For the last half-century, the GOP has been the party of capitalism—of Wall Street, Walmart, and Ronald Reagan’s famous quip that “government is the problem.” But since the Clinton years, if not earlier, the Republicans have been bleeding younger, more affluent, college-educated voters to the Democrats, while coming to rely more and more on non-college-educated whites to win elections. Thus, the sometimes comical attempts by wealthy patrician Republican politicians to perform rites of cultural affinity with lower-class voters, like George Herbert Walker Bush declaring his enthusiasm for pork rinds or Willard Mitt Romney hosting campaign events with Kid Rock.
Donald Trump drove a wedge between the Republican Party establishment and its base by denouncing the former as corrupt and stupid while courting the latter by tacking right on immigration and to the center on economics and foreign policy. Even more striking, Trump turned Republican politics on its head by promising to protect entitlements, revoke trade deals that hurt American workers, and end the country’s apparently futile wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a result, Trump won college-educated whites by only 4 points, down from Mitt Romney’s 14-point margin in 2012, but he flipped the industrial Midwest and won white voters without a college degree by a massive 25-point margin. Despite his nativist rhetoric, he even slightly improved on Romney’s result among black and Hispanic voters.
Both the president’s supporters and his critics have interpreted his victory as a decisive rebuke of the GOP’s Obama-era priorities; widespread opposition to Obamacare had not, it turned out, meant that voters were enthusiastic about limited government, privatizing Social Security, or fixing the debt. At the same time, it revealed the impotence of the conservative journalists, intellectuals, wonks, think tankers, foreign-policy experts, and consultants who turned up their noses at Trump’s candidacy. Yet President Trump has been plagued by both real and invented scandals since entering office and remains unpopular despite presiding over a sustained economic expansion. Thanks to a combination of incompetence, lack of staff, and judicial, bureaucratic, media, and congressional resistance, he has also struggled to turn the populist rhetoric of the campaign trail into a coherent governing program.
Yet whatever the practical shortcomings of his administration, Trump has undoubtedly opened up new political and intellectual space on the right. Ideas that would have been taboo only a few years ago are now in play, as different factions of the party compete to set the agenda for 2020 and beyond. A great deal of attention has been paid to the ugliest manifestation of this intellectual free-for-all: The increased visibility of white nationalists and their fellow travelers, who saw in the 2016 election a vindication of the idea articulated a generation ago by the paleoconservative Sam Francis—that the GOP must transform itself into a de facto white party in order to halt the dissolution of the country’s ethnocultural “core,” and who were given endless hours of free airtime by a press eager to paint Trumpists as monsters.
But there are other forces at work, too. Among conservative millennial Catholics, for instance, the free-market Catholic fusionism associated with figures such as Richard John Neuhaus is now giving way to various strands of “post-liberal” Catholicism, including the religiously inflected populism of First Things under the editorship of R.R. Reno and a revived form of integralism that calls for the state to promote Catholic social teaching.
Less visible but perhaps more important is the shift among a set of younger conservatives—intellectuals, journalists, and Hill staffers—toward what is sometimes called the “new nationalism.” What sets this younger cohort apart is a conviction that the future of the Republican Party lies with the working class and with what one of their champions, Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, has referred to as the “great American middle.” They want a more solidaristic conservatism that is less libertarian, both culturally and economically, and in some ways less liberal. Speaking of his students, Ian Marcus Corbin, a writer and academic at Boston College, told me, “I very rarely encounter the kind of bow-tied Hayekian conservative that was around when I was in college.”
Of course, blue-collar cultural populism has been a mainstay of GOP politics since Nixon, and the laissez faire fire-breathing of The Wall Street Journal editorial page has not typically been the guiding spirit of past Republican administrations. Ronald Reagan raised taxes after cutting them and poured billions into high-tech defense research, while George W. Bush imposed steel tariffs and encouraged easy mortgage credit to promote an “ownership society.” These younger conservatives may share old conservative concerns, including a skepticism toward the liberationist cultural projects of the left and an emphasis on the importance of family, patriotism, and tradition. But they are more concerned than older conservatives with the problems of inequality and immobility, more attuned to the reality of class conflict, and more interested in using the power of the state to make America great again.
The new millennial right is as much a sensibility as a coherent intellectual movement. Many call themselves “nationalists” and most use “libertarian” as a slur. Yet at the same time, they are mostly secular but count Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, as well as atheists and agnostics of various backgrounds, among their numbers. Some support Trump, others would prefer if he vanished and left us with President Pence, and many view him with a mixture of bemusement and exhaustion: a figure who was probably necessary to clear the ground for something new, but who has been embarrassing and often counterproductive in office. The best way to think of them may be as something akin to a less heavily tattooed, right-wing version of the millennial New York socialists profiled last March in New York magazine: A group of young people connected by overlapping social and professional ties and frustrated with the politics of their elders.
They do, however, have a set of shared intellectual touchstones. One frequently cited influence is the historian Christopher Lasch, originally a socialist and fellow-traveler of the New Left who, from the 1970s until his early death in 1994, evolved into a lacerating critic of post-’60s America. Lasch argued that the “meritocracy” that had emerged from the social convulsions of the 1960s was a sham, producing an insular, culturally radical elite alienated from and contemptuous of the supposedly bigoted and backward country that it governed. This critique echoed neoconservative attacks on the liberal “new class” of academics and bureaucrats, but Lasch, ever the old Marxist, sought to tie the cultural obsessions of this elite to an increasingly globalized capitalism that had made it possible for them to break the economic, social, and cultural power of the middle and working classes. As one Republican congressional aide in his mid-20s put it to me, reading Lasch in college was “a radicalizing experience for me. Especially on the right, there’s a poverty of approaching any of this stuff from an economic perspective; of looking at class interest and how people within a certain stratum will work to pull the levers of culture to protect their own interests and status.”
The rising influence of Lasch and other communitarians tracks with a broader shift away from the “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” position popular with young right-wingers during the Obama years, and toward a newfound social conservatism tied to a form of class critique. Many of the people I spoke to said they had been libertarians in college—one called libertarianism “a way of announcing that you’re contrarian and a right-winger but that you’re totally cool with the way that sex works in the American upper-middle class”—but have since moved right on social issues. Charles Fain Lehman, a 25-year-old writer and editor for the Washington Free Beacon, described a disillusionment with “freedom as quote-unquote self-actualization.” There is, he said, a “a strong realization” that “it actually makes people quite miserable.”
“Look,” said one editor at a conservative publication, “it’s no secret that this shift on the young right is heavily male. A lot of us just want nice, simple, ordinary lives—lives like our parents lived—and the dating market is not conducive to that at all. I have a lot of friends who are just horrified by what they encounter in the dating market, and there’s an economic dimension to that, too, since houses cost way too much money and we’re all renters and nobody’s moving in with their girlfriends any time soon.” He added, “and you don’t have to be a traditionalist Catholic to think that, because I’m creeped out by those guys, too.”
A number of the D.C.-based conservatives I spoke to also cited the influence of the reform conservatives, or “reformicons.” Especially influential among this group were Reihan Salam and Ross Douthat, whose 2008 book, Grand New Party, argued that the Republican Party had been unable to consolidate the Nixon and Reagan majorities because its small-government hardliners were too committed to shrinking a welfare state that most voters wanted to preserve. They counseled the GOP to abandon its panegyrics to entrepreneurs and propose policies designed to appeal to the average wage-earner. Salam was an important social influence as well; a master networker, he identified smart young conservatives with an affinity for his own reformist impulses and put them in touch with one another. (He did the same for me.)
Although none of the major reformicons supported Trump, his campaign in some ways vindicated their arguments. Douthat himself labeled Trump’s campaign message as “reform conservatism’s evil twin, since it started from a similar assumption … and ended up in a more apocalyptic and xenophobic place.” Yet the events of 2016 and after have pushed young reformicons like Saagar Enjeti of The Hill well beyond the relatively modest programs that Salam and Douthat had been advocating back in the early part of the decade. On Enjeti’s TV show, for instance, he delivers blistering populist monologues that owe as much to left-wing anti-monopoly crusaders like Matt Stoller as they do to the reformicons, and still less to Friedrich Hayek or Milton Friedman. This radicalization has been given a major impetus by the journal American Affairs, which over the past two years has filled out the new right’s vague desire for reform with a genuinely radical program for fixing the status quo.
American Affairs was founded in 2017 by Julius Krein, a young, Harvard-educated, self-described former neocon. He had spent the Obama years working in finance and as a civilian subcontractor in Herat, Afghanistan, for something called the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations (TFBSO), a division of the DOD created to promote private-sector investment in the Iraqi and Afghan economies. Krein says the Afghan experience was the beginning of his disillusionment with Bush and Obama-era conservatism.
“The goal was to turn Herat into the quote-unquote ‘Bangalore of Afghanistan,’ and it was a complete disaster,” he told me. “They were buying internet from Iran at exorbitant prices, and the children of the largest Afghan drug lords and warlords would come and surf the internet for a few hours. This was packaged as a great triumph of American foreign aid and capitalism and free markets.”
Krein returned to his work in finance with a more jaded attitude about the American economy. When meeting with CEOs and CFOs, he recalls, “basically every conversation was ‘how do we cut costs, offshore more stuff to China, and use the savings to do share buybacks?’” He supported Trump in 2015-16 and launched American Affairs as a sort of journal of intellectual Trumpism. But Krein denounced Trump in August 2017 over the latter’s response to Charlottesville, and since then the journal has become a clearinghouse for all sorts of heterodox thought, ranging from essays in defense of Catholic integralism to articles by avowed communists and socialists such as Slavoj Zizek and Chapo Trap House’s Amber A’Lee Frost.
Krein declined to describe his own politics—“Someone said to me ‘only idiots label themselves,’ and I kind of like that”—but American Affairs’ core product is a dense, technically sophisticated form of neo-Hamiltonian economic nationalism, pushed in various forms by Michael Lind, David P. Goldman, and Krein himself. Although their arguments are complex and differ from one another in subtle ways, the gist of all of them is that a short-sighted American elite has allowed the country’s manufacturing core—the key to both widespread domestic prosperity and national security in the face of a mercantilist China—to be hollowed out. Production and technical expertise have shifted to China and Asia, domestic capital has flowed into unproductive share buybacks or tech schemes (Uber, WeWork), and America has become a country with a two-tiered service economy, with bankers, consultants, and software engineers at the top and Walmart greeters and Uber drivers at the bottom. As Krein explained, “basically the United States gets the financial profits and Asia gets the industrial capacity, and you’re selling out the long-term for the short-term.”
Though the journal’s editors have cultivated ties with the right more than the left—Krein spoke at the National Conservatism conference this July—they are deeply contemptuous of the existing GOP. In a scathing essay published in November, Krein described a “highly stratified and largely dysfunctional Republican Party,” in which “a few billionaires and corporate interests … pay their second-rate propagandists to offer a discredited and incoherent policy agenda to an increasingly disaffected voter base.”
Krein and his journal are making their influence felt in the Republican Party. At the National Conservatism conference in July, Oren Cass, who worked as a policy adviser on Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, convinced a room full of conservative attendees of the proposition that “America should adopt an industrial policy.” In November, The Wall Street Journal ran an adaptation of an essay from American Affairs laying out the case for “Industrial Policy 2.0.” The most enthusiastic promoter of these ideas is Sen. Marco Rubio, formerly the darling of the reformicons. In November, he delivered a speech in favor of “common good capitalism,” which he followed up with a speech at the National Defense University calling for a “21st-century pro-American industrial policy” to counter China’s rise.
Rubio is not the only high-profile Republican to flirt with bold economic policies. Josh Hawley, the freshman senator from Missouri, has declared a high-profile war on Big Tech, proposing a series of bills to (among other things) ban “infinite scrolling” on social media apps, force tech companies to disclose what they are doing with user information, and remove their Section 230 protections unless they “submit to an external audit that proves by clear and convincing evidence that their algorithms and content-removal practices are politically neutral.” He has co-sponsored a bill that would prevent drug companies from charging more for prescription drugs in America than they do in other rich countries, and one that would weaken the U.S. dollar in order to make American exports more globally competitive. In his speeches and interviews, he has also denounced the “governing class” and its “forever wars,” telling Breitbart in September that “if the conservative movement is going to have a future, it’s going to have to commit itself to being the movement of working people.”
If Rubio has become the poster boy for the American Affairs platform—industrial policy, China hawkishness, and Catholic-inspired rhetoric about the “common good”—Hawley, along with media figures such as Tucker Carlson, represents a strain of the new right that is rowdier, Trumpier, and more invested in marrying economic heterodoxy to an anti-elite culture war. This latter strain is larger and more diffuse. The closest thing it has to an intellectual vanguard is the group of intellectuals gathered around the Claremont Institute, which publishes the Claremont Review of Books (best known for running Michael Anton’s “The Flight 93 Election” essay) and the website The American Mind.
Both wings of the “new right” are heavily influenced by followers of the philosopher Leo Strauss: Krein is a former student of the East Coast Straussian Harvey Mansfield, while the Claremont intellectuals, including Anton, are almost all partisans of the West Coast Straussian Harry Jaffa. Strauss criticized modern political philosophers such as Locke and Hobbes for abandoning the natural right tradition of classical philosophy and medieval religion. His “East Coast” students took this to imply that the United States, founded on Enlightenment philosophy, could be a good regime but never an ideal one. The “West Coast” Straussians, led by Jaffa, argued that the philosophy of the Founding Fathers (and of later American statesmen such as Lincoln) had in fact synthesized the classical and medieval concepts Strauss had sought to recover.
The philosophical dispute between East Coast and West Coast Straussians has shaded over into matters of ideology and temperament: The East Coasters have traditionally been more cosmopolitan, elitist, and detached from day-to-day politics, while the West Coasters have been polemical, populist, and aggressively patriotic. Krein told me he’s focused on “getting things done in the economic sphere while trying to find a modus vivendi in the cultural sphere”; the Claremont Straussians, by contrast, cast our cultural divisions as a “cold civil war” that will only end, in the words of Claremont President Ryan P. Williams, when one side wins a “decisive and conclusive political victory.”
While the “Claremonsters,” as they are sometimes called, are open to various forms of economic heterodoxy—they have defended tariffs and protectionism through copious citations of Lincoln—they are, at heart, culture warriors. In their view, the modern left, with its doctrines of identity politics and multiculturalism, represents an existential cultural threat to the American “regime,” which can only be countered by explicit right-wing moral arguments about the nature of justice and right and wrong.
Matthew J. Peterson, Claremont’s vice president of education and a founding editor of The American Mind, told me that there is an “emerging coalition” over “traditional morality,” albeit cast in terms of “civilizational health. A lot of these kids are saying, well, I may not be religious, but I’m looking around at the internet and everything I see and it’s disgusting and we need some kind of order and discipline.” In policy terms, he floated restrictions on pornography and payday lending.
Williams was even more aggressive. He told me that Claremont plans to open a “Center for the American Way of Life” in Washington this quarter, which plans “to talk frankly in a way that some of the legacy institutions seem reluctant to do about some of the domestic regime threats and what we think those are, such as identity politics and aggressive multiculturalist liberalism.” He pointed me to an article by Arthur Milikh in the current issue of National Affairs calling for an aggressive federal crackdown on universities as an example of the kind of policy the new think tank would get behind, explaining that “higher education and ed schools really are madrassas of anti-Americanism.”
The Claremont crew has been less open than American Affairs to courting allies on the left, and less interested in policing boundaries on the right. In October, for instance, CRB published Michael Anton’s critical but respectful review of Bronze Age Mindset, a self-published, virally successful “exhortation” by the pseudonymous blogger and Twitter personality Bronze Age Pervert (BAP). BAP is a difficult figure to describe: a campy, far-right Nietzschean from the corner of social media known as “Frogtwitter,” bringing a gospel of natural hierarchy, idiosyncratic dieting and supplement advice, “sun and steel” (tanning and weightlifting), and overman-style liberation from the cucks and “bugmen.” The American Mind subsequently published a symposium on Anton’s review, featuring responses by BAP and another Frogtwitter personality, Second City Bureaucrat, and it has commissioned a five-part series of essays from Curtis Yarvin, better known as the neoreactionary blogger “Mencius Moldbug.”
During my conversations with conservatives sympathetic to the realignment, a few had pointed to Claremont’s flirtation with BAP as an example of the sort of thing they were afraid of: institutions loosely aligned with their political goals attempting to engage with “edgy” figures from the online right and discrediting the entire project in the process. “I think both of them have a following among a pretty intelligent crowd of folks,” Williams told me. “So our play is to engage that audience and try to talk to them about the issues we care about and how we’re trying to rethink the right. It’s not like we’re going to have a weekly column from the neoreactionary movement or this weird pagan vitalism.”
American Mind Executive Editor James Poulos is clearly drawn to elements of BAPism—in particular to the emphasis on physical fitness and heroism, and the way in which the dislocating weirdness of BAP’s project serves to highlight the weirdness of the larger sociocultural changes sparked by the internet. “If you spend enough time on the professional right,” Poulos told me, “you will be very familiar with what the people who keynote your average rubber chicken dinner in D.C. will say about this mess we’re in. And you may realize you have lingering questions that the rubber chicken keynoters don’t seem to fully understand or aren’t interested in engaging with.”
Poulos explained that his project at The American Mind has three elements: preserving the American regime, preserving human control over the machines, and preserving Americans as the type of people who can execute on the first two tasks. “Read The New York Times or turn on Netflix for the latest quote-unquote comedy special and it’s about being chronically depressed,” Poulos told me. “I’ve seen so many young people tantalized by this official fantasy of, you gotta move to one of the five or six big American cities and live a life of autonomy and personal creation and all the doors will be open to you, and if you don’t, you will be insignificant and interchangeable and obscure. And so people move there! And they blow their 20s and 30s ‘navigating’ that environment, and what does that entail? Living in a luxury microapartment and drinking the same $20 Negronis that everyone else is drinking and grinding through the same three or four dating apps gradually getting psychosexually compromised in the way that everyone else does. And it takes away the very autonomy that was the one big selling point. And my concern is that people in those generations that have been affected that way are not as attuned to the excellence of human vitality in the way they need to be to look at all these bots and say, yeah well, it’s still amazing to be human.”
This new, more populist conservatism has received only mixed support from the larger party. For some, the new right simply doesn’t amount to much. Matthew Continetti, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said that “the young people who are driving this weren’t actually around during the ‘dead consensus.’ They’re in their mid- or late-20s, and their political memories begin with Trump. So a lot of energy is spent figuring Trump out, when in reality a lot of what he does is bring debates to the fore that have been going on a long time.”
Yet the push for a less laissez faire Republican Party has already provoked fierce criticism. After Rubio’s November speech on “common good capitalism,” National Review’s Kevin Williamson called the senator’s speech a “backward,” “destructive,” and “morally indefensible” attempt to “put something new and exciting in front of a mob that has grown jaded and bored by its own prosperity”; in another piece on the same speech, he denounced Rubio’s “half-assed moralizing”; and in a third piece on Rubio’s December speech on industrial policy, he concluded that the senator’s “problem isn’t stupidity—it’s hubris.” Writing in the same magazine, David Harsanyi said Rubio was “illiberal,” “anti-capitalist,” and shared the anxieties of Occupy Wall Street and the “puritanical progressives of the early 20th century.”
The members of the new right I spoke to tend to see the reactions of figures like Harsanyi and Williamson as evidence of just how far they had to go to shift the party in the directions they want. “It’s almost like there are foreign antibodies and these white blood cells are coming out to destroy them,” said one congressional aide. At the same time, he expressed optimism that the new right was winning the battle of ideas, adding: “Those sorts of instinctive, reflexive responses are revealing in just how empty and substanceless a lot of them are.” Enjeti put the matter more bluntly: “The whole reason that the GOP has been able to even compete for so long is that despite their horrible economics, they do hold the cultural positions of so much of the American people. But they keep thinking they’re winning because of their economic policy and losing because of their cultural policy, when really it’s the opposite.”
Park MacDougald is senior writer of The Scroll, Tablet’s daily afternoon newsletter.