Bizarro Conservatism

Our parent organization, the Randolph Bourne Institute, is named after an early 20th-century liberal famous for, among other things, his trenchant observation that “war is the health of the State” – a phrase that takes on quite a different connotation in our degraded era. In these dark times, Bourne’s statement might be taken as meaning approval of war: after all, the State, in this age of Big-Brotherism and “big government conservatism,” is a Good Thing, and it’s only natural in this context to wish it good health: the more overweening and built-up, the better.

There was a time, however, when Americans feared the accumulation of power, especially when it accrued to the federal government in Washington: conservatives of the Goldwater stripe (and, further back, the followers of Sen. Robert A. Taft), were especially vigilant against this danger. The liberals of Bourne’s day, before they were Wilsonized and Rooseveltized, were wary of government’s coercive essence. Both Left and Right were joined at the root by the American libertarian consensus – a reflexive distrust of government power rooted in history and reinforced by a rebellious temperament embedded in the American consciousness.

No more: today, the “conservatives” on the Fox “News” channel and the Rush Limbaugh-radio talk show circuit are worshippers at the altar of State Power. No expansion of governmental authority is too vast, too broad, too brazenly contrary to the spirit and letter of the Constitution to evade their enthusiastic endorsement. Liberals, to some extent, are regaining their old distrust of government power, largely in reaction to the radical incursions on our civil liberties authored by the Bush administration. Yet the liberal mainstream, which extends from the Hillary Clinton Fan Club on the “far left” to the editors of The New Republic in the supposed center, stood by in silence or else openly applauded while this president eviscerated our civil liberties.

A massive attack on the traditional principle of habeas corpus – which means that the authorities must have some stated reason, some evidence that a crime has been committed, to hold an individual in detention – would, in normal times, have provoked a storm of protest. However, that was before 9/11, before the impact of those planes on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon tore a gaping hole in the space-time continuum and propelled us into an alternate universe known to avid readers of Superman comics as Bizarro World – a parallel plane of existence where up is down, right is wrong, and the Constitution is really a mandate for the president’s unlimited authority.

The Republican Party, previously devoted to the principles of less government, decentralized authority, and economic liberty, immediately transformed itself into the champion of more government, including a significant increase in federal spending and, more ominously, the establishment of a rudimentary police state. Thus was born Bizarro Conservatism, an ideology that, in every conceivable aspect, inverts the core principles of pre-9/11 conservatism.

Accordingly, Bizarro Conservatives welcome a government that routinely spies on its own people and has the power to indefinitely detain anyone, including U.S. citizens, without having to explain why to a judge or a jury. This “right” has been claimed by the administration, on behalf of the president, on the theory that the executive branch enjoys effectively unlimited power in wartime, and now they are moving to consolidate this aspiring presidential dictatorship in legislative form [.pdf], as the Washington Post reports:

“Lawmakers and administration officials announced last week that they had reached accord on the plan for the detention and military trials of suspected terrorists, and it is scheduled for a vote this week. But in recent days the Bush administration and its House allies successfully pressed for a less restrictive description of how the government could designate civilians as ‘unlawful enemy combatants,’ the sources said yesterday. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of negotiations over the bill.”

The question of just who is or can be an “unlawful combatant” – and therefore, according to the Bush administration, may be seized and jailed without trial or even an acknowledgment from the authorities – is the issue at hand, and the authoritarian “conservatives” of the Bizarro persuasion are pushing hard to breach the inner battlements of the Constitution, as the Post piece makes all too clear:

“Human rights experts expressed concern yesterday that the language in the new provision would be a precedent-setting congressional endorsement for the indefinite detention of anyone who, as the bill states, ‘has engaged in hostilities or who has purposefully and materially supported hostilities against the United States’ or its military allies. The definition applies to foreigners living inside or outside the United States and does not rule out the possibility of designating a U.S. citizen as an unlawful combatant.

The ultimate expansion of the “unlawful combatant” definition to include any and all opposition to the War Party, whether military or political, is only a matter of time, and not much time at that. This administration and its allies have long maintained that their critics are “objectively” aiding the terrorist enemy. If Iraq is the main theater of our war on terrorism, then criticism of the war effort, such as organizing an antiwar demonstration, amounts to “material support” for “hostilities against the United States.” And if we include in this legal interdict all criticism of our “military allies,” then participating in a demonstration against Israeli aggression in Lebanon could also get one designated an “unlawful combatant.”

According to Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies, the inclusion of individuals said to have “supported hostilities” – as opposed to those who “engage in acts” of warfare against the U.S. – shows that “the government intends the legislation to sanction its seizure and indefinite detention of people far from the battlefield.” Which raises an important point: where is the battlefield, anyway? When it comes to the all-pervasive “war on terrorism,” it is everywhere. As Suzanne Spaulding, former assistant general counsel at the CIA, explains it, the proposed legislation,

“Would give the administration a stronger basis on which to argue that Congress has recognized that the battlefield is wherever the terrorist is, and they can seize people far from the area of combat, label them as unlawful enemy combatants, and detain them indefinitely.”

First they came for José Padilla. Now they’re coming for the rest of us…

The War Party cannot carry out its program of overseas conquest and “regime change” without cracking down on the home front – that is, by equating antiwar sentiment with treason, including in the legal sense. The “area of combat” is far wider than the mountainous passes of Afghanistan or the growing mountain of bloodstained rubble that is Iraq: the main battlefield, as this administration well knows, is on the home front. It is a war for the hearts and minds of Americans – the one theater of operations in which they cannot afford to lose.

War is indeed the health of the State, because all states are simply instruments of coercion. It is precisely in time of war that governments exercise their core function, which is the large-scale deployment of organized violence. The efficient delivery of this violence, in such places and instances as required, demands a highly centralized, authoritarian command structure, one ideally suited to the mindset and proclivities of our Bizarro Conservatives in that it brooks no dissent.

For once, I agree with Andrew Sullivan:

“Whatever else this is, it is not a constitutional democracy. It is a thinly-veiled military dictatorship, subject to only one control: the will of the Great Decider. And the war that justifies this astonishing attack on American liberty is permanent, without end. “

I might add, however, that Sullivan is only getting what he asked for. After all, he was one of the biggest and loudest supporters of the invasion of Iraq: he railed and ranted for months on end until he finally got what he wanted. It was Sullivan who declared, shortly after 9/11, that the late Susan Sontag and the intellectual elites on the East and West coasts amounted to an intellectual “fifth column” in the struggle against Osama bin Laden. Nor do I recall him protesting when this president declared that the hostilities would last for at least a generation. Now he’s shocked – shocked! – that the War Party is moving to seize “emergency powers” in what amounts to a coup d’état against the Constitution.

Sullivan may protest that no, he never asked for this, but what did he imagine would happen in the atmosphere of war hysteria he and his erstwhile neocon allies promoted? In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when the anthrax letters sent to the media and congressional offices opened up a whole new level of public panic, Sullivan was demanding that we use nuclear weapons on the Iraqis. We had to “act now,” he screeched, certain in the knowledge that the Iraqis had sent the anthrax, and “draw a line.” While this “need not mean nuclear weapons,” on the other hand, it just might mean nuking the crap out of Baghdad.

In the face of such emotionalism as was unleashed by the events of 9/11 and their immediate aftermath, no measure, no matter how draconian or cruel, seemed unreasonable to some, like Sullivan, who had even fancied themselves “libertarians.” (See Cathy Young’s extraordinary endorsement of police-state measures in the “libertarian” Reason magazine for a particularly reprehensible example.)

Of all those now decrying this administration’s political and legal onslaught against our civil liberties, Sullivan is the one least entitled to feign surprise. He and his fellow neocons utilized the emotionalism and hysteria generated by 9/11 to unleash the U.S. military on Iraq and prepare the ground for further “regime change” throughout the region, including Iran and Syria. What Sullivan apparently didn’t realize – or, rather, washes his hands of – is that this meant regime change on the home front as well.

The program of the War Party – perpetual war and the creation of an American empire – had to mean the overthrow of our constitutional republic, and the rise of… something else. Something that has been, so far, alien to America, but is now, sadly, a looming possibility: a dictatorship “legally” empowered by “emergency” measures, such as the one presently before the Senate [.pdf].

Bizarro Conservatism, birthed in the firestorm of intellectual radioactivity sparked by 9/11, is the mutant offspring of a philosophy that once meant something quite other than war, torture, and the police state. That Sullivan is coming around to this realization rather late – and with a history of having helped midwife this monster into existence – is cold comfort for those of us who warned of this outcome from the very beginning.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].