Norman Podhoretz Gives a Must-Read Interview in the CRB

 

I apologize that this interview in its entirety is behind a paywall, but it was filled with so many juicy chunks I wanted to flag some of it for Ricochet readers. This interview appears in the forthcoming Spring 2019 issue of the Claremont Review of Books.

For those unfamiliar, Norman Podhoretz is one of the godfathers of neoconservatism. He is the author of countless best-selling books, including Why Are Jews Liberal? and WWIV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism. He was the editor of Commentary Magazine from 1960 until his retirement in 1995 and is an intellectual titan, not just among those of his generation, but in the modern-day conservative movement. At almost 90 years old, Podhoretz doesn’t give many interviews, which would have made the CRB interview already quite notable, but what he says in it makes it even more so. I’ll excerpt a bit below:

CRB: Some people say that Trump has a blue collar sensibility. Do you see that?
NP: I do see it and even before Trump—long before Trump—actually going back to when I was in the army in the 1950s, I got to know blue-collar Americans. I’m “blue collar” myself, I suppose. I’m from the working class—my father was a milk man. But in the army I got to know people from all over the country and I fell in love with Americans—they were just great! These guys were unlike anybody I had ever met in New York or in England or France. They were mostly blue-collar kids and I think Trump has, in that sense, the common touch. That’s one of the things—it may be the main thing—that explains his political success. It doesn’t explain his success in general, but his political success, yes. Also—I often explain this to people—when I was a kid, you would rather be beaten up than back away from a fight. The worst thing in the world you could be called was a sissy. And I was beaten up many times. Trump fights back. The people who say: “Oh, he shouldn’t lower himself,” “He should ignore this,” and “Why is he demeaning himself by arguing with some dopey reporter?” I think on the contrary—if you hit him, he hits back; and he is an equal opportunity counter puncher. It doesn’t matter who you are. And actually Obama, oddly enough, made the same statement: “He pulls a knife, you pull a gun.”

One of Norman Podhoretz’ most famous books is called Ex-Friends: Falling Out With Allen Ginsberg, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Lillian Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer. About the book, and about Podhoretz’ journey:

Podhoretz was the trailblazer of the now-famous journey of a number of his fellow intellectuals from radicalism to conservatism — a journey through which they came to exercise both cultural and political influence far beyond their number. With this fascinating account of his once happy and finally troubled relations with these cultural icons, Podhoretz helps us understand why that journey was undertaken and just how consequential it became. In the process we get a brilliantly illuminating picture of the writers and intellectuals who have done so much to shape our world.

Combining a personal memoir with literary, social, and political history, this unique gallery of stern and affectionate portraits is as entertaining as a novel and at the same time more instructive about postwar American culture than a formal scholarly study. Interwoven with these tales of some of the most quixotic and scintillating of contemporary American thinkers are themes that are introduced, developed, and redeveloped in a variety of contexts, with each appearance enriching the others, like a fugue in music. It is all here: the perversity of brilliance; the misuse of the mind; the benightedness of people usually considered especially enlightened; their human foibles and olympian detachment; the rigors to be endured and the prizes to be won and the prices to be paid for the reflective life.

Most people live their lives in a very different way, and at one point, in a defiantly provocative defense of the indifference shown to the things by which intellectuals are obsessed, Norman Podhoretz says that Socrates’ assertion that the unexamined life was not worth living was one of the biggest lies ever propagated by a philosopher. And yet, one comes away from Ex-Friends feeling wistful for a day when ideas really mattered and when there were people around who cared more deeply about them than about anything else. Reading of a time when the finest minds of a generation regularly gathered in New York living rooms to debate one another with an articulateness, a passion, and a level of erudition almost extinct, we come to realize how enviable it can be to live a life as poignantly and purposefully examined as Norman Podhoretz’s is in Ex-Friends.

In his interview with CRB, Podhoretz references this time of his life, breaking from one intellectual movement and joining another, in a notable way:

CRB: But many of your new set of ex-friends, as you call them, were with you on Iraq and democratization, which explains partly at least, why they are against Trump. You deviated from them, or they deviated from you.

NP: Well some of them have gone so far as to make me wonder whether they’ve lost their minds altogether. I didn’t object to their opposition to Trump. There was a case to be made, and they made it—okay. Of course, they had no reasonable alternative. A couple of them voted for Hillary, which I think would have been far worse for the country than anything Trump could have done.

But, basically, I think we’re all in a state of confusion as to what’s going on. Tom Klingenstein has made a brilliant effort to explain it, in terms that haven’t really been used before. He says that our domestic politics has erupted into a kind of war between patriotism and multiculturalism, and he draws out the implications of that war very well. I might put it in different terms—love of America versus hatred of America. But it’s the same idea. We find ourselves in a domestic, or civil, war almost.

In 1969-70, we neocons analyzed the international situation in a similar way, behind a clarifying idea that had a serious impact because it was both simple and sufficiently complex in its implications. I had by then become alienated from my long-term friend Hannah Arendt, whose book The Origins of Totalitarianism had had an enormous effect on me. Although she had become an ex-friend, her book’s argument still inspired me, and I think a lot of other people, to fight. And that argument was that the Soviet Union was an evil, moral and political, comparable to Nazi Germany. As we had fought to defend the West in World War II from the evil coming from, as it were, the Right, so we had to fight it coming from the Left in the Cold War, which I liked to call World War III. (And I’ve tried to say since 9/11, we have to fight an evil coming from the 7th century in what amounts to World War IV—but that name hasn’t caught on.) But the important point is we offered a wholehearted, full-throated defense of America. Not merely a defense, but a celebration, which is what I thought it deserved, nothing less. It was like rediscovering America—its virtues, its values, and how precious the heritage we had been born to was, and how it was, in effect, worth dying for. And that had a refreshing impact, I think, because that’s how most people felt. But all they had heard—though nothing compared to now—was that America was terrible. It was the greatest danger to peace in the world, it was born in racism, and genocide, and committed every conceivable crime. And then when new crimes were invented like sexism and Islamophobia, we were guilty of those, too.

Who is Podhoretz referring to? He explained earlier in the interview:

So for a while I was supporting Marco Rubio and I was enthusiastic about him. As time went on, and I looked around me, however, I began to be bothered by the hatred that was building up against Trump from my soon to be new set of ex-friends. It really disgusted me. I just thought it had no objective correlative. You could think that he was unfit for office—I could understand that—but my ex-friends’ revulsion was always accompanied by attacks on the people who supported him. They called them dishonorable, or opportunists, or cowards—and this was done by people like Bret Stephens, Bill Kristol, and various others. And I took offense at that. So that inclined me to what I then became: anti-anti-Trump. By the time he finally won the nomination, I was sliding into a pro-Trump position, which has grown stronger and more passionate as time has gone on.

On the question of his isolationism, he doesn’t seem to give a damn. He hires John Bolton and Mike Pompeo who, from my point of view, as a neoconservative (I call myself a “paleo-neoconservative” because I’ve been one for so long), couldn’t be better! And that’s true of many of his other cabinet appointments. He has a much better cabinet than Ronald Reagan had, and Reagan is the sacred figure in Republican hagiography. Trump is able to do that because, not only is he not dogmatic, he doesn’t operate on the basis of fixed principles. Now some people can think that’s a defect—I don’t think it’s a defect in a politician at a high level. I remember thinking to myself once on the issue of his embrace of tariffs, and some of my friends were very angry. I said to myself for the first time, “Was thou shalt not have tariffs inscribed on the tablets that Moses brought down from Sinai? Maybe Trump has something on this issue, in this particular”—and then I discovered to my total amazement that there are a hundred tariffs (I think that’s right) against America from all over the world. So the idea that we’re living in a free trade paradise was itself wrong, and in any case, there was no reason to latch onto it as a sacred dogma.

And that was true of immigration. I was always pro-immigration because I’m the child of immigrants. And I thought it was unseemly of me to oppose what not only had saved my life, but had given me the best life I think I could possibly have had. I wrote a book called My Love Affair with America, and that states it accurately. So I was very reluctant to join in Trump’s skepticism about the virtues of immigration.

It’s a remarkable interview with one of the conservative movement’s leading intellectuals and founders, and it’s an important contribution to a conversation about Trump that is often dominated by an establishment intellectualism that is reflexively anti-Trump.

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There are 19 comments.

  1. TES Member
    TES

    I like Norman Podhoretz and I understand free-trade isn’t his claim to fame, but I want to focus on the quote below.

    Was thou shalt not have tariffs inscribed on the tablets that Moses brought down from Sinai? Maybe Trump has something on this issue, in this particular”—and then I discovered to my total amazement that there are a hundred tariffs (I think that’s right) against America from all over the world. So the idea that we’re living in a free trade paradise was itself wrong, and in any case, there was no reason to latch onto it as a sacred dogma.

    It’s popular in some conservative circles to say that Reagan wasn’t pure on tariffs, or the Tucker Carlson line about the free market is but a tool, but these sentiments don’t get us very far policy-wise and isn’t very insightful. Yes, other countries have tariffs on our goods, but we have tariffs on other countries goods. Reagan levied tariffs but he also began the NAFTA negotiations and lowered more tariffs than he raised. He moved us further toward free trade.

    I think it’s intellectually weak to say “maybe Trump has something on this issue”. What does he have? What is the policy prescription? This is where the intellectuals who are sympathetic to Trump, and try to make sense of his presidency fail. I think the “something” he has is that it is popular and easy to sell. If that is what conservatism is reduced to, then we have failed. We will always lose to the left in a race to manage the economy and favor certain groups over others.

    The reason there is little intellectual heft behind the Trump agenda, is because the movement isn’t intellectual. This is a feelings/gut level presidency. I don’t mean this as a pejorative. Some of the administrations feelings and instincts are positive from my way of thinking. But an intellectual can look pretty silly trying to match their thoughts to the president’s. Free trade is one example.

    • #1
    • April 17, 2019, at 8:13 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  2. Shawn Buell (Majestyk) Contributor

    I want to see the whole interview. There’s a lot in here I agree with even though some of it strikes me as being at least slightly incoherent.

    “Trump’s Cabinet is Better than Reagan’s” is the first place I would throw a massive flag. Reagan at least had a fully empaneled and Senate-confirmed Cabinet. There are other things, and I’m sure the remainder of this will emerge for people to read. I will be among them.

    • #2
    • April 17, 2019, at 8:23 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  3. RufusRJones Member

    David Stockman said the same thing about Reagan’s cabinet. I find him very persuasive. There is a 90 minute interview on real vision that everyone should watch. It’s behind a pay wall but you can get a pass. Personally, I think those guys have a pretty big part in the mess we are in today.

    • #3
    • April 17, 2019, at 8:28 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  4. cdor Member

    Norman Podhoretz is an amazing intellectual who sounds and feels very much down to earth. it is gratifying to hear his expression of support for Trump. Thanks @bethanymandel for bringing this to our attention. I came to support Trump in a journey very similar to the one described by Mr Podhoretz. I do not do facebook much. But just recently I happened to be on my home page and read some posts from 2015 (which were still on the first page…Ha!). I was very distrustful of Trump. I thought he was just a Democrat in wolf’s clothing. I too supported Rubio and Fiorina. But Trump just kept on winning. Finally I succumbed. As time went on, I actually have found Trump to be quite admirable. He does fight and we need, no, we must have, a fighter. He is not an intellectual. He is a pragmatic conservative. To my mind that is much better, His conservative instincts were learned from his real life experiences as a businessman/contractor/developer–not by reading books. What he knows as true is much more deeply embedded in his being as a result.

    • #4
    • April 17, 2019, at 8:58 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  5. I Walton Member

    Glad to read this. I’d figured he’d be more critical but he articulates a view I agree with 100%. Anti Trump conservatives are wedded to something unreal. Ideas are always gross approximations of reality and have to be adjusted more than just from time to time.

    • #5
    • April 17, 2019, at 9:39 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  6. Henry Castaigne Member

    I Walton (View Comment):

    Glad to read this. I’d figured he’d be more critical but he articulates a view I agree with 100%. Anti Trump conservatives are wedded to something unreal. Ideas are always gross approximations of reality and have to be adjusted more than just from time to time.

    What I want to know is why there hasn’t a softening among the anti-Trump people. America is prosperous, we aren’t in another war. The judicial branch is moving towards a more limited version of government. The trade stuff may not be working out so well but the rest of American capitalism is up and running. 

    Why is there this constant feeling that the world is falling down and fire and brimstone are raining from the sky?

    • #6
    • April 17, 2019, at 11:54 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  7. Stad Thatcher

    Bethany Mandel: [John Podhoretz]: I’m “blue collar” myself, I suppose. I’m from the working class—my father was a milk man. But in the army I got to know people from all over the country and I fell in love with Americans—they were just great! These guys were unlike anybody I had ever met in New York or in England or France. They were mostly blue-collar kids and I think Trump has, in that sense, the common touch.

    Wisdom of the ages.

    “Blue collar” doesn’t have to describe what kind of job you have, nor a “class” you belong to. It can describe how you approach your job, even if it’s normally considered a “white collar” position. I worked in a blue-collar fashion as an officer in the Navy, and I worked that way as an engineer for a consulting firm, then for the Department of Energy.

    What exactly is the definition of “blue collar”? I think it currently has to do with how one is paid—an hourly wage vs. a salary. I reject that definition. I think it has to do more with how willing you are to get down in the weeds, to get dirty—either for real, or by getting involved in the details (but not micromanagement).

     

    • #7
    • April 17, 2019, at 12:11 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  8. RufusRJones Member

    People are sick of Big Finance, government, and cultural parasites and everything related to it mucking everything up for fun and profit. 

    • #8
    • April 17, 2019, at 12:15 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  9. Manny Member

    I’m a long time reader of Norman Podhoretz and very much admire him. Great interview.

    • #9
    • April 17, 2019, at 1:03 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  10. Henry Castaigne Member

    Bethany Mandel:

    They were mostly blue-collar kids and I think Trump has, in that sense, the common touch. That’s one of the things—it may be the main thing—that explains his political success. It doesn’t explain his success in general, but his political success, yes. Also—I often explain this to people—when I was a kid, you would rather be beaten up than back away from a fight. The worst thing in the world you could be called was a sissy. And I was beaten up many times. Trump fights back. The people who say: “Oh, he shouldn’t lower himself,” “He should ignore this,” and “Why is he demeaning himself by arguing with some dopey reporter?”

    I think this rather petty dislike of Trump explains alot. I just listened to Jonah’s Remnant podcast and while I did learn alot, they all sound like upper middle class New Yorkers who have never been in a fight before. 

    • #10
    • April 17, 2019, at 11:05 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  11. Yehoshua Ben-Eliyahu Coolidge

    In this vein, there is a must read by Paul Johnson called Intellectuals. In it, he takes apart many icons of intellectual culture, revealing them as incredibly small-minded and sordid characters in their personal lives, including Rousseau, Marx, Tolstoy, Hemingway, Bertrand Russell, Sartre, Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, and Noam Chomsky. You finish this book and you understand that a so-called liberal thinker is invariably a thoroughly corrupt hypocrite.

     

    • #11
    • April 18, 2019, at 7:41 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  12. Percival Thatcher

    Yehoshua Ben-Eliyahu (View Comment):

    In this vein, there is a must read by Paul Johnson called Intellectuals. In it, he takes apart many icons of intellectual culture, revealing them as incredibly small-minded and sordid characters in their personal lives, including Rousseau, Marx, Tolstoy, Hemingway, Bertrand Russell, Sartre, Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, and Noam Chomsky. You finish this book and you understand that a so-called liberal thinker is invariably a thoroughly corrupt hypocrite.

     

    Rousseau was a world class dirt bag.

    • #12
    • April 18, 2019, at 7:45 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  13. I Walton Member

    Henry Castaigne (View Comment):

    I Walton (View Comment):

    Glad to read this. I’d figured he’d be more critical but he articulates a view I agree with 100%. Anti Trump conservatives are wedded to something unreal. Ideas are always gross approximations of reality and have to be adjusted more than just from time to time.

    What I want to know is why there hasn’t a softening among the anti-Trump people. America is prosperous, we aren’t in another war. The judicial branch is moving towards a more limited version of government. The trade stuff may not be working out so well but the rest of American capitalism is up and running.

    Why is there this constant feeling that the world is falling down and fire and brimstone are raining from the sky?

    I wonder if they’re just intellectuals, academics or journalists that have never had to do much more than think and write. The best intellectuals get there after having lived a real life, otherwise they have to be a lot smarter than everybody else like our subject here. 

    • #13
    • April 23, 2019, at 3:08 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  14. Henry Castaigne Member

    Percival (View Comment):

    Yehoshua Ben-Eliyahu (View Comment):

    In this vein, there is a must read by Paul Johnson called Intellectuals. In it, he takes apart many icons of intellectual culture, revealing them as incredibly small-minded and sordid characters in their personal lives, including Rousseau, Marx, Tolstoy, Hemingway, Bertrand Russell, Sartre, Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, and Noam Chomsky. You finish this book and you understand that a so-called liberal thinker is invariably a thoroughly corrupt hypocrite.

     

    Rousseau was a world class dirt bag.

    I was talking philosophy to this one lady and I mentioned how the idea that people are inherently good came from Rousseau and he thought that children were born good. 

    Her: Well how did he square his philosophy with how hard it is to make a child behave well. (She was a Mom)

    Me: He abandoned his kids.

    Her: Laughter.

    And that’s the most influential philosopher of our stupid age. 

    • #14
    • April 24, 2019, at 11:35 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  15. Percival Thatcher

    Henry Castaigne (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    Yehoshua Ben-Eliyahu (View Comment):

    In this vein, there is a must read by Paul Johnson called Intellectuals. In it, he takes apart many icons of intellectual culture, revealing them as incredibly small-minded and sordid characters in their personal lives, including Rousseau, Marx, Tolstoy, Hemingway, Bertrand Russell, Sartre, Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, and Noam Chomsky. You finish this book and you understand that a so-called liberal thinker is invariably a thoroughly corrupt hypocrite.

     

    Rousseau was a world class dirt bag.

    I was talking philosophy to this one lady and I mentioned how the idea that people are inherently good came from Rousseau and he thought that children were born good.

    Her: Well how did he square his philosophy with how hard it is to make a child behave well. (She was a Mom)

    Me: He abandoned his kids.

    Her: Laughter.

    And that’s the most influential philosopher of our stupid age.

    Yup. Left the countryside of France sprinkled with his neglected progeny.

    • #15
    • April 24, 2019, at 12:37 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  16. Yehoshua Ben-Eliyahu Coolidge

    Henry Castaigne (View Comment):

    I was talking philosophy to this one lady and I mentioned how the idea that people are inherently good came from Rousseau and he thought that children were born good. 

    Her: Well how did he square his philosophy with how hard it is to make a child behave well. (She was a Mom)

    Me: He abandoned his kids.

    Her: Laughter.

    And that’s the most influential philosopher of our stupid age.

    I do sometimes wonder if Western culture is innately corrupt and deserves to disappear. I know, I know, there are inspiring writers, composers, and artists. Yet France gave us the Dreyfus affair and Germany, that produced more great composers than any other land, gave us Hitler and millions of minions throughout “enlightened” Europe who were “just following orders.” Is there something in Western culture that inspires evil? We had the religiously inspired, yet murderous crusades and, in our own time, murderous Islam. Perhaps Western culture as we know it was nothing more than an attempt to conquer the evil that lurks within.

    It reminds me of the old war veteran who welcomed home the triumphant young soldier with these words: “Now that you have conquered the enemy from without, you must still face the much greater challenge of conquering the enemy within.”

    • #16
    • April 24, 2019, at 1:13 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  17. SkipSul Moderator

    Yehoshua Ben-Eliyahu (View Comment):

    Henry Castaigne (View Comment):

    I was talking philosophy to this one lady and I mentioned how the idea that people are inherently good came from Rousseau and he thought that children were born good.

    Her: Well how did he square his philosophy with how hard it is to make a child behave well. (She was a Mom)

    Me: He abandoned his kids.

    Her: Laughter.

    And that’s the most influential philosopher of our stupid age.

    I do sometimes wonder if Western culture is innately corrupt and deserves to disappear. I know, I know, there are inspiring writers, composers, and artists. Yet France gave us the Dreyfus affair and Germany, that produced more great composers than any other land, gave us Hitler and millions of minions throughout “enlightened” Europe who were “just following orders.” Is there something in Western culture that inspires evil? We had the religiously inspired, yet murderous crusades and, in our own time, murderous Islam. Perhaps Western culture as we know it was nothing more than an attempt to conquer the evil that lurks within.

    It reminds me of the old war veteran who welcomed home the triumphant young soldier with these words: “Now that you have conquered the enemy from without, you must still face the much greater challenge of conquering the enemy within.”

    Western Culture is hardly unique in its maladies. Islamic issues are not western by any stretch (though their encounter with the poisons of socialism have certainly made things worse), and we can point to every single other large culture for producing barbarity and evil. Here are just a few:

    • The Mongolian conquest – destruction on a scale unrivaled till modern times, leaving millions dead, cities razed and burned, and little but death and waste in their wake.
    • The Aztecs – practiced human butchery on an industrial scale. Their temple priests could easily murder 20,000 people a day, cutting their hearts out alive.
    • The ancient Phoenicians / Philistines – not Western either, practiced ritual child sacrifice on a massive scale.
    • Communist China – Mao combined socialism with buddhism and Confucianism to create the single most murderous regime ever to exist in human history.

     

    • #17
    • April 24, 2019, at 1:37 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  18. RufusRJones Member

    SkipSul (View Comment):

    • Communist China – Mao combined socialism with buddhism and Confucianism to create the single most murderous regime ever to exist in human history.

     

    I don’t know very much about it but they crushed Taoism and IMO, this was very, very unfortunate. 

    • #18
    • April 24, 2019, at 1:43 PM PDT
    • Like
  19. Yehoshua Ben-Eliyahu Coolidge

    SkipSul (View Comment):

    Yehoshua Ben-Eliyahu (View Comment):

    Henry Castaigne (View Comment):

    I was talking philosophy to this one lady and I mentioned how the idea that people are inherently good came from Rousseau and he thought that children were born good.

    Her: Well how did he square his philosophy with how hard it is to make a child behave well. (She was a Mom)

    Me: He abandoned his kids.

    Her: Laughter.

    And that’s the most influential philosopher of our stupid age.

    I do sometimes wonder if Western culture is innately corrupt and deserves to disappear. I know, I know, there are inspiring writers, composers, and artists. Yet France gave us the Dreyfus affair and Germany, that produced more great composers than any other land, gave us Hitler and millions of minions throughout “enlightened” Europe who were “just following orders.” Is there something in Western culture that inspires evil? We had the religiously inspired, yet murderous crusades and, in our own time, murderous Islam. Perhaps Western culture as we know it was nothing more than an attempt to conquer the evil that lurks within.

    It reminds me of the old war veteran who welcomed home the triumphant young soldier with these words: “Now that you have conquered the enemy from without, you must still face the much greater challenge of conquering the enemy within.”

    Western Culture is hardly unique in its maladies. Islamic issues are not western by any stretch (though their encounter with the poisons of socialism have certainly made things worse), and we can point to every single other large culture for producing barbarity and evil. Here are just a few:

    • The Mongolian conquest – destruction on a scale unrivaled till modern times, leaving millions dead, cities razed and burned, and little but death and waste in their wake.
    • The Aztecs – practiced human butchery on an industrial scale. Their temple priests could easily murder 20,000 people a day, cutting their hearts out alive.
    • The ancient Phoenicians / Philistines – not Western either, practiced ritual child sacrifice on a massive scale.
    • Communist China – Mao combined socialism with buddhism and Confucianism to create the single most murderous regime ever to exist in human history.

    Yes, exactly. We so desperately want to think that people have learned something over the centuries yet continuous barbarity on the part of Muslims is immediately “balanced” by spurious claims of Islamophobia. We have learned nothing.

     

    • #19
    • April 24, 2019, at 3:06 PM PDT
    • 1 like