Clearing up Jamie Palmer’s Paranoid Confusion

by Paul Gottfried (November 2018)

Untitled, Casper Verborg, 2014



Recently I encountered some critical comments on my activities, in a long article called “Paranoid Paleoconservatives,” which was published on June 1, 2017 in the web magazine Quillette. It seems clear that the author, Jamie Palmer, wanted to go after President Trump for appealing to those who inhabit the fever swamps. According to Palmer, while he was still a presidential candidate, Trump “provided the disparate factions of the alt-right coalition with a flag around which they could rally and a hilltop from which to attack their enemies.” Trump became complicit in this evil when he “thundered bitterly from the stump about immigration and the ‘globalist elite.’” Palmer, who is apparently among the “astute observers” who come in for praise, knew Trump was not bringing the “new but the return of the familiar”:


If at its core the alt-right is the inheritor of the Sam Francis branch of the paleoconservative movement, Trump’s campaign reprised the slogans of the candidate [Pat Buchanan] whom Francis had championed. Apparently allergic to coherent ideology, Trump’s rhetoric reflected the crude marshaling of uniformed intuition, and these were not the intuitions of a messianic fascist, but of a paranoid paleoconservative.


This quotation is from a wandering diatribe that goes on frenetically for ten printed pages, before ending with a portentous quotation from my collected works. In the course of unmasking paleoconservative and alt-right bigots, Palmer drags into his rogues’ gallery Trump, Pat Buchanan, Sam Francis, Richard Spencer, Jared Taylor, Kevin MacDonald, David Irving, Giulio Evola, Martin Heidegger, Stephen Miller, Michael Anton, and Stephen K. Bannon. Did I miss anyone? Oh yes, I missed myself, a long-lived villain in Palmer’s would-be study of evil. It seems that I have been plotting from behind the scenes since the 1980s, or perhaps even earlier, to destroy everything that Palmer values, like globalism, mostly open borders, and niceness.


In truth, I don’t even like Donald Trump and never viewed him as the “answer” to our being taken over by the cultural Left. I prefer him to the neoconservatives, to be sure, but nothing in my writings suggest I am a Trump fan. I am not even on speaking terms with Bannon, Anton or Miller, and haven’t had contact with Richard Spencer for several years. Yes, I coined the term “paleoconservative” and played a critical role in organizing the resistance to the neoconservative ascendancy over the establishment Right in the 1980s. But neither Sam Francis nor I should be described as a typical paleoconservative. Though I was less concerned with racial issues than Sam, neither one of us represented a paleoconservative worldview so much as our own thinking.


Among the paleoconservative resisters to the neoconservatives in the 1980s, there was a minority who focused on cognitive differences between races and genders. I certainly don’t hide this fact in a revealing article on the paleoconservatives that I published in Policy Review (Fall 1987). In the same piece, I indicate that the study of IQ disparities was of interest only to a minority of self-described paleoconservatives. Runway public administration, social engineering and neocon complicity in these problems were the topics that I heard most often raised by my fellow paleoconservatives in the 1980s. The alliance of paleoconservatives and paleolibertarians in the 1990s, which reached a high point in their shared support of Buchanan for president, most certainly did not stress racial issues. Nor, given the presence of Jews in this alliance, was it noticeably anti-Semitic. Standing against the neoconservative “global democratic revolutionary” foreign policy was perhaps the main issue that united the independent Right in the early 1990s.


After the neoconservatives marginalized the paleoconservative opposition, surviving or onetime members did not likely dream about “ethnostates.” Some converted to a strict Tridentine form of Catholicism, and like the editors of Chronicles, railed against the Protestant character of the American founding and American political culture. Others became Eastern Orthodox; some, even passionate Slavophiles. Almost all paleoconservatives of a certain age were terrified of being accused of racism or nativism. This fear may well have been owing to the fact that at one time or another they had opposed Third World immigration on cultural grounds, these persons, like Joseph de Maistre, Edmund Burke, David Hume and many other past thinkers having valued cultural homogeneity; or to say it another way, the compatibility of peoples with respect to living together.


With characteristic cynicism and intellectual laziness, the immigration-enthusiastic neoconservatives charged paleoconservatives with racism and anti-Semitism, even though the former couldn’t be bothered to substantively engage the latter’s position, despite its long and eminently respectable intellectual ancestry. In response, the defeated paleoconservatives turned away from any subject that might be construed as an argument from heredity. In their relevant statements on the subject one notices a strange tendency to deny any genetic influence on human character development. This is particularly true of onetime paleoconservative Claes Ryn and his disciples. (No, John Derbyshire and Steve Sailer, who do write about possibly genetic group differences, were not really paleos, but entered the Independent Right from another direction.)


Palmer’s attempt to draw a straight line between the paleoconservatives and white nationalism is deeply ignorant and smacks of an underlying agenda. It is driven by the desire to create a pedigree for the alt-right which, on the basis of extremely limited evidence, is linked to an earlier enemy of the neoconservatives. In Palmer’s account the neocons wear the white hats, and he strains to present all their opponents on the Right since the 1980s as anti-Semitic racists. But his storyline leaves out critical details. Above all, the neocon’s adversaries were a far more varied lot than Palmer conveys.


In his book Making Sense of the Alt-Right (2017), George Hawley correctly identifies Sam Francis and me as the major thinkers who influenced the alt-right in its formative stages. Hawley carefully qualifies this relation, however, for neither Francis nor I was an easily categorized paleoconservative. Although he attended paleoconservative gatherings, Francis had his own interests. He devoted most of his career to attacking the cultural Left, but was willing to learn from traditional Marxists. In this respect he and I are akin: I studied under Herbert Marcuse, was a friend and admirer of Christopher Lasch and Eugene Genovese (a Leftist for most of his life), and have always learned from the authentic Left at its intellectual best, rare though it now is. Francis’ scholarly focus was on managerialism, not on combatting the Democratic Party for being a front for large corporations. At the time of his early death, Francis left behind reams of typed pages intended to complete or bring up to date James Burnham’s study of the managerial revolution.


Toward the end of his public life, after he was fired from a position at The Washington Times through neoconservative machinations, involving Dinesh D’Souza, Francis’ opposition to the civil rights revolution hardened into explicit appeals to a white America. Nevertheless, most of his speeches and writings, which went back thirty years, had nothing to do with racial conflict. They do reveal a revulsion for the idea of equality because, for Francis, equality contradicts the natural inequalities among people. What is more, he thought equality was in any case a pretext for allowing new elites to replace older, statelier ones. But again, there was something sui generis in the way Francis investigated power structures. It is difficult, for example, to read his analytical studies without discerning traces of a class-based, at least quasi-Marxist view of society. His rightist thinking always made room for Marx and the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci.


Francis despised American democracy as he found it, and yet, like Burnham, thought there was little one could do to restore the American republic to what it had been in centuries past. Although he was a Southerner descended from Confederate veterans, to my knowledge Sam never expressed a kind word about the Lost Cause. He regarded Lincoln’s consolidation of the country as irrevocable, and probably thought the same about the modern welfare state. In his discussion of managerial society, he treated capitalist elites as allies of state administrators. Like many a Leftist, he viewed corporate capitalism with particular contempt, as something that was now benefiting a global elite that he despised.


In sum, in his revulsion for the neoconservatives and the idea of equality, in his expediential and usually collectivist approach to economic policy, and toward the end of his life in his invocations of a white America, one finds elements of thought that later became prevalent opinions among some segments of the alt-right. At the same, at the core of his thinking, Francis was perfectly compatible with classical conservatism, nor is it obvious that his positions were wrong, evil, or what you will.


Despite popular misunderstandings, not everything in the alt-right has been about race. And indeed, Palmer more or less concedes that point, seeing as the immediate danger posed by those whom he associates with the alt-right their “gateway critique of liberal democracies’ troubled status.” It is this rather than white nationalism that may be “rapidly gaining traction among the mutinous, the disenchanted, and all those who yearn for simple answers and thought they had found them in Trump.” One has the impression of being on a whirlwind tour as Palmer reveals his variegated bêtes noires, which he pretends are all somehow related. Within a page or so we swing by Holocaust-deniers, or at least those who don’t mind consorting with such types, raging white racists, and callous anti-immigrationists, on to those who have the chutzpah not to believe that the US in its present political incarnation embodies the highest form of political community.


As if in self-parody, Palmer descends into the very paranoid politics that he attributes to the Right. Thus, he insists that alt-right white nationalists and neo-Nazis are “not discrete but exist on a spectrum of radical right-wing thought.” A cheap trick of language, this is much as though one were to say, “The old economic left and the new identity politics left are not discrete but exist on a spectrum of radical left-wing thought.” In this way important distinctions are erased, and so all is one, that is to say, evil. Again, for Palmer, “neo-Nazism is, after all, a kind of White Nationalism, similarly committed to a narrative of racial identity and victimhood.” Does Palmer really believe that all those who emphasize white identity are ideologically akin to those who want to exterminate Jews? I rather doubt he would regard such communist fellow-travelers as Bella Abzug, Bernie Sanders, and Eric Foner or even the lifelong Communist Party member and historian Eric Hobsbawm as people who planned to put their opponents in Gulags. At least for the Left, where he surely belongs, Palmer would distinguish between the politically silly and would-be mass murderers.


My trilogy on the modern managerial state and its degeneration into multicultural tyranny, my generally sympathetic treatment of the (non-Nazi) interwar European Right, and my thirty-year war with the neoconservatives have all affected non-authorized movements on the American Right. I do not regret that influence—I regret that my effort to purify the American Right of invaders from the social and cultural Left has largely been a failure. Despite my rightist propensities, I am not particularly interested in racial issues, except to whatever extent they can be used to expand the power of the modern administrative state and the multicultural religion that it pushes. Most of my criticism of the civil rights revolution and expanding anti-discrimination supervision have been made in the context of opposing our behemoth, socially-controlling “liberal democratic” regime. Although I don’t writhe in disgust in their presence, I don’t feel the passions that characterize white nationalists. I am much more concerned about the influence of the white college-educated female vote than I am about the votes of non-whites. Women who have been “liberated” from traditional social attitudes are, I think, the most threatening radicalizing force in Western countries today. Of course, I have no interest in strengthening the political Left by bringing in foreign populations that are likely to have the same effect.


Jacob Siegel, in a long essay for Tablet Magazine, published on November 29, 2016, expresses vehement disapproval of my politics. For all that, he at least gets some things straight that Palmer misses. I am not a racialist, though I have repeatedly criticized the conservative establishment for collapsing before black race hustlers. Nor do I bother to condemn white nationalists, though I often find their behavior silly and have expressly distanced myself from them. The reason for this lack of condemnation is that I am worried far less by these exhibitionists—who have no political or cultural power—than I am by the advancing totalitarian Left. It is true that, like H.L. Mencken in his time, I am no friend of liberal democracy, but even so, attacks on me as a fascist miss the point. I find it a diversion from present reality to scream about the return of Mussolini when we face a different and far worse danger, one that is embedded in our vital national institutions. Little by little, we are collapsing into a post-Marxist Leftist dictatorship, in which Conservatism, Inc. has been fully complicit: and this has long been my central focus.


I pop up frequently in Palmer’s weird treatise, and yet never in a way that allows the reader to have a sense of my person, except perhaps as a malign presence haunting the political landscape. I am linked to Richard Spencer, but it’s never shown just how or whether I influenced him. Did we mean the same things when we invented or co-invented the term “alternative right”? Palmer never proves this was the case or even that Richard Spencer was an avowed white nationalist at the time we established the Mencken Club. (As far as I can tell, he began defining himself this way a few years afterwards, and has not attended Mencken Club meetings for five years.)


Although Spencer and I co-edited a book (or booklet) on purges that came out early in 2015, and which is dedicated to the memory of Sam Francis, Palmer might have looked at the content before citing this text as evidence of my bigoted worldview. The essays included are about the continuing purges carried out by the conservative establishment, which are often misrepresented by an ignorant and gullible press. Since Sam Francis was a hapless victim of one such purge, before he began appealing to white Americans, we dedicated the book to him. Most of the anthology essays were collected long in advance of the publication date; and my own role in the editing was quite minimal.


Palmer makes a statement about my emotional state in 2008, which left me scratching my head in bewilderment:  


If Gottfried was feeling cautiously optimistic in 2008, it may be because he noticed that since Buchanan’s first presidential campaign sixteen years earlier, a series of developments in American and global politics had helped to create an environment more congenial to paleoconservative ideas.


This description of my state of mind in 2008, which comes shortly after a quotation from my 2008 Mencken Club speech, is supported by nothing other than Palmer’s imagination, or rather, the demands of his political agenda. In 2008, I could look back at twenty years of neoconservatives coming after me, calling universities to keep me out of professorships, warning presses not to publish me because I was “angry and unhinged,” and deriding me as a paranoid lunatic in the pages of National Review. My enemies had driven me into the ground professionally, a task they have recently completed by advising all “conservative” enterprises that once published me to cease doing so. Why, then, would I have been “cautiously optimistic” in 2008?!


In fact, there is nothing in the presidential speech I delivered to the Mencken Club that year which would suggest I was rejoicing over “a series of developments” that had created a more favorable environment for paleoconservatives. To the contrary, in my speech I underlined what I had stated many times before, namely, that paleoconservatism was a thing of the past. If we wished to wrest power from the neoconservatives and their allies, then we needed a new movement on the Right that would be more successful than paleoconservatism. Palmer refers to racially charged incidents like the O.J. Simpson trial, which supposedly rendered me “cautiously optimistic” as I gave my speech to the Mencken Club. But I hadn’t thought about these “developments” for years before my address; and I can’t remember reacting with deep emotion when they occurred.  


On at least one point, his last one, Palmer gets me right. Unlike Pat Buchanan (at first) and others, I never believed our struggle against the neocons would be a cakewalk. I warned my allies that “our enemies may be vulgar but they are surely not fools.” Too bad I was right.



Paul Gottfried, paleoconservative philosopher and intellectual historian, was the Raffensberger Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College. He is the author of many books, including Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America and Conservatism in America: Making Sense of the American Right.

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