Conservatism Unlimited

I consume far too much conservative media. Any is too much, but I have a mild obsession with learning what the right thinks and why, especially the Christian right, and so I trawl the home pages of The National Review, The Federalist, Christianity Today and The Daily Caller for information—not the information imparted in the articles, but the information omitted from them, and from any sort of coverage, and I carefully keep track of the stories that remain important to the regular readers of these—and darker, more obscure—outlets.

Something has departed from American civil discourse in the last few months; a kind of pretense that, however contemptible and offensive, saved a number of us from annihilation. I’m working to name the thing. It’s a confounding task.

Here’s an example: In 2012 there were 15 bias-related murders according to the FBI’s hate crimes division, which is not exactly known for its liberal standards on the topic. This is pretty good, all things considered—not a lot of race-related murders. 

Also in 2012, The National Review, the magazine begun by William F. Buckley to protest Brown v. Board, fired writer John Derbyshire for racism in a column denouncing his post for reactionary website Taki’s Magazine, though editor Rich Lowry did take pains to name him “a deeply literate, funny, and incisive writer” in the same post. Another Review bulletin dubbed the piece unworthy of its author, who “always gave me the impression of an Oxford don” but ultimately “had more courage than sense.”

Indeed, Derbyshire’s cultivated courageous donnishness was always delivered with a skillfully naughty, slightly hectoring friendliness that never quite masked his profound distaste for people other than white whose religions were other than Christian. “It is good to be reminded, too, with forceful supporting data, that the 1924 restrictions on immigration to the U.S. were not driven by any belief on the part of the restrictionists in their own racial superiority but by a desire to stabilize the nation’s ethnic balance, which is by no means the same thing,” he asserted in Pat Buchanan’s The American Conservative in 2003, in a wry and respectful semi-dismissal of Kevin MacDonald’s Culture of Critique, the ur-text of contemporary American anti-Semitism. 

MacDonald, Derbyshire explains, was removed from polite society because “he got the Jew thing,” as someone said to him at a party. Though he personally does not have the Jew thing and resolved to do his best not to get it “so far as personal integrity allowed,” “if, however, you have got the Jew thing, or if, for reasons unfathomable to me, you would like to get it, Kevin MacDonald is your man.” MacDonald had not yet been declared persona non grata by his university, but he would be five years later.

It’s worth examining what Derbyshire represented within the complicated framework of conservative intellectualism during this period of detente between its factions of crabby paleoconservatives, pre-Vatican II Catholics, born-agains, libertarians, Bushie neocons, and all combinations of the above. Like Buchanan, he would have described himself in the moment as a paleoconservative; someone concerned primarily with preserving social mores, public respect for religion, and not afflicted with the same concerns about deficit spending or socialized medicine that bedeviled his frenemies elsewhere in the Review, beyond his concern about the propensity of the latter to encourage laziness in the lower orders.

Factions and Fictions

There is a lot to be said here about the interpretations of German-American philosopher Leo Strauss, whose affinity for deception plays a central role in both strains of contemporary conservatism. I’d rather not say it; it’s tedious and Strauss’s work, whether it intends to or not, functions as a theory of elitism and leaves its two factions at war over only the worthless question of which one ought to be considered elite. Suffice it to say that Buchanan, Derbyshire, MacDonald, Steve Sailer, Joe Sobran and the rest of the comfortably stodgy old Catholics and their allies and protégés defined themselves during the Bush administration in opposition to what they rightly understood to be the fad of neoconservatism.

The neocon movement, especially Andrew Sullivan at The New Republic and David Brooks and ultrahawk Bill Kristol at The Weekly Standard, preached Strauss’s gospel of lies. Lies were necessary to the concept of nation-building, they wrote, and told each other, and themselves. The Great Deceptions must not merely be believed by the masses in order to have an idea of nationhood, they must be aggressively practiced by the elite (which is to say, writers at The New Republic, The National Review, and The Weekly Standard and any politicians who knew what was good for them) on those masses if the nations in question are going to be built. Imagine The Secret, except armed to the teeth.

This is how we ended up with absurd pronouncements that of like “an aide” (almost certainly Karl Rove) to the Bush administration memorably waving off New York Times reporter Ron Suskind with the novel insult that Suskind was a part of “the reality-based community.”

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” (full article here)

Rove, or whoever he was, was right about that last bit, at least. Having failed to create a democratic Iraq using the power of positive thinking, Iraq’s ostensibly well-meaning architects gave up the ear of the last president and moved on to the next one, having received the requisite career boost for their participation in the activities of the Oval Office, never mind that those activities killed half a million people. They didn’t mind the occasional R-rated movie, after all, and some of their best friends were gay, or black, or women.

In hindsight, it was easy to see happening if you were interested in conservative media as an observer rather than a consumer. A Bush-unaligned part of the intricately linked world of conservative publications was engaged in a very different project from the self-appointed great actors of history: It had appointed itself the filtering mechanism for the rest of the press and the parts of culture that its viewers found suspicious or alien. “Politics is downstream of culture,” Andrew Breitbart, progenitor of Trumpworld’s most effective mouthpiece, famously said. 

This part of conservatism was engaged not with problems of democracy in faraway lands, but with degeneracy in our own. “Lots of Christians have the false idea that The Benedict Option foresees the greatest challenges to the faith coming from state persecution,” wrote Rod Dreher in The American Conservative, referring to his own project of supposedly Benedictine withdrawal from American public life. “Though I do believe that is coming, by far the greater threats to the churches come from the culture in general, and from internal collapse.” The targets here are familiar: In the piece quoted, Dreher was writing about the scandal of widespread child abuse in the Catholic church, which he blamed on homosexuality.

The Taki post that got Derbyshire fired began as a sort of Modest Proposal making light of the African-American fear of cops who murder them, or at least it pretended to be that for a few lines before it, too, descended into a purer and more earnest expression of Derbyshire’s concerns about degeneracy. Like most bullies, Derbyshire was less kidding than maintaining a veneer of kidding so he could say, “I’m just kidding,” which he did when he was criticized for the article’s ugliness. But the veneer had cracked open wide enough for the squirming putrefaction animating it to be visible, and it got him tossed into the outer darkness: the same stagnant toilets of the internet to which MacDonald, Sobran, and others like them had been banished. And, in that still, lightless excrescence, something was growing.

“Which race of smiley face do you use when your employer texts you on the weekend?”

Jump forward a few years. A symptom of that growing thing, but probably not the thing itself, seems to be neoreactionism, nauseatingly abbreviated NRx by its adherents, among whom Trump advisor Steve Bannon and many other ascendant political movers are numbered. It is a political philosophy embraced by conservatives across the social and religious spectra but especially by conservative Catholics, such as Harvard Law’s Adrian Vermeule and Sohrab Amhari, who both write for right-wing religious journal First Things, which briefly hosted political disinformation blog The Gateway Pundit. The various strands of right-wing media often come together like that.

James Duesterberg wrote a sympathetic and informative 2017 pocket history of the movement for University of Chicago literary magazine The Point, “Final Fantasy.” The author points out that, though the antics of neoreactionary thought leaders like Curtis Yarvin, who blogs as Mencius Moldbug, and Nick Land are often risible and their policy ideas absurd, it has “a more savage bite” than its ludicrous social prescriptions suggest. 

“[W]hy are we required to believe in political correctness, rather than simply being forced to accept progressive policy as the rules of the game for our time?” Duesterberg asks. “And why, after all, are liberals so threatened by dissent?”

Throughout his Point article, Duesterberg maintains the same just-asking-questions posture as Derbyshire in his review of The Culture of Critique, but his agreement with, at least, the premise of neoreaction—that social-justice warriors run society and have made it into a wasteland—seems clear. “Want to earn enough money to support your family? You’ll need a college degree, so you’d better learn how to write a paper on epistemic violence for your required Grievance Studies 101 class,” Duesterberg writes. “Want to keep your job? You’d better brush up on climate-change talking points, so you can shift into regulatory compliance, the only growth industry left. Want to relax with your friends after work? It’s probably easiest if you like movies about gay people, pop music that celebrates infidelity and drug use, and books about non-Christian boy wizards. Want to communicate with other people? Better figure out how to use emoticons. Which race of smiley face do you use when your employer texts you on the weekend?”

This was, essentially, Donald Trump’s campaign platform. Not his vacuous ramblings or his personal dishonesty, criminality, and cruelty, but his proposal to voters: The world you live in is worthless and has been overrun by self-righteous scolds who want to pick your pocket and invade everything that gives you the slightest pleasure in the name of an obviously irreligious “morality” that you quite rightly resist; they’re the same people who depress your wages, change your health insurance plan twice a year, and send your job to Mexico when you turn fifty. You’ve been terrorized by the invasion of the diversity officers, Obama chief among them.

It’s the basis of Trumpworld’s rallying cry every time someone shares a story about kids teaching each other to change the smallest children’s diapers in our new immigrant baby jails, a video of a toddler who doesn’t recognize his horrified mother at the airport after months of captivity, an interview with schoolchildren weeping in uncomprehending despair having returned from the first day of elementary school to find that their parents have been rounded up by the secret police. Now, in your misery, they tell us, you know how WE feel, we who spent the Obama administration in fear for our precious, notional liberties. The stakes, for conservatives, are entirely imaginary, but they are a matter of bone-deep belief.

Equal and Opposite Reaction

While Yarvin and Land are its founders, reaction’s champion du jour writes under the nom de guerre Bronze Age Pervert; his work has leapt into the White House via Michael Anton, “the brilliant, bespoke Straussian who went to work for Trump’s National Security Council for a while,” according to Andrew Sullivan, now of New York Magazine in a piece called “The Limits of My Conservatism.” 

Anton cuts an interesting figure and has been profiled several times, the best one probably Rosie Gray’s, from March, 2017. A financial services goon, Anton published punishingly lengthy blog posts in support of Trump at the Unz Review, a project of former American Conservative publisher and Republican politician Ron Unz. Anton’s most influential post was certainly “The Flight 93 Election,” in the Claremont Review of Books, in which he argued that Americans had to “rush the cockpit” despite—in fact, because of—the possibility of destruction if they did not.

The nesting dolls go like this: the Review of Books is an enterprise of the Claremont Institute, founded by Henry Jaffa, patron saint of the West Coast school of Straussian thought, bankrolled by billionaire Carnegie heiress Sarah Scaife, whose extreme hatred of immigrants and virulent racism aligns perfectly with the Institute’s mission and its subsequent embrace through the Review of Books of Trump, who also hates black people and immigrants.

It’s easy to get lost in warring philosophical schools and old grudges between conservatives, but the cheat code, always, is bigotry—racism, antisemitism, and, always, misogyny.

Here’s some of Bronze Age Pervert’s philosophizing, glowingly reviewed by Anton and pushed enthusiastically to the White House: 

[A]ncient “public-spiritedness” [is] free men accepting the rigors of training together so they can preserve their freedom by force against equally haughty and hostile outsiders and against racial subordinates at home. Any “racial” unity of the Greeks was therefore only the organic unity of culture or language, but never became political: such people would never tolerate losing the sovereignty in the states they and their recent ancestors had established to protect their freedom and space to move. But to draw any parallels to our time is absurd: these men would have never submitted to abstractions like “human rights,” or “equality,” or “the people” as some kind of amorphous entity encompassing the inhabitants of the territory or city in general. They would have rightly seen this as pure slavery, which is our condition today: no real man would ever accept the legitimacy of such an entity, which for all practical purposes means you must, for entirely imaginary reasons, defer to the opinion of slaves, aliens, fat childless women, and others who have no share in the actual physical power.

A perhaps overremarked facet of the Trump administration is that its ideologues don’t come through the usual channels—no columnists left tony positions at the Times or the Washington Post or even the National Review to work as speechwriters for Trump, to their frustration, I’m sure. Instead, Trump staffed his advisory ranks from the anti-news sycophants at Fox News, where the intellectual life, such as it is, has little to do with policy or reportage and more to do with broad theories completely divorced from measured data like those of Mr. Age Pervert. 

The tone of Trump-era conservative intellectual life trends toward self-help and whites-only feel-goodism, with a tonal spectrum that ranges from the spittle-flecked stemwinders about dirty immigrants from Tucker Carlson to professorial disquisitions on women’s place in the home from the most popular of these intellectuals, Jordan Peterson.

Much of this is to do with Trump’s own bottomless intellectual laziness, but it is also a product of his preferences, namely the aforementioned racism, and the ressentiment, as M. Duesterberg would have it, of a paleoconservative class expelled from movement conservatism in favor of witless neocons for what it believes was simply its realism about race, gender, and the inferiority of Islam. With their unexpectedly successful rushing of the cockpit, as Anton would have it, they were suddenly given the opportunity to exercise real political power. 

Yarvin, Derbyshire, Carlson, Bronze Age Pervert: These are the thinkers of the contemporary right. Some may have access to the halls of power and most may not, but the fact is they are read by the few in the Trump administration who at least pretend to literacy, and even the old neocon guard, rather than seek approval among authority-weidling women, black people, and gay people, have chosen like Sullivan to re-investigate racism to see if there isn’t something interesting they can salvage. And they have found conservatism’s old wounds rich with a festering, suppurating intellectual life.

So it would be fair to call reaction’s politics ascendant in the years between Derbyshire’s dismissal and Duesterberg’s essay.

Conservatism Unlimited

As the Trump administration shifted into gear in 2017, it made no bones about its distaste for immigrants, and neither did the reactionary outlets that shared its ideology. That year Breitbart was aswarm with articles about Ebba Åkerlund, an 11-year-old killed by an Islamic State militant in Sweden. The administration itself opened a hotline for Victims Of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE) through the Bush-era Department of Homeland Security’s Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. This is not an emergency helpline; rather, it is a hotline through which people can inquire about whether or not people convicted of crimes have been deported. Trump also ordered the Department of Justice to establish an “Alien Incarceration Report” showcasing crimes by immigrants, who offend at a much lower rate than citizens and whose neighborhoods are generally safer than neighborhoods without them, according to the government’s own National Criminal Justice Reference Service.

On the third of this month, a right-wing gunman in El Paso killed 22 people, most of them over 55, and shot 24 others who survived, including a four-month-old baby. In April, a right-wing gunman killed an elderly woman at worship in a synagogue and wounded three others, including the rabbi. In July, a right-wing gunman opened fire on the Gilroy Garlic Festival in Gilroy, California, killing three and wounding 13 before he was shot to death. The Proud Boys, a far-right gang whose leader, Enrique Tarrio, is chair of Florida Latinos for Trump, started two riots in Portland this summer, one on June 29 and one on August 18. 

Since the El Paso murders, the police have arrested “dozens” of young men, teenagers, and one woman threatening or credibly believed to be planning mass attacks—not just shootings but also bombings. Conor Climo, a 23-year-old Nevada man, was arrested for communicating with neonazi group Atomwaffen division about bombing a synagogue and killing patrons at a gay bar. James Reardon, a 19-year-old man who attended the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville where neo-Nazi James Fields ran over Heather Heyer with her car, was arrested for threatening to attack a synagogue. Police found a long gun, body armor, a gas mask, and antisemitic literature in Reardon’s home. After his arrest, researcher Emily Gorcenski found a photo of Reardon with Fields at the Charlottesville rally.

These are unusual crimes: They are committed against strangers, based on those strangers’ status or perceived status as a member of an outgroup, and all are coming from the right, often with the explicit stated purpose of starting a race war.

In their manifestos, some of these killers have parroted what we in our capacity as a nation of boiled frogs have come to regard as anodyne, if distasteful, conservative talking points: that immigrants are an invasion, that demographic diminution is “genocide,” that morality derives from strength and that strength derives from eugenic theories of heritable positive traits and that these traits include intelligence. None of this is true; Stephen Jay Gould spent much of his late career debunking scientific racism.

But in this iteration of conservatism as in the previous one, thank Strauss, its truth or falsity is not of much consequence; those qualities are a product of the enlightenment, which, the intellectuals of the right inform us, is a lacuna in the true history of humanity, which is darkness extending eternally on both sides of it. The days of the reality-based community are once again numbered.

To people like Brenton Tarrant, the act of slaking his bloodlust on dozens of worshippers at two mosques in Christchurch, including, among the dead, a three-year-old, is politics. He says as much in his manifesto, claiming that the birth rates of non-natives are so high that the people themselves must be culled. Christchurch may be in New Zealand, but the memes and and imageboard culture he jokingly cites in his manifesto are pure Americana; Patrick Crusius recognizes them as such in his own manifesto before his murder of 22 people in El Paso, which cites Tarrant. John Earnest, in his own document describing his reasons for carrying out the murder and assaults at the synagogue in Poway, also approvingly cites Tarrant.

Tarrant’s seventy-odd-page screed, which he called “The Great Replacement,” has surpassed even The Culture of Critique (which codifies many of the same claims about the coming subordination of the white race as Tarrant’s document) as literature of political influence. It is contemporary conservatism’s purest distillation.

The killings are consistent with paleoconservatism, reactionism, or fascism, as it is most properly called. Pat Buchanan, himself a paleoconservative, agrees with me on this point: “Now, there are no excuses, or defenses, for what happened in Christchurch. But there is an explanation,” he wrote on the blog The Unz Review after Christchurch. “All peoples to some degree resent and resist the movement of outsiders into their space. Some migrants are more difficult than others to assimilate into Western societies. European nations that had not known mass migrations for centuries were especially susceptible to a virulent reaction, a backlash.”

Paul Nehlen, an avowed fan of The Culture of Critique, is a former Republican candidate for Congress, whose primary candidacy against Paul Ryan received fawning coverage from Breitbart News and an endorsement from Fox News’s Laura Ingraham and former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. If Tarrant’s writing is the literary framework for present-day conservative thought, Nehlen is its avatar. He was less equivocal than Buchanan in his analysis of the spate of white nationalist shootings in an interview on White Nationalist podcast The Gas Station. 

“We’re gonna find ourselves in a situation where we’re the ones who tear it down,” Nehlen said. “We aren’t necessarily going to be the ones who are going to build it back up, be great if we are. Be great if we could do it in that timeframe, but it’s gotta be torn down. This whole neoliberal façade that we’re all walking around in has got to be torn down, has got to be destroyed. So that’s where I stand on things. I’m not backing away from this kid [John Earnest, the Poway shooter]. I’m heralding his arrival. And I will look forward to his eventual release. Maybe some folks will show up there and he’ll be sprung [from prison]. So peace be upon him.”

It may be true that our current prosperity is simply an all-too-brief respite between dark ages. But it is not true that white people are superior to other races, or that there is no truth. Nor is it true that there is some kind of especially worthy cultural product, or indeed, any cultural product at all, that is generated by contemporary conservatives and their sympathizers; there is nothing to conserve. Rather, their project is a soulless, aching void, an irrational perception of slights and wrongs so great that they act as plenary indulgences for any monstrosity, no matter how great, any murder, any incarceration, any rending apart of mother and child, of body and soul, and all of the movement’s intellectual force is now directed at arguing its case in favor of this infinite license.

It is not a complicated evil, but it is a forceful one, and the force of civilization and dignity ought to prepare to meet it with refusal, silence, and, so far as it is still possible, the merciless application of the law, because if we do not, we will have to meet it with violence, and that is one of the only two things it wants. 

The other is a platform to argue for the inhumanity of the great mass of us who deplore its wickedness, and, in the presidency, it already has that.

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Author: samthielman

Sam Thielman is a reporter and critic based in Brooklyn, New York. His blog is, his twitter handle is @samthielman, and if you can't find him you should check The Strand.

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