The American Right Gets Tired of Democracy

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Like many others I’ve been thinking a lot about the future of liberal democracy over the last three years. I have many thoughts, as they say. But for now I want to share a few articles with you about the future of the American right and particularly a wing of the American right which seems increasingly soured on pluralism and democracy itself.

Big topic, of course. So let me try to hit on one angle into it and get us started with a few links.

First, we’ve had a running discussion in recent years over how much Trump is a new thing – some decisive break with the US politics that preceded him or whether he is the logical culmination of the evolution of the Republican party over the last two generations. Complicated question but generally I put myself in the latter camp.

Still, as the Republican party has become increasingly synonymous with Trump, staying in pretty much lockstep support both at the level of elected officials and Republican voters, this raises the question for Republicans, what’s the theory behind our support? If we’re calling the press the “enemy of the people”, embracing ethno-nationalism and an increasingly authoritarian view of politics, what part of it lasts past Trump? For commentators and intellectuals, if we’re now in the business of permanent zero-sum fights with an opposition we brand as enemies, what’s the platform beyond Twitter outbursts.

Ed Kilgore published an article last week arguing that Josh Hawley, the freshman Senator from Missouri, could be the face of the post-Trump right. Hawley has a prestige Ivy league education and is couth in all the ways Trump is uncouth. But I confess I didn’t realize until I read Ed’s piece just how far right Hawley is. This goes beyond just voting records. Ed finds a series of speeches in which Hawley argues pretty straightforwardly that what we call civic republicanism or classical liberalism is only valuable or worthwhile to the extent it supports God’s mandates and the kind of society demanded by traditionalist Christianity.

That article picks up on a new debate on the right between a guy named Sohrab Ahmari, opinion editor at the NY Post and David French, an anti-Trump conservative at The National Review. (If you follow political Twitter you’ve probably seen at least some of this discussion over the last week or so.) The main document is this fusillade by Ahmari against French in First Things. It in turn builds off this “manifesto” that Ahmari and others published in the same publication earlier this year. There’s also this interview which The New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner did with Ross Douthat from the Times opinion page where he discusses this debate and adds in some of his own ideas.

French is basically a very conservative classical liberal, in the sense of someone who believes in pluralism, rule of law, etc. Ahmaris argues that’s a dead end for real conservatives, that a pluralist, classical liberal model is one in which conservatives will always be being pushed out of the public square. As the argument goes, they now have to accept gays, abortion, trans-rights. Where does it end? Of course, ultra-orthodox Jews seem to get by all right living in one of the more liberal parts of the country here in New York City. How do they manage? Look a little closer and the key is that the trend of American society seems to be one where their traditionalist Christian vision won’t be backed by the state or set the tone for society at large.

The ideas this group is pushing basically go back to what is often called “Catholic integralism”. (Most of the players are Catholic, though Hawley comes from the Protestant side of this traditionalist grouping.) This is a form of anti-pluralist Catholic political ideology most associated with quasi-fascist governments in Spain and Portugal and political movements in France (Vichy being the example in power) and other European countries. The basic thrust is a political vision that prioritizes hierarchical social cohesion and has the government takes a leading role enforcing traditionalist cultural and social values and keeping conservative Christianity as the taproot of the state. Church and state are both on the same team and working, collaboratively, toward the same end. The pluralist vision of the state most of us are familiar with, in which it is a semi-neutral arbiter between lots of different visions of how people should live their lives, is anathema.

How this would all play out in an American context which is based on significantly different ideas about government is anyone’s guess. But the more immediate impetus and focus of these writers is a bit different. As others have noted, the idea is that the culture war and the related battle for an ethno-nationalist identity are simply too important, immediate and dire to have any time to worry about things like the rule of law or even democracy. Read through these different pieces and you’ll also get a strong feel for the priority of fighting, that these folks are driven by a desire to fight their liberal enemies on all fronts at all times and that this is the core of political action.

This is heady and scary stuff. But reading through it you can see how Trump fits into the contemporary right. The things that far him are probably congenital and characterological – the need to dominate, the fidgety and febrile need to fight at all times to keep enemies off balance, the love for tough guys and violence. A lot of this is about Trump’s own personal psychodrama. But they fit like hand in glove for many ideological trends in the American right. He exists politically because he fit into that mindset and he’s in turn catalyzed it.

Take a moment to read some of the links above. We’ll discuss more.

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