At a modest distance from the presidency of Donald Trump one thing has become entirely clear, the American conservative movement has irrevocably changed. The aftermath of the Capitol riot was the fierce last stand of the old guard. Marshaled by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo. and Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, the attempt to turn back the clock and restore the Republican Party to what it had been for the last 25 years utterly failed. For a few days there seemed to be an opening, but honestly, there never was. Now Cheney is out of leadership. There is no going back.
What is not so clear is what the conservative movement looks like and represents in the wake of Trump. This lack of clarity is rooted in the fact that the New Right is still being created, still in its populist swaddling clothes. Everyday American conservatives are forging in the smithy of their politics the conscience of this new party. What can be identified and described in these early days are the factions that are framing the elements of this new political force. These elements point, at least in broad contours to what the future holds for the New Right.
But before we can attain an understanding of where the conservative movement is going it is essential that we understand where it has been. It is certain that William F Buckley’s Brahmin accent and George Will’s bowtie are no longer avatars of Republican voters, if they ever were, and yet without them no clear picture of today’s raucous right can come into focus. Before we can know what the New Right is, we must know what it isn’t.
Movement conservatism was born in the 1950s with Buckley as its very proud papa. It was a distinctly defensive political philosophy. Buckley’s most famous aphorism, that the conservative must stand athwart history yelling “stop” makes this obvious. It was not a call to advance, to fix bayonets and charge ahead, but rather an exercise in trench digging. This initial for form of modern conservatism can be called 1st Wave. It can also be referred to as Cold War conservatism. Its catch words were small government, big military, and traditional values.
Culturally this form of conservatism was fairly vibrant, Buckley himself would become a celebrity, but politically it failed more than it succeeded. From the 1960s through the 1980s the House of Representatives was mostly a Democratic Party clubhouse. Even Eisenhower and Nixon, the only Republicans elected President from the 1930s through the 1970s were not really Buckley conservatives; they belonged to a GOP of the past, one slowly eroding.
In 1980 that would change. In its final phase Ronald Reagan would cement the legacy of small government, big military 1st Wave conservatism. Buckley had won, at least for the moment. Reagan’s victory came not so much at the expense of Jimmy Carter, the Democratic incumbent, as George H.W. Bush the former movie star’s main primary opponent. Bush and indeed his brood would have to wait to occupy the White House and to usher in the 2nd Wave of American conservatism.
2nd Wave conservatism is largely rooted in political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 essay ‘The End Of History?” The basic argument was that liberal democratic capitalism had won the civilizational battle and that open trade and globalism would, by dint of its revealed superiority, make the world more like America.
Domestically, both George H.W. Bush and his son’s presidencies eased up on the rigid goals of Cold War conservatism. The first betrayed his promise of no new taxes, the second ushered in “compassionate conservatism” which too many on the right seemed mostly to mean more federal spending and weaker borders.
Where 1st wave conservatism was defensive in nature 2nd wave was essentially neutral, especially culturally. On issues like gay marriage, abortion, prayer in school and a host of others 2nd wave conservatism looked the other way in favor of economic and foreign policy priorities.
In some measure 2nd wave conservatism was a reaction to realignment in the Democratic Party. Bill Clinton had ushered in a more moderate model for the party of Jefferson and Jackson. The shocking 1994 midterm election and Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” was a glimpse of a more aggressive conservatism, but it fizzled in part because it was not sufficiently at odds with Clinton’s own neoliberal program. On several issues such as NAFTA and the 1994 crime bill congressional Republicans and Clinton were essentially allies.
And yet there was an outlier. There was a billionaire businessman with boisterous rhetoric and protectionist policies who would shock the political system in 1992. That man was H. Ross Perot.
FILE – This May 5, 1992 file photo shows Texas billionaire Ross Perot laughing after saying "Watch my lips," in response to reporters asking when he plans to formally enter the presidential race. Perot, the colorful, self-made Texas billionaire who rose from a childhood of Depression-era poverty and twice ran for president as a third-party candidate, has died. He was 89. (AP Photo/Richard Drew. File)
There was also a populist culture warrior with a pithy and pugnacious style who challenged George H.W. Bush in the GOP primary that year; that of course was Pat Buchanan, a former senior adviser to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan.
Together these two men would form the basic principles of the Reform Party.
In 2000 another outsider would almost rise to assume the mantle of power in that doomed political enterprise. He would receive his first votes for president and win the Michigan and California Reform Party primaries that year. His name was Donald Trump.
In 2016 against a huge field of GOP stars Trump would execute the most successful political party coup in modern American history.
He would replace the tenets of 2nd wave conservatism with something much closer to the principles of the Reform Party.
Then he shocked the world with a victory over former Secretary of State and first lady Hillary Clinton.
For the next four years the Republican Party truly would become his party. More than that, 3rd wave conservatism would be born.
This New Right is still nascent, still being formed, but there are elements we can already identify on a periodic table of sorts. To understand today’s American conservatism and to engage in meaningful discourse with it, these elements or factions must be known and examined. There are six of them that stand out; a periodic table of elements from which all that the New Right will be will formed.
The Border Hawks
Iron. Forming the backbone of the new political enterprise.
No phrase captured the zeitgeist of the Trump administration better than “build the wall.” Of course this referred to the literal wall on the Mexican border but it also meant much more than that.
The “wall” spoke to a broader protectionist program that also involved suspicion regarding trade deals and foreign entanglements. In these policy areas Trump’s Reform Party roots shone through with bright line. When we refer to the New Right as populist or nationalist, we are speaking first and foremost of the border hawks.
Aside from Trump himself no figure in the administration was as reviled by the left as Stephen Miller, architect of the border policy in his role as Trump’s senior policy adviser and director of speechwriting.
Miller was viewed by the left as a villainous cartoon character with pure racist evil pulsing through his veins. Even his wedding to another White House staffer was widely mocked.
The vitriol was hyperbolic and it was also rooted to a large degree more in terms of intent and attitude than in terms of literal changes in policy. There was a moment in 2018 that made this completely obvious.
A photograph emerged of children in a cage on the Mexican border. It was intended to be an iconic image of the Trump administration’s abject cruelty. There was only one problem. The photo was taken during the Obama administration. Rather than be embarrassed by this rather obvious mistake or to take stock of how assumptions had led to it, much of the media insisted that Obama’s caged children were an entirely different situation. Pictures it seemed still said a thousand words, but what those words iterated was very much dependent on who occupied the Oval Office.
It is true that Trump’s detainment policies were intended to be punitive and harsh in a way that that differed from Obama’s. They were meant to send a message dissuading attempts at illegally entering the country.
This mirrored another border hawk, senior Trump national security adviser Michael Anton, who called for an end to birthright citizenship and abolishing that carrot for residing on American soil.
More broadly the Trump administration’s immigration policies were meant to clamp down on illegal immigration, refocus legal immigration, and place value on assimilation into American culture.
All of this served to bring the Republican Party more in step with the majority of their voters.
The fact is that large swaths of conservative Americans do believe that undocumented immigrants who are caught entering illegally should be detained and deported almost immediately.
Prior to Trump these voters had little voice or power among the GOP establishment. The Mitt Romneys and John Boehners of the pre-Trump right wing power structure would never have spoken about immigration in such stark and harsh terms.
For the New Right the immigration issue has first and foremost to do with an acceptance and reckoning of basic human nature. Having a relatively open border while telling people living in harsh conditions, “please don’t come” is viewed as folly of the first order. It makes a kind of sense under the neoliberal “end of history” rubric which professes that better conditions will come to places like Guatemala and Honduras sooner rather than later, but for the New Right this is pie in the sky, and for the Biden administration it has led to serious talk of just sending money to central Americans to pay them not to come.
The symbolic walls protecting Americans from bad trade deals and foreign wars have also come to define the political philosophy of the New Right. The concept of America First is a sharp turn away from the neoliberal positions that both parties labored under in the Post-Cold War period. It marks a shift from the notion that by sacrificing some of its own interests America could invent a world that mirrored its own principles and values. Nowhere is this clearer than in the rise of China as our principle global foe.
There had been a not entirely unreasonable or unprecedented idea that by bringing free market capitalism to China it would as if by osmosis liberalize and democratize, that turned out to be a fairy tale. Unlikely as it seemed, the Chinese Communist Party managed to successfully engage the world marketplace while remaining a brutal and authoritarian regime.
The border hawks and the New Right are offering the first substantial reset of China policy from either party in a generation. Unlike Democrats, they do not see China as a competitor, but squarely as a foe.
Hydrogen. Light and fast. Capable of great destruction but also central to life.
For most of the mainstream media, outlets like CNN or the New York Times, the election of Donald Trump necessitated a rather severe change in how presidential administrations are covered.
Trump’s sometimes-strained relationship with the literal truth gave rise to a uniquely adversarial form of coverage. But this goal of holding the hyperbolic Trump in fact check led to its own excesses.
Trump, the media claimed, had colluded with Russia, but the Mueller report failed to show that. Judge Brett Kavanaugh was dragged over the coals of sexual abuse allegations dating back to his high school days only to be exonerated and seated on the Supreme Court. New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo was presented as an “anti-Trump” and as the most competent leader in the coronavirus crisis, a myth that eventually fell apart in spectacular fashion.
While these and other questionable stories were raging in a liberal media that took them mostly for granted several outlets and TV personalities emerged as a kind of conservative rapid response system.
Whereas 2nd wave conservative outlets most often sought synthesis between the ideas of the left and right, these new forces are solidly antithetical to progressivism in nature. They do not tend to negotiate with themselves.
An important upshot of the aggressive nature of the Anti-Media is that for the most part only 2nd wave conservatives are still welcome in mainstream or progressive outlets like CNN, MSNBC, The New York Times, and the Washington Post. Figures on the New Right are decidedly persona non grata. The problem with this is that 2nd wave conservatives, or put loosely, “Never Trumpers” do not represent any significant cohort of American conservatives. It is the New Right that represents the views of a vastly larger percentage of right-wingers, and by vast we mean something like 80%.
The Anti- Media realized two essential things in the Trump era. The first is that in the age of new Internet media they do not have to appease the traditional gatekeepers. They don’t really care about being on NPR or in the New York Times, in fact many flat out don’t want that. The second realization was that by speaking for and with, not at the American conservative they could far outpace the influence of 2nd wave conservative holdover outlets. This is why the Weekly Standard is no more while New Right outlets flourish, grow, and multiply.
Gold. Beautiful and malleable, the ancient symbol of value and standards.
In recent years the rise of Catholic influence has been obvious and irresistible. Increasingly conservatives see progressive perspectives on issues like the Trans movement, race, and even climate change as having a religious element. If the left has reformed the civic religion to reflect their ideas as many conservatives believe then a counter reformation, or even a crusade is needed.
Harvard Law professor Adrienne Vermeule’s radical ideas on jurisprudence, and the fights over Supreme Court Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett bring this Catholic renaissance into sharp relief.
The left understands this as well, in an anti-Catholic screed the New Republic had this to say recently, and “…the rise of American conservatism is actually a 50-year saga of Catholic intellectual and theological penetration of the halls of power.” That is an exaggeration, but it holds an element of truth.
More than anything else what this Catholic element of the New Right represents is the willingness to use the levers of governmental power to promote a Catholic vision of the common good. It is precisely the kind of thing that makes 2nd wave conservatives and those on the left bristle at the notion that the New Right is conservative at all. “What happened to small government?” they insist. A controversial debate from 2019 goes a long way towards answering that question.
The issue at hand was of all things “Drag Queen Story Hour,” a phenomenon in which men or trans women wearing sexualized clothing read books to children in public libraries.
It was Sorahb Ahmari who is now the Editor of the New York Post Opinion page, who raised the issue in a scathing attack in the magazine First Things against David French, then a columnist at National Review.
French is an evangelical and a First Amendment champion. He argued that any attempt to restrict Drag Queen Story Hour would lead to progressive restrictions on religious liberty in return.
Ahmari argued that the negative impact of exposing young children to this gender bending sexuality outweighs polite arguments over constitutional precedent.
When the debate was joined in 2019 it was close to a 50/50 split among conservative influencers, with many having a foot in both camps.
The coronavirus response would change that. With churches and religious activity shut down in much of the country for months on end while liquor stores and strip clubs remained open French’s argument lost all of its steam.
The restrictions on religious freedom French feared were already happening. Most conservatives saw this as a break of the constitutional and social compact, under the new compact protecting kids from the excesses of the trans movement became fair game.
The New Right is not a live and let live movement, it demands better of our society and is not afraid to use power to achieve it.
Post-Cold War conservatism coincided with the rise of an identity politics that grew out of the politically correct anti-racism movements of the late 1980s and early 1990s. The strongest current voices against this woke movement are figures who in many cases might not even identify as conservatives or Republicans. Black voices who attack critical race theory like John McWhorter, Glenn Loury, and Coleman Hughes and Deroy Murdock are among this group, as are Radical Feminists who oppose the rise of a Trans movement that professes men can become women and men can become women. These moderate thinkers are ancillary to the conservative movement, and yet they play a vitally important role.
In a key sense these anti-identitarians give cover to conservatives who resist the onslaught of wokeism in our politics and corporations. McWhorter and Loury are particularly indispensable in this respect. Their exchanges on “The Glenn Show” represent some of the most brutal and effective criticisms of the current trends in “anti-racism.”
Loury has gone so far as to advocate for non-Blacks not to feel constrained by the notion that certain phenomenon in the Black community like Black on Black crime and fatherlessness must not be spoken of. He is inviting a more rational and honest discourse on the disadvantages that have held back Black and certain other minority communities.
Likewise the Radical Feminists, or Trans Excluding Radical Feminists (TERFs) as they are often derided are also often strange bedfellows of the conservative movement. They were the first to see the dangers of destroying the biological definition of gender.
At a time when many conservatives viewed the issue as a small one not worth engaging, they knew that sooner rather than later the trans movement would run headlong into public policy, in women’s sports, in prisons and locker rooms, and especially in the treatment of children.
In some measure this element, which ranges from classical liberals to some types who aside from issues of identity are rather to left, is a greater threat to the progressive program than even conservatives themselves.
The Democratic Party has been walking a tightrope for several years between being a radical progressive party and a more traditional big tent party. The anti- identitarians put significant pressure on that delicate balance.
Uranium. Capable of great power but unstable and dangerous.
At the fringe of the conservative movement during the Trump administration were a group of journalists who were often mocked but now appear to be in a kind of ascendency. These are figures who appear on a spectrum. Some like Mike Cernovich, Jack Posobiac have huge followings but struggle to go mainstream. Others like James O’Keefe of Project Veritas, Antifa exposer Andy Ngo, and a number of popular podcasters have emerged as accepted political voices.
The knock on many of these figures, not entirely unwarranted, was many thought that they were not careful journalists, some pushed conspiracies like Pizzagate and other off the wall stories. For 2nd wave conservatives it became very important that these people be totally excised from the movement that is decidedly not the position of the New Right.
In the last year or so a common refrain from conservative journalists has been to wonder if these fringe figures are not becoming something closer to regular practicing journalists.
None of this is to say that they will be inducted into the fraternity of gentlemanly conservative pundits with a reception at the Princeton Club anytime soon. But it is to say that they have influence, and a damn lot of it. It is also to say that their very real contributions will not be discarded in the name of “policing our own,” which lately seems to be entire raison d’etre of the 2nd wave conservatives.
Two things seem to have happened here. One is that the fringe conservative journalists seem to have become more responsible and over time just better at what they do. But also, they have been proven right in a profound and broad respect.
They were early in saying that taking down Confederate statues would lead to taking down statues of our founding fathers, that Democrats would seek to fundamentally transform the concept of America with ideas like the 1619 Project, to predict the war on policing and court packing. While 2nd wave conservatives saw politics as a polite game, the fringe knew it was a war for our society, and they were right.
Have we ever seen the left drastically “police its own?” Fringe figures on the progressive side aren’t excised, they get cabinet positions and host MSNBC shows, they spew racist garbage about the evils of whiteness and the left gives them prizes and public oxygen.
Are conservatives to fight with one arm tied behind our backs, to spend our time tongue lashing the impious among us as progressives turn the country into something we don’t recognize? As pop star Morrissey (himself a fringe figure now) once asked, “Why waste good time fighting the people you like?”
The fringe also creates greater space for conservative ideas. When fringe elements on the left call for defunding the police it allows Democrats a reasonable sounding middle ground of “Police reform.” When conservatives denounce far-flung notions from the right, like mandatory prayer in school, they make their own moderate positions the fringe. They ostracize their own ideas to the extreme; the New Right will no longer do that.
The Torch Bearers
Lead. Heavy, slow, but also impervious.
Finally, and I say finally because these are ultimately the least important figures in any political movement, come the politicians. But wait, didn’t Donald Trump show us what one man, one politician can do to transform society?
Not really. As was shown above, Trump’s political philosophy, which the New Right embraces did not emerge with him. It grew out of decades of struggle within the conservative movement, the Republican Party, and yes, the Reform Party. Trump grabbed the reins of the horse, but he didn’t open the barn door, the people did that as they always do.
But that having been said there are political figures today ready to assume Trump’s mantle, and they are surely endowed with a brighter future than those longing for the country club and the Chamber of Commerce. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas; Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, even Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., all offer some vision of the New Right and stand poised to be the leaders of this movement in the halls of power.
It has often been asked, “can there be Trumpism without Trump?” It is the wrong question.
The populism and nationalism that Trump championed is bigger than him, it reflects the frustration of an American people who spent decades feeling deeply ignored by both parties.
Put simply, conservative voters will not go back to a GOP that offers only — being a little better than Democrats — as its claim to power.
The political figures that truly listen to rather than lecture conservative voters are the ones who will reap electoral rewards from today’s American conservatives.
The Through Line
The six elements or factions outlined above have much in common, but are far from monolithic. The Catholics and Border Hawks have some issues, the Anti-Identitarians and the Fringe are not always on the same page, but there is now emerging a common enemy, and nothing else accommodates strange bedfellows quite so snugly. That enemy is of course major corporations who are fast becoming the source of illiberal change in our society much more quickly than any wholly political force ever could.
The Anti-Media is the sworn enemy of the corporate media, the Border Hawks fight the corporate addiction to cheap labor and free trade, the Catholics decry the decadence and cheap sexuality of the corporate world, the Anti-Identitarians see corporations adopting the illiberal agenda of critical race and gender theory, the Fringe faces an existential threat of being banned from platforms, and the Torch Bearers see in unbridled corporatism the foil for their political ambition.
The time for conservative deciding has passed. The decision has been made and the American conservative movement is now a populist, nationalist, Reform Party minded body.
It matters very little if our corporate liberal media chooses to accept this. It is true.
What conservatives can do now, not unlike the early Christians, is wake up every day, secure in their beliefs, refusing to be confounded by a culture hegemonically controlled by content creators who mock them, and stay firm in their ideas. It is an opportunity. And what we do now will shape our country’s future in profound ways that not long ago seemed impossible.
Be anxious for the fight.
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