Joshua, you work on U.S. conservative intellectual traditions. In a recent Twitter thread you offer that the right’s power will remain potent for the next couple decades—at least. Can you describe the forces and strategies that the contemporary right has at its disposal to maintain its salience?
Normally, as a historian I work backwards in time, but my work has had an extra salience in the present political moment, and contemporary politics has inevitably informed how I see some aspects of the American right. In this case, I was projecting forward, which is a dangerous thing to do. But it seems to me we face potentially massive disruptions over the coming decades as we feel the impacts of climate change, aging populations, and automation. It seems likely to me these trends will create enormous challenges for governments as they balance economic growth, welfare provision, and immigration from countries substantially disrupted by climate change.
To me, the Right, both in the United States and elsewhere, has the sort rhetorical and intellectual tools to craft a compelling argument to certain segments of the population in the face of insecurity and transformation. The combination of disruption, transformation and pain creates the conditions where right-wing, often illiberal discourses of heroism, golden age and the threatening Other creates real meaning for some, even as it draws boundaries around communities. If our projections about the future are correct, there will be plenty of space for defending cultural homogeneity and strong borders, a discourse that narrows the scope of welfare or a jingoistic populism, for instance.
You recently wrote in the Bulwark about the history of American conservatives venerating European strongmen. Today, this is exemplified by the American right’s adulation of Victor Orbán, but this sentiment has historical roots with a similar fondness for Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. Can you talk about the ideological exchanges that are taking place and have taken place historically between American conservatives and European far-right politicians?
I probably wouldn’t use the word “venerate,” although some of the recent commentary from people like Tucker Carlson has come close to that level of celebration. There is excellent work about trans-Atlantic crossings on the far right, like Joseph Fronczak on American fascisms. But my research has primarily been about the sorts of conservative intellectuals who have sought to legitimize right-wing positions in the fundamentally liberal United States. To that end, for these U.S. intellectuals Europe was and to some extent still is a repository of pre-liberal or post-liberal ideas and practices – whether that’s a Catholic conservatism like Francisco Franco or Portugal’s Antonio Oliveira Salazar (who has also experienced something of a revival in conservative circles) or a conservatism more rooted in national identity, like Orbán.
Unlike during the Cold War era, when support for Salazar, Franco and strongmen beyond Europe had an anti-communist component, today conservatives are mostly focused on domestic conflicts. To this end, European strongmen fulfil several functions: they improve morale by demonstrating the viability of illiberal or conservative politics; they highlight liberal hypocrisy by contrasting their treatment in the media compared to left-wing dictators; and they can provide practical and intellectual lessons. I’m not sure Franco paid much attention to American conservative supporters beyond material and political aid during the Civil War and in helping make diplomatic gains during his later years. But he wasn’t actively supporting or drawing on American conservative intellectuals, in part because they were too smalltime to be particularly relevant. Today, it appears Orbán, some Polish politician-intellectuals and even pre-Ukrainian invasion Russia have expended efforts to win support from the American right, which is of course now a far more powerful media machine than it was in the 1950s and 1960s. For instance, we see Orbán meeting conservative intellectuals, funding others and attending and hosting conservative conferences.
You write that columnists for National Review used to describe the “existential conflict between communism and Christendom.” Is there a similar feeling of solidarity with radical reactionary views today? How are references to Christendom instrumentalized to create a sense that conservative values are under threat?
Some American conservatives do feel the need to defend illiberal European strongmen on historic grounds. In the Cold War era, American conservatives, as Austin Clements has shown, defended Franco as representing Christian civilization against communism: to them, the choice between Franco and the Spanish Republic was a choice between an occasionally thuggish but essentially Christian leader and Stalinism.
Today, Rod Dreher and others defend Orbán as standing against corrosive progressive liberalism. Obviously the stakes are not as high today – no one serious is worried about literal Stalinists. But there are clear echoes in the type of solidarity the nationalist American Right feels toward Hungary and to a slightly lesser extent Poland. Part this trend, I think, is a result of the felt experience of the decline of conservative Christian cultural strength, especially on questions of the family and sexuality and its replacement, in their view, with a dominant progressive worldview and social class.
The idea of Christendom maps uneasily on to the United States, which while it has a strong tradition of Christianity and civic religion, has tended to avoid claims of Christendom owing to its primarily Protestant religiously diverse history – although you do hear an echo in “Judeo-Christian culture.” This has been less true of Catholics. In the 1930s through 1950s, many of the everyday pro-Franco Catholics belonged to a thick Catholic subculture. To them, attacks on the Spanish Church resonated as an attack on their church – the universal Catholic Church.
We’ve seen these subcultures decline tremendously over the past seventy years, both in the United States and in Europe. In fact, the strength of the broadly Christian civic culture in the United States and its reflection in law has declined significantly across the board. So much so that it’s not clear to me American Orbán supporters necessarily think in terms of Christendom, but rather a broadly “traditional” worldview in which Christian (or orthodox religious) motifs combine with appeals to Western and democratic values, against a demonized progressive enemy characterized by secular, progressive and (in their view) elitist attacks on everyday people.
For some of the American intellectuals involved in a perceived defense of Christendom, such as Patrick Deneen and C. C. Pecknold, I would suggest that Adrian Vermeule, Harvard law professor, and in particular his reading of Ryszard Legutko and the “liturgy of liberalism,” has been an instructive framework for defining progressive liberalism in threatening terms and becoming a convincing explanation of events like the much-talked-about Drag Queen Story Hour.
To elements of the American Right, it’s a sort of slow-motion civil war by stealth, and that fact justifies many things, including support for Orbán as someone willing to wield the state against progressivism in the name of the Christian West. Orbán becomes for them a model for potentially turning around the culture war by transforming electoral successes into political defenses of traditional norms and hierarchies. This has been a change, I think, at least in the willingness of parts of the American Right to say, well, yes, we can legislate morality. It’s a strategic shift in response to the Left’s dominance in major cultural centers and the perceived failure of movement conservatism that has prioritized economic conservatism or legal originalism but has proved either incapable of defending conservative cultural mores or actively abetted their legal defeat. Trump’s election suggests at a basic level there is some popular support for an American illiberal politician, and the extent to which much of the conservative intellectual apparatus has either justified Trump or sought to coopt him shows how potent this undercurrent was before 2016 and how potent it will be going forward.
The right has a history of borrowing certain ideas from the left when it suits their electoral and policy strategies. You recently have described Tucker Carlson’s anti-consumerist stance as bearing some resemblance to Bernie Sander’s own policy ideas. What could future conservative economic and monetary policy look like if anti-consumerist or anti-capitalist ideas gain more traction within the Republican Party?
For all the talk in the wider political discourse about a populist and anti-capitalist turn on the Right, the manner that enters GOP policy will I think be relatively limited. As I’ve argued, there is a long-held, but minority view in conservative intellectual circles casting doubt on the positive effect of capitalism on society. These conservative intellectuals point out capitalism’s corrosive impact on communities and values, even if they remain broadly pro-market. In the history of American conservatism, this perspective was intellectually defeated and subsumed into the pro-market conservative “fusionism” – think Ronald Reagan – that has dominated the American Right since at least the 1970s. Both intellectually and politically, in terms of donors, voters and the right-wing policymaking landscaping, I think we’re unlikely to see a real uptick in policies that rein in markets or mitigate the effects of capital movement and inequality.
Instead, I think the Right’s anti-capitalist rhetoric is going to manifest in ways connected with broad nationalist or illiberal projects. For instance, the turn against the Wall Street Journal’s open borders policy is linked to anxiety about the solidity and social cohesion of the American nation and a vision of what it means to be American that is uncomfortably racialized. Likewise, a national industrial strategy is linked both with an idealized vision of America’s industrial history and the white working class’s role in it, as well as the geopolitical challenge of confronting an assertive China. In cases where the Republican Party or members of it, like Missouri’s Senator Josh Hawley, have indicated willingness to use the state to regulate sectors, it tends to map on to right-wing grievances, such as toward Silicon Valley and social media. This is not to say these areas don’t need creative policy reform, and I think there is real pain experienced as a result of things like the decline of American manufacturing and the opioid epidemic.
But I would argue these policies are agreeable areas of state intervention in the market as a result of the Right’s broader cultural projects that involve shoring up the Right’s base rather than markers of the Right’s serious questioning of capitalism. For a while, parts of the capitalist-critical Right have drawn on readings of the late socialist historian Christopher Lasch. What they like about Lasch is his criticism of the pieties of modern liberalism, which he critiqued from an Old Left perspective. Lasch critiqued liberalism because it was capitalist. His right-wing admirers critique capitalism because it is liberal.
At the onset of the pandemic’s arrival in North America, you wrote about the rhetorical tactics used by the conservative media and political establishment to cast doubts on the danger presented by COVID-19. How has this evolved with the Biden presidency? Can similar uses of misinformation being framed around ‘just asking questions’ be seen in other policy areas?
I think we can say that for a large sub-section of right-wing voters, the Trump years entailed an entrenchment of a right-wing media ecosystem. Of course, the creation of a conservative counter establishment and media has been a long-term project of the American Right that has always been critical of what we now call the mainstream media. The earliest issues of the conservative magazine National Review attacked bias in the New York Times. But the Trump years and the perceived negative treatment of the president by the mainstream media and the converse pro-Trump right-wing ecosystem has led to levels of media polarization and siloing that are unprecedented in modern American history.
The barriers to entry are lower than ever: anyone can open a Twitter account, make YouTube videos or start a podcast and the field is close to unregulated. Even cable news channels are far cheaper than they once were. In such a fractured market, there are real incentives to hew far to the right. Not to mention, we’ve seen how easily right-wing social media can fall prey to state-sponsored disinformation campaigns that magnify polarization.
The rhetorical device of “just asking questions” really works in this media for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it’s the type of device that works well on television where a host can affect a serious tone and raise a series of questions and move on before the viewer critically analyzes them. More importantly, merely questioning absolves the asker of responsibility for facticity, plausible alternatives or accountability. To say, “I’m just asking a question,” gives the asker deniability about the implications of the question, even if those implications are clear to the viewer. This is clearly one of Tucker Carlson’s preferred methods. It also lets the asker get away with knocking holes in an argument without systematically refuting it.
Thirdly, asking questions allows various actors on the Right, or even the same one, to attack positions from multiple angles without committing to one. Just asking questions can hold quite contradictory and conspiratorial coalitions together when influencers let themselves just ask questions about liberal and progressive policies and ideas, rather than committing to an alternative. Finally, the real impact of “just asking questions” as I’ve gestured at here is to muddy the waters of the public discourse – to create such epistemological uncertainty that people can be manipulated for political purposes. As Timothy Snyder argues, and Hannah Arendt before him, this is a cynical, nihilistic strategy deployed by authoritarian and even totalitarian regimes. It has no place in a liberal democracy.
It’s ironic, since conservatives have always prided themselves on being the party of reality. You’d hear these clichés bandied about – Margaret Thatcher’s “the facts of life are conservative,” or Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” The voting base of the American Right is increasingly disconnected to reality, living in a world of self-reinforcing discourse that is pulling the conservative establishment with it – although world events like the Russian invasion of Ukraine may have cut through in important ways. But an unrealistic Right is an irresponsible Right, and we know responsible conservative parties are important for creating and sustaining democracy.
Joshua A. Tait is a historian of American conservatism. He has a Ph.D. in U.S. History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He tweets at @Joshua_A_Tait.