing it was a great leap forward for the democratic socialist cause. In this we followed the lead of one of our intellectual heroes, Columbia University sociologist C. Wright Mills, who claimed in his best-selling book, Listen, Yankee, that Fidel Castro was a new breed of revolutionary leader—more humanist, more open and more hip than old-style bureaucratic Communists. We even imagined Fidel and Che as fellow New Leftists.
After the demise of Root and Branch, Scheer, Horowitz and I, plus another Berkeley grad student named Peter Collier, moved on to the big stage of radical journalism by joining Ramparts magazine. Under the leadership of our flamboyant editor, Warren Hinckle, Ramparts was soon breaking major national stories, including one I wrote about the CIA’s penetration of the National Student Association. Our circulation reached 200,000, an unheard of figure for a leftist publication at the time.
For Ramparts, the mission was part sensational journalism, part radical activism. Student rebellions and antiwar protests were sweeping campuses around the country, and the Black Panthers were stirring up inner-city ghettos. To this day I hold myself responsible for helping to create the myth of the Black Panthers as righteous rebels fighting off brutal police oppression. In 1967, I wrote a hagiographic profile for Ramparts of Huey Newton, the Panthers’ “minister of defense,” and then published essentially the same article in The New York Times Magazine. It soon became clear to anyone who cared to investigate that Newton and the Panthers were clever street thugs who spouted revolutionary rhetoric to avoid accountability for their crimes.
By 1970, Horowitz and Collier had taken over the helm at Ramparts, but continued to drink the Kool-Aid served by the New Left’s most destructive elements. They published Tom Hayden’s dangerous drivel proclaiming the Black Panthers as America’s “internal Viet Cong,” along with his exhortation for radical white youth to create “liberated zones” as sanctuaries for their Panther allies. Ramparts’ new editors then doubled down on this foolishness with their own, proclaiming Hayden “one of the country’s most serious revolutionaries.”
To me, the indelible image of Horowitz and Collier’s Ramparts was the May, 1970 “Ecology Special” issue, with a cover showing a burning Bank of America branch and text saying the students who firebombed the bank “may have done more for saving the environment than all the teach-ins put together.” It seemed that the idealistic New Left was now reproducing all the disasters and lies of the Old Left.
I was living and reporting in Israel in 1975 when I learned that Ramparts had finally closed its doors. By then, I no longer considered myself a leftist—in no small measure because of the New Left’s growing hostility to Israel. Soon, Horowitz and Collier had their own The God That Failed moment and broke sharply with the left (PDF).
After Ramparts, both men had brilliant second lives and careers (F. Scott Fitzgerald was wrong about this) as award-winning journalists and historians. The pair co-authored three best-selling books about the Kennedy, Rockefeller, and Ford dynasties. Horowitz then wrote his political memoir, Radical Son, exposing with admirable honesty the catastrophic consequences for the possibility of a decent left that resulted from Ramparts’ misalliance with the Panthers and Tom Hayden.
In the early 1980s, the former Ramparts editors had their much-publicized “Second Thoughts” conference and became prominent conservative activists. I too thought of myself as a member of the “second thoughts” movement of ex-leftists turned conservative and I contributed articles to Front Page, the new web magazine launched by Horowitz and Collier.
Front Page and the non-profit organization they created (with the rather awkward name of The Center for the Study of Popular Culture) did pioneering work, in my view, in exposing the spread of oppressive political correctness in the universities and in the culture. One of the most prolific writers I have ever known, Horowitz turned out a steady stream of books and pamphlets, using his own experiences as a radical to warn about the dangerous leftward turn of the Democratic Party. In recent years, though, I began fretting about the political direction that Horowitz was moving in, one more radical right and mean spirited than conservative.
I thought it somewhat tasteless when he changed the name of his organization to The David Horowitz Freedom Center. It made me recall the “cult of personality” that disfigured the old pro Soviet left. And I blanched when I noticed the slogan now appearing permanently at the top of the Front Page website: “Inside Every Progressive Is a Totalitarian Screaming to Get Out.” Really David? Every progressive is a totalitarian? This seemed like a throwback to Tom Hayden’s rhetoric from the ’60s about how every American liberal is actually a war criminal, only in reverse.
As for totalitarian minds, there was now the steady, monotonous beat of war drums and the demonization of all liberals and moderates by the writers at Front Page. So many mouths to be punched. Of course, Horowitz would likely respond that it was the liberals and Democrats who started the war and who still practice politics as warfare by other means. Still, it seemed to me that my old friend had forgotten one of the most important lessons we took away from our experiences on the radical left. Anathematizing your political adversaries as the source of all evil, turning politics into mortal combat, is one of the surest paths to totalitarian thinking and, eventually, civil unrest. Horowitz must know that words matter. When the New Left adopted the slogan “bring the war back home,” people died on America’s streets.
The emergence of Donald Trump has given this political lesson from the 20th century an altogether contemporary dimension. Horowitz’s new book is precisely an illustration of that political conundrum. After reading the short volume I was reminded of Ramparts’ adoration for the Black Panthers and Hayden. In Horowitz’s blind celebration of all things Trump, a gifted writer has been led to produce a truly deplorable book, a mélange of agitprop and false accusations against both Democrats and moderate, conscientious Republicans.
Like Trump himself, Horowitz portrays a down-and-out, all-but crippled America, a nation virtually at the precipice. He repeats canards straight out of Trump’s fact-challenged campaign speeches, including the preposterous claim that “ninety-four million Americans have left the workforce” and that under Democratic rule the U.S. has seen “a dramatic spike in homicides and other violent crimes.” (According to the FBI, murders and other violent crimes are down by almost one half since the early ’90s.)
Horowitz claims that but for the miraculous advent of Trump, “an American patriot distressed by the state of corruption and decline into which his country had fallen,” America was doomed. Until that saving moment when Trump came down the escalator in Trump Tower, Republicans were “losing the political and culture wars with the left because they do not understand what their adversaries are up to… what drives them and shapes their means and ends… what deceptions will they employ, what laws will they break.” In other words, Republicans are dumb and Donald Trump is a political genius.
Another undercurrent in this book is that only David Horowitz, because of his unique experiences on the Left, can teach the clueless Republicans about the awful hatred for the country that came from the Democrats and their 2016 standard bearer Hillary Clinton. Here is how our self-styled expert on the left describes the political agenda of the Democratic Party and of progressives generally:
“… they are zealots of what can only be described as a crypto-religion modeled on the Christian narrative of the Fall and Redemption—the difference being that they see themselves as the redeemers instead of the divinity. To progressives, the world is a fallen place—beset by racism, sexism, homophobia, and the rest—that must be transformed and made right. This redemption was once called communism and is now called socialism or ‘social justice.’”
Yes, I appreciate that Chuck Schumer, the leader of the Senate Democrats and de facto leader of the party after Hillary’s defeat, isn’t right on many issues facing America today. But “a zealot” of a “crypto-religion modeled on the Christian narrative of the Fall and Redemption?” This is not only unhinged in itself, but when coupled with Horowitz’s hero worship of Donald Trump (much like his celebration of Huey Newton almost a half century ago) it renders my old friend unqualified as a serious analyst of American politics.
Horowitz is now just as silent on Donald Trump’s dangerous character traits and serial lies as his old left forbearers were in judgement of the most notorious totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. There is not one acknowledgement in this book about the hatred and cruelty generated by candidate Trump during his campaign rallies—the mocking of a handicapped reporter, the made-up story of Muslim prisoners being executed by General Pershing. As for the indisputable evidence—through Trump’s recorded words, plus countless credible witness testimonies—that the candidate was a serial sexual assaulter, Horowitz dismisses it all as a baseless slander organized by the Clinton camp.
In the last section of the book, Horowitz presents a “battle plan” for the first 100 days of the Trump presidency. Many of the items are cribbed from proposals on Trump’s website. Still, it isn’t that any of the 15 or so policy proposals offered by Horowitz couldn’t be supported by conservatives like myself. But there’s no reason to take any of it seriously, since neither I nor David Horowitz has the slightest idea if Trump will carry them out or is even interested in carrying them out.
The far bigger danger that Horowitz and other pro-Trump conservative intellectuals are in denial about is our new president’s uniquely flawed character, his ignorance of the world and his evident incompetence to organize an American government now facing acute and unprecedented worldwide challenges.
In his 1953 anti-totalitarian classic, The Captive Mind, the Czech writer Czeslaw Milosz described how European intellectuals betrayed their commitment to thought and truth for the illusion that their utopian hopes for change might be satisfied by real communism in power. In the early days of the New Left, Horowitz recognized that this age-old dream of a better world could easily be corrupted when it was attached to state power and a demagogic party leader using the big lie technique. A half century later, in the strange case of Donald Trump, Horowitz has fallen for the same illusion he once warned against.
I am convinced this will end badly for our country, but it’s almost as disturbing that it will end badly for the once idealistic conservative movement in America. This time, when the dreams of radical change fall apart, there will be no redemptive moment as in The God That Failed for Horowitz and his fellow Trump intellectuals.
It will, instead, be transparently pathetic and shameful that men and women of intellect and ideas served as a bodyguard of lies for a low-life con man who managed to disgrace the American presidency.
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