Skip to content

The Decline of The New Criterion

How one of conservativism’s highest brows went all-in for Trump

It’s one of the pathetic and touching pieties of liberals in America: the belief in the Noble Conservative. Many liberal people, unlike our more guarded cousins on the pinker portions of the left, nourish the hope that there is such a being as the Conservative of High Principle, who can be counted on when the chips are down to do the right thing. This myth is usually encouraged by a hazy memory of history. “Winston Churchill was a righty, but always clear-sighted about the Nazis!” Let’s not recall too clearly all the imperialist stuff about using poison gas on tribal revolts. William F. Buckley we like to remember gamely sparring with opponents on his show Firing Line, not writing in praise of Franco and Pinochet, or opposing civil rights. Today, sad liberals pin similar hopes on non-entities like Evan McMullin and Jeff Flake, imagining that, with some gentle convincing, we can put such conservatives’ jingoism and sentimentality to good purpose in the defense of democracy. Aren’t we all good Americans? We all love the same country and nourish the same hopes for its safety and prosperity, don’t we? Surely there’s something to be said for engaging with ideas that you don’t hold, if not to broaden your horizons, at least just to sharpen your own arguments? We can have a good, lively discussion and then shake hands and be friends.

It was something of that spirit that lead me to peek into The New Criterion from time to time when I was younger, despite being vaguely aware that it was the cultural wing of the neoconservative movement. I can’t remember specific articles now, but I actually liked reading it. I enjoyed what I deemed at the time to be pretty stylish prose, I was impressed by the showy erudition, and I even appreciated their sallies of wit targeted at academic jargon. I felt they were fostering the kind of humanism I believed in, carrying on the tradition of the golden age of New York Intellectuals and Partisan Review. Unlike their caricature of people left of center, I thought—and still think, for the most part—that there’s nothing really wrong with reading the Western canon and appreciating the masters, modern and old. The editors seemed like the kind of guys (yes, mostly guys) that didn’t hold your politics against you; no, they were high-minded and tolerant of different ideas. Maybe, I fancied, one day, I would write something for them. At some point, I stopped reading it. I got annoyed. I don’t really know if it changed or I did. Did I become more aware of its politics, or did its politics become shriller and more strident? It started to seem pretentious rather than elevated. But I guess I always liked that it was still there, doing its ornery thing, part of the cheerful panoply of little journals and magazines that makes following intellectual currents feel fun and vital, like so many sports teams, each with their own line-up, history, identity, style, and fan bases.

How do you go from witty reviews of books on Hegel and Kierkegaard to recommending a book by The Veritas Project’s James O’Keefe?

I hadn’t thought much about The New Criterion or its editor Roger Kimball, whose books I would sometimes pick up and then very quickly put down, for some time. Until, chatting on the phone with a new acquaintance, an older historian who is right-leaning but anti-Trump, the topic turned to right-wing intellectuals who had gone over to that side. We talked about the West Coast Straussians and The Claremont Review. Then he mentioned Kimball. “Oh, Really? Him?” I was surprised. How did this happen? I had assumed that the sheer snobbery of The New Criterion would prevent any kind of wish to associate with this reality TV vulgarity. I mean, how do you go from witty reviews of books on Hegel and Kierkegaard to recommending a book by Project Veritas’s James O’Keefe?

You see, The New Criterion was founded in 1982 to be a kind of National Redoubt of High Culture, an earthwork against, as the editors subtly put it in the first issue, “the insidious assault on mind that was one of the most repulsive features of the radical movement of the sixties.” It was the brainchild of pianist Samuel Lipman and New York’s crankiest critic, Hilton Kramer, who for many years thundered from his New York Times perch against the modish impostures of the art world.

Kramer often got it wrong. All critics do, and that can’t be held against him. No one bats a thousand. But when Kramer struck out, he struck out big, like when he panned Philip Guston’s transition back to figurative work, widely recognized now as some of the most significant painting of the second half of the twentieth century, as the act of “A mandarin pretending to be a stumblebum.” He may have been wrong about Guston, but that line and the critical move it entails, calling out an act of reverse pretension, high acting low, is unforgettable. So it’s surprising that Kramer’s protégé, the man who succeeded him as editor after his death in 2012, forgot it.

A banner image on The New Criterion’s website, right above an enticement to subscribe, tells you who is in charge, in case you did not know: “The New Criterion—A monthly review edited by Roger Kimball.” (Emphasis theirs.) The January 2018 issue is dedicated to populism, and the imprint Kimball publishes, Encounter Books, recently put out an anthology collection on the same subject entitled Vox Populi, to mark the thirty-fifth anniversary of The New Criterion. The term “populism”, Kimball explains in its introduction, “functions largely as a handy negative epithet, a rhetorical hand grenade, whose very lack of semantic content is one of its chief attractions. Toss the word into a discussion and, bang! The discussion is over.” Meanwhile, Kimball’s rhetorical unctuousness is an effort to do the opposite: He uses the concept “populism”, in all its semantic ambiguity, to smooth over the sheer stupidity and squalor of the Trump administration, transforming it into something abstract, a “phenomenon” of Politics and History worthy of furrowed brow and serious consideration. “I would suggest that ‘populism’ is primarily about what I have elsewhere called the location of sovereignty,” he writes. 

With Kimball the roles of cultural critic and movement propagandist are not always distinct. Mr. Kimball is the author of one of the minor classics of the culture wars: his 1990 Tenured Radicals had it that the universities were infested with hardened left-wing cadres, the professors, hell-bent on corrupting the youth. So, when you read an op-ed, or nine, about the growing threat of P.C. campus culture, give a thought to the now largely unremarked efforts of Kimball, who set the dubious standard by which the lesser scribblers of that fecund genre must measure their work. One of his main complaints, then and now (as his complaints have not substantially changed), was that scholarship has become just an exercise in political correctness and ideological warfare. As he put it in one interview, that discipline has become, “a politically motivated verbal static, a ghastly sort of impersonation of intellectual activity.” As it so often seems to happen in his writing, that imprecation of Kimball’s is not such a bad description of his own efforts.

What else can you call it when, in a 2012 interview to plug his book The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia, in just a few minutes he manages to get into a rant against the “seductions of a quasi-socialist regime” we supposedly live in, and the “culture of dependency” bred by the “welfare state” and “the Great Society programs of Lyndon Johnson”? What world is Kimball living in? Has anybody told him his side won on that front? Not to mention the absurdity of the whole premise: The idea that liberal managerial elites are becoming so good at administering our needs that we are becoming stuck in perpetual childhood, and that this is a form of tyranny, reminds me of the Monty Python sketch where the Spanish Inquisition tortures its victims by putting them in a comfy chair and bringing them a nice cup of coffee. (In the introduction to Vox Populi, he even calls the “regulatory excess” he bemoans a “blanket.”)

In 2004’s The Rape of the Masters, he complains academic art history is “Substituting the ideological for the visual, it reduces art to a prop in an essentially non or extra-aesthetic drama.” Again, that’s funny because ideological drama of questionable aesthetic merit is really Kimball’s forte. The rhetoric is always a little operatic. His writing is littered with metaphorical “rapes” and “seductions,” feckless elites commit “suicide,” and everything is a “betrayal” or a “treason”: “The Betrayal of Liberalism” or “The Treason of the Intellectuals.” An atmosphere of decline and decadence pervades. He seems to have borrowed this taste for Wagnerian purple from Hilton Kramer: the elder’s book titles are a series comprised of “Triumph,” “Revenge”, and “Twilight.” This consistency of style, combined with the same quotes from Irving Kristol, Edmund Burke, James Burnham, and Alexis de Tocqueville employed over and over to shore up his points, make his essays difficult to distinguish from each other after a while.

Let’s try to decant the stock plot of Kimball’s gothic melodramas: A damsel (America) is locked in a dark castle, which was once a glorious palace in years gone by. Caretakers (liberal elites, the bureaucracy, academia) pretend to be benevolently working in the best interest of their charge, but they are actually sapping her vitality and keeping her weak and infirm with an evil spell (left-wing ideology, political correctness, egalitarianism). What we need is a “manly” hero to break through this gloomy morass! See how Kimball roiled his audience, back in 2006:

The question is whether we believe anything with sufficient vigor to jettison the torpor of our barren self-satisfaction. There are signs that the answer is Yes, but you won’t see them on CNN or read about them in The New York Times. The people presiding over such institutions would rather die than acknowledge that someone like James Burnham (to say nothing of George W. Bush) was right. It just may come to that.

This is, of course, claptrap, in the original sense of the word. As Jonathan Rose describes in The Literary Churchill, in old melodramatic plays the hero, back to the wall, would deliver “a brief but fervent oration, proclaiming what he is fighting for, and hurling defiance in the face of the villain. This performance naturally obliges the audience to applaud furiously: they are fairly trapped into clapping.” The audience obviously got hip to this trick pretty fast, and claptrap became just another word for bullshit.

Suffice it to say that the people Kimball has chosen to cast as hero are growing ever more absurd. After 9/11, George W. Bush was picked to play the part of Pericles:

The left-liberal establishment cannot long bear to see a strong America regnant. It was chastened by disaster but incited by the prospect of losing hold of its illusions. Yet there are also encouraging signs, not least President Bush’s State of the Union address at the end of January, that America is prepared to follow through on its promise to eradicate terrorism and hold responsible those states that sponsor, finance, or abet it. In this it is reclaiming a central part of Pericles’s vision. “Make up your minds,” Pericles said toward the end of his great oration, “that happiness depends on being free, and freedom depends on being courageous. Let there be no relaxation in the face of the perils of the war.”

But history repeats itself, first as farce, second as burlesque. Kimball has now managed to find an even more preposterous actor for the same role. Writing for the blog American Greatness in July 2017, he published a piece titled “Donald Trump as Pericles” comparing Trump’s speech in Warsaw to the famous funeral oration in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. (What’s next? Roger Kimball presents Pericles of Athens, starring Bo Dietl?) “It’s a good thing that Pericles did not have to suffer under the scrutiny the chest-less, politically correct ditto-heads that rule our media and educational system today,” Kimball wrote. “Or perhaps I should say, it is a good thing for them that they did not have to suffer under the frank and manly self-confidence of Pericles.” The only Greek politician that sounds like is Spiro Agnew.

History repeats itself, first as farce, second as burlesque.

In his enthusiasm, Kimball has evidently missed the dramatic irony of the funeral oration scene: the rousing speech sermonizing Athens’s democratic values is set at the end of the first year of a war that would ultimately lead to that city’s ruin, and the very next chapter describes a plague setting in on Athens, a sign of many more bad things to come. Meanwhile, as Kimball, blithely unaware, narrates Trump’s heroic deeds, most of us in the audience have noticed that the hero of this play has helped himself to public funds and has groped the damsel he was supposed to save.

One could excuse all this fustian as kind of silly, but all-in-all pretty harmless stuff. But right wing populist boilerplate also needs a few caricatured villains. Corrupt and effete “liberal elites” are so abstract that no one much risks coming to harm when they are maligned. After all, Kimball, who once worked at the Twentieth Century Fund, a prominent progressive think tank, probably dines and golfs with plenty of people would could qualify as liberal elites and doesn’t really think they are “the evil party.” Totally inexcusable, however, are the smarmy libels of minorities, which don’t sound much more elevated than something you’d find on Breitbart or from Alex Jones:

[U]ltimately the greatest danger posed by Islam to the West is not terrorism but the stealth jihad which endeavors to spread sharia, i.e. Islamic law, by infiltrating and corrupting democratic institutions. It’s a sterling trick of using and abusing democratic freedoms, ultimately, to abolish them. Day one: “You must allow the hijab in the name of religious freedom!” Day two: “You must forbid pork products because they contravene Islamic law.” You know the drill.

Indeed, we do. With this sleazy move, people innocently practicing their faith and exercising their civil rights are now presented as a fifth column, rotting the nation from within, worse than the terrorists. To find Kimball’s literary predecessors in this, look at the anti-Semitic pamphleteers of the last two centuries, how they painted Kosher butchery as a sign of Jewish inhumanity and skimmed the Talmud for evidence of a secret plot to subjugate the gentiles.

I guess it was always heading in this direction; maybe the Western Heritage fetish was destined to become weaponized kitsch. Come to think of it, there was something implicitly Trumpian in the self-proclaimed “deep superficiality” of Kimball’s ornamental approach to art history. Instead of the hard work of interpretation and criticism, we get a rococo pantheon of our Western geniuses, and we are supposed to just pass each one of them and remark “Terrific! Great! Beautiful! The best! The best!” In his books Trump likes to list his favorite basic luxury products: “Rolex is the best watch. Mercedes is the best car”; Kimball, in effect, wants us to apply the same treatment to art: “Michelangelo is the best sculptor. Leonardo is the best painter,” and so on and so forth.

Thinking too hard, after all, is part of the problem. Kimball believes the criticisms of intellectuals threaten to unglue us from our moorings in tradition. He’s not totally wrong. Ceaseless reflection, Hegel thought, was the engine of the Enlightenment: no custom or tradition is safe from the mind’s search for reasons and conditions. Unleashed, thought negates and dissolves the substantial forms of old society, discovering them after all to be its own products rather than divine decrees. This process is painful for individuals and cultures: it’s the cause of both existential crisis and political upheaval. Along history’s way, many have tried to avoid it, to find a shaded place to hide. Kimball’s friend William F. Buckley imagined the role of the National Review to be “standing athwart history, yelling Stop.” But, as a fella once said, “you may not be interested in the dialectic, but the dialectic is interested in you.” And the part history will cast you in is very rarely the one of your choosing; it will probably form some kind of an ironic comment on the vanity of your pose.

Obsessed with the decline of the West, Kimball and The New Criterion have themselves become examples of Western decline, peddling a reality in which Trump, who looks like a senile moron to anyone with common sense and a would-be tyrant to anyone with a bit of imagination, and Pericles occupy the same spiritual plane. Doesn’t Kimball see that by making this absurd juxtaposition he’s actually having the very thought he attributes to the chattering classes he professes to loathe: the notion that Western civilization has never really been so great, after all?

Trumpism represents conservativism at its essential core, a kind of return to its roots in monarchism. Finding an idiot is the whole point.

When Kimball concludes that “conservatives ought to respond to the ‘populist challenge’ by embracing it wholeheartedly” is this heresy or true religion? In some ways, Trumpism represents conservativism at its essential core, a kind of return to its roots in monarchism. Finding an idiot is the whole point. Kings, as William Hazlitt pointed out back in 1823, are more effective the less impressive they are as individuals, this way the lowly can easily exchange places with them in their imaginations, which is how the whole system operates:

The worthlessness of the object does not diminish but irritate the propensity to admire. It serves to pamper our imagination equally, and does not provoke our envy. All we want is to aggrandize our own vainglory at second hand; and the less of real superiority or excellence there is in the person we fix upon as our proxy in this dramatic exhibition, the more easily can we change places with him, and fancy ourselves as good as he. Nay, the descent favours the rise; and we heap our tribute of applause the higher, in proportion as it is a free gift. An idol is not the worse for being made of coarse materials; a king should be a common-place man. 

Hazlitt also points out there is “a cant among court-sycophants” that “shows the grossness of their ideas of all true merit, and the false standard of rank and power by which they measure everything.” That pretty much sums up all Trump-toadying. Still, I wonder if Kimball remembers that decadence and decline, and the populist dramatics meant to counter them, were moods he once criticized. In 1991, he wrote a review of Christopher Lasch’s The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its critics called “The Disaffected Populist.” In that piece, he regrets that Lasch’s “diagnoses are so sweeping and historically one-sided.” He points out the author’s “uncomfortably categorical rhetoric” and that the “hyperbole imbues his analysis with an apocalyptic quality.” He concludes that Lasch is hamstrung by the “central left-wing habit of defining himself in opposition to establishment culture” and that “his attack on progress represents not a triumph of hope but an unusually dour form of populist pessimism.” As always seems to happen, that functions as a good characterization of what Kimball has accomplished.

Traditionally we think of decadence as an excess of self-consciousness; when irony and reflection come to dominate a culture, we are told its faith in itself has been sapped and it has not long to go. But as the conservative intellectual teaches us, it is the lack, rather than the surfeit, of self-reflection that is really fatal. Without it, erudition calcifies into ornament, and the act of thinking itself becomes a mere pretense.