Book Review: Exit Right
by Daniel Oppenheimer
Simon & Schuster, 2016
Daniel Oppenheimer’s wonderfully thoughtful debut, Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century, is at heart a study of political apostasy – which slightly belies its claim to being ideologically neutral (apostates rebel against the True Faith, after all) but commensurately increases its dramatic payload. This is the most gripping study of rival political theories that’s likely to appear in 2016.
The book takes an in-depth look at six figures: Whittaker Chambers, James Burnham, Ronald Reagan, Norman Podhoretz, David Horowitz, and Christopher Hitchens, six men who turned their back on decades of adherence to leftist principles and ended their lives by embracing one variation or another of neoliberalism. And because the separate mini-biographies are arranged chronologically, much of the narrative also functions as an intellectual history of the frothier currents of American political thinking – left and right – over the last century.
It’s a big subject to be covering in only 400 pages, especially considering the many thousands of pages that have already been written on such polarizing people as Chambers or Reagan. But thanks in large part to Oppenheimer’s great skill as a writer, Exit Right always feels sharply on-point even when the author is indulging in the brief digressions that seem to come naturally to him. For instance, his chapter on former Trotskyite-turned National Review stalwart James Burnham is often more interesting about Trotsky himself than about a boring two-face like Burnham:
But Trotsky, being Trotsky, didn’t suffer blows to his pride willingly. And Trotsky, being Trotsky, didn’t believe that practical gain could be achieved by sacrificing theoretical principle. False theory led to foolish action, while true theory led to right action and the optimal revolutionary ends. For Trotsky, any price was worth paying if the alternative was adopting false theory (or admitting he was wrong).
The centerpiece of the book is – must of necessity be – its look at Ronald Reagan, the only one of the six men considered here who actually did “reshape the American Century.” Reagan got a good deal of comic mileage out of the fact that before he was the face of American Republican conservatism, he was the face of American Democratic liberalism, and Oppenheimer is fascinating on the subtleties of that change. In Reagan’s case as in the case of most of the men profiled here, the most important element of the experience was denying there’d been any experience in the first place:
In Reagan’s conversion story there was no conversion at all. There was, instead, a creep of beliefs, friendships, history, and circumstance that happened so slowly that not only was Reagan able to convince himself, in hindsight, that he hadn’t changed much at all, he was able to carry with him into his new ideological residence much of the emotional and symbolic furniture of his liberal past.
This was the smiling face Reagan put on hypocrisy, the nodding, charming anecdotes with which he tried to make naked self-interest palatable to decent progressive voters. As Oppenheimer puts it, this was “a story that so many millions of Americans wanted to hear to help them change their political loyalties”:
They wanted to be told that a vote for Reagan, for the Republican Party, for conservative ideas, didn’t mean that they’d changed, that their past selves had been wrong, or that their past allegiances had been misguided. What came from Reagan putting his genius to work finessing his own incongruities was an arsenal of stories, lessons, evasions, and stratagems that enabled others to change the way he had, by detaching politically from past loyalties without taking an axe to the emotional ties – of family, workplace, ethnicity, religion, history, and geography – with which those loyalties had been bound up.
The wild card in this assemblage is its one apolitical actor, Christopher Hitchens. Oppenheimer rightly tells us that Hitchens’ “journey away frome the Left … upended his life, destroyed many of his friendships, visibly aged him, and alienated the readership from which he once drew his energy,” and in the spirit of fairness, he paraphrases some of the many enemies Hitchens made when he threw his intellectual support behind President George W. Bush’s illegal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan:
From the Left it was said that his intellect, cured by decades of heavy drinking, was no longer capable of resisting the baubles of power, influence, and money held in escrow by the Right for any leftist willing to sell out his colleagues. It was said that he was bored by the peace and prosperity of the 1990s, and narcissistic enough to mistake his perpetual need for conflict as a perpetual opportunity for the display of moral courage.
The problem with Oppenheimer’s chapter on Hitchens, brilliant as it is, is that it doesn’t stop right there. “It was said that he was bored by the peace and prosperity of the 1990s, and narcissistic enough to mistake his perpetual need for conflict as a perpetual opportunity for the display of moral courage” sums up the man so perfectly that no further verbiage is needed – this at least was no apostasy, and it therefore sits awkwardly in its present company.
But even in that case, Oppenheimer does such a lively, page-turning job – and Hitchens is such a fascinating character – that you don’t mind the inclusion. Exit Right is a terrifically nimble and involving book, a sobering indictment of the mutability of creeds, and it appears at exactly the most useful time, as Americans brace themselves for a year of creed battling creed in the name of naked self-interest.