In the New York Times on 1 June, one of the rising stars of the conservative movement, Nate Hochman, articulated what he takes to be the direction and meaning of the American right. The central thesis of his essay is that the religious right has been supplanted by “a new kind of conservatism” more secular in orientation and focused on culture war issues such as gender, identity, and what he ever-so-gently calls “race relations”. For Hochman, this new conservatism is based in a kind of class consciousness, with much of the coalition being comprised of dissatisfied – “exploited” – middle Americans countering the depredations of cultural elites: “Today’s right-wing culture warriors think in distinctly Marxian terms: a class struggle between a proletarian base of traditionalists and a powerful public-private bureaucracy that is actively hostile to the American way of life.”
To bolster his claims, Hochman refers to Don Warren’s 1976 book The Radical Centre: Middle Americans and the Politics of Alienation:
“The right’s new culture war represents the world-view of people the sociologist Donald Warren called “Middle American radicals”, or MARs. This demographic, which makes up the heart of Mr Trump’s electoral base, is composed primarily of non-college-educated middle- and lower-middle-class white people, and it is characterised by a populist hostility to elite pieties that often converges with the old social conservatism. But MARs do not share the same religious moral commitments as their devoutly Christian counterparts, both in their political views and in their lifestyles… These voters are more nationalistic and less amenable to multiculturalism than their religious peers, and they profess a scepticism of the cosmopolitan open-society arguments for free trade and mass immigration that have been made by neoliberals and neoconservatives alike.”
Hochman also draws on the work of the late right-wing American writer Sam Francis, one of the “paleo-conservatives” who in the 1990s augured the rise of Donald Trump, and who is among the best guides to understanding the trajectory of the contemporary right. Far from being a marginal or eccentric figure, he is read by prominent conservatives as both prophet and guide. There are even rumours that Francis is the favoured reading of some Department of Homeland Security officials. That Hochman himself, a fellow at National Review and a key figure of the US intellectual right, leans so heavily on Francis is proof enough of his importance.
“What is occurring on the right,” Hochman argues in his New York Times essay, “is a partial realisation of the programme that the hard-right writer Sam Francis championed in his 1994 essay ‘Religious Wrong’. He argued that cultural, ethnic and social identities ‘are the principal lines of conflict’ between Middle Americans and progressive elites and that the ‘religious orientation of the Christian right serves to create what Marxists like to call a “false consciousness” for Middle Americans’. In other words, political Christianity prevented the right-wing base from fully understanding the culture war as a class war – a power struggle between Middle America and a hostile federal regime. He saw Christianity’s universalist ideals as at odds with the defence of the American nation, which was being dispossessed by mass immigration and multiculturalism. ‘Organized Christianity today,’ he wrote in 2001, ‘is the enemy of the West and the race that created it.’”
Is Hochman’s argument persuasive? As others have pointed out, there are good empirical reasons to insist on the continued importance of the religious right as a key constituency, from its role in Trump’s election to the assault on Roe vs Wade to the centrality of churches in the political base of the Republican Party. But the religious right is part of a larger whole; a broader right-wing whose central inspiration is not primarily religious.
Other features of Francis’s vision are also instructive when thinking about the contemporary American right. First, the radicalism of the project: Francis was not really a conservative; he felt that the conservative movement had failed and even urged his friend Pat Buchanan to drop the “conservative” label when running for president in 1992 and 1996. His vision of nationalism was as much a call for a new order as a return to the past. In his 1992 essay “Nationalism, Old and New”, he rejected the “old nationalism” for a “new nationalism” that would replace the individualism and egalitarianism of Hamilton and Lincoln with something else:
“The pseudo-nationalist ethic of the old nationalism that served only as a mask for the pursuit of special interests will be replaced by the social ethic of an authentic nationalism that can summon and harness the genius of a people certain of its identity and its destiny. The myth of the managerial regime that America is merely a philosophical proposition about the equality of all mankind (and therefore includes all mankind) must be replaced by a new myth of the nation as a historically and culturally unique order that commands loyalty, solidarity and discipline and excludes those who do not or cannot assimilate to its norms and interests. This is the real meaning of ‘America First’: America must be first not only among other nations but first also among the other (individual or class or sectional) interests of its people.”
Whereas the “old nationalism” spoke the “abstract” and “alienating” language of universalism, the “new nationalism” is supposedly something rooted in the essence of the “real” American people. Here Francis echoed the “concrete nationalism” of the French far-right authors Charles Maurras and Maurice Barrés that emerged towards the end of the 19th century, which differed from the “old nationalism” of liberté, égalité, fraternité. As the French historian Michel Winock writes, this nationalism would “subordinate everything to the exclusive interests of the nation, that is, the nation-state: to its force, its power, and its greatness”, and was pitched in darker, more pessimistic registers than the old republican patriotism. “This mortuary nationalism,” Winock argues, “called for a resurrection: the restoration of state authority, the strengthening of the army, the protection of the old ways, the dissolution of divisive forces. In varying dosages, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and anti-parliamentarianism were dispensed in the manner appropriate to each of the publics targeted.”
Today, in order to give an accurate picture of the conservative movement Hochman describes, the list of “varying dosages appropriate to the publics targeted” could be altered to include anti-transgenderism, immigration fears, the thinly veiled racism of the anti-critical race theory (CRT) panic, or any of the other demagogic issues the right regularly summons.
[see also: “It gave me a name“: What critical race theory means to its practitioners]
Perhaps it’s not surprising that Francis would sound like a 19th-century European reactionary since he was an admirer of the work of Georges Sorel, a heretic socialist and Dreyfusard turned anti-Dreyfusard. The major concept that Francis gets from Sorel concerns the importance of political myth. Myths in this sense are concrete, imaginative embodiments of a group’s self-conception and political aspirations; they are not abstract party programmes or utopias. Francis believed that the Middle American Radicals and their leaders had to develop such a myth to replace the myths of “old nationalism”, all that nonsense about “all men being created equal”.
Well, they have at least one now in the form of the “stolen election”: what better way to embody the entire sentiment of dispossession, be it ideological or explicitly racial, than the idea that political power is being held illegitimately by one’s opponents. Another such myth is QAnon, which imagines an elaborate, evil cabal pulling the strings and then a sudden moment of eschatological deliverance from their machinations. Arguably, anti-vaxx sentiments function this way, too: creating an opposition between a rapacious overclass and the resistance of the people’s “salt of the earth” wisdom. The idea of “the Great Replacement” is another one, too. Hochman is probably embarrassed to speak about the centrality of these lurid myths on the right, but they might help explain the “secularisation” of the GOP: maybe there are just other, more chthonic gods now.
What about the “Marxian” elements of the new right? Hochman is right about its emphasis on class struggle but wrong about on whose behalf it is being fought. One of the characterisations right-wing culture warriors like to make about identity politics or critical race theory is that it replaces the structural role “the proletariat” once had in Marxism with some dispossessed ethnic group: so, instead of the industrial working class, now it’s – to use an extreme formulation – LGBT+ Latinx people with disabilities who are supposed to be the bearers of the revolutionary project, since the proletarian revolution failed.
This sounds like a poor interpretation of Georg Lukacs’ conception of class-consciousness, but it’s also exactly what Hochman and his fellows are doing: their class might not be really working class – Hochman admits it’s really the middle and lower-middle class – but they are somehow still “proletarian”, the revolutionary, or the “counter-revolutionary” – subjects that are achieving class consciousness of their historic mission to Make America Great Again. This is almost exactly “Cultural Marxism”: it simply replaces the material determinations of class struggle with the terms of the “culture war”.
So who is the class that is doing the struggling here? Again, it’s worth returning to Francis. At some points in his writing, Francis calls his Middle American Radicals “post-bourgeois” to emphasise their dispossession and alienation from the old bourgeois traditions and values. But in his mature work Leviathan and its Enemies, which was published posthumously, he opposed the feared and hated managerial class that supposedly runs the state and corporate bureaucracies, through to the plain-old bourgeoisie, that is to say, the class that owns, the proprietors of the “entrepreneurial firm (the partnership, family firm, or individual entrepreneurship)”. Hochman is being too modest when he says it’s just the middle and lower-middle class: the right enjoys the patronage of many great magnates and their families: Thiels, Kochs, Mercers, Uihleins, Princes, DeVoses, and so on. The Republican coalition is simply the alliance of the most reactionary sections of the whole property-owning class, the bourgeoisie from petit to haute. I’d argue their attack on the administrative state and their tax raiding has as much to do with the protection of their interest in this regard than any feeling of “cultural dispossession”. Indeed, the right now seems to be successfully attracting a broader swathe of the entrepreneurial class, as Elon Musk recently signalled his “new” Republican allegiance over labour issues.
Hochman may be interested in another Marxist category: totality, the notion that we have to analyse a social and political situation in its entirety, and that failing to do so will give us a false or incomplete picture. While he is more frank than most, Hochman doesn’t want to look at the right in its totality. Although he seems comfortable with the portions of the right that, despite being demagogic and repressive, remain within the bounds of legal and civic behaviour, like the anti-trans and anti-CRT campaigns, he doesn’t want to talk about the storming of the Capitol on 6 January, or the myth of the stolen election, the great replacement theory, or the cultish worship of Trump, or the Proud Boys, who now have a significant presence in a largely Hispanic Miami-Dade Republican Party. But these things are as much, if not more, emblematic of the modern Republican Party as young Hochman is. As Francis knew and was much more open about, these primal forces were the real right, with the think tank intelligentsia trailing behind or vainly trying to guide the masses.
So now let’s recapitulate the totality of the political situation, with the help of Hochman’s essay. He wants to say this new right is essentially a secular party of the aggrieved Mittelstand that feels the national substance has been undermined by a group of cosmopolitan elites who have infiltrated all the institutions of power; that also believes immigrants threaten to replace the traditional ethnic make-up of the country; that borrows conceptions and tactics from the socialist tradition but retools them for counter-revolutionary ends; that is animated by myths of national decline and renewal; that instrumentalises racial anxieties; that brings together dissatisfied and alienated members of the intelligentsia with the conservative families of the old bourgeoisie and futurist magnates of industry; that alternates a vulgar, sneering desire to provoke and shock with phobic moral prudishness; that is obsessed with a macho masculinity; that looks to a providential figure like Trump for leadership; that has street fighting and militia cadre; and that has even attempted an illegal putsch to give its leader absolute power. If only there was historical precedent and even a word for all that.
[see also: The return of American fascism]