On September 7, 2016, Rush Limbaugh–who averages 15 million listeners a week–spent most of his show reading from a pseudonymous essay in The Claremont Review of Books. “2016 is the Flight 93 election,” he announced. “Charge the cockpit or you die. You may die anyway. You—or the leader of your party—may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees. Except one: if you don’t try, death is certain.” Death, you will have guessed by now, is a stand-in for a Hillary Clinton presidency–which, according to the Claremont author, would have meant “pedal-to-the-metal on the entire Progressive-left agenda, plus items few of us have yet imagined in our darkest moments.”
Rush is exuberant: “The piece is so good. It is just a home run, every paragraph.”
We know what happens next. Limbaugh was elated at the election outcome (“There are so many vibrantly great feelings to share. We have not lost our country”). Michael Anton dropped his pseudonym and stepped into the White House. Intellectual Trumpism was born.
Today, a growing number of prominent conservative intellectuals have joined Anton and are planning openly for America’s illiberal future. Though they typically maintain a genteel collective persona – Anton actually wrote a book called The Suit: A Machiavellian Approach to Men’s Style – there is an ugliness to their anti-liberal message and a deceptive vagueness to their political vision that make for a destabilizing brew. And unlike Trump, their influence among conservatives is likely to continue and grow regardless of what happens in the election. I call them reactionary conservatives, or Reocons, and they are only getting started.
Know thy Reocon
If Michael Anton’s essay marked the first wave of Trumpy conservative intellectualism, Patrick Deneen’s 2018 book, Why Liberalism Failed, marks the second. Deneen is a political theory professor at Notre Dame, and the book (which was reviewed by pretty much everyone, and even made Obama’s 2018 reading list) explains why liberal democracy is doomed to fail. His basic argument is that in modern democracies, liberal individualism leads to inevitable social decay, which leads in turn to vast state expansion. The book offers a useful articulation of some of the worst pathologies of neoliberalism – one perfectly timed to Trump – but, as a rebuttal to liberal modernity, it’s a vast overreach.
But the Trumpists kept coming. In 2019, the New York Post’s op-ed editor Sohrab Ahmari emerged as another forceful anti-liberal critic. Ahmari launched a much-discussed personal crusade against conservative David French, who he considers too civil and accommodating of liberal views. When the two eventually tangled in person, they garnered quite a lot of attention, largely thanks to Ahmari’s polemical style.
Then, in the summer of 2019, the growing group of anti-liberals gathered together formally under the inauspicious banner of National Conservatism. The conference was organized by Yoram Hazony, an Israeli-American scholar whose book The Virtue of Nationalism came out last year. The meeting was consecrated to “the revival of the unique national traditions that alone have the power to bind a people together and bring about their flourishing.” A similar group met up again in Rome earlier this month.
Finally, rounding out our reactionary squad, we have Attorney General William Barr – no doubt the most powerful and controversial of the Reocons. Barr delivered two particularly controversial speeches last fall. Both were explicitly anti-liberal.
These reactionaries may not see eye to eye on everything, but they tend to be glad that the old GOP consensus has collapsed, and clearly want to turn back the clock. What specifically characterizes them as reactionaries, however, is their insistence that the American Left poses an existential threat, combined with serial vagueness about the future.
There are other ways to define ‘reactionary.’ Corey Robin makes a powerful case for the idea that all conservatism is essentially reactive. To me, the term necessarily implies something about the degree of opposition to political change: it’s not just nostalgia and resistance to hierarchy that unite the Reocons, it’s a galvanizing sense of fear and paranoia. This sentiment is not new on the Right, but it’s this, in combination with a cagey, unaccountable view of the future, that sets the Reocons apart.
The reactionary core: animus against the left
As with most of the Reocons, and judging strictly by his public demeanor, Bill Barr does not seem like a paranoid man. He speaks slowly and quietly, conveying a mood of quiet reluctance, in a slightly bumbling, and even appeasing manner. This, of course, is a stark contrast to the president’s vulgarity and bombast.
What Barr actually says, however, tells a different story. His public speeches convey acute moral panic about the dangers posed by liberals and secularists.
In his November speech at The Federalist Society about executive power, Barr offered an astonishing display of crude partisanship. Drawing on hackneyed old tropes about liberal excess, Barr argued that “it is the Left that is engaged in the systematic shredding of norms and the undermining of the rule of law.” He then expounded a more general theory:
In any age, so-called progressives treat politics as their religion. Their holy mission is to use the coercive power of the State to remake man and society in their own image, according to an abstract ideal of perfection. Whatever means they use are therefore justified because, by definition, they are a virtuous people pursuing a deific end. … They never ask whether the actions they take could be justified as a general rule of conduct, equally applicable to all sides.
Barr’s sweeping generalities are unprecedented for the office of Attorney General. He is referring not just to a few radicals, but to everyone on the left, whom he characterizes as fanatical idealists that never consider the implications of their conduct. This is the highest ranking official in the Department of Justice, speaking in terms of “them” and “us” about entire swaths of the American populace.
When Barr gave a speech at Notre Dame on the subject of religious liberty last October, his target was very much the same. The liberals and secularists, he implied, are out for blood:
This is not decay; it is organized destruction. Secularists, and their allies among the “progressives,” have marshaled all the force of mass communications, popular culture, the entertainment industry, and academia in an unremitting assault on religion and traditional values.
He goes on to explain that the campaign of destruction against traditional morality has already brought “immense suffering, wreckage, and misery,” and laments how the secularists just turn a blind eye to the tragedy, pressing on “with even greater militancy.” He warns that this is all just another form of tyranny, where we are enslaved by our appetites, and “the possibility of any healthy community life crumbles.”
Patrick Deneen was present at Barr’s Notre Dame speech, calling it a “masterful, learned, and extremely important speech that should be widely read and pondered.”
This, at least, is unsurprising. Much of what Barr says might as well have been lifted straight from Why Liberalism Failed – the first chapter of which, for example, echoes an old trope, traceable to Alasdair MacIntyre and popular on the reactionary right, about rising liberal “barbarism.”
I was there. The topic WAS religious freedom – without the scare quotes. It was a masterful, learned, and extremely important speech that should be widely read and pondered. https://t.co/v8nnCxWnHI— Patrick Deneen (@PatrickDeneen) October 12, 2019
Bill Barr and Patrick Deneen are, by a good measure, the most rhetorically clement of the Reocons. The others are less cautious. For example, while Barr and Deneen often use scare quotes to refer to modern liberal causes ( it’s always “pluralism,” “diversity,” “multiculturalism,” and “social justice”), they don’t openly refer to these things as inanities. Michael Anton does. And whereas Barr and Deneen will make passing reference to liberal barbarians and cultural destruction, Anton is comfortable talking about the “ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty”; he considers American immigration policy as “insane” evidence of “a society, a country, a people, a civilization that wants to die.”
Hazony, for his part, believes that multiculturalism is an “evil” Marxist doctrine that forces the “equalization of all tribes”; he equates it to “destruction for the sake of destruction.”
And Sohrab Ahmari explicitly holds that leftists are secret authoritarians who want everyone to bend to their radical will:
The libertines take the logic of maximal autonomy to its logical terminus. They say, in effect: For us to feel fully autonomous, you must positively affirm our sexual choices, our transgressions, our power to disfigure our natural bodies and redefine what it means to be human, lest your disapprobation make us feel less than fully autonomous.
He goes on to admit that, for him, all politics boils down to “war and enmity.” The tone differs from Barr’s, but the message is the same. Taken together, the Reocons offer up a relentless barrage of paranoid fear-mongering about social and political change. Leftists are the enemy: they out to destroy our culture and control our lives.
Rightful concern or myopic paranoia?
Of course, it’s not paranoia if the crisis is real. And it is doubtless true that cultural norms and demographics are changing quickly. The question we need to ask is whether the result has been oppression in the opposite direction.
Sohrab Ahmari’s go-to example of leftist cultural oppression is Drag Queen Story Hour. In a now-infamous tweet, he labeled these events “demonic” and called for cultural civil war: “To hell with liberal order. Sometimes reactionary politics are the only salutary path.” Why Ahmari equates the existence of something he considers bad with cultural tyranny is not at all clear. Drag Queen Story Hour is entirely voluntary, and not particularly widespread. What is more, as David French was quick to point out, its existence hinges on the same laws that continue to protect religious minorities.
But there are many challenging cases, in which sincerely held religious beliefs do come into real conflict with increasingly progressive social norms. There’s the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, where an artist’s faith came up against equality rights for homosexuals. There’s the case of the Little Sisters, who have fought for an exemption to the contraception mandate under the ACA. There are ongoing disputes over accommodations for medical staff who oppose abortion.
Each of these instances involve delicate matters of conscience and difficult, competing moral claims. In each case we see individuals’ traditional beliefs come up against rapidly-transforming social norms and laws.
The Reocons, however, tend to conflate these newly emergent forces with totalizing forms of coercion. To hear them tell it – and please forgive my glibness here – you would think that liberals were requiring people to marry against their sexual orientation, mandating universal contraception, or forcing women to have abortions against their will. The fact that such suggestions sound so outrageous gives the lie to their paranoid fear-mongering: the Reocons hold that “liberalocratic” tyranny is upon us, but the best they can show for it is a series of legal cases in which the concerned parties are treated with basic dignity and respect by the state.
Meanwhile, it’s worth recalling that far more overt traditions of inequity and oppression – of women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community – continue to exist in our present, to say nothing of the past. For example, it took until 1993 to outlaw marital rape in this country, and it’s still a complicated area of the law. Gay marriage has only been legal for four years.
The distortions of the Reocon mind were fully laid bare with the Kavanaugh case, which both Anton and Ahmari describe as personal flashpoints for their outrage. Ahmari said in May that “Kavanaugh snapped something in me.” And Anton exclaims how the Left’s “disgraceful calumnies” against Kavanaugh radicalized him even more: “I always expect the Left to behave badly—very badly—but their treatment of this fine man shocked even me.”
Here again, a difficult, protracted situation is taken by the Reocons as an obvious affront. It makes perfect sense that Kavanaugh’s supporters would be upset by his ordeal. But how hard is it at the same time to imagine that Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford could have been speaking the truth? Or to fathom that a credible allegation of attempted rape might make someone less entitled to a place on the Supreme Court of the United States?
The Reocon tinderbox
Justice Kavanaugh was confirmed in October, 2018. Bill Barr became Attorney General in February 2019. Rush Limbaugh now holds a Presidential Medal of Freedom.
And to date roughly 158 federal judges have been appointed under Trump. In Trump’s first years in office, we’ve seen major roll-backs of Obama-era policy, and serious efforts are underway to dismantle the so-called “administrative state.” Bill Barr seems to be involved in the overt politicization of the Department of Justice. At the highest levels of our government, and at the most concrete level of action, it’s not the GOP that is under threat. So what more are the Reocons after? What is their ultimate vision for the future?
If one thing is certain, it’s that the paranoid reactionary attitude has explosive justificatory power, and the Reocons plan to use it. In the abstract, they have different emphases and orientations – there are, as Zach Beachamp observes, formal differences between localists like Deneen, nationalists like Hazony, and religious integrationists like Ahmari – but, as a general matter, the reactionaries aim to create and conserve sealed-off enclaves of homogenous traditional culture.
What might such a trajectory actually look like? Here is where the Reocon phenomenon is most chilling, especially given the tinderbox of paranoia they’ve been drumming up. The problem is that they leave so much unclear, and, I worry, unspoken.
For example, someone like Ahmari is upfront about his desire for a theocratic future, and a reordering of the state towards the “the Highest Good.” But what does this actually mean? What specifically does he actually desire and intend? The debate with French does not prove clarifying.
Patrick Deneen is a case study in this kind of circumvention. As others have noted, it’s hard to decipher what exactly Deneen has in mind for America’s post-liberal future, besides his advocacy of retreatist experiments in living. Towards the end of his book, though, he does acknowledge that, in order to take part in his new cultural experiments, modern people will want some guarantees against autocracy and theocracy:
Demands will be made for comprehensive assurances that inequalities and injustices arising from racial, sexual, and ethnic prejudice will be preemptively forestalled and that local autocracies or theocracies be legally prevented.
His reply is dismissive. And disturbing:
Such demands have always contributed to the extension of liberal hegemony, accompanied by simultaneous self-congratulation that we are freer and more equal than ever, even as we are more subject to the expansion of both the state and market, and less in control of our fate.
At this crucial moment, Deneen quietly discloses the fact that, for him, the basic rights of democratic citizens are not a concern. Would Deneen protect womens’ rights in the local enclaves? Who knows.
Similarly, what does it mean when Deneen pays a flattering visit to Viktor Orban of Hungary, a self-styled “illiberal democrat”? It’s hard to say.
What does it mean when he implies that he’d like to see a “dramatic shift” in American’s current demographic trajectories? Again, it’s quite unclear.
This captures some of the key reasons Christians went from proclaiming a “moral majority” to the need for protections of “religious liberty.” Yet, @ezraklein too easily accepts inevitability of demographic destiny, rather than possibility of dramatic change of these trajectories. https://t.co/v5gMXDGEph— Patrick Deneen (@PatrickDeneen) November 27, 2019
Or take the Attorney General. William Barr isn’t a professor, of course, he’s the Attorney General of the United States. And he may have willfully misrepresented the work of Robert Mueller’s team. He may have insinuated that black and brown communities are less deserving of protection under the law. And he may have compromised the legitimacy of the entire Department of Justice. What kind of precedent does all this set for the future? It’s awfully hard to say.
And that, I worry, is the obfuscating point. The reactionaries’ end-game is awfully vague. They’d like the limits on their power to be too.
Explosive illiberalism, in power
That means it’s also fundamentally a moral fight. Probably the biggest mistake we can make about the Reocons is to suppose that they are power-hungry grifters like Trump. On the contrary, they’ve cast themselves at the center of an epochal, international, fight for redemption. These redemptive ends – however vague, however unaccountable – are what, in their minds, justify an illiberal approach.
In the fall of 2016, Michael Anton wrote a pseudonymous essay that exploited the tragic heroism of Flight 93 to help put Donald J. Trump into the White House. Today, the Reocons are out there in the open, and in power. We don’t need Anton’s ugly metaphor to see all that’s at stake.