“I still consider myself broadly a liberal,” Sohrab Ahmari told the critics of his widely discussed piece directed against traditional political conservatives like David French. Yet it is hard to see how his argument, which posits the need for conservatives to “fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good,” is compatible with any form of liberal society.
To be sure, the debate about the future of conservatism is a necessary one. Intellectual and political movements need contestation and updating. If cutting taxes and containing Soviet communism were clear priorities in the 1980s, one gets much less mileage out of the Reaganite conservative consensus today, in part because it is silent on the most salient issue currently dividing the center-Right coalition: cosmopolitanism versus parochialism.
The problem, due in part to Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, is that a disproportionate amount of energy on the political Right is being thrown behind a regressive agenda that risks making conservatism toxic for decades to come. Many of the emerging alternatives to Reaganism essentially give up on the project of a pluralistic, open society, and hope instead to “enforce our order and our orthodoxy, not pretend that they could ever be neutral.” This extension of Michael Anton’s Flight 93 alarmism has its roots in Pat Buchanan’s paleo-conservatism, as well as the online “neo-reaction” of Mencius Moldbug and the Eurasianism of Aleksandr Dugin.
While Ahmari is sincere in his travails, others treat all this as little more than a fun intellectual exercise. The Twitter persona of Adrian Vermeule, a Harvard law professor and vocal proponent of Catholic integralism, has effaced the boundaries between debate, trolling, and self-parody, essentially becoming a highbrow version of Charlie Kirk or Candace Owens.
Yet ideas have consequences, including bad ones—and the idea that the coercive apparatus of the state should be deployed in pursuit of “the Highest Good” ranks among the more discredited in human history. At a basic level, it is irreconcilable with traditionally conservative tenets of prudence, aversion to large-scale social experiments, and preserving institutions that work. Nor is this a new debate on the political Right. In 1927, one of the gurus of classical liberalism, Ludwig von Mises, had this to say about those who wanted to infuse politics with a deeper sense of meaning and spirituality:
“Liberalism has often been reproached [that] it has had nothing to offer man’s deeper and nobler aspirations. But the critics who speak in this vein show only that they have a very imperfect and materialistic conception of these higher and nobler needs. Social policy, with the means that are at its disposal, can make men rich or poor, but it can never succeed in making them happy or in satisfying their inmost yearnings.”
It is no coincidence that the new reactionaries praise Viktor Orbán’s regime in Hungary, as well as the Law and Justice government in Poland, which proceeded in their defense of supposedly conservative values by packing courts, shutting down independent media, cracking down on freedom of association, and creating a clientelist network of government-connected kleptocrats.
We are told that teaming up with autocrats and emulating their methods is justified by the extraordinary circumstances of the situation. Everything conservatives hold dear is supposedly under assault by an aggressive, intolerant left. We are told that “Christians and other people of faith” are being “persecuted in America”—and unless conservatives shed their scruples, they will lose everything.
But what is the evidence for such extraordinary claims? Abandoning one’s commitment to the rule of law and individual autonomy because of a “Facebook ad for a children’s drag queen reading hour at a public library in Sacramento” is frivolous at best—and, more likely, symptomatic of deep-seated bigotry. Granted, there is a lot of silliness on university campuses, where politically correct bureaucracies have ballooned over the past decades. But universities have always been hotbeds of political radicalism and are hardly representative of social life at large. And if anything, recent data indicate that the pushback against the excesses of the non-platforming culture has been effective.
True, there are genuinely polarizing cultural issues. But the claim that religious liberty is under assault in America confuses many different things: a rising tolerance towards sexual minorities across the political spectrum (in my understanding an unambiguously good thing), the belated arrival of the “secularization thesis” to the United States, and a number of difficult policy questions that have to do with health insurance mandates and abortion rights. On this last front, social conservatives have seen victories (Masterpiece Cakeshop was a 7-2 decision, after all) as well as defeats. But that’s just how things work in a pluralistic society. Abortion, for instance, involves a conflict between the putative right to life of the unborn, of great value to some, and of the woman’s right to bodily autonomy, of great importance to others. Unless we are planning to purge or disenfranchise those on one or the other side of this clash of values, free societies will always have to balance the two through some uneasy compromise.
If anything, the fascists of the interwar period had a much stronger case for their own ruthlessness because they could point to the dangers of Soviet communism. And although the f-word is overused on the political left, it is difficult to qualify the Manicheanism of America’s new reactionaries—according to which society can and should do without uncomfortable settlements between conflicting values—as anything other than fascist. Both the substance and the tone of the messages coming from Ahmari and others tick a number of boxes on Umberto Eco’s 14-point list of the features of Ur-Fascism. The cult of tradition and rejection of modernism are obvious connections between the two, together with their appeals to frustration. We are told that previous generations of conservatives just kept losing, and that technocratic centrism has left behind large swaths of Western populations. Furthermore, “to people who feel deprived of a clear social identity,” Eco writes, “Ur-Fascism says that their only privilege is the most common one, to be born in the same country.” Sound familiar?
The new reactionaries’ enemies, like the enemies of fascists, are both weak (fragile liberal snowflakes) and all-powerful (a clique controlling the academia and popular culture). Fascism is populist, as are contemporary reactionaries: “If you’re getting a plurality or 43 percent of the vote, you’re not ‘far right,’” Vermeule says of Poland’s Law and Justice Party.
While reactionaries claim to be “open to heterodoxy—on things like taxes, trade, regulation, health care, and other issues that in prior decades might have been seen as issues where there was only one acceptable conservative position”—on metapolitical questions “[they] brook no dissent.” Disagreements on matters “that determine whether or not conservatives will be able to wield power” are off limits and thus tantamount to treason. Fascism is also characterized by machismo and characterizes life as a struggle. Is that so far off from the calls for conservatives to become “wartime conservatives”?
Like fascism, the new reaction is anti-intellectual. Roger Kimball, a noted Trump whisperer, suggests that “it is time to think about closing [universities] rather than reforming them.” The issue cannot be reduced just to universities’ left-wing bias or to the growing conflation of a large part of humanities with the social justice movement—a subject that deserves a separate discussion. Instead, the problem with reactionaries is that they do not see any valuable role for expertise at all, and are completely unfazed by the vanishingly small number of experts who agree with them on specific questions of public policy, such as Trump’s tariffs, or on the economic effects of Brexit—not to speak of the elevation of fraudsters and hacks to positions of supposed skill.
One corollary of Eco’s characterization of fascism is that it is impervious to reasoning. The only hope for the likes of Ahmari is deradicalization, similar to the kind experienced by Katie McHugh or European-born Muslims who joined Daesh. The problem is that such deradicalization typically occurs as a result of a clash between ideologically driven expectations and reality. Arthur Koestler’s famous book, The God That Failed, provides a famous account of communists who abandoned their beliefs under the pressure of a cognitive dissonance between their ideology and the reality of Soviet communism. For many, such as André Gide, the journey away from communism involved visiting the Soviet Union and witnessing some of the horrors of Stalin’s regime first hand.
One can only hope that, this time around, deradicalization will occur before anyone has to live under the regime the new reactionaries have in mind. Ideally, it should happen before center-Right politics is made completely unpalatable to a younger generation of American voters.