The New New American Right
How academics and writers are creating a vision of post-Trump conservatism
First in a series on the New American Right. In addition to the National Conservative conference next week, as an interesting juxtaposition, I’ll also be attending the national banquet for Chabad, a Hassidic movement known for their engagement with and outreach to the secular world.
It should be an interesting subscriber-only Pull Request post next week.
How horrible, fantastic, incredible, it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.
-Neville Chamberlain’s radio address on the German annexation of the Sudetenland (1938)
The motto of The New York Times, as echoed every morning on its front page, is: “All the news that's fit to print”. In reality though, the publication’s operating principle is “we printed it, so now it’s news”. Getting a write-up in The Times means the polite echelons of society—no matter how long-running, trite, or even scandalous the topic—can now discuss said thing openly.
The latest such elevation of an underground or non-mainstream topic is a long Times Magazine on the right-wing ‘nationalist conservative’ movement, a new, new right quite unlike anything this country has seen since World War II.
(At the bottom of this piece, there’s a reading list of the movement’s leading thinkers. I’ve been following them for a while and even know some of them, so finding them suddenly in the NYT spotlight is doubly interesting.)
Despite the conservative traditionalism, the movement is composed of Very Online People, and the sudden attention dropped like a bomb among its leading lights.1 Rod Dreher (who I’ve interviewed for Pull Request before) was quoted extensively for the piece, and despite some misgivings, was generally positive:
Yoram Hazony, author of one of the movement’s reference texts (link below) and who also puts on the movement’s annual powwow (and more on that in a bit), mostly concurred with Dreher:
Another important figure here is Patrick Deneen, a Notre Dame professor and author of Why Liberalism Failed, a tour-de-force jeremiad against what liberalism has become in our time (rather than what Mill or Locke once theorized). He was not so amused:
As Pull Request readers know, I too have my qualms with contemporary secular liberalism, and I’m sympathetic to Deneen’s critiques (as is Obama). The Times piece quotes and references him extensively, and rightly so, as he’s perhaps the most cogent critic of liberalism writing today. He summarizes himself best in Why Liberalism Failed:
Claiming to liberate the individual from embedded cultures, traditions, places, and relationships, liberalism has homogenized the world in its image—ironically, often fueled by claims of “multiculturalism” or, today, “diversity.” Having successfully disembedded us from relationships that once made claims upon us but also informed our conception of selfhood, our sense of ourselves as citizens sharing a common fate and as economic actors sharing a common world, liberalism has left the individual exposed to the tools of liberation—leaving us in a weakened state in which the domains of life that were supposed to liberate us are completely beyond our control or governance.
It’s noteworthy that this flavor of conservatism runs very counter to the garden-variety low-taxes libertarianism of the Reagan school. Again Deneen:
The loosening of social bonds in nearly every aspect of life—familial, neighborly, communal, religious, even national—reflects the advancing logic of liberalism and is the source of its deepest instability … The global market displaces a variety of economic subcultures, enforcing a relentless logic of impersonal transactions that have led to a crisis of capitalism and the specter of its own unraveling.
This novel conservatism possesses an almost Berniebro level of anti-capitalist sentiment, lamenting the wide-scale destruction that (neo)liberalism has wrought on the more traditional bonds that once characterized human life. One can hear more than one echo of Rerum Novarum, the late 19th-century papal encyclical that inveighed against the depredations of industrial capitalism. Bow-tie-wearing DC wonks talking about tax policy this very much is not.
What this school is not is very clear; what this strain of thought actually is is harder to pin down on the conventional political spectrum. Deneen & Co. express a pox-on-both-your-houses bipartisan rejection of liberalism as it exists today, whether left or right:
The ways in which the individualist philosophy of classical liberalism and the statist philosophy of progressive liberalism end up reinforcing each other often go undetected. Although conservative liberals claim to defend not only a free market but family values and federalism, the only part of the conservative agenda that has been continuously and successfully implemented during their recent political ascendance is economic liberalism, including deregulation, globalization, and the protection of titanic economic inequalities. And while progressive liberals claim to advance a shared sense of national destiny and solidarity that should decrease the advance of an individualist economy and reduce income inequality, the only part of the left’s political agenda that has triumphed has been the project of personal and especially sexual autonomy. Is it mere coincidence that both parties, despite their claims to be locked in a political death grip, mutually advance the cause of liberal autonomy and inequality?
One leading New Right voice conspicuously absent from the Times piece (and the upcoming National Conservative conference) is Harvard professor Adrian Vermeule. Another Catholic conservative, he is very publicly an ‘integralist’, a slightly squishy term in a religion populated with them. The three-sentence definition from integralist blog The Josias reads:
Catholic Integralism is a tradition of thought that, rejecting the liberal separation of politics from concern with the end of human life, holds that political rule must order man to his final goal. Since, however, man has both a temporal and an eternal end, integralism holds that there are two powers that rule him: a temporal power and a spiritual power. And since man’s temporal end is subordinated to his eternal end, the temporal power must be subordinated to the spiritual power.
The key point is that politics should be subordinated to moral (or even religious) dictates; that the church/state divide that has typified American life, and legally sealed with Everson v. Board of Education (1947), is overdue for a change.
Vermeule is a prolific writer and tweeter (there’s wifi inside the scriptorium apparently), and he’s written extensively in both niche Catholic blogs and mainstream publications about his views.2 In line with integralist thought, Vermeule rejects constitutional originalism in favor of what he (and others) call ‘common good’ conservatism:
This approach should take as its starting point substantive moral principles that conduce to the common good, principles that officials (including, but by no means limited to, judges) should read into the majestic generalities and ambiguities of the written Constitution. These principles include respect for the authority of rule and of rulers; respect for the hierarchies needed for society to function; solidarity within and among families, social groups, and workers’ unions, trade associations, and professions; appropriate subsidiarity, or respect for the legitimate roles of public bodies and associations at all levels of government and society; and a candid willingness to “legislate morality”—indeed, a recognition that all legislation is necessarily founded on some substantive conception of morality, and that the promotion of morality is a core and legitimate function of authority. Such principles promote the common good and make for a just and well-ordered society.
That this represents a total break with the secular Rawlsian liberalism that’s now taken for granted in the West hardly needs to be repeated.