Separation And Supremacy
The Republican party’s descent into proto-fascism is best understood as the end result of the failure of the conservative project as a whole. Conservatives today openly admit that the policies of Goldwater/Reagan conservatism have been an abject failure that have been rejected by the majority of Americans. Its libertarian, laissez-faire economics have failed their most loyal supporters and destroyed vibrant communities. The culture wars have been lost, with the majority of Americans accepting abortion, contraception, LBGTQ rights, secularism, and the browning of America. The conservative response to this realization is, in fact, fairly typical for a rejected minority – an attempt to build their own enclaves where they alone get to dictate the society they desire, where the undesirable elements of the modern world will be banished and unseen, where the enemies are all identified and agreed upon, and then attempt to impose the rules of those enclaves on the rest of us by other means than letting the majority rule.
Writing in the Federalist, John Davidson argues, “[T]he conservative project has largely failed, and it is time for a new approach…In just my lifetime, they have lost much: marriage as it has been understood for thousands of years, the First Amendment, any semblance of control over our borders, a fundamental distinction between men and women, and, especially of late, the basic rule of law…[Y]ou cannot preserve or defend something that is dead…Western civilization is dying. The traditions and practices that conservatives champion are, at best, being preserved only in an ever-shrinking private sphere. At worst, they are being trampled to dust.” Davidson goes on to quote Jon Askonas who declares, “[T]he conservative defense of tradition has failed—not because the right lost the battle of ideas, but because technological change has dissolved the contexts in which traditions once thrived. A technological society can have no traditions…The modern conservative project failed because it didn’t take into account the revolutionary principle of technology, and its intrinsic connection to the telos of sheer profit.”
For conservatives who believe that the traditions they hold dear have been destroyed by liberal democratic values and technological progress, the inevitable response is to not only reject those liberal democratic values and look skeptically at technological solutions but also to try and create alternate systems to live in. One of those alternatives is withdrawing from the existing world and creating closed communities where those traditional “conservative” values are rigidly enforced. This is probably best exemplified by Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option”, which advocates withdrawing from political life and the culture wars and instead focusing on building strict, separatist, near monastic-like communities and institutions that “can outwit, outlast, and eventually overcome the occupation”.
Another option is to simply try to destroy the existing system and rebuild new ones based on conservative values. Nate Hochman, now writing at the New Republic, has stated, “Conservatism in 2021 means radicalism…We have to think of ourselves as counterrevolutionaries or restorationists who are overthrowing the regime…There are things that need to be destroyed and rebuilt.” Adrian Vermeule wants to create a religious theocracy under the euphemism of what he calls “common-good constitutionalism”. He writes, “Common-good constitutionalism is not legal positivism, meaning that it is not tethered to particular written instruments of civil law or the will of the legislators who created them …Common-good constitutionalism is also not legal liberalism or libertarianism. Its main aim is…to ensure that the ruler has the power needed to rule well…[T]he central aim of the constitutional order is to promote good rule, not to ‘protect liberty’ as an end in itself.” Sohrab Ahmari has written that conservatives need “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”. As even the horrific Bret Stephens noted, “That’s the voice of a would-be theocrat speaking”. Curtis Yarvin, who has influenced J.D. Vance and Blake Masters, wants to install a supposedly benevolent monarch to replace our existing government with what he calls a “parliamentary dictatorship”.
These two strains, the separatist and supremacist, are what dominate what is now called the New Right. One thing that they both have in common is an utter disdain for both democracy and the traditional Goldwater/Reagan conservatives, both of which they blame for the collapse they claim has occurred. That’s because, as George W. Bush brutally discovered, conservatism can never really fail; it can only be failed by treacherous institutions and individuals. David French, David Brooks, Mitt Romney, and Mitch McConnell have all been pilloried at one time or another by those on the New Right. Democracy has failed and must be discarded simply because conservatism is not ascendant.
Many of the policies offered by these self-declared new conservatives are simply extensions and expansions of themes that have long been present in American conservatism, especially within white and Christian nationalism, but have now become mainstream within the Republican party. These two strains are decidedly not just two camps, but more like two sides of the same coin, with a fairly easy and unquestioned transition from one to the other. This is best exemplified by Dreher himself, who has now found his own personal refuge in the paradise of Hungary’s illiberal “democracy” where the autocrat Viktor Orban rails about “race mixing” and effectively banishes gays, trans, and immigrants from public life.
The personal separatist policy of home schooling has morphed into attempts to privatize public education. It expands into efforts to take over local school boards, institute book bans, and prevent teaching our country’s true history or discussing certain subjects. It drives DeSantis’ effort to destroy Florida’s liberal arts public universities and replace them with conservative Christian ones. Theological discrimination against gay and trans people becomes “Don’t Say Gay” laws and denial of health care for trans patients. The “groomer” charge deflects from the historical reality that some of the worst abusers come from, and are often protected by, these closed, separatist, theological communities. It’s behind the Mississippi state government’s effort to essentially create both a physical and legal white enclave within the majority-Black city of Jackson. It is now epitomized by Marjorie Taylor Greene’s declaration that red states should secede, the ultimate separatist desire that will require supremacist policies to deal with all the productive and populous predominately blue cities in their midst.
We can see similar transitions in conservative media. Fox was originally created in order to allow Republican leaders to speak directly and unmediated to Republican voters and basically tell them what they wanted to hear, creating a separate and safe space for conservative views and viewers. Twenty-five years on, the network is advocating for the violent overthrow of the US government and now helping to orchestrate a coverup. Today, conservatives are trying to loosen libel laws to silence media they don’t want to hear (or getting one of their billionaire friends to blow $44 billion in order to silence certain critics and promote right-wing voices on Twitter). Ron DeSantis looks prepared to run his entire presidential campaign from within the confines of the right-wing media environment in a remarkable display of the combination of separatist and supremacist instincts.
All of these are attempts to create safe, closed, conservative, mainly Christian spaces where the complexities of the modern world – the history of racism, women’s, gay, and trans rights, and the values and teachings of other cultures – can be ignored and where those people and even ideas that don’t conform to those conservative values can be marginalized, ostracized, and driven out. For Jews and Muslims, that means open and virulent anti-Semitism and Islamophobia; for minorities, it means more redlining, (re)segregation, and racism (perhaps implemented more subtly than in Mississippi); for gay and trans people, it means, as Adam Kotsko so aptly puts it, “rebuilding the closet”. For women, it means the loss of bodily autonomy and treatment as merely vessels for the perpetuation of the species.
Even when these separatist communities are small, there is always a clear hierarchical structure where the potential for abuse and corruption is quite high. One only has to look at churches or cults to see relevant examples. And indeed, the modern Trumpist Republican party has been likened to a large cult, with its own epistemically closed communication system that bombards its members with propaganda and grievance, a battalion of think tanks that can create the intellectual facade for virtually any harebrained scheme including staging a coup, and endless sources of money from billionaire fascists. And it is one explanation why the Republican party is now filled with grifters, charlatans, and liars. Combined with its inherent intolerance for those that don’t conform, for the rule of law, and for democracy itself, it is also why the GOP is attracting groups dedicated to violence and desiring to either overthrow the government or create societal collapse in order to trigger a race and/or civil war.
The real problem, as the more traditional conservative Jack Butler points out, is that the New Right wants to achieve total domination, which is a fantasy. He says, “There’s never going to be a point where you’ve slain all of your enemies and you are now in charge…Their real enemy is reality.” In fact, as the history of totalitarianism has well illustrated, new enemies will need to be created to replace the old ones that have been slain. As Emma Green notes in her rebuttal to Dreher’s Benedict Option, “Nothing…suggests that Dreher is ready to live tolerantly alongside people with different views…Of course, it will be impossible for conservative Christians to fully escape any aspect of mainstream culture, including people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans”.
The prime example of this magical thinking is Marjorie Taylor Greene’s fantasy of secession (or “national divorce”, a dog whistle for civil war) which collides with the reality that every state is a mixture of Democrats and Republicans. In the unlikely event it was to happen, we are unlikely to see something that resembles the massive, deadly, and swift migration of India’s partition. The more likely result is something akin to Blacks’ Great Migration where the most educated, rich, and productive members of society essentially vote with their feet by moving to safer and more tolerant blue states. In fact, we are starting to see trickles of this right now, with women considering where to live and go to school based on abortion rights, trans parents moving to different states to protect themselves and their families, and college professors abandoning states that restrict or require certain teachings. Certainly, red states would become significantly poorer as many of them are already subsidized by blue states and the most productive counties in the country are already predominantly Democratic.
The intolerance and willingness to abandon democracy for total domination is, of course, what makes this new conservatism so dangerous. They have no interest in living tolerantly alongside people with different views and lifestyles and are committed to using the power of the state to drive those people out of public life. They have no desire to live in a democracy or abide by the rule of law because that requires the very tolerance they cannot abide. Trump created the space for the New Right to blossom. Putin and Orban, rather than being recognized for the despotic thugs that they are, have become the new conservatives’ heroes because they use state power to defend “Western culture” from liberal dogma and “wokeism”, the general catch-all term for anything they don’t like. Now DeSantis appears to be implementing their full supremacist agenda. And that should scare us all.