Neo-cons (the word is an abbreviation of neoconservatism, and does not relate to a conference called NeoCon) have been around a while, long enough that the Rolling Stones cut a late-career sarcastic song about them around the start of the millennium. But this currency still circulates.
Columnist Max Boot cited – early in 2019 – headlines including “How the neocons captured Donald Trump.” “The continuing lunacy of the neocons.” “Return of the neocons!” He goes on to suggest, fairly enough, that “‘Neoconservatism’ once had a real meaning – back in the 1970s. But the label has now become meaningless. With many of those who are described as neocons, including me, fleeing the Trumpified right, the term’s sell-by date has passed. There are more ex-cons than neocons by this point.”
The Conservapedia took a crack at it, though: “in American politics [it] is someone presented as a ‘conservative’ but who actually favors big government, globalism, interventionism, and a hostility to religion in politics and government. The word means ‘newly conservative,’ and thus formerly liberal. A neocon is a RINO Backer, and like RINOs does not accept most of the important principles in the Republican Party platform. Neocons do not participate in the March for Life, nor stand up for traditional marriage, advocate other conservative social values, or emphasize putting America first. Neocons support attacking and even overthrowing foreign governments, despite how that often results in more persecution of Christians. Some neocons (like Dick Cheney) have profited immensely from the military-industrial complex. Many neocons are globalists and support the War on Sovereignty.”
Any number of actual neo-cons may quibble with much of that; as people who mostly came to their views more or less one by one rather than in a mass movement, many individual differences may be apparent.
The term started picking up significant usage in the 1970s (neo-liberal would follow soon after) to describe people whose background was in Franklin Roosevelt-style liberalism but who felt that many of their allies had become “soft” in opposing communism, meaning that a hawkish perspective on defense was a key part of their world view.
What did pre-existing conservatives think of them? The Conservapedia offers, “Paleoconservatives, who dislike Neoconservatism intensely, have argued that it emerged from Trotskyite theories, especially the notion of permanent revolution. There are four fundamental flaws in the paleoconservatives’ attack: most of the neoconservatives were never Trotskyites; none of them ever subscribed to the right-wing Socialism of Max Shachtman; the assertion that neoconservatives subscribe to “inverted Trotskyism” is misleading; and neoconservatives advocate democratic globalism, not permanent revolution.”
Neo-cons accounted for many – by no means all – of the early and leading advocates of the 2003 Iraq war, and as that wore on, and as the Obama Adninistration sidelined them, the term fell into less frequent usage.
In the Trump Administration, neo-cons have seen some resurgence. Its current (at this writing) national security advisor, John Bolton, has been described as “one of the key figures of neoconservatism.”
Writer Caitlin Johnstone argued4 that “You can trace a straight line from the endless US military expansionism we’ve been seeing since 9/11 back to the rise of neoconservatism, so paying attention to this dynamic is important for diagnosing and curing the disease.”