The Right’s Rightward Turn

An apartheid-era sign outside Johannesburg.

A decade has passed since the Tea Party reinvigorated the American Right, leading to an historic Republican victory by giving the GOP its widest margin of seats in the House of Representatives in over sixty years. That summer was marked by anti-government protests across the nation, largely a backlash against Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act: the conservative middle class rallied with signs that read “Taxed Enough Already” (hence the name T.E.A. party), “God Hates Taxes,” “We Don’t Want Socialism, You Arrogant Kenyan,” and (aimed at the nation’s first African-American president) “Monkey See, Monkey Spend.” Alaska governor and former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin popularized the term “death panels” to describe government bureaucrats who would allegedly make life-or-death decisions on behalf of doctors and patients. Cries of “Don’t kill my grandmother!” were everywhere. After a decade under President George W. Bush’s regime-changing, Leo Strauss-inflected neoconservatism, the Right seemed to be getting back to its libertarian roots.

Today, much smaller protests have mushroomed across the nation. Like the Tea Party, these protesters are aggressively laissez faire, this time not regarding healthcare but rather epidemiology. Concern for grandmothers has apparently passed as Republican leaders extol the virtues of dying for the nation’s economic might. This time the anti-government signs read “Tyranny is spreading faster than the China virus,” “Give me liberty or give me COVID-19,” and “Even Pharaoh freed slaves during a plague.” Many on the American Right are begging President Donald Trump to “reopen” the American economy (as if he had ever actually closed it, as if Americans would suddenly pack themselves shoulder-to-shoulder in airplanes headed to Las Vegas given sufficient executive encouragement). But these protests do not signal a resurgence of libertarian principles on the American Right. This is not a new Tea Party, not merely because the presence of neo-Confederates and far-right fringe groups is more explicit, nor because this time the protesters are advocating federal power over state and local oversight. Like the American Left since Occupy, the American Right has fundamentally changed over the past ten years. Its foundational values would not be recognizable to someone from 2010.

Like most paradigm shifts, the changing composition of the conservative movement in the West, first signaled by 2016’s populist Brexit campaign, has relied on a combination of luck (e.g., Trump’s extraordinarily unlikely electoral victory over Hillary Clinton) and direction from above. The material forces and economic conditions that made this change possible—that gave men like Trump a large enough constituency for political victory—are on their own useless if enterprising public figures aren’t there to exploit them. In other words, this shift among American conservatives is not a grassroots phenomenon. It’s a a top-down affair. Trump is given undue credit for having his finger on the pulse of white American resentment, but Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, Tucker Carlson, Breitbart, et al, gave a specific shape to what would otherwise be an amorphous sense that life is unfair and that government is bad. If they had not imposed their specific vision of nationalist politics onto voters, that amorphous sense of grief could have easily taken a more recognizable, libertarian form. Perhaps Jeb Bush would be leading us valiantly through the pandemic while pushing through another round of tax cuts.

Entrepreneurial politicians and their cognoscenti do not appear out of nowhere. They are influenced by intellectual currents, which both influence public opinion (largely through vectors such as political think tanks and the media) and our modified by public opinion. A whole anti-liberal counter-intelligentsia influenced Bannon and Miller, who through Trump have forged a public discourse to which the counter-intelligentsia has adjusted. In a brilliant article for NewStatesman last month, Fullbright scholar Nick Burns provided a taxonomy of this counter-intelligentsia, which does not revere the neoliberal heroes of the Reagan era (goodbye Milton Friedman, hello Alasdair MacIntyre) and does not honor the dogmas of the once-powerful libertarian Right. Burns writes:

They are Catholic professors, or writers for US conservative magazines. They run tech companies in California or work for Republican senators on Capitol Hill. Meet the new American right. 

If you would like to find yourself a place in the vanguard of American conservatism these days, you can choose from a widening panoply of neologisms to describe yourself: national conservative, integralist, traditionalist, post-liberal, you might even be welcome if you are a Marxist. Anything just so long as you’re not a libertarian. 

What unifies these groups is a distrust of liberalism writ large: not of the little “l” liberalism of everyone from Michael Dukakis to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but of Liberalism, the grand Western tradition that inspired both the American and French revolutions, that championed individual rights and open markets, that brought democracy to Germany and capitalism to Japan. Liberalism seemed to be working out alright for everyone—in 2010, both a traditional Democrat and a Tea Party protestor could ostensibly agree about markets and democracy—but a series of small, otherwise unrepresentative events over the next ten years created the impression that Liberalism was in trouble. One was the increasingly promiscuous use of the word “socialism” on the Left, an outgrowth of the Occupy movement’s fringier elements (so a fringe of a fringe) and Bernie Sanders’s surprisingly popular candidacy in 2016. (I’ve written about that in another post.) Another was the narrow Brexit victory. Another was Trump’s successful presidential campaign, whereby a candidate with comparatively few strong supporters won the White House while losing the popular vote by roughly three million. These are not, in other words, representative data upon which to call the end of Liberalism. But that didn’t stop University of Notre Dame political science professor Patrick Deneen, whose Why Liberalism Failed set the tone for conservative discourse in 2018. Barack Obama declared it one of the most important books of the year.

Burns calls this moment the Right’s “leftward turn.” He explains:

One explanation for the American right’s leftward turn lies with Catholic opinion. Resentment was already building among US Catholic conservatives by the time of Donald Trump’s election in 2016. From around 2013, as Pope Francis appeared to be compromising on certain social issues, such as acceptance of homosexuality, Catholics began to suspect the grand bargain of the American conservative movement since the 1950s – free markets combined with social conservatism – was heavily tilted in favour of the former. They saw a Republican Party guided less by religion than by money: money which seemed little disposed to advocate on behalf of their beliefs. They saw themselves as foot-soldiers in a culture war their party seemed content to lose. Even worse: for the privilege of fighting, they had been obliged not to think too hard about what Catholic social teaching might have to say on issues such healthcare, for fear of offending the jealous god of the free market. 

But this turn toward more left-wing economic policies is accompanied by a fierce turn to the right on questions of culture and political control. Burns continues, describing Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed:

As a balm for these social ills, Deneen advocated retreat from national politics into the enclaves of small, rural communities, echoing other writers on the American right, such as Rod Dreher, a senior editor at the American Conservative. But more recently, Deneen has taken an interest in populism, hobnobbing with the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán in November 2019 and proposing a politics of “aristopopulism” – the notion, borrowed from the 16th-century Florentine philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli, that friction between the masses and the elite is the best way to ensure that neither class dominates the other, and that material inequality remains at a moderate level. 

Consequently, the Right is increasingly comfortable with culturally conservative, statist leaders ranging from Orbán and France’s Marie Le Pen to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who The Atlantic described in 2013 “at the vanguard of a new ‘Conservative International.'” Whereas the American Right once cozied up with criminal leaders such as Chile’s Augusto Pinochet or South Africa’s P.W. Botha so long as their policies were sufficiently neoliberal and anti-communist, today such coziness increasingly depends on anti-neoliberal policies, such as opposition to globalization. The convictions behind “conviction politics” have grown deeper, more dependent on one’s moral rather than one’s economic ideology.

Burns’s article does an extremely good job demarcating the fine lines between these new conservative movements, defining “integralism,” which seeks to tear down the wall between church and state (“Medicare for all, abortion for none”), and “conservative nationalism,” which preaches the virtues of nationalism against imperialism and argues, among other things, that Hitler was not a nationalist. His article provides an entertaining account of the turf wars between these emerging movements and traditional conservative institutions (First Things, the Niskanen Center, etc.). Burns cites all the big names in these and adjacent movements (Deneen, Rod Dreher, Yoram Hazony, Julius Krein, Oren Cass, et al). He advises his readers to keep an eye on the political futures of Tucker Carlson, Missouri senator Josh Hawley, and Florida senator Marco Rubio. He explains why “populism” might be an overrated concept with which to understand middle-class support for figures like Trump.

The Left may object that there is little new about an overtly nationalist Right, that the American Right has always endorsed large-scale government intervention so long as the beneficiaries were white, Christian, American. Likewise, critics of left-wing fetishists of Europe’s social democracies, (most prominently Tony Judt in his magisterial Postwar) have long argued that European welfare states thrived under the majority’s assumption that the beneficiaries of social policy were people like them. The unnaturally monolinguistic, monocultural nation-states of post-1945 Europe are, have always been, beehives of little nationalisms. This helps explain Brexit and the career of Orbán by way of the Nordic model. There was, according to this narrative, always something alarmingly right-wing festering in Europe’s social democracies. Or as I used to tell friends during the Bush years who opined wistfully for a European-style Left, “You may want their Left, but you definitely don’t want their Right.” Now, it seems, we’ve got it.

All in all, these developments on the American Right aren’t a leftward turn by any stretch of the imagination. They represent a sharp veer to the right.

If the Right’s rightward turn signals a return to anything, it may be the statist xenophobia of the Dixiecrat wing of the Democratic Party. The old Democratic South is as close as the United States ever got to the policies of apartheid South Africa; indeed, their racial policies inspired culturally regressive, nationalist, big-government projects in Nazi Germany and South Africa itself. Left-of-center on economic policy (when the beneficiaries were white), fiercely right-wing on everything else, the Democrat’s old right wing defied the liberal-conservative binary of American political rhetoric until it could no longer maintain its home in the Democratic Party and ultimately collapsed into the post-Nixon Republican Party, which was happy to abandon its legacy as the Party of Lincoln in exchange for the Solid South. The ideology of the Dixiecrats, which, as George Wallace’s presidential campaigns demonstrated, extended far north of the Mason-Dixon line to places like Milwaukee. The politics is simple: socialism for my kin, free market anarchy or militarized persecution for everyone else. Tear other families apart; put the children in cages; build and defend the largest prison system on the planet. But keep my family free and well-fed. This, it seems to me, is the idea for which the new counter-intelligentsia is providing so much intellectual window dressing.

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