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A Pop-Psychology History of the American Right

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A Pop-Psychology History of the American Right

Daniel Oppenheimer’s analysis of six influential former leftists leaves out too much real history. March 4, 2016
The Social Order

Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century, by Daniel Oppenheimer (Simon & Schuster, 404 pp., $28)

Daniel Oppenheimer’s Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century is an extended, misnamed argument-by-indirection. Its title notwithstanding, this is a book about the Left in which there is very little about how the Right “reshaped the American century.” Oppenheimer looks at the lives of six figures—Whittaker Chambers, James Burnham, Ronald Reagan, Norman Podhoretz, David Horowitz, and Christopher Hitchens—in chronological order, he says, to show how beliefs are shaped and reshaped by psychological traumas and, for the first three figures, by the course of history. The upshot is a disjointed effort to acknowledge the crimes of Communism while turning a blind eye to the soft Stalinism and neo-Black Nationalist politics that have taken root today on campuses and in the Democratic Party.

The book opens with the early life of Chambers, whose extraordinary memoir Witness detailed his six-year stint as a Soviet spy and subsequent conversion to Christianity. The second chapter, on James Burnham and Trotskyism, shines, in part because Oppenheimer takes a break from pop psychologizing. In a footnote, the author quotes my old mentor and former Trotskyite Irving Howe on how “the old man” (Trotsky) believed “that to write is to engage in a serious political act, a gesture toward the redemption or recreation of man.” Seeing themselves as the true heirs of the Bolshevik Revolution, Trotskyites felt free to criticize the crimes of Communism. But in the wake of the 1939 Hitler–Stalin nonaggression pact, Burnham—a leading anti-Stalinist leftist—abandoned Trotskyism. Burnham’s 1941 book, The Managerial Revolution: What’s Happening in the World, had a major influence on George Orwell, who transmuted his ideas about both the end of capitalism and the rival assertions of oligarchical power into the drama of 1984.

Oppenheimer rationalizes his labored treatment of these six figures by noting that it is during periods of political transition when “the bones of one’s belief system are broken and poking out through the skin, that the contingency and complexity of belief become most visible.” This comely but tenuous formula falls apart when Oppenheimer writes about Norman Podhoretz. Maintaining that Podhoretz’s shift from left to right was simply a result of the harsh reaction to his memoir, Making It, Oppenheimer ignores shattering events like the Six Day War and the civil war among American liberals set off by the battle over black self-segregation in Gotham’s Ocean Hill-Brownsville school crisis. He mentions neither incident, not even in passing.

Throughout his discussion of Podhoretz, Oppenheimer’s pop psychologizing substitutes for history. He seems puzzled by Podhoretz’s disdain for Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem and its benighted argument about the “banality of evil.” If Oppenheimer had paid attention to the evidence laid out in Bettina Stangneth’s Eichmann Before Jerusalem, he would have understood that the imperious Arendt had been hoodwinked by the Nazi war criminal. Similarly, if Oppenheimer hadn’t concluded his examination of Podhoretz so abruptly, he could have noted that the Commentary editor and his then close friend, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, had broken with the Left without joining the Right.

The root problem with Exit Right is its ahistorical focus on how its subjects “processed their anger.” The book fails to account for the differences between political correctness in the 1940s and political correctness today. At the end of World War II, Ronald Reagan spoke of America’s triumph over the “venom of fascist bigotry.” But as Stalin was conquering Eastern Europe, Franklin Roosevelt’s oldest son, James, was assailed by Soviet supporters for supporting American ideals. “Jimmy [Roosevelt] needed someone to stand up for him,” said Reagan. “Well, sir, I found myself waist-high in epithets such as ‘fascist’ and ‘capitalist scum’ and ‘enemy of the proletariat’ and ‘witch-hunter’ and ‘red-baiter’ before I could say, ‘Boo.’” It’s redolent of Martin O’Malley being pilloried by Black Lives Matter for stating that “all lives matter.” But unlike Reagan, O’Malley quickly apologized for his politically incorrect faux pas.

Oppenheimer attempts to reduce the transformations he’s written about to largely personal journeys. He fails to grasp that the tolerant liberalism he identified with the middle-aged Ronald Reagan was merely an interregnum. By the time Oppenheimer awkwardly concludes with a section on the idiosyncratic and independent leftist Christopher Hitchens, the book has sunk into a morass of misunderstandings.

Hitchens was the Madonna of Western journalism—a man skilled at striking different poses. “On the Israeli-Palestinian matter,” Oppenheimer writes, “which came to define Hitchens’ leftism perhaps more than any other issue in the 1980s,” the British-American journalist “took as guiding light” the literary confidence man Edward Said. But Oppenheimer never mentions Said’s Trump-like con, in which he posed as a victim of Israeli eviction from Jerusalem during the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict. The young Said, son of an American citizen, was actually living a comfortable life in Cairo at the time. The adult Said became an apologist for Palestinian terrorism and Arab dictators on the grounds, as he explained in his academic bestseller Orientalism, that the failures of the Arab world were created by the imperialist constructs of Western literature.

Oppenheimer has a hard time explaining Hitchens’s conflicted postures. Strikingly, he misses one of Hitchens’s central motivations—anti-fascism. No matter how much the British Left gyrated on issues, anti-fascism seemed to Hitchens the sturdy pole around which its enthusiasms orbited. That was largely true until the 2003 Iraq War, when the U.S. deposed Saddam Hussein, whose government had been modeled, like the Baathist Assad regime in Syria, on Mussolini’s fascism. Hitchens had friends in London who’d been tortured by Saddam Hussein. He was shaken free of much of his leftism by the Labourite defense of the dictator. Needless to say, none of this appears in Oppenheimer’s book.

Exit Right will get good reviews on the left and polite reviews elsewhere, but it offers no insights. It is simply pop psychology.

Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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