The Illiberal Upstarts Trying to Reinvent Conservatism – The New Republic

Posted: December 10, 2021 at 7:17 pm

Laura: Thats so interesting, because I think those examples really help when youre trying to imagine what that would be like. And the answer is Orbns Hungary.

Sam: Theyre very explicit about that. The whole Christian democrat tradition in Europe is something that they approve of.

Alex: So the sort of politicians and leaders that these people look up to basically gives away what they are after. Theyre looking for illiberal authoritarianism.

Laura: But is anyone listening to them? After a short break, well be back to talk about how much influence this group has. How worried should we be?

Alex: Now that weve established what sort of regimes they admire, I feel like we should ask, Why should we care about these guys? Your subjects are a couple of young people working at a magazine, right? Whats the case for caring about their wacky beliefs?

Sam: Its a good question. The place that I came down is that were familiar with this argument about the left: that people who graduate from elite universities have pretty extreme left-wing views compared to the median Democrat, and certainly compared to the median voter. The same thing is true of these negatively polarized right-wing, highly educated elites. Theyre far to the right of the median Republican, but all the signals point to: We cant discount it just because its a sort of a phenomenon amongst these very strange elite intellectuals, because very strange elite intellectualsand very young, strange elite intellectualshave been in charge of the conservative movement forever. Its just that the character of that movement is changing, because their character is changing.

Laura: You talk about the sense of isolation this group of guys has. Can you explain how that forms in college?

Sam: I would say that for a certain kind of white man who came up in an elite university in the past 10 years, but maybe even more so in the past five, six, seven, there was a sense of a suffocating liberal orthodoxy on their campus. If they have some other kind of ideological inputs pushing them in the direction of misogyny, or nasty racial ideas, or just a contrarian instinct, they may find themselves in a position where they go: All of the people who are the authority around me on this campus are telling me to believe this set of often superficial but nonetheless progressive things. Im going to look for the people who are saying the bad thing, the thing youre not supposed to say. And then they find each other.

Laura: Some of them are so young, like Nate Hochman. Hes only 23, just out of college. Do they maintain a sense of isolation after college? Because when you look around, elite Conservative Catholics are pretty well represented. Look at the Supreme Court, because on the Supreme Court, for a religious minority to be so well representedthis is not the mainstream version of Christianity in the U.S. They actually have a huge amount of power.

Sam: Ill say two things. One is that from their perspective, the only place in American life where conservatives have any power is basically the courts and, every once in a while, the federal government. They are very fixated on the fact that progressives and leftists control all the cultural hegemony. Thats precisely why they think its so important that when they periodically get power in the form of a Trump, and when they have a supermajority on the court, that they absolutely need to use it to enforce in the private sphere their ideal morals. Otherwise, in every input into American private morality, the morality that reigns regardless of what the government does, liberals and progressives have control. So thats their perspective. Its also especially because they live in D.C. and New York and California, where they actually are surrounded by liberals. These people arent living in small communities that are conservative, where they could. But theyre intellectual elites who want to work in the power centers. So, their perspective on what America is is totally skewed by the fact that they spend all their time on Twitter.

Alex: Its mediated, and its, like, vibes-based.

Sam: Completely vibes-based.

Alex: And you will never feel like you will win if you have won everything and then see that people still dont think the right way. That seems like a flaw in their ideology.

Sam: Well, its a flaw, but its a dangerous and symptomatic flaw that makes them attracted to authoritarianism because thats how they imagine youre able to change the way people think.

Laura: The argument that Hollywood is overwhelmingly liberal, and that the people who are conservative are bombarded with liberal propaganda and that they have liberal values rammed down their throats, is one you hear all the time. But the right has its own very robust and incredibly well-funded media infrastructure. You dont hear of small right-wing magazines collapsing because theres no money with anything like the same frequency you hear about liberal magazines going under. Going back to what you said about people being radicalized and pushed to the right in college, when they graduate from college, there are jobs for these people. There are so many think tanks you can go and work for if youre a young conservative, so many magazines where you can get associate editor jobs that dont exist in the liberal media. What do you make of that, and of that right-wing ecosystem?

Sam: One of the things that Nate said to me in the piece is that he acknowledges that there is this conservative welfare state for unsophisticated but right-wing people who graduate from college and want to write takes, and so he has encountered people who are not particularly smart in that world. But the thing is that there are also a certain number of people like him who are really interested in ideas and are pretty good writers, and do like to think hard about intellectual topics. For those people, its an embarrassment of riches. Part of whats so attractive about it is that you not only get a job, but you get let into this rarefied world thats both really luxurious and also rebellious. For intellectual conservatives, that is just an intoxicating stew that keeps young people engaged in conservative bullshit for a long time.

Alex: I find it interesting that if youre a young left-winger on campus, there is no network that will invite you to retreats to drink scotch with rich people, rich leftists. Even if youre a normal progressive, your entry into this world might be working for the worlds worst boss at a nonprofit, or being abused in a campaignthe lowest rung of the campaignor freelance writing for no money. I wonder if the right has this way of identifying their future talent, grooming it, and even sort of spoiling it in that way. Why do they do it so differently?

Sam: Well, to take on the left side of it, I think one of the things is that the power centers of the Democratic Party are controlled by mainstream liberals. Theyre not scouring the campuses for, like, really sparked Marxists to give internships to, and to be a mainstream liberal, it has much less of this kind of rebellious quality. Its just kind of like being invited into the power elite in a sort of uncomplicated way. Whereas right-wingers, even though we may think of this as delusional, they still think of themselves as a rebellious, insurgent troupe of outsiders with dangerous ideas, and therefore they feel that they need to teach their new, up-and-coming talent a sort of countertradition of American history and of political philosophy. On the left, there is no comparable thing. Id like it, as a left-winger who likes reading books, to get paid to live in Pomona for a week and read Karl Polanyi. That sounds good.

Alex: I would love a fellowship. I would love for someone just to give me a fellowship of some kind.

Laura: Its easier to offer someone the feeling of entering this glamorous elite if your whole thing is hierarchy. The right has this built-in advantage: This is what we believe, and were going to pull you up into it to be one of the important people. And the whole thing on the left is like, No, we want equality! We want everyone to be treated the same and to have the same opportunities.

Alex: I want everyone to get fellowships! Everyone, every working American, deserves a fellowship. I believe this very strongly.

Sam: Thats a really good point, Laura. We have incompatible goals. We dont want to create an elite elect who understand the true nature of society and then can direct it from on high.

Laura: I think its the same with the funding, too, for these magazines, for these think tanks. Its completely consistent with a right-wing view of the world that you are going to make lots of money and then dump it into an organization so that you can control what people think. Thats not really what left-wing donors are trained to do.

Sam: I think that you can have this experience as a liberalmaybe not as a revolutionary leftist.

Laura: You can have this experience if youre a liberal who is like, Im going to come up with some health care plans that will minimize the amount of coverage we offer to people with stage-four cancer.

Sam: Exactly.

Laura: Speaking of this whole ecosystem, Claremont is something that comes up in the piece. Can you explain for the uninitiated what that is?

Sam: The Claremont Institute is a right-wing, socially conservative think tank in California. Claremont was one of the first places that came out and said, Lets go for Trump. Because of its populism, its nationalism, its way more aggressively patriotic. Claremont has been punching way above its historic weight in the Trump era, and since Trump, playing a role in trying to justify his coupin effect, playing a role in bringing more illiberal and scary strains into acceptable conservative discourse. A lot of the people who are these young New Right figures move through its very robust programming and fellowships for young conservatives.

Laura: Going back to the coup thingyou mentioned that John Eastman, who wrote the memo on how Trump could try to stay in office despite losing the election, is associated with Claremont.

Sam: Yeah. Hes a legal scholar, a constitutional scholar, associated with them. He wrote the memo for the vice president telling him how he could constitutionally make it so that Trump would stay in power, basically.

Alex: Some of the people youve talked to, I think, are actually surprisingly realistic about the unlikelihood of their vision of society happening democratically. But my question is: Are they going to install a Catholic theocracy, though? Like, regardless, are they going to do that?

Sam: I dont know. I actually dont know if I have a great answer to this question. Internal to conservative debates and even internal to people who are sympathetic to New Right goals, theres an acknowledgment that the public is really not with themthe conservative public, even. Trumpism doesnt represent some victory for hard-core conservatives, like Catholic hierarchical authoritarians. Its more like a victory for Jacksonian libertarian impulses. Tanner Greer, this right-wing blogger who is quite smart, wrote this blog post about this discrepancy between the means of the New Right and their ends. His line is, Pity the Whig who wishes to lead the Jacksonian masses!that in effect, they are inheritors of some sort of patrician, pietistic, Northeastern puritanical tradition, which wants to impose all these orthodoxieswhich is not really what Trumpism represents. That said, if these people are serious about trying to impose this moral orthodoxy on America, then thats why they become more sympathetic to things like John Eastman telling Trump, You can keep power, no matter what, or people like Adrian Vermeule, whos a Harvard integralist who believes that you should use the administrative statewhich used to be the thing that the conservatives hated more than anythingyou should use the levers of power and the administrative state to nudge the moral orthodoxy of America toward Catholic theology, that you should use the unaccountable powers of the state, nondemocratic powers, to achieve their ends. And so the reason that theres this sympathy, I think, for countermajoritarianism, for anti-democratic measures, for state power through the bureaucracy as opposed to through the legislature, is that they know that their ideas are really not a majoritarian proposition.

Alex: Well, Im alarmed now. Sam, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today.

Sam: As you can see, I could talk about this forever.

Laura: I feel like we very rarely end on a note of being alarmed.

Alex: Not usually, yeah.

Laura: Well be like, Oh, this thing we were talking about didnt actually exist.

Alex: Its fine!

Sam: Wait, so we dont have to be worried about the rats? Was that the takeaway?

Alex: No more worried than usual was our conclusion.

Sam: Were more concerned about Catholic theocracy than rats.

Alex: Than rats, Havana syndrome

Laura: Or cops dying from seeing fentanyl without touching it or taking it.

Alex: It was really nice talking to you, Sam.

Sam: You too.

Laura: Before we end the show, I have a correction. On our recent episode about rats, I said that 311 doesnt have a rat response squad. A listener from D.C. wrote in to say thats actually wrong: Many cities have a whole process for responding to rat complaints. So we looked into this, and the New York City Health Department says that after you call 311, Your complaint will be routed to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The health department will inspect the property within two weeks of receiving the complaint, unless the property was recently inspected. My apologies for getting that wrong. If you want to know more about the state of rats in New York, I can highly recommend checking out the rat information portal at

Alex: Im sorry, I cant hear the phrase the state of rats in New York without my mind immediately going to Albany.

Laura: Well, do you have a URL recommendation?

Alex: I dont knowwould there be a landing page for Cuomos book?

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The Illiberal Upstarts Trying to Reinvent Conservatism - The New Republic

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