Opinion

The right's new libertinism isn't libertarian

How a porn star ends up at a conservative youth conference

A porn star went to a conservative youth conference, and somehow it's the libertarians' fault.

If you missed this teapot tempest, here's the gist: A pornographic performer called Brandi Love, who has written two articles for the right-wing outlet The Federalist, purchased a ticket to a conference hosted by Turning Point USA (TPUSA), a youth activism organization known for its "'trigger the libs' style" and close ties to former President Donald Trump. Love tweeted her enthusiasm about attending, but by the second day of the event her ticket had been revoked.

A statement from TPUSA said this was standard procedure: "As a matter of policy, TPUSA does not allow adult entertainers, influencers, or brands to participate in its events designed for minors." Love responded by accusing TPUSA of censorship and an "egregious" embrace of "cancel culture." Federalist co-founder Ben Domenech declared her an ordinary "conservative businesswoman who loves America" and charged those who don't want her hanging with 15-year-olds with being "a bunch of prudes."

In the replies to his tweet, debate raged over whether a porn star can be a conservative. And writing at The American Mind, Claremont Institute fellow Nate Hochman answered in the negative. He also found someone to blame for the corruption of the conservative movement that Love's presence at the conference represents: libertarians.

It was the libertarians who did it, Hochman said, the libertarians whose "inability to distinguish between liberty and license is endemic to today's conservative mainstream," whose "insidious libertarianism has captured the language and worldview of the modern right."

On the one hand, I have to laugh. Ascribing to libertarians policymaking power and cultural influence far beyond our wildest dreams is an odd tic I've noticed on the right for several years. To hear people like Fox News host Tucker Carlson and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) tell it, the whole "leadership class" is libertarian; we dictated the Obama administration's foreign policy; and we run the Republican Party. That would be fantastic, but none of it is true — especially the last part, which is also Hochman's claim.

The past five years have been a post-"libertarian moment," and the American right of 2021 has almost nothing of libertarianism in its worldview. The GOP has formed itself around Trump like silly putty, sharing his nationalism, militarism, protectionism, and total disinterest in limited government — all anathema to we supposedly ascendant libertarians. If Ronald Reagan was ever right that "the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism," he is right no longer.

Obviously, Hochman's concern isn't trade or foreign policy. It's social issues, but there's no denying the right has shifted there, too. Not so long ago, "Can a porn star be a conservative?" was not a question any American was debating. The conservatism of the Moral Majority, of Focus on the Family — of Reagan and Jerry Falwell and impeaching Bill Clinton and publishing adamant statements about virtue and character — had no doubts about the morality of pornography or the social acceptability of its performers. Transpose the Love incident to a Young Americans for Freedom conference in 2001 or 1981 and no right-wing pundit would be warning against prudishness.

The right is different now, but the reason it's different isn't a rising libertarianism among Republicans. Nor has self-professed social conservatism in the GOP declined (polling shows it on a 20-year flatline). No, what's happened is that the meaning of social conservatism in America is changing, and that change is coming from quite unlibertarian quarters.

It's coming from what The Week's Matthew Walther has called "Barstool conservatives," borrowing the name from the sports site whose founder is simpatico with (but not in any sense a formal leader of) this crowd. Barstool conservatives, Walther explains, "are people who, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, accept pornography, homosexuality, drug use, legalized gambling, and whatever GamerGate was about." 

They're the GOP voters who at least overlooked Trump's pornographic lifestyle, deeming it an acceptable price of power, or outright embraced it as a desirable aspect of his candidacy. They shrugged at the Access Hollywood tape and never looked back. They may regurgitate some "standard libertarian talking points" on economic issues, as Walther notes, but they're far more populist than libertarians and far less concerned about fiscal discipline or private property rights

Libertarians tend to be ideological to a fault; the Barstool conservative has "traded causes for clichés" and meme wars for a legislative agenda. Libertarians will agonize over whether a tax cut is still good if it adds to the deficit or plays favorites in the marketplace; Barstool conservatives are just here to own some libs. And while libertarians can be libertines (I very much am not), libertinism is part of the Barstool vibe. As Walther has since observed, he could equally have called this group "porn conservatives."

Love was at that conference because, like TPUSA itself, she's a Barstool type. In fact, in an earlier column, before he coined the Barstool label, Walther pointed to Love herself as emblematic of this new archetype on the right. She "no doubt spoke for millions of Republican voters," he wrote, "when [in one of those two Federalist articles] she praised 'Sex, Drink, and Rock 'n Roll conservatives [sic]' who 'love God and our flag but generally dislike organized religion' and 'like to hang out on the deck drinking a beer, talking sports, listening to country, rock, and rap while using colorful words to describe Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and Anthony Fauci.'"

It's true that calling Love and her ilk "conservatives" is technically incorrect, as Hochman argues, for pornography has no place in the conservative project of preserving tradition, prudence, and social stability. Maybe "Barstool Republican" or "the porn right" is a better name, or maybe they'll soon name themselves. But whatever we call this new libertinism in the GOP, libertarians had nothing to do with it.

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