The U.S. Right’s flirtation with authoritarianism has shocked many who believed the conventional wisdom that our country is genetically “center right” and committed to free markets, ordered liberty and as many American flags as possible. This conventional wisdom has trickled deep enough down that many forget it’s simply historically, untrue. For much of the mid-20th century, a combination of Rooseveltian New Dealers and civil rights activists set the Overton window for U.S. politics. Things were so dire for conservatives that, as the movement reformed in the 1950s, Russell Kirk opened his manifesto, The Conservative Mind, by describing the Right as an ideology of losers who’d lost nearly every major battle from the French Revolution onward.
How things change. But as the Right resurges, in America and much of the world, which Right is it, exactly?
Through the neoliberal Reagan era, the GOP’s three major constituencies were described as a “three-legged stool”: social conservatives (especially white evangelicals), neoconservative anti-Communists (and later, “War on Terror” hawks), and free marketeers. Loads of intellectual energy and billionaire-funding were sunk into efforts to fuse these legs into a single stump, never entirely successfully.
For many in today’s GOP, that kind of Reaganite fusionism no longer cuts it. The intellectual and cultural vanguard of today’s Right, often called the “New Right,” is increasingly critical of classical liberalism — which was long the consensus philosophy of both major parties and holds that a combination of limited government, free markets and ordered liberty on social issues (that is, the protection of individual rights within a moderately conservative culture) would produce the best kind of state. These views dominated the U.S. Right for much of the late 20th century (though never completely unchallenged). Now, new doctrines have taken over, insisting that the old fusionist Right ceded too much ground to the Left, that egalitarian or economic principles rooted in classical liberalism have led to “decadence” (primarily LGBTQ rights), national decline (purportedly through “feminization” and “oversensitivity”) and growing disorder.
In 2016, the ultra-right-wing writer and former Trump official Michael Anton reprised Kirk’s lament — that the “whole enterprise of Conservatism, Inc., reeks of failure.” In response, many conservatives became increasingly willing to use state power to shape culture, punish “woke” capitalism and embrace illiberalism or authoritarianism to advance a consciously radical agenda. Today, the party of tradition and “cautious management of change” calls for outright “regime change,” “counterrevolution” and even so-called “Red Caesarism” — the notion that the decaying republic can only be saved by concentrating enormous powers in the hands of a strongman like Donald Trump.
As the U.S. “hard” Right has entered the mainstream, its own factions now comprise a new three-legged stool. There are the National Conservatives, who reject liberalism’s emphasis on moral universalism and rational humanism, calling for new kinds of traditionalist “conservative democracies.”
Then there are the postliberals, a largely academic, heavily Catholic movement that is committed to replacing the dominant neoliberal “elite” with a new conservative elite that will use the state to implement socially revanchist policies in the name of the “common good.”
Finally, there’s the Nietzschean Right, embodied in very online far-right personas like Bronze Age Pervert and L0m3Z, who are openly contemptuous of modern egalitarianism and draw on early-20th-century protofascist ideologies to demand a new male aristocracy rise to power.
These factions aren’t a monolith, and they frequently fight. While postliberals agree with NatCons that liberalism must be replaced, postliberals envision a form of “aristopopulism” where conservative elites wield state power. Many NatCons and postliberals are deeply wary of the Nietzschean Right’s open misogyny, racism and embrace of violence, while others are more willing to conciliate, with postliberal magazine First Things publishing essays by figures like L0m3Z and introducing the political philosophy of Russian fascist Alexander Dugin. But each faction shares the conviction, in the words of NatCon founder Yoram Hazony, that “liberalism destroys everything.” And, despite their differences, they’re doing all they can to put a stop to it — up to and including open calls to end U.S. democracy.
Many of these efforts are directed toward cultivating dissatisfied young men to become culture war foot soldiers who will advance the cause, in print and online, following fellowships or jobs with groups like far-right think tank the Claremont Institute, which has evolved from a nebbishy coven of West Coast Straussians pursuing “classical virtues” into a bastion of writers toying with authoritarianism. These days, Claremont Review of Books is arguably playing the syncretic role that National Review once did, helping glue together the various factions of the hard Right by publishing reviews of Bronze Age Pervert one day and Christian theology the next.
Even more ambitious anti-liberal efforts are directed toward remaking higher education along the lines of Michigan’s ultra-traditional Hillsdale College, passing volumes of anti-queer and anti-trans legislation in red states, using government power to muscle private business where it’s perceived to be too “woke,” and stopping the Left from propagating its ideas in any form. As the New Right’s war on education has evolved, for example, it has become more willing to admit that conservative rhetoric around “academic freedom” or “indoctrination” isn’t really about valuing intellectual diversity; it’s about replacing left-wing intellectuals with their own, and swapping egalitarian texts for PragerU.
Perhaps most immediately threatening is the hard Right’s new willingness to use the courts to get its way. For decades, conservatives talked about the need to constrain “judicial activism,” claiming (sincerely or not) that an “originalist” approach to the Constitution was their North Star. That view is increasingly passé, as many on the Right are eager to use their control of the judiciary to legislate from the bench. As the Right becomes frustrated at being unable to win majority support for illiberal policies, this temptation will grow. And postliberals have already developed the theory to justify it, through the work of academics like Harvard’s Adrian Vermeule, who dismisses originalism as a once-useful fig leaf that’s no longer necessary, now that the courts are under their control.
The rapid spread of right-wing illiberalism has surprised many, but it shouldn’t. The political Right has always been at least wary of — and often hostile toward — liberalism, defined, as the Right is, by its rejection of the progressive belief that a more equal society is a more just society, and the conviction that society is demarcated between recognizably superior people and what Edmund Burke called the “swinish multitude.”
Many on the U.S. Left, meanwhile, may be reticent to come to liberalism’s defense, given its longstanding association with neoliberal inequality and the carceral state. And the extent to which we should defend liberal principles is one that requires serious debate. (Personally, I think we can argue for a version of liberal socialism.) But no one should doubt that the illiberalism emerging on the Right is much more threatening than what came before.
It falls to the Left to reimagine what liberty, equality and solidarity for all should mean, and to uphold these principles against those who think the world would be better without them.
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Matt McManus is a Lecturer in Political Science at the University of Michigan. He is the author of The Political Right and Equality and The Emergence of Postmodernity amongst other books. Matt contributes to Jacobin and Current Affairs magazines.