Angelo Codevilla: An Unknown Intellectual Leader of Today's Far RightBreaking News
tags: conservatism, far right, Political theory, Claremont Institute, Angelo Codevilla
Daniel Luban is a writer and scholar teaching at the University of Chicago. He previously covered the American foreign policy right as a journalist for Inter Press Service.
LAST SEPTEMBER, the Trumpist outlet American Greatness published an “epitaph” for the War on Terror by the right-wing writer and scholar Angelo Codevilla. Pegged to the twenty-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, it recapitulated the themes that had preoccupied Codevilla throughout the twenty-first century—above all, the misdeeds of a feckless American Ruling Class that had muddied the distinction between war and peace, losing sight of the essential truth that “all war, all political violence, is about whether a body politic lives or dies.” It was the last piece of writing that the seventy-eight-year-old published in his lifetime. A few days later, he died in a car crash driving home to his vineyard in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.
Codevilla’s death was mourned within conservative circles but mostly unnoticed outside of them. Friends and comrades offered tributes at his longtime intellectual home, the Claremont Review of Books: “an inspirational mentor,” per Peter Thiel; “the prophet who foretold the rise of Donald Trump,” per David P. Goldman. A belated New York Times obituary, the only one in the mainstream press, noted that he “both predicted and gave intellectual shape to the populist revolt against the [Republican] party’s establishment that coalesced behind Donald J. Trump.” More intimately, Codevilla’s youngest son offered lore from his father’s impoverished boyhood in postwar northern Italy: stealing fruit from orchards, bathing in a cauldron, lectures on familial duty from his dressmaker mother at his own father’s graveside, a first experience of hot running water on the boat that brought him to America at age twelve.
Codevilla was an idiosyncratic figure: a working-class immigrant son of Fort Lee, New Jersey; a professor, vintner, and rancher; a political theorist of the “West Coast Straussian” school; a Hill intelligence staffer and ultra-hawkish foreign policy analyst; an early adversary of what his allies would eventually call the “deep state”; a translator of Machiavelli; a prominent critic from the right of the Bush administration’s War on Terror; a late-life champion of populist class revolt. Yet despite this idiosyncrasy, there is a case to be made that he was the emblematic intellectual of the twenty-first-century American right—not the most famous or original intellectual, but the one whose individual trajectory most closely signaled that of the broader movement.
Examining Codevilla’s career is particularly useful as a corrective to the pat narratives of sharp discontinuity that dominate punditry about the contemporary right. The typical story goes like this: the post-9/11 era was dominated by the war in Iraq, which served as the central axis of partisan contention throughout George W. Bush’s presidency. (Over 90 percent of Republicans supported the Iraq invasion at its 2003 onset, according to Pew’s polling, and 73 percent stood by that decision at the end of the Bush years.) But the Bush formula, which combined hawkish foreign policy with a qualified acceptance of government intervention at home, came apart as soon as its standard-bearer left office.
The first break, the story goes, came with the Tea Party, publicly justified as a libertarian revolt against big government. The second break came with Trump, whose supporters evoked a muscular America First nationalism that rejected Bush-style foreign adventurism and Tea Party economic libertarianism alike. Trump himself was willing to lie about his support for the Iraq War, declaring the invasion a “big, fat mistake” during a 2016 primary debate in South Carolina, thereby making dissensus on the war permissible. The post-Trump ideologues who gathered under banners like “national conservatism” and “post-liberalism” called for a populist economics that abandoned Reaganite distrust of state power.
This story of discontinuity is also the one that the self-described New Right tells about itself, and media coverage has tended to echo its rendering of conservative history. But there are reasons for skepticism. For instance, the stark ideological contrast between the Tea Party and Trumpism dissolves on closer inspection. Whatever the Tea Partiers’ green-eyeshade public image, concerns about immigration and racial identity were always central to the movement, as analysts like Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson noticed early on. Conversely, Trump’s reversion to GOP orthodoxy on tax cuts and deregulation provoked remarkably little backlash among supporters who claimed to want to smash the Reaganite “dead consensus.” More broadly, if we step back from the right’s various self-presentations and identify its leading participants, we find that the apparent discontinuity of programs has helped disguise a basic continuity of personnel.
Trump’s seventy-four million voters encompassed a wide range of social strata and ideological currents. Viewed more narrowly in terms of its core activists and operatives, however, today’s MAGA right consists largely of people who were Tea Partiers under Obama and War on Terror hawks under Bush. While the Trump era triggered some prominent defections from conservatism—notably among neoconservatives like Bill Kristol and Jennifer Rubin—the reverse kind of defection has been rarer; Trumpist intellectuals and activists have overwhelmingly been drawn from within the conservative movement rather than outside of it. (“We’d like to dislike Bill Kristol,” one attendee at a recent National Conservatism conference explained to David Brooks, “but he got us all jobs.”) How then did yesterday’s Iraq hawks and Tea Partiers come around to a worldview so apparently hostile to everything they once believed?
Angelo Codevilla, whose work prefigures the eventual populist revolt against conservative orthodoxy, gives us the story in microcosm.
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