Opinion

The new right isn't conservative. They don't want to be.

Forget MAGA — the right's cool kids are writing their own radicalism

The kids are not all alright.

That's the message from Vanity Fair, the May issue of which includes a report from a small but colorful corner of the intellectual and political landscape. In the after-parties and corridors of the National Conservatism conference held in Orlando last October, reporter James Pogue discovered a subterranean network of "podcasters, bro-ish anonymous Twitter posters, online philosophers, artists, and amorphous scenesters." Attracted to the right but far from conservative, these dissidents dream of overthrowing some of the basic premises of 21st-century American life. Where others might see a threatened but legitimate constitutional order or a struggling yet still functional economy, they perceive a tyrannical yet incompetent "regime" collapsing under its own weight.

The shock value associated with these views is an important part of their appeal. As the boundaries of acceptable opinion shift to the left, at least within major institutions, the opportunities for dissent have become concentrated on the right. In universities, media, and many big companies, there's nothing controversial about saying that white people are an essentially malign portion of the human race, that gender is independent of biological sex, or that people who voted for former President Donald Trump are an existential threat to democracy. If you aim to provoke, you'd better reject these claims, loudly and often. On social media, this countercultural quality is known as being "based."

But there's more to the "new right," as it's somewhat anachronistically known (a succession of movements with similar names has emerged since the 1950s), than being based. This motley crew is composed of people in their 20s and early 30s, largely though not entirely men. A recurring theme in their conversation, in the piece as well as the blogposts, Twitter threads, and private chats where they develop their ideas, is the belief that some kind of revolution would be necessary for them to achieve goals that once would have seemed utterly mundane. Not so long ago, professional advancement, stable romantic relationships, and residential independence seemed like the birthright of young Americans industrious or lucky enough to graduate from college and make it to one of the metro areas heavily populated by others of their kind. Today, these markers of adulthood can be delayed by years or decades — and increasingly seem out of reach.

The frathouse atmosphere Pogue describes reflects that arrested development. Unlike the buttoned-up official sessions of the conference, the new right confabs revolved around late nights, many drinks, and casual attire. Despite the contempt for academia that infuses the new right, its intellectual and social style derives more from the college campus than from the "real America" that its participants idealize.

In that respect, the new right can be viewed as a negative image of the woke left. Both movements invoke a favored cohort of the truly disadvantaged. In practice, they're more attentive to the anxieties of what George Orwell called the "lower-upper-middle class" — in updated terms, the journalists, academics, and other "knowledge workers" whose expectations outstrip their income. On the left, that encourages a fixation on symbolic diversity, student debt, radical police reform, and other issues that are distant from the actual concerns of the poor and racial minorities. On the right, it leads to otherwise perplexing obsessions with content moderation on social media, bodybuilding, and other displays of flamboyant manliness and obscure theological doctrines. 

You can acknowledge the tensions between the nominal goals of extremist youth movements and their underlying inspiration without dismissing them as poseurs or fools. Moralistic tendencies dominate precisely because they're not driven by outright material deprivation. The appeal of the new right doesn't lie in its policy proposals, which range from sketchy to fanciful. It lies in the ability to tell a sweeping story about what's worth fighting for, why it's so elusive, and who is to blame.

Early in 1941, the German-Jewish political philosopher Leo Strauss delivered a consideration of the generational appeal of the far-right to his colleagues on the faculty of the New School for Social Research. Drawing on his experiences as a young intellectual in the 1920s and early '30s, Strauss argued that opposition to the Weimar Republic among his educated contemporaries was essentially a protest against the formless boredom of modern life. Assured of survival without enjoying real security and lacking causes to inspire sacrifice, "young nihilists" turned not only against liberal democracy but against civilization itself. 

In the lecture on "German nihilism," Strauss suggested that this energy could have been diverted from its rendezvous with National Socialism by more skillful education, particularly in ancient philosophy. I have always found this conclusion dubious. The yearning for risk and commitment he describes can only rarely be satisfied in the library or classroom. For the young and the restless, ideas are appealing to the extent that they inspire action rather than merely offering the opportunity for contemplation.

To be clear, the revolutionary instincts of today's pseudonymous bloggers, underemployed graduate students, and freelance journalists have limited appeal at the moment. As Pogue emphasizes, this strand of the new right is somewhat distinct from the more populist and electorally consequential MAGA movement. J.D. Vance and Blake Masters, both supported by their former employer Peter Thiel, have tried to bridge the gaps in campaigns for the GOP Senate nominations in Ohio and Arizona, respectively. With Trump's endorsement, they may best divided fields in the upcoming primaries (neither is currently leading). But their efforts so far have relied more heavily on familiar culture warring than the reactionary modernism found in online conversations.

Still, the dissidents at the Orlando afterparty are both responding to a transformation of the intellectual right and helping to ensure that it continues. While they remain staples of think tank issue papers and fundraising appeals, ritualized appeals to the Founders, the Constitution, or patriotic loyalty to the existing United States have become passé among a younger generation of thinkers, writers, and readers. It's no use to tell these elements of the new right that they're not particularly conservative, because they already know that. With building hopes for a kind of Caesar willing to mount a frontal assault on "the regime," the question is what comes next.

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