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Can The Right Get Any Worse? (Yes.)

Osita Nwanevu
12 min read
Can The Right Get Any Worse? (Yes.)
Charlie Baker (Rappaport Center for Law and Public Service)

Hey all. Let's hop to it.


I’ve written in the newsletter before about Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, admittedly less because I’ve been a close student of his governance than because I’m fascinated by who he is ideologically ⁠— a real deal Republican “moderate” in the age of Trump navigating the political waters of a deep blue state. Up till now, Baker’s done so successfully ⁠— he’s been among the most popular statewide politicians in America for some time, owing largely to a remarkable amount of support from the state’s Democrats ⁠— late last year, he notched a 90 percent approval rating among them. This is exactly the kind of Republican progressives should be especially troubled by electorally speaking ⁠— given the Democratic Party’s post-Obama weakness, the GOP would probably convert a nontrivial number of Democrats and have a much easier time winning the presidency with plurality or majority support from the electorate if they got their act together and started nominating more Bakers to federal tickets.

But that’s not happening anytime soon. In fact, the right has now run Baker out of office. Last week, he announced he won’t be seeking a third term as governor. Politico on Saturday:

Baker, the governor since 2015, stood tall as a moderate firewall against the growing pro-Trump sentiment within his party in a state where the president was — and still is — wildly unpopular. He said he blanked his ballot for president in 2016 and 2020 so as not to vote for Trump and emerged as a vocal critic of the former president’s handling of the pandemic. He supported Trump’s second impeachment and rejected his false claims of election fraud — leading Trump to knock him as a RINO and endorse conservative former state Rep. Geoff Diehl's 2022 run for governor.
Baker allies and political observers dismissed the endorsement: Trump got drubbed twice in Massachusetts general elections, and candidates who’ve hewed too closely to his messaging have met the same fate.
But polls showed the twice-elected Baker faced significant political headwinds in a GOP primary against Diehl, to the point one pollster even tested his path forward as an independent. When Baker bowed out of the 2022 contest this week, Trump, Diehl and their allies danced on Baker’s political grave even as the governor insisted the endorsement hadn’t shaken him “at all.”
[...] “What you saw this week was the death knell of the Baker Republican and the beginning of a groundswell of grassroots organizing toward a new kind of Republicanism,” GOP strategist Wendy Wakeman, an ally of state party chair Jim Lyons, said in an interview. “Charlie did a great job, but he had become something different than what the Republican Party represents.”

The “new” kind of Republicanism that’s toppled Baker has been the dominant force within the party for over a decade now; it’s origins, as I’ve written before, can be traced back to the very beginnings of the modern conservative movement. And obviously, the electorate’s rejection of it hasn’t prevented the Republican Party from dominating American politics and policymaking. Given the Democratic Party’s failure to pursue democratic reforms, this country, politically speaking anyway, is going to be going where the right wants to take it for the foreseeable future. So we all have an interest in who gets to say where the right itself is going.

This week in The New Republic Sam Adler-Bell profiled the youth wing of the new “New Right” ⁠— a faction at a remove from both young moderates and straightforward Trumpists:

Some are “national conservatives,” who, like “Reformicons” of the 2010s, support pro-family welfare policy and reject the GOP’s tax-cutting orthodoxy. (NatCons, as they’re known, also tend to be China and immigration hawks who want an “industrial policy” for the heartland.) Others are “postliberal” localists, in the vein of Patrick Deneen, who wrote Why Liberalism Failed, and Rod Dreher, the irascible Eastern Orthodox blogger and author of The Benedict Option, a spirited argument for Christian retreat from the turpitude of public life into virtuous communal separatism. And others are Roman Catholic integralists, aspiring to a theologically ordered politics; Harvard Law professor Adrian Vermeule and University of Dallas politics professor and American Affairs editor Gladden Pappin are their touchstones.
Whichever denomination they prefer, New Rightists tend to agree that classical liberalism—of the sort embraced by previous generations of conservatives—has a big hole in the middle of it where a substantive concept of the Good should be. “My core belief is just that you can’t be a libertarian,” said Declan Leary, an integralist writer at The American Conservative. “You have to be something.” Leary, who is 22, lacks Hochman’s infectious sincerity; he can be rather droll and speaks in a world-weary tone belied by the occasional postpubescent voice crack. But Leary is no less passionate in his views. “All law is imbued with moral character,” he told me. “Let’s stop pretending otherwise, and just acknowledge which morals we’re trying to legislate … and then commit ourselves to them.”
Most New Right activists see the Trump presidency as a salutary development. At the very least, they view Trump’s success as a symptomatic expression of the novel forces at work in American life. “I’m still lukewarm on Trump, the man,” Hochman said. “I think he’s a moronic boomer who tapped into something by accident.” Saurabh Sharma, a 23-year-old New Right activist, told me that he got his start in politics watching the 2016 presidential campaign, listening to Bernie rallies and Trump rallies “and finding interesting things to like about both.” Trump would have been a better president, they believe, had his populist instincts not been reined in by the more establishment-minded figures on his staff, like son-in-law Jared Kushner. Nonetheless, Trump’s presidency was a suitable vehicle for the group’s blistering grievances against the liberal left and the conservative establishment. Indeed, their contempt for the latter sometimes seems to exceed their contempt for the former. “The smartest conservatives I knew in college had nothing but venom for the Republican Party,” one young writer told me. “Conservative priorities have been completely out of whack,” agreed Hochman. “We’ve been way too deferential to business interests at the expense of the people and the values that we claim to care about.” The New Right wants to see Republicans abandon their fealty to free-market dogmas, embrace traditional Christianity, and use the levers of state power to wage the culture war for keeps.

The word for this is “fascism.” The ambivalence or even hostility towards pure market ideology, a willingness to embrace state power to enforce cultural homogeny, more generous social policy for the socioculturally worthy, a hawkish, imperial foreign policy abroad ⁠— all the major components are there, including the ones whose absence kept me from giving Trumpism the same name. And this brew’s distance from Trumpism actually undermines its electoral viability ⁠— as culturally reactionary as the MAGA hats might be, there’s no actual constituency for Catholic integralism. But, again, that’s not to say that we couldn’t wind up with New Right governance if it’s what conservative elites will ⁠— Trumpism won the Republican primary only to be gradually replaced by the Republican powers-that-be over the course of Trump’s term with something closely resembling pre-Trump Republican orthodoxy with a few exceptions. If the New Right crowd wins the internal battle over the Republican Party’s institutions ⁠— with an assist from conservative media figures like Tucker Carlson ⁠— the party and the country are functionally theirs, simple as that.

One of the things I really appreciate about Adler-Bell’s piece, apart from the glimpse it gives us of the Republican Party’s future, is how it underscores the difference between how the two parties engage the youth, something I’ve been banging on about ever since the first time I attended CPAC. Here’s Bell on the Claremont Institute, for instance:

Among legacy conservative institutions, Claremont has the closest ties to the New Right. In the Trump years, it became something of a clearinghouse for pro-Trump intellectualism. Anton is most famous as the pseudonymous author of “The Flight 93 Election” essay, a 2016 call to arms for conservatives to swallow their pride—and their misplaced prudence—and align with Donald Trump. Another Claremont scholar, John Eastman, prepared a memo outlining how Mike Pence could throw out the 2020 election results. (“You really need to listen to John,” Trump reportedly told Pence.) Recently, the institute has published several pieces speculating about the prospect of civil war. Claremont has close ties to the most serious New Right political project, American Moment, a sort of policy shop cum training institute, founded by Sharma and two other conservative twentysomethings, that aims to “identify, educate, and credential” a new generation of staffers and bureaucrats who believe in “strong families, a sovereign nation, and prosperity for all.” In other words, they hope to staff the next Trump presidency with true believers like themselves.
Many impressive thinkers, as well as several hacks and propagandists, have passed through Claremont’s youth programs and fellowships. Hochman and Sharma were Publius Fellows this summer; so was a young staffer for Marjorie Taylor Greene. Other beneficiaries of Claremont’s tutelage include Newsweek opinion editor Josh Hammer (a New Right fellow traveler), the Manhattan Institute’s Christopher Rufo (lead shit-stirrer of the critical race theory panic), Ben Shapiro (the fast-talking YouTube mega-personality), The New York Times’ Ross Douthat, and Jack Posobiec, the notorious Pizzagate conspiracist who now edits Human Events. A mixed bag, to say the least. Fellowships of this sort—which involve long days of discussing political philosophy and long nights of drinking wine with conservative luminaries—have long played a role in shaping the next generation of right-wing elites.
There’s a joke one hears in academic circles that all this conservative foundation money slushing around functions as a “welfare state” for lackluster writers and scholars. “That’s a real thing,” Hochman told me. “A lot of not-smart people can get by because there’s dearth of talent.” But the flip side, he said, “is that if you’re a young conservative who’s intellectually minded, can actually think and put together coherent sentences, and likes to read, the world opens up for you.” Hochman has had fellowships at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and is currently a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow; he marvels at the generosity of the mentors he’s acquired through these experiences. They’ll “have me over to their house, talk to me until 1 a.m. about all my stupid questions,” he said.

There’s simply nothing comparable to this in liberal politics. Some young Democrats go to think tanks, nonprofits, and the Hill to work on policy while others ⁠— the pure careerists ⁠— gather at conferences for the chance to hear Kamala Harris crack jokes about Veep or some such. There’s no real infrastructure dedicated to nurturing ideological vision ⁠— in fact, the central strategic conversation among Democrats over the last year has been about how the party might minimize or sever the meaningful connections it does have to ideologues in academia and activist organizations. The defenders of popularism have argued this is electorally necessary, but I think there’s more to the party’s disposition than that. Democratic politicians are simply afraid of the world of ideas; there’s an unwillingness to step onto loftier ground even when doing so might be useful to attack Republicans. Mitch McConnell takes whacks at critical race theory from the Senate floor. You will never hear Chuck Schumer warn voters about integralism.

The mainstream deployment of rhetoric that came from the swamps Bell maps out is evidence that the New Right has already made a substantial amount of progress capturing conservative elites. The efforts from the moderates still hanging around to claw the party back remain feeble. David Brooks has two pieces out in the Atlantic on the state of the conservative movement. One is a rote apologia for the ideology that makes the standard arguments — Burke, blah, blah, blah ⁠— and another is a dispatch from this year’s National Conservatism conference, an event I covered for The New Yorker in 2019. He offered the following complaints:

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.

This from David Brooks! Here, for reference, is an excerpt from a typical Brooks column on political correctness and cancel culture ⁠— written for the Times in January 2019 after an Invisibilia episode on the cancellation of a former high school bully:  

The podcast gives a glimpse of how cycles of abuse get passed down, one to another. It shows what it’s like to live amid a terrifying call-out culture, a vengeful game of moral one-upsmanship in which social annihilation can come any second.
I’m older, so all sorts of historical alarm bells were going off — the way students denounced and effectively murdered their elders for incorrect thought during Mao’s Cultural Revolution and in Stalin’s Russia.
[...] The problem with the pseudo-realism of the call-out culture is that it is so naïve. Once you adopt binary thinking in which people are categorized as good or evil, once you give random people the power to destroy lives without any process, you have taken a step toward the Rwandan genocide.

In a similar piece about the National Conservatism conference for the Atlantic, National Review’s David French ⁠— who responded to criticism from Sohrab Amari during their infamous debate with a boast about his service in Iraq ⁠— worried that conservatives have begun embracing an unhealthy masculine ideal:

Last month, at the National Conservatism conference, a gathering of hundreds of leaders and members of a movement that hopes to represent a new, less libertarian American right, one of the speakers, a lawyer named Josh Hammer, delivered a strange denunciation of “fusionism.” For those not steeped in the language of conservatism, fusionism refers to the alliance among economic conservatives, social conservatives, and defense hawks forged during the Reagan administration. It was designed to confront government overreach at home and the threat of Soviet tyranny abroad.
Fusionism, Hammer said, is “inherently effete, limp, and, as Hillsdale College’s David Azerrad might say, unmasculine.” It “makes for a cowardly way to approach politics” in part because it “ensures never having to face pushback from one’s political opponents on the most contested issues.”
Longtime fusionists, who are veterans not just of the intense and consequential debates surrounding foreign policy during the Cold War and the War on Terror but also of countless successful courtroom contests designed to expand First Amendment rights in the face of government censorship, might be startled by this news.
But that’s hardly the oddest part of Hammer’s critique. Fusionism is “unmasculine”? How is that claim a part of an allegedly serious ideological argument? The critique, however, helps illuminate the emerging culture of the right—a culture that idolizes a twisted version of “toughness” as the highest ideal and despises a false version of “weakness” as the lowest vice.
Claims of cowardice have particular purchase among Trump’s followers. Coward is a one-word rebuttal that not only attempts to end an argument, but also aims to discredit the person who made it. Who wants to listen to a coward? Who wants to be known as a coward?

Now, it’s not actually a mystery how masculinity made its way to the center of contemporary conservative discourse. The rhetoric conservatives now regarded as moderates deployed to disparage their opponents during the War on Terror surely played a major role ⁠— as has French’s own Trump-era writing about the “feminization” of American society, as exemplified by this 2017 piece:

There are no longer different paths for boys and girls but instead unique paths for special snowflakes. Who’s to say what’s masculine? Who’s to say what’s feminine? The one thing we do know, however, is that stereotypically male characteristics of aggression, risk-taking, and high-energy work and play are “toxic” and need to be medicated or educated right out of the home.
Adding to the feminized home is the feminized school, complete with its zero tolerance, mortal fear of anything remotely martial, and its relentless emphasis on compassion and nurturing rather than exploration and adventure (unless the adventurer is a woman). We love the Earth. We don’t conquer it. Elementary school is a place of hugs, not conflict, and play is to be peaceful above all else. No more re-enacting the Battle of the Bulge. No more toy guns. No more drawings of tanks mowing through stick-figure Nazi hordes. And when nature asserts itself against the ideologue’s wishes? Medication and education take their toll.
[...] In place of teaching men to channel their aggression and adventurous spirits in productive ways, we ask them to stifle their truest natures. In place of teaching them to protect others, we lie and declare all violence to be bad. Instead of telling the truth that men and women are different, we try to transform men into women. We privilege the stories of those who found traditional gender norms oppressive (like gay men and their metrosexual cousins) and celebrate the demise of traditional masculinity that better served the vast majority of men and boys. Is it not possible to preserve masculinity while demonstrating compassion for those who don’t conform? Must we burn it all down?

Once the preservation of traditional masculinity was established as a conservative objective ⁠— something that happened, in fairness to French, many decades ago with the beginning of the feminist movement ⁠— internecine squabbles over who and what could rightfully be considered masculine and the deployment of effeminacy as a political charge became inevitable. If French dislikes that masculine impulses are being channelled to ignoble ends within the party, he should obviously consider his own role in whipping people on the right into a crisis mentality over the suppression and control of male behavior.

The voices of the New Right aren’t wrong to see cowardice at work here. The conservatism Brooks and French defend really is a weaselly and watered down expression of the core values conservatives going back to Burke have shared ⁠— traditionalism, hierarchy, and normativity. Conservatives who believed in those values entered into a marriage of convenience with the proponents of laissez-faire capitalism in the middle of the last century; the jury is still out on whether that marriage is actually ending. I doubt it is, and its durability is the primary obstacle to the New Right’s growth. But we live in strange times. It’s entirely possible that visionaries, posters, and weirdos will manage to capture one of the parties ⁠— the wrong one.

Reasons To Be Cheerful

Good night.