Fred Siegel, a passionate urban historian whose rejection of the liberal establishment’s response to crime, poverty and public civility transformed him from a spokesman for the Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern in 1972 to a voter for Donald J. Trump in 2020, died on Sunday at his home in Brooklyn. He was 78.
The cause was complications of a series of infections that had left him hospitalized on a trip to California, his son, Harry, said.
Mr. Siegel was a professor emeritus at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in Manhattan, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, a conservative think tank, and an author.
His ideological evolution was evidenced in the titles of his books: “The Future Once Happened Here: New York, D.C., L.A., and the Fate of America’s Big Cities” (1997); “The Prince of the City: Giuliani, New York, and the Genius of American Life” (2005), which he wrote with Harry Siegel; and “The Revolt Against the Masses: How Liberalism Has Undermined the Middle Class” (2014).
Mr. Siegel had been an adviser to Rudolph W. Giuliani when he was elected mayor of New York City in 1993 and came to regard him as the city’s greatest leader to occupy that office since Fiorello La Guardia, who presided during the Great Depression. He argued that the Giuliani administration had greatly reduced crime and debunked the conventional view that the city was ungovernable.
Mr. Giuliani “revived the republic with more than a touch of Machiavelli’s corrupt wisdom,” Mr. Siegel wrote.
As a historian, he would identify the roots of liberalism in the writings of Herbert Croly and H.G. Wells, who had envisioned college graduates as a new elite class that would lead an enlightened democratic government where the European aristocracy had failed.
Even as a disillusioned liberal, Mr. Siegel maintained a love affair with his Ditmas Park neighborhood in Brooklyn, which he never left despite his disillusionment with what he viewed as New York City’s wayward progressive government. He defended the rights of immigrants and mocked Newt Gingrich, the Georgia Republican who was speaker of the House in the late 1990s, for asserting that New York was dependent on Washington when in fact Mr. Gingrich’s own district benefited from enormous federal government subsidies.
And, perhaps more in sorrow than in anger, he quoted former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York as saying that his fellow Democrats had “rewarded the articulation of moral purpose more than the achievement of practical good.”
Mr. Siegel said in an interview with City Journal in 2020 that John V. Lindsay, who was mayor from 1966 to 1973, “was a classic liberal in that intentions counted for more than outcomes, and the trade-offs that we always have to make in order to make policy work, were alien to him.”
In the same magazine in 1991, Mr. Siegel argued: “Middle-class citizens, rightly or wrongly, have become convinced that modern liberal urban government is mostly about letting the poor misbehave at the expense of the middle class, and paying public employees very well to deliver services very poorly.”
He was a protégé of the literary critic Irving Howe and more or less followed his ideological trajectory.
Mr. Siegel’s metamorphosis — from a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, a fellow of the Progressive Policy Institute and a voter for the independent John Anderson in 1980 and the Democrat Walter F. Mondale in 1984 (each time voting against the Republican Ronald Reagan) — reached its apogee (depending on one’s political point of view) in 2020.
After a lifetime of sitting out presidential elections or mostly voting for losers, he cast his ballot for Mr. Trump.
He listed his reasons for doing so in 2020 in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, lauding Mr. Trump for “crushing ISIS, pulling us out of the Iran nuclear deal, moving our embassy to Jerusalem and making fools of those people who insist that the Palestinian issue is at the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict.” He also favored Mr. Trump, he said, for displaying an “ability to withstand a prolonged coup attempt by the Democrats and the media” and for championing “bourgeois values.”
In an online tribute this week, Brian C. Anderson, the editor of City Journal, wrote that Mr. Siegel had identified what he called a “riot ideology” that took hold of public officials in major cities, “making them reluctant to confront public disorder and crime for fear of violent opposition.”
“His work was central to the renewal of American cities beginning in the 1990s, especially New York,” Mr. Anderson wrote.
Lawrence J. Mone, the former president of the Manhattan Institute, said that by becoming a fellow at the research organization, Mr. Siegel “opened it up to disenchanted people from the Democratic left who had a vision of the way the world worked and realized that it didn’t work.”
“He was creating a safe haven to get these people in from the cold,” Mr. Mone said.
Among those progressives whom Mr. Siegel did not convert was Ester R. Fuchs, a political scientist at Columbia University and Mr. Siegel’s sometime debate adversary.
“Fred was a lovable, gifted, intellectual puzzle who never stopped thinking or caring about New York City,” Professor Fuchs said. “His judgment was clouded by his disappointment with the liberal establishment (who were also wrong!). While he understood the white ethnic working class, he did not understand the Black and Hispanic poor and working class.”
Frederick Fein Siegel was born on March 27, 1945, in the Bronx to Albert and Selma (Fein) Siegal. His parents ran an employment agency until it closed during the 88-day newspaper strike in New York in 1978.
Fred Siegel attended Rutgers University, where he was an errant student. He went on the road to make his fortune but was disappointed when hustling pool proved to be a dead end. He later earned a doctorate from the University of Pittsburgh.
In 1976, he married Jan Rosenberg, a sociologist. In addition to his son Harry, she survives him along with another son, Jacob, and four grandchildren.
Mr. Siegel taught on campuses of the State University of New York from 1973 to 1980; at the Sorbonne in Paris from 1980 to 1981; and as a professor of history and the humanities at the Cooper Union from 1982 to 2010. He was a member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., from 1989 to 1990; the editor of City Journal from 1990 to 1993; a columnist for The New York Post from 1994 to 1997; and a scholar in residence at St. Francis College in Brooklyn from 2011 to 2018.
Harry Siegel said that his father’s liberalism was largely shaped by conversations with his maternal grandfather, a garment worker and labor organizer, and that his political conversion as an adult was gradual.
The essayist Irving Kristol famously defined a neoconservative, a breed Mr. Kristol epitomized and popularized, as “a liberal who has been mugged by reality.” But Mr. Siegel’s conversion wasn’t the result of a single personal experience, his son said — even though a thief once grabbed a bag of $100 worth of kosher meat from him on the subway and several of the family’s cars were stolen.
If Mr. Siegel approached a philosophical epiphany, though, it was during the blackout of 1977, when looters raged through parts of Brooklyn, stripping stores of merchandise and setting them ablaze in a night of rioting.
Mr. Siegel, whose favorite restaurant, Jack’s Pastrami King, was among the places destroyed, reflected in 2017: “The city itself had been mugged, I realized. I’m still haunted by that moment from 40 years ago, when my political re-education began.”
(With inputs from NYTimes)
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