You've successfully subscribed to American Purpose
Great! Next, complete checkout for full access to American Purpose
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
Success! Your account is fully activated, you now have access to all content.
Success! Your newsletter subscriptions is updated.
Newsletter subscriptions update failed.
Success! Your billing info is updated.
Billing info update failed.
Conservative Isolationism, Then and Now

Conservative Isolationism, Then and Now

Jacob Heilbrunn's latest book provides a compelling, if somewhat biased, examination of the Right's historical flirtation with authoritarianism.

Arch Puddington
America Last: The Right’s Century-Long Romance with Foreign Dictators
by Jacob Heilbrunn (Liveright, 251 pp., $22.64)

Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, Joshua Muravchik wrote an article in Commentary that looked at the responses of critics of American foreign policy from the left and right. There were pointed disagreements across the ideological divide. But differences between left and right were far more obvious than any similarities. 

On the left, most America critics were careful to place principal blame on Russian President Vladimir Putin, along with formulations about the importance of peacemaking and diplomacy. On the right, reactions were sharply different—often angry, unbalanced, polemical—with notable voices that were outright pro-Putin and anti-American. 

For starters, Donald Trump called Putin’s diplomatic moves “smart” and “genius.” Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, Trump’s one-time national security adviser, defended Putin entirely, as did longtime Putin admirer Pat Buchanan. Rod Dreher, an informal liaison between Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and American conservatives, wrote that he “adamantly” opposed “boys from Louisiana and Alabama risking their lives to make the Donbas safe for genderqueers and migrants.” Tucker Carlson predicted that Americans would be poorer because of the Biden Administration’s Kyiv support. 

According to America Last: The Right’s Century-Long Romance with Foreign Dictators, Jacob Heilbrunn’s study of right-wing isolationism, the preference among a prominent subset of the American Right for Putin, Orbán, and other strongmen was entirely predictable. Given the alternative option of a Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, or Joe Biden, certain elements of the Right have often aligned with freedom’s enemies. 

With a few exceptions, Heilbrunn’s 20th-century subjects are not isolationists, as that term is understood. They are right-wingers who succumbed to the allure of the tough-guy autocrat, ranging from Pinochet to Hitler. Heilbrunn compares them to the Left’s political pilgrims who endlessly searched for the leader—Stalin, Mao, Castro—who would create the ideal socialist society. Like the leftist pilgrims, the Right “possesses its own tradition of homage to authoritarian regimes masquerading as defenders of Western civilization.” 

Heilbrunn looks at the Right’s positioning across America’s international involvements over the past century, from World War I, the interwar period, America First, McCarthyism, to present-day Trumpism. The interwar period is critical because the stakes were so high and the polarization so raw. The Depression had shaken the public’s faith in democracy and capitalism. Conservatives hated Roosevelt, whom they accused of setting the table for a communist takeover. H. L. Mencken, among the country’s most influential journalists, amped up the invective in his anti-FDR broadsides, and speculated that “fascism operated by incorruptible naval officers might be just the thing for America.” Diplomat Lawrence Dennis called Hitler “not only the greatest genius since Napoleon but also the most rational.”

Fervor over immigration opened the door to pseudoscientific theories about eugenics, which in turn stimulated racist speculation about Blacks, Asians, and Jews. Ideas surfaced during the 1920s that sound remarkably similar to the Great Replacement Theory that today is being promoted here and in Europe.

Often, those who indulged in theorizing about racial purity were also prone to notions about the malign influence of Jews. Elizabeth Dilling wrote about how Jewish religious teaching led to communism. Likewise, Merwin K. Hart condemned the refugees from Nazism for working to draw America into war, and added, “It was time to brush aside this word ‘democracy’ with its connotations.” 

How influential were the pre-war pro-fascists? Dennis was a publicist, aspiring intellectual, and paid Nazi agent. Dilling was a religious zealot and rabble-rouser. Hart was a respected but not especially influential member of the New York banking community. None were powerful speakers who could reach mass audiences with messages about the achievements of Der Führer, though Dennis managed to penetrate the offices of several isolationist members of Congress. 

On the other hand, Father Charles Coughlin, the infamous radio priest, commanded an audience in the millions. Coughlin did not hold back when rebuking his bêtes noires, with FDR, Jews, and the British at the top of the list. But Coughlin was a populist demagogue, not a traditional man of the right. The fascist Right also had a powerful media asset in the person of William Randolph Hearst, who opened his newspaper pages to Hitler and Mussolini, included Nazi propaganda in newsreels, and bankrolled a constellation of isolationist organizations. 

Unlike today’s MAGA operatives, who claim democracy’s mantle while aligning themselves with democracy’s enemies, pro-fascists like Dennis and Hart would argue the benefits of the Nazi system as they pointed to democracy’s failures. In February 1940, with Hitler having launched war in Europe, Hart asserted that, “Democracy is the rallying cry under which the American system is being prepared for despotism.” Such thinking was not restricted to extremists like Hart or Dennis. In language that would ring familiar today, former President Herbert Hoover spoke of “totalitarian liberals” in the Roosevelt Administration. 

While pro-fascist arguments seem to have lacked widespread appeal, the peace argument was powerful enough to prevent FDR from building a majority in favor of entering the European conflict until after Pearl Harbor. The America First movement was a broad coalition of prominent figures, ranging from Socialist Party leader Norman Thomas to antisemites like Joseph Kennedy and Henry Ford. Its most popular figure, aviator hero Charles Lindbergh, spoke the language of what we might today call foreign policy realism. But his private writings reveal a man who bought into the racialist thinking of the day. He wrote in his diary that it was “imperative to stop the infiltration of inferior blood” into the country (he meant Asians), and blamed Jews for America’s entry into the war. 

Neither World War II nor revelations about Hitler’s Holocaust transformed the strongman-loving Right’s thinking. Some, in fact, denounced the Nuremberg war crime trials as “victor’s justice.” GOP isolationists like Robert Taft were hostile toward Truman’s Cold War policies, including the Marshall Plan and NATO. And they detested President Dwight Eisenhower for having embraced the policies set in place by previous Democratic administrations. 

The Right did, of course, support the anti-communist struggle, in its own way. As Heilbrunn tells, rightists attacked Democrats for lacking resolve and embarked on a hunt for domestic subversives in schools, Hollywood, and government. Heilbrunn doesn’t waste much time on the McCarthy period. He does, however, zero in on the rise of William F. Buckley and National Review, with a focus on NR’s role as cheerleader for America’s Cold War “friendly dictators.”

Unlike the cynicism of the officials and intelligence officers who actually built America’s alliance of anti-communist autocrats, Buckley and his editors richly approved of leaders like Spain’s Franco, Portugal’s Salazar, Chile’s Pinochet, and the Dominican Republic’s Trujillo, not to mention the military men who dominated Asian politics. The Buckley conservatives, Heilbrunn contends, believed that non-Europeans were ill-prepared for self-government and required the iron fist for order’s sake. 

Heilbrunn’s generally astute analysis loses its footing in a labored effort to link the neoconservatives who emerged as an influential force in American foreign policy during the Reagan years to the GOP’s America First faction. In a previous book, Heilbrunn relentlessly (and with considerable snark) criticizes the neoconservatives for a long list of sins, mainly advocating a policy of interventionism that reached its climax in the Iraq War. He seems to argue that by pressing to involve Washington in dubious conflicts, they contributed to the rise of Trumpism.

In setting forth the origins of neoconservatism, Heilbrunn ignores the role of the Democratic Party’s liberal-left in questioning not simply the justifications for Vietnam but for casting doubt on the foundational principles of the U.S.-Soviet rivalry. As Democrats who identified with the traditional liberalism of Truman, Hubert Humphrey, and labor leader George Meany, neoconservatives were deeply unsettled by the ambitions of the new forces that had achieved dominance in the Democratic Party. They took note of the shift in liberalism’s ideas about America’s global role and moved on to a more welcoming set of allies. 

Likewise, Heilbrunn can’t bring himself to acknowledge that it was during the Reagan Administration that right-wing dictators were toppled throughout Latin America and Asia. Indeed, the phenomenon known as the third wave of democracy surged under Reagan and reached its crescendo under the first President Bush with the collapse of the Soviet empire. Neoconservatives, as policymakers and advocates, were among the democracy movement’s most devoted allies. 

Finally, the neoconservatives well understand the threat to freedom posed by Trump and his followers. If they overestimated America’s military and political capacity for intervention, they should be credited with their early and perceptive warnings about the threat to democracy, here and across the globe, from Trump’s MAGA movement, national conservatism, and the right-wing media machine. 

When President Trump lauded Putin and other autocrats during his presidency, he was, as Heilbrunn writes, “building on a long-standing tradition” of American conservatives who prefer strongman rule to self-government. But the magnitude of what looms under a second Trump term in the White House thoroughly overshadows these figures and movements from the past. Rabble-rousers like McCarthy and Coughlin were never serious threats to achieve power in America; likewise, the lesser figures of isolationist groups or modestly influential opinion journals do not compare to the well-funded projects that are currently training MAGA loyalists in the inner workings of policymaking. Today’s authoritarian Right may not publicly spout eugenics theories, but its adherents are dedicated to first gaining political power and then dismantling the institutions of democracy. This is the most disturbing message of America Last

Arch Puddington is emeritus scholar at Freedom House. 

Image: Augusto Pinochet meeting with Henry Kissinger, 1976. (Wikimedia Commons: Archivo General Histórico del Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores, CC BY 2.0 CL DEED, Attribution 2.0 Chile)

AuthoritarianismDemocracyElectionsPolitical PhilosophyUnited StatesU.S. Foreign PolicyRussiaBook Reviews