In 2011, when I was interviewing to be an intern at this journal, I was asked what authors and publications I read. I listed a couple of newspapers and progressive magazines, but, wanting to seem open-minded, also mentioned some conservative magazines and writers. In fact, this was a point of intellectual pride for me at the time, even post-Bush Administration.
This kind of open-mindedness is a stereotype about liberals. As a PhD student and other former Democracy intern I know once said on Twitter: “In Republicans’ ideal world Republicans control 100% of the government. In Democrats’ ideal world Democrats control 50.1%.” For as much mockery as this attitude has gotten over the years, it’s not a bad trait on its own. Trying to understand peoples’ views, having humility about just how smart and correct you are: These are qualities that in everyday life make you, well, not an asshole.
President Obama ran his Administration this way, inviting conservative senators to the White House to try to find health-care compromises, dining with conservative columnists, and including lines like “No party has a monopoly on good ideas” in his speeches. There’s little point in relitigating whether Obama could have pushed harder, gotten a public option, and so on. Instead, this is a useful moment to take stock of conservatism, to consider with whom a pluralistic progressive President would need to sit around the table in a future administration, and whether that would be a good idea.
Unfortunately, if all you’ve read are mainstream news outlets, and not the conservatives themselves, it’s almost impossible to understand just how deranged the entire movement has become.
Take the Claremont Institute, a 40-year-old conservative think tank. It offers multiple fellowships for up-and-coming conservatives, and a look at the alumni page shows their fellows dispersed throughout conservative media, academia, and government. Now open the institute’s online publication, The American Mind, and you’ll find a six-essay symposium on a single book: Bronze Age Mindset, by the pseudonymous author “Bronze Age Pervert” (BAP). The book argues that the right wing has lost its vital male essence due to decades of leadership by cucks, losers, feminists, and gays. The lead reviewer of Bronze Age Pervert’s work is Michael Anton, who until recently was a high-up national security official in the Trump White House. It’s difficult to get across the intellectual vertigo caused by opening the publication of a think tank whose stated mission is “to restore the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life” and reading lines like “Among the issues raised by Bronze Age Pervert, what is the most potent and undeniable?”
Here’s Anton blithely summarizing the authors’ reduction of most people to vermin:
Roughly speaking, BAP seems to divide the human race into three types: natural bugmen, who will always be the majority but who can be led in positive directions by the right kind of man; naturally superior specimens who “desire one thing above all, ever-flowing eternal fame among mortals” (BAP quoting Heraclitus); and a sort of middle category who in good times serve the natural aristocracy but in bad times become regime apparatchiks and enforcers of the “Leviathan.”
In Bronze Age Pervert’s own contribution to Claremont’s symposium, he writes “The anti-male and anti-White rhetoric of the new left is extreme. The racial attacks on whites in particular approaches exterminationist propaganda seen only in, e.g., the Hutu against the Tutsi in 1990’s Rwanda.” (For what it’s worth, Bronze Age Mindset is also a ludicrously racist and sexist book, but that seems almost beside the point.)
Maybe this is all one big lark that I’m taking too seriously. But I’d hope that if you opened this journal and read a symposium featuring some Obama Administration official reviewing some book called, say, Neolithic Communism by Stone Age Sicko, you’d have some questions about whether ours was a political movement worth engaging with.
Next, American Affairs, a quarterly journal created by Trump-sympathetic intellectuals. It’s gotten a pleasant gloss from the mainstream media coverage, like the Times saying it gives “intellectual heft and coherence” to Trumpism. Various progressives have contributed to the journal, and Michael Lind is on its advisory board. This is all very strange to me, having read a review essay in 2018 in its pages that called for, uh, a Catholic coup against the United States government. I mean that not in a pearl-clutching, alarmist way, but as a simple description of the piece. Written by the Harvard law professor Adrian Vermeule—who converted to Catholicism in 2016 and apparently decided, by 2018, it was good enough for the rest of us—it calls for agents to be strategically placed throughout the government, so that at any given time, they can take over the reins of the state. Or, as Vermeule, cosplaying Emperor Palpatine, puts it: “[I]t is a matter of finding a strategic position from which to sear the liberal faith with hot irons, to defeat and capture the hearts and minds of liberal agents, to take over the institutions of the old order…”
You might have gotten a glimpse into these Catholic “integralists” with the so-called “Ahmari-French” dustup, when Sohrab Ahmari, the opinion editor of the New York Post, became so incensed about a case of “Drag Queen Story Hour,” that he decided that all remaining polite conservatives needed to be purged from the movement. This received much coverage, but the mainstream media has a habit of sanding the crazed edges off of these people, as they so often do with Donald Trump. So instead of “recently converted Catholics fantasizing about coups,” you get soft labels like “the illiberal right.” Vermeule’s pinned tweet reads (translated from French): “When I am weaker than you, I ask you for freedom because that is according to your principles; when I am stronger than you, I take away your freedom because that is according to my principles.” You know, normal stuff.
The least colorful example is from National Affairs, a dry conservative policy journal, mirroring our own. In their fiftieth issue, their headlines seem predictably staid: “Fixing Science Policy,” “Rethinking Polarization,” “The Truth about Teacher Pay.” But that last piece on teacher pay, which was the lead essay in the issue, had a notable co-author: Jason Richwine. His author biography, “Jason Richwine is a public-policy analyst in Washington, D.C.,” didn’t really do him justice. Richwine, a Harvard PhD in public policy, used to work on immigration policy at the Heritage Foundation. After he co-authored a report calling for reduced immigration, Dylan Matthews, then of The Washington Post, read Richwine’s dissertation, which argued that Hispanic immigrants have lower IQs than whites due to their genetics. Or as Richwine put it, “No one knows whether Hispanics will ever reach IQ parity with whites, but the prediction that new Hispanic immigrants will have low-IQ children and grandchildren is difficult to argue against.” Further research into Richwine found public comments like: “We have blacks, we have American Indians, and even early Mexican Americans who have been living in the country for a long time and have not assimilated to the cultural mainstream as typified by white Americans.”
This was all back in 2013, and Richwine was fired from Heritage. But here he is, back in popular company, co-authoring pieces with American Enterprise Institute fellows.
Looking beyond intellectual organs and into media and advocacy is, if anything, even worse. White nationalists are constantly “turning up” at places like The Daily Caller, Breitbart, and Turning Point USA. Hannah Gais, at the now-defunct Splinter, did a long examination into how white supremacists are hiding in plain sight throughout the conservative movement. National Review has been firing columnists for being secret white supremacists since I was a toddler.
This is maybe the moment when a reader might be thinking that, sure, this is lunacy, but these are cranks, which every movement has. Unfortunately, no, these people are vastly more representative of the current conservative movement than whoever is on “Morning Joe” or on the Times op-ed page. Politico ran an entire article about how popular Bronze Age Pervert is inside the White House. Michael Anton had the same position as Ben Rhodes, an Obama official important enough to warrant a feature-length profile in The New York Times Magazine. National Affairs is supposed to be the journal of reformicons. It’s true that Bronze Age Pervert might not agree with Adrian Vermeule, who might not agree with Jason Richwine. But these are the flavors of conservatives one gets to choose from these days. This is who our hypothetical Democrat would sit around the table with to compromise and try to find wisdom.
The time has unfortunately, therefore, come to mock our own side. People like the above are the real firmament of American conservatism, but few know it because large media outlets aren’t interested in telling them. The futility of propping up an army of “normal” conservatives because that’s who the mainstream center-left would rather parley with is embarrassing, akin to being married to a horrible man, and so hiring an actor to attend marriage counseling with you. These conservatives are not power brokers. No politicians act with them, no voters vote with them. They represent no one. Bronze Age Mindset has more reviews on Amazon than David Brooks’s most recent book, and it was self-published. The only role the David Brookses of our country fill is one of wish fulfillment for serious people of the left and center who wish they had someone more serious to debate with on the other side.
When Trump conservatives are covered, it’s often in a tone of “gee-golly, look at these eccentric men and their peccadillos.” The New York Times ran a light piece about Anton helping to cook a state dinner, with lines like, “He expertly sliced rows of tiny crescent-shaped puff pastries that would be used to make shrimp canapés.” Three months later, Anton called for an end to birthright citizenship. If Donald Trump weren’t the President, perhaps it would be possible to overlook all this. But he is the President, and these kinds of people are in power.
An acceptance that pluralism isn’t possible at the moment doesn’t lead to easy answers. The American political system has too many veto points to ram things through. What it should do, though, is affect the attitude with which a future progressive administration governs. If conservatives can’t, or shouldn’t, be bargained with, the steps a President needs to take will be different, whether it’s filibuster reform or Supreme Court packing.
It’s been nearly a decade since my interview, but in a way, I’d still be glad if an intern I was interviewing said she read conservative publications. Just not because she’d be getting closer to wisdom or truth; because she’d know exactly who it is we’re dealing with.