The Modern Right's Flower Children
As a conservative writer, I've taken a fair amount of heat in recent years for more often writing critically about the political right than the political left. I've explained why that is a number of times, but for the purpose of this piece, I think my perspective is worth reiterating.
As I've stated in the past, it's not because the left has grown more appealing. On the contrary, the baseline progressive ideology in this country has only further distanced itself from me, and done so at an amazing speed. I'm as irritated as anyone by the activist-left's increasingly over-the-top cultural "wokeness" (God, I hate that word), and I haven't been at all shy about calling out the Biden administration's enormous failures on Afghanistan, the U.S./Mexican border, general competence, and of course, fiscal stewardship and the proper role of government. The same goes for persistent problems with the mainstream media that I've been writing about for over 10 years.
In many ways, I view the modern left as utterly hopeless.
That's why it troubles me so much to watch the modern right, in perhaps as many ways over the past few years, try so hard to emulate and even eclipse some of the left's worst tendencies, tactics, and political stances.
I've never presented myself as having a neutral, down-the-center political perspective. Though I feel I hold both sides to the same set of standards, I'm a conservative who supports (and wants to advance) conservative views and policies. It's the reason I was a Republican (and GOP volunteer and donor) for many years, the reason I still vote for conservative candidates, and the reason I used to prefer Fox News over the other news networks. Fox helped even the media playing field by lending conservatives and conservative thought a mostly good-faith platform that the rest of the media wouldn't.
In other words, I have more of a personal, political, and intellectual investment in the right than I do the left.
Sure, I could aim the bulk of my criticism at whatever dumb, hacky things Brian Stelter, Joy Reid, The Squad, or the ladies on The View say on any given day; they (and those like them) certainly provide plenty of material. I could also go well beyond my already strong and frequent criticisms of Joe Biden (whose presidency I've already called a "failed" one) and the Democratic party, and spend all of my political-writing time "owning the left," as some call it.
But it's more dismaying for me to see what the GOP and right-wing media have become, because they're supposed to be the alternative — the vehicle that steers us away from the excesses and phony narratives of the left. But that's often not what they're doing... well, beyond cultural "wokeness" stories anyway.
In admittedly broad terms, the modern right doesn't have much regard for principles or standards (let alone conservative principles or standards) anymore; just the spectacle. The Trump Effect has turned previously respectable political and media institutions into clown shows that don't advance much of anything beyond conspiracy theories, cult-worship, outrage porn, and other forms of "performative jack-assery" (as Senator Ben Sasse colorfully puts it). The goal is now to foster an emotional, self-serving co-dependence with an audience, and that relationship has little to do with intellectual honesty, intellectual consistency, or even ideology.
They key word there is "emotional."
Conservative commentator Ben Shapiro has a famous saying that I'm guessing just about everyone reading this already knows: "Facts don't care about your feelings."
The quote used to resonate on the right, because one of the broadest indictments of the left has been that their views are largely driven by feelings... not facts, logic, or legal rights. But sadly, any objective view of today's right would put it in the same category.
If you feel like there's no way 81 million Americans would ever vote for Joe Biden, then it must not have happened.
If you don't like that some private companies discriminate against political thought or individuals you agree with, those companies must face legal consequences.
If an individual loses his job for stating a fact that you can't accept, then the cancel culture — in that particular instance — is okay (because... the nerve of that guy!).
If protesters illegally block traffic and commerce, it's all cool... as long as you're sympathetic to their cause. If not, lock 'em up!
Back the Blue! Unless, of course, they're Capitol police officers who defended members of Congress on January 6, and later testified in front of the January 6 Committee.
$8 trillion added to the national debt, and the foolish removal of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan? If you like the guy presiding over it, it's fine. If not, it's cataclysmic.
Such emotionally-driven sentiment is fairly prevalent among today's right, a byproduct of abandoning a good chunk of its conservative ideology and standards of decency.
But there is a semi-ideological populist strain that has managed to keep its foothold. It was originally concocted by right-wing pundits and shady political strategists like Steve Bannon to serve as an ideological wrapper and explainer for Donald Trump’s autocratic instincts, and it has unfortunately made political believers out of a number of elected and aspiring Republican leaders.
Promoted by the likes of Tucker Carlson and even some prominent religious conservatives, it contends that America is, in fact, not the exceptional nor aspirational nation that Reagan conservatives have long portrayed it as. Instead, they view our country is so fatally flawed, with its entrepreneurial freedoms and rewards for individual success, that statist nations like Russia and Hungary are presented as a preferred alternative. This flirtation has pulled the Republican party further left (though those who subscribe to it comically contend that their critics are the real liberals).
Author and tech entrepreneur Antonio García Martínez recently detailed this ideological kinship in the context of Ukraine. In a piece for Bari Weiss's site, Martínez argues that what he calls the "New Right" (others call them "nationalist conservatives") "shares a worldview with, of all things, the old hippie left." And he makes a pretty compelling argument.
He points out that two core tenets of this strain are:
"The United States is incapable of doing good in the world, and historically has been a force for evil worldwide."
"Everything that happens in the world is the direct result or responsibility of the United States."
"The Putin fans among the New Right—in temporary retreat, currently sublimating their views as Ukraine skepticism—really think Russia some anti-woke exemplar worthy of imitation," Martínez writes. "Never mind that the church-attendance rate in Russia is far lower than the U.S., their birth-rate as low as any childless European country, and their abortion rate one of the highest in the world. Seen from the 'trad' conservative perspective at least, Russia suffers from all the ills of post-modernity even more than the supposedly degenerate West."
Martínez argues that the view is analogous to the "Berkeley leftists" he debated in grad school 20 years back, who believed that communist Cuba, the country Martínez's family had fled from, was an "egalitarian utopia that should serve as an example to America."
"Of course, neither the Berkeley hippies nor the New Right seek out reality," Martínez writes. "Both stay snugly inside the bosom of the liberal capitalism they claim to despise, rarely venturing to their idealized Havana or Moscow. Certainly, they don’t choose to live there."
Martínez highlights the parallels between the New Right's inclination to pin the invasion of Ukraine on America, just as Berkeley hippies framed every political happening in Latin America and the southern hemisphere as a "masterfully executed CIA plot for which an American administration (probably Reagan) was directly responsible."
"This is the supreme narcissism of the American activist class, left or right," says Martínez, "thinking the entire world is downstream of domestic U.S. politics."
This goes back to a point I drew attention to in a previous column:
"Nowadays," Martínez adds, "the right is just as infected with a withering opinion of the U.S. influence on the world as those with fading Che posters on their walls. It’s a recurring motif across all political discourse in America and the West more broadly, and it’s eating the Ukraine conversation."
Martínez's piece really is an interesting read that I highly recommend everyone check out.
The good news, and where I differ from Martínez, is that I don't believe the "infection" is widespread. I think the "New Right" just gets a disproportionate amount of media attention (much of it online) thanks to people like Tucker Carlson and Steve Bannon, a handful of attention-addicted Republican politicians, and occasional statements from Donald Trump. And among all of those people, I suspect the only person who may actually believe any of it is Bannon. For the rest, I think it's just another avenue from which to stoke emotional grievance.
Do these individuals have influence? Yes, to a varying degree, and their rhetoric has assuredly helped turn some people into true believers. But much of that comes back to attitude, and not a coherent or consistent ideology. Most on the right aren't part of the "Blame America First" crowd. They still view America as exceptional (despite its flaws) and a force for good in the world. They would laugh off the idea of embracing Russia or Hungary as a national model, and they're sympathetic toward Ukraine and want America to support them in this conflict.
Could all of this change? After what I've seen over the past six years or so, I'm inclined to believe anything is possible. So, it's something to keep an eye on.
But right now, what we're looking at resembles a "hippy" fringe that's high off its own product.