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The new intellectuals of the American right

In political and media circles, an array of thinkers – national conservatives, integralists, traditionalists, and post-liberals – are crossing ideological boundaries. 

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What is happening on the American intellectual scene? In Washington and New York, it is increasingly common to hear people say they are enemies of neoliberalism. They think liberal democracy is insufficient. They are in favour of government intervention in the economy, sceptical of free-trade deals and long to demolish what they call “zombie Reaganism”. 

These people are not Bernie Sanders supporters. In fact, they are not on the left at all. They are Catholic professors, or writers for US conservative magazines. They run tech companies in California or work for Republican senators on Capitol Hill. Meet the new American right. 

If you would like to find yourself a place in the vanguard of American conservatism these days, you can choose from a widening panoply of neologisms to describe yourself: national conservative, integralist, traditionalist, post-liberal, you might even be welcome if you are a Marxist. Anything just so long as you’re not a libertarian. 

The once dominant intellectual lodestars of the US right – Friedrich Hayek, John Locke, Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand and Adam Smith – are out. The ideas of Carl Schmitt, James Burnham, Michel Houellebecq and Christopher Lasch are in. Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville are barely clinging on. What happened? 

One explanation for the American right’s leftward turn lies with Catholic opinion. Resentment was already building among US Catholic conservatives by the time of Donald Trump’s election in 2016. From around 2013, as Pope Francis appeared to be compromising on certain social issues, such as acceptance of homosexuality, Catholics began to suspect the grand bargain of the American conservative movement since the 1950s – free markets combined with social conservatism – was heavily tilted in favour of the former. They saw a Republican Party guided less by religion than by money: money which seemed little disposed to advocate on behalf of their beliefs. They saw themselves as foot-soldiers in a culture war their party seemed content to lose. Even worse: for the privilege of fighting, they had been obliged not to think too hard about what Catholic social teaching might have to say on issues such healthcare, for fear of offending the jealous god of the free market. 

A demonstration of this anger came in 2018, when University of Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen published a provocatively titled book, Why Liberalism Failed. By “liberalism”, Deneen did not mean the American progressivism embodied by Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, but the entire liberal project, from the 17th-century philosopher John Locke to the postwar theorist John Rawls. By replacing old commitments to community, religion or tradition with pure self-interest, Deneen said, liberalism atomised citizens, rendering them helpless, nihilistic and alone. 

The book quickly became a touchstone for conservative discussions in the US about liberalism. Instead of a threat to American liberal democracy, perhaps Trump was merely the latest symptom of a defect the liberal project had contracted at birth  the rage emanating from communities hollowed out by a corrosive liberalism. 

As a balm for these social ills, Deneen advocated retreat from national politics into the enclaves of small, rural communities, echoing other writers on the American right, such as Rod Dreher, a senior editor at the American Conservative. But more recently, Deneen has taken an interest in populism, hobnobbing with the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán in November 2019 and proposing a politics of “aristopopulism” – the notion, borrowed from the 16th-century Florentine philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli, that friction between the masses and the elite is the best way to ensure that neither class dominates the other, and that material inequality remains at a moderate level. 

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Deneenism, however, came up against a fiercer and more eccentric assortment of right-wing monks and bloggers who march under the banner of “integralism”. The integralists demand that the constitutional separation between church and state be smashed, so that the state may defer to the church on spiritual matters. The state's reach, argue integralists, should be combined with Catholic teaching on social issues: “Medicare for all, abortion for none.”

The high priest of the integralist movement is the 51-year-old Harvard law professor Adrian Vermeule. Though Vermeule agrees with Deneen’s diagnosis of liberal malady, his proposed remedy is not Benedictine retreat but Constantinian takeover. A leading expert on the American administrative state, he knows it is a staggeringly powerful tool, capable of swaying the actions of millions. He believes it would only take a few loyalists, well enough placed within the national bureaucracy, to steer the whole hulking contraption in the general direction of the summum bonum

Vermeule recently caused a stir with an essay in the Atlantic calling for a new legal philosophy that would emphasise “authority and hierarchy” and demonstrate “a candid willingness to ‘legislate morality’”. Under his proposed regime, laws permitting “free speech, abortion, sexual liberties, and related matters” might be overturned. “Libertarian conceptions of property rights” would be rejected. Unelected bureaucrats would carry out these edicts, acting as “the strong hand of legitimate rule”. Aghast, libertarian-leaning think tanks such as the Niskanen Center returned fire, with one affiliate labelling Vermeule’s intervention “patently anti-democratic, illiberal, and, dare I say it, un-American”.

The political goal of integralism is a confessional state in which temporal rule is subordinated to Catholic doctrine. But without support from a popular movement, capturing America’s liberal bureaucracy might be a more difficult task than the integralists think. Such was the case with their efforts to assume control of the leading magazine of the American religious right, First Things.

Towards the end of 2017, the integralist movement had succeeded in tempting the editors of First Things to entertain its ideas. But the integralists found themselves in trouble in January 2018 after the publication of an article defending the decision, taken by Pope Pius IX in the 1850s, to remove a Jewish child from his family after he had been secretly baptised by his family’s Catholic nanny. The pope had explained – and the author of the article, Fr Romanus Cessario, seemed to agree – that the child’s baptism meant he had to be raised as a Catholic. 

But to critics in the Catholic press, the article looked like confirmation of what they had long suspected. This was that the integralists, in their desire to reject the political liberalism of the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65, were also willing to undo the conclave’s historic break with anti-Semitism. 

In the wake of the affair, First Things pivoted to a stance that was less Catholic and more nationalistic. This was thanks in part to the influence of Yoram Hazony, a 55-year-old Israeli academic and author of The Virtue of Nationalism (2018). Hazony makes the case for a choice between imperialism and nationalism, tracing the origins of nationalism to the Hebrew Bible. One can either desire to live in a world of limited nation states, none seeking to impose their ways on others; or a world of competing universal empires. Going so far as to write that “Hitler was no advocate of nationalism,” Hazony argues that only a world of independent nations can guarantee peace. 

Hazony’s critics, including those on the right, often respond that the distinction between nation and empire is not so stark: nations often make war with the stated intent of protecting their way of life, and when they succeed they find themselves in possession of an empire. 

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The other leading magazine of the new American right is the heterodox policy journal American Affairs. In its pages, left-wing Brooklynite malcontents fight for space with eccentric Harvard professors and renegade conservative wonks. Julius Krein, the magazine’s editor, attracted attention from both left and right in November 2019 by upending the conversation over class in the Democratic primary. 

The real class war in America, Krein said, is not between the working class and the elite: it is between the managers and the billionaires; between the top 10 per cent and the top 0.1 per cent. It is well known that since the financial crash of 2008, poor and middle-class incomes have grown more slowly than those of the rich. But the bounty is far from equally distributed within the top 10 per cent. As a handful of enormously prosperous Americans have watched their wealth balloon, the rewards of the country’s traditionally lucrative legal and financial professions have shrunk. 

Even in the dynamic tech and biotech sectors, salaries struggle to keep pace with the exorbitant costs of living in Silicon Valley or Cambridge, Massachusetts. An increasing proportion of upper-class families’ income is dedicated to preserving their elite status, generating a characteristic anxiety. It is not unlike George Orwell’s notion in The Road to Wigan Pier of the “lower-upper-middle class” – a segment of the middle class that had taken on aristocratic pretensions during their late Victorian heyday, but by the interwar period were obviously doomed, with nearly all their income dedicated to preserving the appearance of a fictional gentility. 

The point is not to feel bad for these beleaguered executives and corporate lawyers, or their downwardly mobile children, but to keep an eye on them. In an age without popular movements, they still wield real power, and they’re angry. As a 2020 Financial Times article on the middle class by Simon Kuper put it: “Populism is less a working-class revolt than a middle-class civil war.” 

A parallel set of clashes is happening between conservatives over economics. The most salient example is Oren Cass, who served as Mitt Romney’s domestic policy director during the Republican senator’s 2012 presidential campaign. Cass has branded himself an advocate for an American industrial policy – a government-coordinated effort to boost domestic manufacturing based on similar efforts by countries such as Germany and Japan. 

The notion of an industrial policy challenges the free-market economic wisdom that once reigned, and Cass routinely does battle with libertarian-aligned economists who accuse him of advocating for a planned economy that is doomed to fail. The free-marketers are all the more enraged by Cass’s apostasy because he is supposed to be on their side: further evidence that the old conservative-libertarian partnership is under severe strain. 

How might the Covid-19 pandemic affect the outcome of this intramural brawl among American conservatives? Many on the new right believe the virus has vindicated their scepticism of globalisation, as well as their demand for a stronger, more capable state that does not shrink from curbing liberties when circumstances demand it. A dictum emerged: “Nobody is a libertarian in the midst of a pandemic.” 

Yet the libertarian-minded have protested that the virus is best combated by slashing regulations and spurring medical innovation. They emphasise the missteps by the US federal government in the early days of the anti-viral effort, and praise the prominent role played by local and state governments. The $2trn coronavirus stimulus package has already cast aside Republican ideas of fiscal discipline, but the cheques Americans will soon receive in the mail bear a resemblance to the “helicopter money” proposals by libertarian economist Milton Friedman. Any verdict issued while the world remains wracked by the virus is bound to be provisional.

The intellectuals of the new American right want to revolutionise the conservative establishment, but it’s not clear how they might go about it. One idea is to convince conservative donors to support the new agenda – a bigger state, more generous with money and more inclined to use it to achieve desired outcomes, whether in the economy (supporting manufacturing) or in society (larger stipends or tax cuts for families with children). 

This will be a tough sell: the conservative establishment is accustomed to dismissing such proposals as bad for business. Another idea is to put forward a fellow-traveling candidate in 2024. A few options were on display at the 2019 “NatCon” conference in Washington, DC, held to showcase the new “nationalist” American conservatism. 

One candidate is Tucker Carlson, the incendiary Fox News presenter who has recently promoted books by Elizabeth Warren and complained about American engagement abroad. Another is Josh Hawley, a Republican senator from Missouri, a staunch abortion opponent and a vocal critic of the tech industry. There is also Florida's Republican senator Marco Rubio, who didn't attend the conference, but who recently referenced Catholic social teaching in a First Things article that read suspiciously like a measured critique of free-marketism. 

This is not the first time Rubio has been set up as the poster boy for the latest obsession of the conservative avant-garde. During the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election he was feted by centre-right intellectuals as the candidate of “reform conservatism” – a movement that hoped to make the Republicans viable with non-white and working-class voters by proposing child tax credits and a points-based immigration system. Rubio was bulldozed by Trump in the primary, and the Republican Party did indeed end up appealing to segments of the working class, but – to say the least – not in the way the reform conservatives wanted. 

Politicians tend to acquire pet intellectuals. The process does not generally operate the other way around. There is the risk that a President Hawley or President Carlson might act more or less as Trump has generally done and let the conservative ruling machine do what it does best: maintain populist rhetoric and sprinkle in a few adjustments by way of camouflage. 

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Could this rebellion of the right-wing intellectuals be coming to Britain? It seems unlikely. While many on the new American right delight in the return of a more adversarial style of politics, in the UK Boris Johnson won a crushing victory in December 2019 on a platform based more on anti-politics. “Aren’t you tired of it all?” was the Conservative message to a country exhausted by three years of Brexit. If the new American right is Machiavellian, placing hopes for a better future in the clash between the masses and the elite, then the Tories are Hobbesians, promising peace and prosperity on the condition that the British people surrender the political arena to them. Nor is the national appetite for rough-and-tumble politics likely to increase amid an ongoing public health emergency.

Brexit pushed conservative British intellectuals in new directions, but only temporarily. As the Economist’s Bagehot columnist noted in August 2019, a party once defined by the Burkean tradition turned to the radical idioms of the 18th century Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his notion of “the general will” in order to defend its Brexit position. 

But after December 2019 this civil war ended, and no doubt Rousseau will slip from Tory lips. Johnson’s senior adviser Dominic Cummings takes inspiration from Americans, but of a less original sort. The models for his eccentric behaviour and technocratic scorn for the humanities are the venture capitalists of Silicon Valley. 

The UK’s intellectual landscape, too, lends itself less to such an insurgency. British intellectuals are more often historians, less interested in formulating unorthodox policy proposals than they are in recasting opinion on the Levellers or the Jacobites. British conservatism has just lost its leading light in Roger Scruton, an atypical figure who has no obvious successor. The sovereignty of the party of the right over conservative intellectual activity is also more total in Britain than in America. Krein emphasises the stranglehold of the Republican donor class over conservative intellectual activity, but from a transatlantic perspective he and his magazine are evidence that the American landscape is more multifarious and less easily commanded. 

Still, the intellectuals of the American right are paying close attention to the Johnson premiership, because it has promised to enact a programme that reflects the opposite of the old libertarian dictum – not socially liberal, fiscally conservative; but rather socially conservative, fiscally liberal. Johnson is hardly a social conservative by American standards, but his move to win over working-class northern voters and retain them with increased spending on national infrastructure are seen in these circles as a blueprint for a 2024 realignment in US politics. 

But that is a long way off, and there is another presidential election before then – one many on the new American right are not particularly eager to contemplate.

Nick Burns is a Fulbright scholar at Queen Mary, University of London, where he studies intellectual history. He writes for publications including the New Republic, the American Interest, Foreign Affairs, and the Los Angeles Review of Books

This article appears in the 22 April 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The coronavirus timebomb