The Scary Future of the American Right - The Atlantic
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By: David Brooks (The Atlantic)
What I saw at the National Conservatism Conference
By David Brooks Adam Maida / The Atlantic November 18, 2021Share
About the author: David Brooks is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and a columnist for The New York Times. He is the author of The Road to Character and The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life.
Rachel Bovard is one of the thousands of smart young Americans who flock to Washington each year to make a difference. She's worked in the House and Senate for Republicans Rand Paul, Pat Toomey, and Mike Lee, was listed among the "Most Influential Women in Washington Under 35" by National Journal, did a stint at the Heritage Foundation, and is now policy director of the Conservative Partnership Institute, whose mission is to train, equip, and unify the conservative movement. She's bright, cheerful, and funny, and has a side hustle as a sommelier. And, like most young people, she has absorbed the dominant ideas of her peer group.
One of the ideas she's absorbed is that the conservatives who came before her were insufferably naive. They thought liberals and conservatives both want what's best for America, disagreeing only on how to get there. But that's not true, she believes. "Woke elites—increasingly the mainstream left of this country—do not want what we want," she told the National Conservatism Conference, which was held earlier this month in a bland hotel alongside theme parks in Orlando. "What they want is to destroy us," she said. "Not only will they use every power at their disposal to achieve their goal," but they've already been doing it for years "by dominating every cultural, intellectual, and political institution."
As she says this, the dozens of young people in her breakout session begin to vibrate in their seats. Ripples of head nodding are visible from where I sit in the back. These are the rising talents of the right—the Heritage Foundation junior staff, the Ivy League grads, the intellectual Catholics and the Orthodox Jews who have been studying Hobbes and de Tocqueville at the various young conservative fellowship programs that stretch along Acela-land. In the hallway before watching Bovard's speech, I bumped into one of my former Yale students, who is now at McKinsey.
Bovard has the place rocking, training her sights on the true enemies, the left-wing elite: a "totalitarian cult of billionaires and bureaucrats, of privilege perpetuated by bullying, empowered by the most sophisticated surveillance and communications technologies in history, and limited only by the scruples of people who arrest rape victims' fathers, declare math to be white supremacist, finance ethnic cleansing in western China, and who partied, a mile high, on Jeffrey Epstein's Lolita Express."
Read: It's a weird time to be young and conservative
The atmosphere is electric. She's giving the best synopsis of national conservatism I've heard at the conference we're attending—and with flair! Progressives pretend to be the oppressed ones, she tells the crowd, "but in reality, it's just an old boys' club, another frat house for entitled rich kids contrived to perpetuate their unearned privilege. It's Skull and Bones for gender-studies majors!" She finishes to a rousing ovation. People leap to their feet.
I have the sinking sensation that the thunderous sound I'm hearing is the future of the Republican Party.
When I came down to Florida for the National Conservatism Conference, I was a little concerned I'd get heckled in the hallways, or be subjected to the verbal abuse I occasionally get from Trump supporters. Judging by their rhetoric, after all, these are the fire-breathers, the hard-liners, the intellectual sharp edge of the American right.
But everyone was charming! I hung around the bar watching football each night, saw old conservative friends, and met lots of new ones, and I enjoyed them all. This is the intellectual wing of the emerging right. Many of them have spent their lives at progressive places like Princeton, New York, Hollywood, and D.C. Their bodies and careers are in the Republican coastal megalopolis—but their minds and mouths are in Trumpland. As one young man told me late one night, "We'd like to dislike Bill Kristol, but he got us all jobs."
The movement has three distinctive strains. First, the people over 50 who have been hanging around conservative circles for decades but who have recently been radicalized by the current left. Chris Demuth, 75, was for many years president of the American Enterprise Institute, which used to be the Church of England of American conservatism, but now he's gone populist. "NatCons are conservatives who have been mugged by reality," he told the conference. Seventy-three-year-old Glenn Loury, a Brown University economist, was a conservative, then a progressive, and now he's back on the right: "What has happened to public discourse about race has radicalized me."
The second strain is made up of mid-career politicians and operatives who are learning to adapt to the age of populist rage: people like Ted Cruz (Princeton, Harvard), J. D. Vance (Yale Law), and Josh Hawley (Stanford and Yale).
The third and largest strain is the young. They grew up in the era of Facebook and MSNBC and identity politics. They went to colleges smothered by progressive sermonizing. And they reacted by running in the other direction. I disagreed with two-thirds of what I heard at this conference, but I couldn't quite suppress the disturbing voice in my head saying, "If you were 22, maybe you'd be here too."
The Information Age is transforming the American right. Conservatives have always inveighed against the cultural elite—the media, the universities, Hollywood. But in the Information Age, the purveyors of culture are now corporate titans. In this economy, the dominant means of economic production are cultural production. Corporate behemoths are cultural behemoths. The national conservatives thus describe a world in which the corporate elite, the media elite, the political elite, and the academic elite have all coagulated into one axis of evil, dominating every institution and controlling the channels of thought.
At the heart of this blue oligarchy are the great masters of surveillance capitalism, the Big Tech czars who decide in secret what ideas get promoted, what stories get suppressed. (The NatCon gospel includes great martyrdom stories, such as when Twitter and Facebook suppressed a New York Post story on Hunter Biden's laptop, and when various social-media companies have tried to de-platform The Babylon Bee, the right-wing version of The Onion.) "Big Tech is malevolent. Big Tech is corrupt. Big Tech is omnipresent," Ted Cruz roared.
In the NatCon worldview, the profiteers of surveillance capitalism see all and control all. Its workers, indoctrinated at elite universities, use "wokeness" to buy off the left and to create a subservient, atomized, defenseless labor pool. "Big Business is not our ally," Marco Rubio argued. "They are eager culture warriors who use the language of wokeness to cover free-market capitalism." The "entire phalanx of Big Business has gone hard left," Cruz said. "We've seen Big Business, the Fortune 500, becoming the economic enforcers of the hard left. Name five Fortune 500 CEOs who are even remotely right of center."
Read: How capitalism drives cancel culture
The idea that the left controls absolutely everything—from your smartphone to the money supply to your third grader's curriculum—explains the apocalyptic tone that was the dominating emotional register of this conference. The politicians' speeches were like entries in the catastrophism Olympics:
"The left's ambition is to create a world beyond belonging," said Hawley. "Their grand ambition is to deconstruct the United States of America."
"The left's attack is on America. The left hates America," said Cruz. "It is the left that is trying to use culture as a tool to destroy America."
"We are confronted now by a systematic effort to dismantle our society, our traditions, our economy, and our way of life," said Rubio.
The first great project of the national conservatives is to man the barricades in the culture war. These people have certainly done their homework when it comes to cultural Marxism—how the left has learned to dominate culture and how the right now needs to copy their techniques. If I'd had to drink a shot every time some speaker cited Herbert Marcuse or Antonio Gramsci, I'd be dead of alcohol poisoning.
Hawley delivered a classic culture-war speech defending manhood and masculinity: "The deconstruction of America depends on the deconstruction of American men." Listening to Hawley talk populist is like listening to a white progressive Upper West Sider in the 1970s try to talk jive. The words are there, but he's trying so hard it sounds ridiculous.
Another speaker, Amanda Milius, is the daughter of John Milius, who was the screenwriter for the first two Dirty Harry films and Apocalypse Now. She grew up in L.A. and wound up in the Trump administration. She argued that America needs to get back to making self-confident movies like The Searchers, the 1956 John Ford Western. This was an unapologetic movie, she asserted, about how Americans tamed the West and how Christian values got brought to "savage, undeveloped land."
This is about as dumb a reading of The Searchers as it's possible to imagine. The movie is actually the modern analogue to the Oresteia, by Aeschylus. The complex lead figure, played by John Wayne, is rendered barbaric and racist while fighting on behalf of westward pioneers. By the end, he is unfit to live in civilized society.
But we don't exactly live in an age that acknowledges nuance. Milius distorts the movie into a brave manifesto of anti-woke truths—and that sort of distortion has a lot of buyers among this crowd.
The first interesting debate among the NatCons is philosophical: Should we fight to preserve the classical-liberal order or is it necessary to abandon it?
Some of the speakers at the conference were in fact classical liberals, who believe in free speech, intellectual debate, and neutral government. Glenn Loury gave an impassioned speech against cancel culture, the illiberal left, and the hyper-racialized group consciousness that divides people into opposing racial camps. Loury asserted that as a Black man he is the proud inheritor of the great Western tradition: "Tolstoy is mine! Dickens is mine! Milton, Marx, and Einstein are mine!" He declared that his people are Black, but also proudly American. "Our Americanness is much more important than our Blackness," he said, before adding, "We must strive to transcend racial particularism and stress universality and commonality as Americans." This is the classical-liberal case against racial separatism and in favor of integration.
But others argued that this sort of liberalism is a luxury we cannot afford. The country is under assault from a Marxist oligarchy that wants to impose its own pseudo-religious doctrine. If you try to repulse that with pallid liberalism, with weak calls for free speech and tolerance, you'll end up getting run over by those who possess fanatical zeal, economic power, and cultural might.
Yoram Hazony, the chief intellectual architect of national conservatism, is an Orthodox Jew who went to Princeton before moving to Israel. He argues that you can't have a society that embraces government neutrality and tries to relegate values to the private sphere. The public realm eventually eviscerates private values, especially when public communication is controlled by a small oligarchic elite. If conservatives want to stand up to the pseudo-religion of wokeism, they have to put traditional religion at the center of their political project.
Another Israeli political philosopher at the conference, Ofir Haivry, argued that Americans shouldn't delude themselves into thinking that a nation is built out of high-minded liberal abstractions, like the Bill of Rights. A nation is, instead, a cultural tradition, a common language, a set of rituals and beliefs, and a religious order—a collective cultural identity.
The history of Judaism demonstrates, Haivry argues, that you don't need a state or a political order to be a nation.
For his part, Hazony argued that the American cultural identity is Christian—and has to be if it is not going to succumb to the woke onslaught. If 80 percent of Americans are Christian, Hazony reasoned, then Christian values should dominate. "Majority cultures have the right to establish the ruling culture, and minority cultures have the right to be decently treated," he said. "To take the minority view and say the minority has the ability to stamp out the views of the majority—that seems to me to be completely crazy."
Read: How voters feel about Josh Hawley's 'attack on men'
The problem in America, Hazony continued, is that LGBTQ activists today, like American Jews in the 1950s, are trying to expel Christianity from the public square. This threatens to render the public square spiritually naked. Wan liberalism collapses in the face of left-wing cultural Marxism. "Eliminating God and scripture in the schools … was the turning point in American civilization," Hazony said. "Above all else we've got to get God and scripture back in the schools."
Another interesting debate among the NatCons is political and economic. Conservatives have lately become expert culture warriors—the whole Tucker Carlson schtick. This schtick demands that you ignore the actual suffering of the world—the transgender kid alone in some suburban high school, the anxiety of a guy who can't afford health care for his brother, the struggle of a Black man trying to be seen and recognized as a full human being. It's a cynical game that treats all of life as a play for ratings, a battle for clicks, and this demands constant outrage, white-identity signaling, and the kind of absurd generalizations that Rachel Bovard used to get that room so excited.
Conservatives have got the culture-war act down. Trump was a culture-war president with almost no policy arm attached. The question conservatives at the conference were asking was how to move beyond owning the libs to effecting actual change.
Christopher Rufo, the architect of this year's school-board-meeting protests against critical race theory, argued that conservatives had erred when they tried to slowly gain power in elite cultural institutions. Conservatives were never going to make headway in the Ivy League or the corporate media. Instead, Rufo argued, they should rally the masses to get state legislatures to pass laws embracing their values. That's essentially what's now happening across red America.
My old friend Rod Dreher of TheAmerican Conservative argued that because the left controls the commanding heights of the culture and the economy, the only institution the right has a shot at influencing is the state. In these circumstances the right has to use state power to promote its values. "We need to quit being satisfied with owning the libs, and save our country," Dreher said. "We need to unapologetically embrace the use of state power."
This is where Viktor Orban comes in. It was Dreher who prompted Carlson's controversial trip to Hungary last summer, and Hungarians were a strong presence at the National Conservatism Conference. Orban, in Dreher's view, understands the civilizational stakes of the culture war; he has, for instance, used the power of the state to limit how much transgenderism can be taught to children in schools. "Our team talks incessantly about how horrible wokeness is," Dreher said at the conference. "Orban actually does something about it."
This is national conservatism pursued to its logical conclusion: using state power to break up and humble the big corporations and to push back against coastal cultural values. The culture war merges with the economic-class war—and a new right emerges in which an intellectual cadre, the national conservatives, rallies the proletarian masses against the cultural/corporate elites. All your grandparents' political categories get scrambled along the way.
Will it work? Well, Donald Trump destroyed the Reagan Republican paradigm in 2016, but he didn't exactly elucidate a new set of ideas, policies, and alliances. Trump's devastation of the old order produced a grand struggle on the right to build a new one on Trumpian populist lines.
The NatCons are wrong to think there is a unified thing called "the left" that hates America. This is just the apocalyptic menace many of them had to invent in order to justify their decision to vote for Donald Trump.
They are wrong, too, to think there is a wokeist Anschluss taking over all the institutions of American life. For people who spend so much time railing about the evils of social media, they sure seem to spend an awful lot of their lives on Twitter. Ninety percent of their discourse is about the discourse. Anecdotalism was also rampant at the conference—generalizing from three anecdotes about people who got canceled to conclude that all of American life is a woke hellscape. They need to get out more.
Furthermore, if Hazony thinks America is about to return to Christian dominance, he's living in 1956. Evangelical Christianity has lost many millions of believers across recent decades. Secularism is surging, and white Christianity is shrinking into a rump presence in American life. America is becoming more religiously diverse every day. Christians are in no position to impose their values—regarding same-sex marriage or anything else—on the public square. Self-aware Christians know this.
Finally, there is something extremely off-putting about the NatCon public pose. In person, as I say, I find many of them charming, warm, and friendly. But their public posture is dominated by the psychology of threat and menace. If there was one expression of sympathy, kindness, or grace uttered from the podium in Orlando, I did not hear it. But I did hear callousness, invocations of combat, and whiffs of brutality.
From the September 2021 issue: How the bobos broke America
One big thing the NatCons are right about is that in the Information Age, the cultural and corporate elites have merged. Right-wing parties around the world are gradually becoming working-class parties that stand against the economic interests and cultural preferences of the highly educated. Left-wing parties are now rooted in the rich metro areas and are more and more becoming an unsteady alliance between young AOC left-populists and Google.
NatCons are also probably right that conservatism is going to get a lot more statist. At the conference, Ted Cruz tried to combine culture-war conservatism with free-market economic policies—free trade and low taxes. Marco Rubio countered by, in effect, arguing that you can't rally cultural populists if you are not also going to do something for them economically. Cultural populism leads to economic populism. Rubio's position at least has the virtue of being coherent.
Over the past few decades there have been various efforts to replace the Reagan Paradigm: the national-greatness conservatism of John McCain; the compassionate conservatism of George W. Bush; the Reformicon conservatism of the D.C. think tanks in the 21st century. But the Trumpian onslaught succeeded where these movements have so far fizzled because Trump understood better than they did the coalescence of the new American cultural/corporate elite and the potency of populist anger against it. Thus the display of Ivy League populism I witnessed in Orlando might well represent the alarming future of the American right: the fusing of the culture war and the class war into one epic Marxist Gotterdammerung.
Sitting in that Orlando hotel, I found myself thinking of what I was seeing as some kind of new theme park: NatCon World, a hermetically sealed dystopian universe with its own confected thrills and chills, its own illiberal rides. I tried to console myself by noting that this NatCon theme park is the brainchild of a few isolated intellectuals with a screwy view of American politics and history. But the disconcerting reality is that America's rarified NatCon World is just one piece of a larger illiberal populist revolt that is strong and rising.
This article originally referred to a New York Post article about Beau Biden's laptop. The Post article was about Hunter Biden's laptop.