How the right’s radical thinkers are coping with the midterms

Christina Animashaun/Vox

The New Right emerged to theorize Trumpism’s rise. Can they explain its defeat?

In the heady days before the 2022 midterms, conservatives looked out at America and saw a country on the verge of inflicting a major blow in the culture war: rewarding Republicans despite the end of Roe and punishing Democrats for embracing allegedly radical positions on race and gender. The New Right, a loose grouping of conservative thinkers who advocate aggressively wielding state power to promote a more conservative culture, smelled blood in the water.

“Political horse-race types are predicting a GOP blowout in today’s midterm elections, and if it comes to pass, Democrats won’t have much to blame beyond their own insanity,” Sohrab Ahmari, a leading New Right figure, wrote in an Election Day piece for The American Conservative magazine. Democrats, he argued, had alienated the mass public through the spread of “drag queen story hour,” masking in schools, the accommodation of “gender ideologues,” and permissive immigration rules.

“There is only so much of it the nation could tolerate,” Ahmari predicted.

Two days later, after the voters rendered a different verdict, Ahmari penned a piece in the New York Times blaming the defeat on the GOP’s failure to embrace true populism: blasting the party for “ginning up outrage over ‘woke’ sensitivity trainings in the workplace” while remaining “indifferent to issues like wages and workplace power.”

Ahmari’s pivot reflects the difficult spot that the New Right finds itself in the wake of the midterm results. The faction, which rose to prominence after 2016 to put meat on Trumpism’s intellectual bones, believed that the future of Republican politics rested in a vision of relentless, aggressive cultural warfare. When the voters seemed unmoved by their cultural preoccupations in 2022 — and clearly sided with Democrats on abortion — New Right thinkers didn’t have easy answers.

In the weeks following the election, some incipient cleavages have started to emerge inside the New Right and its many subfactions, with the most interesting debates falling into three distinct, but interconnected, buckets.

The first bucket is the question of how best to prosecute the culture war going forward. Some on the New Right sound surprisingly open to some tactical moderation in light of the midterm results — most notably by bracketing abortion or even softening the GOP’s position on the issue. It’s a debate that directly parallels the “popularism” conversation happening on the Democratic side, and one that speaks to deep sociological divides in the post-Trump coalition.

The second bucket centers on 2024: whether Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis represents the movement’s future, and what reasons there are to prefer one over the other. Interestingly, the battle lines do not necessarily line up in the way that one might expect (DeSantis shoring up the relative moderates and Trump the radicals).

The third and final bucket centers on democracy. A minority of New Right thinkers responded to defeat by suggesting the electorate is too far gone for conservatives to ever triumph — and even questioning the value of democracy itself.

“Democracy did not end slavery, and democracy will not end abortion,” declared Chad Pecknold, a self-described “postliberal” theologian at Catholic University.

What we’re seeing, through all these arguments, are the fissures splitting the Right’s most vibrant intellectual movement — fault lines that could divide conservatism in the coming years.

Cutting abortion out of the culture war?

There is no set definition of the “New Right,” no list of who belongs or strict criteria that one can use to assess whether a particular figure is a member. Sam Adler-Bell, a leftist writer who profiled the movement in The New Republic, described it as being “cohered as much by temperament as ideology — and by certain fiercely held enmities.” This amorphousness can make it hard to identify who’s “New Right” and who’s just plain vanilla right.

But broadly speaking, New Right members share a foundational belief that American institutions — including the Republican Party — are rotted, and that a certain cultural degeneracy has taken root in society writ large. They believe that the right’s traditional commitment to limited government stands in the way of waging an effective counterrevolution; the culture war can only be won by jettisoning libertarianism and using the levers of policy to roll back the left’s cultural victories. Out with tax cuts, in with bans on critical race theory in schools.

Abandoning the culture war, on this perspective, is not mere folly but national suicide. For some on the New Right, the idea that their approach to these issues might be unpopular is unthinkable. But after 2022, some on the New Right are starting to see the case for a little bit of selective moderation.

Take Richard Hanania, the president of the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology think tank. Hanania is by no means a squish; he recently wrote that “if I owned Twitter, I wouldn’t let feminists, trans activists, or socialists post.”

Yet in his election postmortem, Hanania put the blame squarely on the party’s pro-life commitments. “Abortion itself was on the ballot last night in 5 states, and the pro-choice position universally ran ahead of Democratic candidates, sometimes by a very wide margin,” he wrote. “As with Democrats and affirmative action, Republicans have been pushed by a small group of noisy activists to take an unpopular position that isn’t even a top issue for their own voters.”

An essay in City Journal, a publication of the Manhattan Institute think tank, goes even further. The piece’s author, Jesse Arm, argues for what he terms “conservative popularism” — for Republicans to pick and choose their cultural battles based on what polls well. On these grounds, he argues that the party should tone it down on abortion, abandoning no-exception prohibitions in favor of 15-week bans, while going hard on crime and “anti-wokeness.”

Why might some of the most ardent culture warriors consider an abortion compromise? There’s a helpful clue in the post-election episode of the NatCon Squad, a podcast that represents the so-called “national conservative” subfaction of the New Right. National conservatives aim to build a conservative nationalist vision of American identity, leading them to be harshly critical of immigration, multiculturalism, and untrammeled free trade. While some of its leading figures are religious, like the Israeli political philosopher Yoram Hazony, abortion is not one of its central ideological preoccupations.

On the podcast, host Inez Stepman argues that abortion is politically distinct from the debates over critical race theory and LGBTQ education in schools that preoccupy the national conservatives and the broader New Right:

The culture is the big tent [but] I want to split abortion off from that. I think that’s a new issue reintroduced in 2022, but has more “traditional” sides in the culture war from the Moral Majority in the 1990s. But issues like the differences between male and female, indoctrination in schools, crime, immigration…those are all issues that I think can be cobbled into very successful campaigns that do reach across the aisle.

The argument here is that abortion represents an older, pre-Trump generation of culture war — one that, by implication, hurt the GOP in 2022. By contrast, refocusing on newer issues like “indoctrination in schools” can appeal to moderates and even conservative Democrats, creating an emerging Republican majority.

The extent to which this last bit is true is open to debate. The 1776 Project PAC, an outfit that spent millions around the country supporting school board candidates concerned with fighting LGBTQ education and “critical race theory,” only won a third of its races (per an AP report). But Stepman’s move speaks to something important about the New Right: It’s not as religious as the old one.

Some of the most prominent figures on the New Right, like Ahmari, are Catholic conservatives. But many are not, reflecting the fact that the New Right is a post-Trump movement — and that Trump managed to win over an unusual number of non-religious voters in his 2016 presidential bid. It’s a point that Nate Hochman, a writer at National Review and one of the New Right’s young stars, made at length in the New York Times this summer.

“The conservative political project is no longer specifically Christian,” Hochman wrote. “That may seem strange to say at a moment when a mostly Catholic conservative majority on the Supreme Court appears poised to overturn Roe v. Wade. But a reversal of the landmark 1973 ruling would be more of a last gasp than a sign of strength for the religious right.”

Events afterward seem to have borne out Hochman’s suggestion. Not only has abortion clearly emerged as a losing issue for the right, but at least some conservative culture warriors are willing to say that out loud.

Trump or DeSantis?

While the New Right remains committed to its secularized culture war, if not necessarily the old-school variant, there is still an open debate over who it wants to lead the charge. Like the GOP faithful more broadly, the New Right’s thinkers are increasingly divided on the question of Ron DeSantis versus Donald Trump.

The arguments among the New Right about 2024 are roughly the same as those among the right writ large: DeSantis supporters say he is a more competent and popular upgrade on the former president, while Trump supporters argue that he has a unique ability to connect with the GOP base. On balance, it seems like the DeSantis supporters are more vocal and more prominent among New Right thinkers — at least for now.

Christopher Rufo, the New Right’s most influential activist, is emblematic in this regard. Rufo worked with Trump on his executive order banning so-called “critical race theory” in federal agency trainings, and went on to advise DeSantis on some of his prominent culture war initiatives (like the STOP WOKE act targeting higher education, which was recently ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge). In theory, you could imagine Rufo supporting either man in 2024.

But his election postmortem, published in City Journal, is practically a DeSantis press release. Rufo describes DeSantis as “a master at picking and choosing his fights,” praises his “keen mind for public policy,” and claims that he “backstops his culture-war agenda with capable governance.” This is in contrast to the way that “many conservative leaders stoke the culture war to generate media attention and fundraising dollars” — a line that looks a lot like a shot at Trump, among others.

Rufo’s endorsement is notable not only because of his outsized prominence on the right, but because he’s no one’s idea of a moderate.

Last year, he declared his intention “to clean house in America: remove the attorney general, lay siege to the universities, abolish the teachers’ unions, and overturn the school boards” (all through legal means, Rufo later clarified). He has argued that “reform around the edges is not enough” to protect America from the progressive “revolution,” and that conservatives should embrace a “defund the left” political strategy in which they “strangle new identity programs in red tape” and “accelerate the student loan Ponzi scheme [and] make universities partially responsible for defaults.”

This is a wonkish blueprint for cultural revolution, a New Right long march through America’s institutions. Rufo has thrown in with Team DeSantis not because he’s more “moderate” than Trump in any sense, but because he’s seen as a better bet to deliver on radical ends.

Interestingly, DeSantis’s willingness to compromise on abortion — after Dobbs, Florida enacted a 15-week ban on abortion rather than a full prohibition — does not seem to count against him on this front. In fact, abortion goes entirely unmentioned in Rufo’s piece; it is simply not the kind of culture war at the top of his mind.

But not everyone on the New Right is ready to give up on Trump.

Shortly after the election, Ohio Senator-elect JD Vance penned a piece in The American Conservative defending Trump against the allegation that his influence sunk the party. Vance, perhaps the New Right’s favorite candidate in the 2022 midterms, argues that Democrats won not because of poor endorsement choices by Trump, but because of the Democratic Party’s structural advantages (primarily its superior fundraising network). Any Republican effort to counter this advantage, he argues, depends on the party’s ability to activate Trump and his supporters: “Our party has one major asset, contra conventional wisdom, to rally these voters: President Donald Trump.”

It’s easy to dismiss this analysis as self-serving: Vance won Trump’s endorsement in the primary and went on to dramatically underperform compared to the more moderate Governor Mike DeWine. He is living proof that Trump may not, in fact, be picking the most electable candidates — in part because he has elevated the New Right to new political heights.

In 2022, the New Right’s favored candidates — Vance and the defeated Blake Masters in Arizona — both won their primaries thanks in large part to Trump’s endorsement. But the midterms showed that these candidates’ radicalism turned off normie voters; their use of New Right ideas and language, like describing the American government and social system as a hostileregime,” was part of the problem.

This is a point that Stepman, the NatCon Squad podcast host, acknowledged in her analysis. “I think chaos really is unattractive,” she said. “A lot of the voters who may be persuadable on some of the cultural messaging … are really turned off by, frankly, a lot of the things that we talk about, that I talk about, that I think are really important and true about the country,”

If DeSantis wants to consolidate support from the GOP establishment in his bid to topple Trump, he may need to tone down his own employment of New Right tropes — and certainly should avoid endorsing statewide candidates like Vance and Masters who embody the party’s “candidate quality” problem.

The New Right today may soon find itself in a strange situation: Its intellectual center of gravity shifting toward DeSantis and his veneer of normalcy, while Trump’s patronage remains a better bet vaulting its people into the upper echelons of power.

Is democracy doomed?

But not everyone on the New Right is willing to countenance moderation, either on policy or rhetoric. Declan Leary, the managing editor of The American Conservative magazine, argued that none of the usual — abortion, Trump, or the GOP’s “candidate quality” problems — should bear the blame for defeat.

The GOP’s problem wasn’t too little moderation, he claims; it was too much.

“The red wave didn’t fail because the GOP leaned too hard into the MAGA movement [or] because of Dobbs,” he writes. “The Republican Party lost this week for the same reason it always loses: it’s soft. Up against the party of infanticide and child mutilation and carnage in Ukraine, the best attack it could muster was ‘…Inflation!’”

Leary hails from a particular element of the New Right: the so-called “integralists,” Catholic arch-conservatives who believe that the United States government should be replaced with a religious Catholic state.

Integralists are a part of a broader “postliberal” trend among right-wing intellectuals that traces the cultural decay of American society back to its ruling liberal political philosophy: the doctrine that government should liberate people to pursue their own visions of the good life. Liberalism, they argue, promotes licentiousness and a corrosive individualism: It is the root cause of social ills like drug addiction, “deaths of despair,” and family breakdown.

Postliberals believe that instead of protecting individual freedom, government should aim to promote the “common good” or “highest good”: to create a citizenry where people live good lives as defined by scripture and religious doctrine. This leads them to support an even more active role for the state than even the national conservatives, endorsing not only aggressive efforts to legislate morality but also expansions of the welfare state.

From this point of view, the 2022 elections are a particularly bitter pill to swallow. Abandoning pro-life absolutism is not an option for them like it is for some national conservatives. For those integralists unwilling to engage in Leary’s denialism, the dominant reaction to 2022 has been to blame the electorate — and even democracy itself.

Take this tweet from Adrian Vermeule, a law professor at Harvard and the country’s most formidable integralist intellectual. In his view, Americans are hopelessly in hock to liberal philosophical ideals; the New Right’s attempt to overthrow liberal cultural hegemony at the ballot box is essentially hopeless.

It’s funny to see GOP types debating which candidates or issues would have made a difference, when the simplest hypothesis is that there is a critical mass of voters who will support left-liberalism on essentially theological grounds, regardless of the conditions it produces.

— Adrian Vermeule (@Vermeullarmine) November 9, 2022

This is the wellspring from which Pecknold’s denunciation of democracy — “democracy did not end slavery, and democracy will not end abortion” — flows.

Like most on the broader New Right, integralists and other postliberals see themselves as engaging in a countercultural project: a self-consciously elite effort to foment rebellion against the American mainstream. But their ambitions are even more revolutionary: they want to create the foundation for a wholesale moral restructuring of the American political system — an ambition that Patrick Deneen, a political theorist at Notre Dame and prominent postliberal, describes as “regime change.”

Accomplishing such sweeping ends through electoral politics was always a long shot, especially with a country that’s not-even-close to majority Catholic (and where the overwhelming majority of Catholics are not themselves integralists). The end of Roe offered some hope, but even at the time Dobbs was released they criticized the court for not going far enough. Pat Smith, one such integralist writer, claimed vindication after the midterms — and argued, with Vermeule and Pecknold, that democracy should not stand in the way of their goals.

“The common good is the common good notwithstanding the will of the people,” he writes. “And the essence of political life is to seek the common good.”

But scholarly postliberals are not alone in seeing the midterms as evidence that the New Right should start thinking beyond democracy. A pair of essays on American Greatness, a pro-Trump news commentary site, come to a similar conclusion from a young radical’s perspective.

The first of these articles — ominously titled “The Last Election?” — focuses on Biden’s overwhelming margins among under-30s as reason for electoral despair. The author, a young pundit named Eric Lendrum, argues that his generation is lost to the GOP — “the indoctrination these children have gone through was too persistent for too long, and it is now part of their very way of life.” As a result, “the slow march of time only pulls us further and further away from the glory of 2016, which is now starting to feel less like the ‘dawn of a new day,’ and instead appears to more closely resemble a last defiant breath.”

Lendrum is a radical MAGA type — he had previously written that the right should be “celebrating the events of [January 6] as our Storming of the Bastille” — but he’s not alone among the new generation of conservatives. Josiah Lippincott, a PhD student at the right-wing Hillsdale College and repeat Fox News guest, argued in a separate election postmortem that the system is simply too rigged against conservatives for victory to be possible.

“The Left utterly dominates every institution of American political life. We are not a republic governed by a constitution but a despotism ruled by an elite class,” he writes.

So what is to be done? It’s worth quoting Lippincott at length:

The partisans of the Right need to lift weights, buy guns, and find comrades. The future of the fight against the latest iteration of global communism requires that young men especially take up the cause of liberty and moral righteousness. They are needed now more than ever. The Boomers, whatever their virtues and vices, do not represent the future.

The Right needs to inspire and motivate the people in ways that only Donald Trump has touched on. It needs to be able to mobilize millions. The mass rally, general strike, and paralyzing protest are the most promising political weapons of the future Right.

Lippincott concludes his piece by favorably comparing the American right to the Afghan militants who would eventually become the Taliban.

“The Mujahideen fighters who brought the Soviets to their knees in Afghanistan were outmanned and outgunned. And yet they removed the godless occupiers from their land.” he writes. “The modern American Right should take the same attitude. We are not bound to the four-year election cycle. We fight on God’s time. We will fight for our country, our faith, and our children until we win. God is on our side. Glory be to God.”

To be clear, such calls-to-arms are not mainstream even on the New Right, which is far more interested in culture war than actual war. Yet they should not be ignored either: They show how the sense of alienation from mainstream culture that powers the New Right’s politics more broadly can curdle into something even more sinister.

If thinking like this continues to spread on the right’s young cadres, the debates over the future of American conservatism could become even more bitter — and more grim — than they already are.

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