The Trump presidency represented a solid break with the longstanding norms of right-wing politics in the USA. Trump campaigns as a foul-mouthed populist who criticized military interventions and seemed champion “the little guy” hurt by trade deals and Washington mismanagement. However, within the White House, Mike Pence and John Bolton seem to represent two dual trends that dominated American conservative politics from the 1970s onward. A Neoconservative National Security Advisor, and an Evangelical Vice President, seem to be working hard to preserve the Cold War formula for Republican leadership.
John Bolton: The Heir of Strauss & Kristol
A lot has been written about ‘Neoconservatism.’ But what does the term actually mean? Libertarians and paleoconservative analysts tend to use the term as a pejorative for mainstream Republicans who operate against their principles. The New York Times seems to portray “neocons” as a mysterious faction of interventionists that has infiltrated the government, pushing for larger foreign entanglements.
In reality, Neoconservatism was the Republican Party getting slick, and marketing itself to a generation of Americans raised on television and rock music. It also involved honestly accepting elitism, something previous conservative trends had shunned.
According to the New York Times, Irving Kristol was “commonly known as the godfather of neoconservatism.” Irving Kristol was a Trotskyite Communist in the 1930s who gradually shifted away from Marxism. According to his New York Times obituary, it was contact with actual working class people in the US military that convinced him to drop socialism altogether:
“Drafted into the Army with a number of Midwesterners who were street-tough and often anti-Semitic, he found himself shedding his youthful radical optimism. “I can’t build socialism with these people,” he concluded. “They’ll probably take it over and make a racket out of it.” In his opinion, his fellow GI’s were inclined to loot, rape and murder, and only Army discipline held them in check. It was a perception about human nature that would stay with him for the rest of his life, creating a tension with his alternative view that ordinary people were to be trusted more than intellectuals to do the right thing.”
After working with the CIA’s Congress for Cultural Freedom program, Kristol eventually moved from liberal intelligence circles to the think tanks aligned with the Republican Party.
The other individual credited with giving birth to Neoconservative thinking is Leo Strauss, the Plato Scholar who taught philosophy at the New School for Social Research and the University of Chicago. According to the Brooklyn Rail:
“Strauss’s acolytes have penetrated American government and higher education, and have proudly influenced the nation’s social and public policies. In the Bush Administration itself there are numerous people who have been either taught by Strauss or who are disciples of his ideas—most notably Paul Wolfowitz, Stephen Cambone, the Under-Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, and Abram Shulsky, Director of the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans; and there are those outside of government with great influence.”
Leo Strauss, like Kristol, seemed to believe ordinary people needed to be duped and manipulated by a superior group of intellectuals. Describing Strauss’ worldview, The Nation wrote:
“Intellectuals, he believed, would have to spread an ideology of good and evil, whether they believed it or not, so that the American people could be mobilized against the enemies of freedom. For this reason Strauss, we learn in one of many telling asides, was a huge fan of the TV series Gunsmoke and its Manichean depiction of good and evil.”
Neoconservatism’s birth is traced back to Richard Nixon’s 1968 Presidential campaign, where Nixon appeared to have learned from George Wallace that sticking up for “ordinary folks” who were put off by the Civil Rights Movement and the Anti-Vietnam War Protests was a good strategy. Nixon’s rhetoric about the “silent majority” and “law and order” won him the Presidency.
The Presidency of Ronald Reagan seemed to be Strauss’ dream come true. Reagan was a former cowboy actor, and when he described US foreign policy in oval office addresses, he sounded like a Sheriff on an episode of Gunsmoke. The wars in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Libya, Grenada, and Lebanon were simply a battle between the “good guys” and the “bad guys,” with the complex realities hidden from the public mind.
John Bolton is widely described as a Neoconservative, and he now holds the post to which Trump originally appointed Michael Flynn. Bolton seems to fancy himself as an expert on who the latest “bad guys” of the CNN narrative are, and why the USA should not hesitate to “spread freedom” by overthrowing them. His bombastic tone, including threats to send Nicolas Maduro to Guantanamo Bay, fit the neoconservative playbook.
But these days, the non-interventionist sentiments once espoused by a minority of Ron Paul-types seem to be popular among the Red State base. And just as Neoconservatism is on the decline, a trend that the neocons depended on to exercise their political power, is also losing strength.
A New Brand of Religious Fanaticism
In 1957, British psychologist William Sargant wrote:
“Various types of belief can be implanted in many people, after brain function has been sufficiently disturbed by accidentally or deliberately induced fear, anger or excitement. Of the results caused by such disturbances, the most common is temporarily impaired judgement and heightened suggestibility. Its various group manifestations are sometimes classed under the heading of ‘herd instinct,’ and appear most spectacularly in wartime, during severe epidemics, and in all similar periods of common danger, which increase anxiety and so individual and mass suggestibility.”
Sargant’s book The Mind Possessed digs into the nature of propaganda and mind control, specifically exploring aspect of it in religious ceremonies. Sargant’s research was conducted in coordination with the Tavistock Institute, as British intelligence worked to understand the nature of persuasion in the aftermath of the Second World War. The religious movement commonly called Evangelical Christianity is very much the result of efforts to cultivate and refine the phenomena that Sargant’s work described, and utilize the emotional aspects of religion to control and manipulate people.
Distinct religious movements and communities have always existed throughout US history. Because the USA originated as a settler colony to which European cults and sects fled, the United States has a much higher tolerance of religious fanaticism. In two US states it is legal, for example, for churches to engage in snake-handling. This is an often deadly Christian ritual in which adherents take turns holding venomous snakes in a group setting, believing that God will protect them from being bitten.
Fundamentalist and charismatic Christianity emerged as movements among American protestants in the 1800s. Mormonism, Seventh Day Adventism, Pentecostalism, and other sects with very unique beliefs emerged as well.
However, the religious current of Evangelical Christianity that gained a very large amount of political power during the 1980s and 90s, is a distinct trend, separate from other episodes of fanaticism in American history. While it drew from these previous, uniquely American movements and belief systems, it arose due to unique historical circumstances in the 1970s, paralleling and aligning with neoconservatism in the Republican Party.
The first incarnations of what became Evangelical Christianity appeared in the late 1960s among the hippie counter-culture. Among drug using, rock music listening, anti-war protesting youth, a tendency emerged known as Jesus Freaks or Jesus People. This was a combination of hippie aesthetics with Christian teachings.
Two broadway musicals Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell, both of which became Hollywood movies, seemed to follow this trend of merging cultural hippy-ism with the narrative of the Bible’s New Testament.
Early Jesus Freaks followed the path of leftist Christian Dorothy Day and joined the Catholic Church, despite questioning many of its teachings. The hymn They’ll Know We Are Christian By Our Love was first sung by counter-culture elements the embedded themselves in Catholic Congregations.
Record company exec Tony Alamo, who had been largely involved in marketing the Beatles, quit the music business and launched his own church in Los Angeles utilizing the religious/aesthetic combination pioneer by the Jesus Freaks.
These counter-culture Christians differed from other religious upsurges in American history because they had a consistent lack of interest in theology.
While this was, to some degree, a gesture of rebellion against the “up tight” authoritarianism of existing Christian denominations, it was also an expression of anti-intellectualism. Historical facts, theological arguments, and knowledge of scripture did not matter. To the Jesus Freaks, religion was about the emotions they felt as they prayed, sang, and clapped in unison with other believers. It was about the glow they felt from engaging in acts of kindness, and the emotional relief provided by praying for forgiveness.
Throughout US history, Fundamental Baptists, Pentecostals, Lutherans, Mormons, and the various Charismatics took their history and unique interpretation of the Bible very seriously. Adherents of these movements can cite chapter and verse and argue harshly against rival interpretations. However, the Jesus Freaks were known for statements like “None of that matters, man, it’s just about love” and “I just believe the Bible.” Rather than pushing a specific doctrine, the Jesus People focused on a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”
From Jesus Freaks to Mega-Churches
Richard Nixon’s spiritual advisor Reverend Billy Graham, who supported the Vietnam War and opposed the Civil Rights Movement, was not a hippie by any stretch. But starting in 1969, Graham embraced the Jesus Freaks and had TV specials featuring long-haired, guitar playing youthful Christians.
In 1972, Reverend Sun Myung Moon, who had founded the Unification Church in South Korea, relocated to the United States. Reverend Moon was a skilled orator and a fanatical anticommunist. He had a very close relationship with Japanese and South Korean intelligence agencies, as was later revealed in testimony before the US congress. Nixon brought him to the United States where he also jumped on the Jesus Freakaesthetic, recruiting teenaged runaways and others to what was often presented as his “Peace Movement.” Like Graham, Moon was also a supporter of Nixon. Moon’s followers staged a hunger strike during the Watergate investigations, claiming they were a Communist plot to divide the United States.
Reverends Moon, Alamo, and Graham all experimented with what started to become a very effective political-religious formula by the end of the 1970s. It was Reverend Jerry Falwell, whose organization called the Moral Majority, that became the vanguard of what eventually became known as Evangelical Christianity or The Religious Right.
Instead of specific interpretations of Christianity, Non-Denominational churches sprung up across the country. These Mega-Churches as they were called, involved pastors who preached in front of big movie screens that showed images of what they were speaking about. They involved praise-bands that played Rock and Roll Music with Christian lyrics.
While the Jesus People had opposed the Vietnam War and supported the Civil Rights Movement, the Evangelicals that emerged to dominate US politics were right-wing in every way. They aligned with the Neoconservative movement, and repeated its talking points. They believed that somehow the USA was divinely selected to rid the world of Communism, and eventually of Islamic Terrorism. The Evangelical Christian movement eventually became very well embedded in the US military, with the West Point military academy becoming a stronghold of evangelicalism.
The “know-nothing” anti-intellectualism and lack of depth that defined the Jesus People, along with the hippie aesthetics, survived their movements transition to the right-wing of US politics. While Fundamentalist Baptists generally opposed rock music and men having long hair, and the Evangelical Mega-Churches embraced such things. While fundamentalist preachers like Billy Sunday or Charles G. Finney had certainly worked hard to stimulate emotional conversions with powerful oratory, the Evangelicals used flashing lights, rock music, and movie screens to turn the emotional volume up to a maximum level, while watering the theology down to almost nothing.
“I believe only the Bible” Evangelicals were trained to say, “If it is not in the book, then I don’t need it.” A popular bumper sticker says “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.” The long-standing theological wrangling found in the works of St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, John Calvin, and Martin Luther is long forgotten. Faith is about explosive feelings of fervor and sobs of redemption, not to be interrupted logical debate or moral reasoning.
Mike Pence, who began his career as a radio host in Indiana before being elected governor, is very much an Evangelical Christian. He makes a point of publicly praying and attending evangelical gatherings. Like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson did before him, Pence is keenly interested in foreign policy and seems to take his cues from his neoconservative contemporaries, such as John Bolton.
How Much Longer for the Neocon-Evangelical Block?
The strength of neoconservatives in US politics has largely depended on a mass movement of evangelicals to back them up. As political leaders present a foreign policy narrative that sounds like a Hollywood movie, voters endorse it and soldiers carry it out, hyped up by a very simplistic and emotional reinterpretation of the Christian gospels.
However, since the Presidency of George W. Bush, the Neocon-Evangelical block among Republicans has gotten significantly weaker. Both formulations are politicized smoke and mirrors, asking their adherents to just sit back and enjoy the show. Don’t do your own research. Don’t think too deeply. Let us entertain you and pluck your emotions with flashing lights. Listen to our surface level story about super-heroes battling super-villains.
The 2008 financial meltdown made it hard for Americans to simply accept a narrative. Many wanted answers about why their homes had been foreclosed, why their wages were dropping, and why they were drowning in debt. Furthermore, the accessibility of information created by social media, allowed the religious skepticism of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris to enter every evangelical household with a doubting teenager.
Trump won the Republican Nomination and the eventually 2016 election because he was explicitly not an Evangelical or a Neocon. However, Mike Pence and John Bolton seem to represent this longstanding formula for conservative policy-making, holding on to power within the Trump White House.
It is doubtful that this political block, formed during the Cold War, will rebound. Populism, not authoritarian elitist manipulations, seems to be rising trend among the American right-wing.
Caleb Maupin is a political analyst and activist based in New York. He studied political science at Baldwin-Wallace College and was inspired and involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.