The Conservative Fault Lines Revealed by Debates Over Israel

Tucker Carlson and Ben Shapiro’s argument on the war in Gaza is a microcosm of the fractures on the American right that lie behind the Republican Party line

The Conservative Fault Lines Revealed by Debates Over Israel
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines Magazine. (Photo by Gage Skidmore)

On the Oct. 9 episode of his show on X, formerly known as Twitter (“Tucker on X”), the conservative commentator Tucker Carlson urged restraint in response to Hamas’ gruesome attacks against Israel two days earlier. “There’s a lot at stake in how we encourage Israel to respond,” the former Fox News host cautioned. He warned that the conflict could escalate into a wider war involving Iran and the West. “Once a war like that starts, you could easily imagine the use of nuclear weapons and all that entails,” he admonished. Among those alarming consequences for Carlson would be an influx of people “from the poorest places in the world.” As he later put it in a tweet, “Start another war, send millions more anti-Western refugees to the West.”

Carlson then inveighed against two prominent Republicans — presidential hopeful (and former U.N. Ambassador) Nikki Haley and her “fellow neocon” (a dig in Carlson’s book) Sen. Lindsey Graham — for advocating a “reckless” and “bloodthirsty” course of action. He played media clips of Haley asserting, “This is not just an attack on Israel — this is an attack on America,” and of Graham suggesting that if Hezbollah launches attacks on Israel, the U.S. and Israel should coordinate a joint strike on Iran. Israel has the right to defend itself and respond as it sees fit, but why, Carlson asked, should the U.S. — which was not attacked on Oct. 7, contrary to Haley’s claim — be drawn in? It is not in America’s national interest to get embroiled in yet another war in the Middle East, he maintained.

Another influential conservative commentator, Ben Shapiro, railed against Carlson on his eponymous YouTube show, upbraiding him for the “moral blindness” of his “hands off” stance. The foreign policy “realism” Carlson espouses “is not realistic,” Shapiro fulminated; “It’s stupid.” American interests “are not always identical with Israeli interests,” Shapiro acknowledged. Responding to a subsequent episode of “Tucker on X,” Shapiro insisted that by stressing the danger that “this will end in World War III,” Carlson is “pushing a pacifist line” — which, Shapiro thundered, “is not a conservative position.”

It’s never been a conservative position so far as I’m aware. Peace through strength has been a conservative position for as long as I’ve been alive, certainly. This idea that you are heightening the chances of a world war if America actually flexes its muscles sometimes, it’s a bizarre one when what we know is precisely the opposite.

This melee, which has generated considerable buzz, is a microcosm of deeper fault lines on the American right, with Carlson representing the isolationist, “America-first” current, which has grown in prominence on the right in the age of Trump (but has deeper ideological roots that go back to the middle of the 20th century), and Shapiro representing the camp of “muscular” national security conservatism and strong U.S. support for Israel, which has been the dominant position within the Republican Party for the last several decades. While these two tendencies have been on opposing sides of various issues, particularly since Trump’s election in 2016, there has been a general consensus over support for Israel.

Take Trump himself, who made “America first” the center of his foreign policy vision and broke with the conventional Republican approach to Russia, the NATO alliance, free trade deals and other international issues, but was zealous in his support for Israel (and for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu personally). Several ideological streams on the American right converge around support for Israel, from evangelical Christian Zionists to foreign policy neoconservatives to MAGA Republicans. Anti-Israel voices on the right have largely been consigned to the margins of the movement — but as we have seen in the era of Trump, tendencies that were previously considered fringe have become mainstreamed. And the current Gaza war has brought some of those previously marginal voices to the fore and ignited a fierce debate.

One such figure is Nick Fuentes, a white supremacist and antisemite associated with the “alt-right” who hosts a livestream show called “America First.” Fuentes has praised Hitler, engaged in Holocaust denial and called for a “holy war” against Jews. He made international headlines in November 2022 when he and Kanye West dined with Trump at the former president’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. Fuentes describes himself as an “anti-Zionist” and has suggested that Israel’s intelligence failure on Oct. 7 is “a little suspicious in light of how the Likud government will benefit politically from this crisis both domestically and internationally.” “Everything that the Jews are saying about what Hamas did — well, we know that they’re full of shit,” Fuentes intoned. “They’re sick.” “The Jews won World War I. The Jews won World War II. Let’s make sure that they don’t win World War III.” He implored his followers, known as “groypers,” to follow the hashtag #GazaGenocide.

Charlie Kirk is a major political entrepreneur on the American right. He hosts a popular radio talk show and leads Turning Point USA, a national organization that cultivates young conservative social media influencers. In a recent interview, Kirk raised doubts about the official story of what happened on Oct. 7 and wondered if a “stand down” order was issued to allow the attacks, with the aim of bolstering Netanyahu’s sagging political fortunes. “Did somebody in the [Israeli] government say, ‘stand down’? That is a legitimate, nonconspiracy question,” Kirk said. (After catching flak for this foray, Kirk clarified in a tweet: “Asking questions does not make you anti-Israel. The facts are that Israel got intel something was mounting in Gaza but did not put military forces on the border on high alert. That warrants an explanation.”)

It’s not just individual commentators and media personalities who are voicing these “dissenting” right-wing views on Israel. Following an “inside-out” strategy, various far-right groups are organizing their own (small) demonstrations and also showing up at (considerably larger) pro-Palestine rallies in an attempt to hijack the cause, or at least inject their views into the messaging mix.

In late October, the white supremacist and antisemitic National Justice Party staged a rally near the White House in Washington with signs that read “Defund Israel,” “No White Lives for Israel” and “No More Jewish Wars” (an echo of Mel Gibson’s 2006 claim that, “The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world,” during a rant after the right-wing actor was pulled over by the police on suspicion of drunk driving). “Why the hell are they dragging us into another Zionist war?” a speaker yelled into the megaphone, before referring to the U.S. as “Israeli-occupied territory.” Also in late October, members of the neo-Nazi group NSC-131 hung banners on an overpass near Boston with slogans such as “No More Wars for Israel” and “End Jewish Terror.”

At a demonstration about 50 miles outside of Orlando earlier in October, members of the neo-Nazi group National Socialist Florida held signs that read “Our Tax Dollars Fund Israeli Bloodlust” and “The Great Replacement is Real.” The text for an event video they shared on social media reads “America and Palestine share a similar fate: REPLACEMENT.”

Shane Burley, author of “Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It” (2017), noted in a recent essay that, “Despite these claims of solidarity with Palestine, the white nationalist intervention on this issue comes not from their concern for Palestinian lives, but out of a desire to manipulate the conflict to serve their own racial narratives.”

But not everyone on the far right is on the same page about Israel and Gaza. The prevalence of both antisemitism and Islamophobia in white nationalist circles creates a tension that can lead in different directions.

“Make no mistake, this is Islam’s ‘holy war’ and their ultimate goal is to wipe out all of Israel,” firebrand Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene wrote on Telegram on Oct. 7. “There’s no such thing as Palestine. It’s always been a figment of the imagination of Islamic terrorists and Jew haters,” said far-right agitator and former congressional candidate Laura Loomer on X, shortly after Hamas’ assault.

Former Trump advisor Stephen Miller, the architect of the notorious “Muslim ban” and the child separation policy at the border, has one foot in the world of white nationalism but stands decidedly by Israel, which “is fighting a jihadist death squad,” he tweeted on Oct. 19. “Israel’s straightforward military mission is to eliminate the death squad, a necessary action to ensure the survival of the sole Jewish state.”

“Much of this area of the far right seems to be hoping that this conflict can reinvigorate what is known as the ‘counter-jihad’ movement, a far-right collection of groups and individuals who believe Islam is a threat to the West and see Muslims as their primary civilizational enemy,” Burley writes.

Others on the authoritarian populist or “post-liberal” right seem to be framing their stance less in terms of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself and more in opposition to their political adversaries on other issues that are more important to them — often with incoherent results. For example, the alt-right media provocateur Andy Ngo, editor-at-large for The Post Millennial, trains his sights mainly on what he considers the excesses of the left concerning Israel and Hamas. He sees pro-Palestine activists as woke culture warriors and suggests that they have backing from (Jewish philanthropist) George Soros. So, in the very same breath, Ngo accuses pro-Palestine activists of antisemitism based on their criticisms of Israeli policies, and trafficks in the quintessentially antisemitic trope that wealthy Jewish “globalists” are pulling the strings behind the scenes.

Compact Magazine, a leading organ of “post-liberal” thought, also belongs in this category. Its editor, Sohrab Ahmari, is an ideological journeyman who went through Marxist and neoconservative phases before converting to Catholicism and fashioning the Compact “synthesis” of communitarian conservatism and social democracy (Ahmari calls himself a “pro-life New Dealer”). Rejecting both the “libertine left and [the] libertarian right” on foreign policy, Compact tends toward “America first” isolationism. But it frames its stance on Israel obliquely, more as a critique of the pro-Palestine left than in positive terms to do with the issues themselves. The magazine’s podcast makes for somewhat awkward listening on this score: Ahmari and his fellow editors plod and lumber, dancing around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and focusing instead on the follies of various academic leftists, for whom the Compact editors have contempt based on other subjects.

What’s especially curious here is that Ahmari shares obvious ideological affinities with Pat Buchanan, founding editor of The American Conservative magazine (Ahmari is a contributing editor) and one of the intellectual architects of “paleoconservatism” (its name a playful rejoinder to neoconservatism, which the tendency sharply rejects). Buchanan made “America First!” (with an exclamation mark) the slogan of his 2000 presidential campaign. Trump has cited Buchanan as a major influence (Trump has been called “Pat Buchanan with better timing”). Yet Ahmari’s views on Israel (and Trump’s, for that matter) sharply diverge from Buchanan’s. Among prominent conservative commentators today, it is Carlson whose views on Israel and U.S. foreign policy most resemble Buchanan’s.

In the early 1990s, Buchanan’s views on Israel courted controversy on the right and invited accusations of antisemitism. In the run-up to the 1991 Gulf War, Buchanan quipped that the only backers of U.S. intervention in the Gulf were Israel and its “amen corner in the United States” and referred to Congress as “Israeli-occupied territory” (a slogan uttered verbatim at the antisemitic National Justice Party rally in Washington a few weeks ago). Buchanan’s fellow paleoconservative, Joe Sobran, who shared those views, defended Buchanan, writing that “Jewish claims are being cut down to size in various ways. It’s coded by a lot of Jews as anti-Semitism. I don’t think it is. It’s more like counter-Semitism.” For good measure, Sobran added that he was keen to diminish “the excessive moral prestige Jews have in the media and the public square.” William F. Buckley, Jr., editor of the preeminent conservative magazine in America, National Review (for which Sobran was a columnist), devoted an entire issue to the question of antisemitism on the American right (later expanded into a book). The unrepentant Sobran was fired from National Review.

There was an illuminating discussion of this sordid affair on a recent episode of the excellent podcast Know Your Enemy. John Ganz (author of the forthcoming book “When the Clock Broke: Con Men, Conspiracists, and How America Cracked Up in the Early 1990s”) noted that there has always been an antisemitic (not to mention anti-Black and xenophobic) strain within American conservatism, but the Cold War had managed to keep it at bay — temporarily. It never went away. It just took a back seat while there was a common enemy that united the nativist white nationalists, religious traditionalists, free market capitalists and neoconservative internationalists. But with the end of the Cold War, this temporary alliance dissolved and these deeper fault lines reasserted themselves. Israel brings these fault lines to the surface like few other topics.

Despite the reemergence of the “Israel debate” on the right, the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of elected Republicans are steadfast in their support for the Jewish state. Indeed, in the aftermath of Oct. 7, many have gone into frenetic overdrive.

In early November, Republican Rep. Ryan Zinke of Montana, who served in Trump’s cabinet (as secretary of the interior), introduced legislation, as his website proudly declared, “to expel Palestinians from the United States.” The “Safeguarding Americans from Extremism” (SAFE) Act, as the Washington Post’s Philip Bump notes, is “aimed at killing several birds with one stone: casting Palestinians as inherently dangerous, criticizing President Biden on immigration and earning attention from the right-wing attention-granters.”

All of the remaining Republican presidential contenders are in lockstep behind Israel. At a recent meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition, as reported in The Bulwark, “Almost without exception, the candidates insisted that Israel should be unconstrained in its military operations.” This included the frontrunner and presumptive nominee: “If you’re not going to be tough and ruthless like they are, it’s not going to happen,” Trump said at the gathering. “Hamas and its allies need to feel the wrath of God,” said Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina. “May they meet the wrath of God with some American military hardware.” But Vivek Ramaswamy took the cake: “I would love nothing more than for the IDF to put the heads of the top hundred Hamas leaders on stakes and line them up on the Israel-Gaza border,” the businessman said.

For his part, the new Speaker of the House, Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana, said after his 2020 trip to Israel, where he was escorted around by extremists on the Israeli far right, “You hear in the U.S. about how the Palestinians or the Arab people are oppressed in these areas, and have these terrible lives. None of that is true. We didn’t see any of it.”

While an intraconservative debate rages online and on the fringes of right-wing activism, at the policy level the Republican Party’s pro-Israel center of gravity is not only secure, but has been fortified by Oct. 7. And with Donald Trump as the party’s standard bearer for a third straight cycle — despite his flirtation with the conspiratorial, racist fringes of the far right, including antisemites, and despite his fondness for Buchanan’s “America first” isolationism — the Israeli right would be thrilled to see him back in the White House.

Research assistance for this article was provided by Theodore Postel.

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