“Conservatism in 2021 means radicalism,” announced Nate Hochman, a 23-year-old writer at National Review. Describing the posture of his political milieu, Hochman spoke with urgency and without pretense, less eager to impress than to be understood. “We have to think of ourselves as counterrevolutionaries or restorationists who are overthrowing the regime.” He doesn’t mean by violence, necessarily. “But … there’s not a lot left to conserve in the contemporary state of things. There are things that need to be destroyed and rebuilt.”
If you’re scandalized by the language of “counterrevolution” or surprised to hear a conservative talk about “destroying” things and “overthrowing” regimes, you probably haven’t spent much time around right-wing college grads of late. Which makes sense. As a matter of demography, they’re exceedingly hard to find. “Young, highly educated people, as a group, are now overwhelmingly Democratic to an extent that’s literally never been seen before, probably ever in history,” explained David Shor, the progressive pollster and statistician. The well-known liberal biases of millennials have held for Generation Z, and education polarization continues apace. We’ve become accustomed to thinking about the distorting effect these factors have on Democratic campaigns and NGOs, which are dominated by young activists with beliefs well to the left of the median Democrat. But the same forces are shaping the right’s leading lights. Given the high statistical likelihood that a young person who went to college is a Democrat, those college grads who are not liberal—the hardheaded holdouts who buck the trend—tend to be, well, as Shor put it, “really very weird.”
And because the right is not exempt from the iron laws governing left-wing nonprofits, highly educated elites tend to run Republican institutions, too. Hochman—who graduated from Colorado College earlier this year—may be a statistical unicorn, but young people who share his attitudes are common on the mastheads of conservative magazines, as well as among conservative activists, Capitol Hill staffers, and lower-tier alumni of the Trump administration. Which is to say, don’t be surprised if we begin hearing a lot more about “counterrevolution” from GOP officeholders.
Hochman has thick brown hair, with a disobedient cowlick in front, and large brown eyes. He wears a trim beard and—whenever possible—jeans and a flannel shirt. He looks like the kind of kid who would offer you granola at a trailhead. (And he might. He grew up in Oregon and loves to camp and hike; an overlap, he notes, between the far right and the far left in the Pacific Northwest is a love of roughing it outdoors.)* Hochman is a rising a star of what is being called, rather unimaginatively, the New Right. He and his comrades are populist culture warriors, cohered as much by temperament as ideology—and by certain fiercely held enmities. Some are “national conservatives,” who, like “Reformicons” of the 2010s, support pro-family welfare policy and reject the GOP’s tax-cutting orthodoxy. (NatCons, as they’re known, also tend to be China and immigration hawks who want an “industrial policy” for the heartland.) Others are “postliberal” localists, in the vein of Patrick Deneen, who wrote Why Liberalism Failed, and Rod Dreher, the irascible Eastern Orthodox blogger and author of The Benedict Option, a spirited argument for Christian retreat from the turpitude of public life into virtuous communal separatism. And others are Roman Catholic integralists, aspiring to a theologically ordered politics; Harvard Law professor Adrian Vermeule and University of Dallas politics professor and American Affairs editor Gladden Pappin are their touchstones.
Whichever denomination they prefer, New Rightists tend to agree that classical liberalism—of the sort embraced by previous generations of conservatives—has a big hole in the middle of it where a substantive concept of the Good should be. “My core belief is just that you can’t be a libertarian,” said Declan Leary, an integralist writer at The American Conservative. “You have to be something.” Leary, who is 22, lacks Hochman’s infectious sincerity; he can be rather droll and speaks in a world-weary tone belied by the occasional postpubescent voice crack. But Leary is no less passionate in his views. “All law is imbued with moral character,” he told me. “Let’s stop pretending otherwise, and just acknowledge which morals we’re trying to legislate … and then commit ourselves to them.”
Most New Right activists see the Trump presidency as a salutary development. At the very least, they view Trump’s success as a symptomatic expression of the novel forces at work in American life. “I’m still lukewarm on Trump, the man,” Hochman said. “I think he’s a moronic boomer who tapped into something by accident.” Saurabh Sharma, a 23-year-old New Right activist, told me that he got his start in politics watching the 2016 presidential campaign, listening to Bernie rallies and Trump rallies “and finding interesting things to like about both.” Trump would have been a better president, they believe, had his populist instincts not been reined in by the more establishment-minded figures on his staff, like son-in-law Jared Kushner. Nonetheless, Trump’s presidency was a suitable vehicle for the group’s blistering grievances against the liberal left and the conservative establishment. Indeed, their contempt for the latter sometimes seems to exceed their contempt for the former. “The smartest conservatives I knew in college had nothing but venom for the Republican Party,” one young writer told me. “Conservative priorities have been completely out of whack,” agreed Hochman. “We’ve been way too deferential to business interests at the expense of the people and the values that we claim to care about.” The New Right wants to see Republicans abandon their fealty to free-market dogmas, embrace traditional Christianity, and use the levers of state power to wage the culture war for keeps.
Importantly, most of them are Catholic. The church has always had an allure for conservatives—with its strict rules, hierarchies, and status as an institution bestriding antiquity and modernity. “Generally people expect that if you have radical politics, you converted,” said Leary, a rare Cradle Catholic in the bunch. Hochman, who was raised in a secular Jewish household, hasn’t been confirmed yet, but he attends Mass, where he occasionally finds himself sobbing uncontrollably, experiencing something, he said, “that I could not explain to you in the English language.” Hochman said his religious and political journeys are entangled; each made him more open to the idea that a tradition “preexisting modernity” has something to teach us.
He is the first to admit his movement is an elite phenomenon. “This is always something I have to check myself on. I don’t really know what a 22-year-old Republican voter in West Virginia thinks about these issues.” The battles raging between the new and old guards on the right—like those between socialists and liberals on the left—are battles between competing factions of the power elite. “By polling … most young Republicans are more liberal than their older counterparts on everything from diversity to LGBT rights to immigration to climate change,” Hochman acknowledged. Meanwhile, his milieu of young, conservative, intellectual elites is moving in the opposite direction. “They want a more culture war–oriented Republican Party.”
Not every young conservative shares the New Right’s orientation; some of the people I spoke to for this article dissented vociferously. But even the dissenters tend to acknowledge, if begrudgingly, that the “energy” among young conservatives is with the radicals. “The flavor of today’s politics is populism on the left and right, said Stephen Kent, a 31-year-old libertarian writer and podcaster. “It’s dismantling and challenging systems.” Kent speaks in a plaintive, almost philosophical tone about the failure of his own views to capture the moment: “Young people want radical ideas right now.” And though he believes libertarian ideas can be “quite disruptive to the status quo … the young right don’t see it that way.” For them, libertarianism is synonymous with the laissez-faire approach to economics and morality that dominates Washington, D.C., and has permitted the twin cancers of hyper-individualism and secularism to metastasize through the culture. “I suppose that’s the fault of libertarians,” Kent reflected, regretfully.
I asked Shor if he thought these “really very weird” young men stood a chance of becoming the next generation of Republican leaders. Coyly, he pointed to the recent advances of left-wing ideologues, who increasingly shape the Democratic agenda. “If you had interviewed young people at a Jacobin reading club in 2014 and printed that in TNR, they would’ve sounded pretty crazy to most people.” But now, he said, their sentiments are repeated by elected members of Congress. (As someone who attended many pre-Bernie gatherings of socialist nerds, I can tell you, the experience of the past five years has been disorienting.) “I think it’s really easy to be like, ‘Ah, these people are nuts,’” Shor said. “But it turns out, it’s a lot easier to take over a political party than you would think.” Shor, who is loath to make a prediction he can’t back up with data, said if he “had to bet,” he would bet on the New Right.
Conservatism has always been a young man’s game. William F. Buckley Jr. was 25 when he wrote God and Man at Yale, the book that launched his career and established an enduring if tiresome literary genre: Native informant skewers the hypocrisies and perversions of liberal campus life. In a harsh New York Times review, erstwhile éminence grise of the nascent conservative revival Peter Viereck, himself only 35, faulted Buckley—a glib but vivacious “product of narrow economic privilege”—for skipping over the agonizing nights of “lonely, unrespectable soul-searching” by which a “sunnily conservative” disposition was earned by the likes of Disraeli, Churchill, Pope, and Swift. The happy warrior Buckley evidently hadn’t suffered enough to fully appreciate the moral frailty that everywhere bedevils man’s utopian designs. “Some day, being intelligent and earnest, Buckley may give us the hard-won wisdom of synthesis,” Viereck wrote. “For that, he will first need to add, to his existing virtues, three new ones: sensitivity, compassion, and an inkling of the tragic paradoxes of la condition humaine.”
But as Viereck soon discovered, a successful “revolt against revolt” enlists more than gloomy, ironical old men. Indeed, it requires savvy arrivistes like Buckley. It was precisely those qualities Viereck resented in his rival—the flashy clubman’s wit, the willfulness and self-regard, the soft spot for splenetic populists like Joe McCarthy—that would prove indispensable to the task at hand. In 1955, just four years after Viereck’s broadside, Buckley founded National Review, providing the intellectual spark, as whiggish conservative self-mythology has it, to ignite the prairie fire of Goldwater, and, later, the heedless conflagration of Reagan.
Still, it’s not surprising that Viereck mistrusted Buckley’s youthful exuberance and guile. The English philosopher Michael Oakeshott memorably defined conservatism as a preference for “the familiar to the unknown … the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.” Insofar as the conservative disposition cherishes the permanent things, conservative activism presents a problem. Someone, at some point, must forgo quiet contemplation of man’s tragicomic fallenness, put down the pipe, and enter the fray. As Buckley put it, in an editorial on the eve of his candidate’s epic defeat in 1964, “Counterrevolution—and that, really, is what Barry Goldwater is talking about—is a sweaty, brawly business.” (As you can see, “counterrevolution” isn’t, or at least wasn’t, foreign to the conservative lexicon.)
And herein lies a contradiction. Only the young have the energy, the optimism and will, to engage in that “brawly business.” And yet they have no real memory of the world they seek to restore. They can only grasp in the dark, among their own shapeless longings, for a handhold on the paradise lost. And thus the world they imagine and the means they enlist to enact it are inevitably novel. In this way, conservative activists are always retro-futurists of a sort, imagining into being—from within the heady stew of modernity—a grisly simulacrum of the “old world.” Stutter-step utopians, they move things forward by trying to move them back.
Buckley was the movement’s “Paul-in-a-hurry” (Viereck’s phrase), but the church of postwar conservatism was built by many soft, unlined hands. In September 1960, Buckley welcomed more than 90 of the nation’s leading student conservatives to his family’s 47-acre estate in Sharon, Connecticut. In the shade of an enormous elm tree on the Buckley front lawn, postwar conservatism’s first mass membership youth organization—the Young Americans for Freedom—was founded. Twenty-six-year-old M. Stanton Evans, one of the older activists in attendance, drafted a manifesto of shared principles, “The Sharon Statement.” Just 400 words long, it essentially restates the “fusionist” vision set out in the pages of National Review—affirming God-given rights, free markets, and militant anti-Communism.
“What is so striking in the students who met at Sharon is their appetite for power,” marveled Buckley a few weeks later. “Ten years ago the struggle seemed so long, so endless, even, that we did not even dream of victory.” Something had changed. The left saw it, too. “The new conservatives are not disinterested kids who maintain the status quo by political immobility,” wrote Tom Hayden, soon-to-be author of the Students for a Democratic Society’s Port Huron Statement, a rejoinder of sorts to the sentiments at Sharon, in 1961. “They are unashamed, bold, and articulately enamored of certain doctrines.” What distinguished these “new conservatives” from their forebearers, Hayden warned, was “their militant mood.”
That militancy paid off. Members of Young Americans for Freedom secured Goldwater’s nomination, fueled Reagan’s campaign for governor, and engineered the right-wing takeover of the Republican Party from tail to snout—upending the liberal consensus embodied by Nelson Rockefeller. The organization’s first executive secretary, Richard Viguerie, innovated direct-mail strategies that powered conservative issue campaigns for decades. And by the end of the twentieth century, alumni such as Jeff Sessions and Dan Quayle were holding federal office—and others, like David Keene, were running the show behind the scenes.
To the New Right vanguard, twentieth-century conservatism is a victim of its own success. The “militant mood” that fueled postwar conservativism’s rise has given way to a stolid and nostalgic institutionalism, an ideology in thrall to its victorious past and complacent about the challenges of the present. In the process, figures like Buckley sheared off the movement’s rougher, populist edges as a condition of full inclusion in the project of governance. The movement’s flagship think tanks (Cato Institute, Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute) are sepultures. Young Americans for Freedom’s successor organization, Young America Foundation, is a refuge for young people still clinging to the old ways—as Hochman put it, “fusionists with pictures of Ronald Reagan in their dorm bedrooms.” Meanwhile, the GOP has ossified into a decadent, self-dealing oligarchy, perilously distant from its base, accommodated to the moral heresies of so-called wokeness and clinging to the rotted corpse of the Reaganite consensus. The conservative old guard and their younger functionaries, Hochman told me, “just want to run the greatest hits of 1984 over and over again.”
Lately, skirmishes (which is to say, Twitter fights) among young fusionists—i.e., defenders of conservative orthodoxy—and the New Right have increased in frequency and vitriol. “It’s become more and more vicious,” Hochman said, especially since Trump lost the 2020 election. Hochman has a friendly, likable disposition and a curious mind; his impulse is to unite different factions. But the battles lines are stark. “I still have friends who are YAF-types,” he said. “Those friendships are much more strained than they used to be.”
Jack Butler, who is 28, doesn’t have a picture of Ronald Reagan in his room, but his writing—also for National Review—has frequently attracted the New Right’s ire.* More than Hochman or Leary, Butler has a bit of the “old man in a young man’s body” affect one traditionally associates with young conservatives. He grew up in a red suburb of Cincinnati and attended Hillsdale College, a conservative school with a Great Books curriculum. He is ornery and practical; he loves Dune and Tolkien. As others told me, he is a bit of a glutton for punishment, picking fights with the most pugnacious New Right figures, like 36-year-old former New York Post opinion editor Sohrab Ahmari. But he’s not attracted to conflict for conflict’s sake. Butler’s differences with his antagonists are profound: philosophical, temperamental, and strategic. “They’re convinced that everything that exists currently within the conservative movement just needs to be burned down, obliterated,” Butler said. He disagrees. Much of what the New Right wants, he said, has “an intellectual paternity already within the conservative movement.” Pat Buchanan emphasized immigration, trade, and isolation; Reformicons wanted pro-natalist tax policy. Butler believes conservativism has room for many competing tendencies—or perhaps it’s best thought of as a generation-spanning game of king of the hill, in which one strain is dominant for a time before another topples it. The rise and fall “is a natural process.” “There’s never going to be a point where you’ve slain all of your enemies and you are now in charge,” he said. This, he believes, is precisely what the New Right wants: total domination. They’ll only be satisfied when the libertarians and neocons bend the knee and beg for forgiveness. “Their real enemy,” Butler said, “is reality.”
Not that he isn’t open to new ideas. “I can’t really afford to be one of these sticks-in-the-mud who is in outright denial that there are these new currents.” Butler is the submissions editor at National Review, and thus arguably Hochman’s boss. It’s another tribute to Hochman’s geniality—or at least his self-preservationist instinct—that there appears to be no ill will between the two. “I like Jack,” Hochman told me. “One of the reasons I wanted to work at National Review in the first place is because it has traditionally been the place where these important intra-conservative debates happen.”
But not everyone shares Hochman’s judicious assessment of National Review’s ecumenism. “It was definitely not an environment conducive to the thriving of a 20-year-old integralist writer,” said Leary, who interned at NR. Although, he hastened to add, “it wasn’t actively stifling.” For many on the New Right, the magazine represents the old guard. And to the extent that its writers—like Butler—have lashed out against the new forces, they do so out of anxiety about no longer being the protagonists of conservative history (if they ever were).
Michael Anton, the truculent conservative essayist who served on Trump’s National Security Council, goes further. Anton sees the former Buckleyite bullhorn as a cudgel for policing the discourse. “Nobody is worse on this than the clowns and the sissies at National Review,” Anton said in a recent interview. “They think that the most heroic act of the twentieth century was Buckley purging the Birchers. They just spend every day searching through what people on the Right write for some little minor thing they can disagree with so they can accuse them of being evil, racists, etcetera, and oust them from the conservative movement. They do the left’s bidding for the left.”
Such bellicosity is Anton’s signature. He’s a teacher at Hillsdale and a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, a California think tank founded by students of Harry Jaffa, the infamously combative Lincoln scholar best known for applying the esoteric methods of his teacher, the German Jewish émigré philosopher and classicist Leo Strauss, to the American scene. (Recounting these sorts of patrimonial genealogies is de rigueur in conservative intellectual circles.) In Jaffa’s telling, Lincoln, like the founders before him, believed in an objective moral order, from which sprung natural rights discernible by human reason. Slavery, for Lincoln, was wrong; no vote by the people could make it right. The same, Jaffa and his heirs later argued, goes for abortion.
Among legacy conservative institutions, Claremont has the closest ties to the New Right. In the Trump years, it became something of a clearinghouse for pro-Trump intellectualism. Anton is most famous as the pseudonymous author of “The Flight 93 Election” essay, a 2016 call to arms for conservatives to swallow their pride—and their misplaced prudence—and align with Donald Trump. Another Claremont scholar, John Eastman, prepared a memo outlining how Mike Pence could throw out the 2020 election results. (“You really need to listen to John,” Trump reportedly told Pence.) Recently, the institute has published several pieces speculating about the prospect of civil war. Claremont has close ties to the most serious New Right political project, American Moment, a sort of policy shop cum training institute, founded by Sharma and two other conservative twentysomethings, that aims to “identify, educate, and credential” a new generation of staffers and bureaucrats who believe in “strong families, a sovereign nation, and prosperity for all.” In other words, they hope to staff the next Trump presidency with true believers like themselves.
Many impressive thinkers, as well as several hacks and propagandists, have passed through Claremont’s youth programs and fellowships. Hochman and Sharma were Publius Fellows this summer; so was a young staffer for Marjorie Taylor Greene. Other beneficiaries of Claremont’s tutelage include Newsweek opinion editor Josh Hammer (a New Right fellow traveler), the Manhattan Institute’s Christopher Rufo (lead shit-stirrer of the critical race theory panic), Ben Shapiro (the fast-talking YouTube mega-personality), The New York Times’ Ross Douthat, and Jack Posobiec, the notorious Pizzagate conspiracist who now edits Human Events. A mixed bag, to say the least. Fellowships of this sort—which involve long days of discussing political philosophy and long nights of drinking wine with conservative luminaries—have long played a role in shaping the next generation of right-wing elites.
There’s a joke one hears in academic circles that all this conservative foundation money slushing around functions as a “welfare state” for lackluster writers and scholars. “That’s a real thing,” Hochman told me. “A lot of not-smart people can get by because there’s dearth of talent.” But the flip side, he said, “is that if you’re a young conservative who’s intellectually minded, can actually think and put together coherent sentences, and likes to read, the world opens up for you.” Hochman has had fellowships at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and is currently a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow; he marvels at the generosity of the mentors he’s acquired through these experiences. They’ll “have me over to their house, talk to me until 1 a.m. about all my stupid questions,” he said.
For young thinkers who feel alienated by the liberal consensus on their campuses, being invited into a circle of like-minded outsiders can feel like genuine succor. Moreover, Hochman said, “that marginalization gives a sense of intimacy and connection and community.” (Hochman’s path to the right was paved, in part, by his friendship with Tim Fuller, a renowned Oakeshott scholar and one of the only conservative teachers Hochman encountered at Colorado College.) My friend and podcast co-host, Matthew Sitman, a former conservative who moved through similar circles as a graduate student in the mid-2000s, agrees. “It felt like an initiation into a tradition that was simultaneously an alternative to the mainstream, but also gave you a real sense of purpose and continuity.” That heady mix of gravitas and tradition with exclusivity and rebellion is the conservative movement’s special sauce.
For older conservative scholars, access to genuinely hungry young intellects—who aren’t already Marxists—is its own sort of reward. Anton has thought deeply about how to harness the youthful dynamism of the New Right to achieve conservative ends. In a recent essay for Claremont’s The American Mind entitled “The Art of Spiritual War,” Anton looked, as he often does, to the Florentine Secretary for guidance. Machiavelli, Anton writes, faced a challenge similar to that of today’s insurgent right; he “sought to liberate philosophy and politics—theory and practice—from a stultifying tradition and corrupt institutions.” Anton derives his interpretation of Machiavelli from Strauss, who taught multiple generations of (mostly conservative) thinkers to mine classical and modern philosophy for useful bits of statecraft. “Machiavelli addresses his passionate and muted call to the young,” Strauss writes, “to men whose prudence has not enfeebled their youthful vigor of mind, quickness, militancy, impetuosity and audacity.”
These days, Anton shares Machiavelli’s preference for youth. “The boomers ... tend to be the ones besotted with Reagan nostalgia and conservatism’s past successes,” Anton recently said. For Anton and his compatriots, the rot in the existing order is deep. And the old, who enjoy a place of honor, if not power, in the regime, have a stake in preserving it—a squeamishness about upsetting the apple cart. The young, by contrast, have no such loyalties nor inhibitions. Unlike the fuddy-duddy elders in conservatism’s mainstream, the New Right—to quote a ubiquitous Claremont shibboleth—know what time it is.
(Jack Butler can’t conceal his pique when I quote this phrase to him: “For the record, I wear a watch all the time as a runner. I’m pretty confident of what time it is during most periods.”)
In the interest of attracting and retaining youthful vigor, Claremont has opened its doors to some of the less savory and certainly illiberal ideas percolating on the right. In 2019, The American Mind hosted a symposium on the alt-right Twitter personality “Bronze Age Pervert,” known as BAP, who posts homoerotic photos of bodybuilders alongside diatribes against the repulsive “bugmen” who would impose egalitarian shackles on their beautiful betters. More recently, Claremont scholars have come under the spell of Silicon Valley’s monarchist blogger Curtis Yarvin, who advocates a coup to install an American Caesar to preside over a corporatist government with no democratic legitimacy. Anton has said he finds “disagreeing with BAP, and with Yarvin … infinitely more fruitful than engaging with the entire ‘conservative establishment’ combined.” As he wrote in a review of BAP’s manifesto, Bronze Age Mindset, “In the spiritual war for the hearts and minds of the disaffected youth on the right, conservatism is losing. BAPism is winning.” BAP’s most odious pronouncements, Anton writes, remind “one of Machiavelli,” who “obscures his sensible and moderate teachings with outrageous statements that appeal to the impetuosity, zeal, and bravado of the young.” Anton sees his and Claremont’s role as yoking the “ardor of youth” to “the prudence of age.”
And how’s that working? It’s not clear whether Claremont has managed to convert any BAPists—young male fetishists for classical architecture, bodybuilding, and eugenics—into Straussian constitutionalists. Hochman said, politely, that he appreciates that Claremont is “committed to being open to ideas outside of the rules that have been set about what you’re allowed to say.” But as a skinny political theory nerd whose father is a secular Jew, Hochman was never a likely candidate for Übermenschian reaction. Leary, a post-liberal Catholic with little use for the American founding, said, “I don’t know that anybody under the age of 70 actually believes anything Claremont says.” No doubt as a shot at his friend Hochman, he added, “You go to a Claremont fellowship to get free booze and two weeks in California.” (Leary later clarified that “Claremont is an invaluable part of the New Right coalition, to be sure.”)
For his part, Butler noted that ardor itself has no moral valence. Young people are often attracted to energetic movements; those movements aren’t always good. The Claremont strategy, Butler said, appears to be allying with everyone on the right who’s been “discredited in one way or another.” If the left continues to shift “the cultural barometer for acceptable discourse further and further in its direction, then you’ll have more and more of these people on your side, and then you can tweet your way to victory—or something.” In other words, they’re building an army of the canceled and deplorable to retake Rome.
What you will not hear a lot of in New Right circles is discussion of electoral strategy. On first blush, this is odd. After all, if you squint, the New Right is advocating a potentially efficacious political program: that combination of economic populism (a.k.a. welfare state liberalism) and cultural conservatism (a.k.a. Christianity and immigration enforcement) that pollsters are always telling us has untapped potential as a majoritarian prospect in U.S. politics. In 2016, Donald Trump did twice as well as Hillary Clinton, Shor told me, “among people who simultaneously thought that reducing immigration was important and who thought that preventing cuts to Social Security” was important. The median voter is religious, and probably wants somewhat more restrictive abortion laws than status quo. The trouble, Shor said, is that they also “don’t want to live in a Catholic dictatorship.”
In other words, conservative elites, not unlike their progressive counterparts, are too weird to lead their revolution by democratic means. Many of the things that attract elite conservatives to the New Right—a thick sense of traditional morality, a communitarian ethos, a revolt against licentious modern excess, a sublime integration of spiritual and political life, and punishing, antiquarian modes of religious worship—bewilder and annoy their prospective electoral base, which is composed primarily of folk libertarian Trump voters. (By my lights, Matthew Walther’s concept of “Barstool Conservatives”—fratty libertines dedicated primarily to scandalizing overbearing libs and flouting their social norms and niceties—remains the most clear-eyed encapsulation of the GOP’s prospective future majority.) The GOP base may not want to cut Social Security, but they also don’t care about Common Good Constitutionalism, much less the Latin Mass. The vehement opposition of Trump’s most ardent supporters to Covid-19 measures is an expression of this incongruity. To his credit, Vermeule, the Harvard integralist, supports vaccine mandates on the basis of Catholic and communitarian principle—after all, if you’re comfortable with legislating in the interest of the common Good, whether or not its beneficiaries know what’s Good for them, vaccines make a lot of sense—but he doesn’t have much company on the right in doing so.
“The New Right faces a fundamental mismatch of means and ends,” wrote the conservative writer Tanner Greer in a clever blog post earlier this year. “They hope to build a post-libertarian national order on the backs of the most naturally libertarian demographic in the country!” Like the Ivy League woke scolds of the progressive left, Greer contends, the New Right derives its philosophic impulses from Puritanism—a top-down, northeastern tradition of communal obligation and piety. Meanwhile, archetypal Trump Country is inhabited by the descendants of Scots-Irish anti-authoritarians who deplore outsiders, hierarchy, and learned university men. In this way, the New Right’s enthusiasm for the candidacy of J.D. Vance—as well as his lagging poll numbers—are perfectly legible: Vance made his name deriding the self-destructive impulses of Scots-Irish hillbillies, to the delight of coastal elites; his new program of pious, populist paternalism is a flavor of the same.
But there’s another—more disturbing—reason the New Right rarely expresses its ambitions as a democratic proposition: Its adherents are not convinced democracy is the way to go. This impulse, of course, manifested in the Claremont set’s well-documented efforts to abet the Trumpian coup. And it’s also evident in the New Right’s appetite for Yarvin’s Caesarist shortcuts, integralist fantasies, and the prospect of deploying state power to punish enemies and reward friends. “What I find most distressing,” Butler said, “is a kind of casual, at best, relationship to the thing that I think the conservative movement is organized around and ought always to be promoting—namely, the founding principles.” When he invokes the axes of constitutionalism as a limiting factor for conservative aspirations, Butler said, “I’m typically seen as the kind of—let’s just say ‘cuck,’ or insert the adjective du jour.”
Hochman would quibble with this characterization of his compatriots. He believes, like a good Publius Fellow, that the principles of the founding are sacrosanct; the problem is their abandonment by the contemporary left. The sort of counterrevolution the Claremont set has in mind—in principle—is one that would recover the world-historic genius of the founders and restore American politics to its proper footing at the intersection of natural right, equality, and Judeo-Christian morality. But Leary sees things otherwise: “I don’t know anybody who’s not 70 who’s super into the American founding.” In his view, to the extent the Claremonters appreciate the severity of the crisis, they’re playing word games about what is to be done. The founding is a sort of catechism for Anton and his ilk, but that doesn’t apply to the New Right vanguard. “None of us are particularly committed to it, frankly…. There are no 25-year-old Harry Jaffas on the rise on the American right.”
Perhaps to his credit—or, at least, to my relief—Leary is fairly pessimistic about the prospects of his ideas assuming the force of law, whether democratically or otherwise. Asked whether he thought about mass politics, he replied, “No, I think you have to be a psychopath to do so. Politics doesn’t interest me. It never has.” And when I brought up Vermeule’s concept of “integration from within”—the notion that smaller cadres of radical bureaucrats might profitably use the levers of state to reshape the country’s moral orthodoxy—he was once again deflating and derisive: “I’m never going to go take over the Treasury Department and try to make it Catholic. But, I mean, good on you if you manage it.” In his contemplative moments, Leary seems resigned to Benedictine options: “I basically think we should do what we can and all buy farms, and then whatever happens, happens.”
But Leary’s quietist pessimism derives from the same sense of doom that inspires other members of the New Right to less quiet solutions. The key to understanding the attitudes of young conservatives is their pervasive sense that the war for the soul of America has already been lost, their belief that progressives have taken control of every efficacious power center in American society—save a few hours per night of Fox News—and reshaped the country beyond recognition. The most acute expressions of this revolution, in their view, are the normalizing of transgender identities, the pervasiveness of racial “equity,” abortion, cancel culture, and the pornification of media (including for young children). But their catastrophist sense of American affairs is difficult to fully grasp for those of us who don’t feel it. It has a decidedly religious, eschatological dimension. Buckley’s febrile heirs have convinced themselves “that basically we’re at Megiddo,” Butler said, referring to the site of the final showdown in the Book of Revelation. “We’re in the battle at the end of time, and the prince of darkness is already at the door, and the whole world is now a contest between activist left and activist right.”
If the regime has already been corrupted, usurped by evil forces who will punish anyone who dissents from the woke orthodoxy, what measures aren’t justified to redeem it? If the founding principles have been distorted beyond recognition by an unjust regime, why should the legal parameters of that regime circumscribe acceptable means of rebellion? As Claremont senior fellow Glenn Ellmers recently put it, “Overturning the existing post-American order, and re-establishing America’s ancient principles in practice, is a sort of counter-revolution, and the only road forward.” Liberal democracy as the founders envisioned can only be restored by subverting liberal democracy as it has become. “I think the vast majority of people feel … that this is the end,” Leary told me. “We’ve either got to take control or all is lost.”
One of Buckley’s earliest influences was the idiosyncratic libertarian writer Albert Jay Nock. Nock’s most memorable concept was that of “The Remnant,” a tiny, marginal community of right-thinking people who knew the true nature of state and society. Nock, in a moment of deep pessimism, advised that instead of seeking power through reform or revolution, individualists ought to simply nurture The Remnant—those who, when things got bad enough, would be called upon to restore the good life. The Remnant, as in the Book of Isaiah, are those who remain, who keep the faith, who wait to rebuild in the wake of catastrophe.
“The conservative movement ... has always wobbled between despair at being a remnant—at merely keeping alive the embers of Western Civilization until we pass through the coming Dark Ages—versus the intoxicating prospect of actually wielding political power,” Sitman recently told me. In a way, the current radicalism flips the idea of The Remnant on its head. “Why couldn’t a relatively small group of people that understand the true situation—if they’re willing to open this Pandora’s box of extralegal, extrajudicial, even extra-political power—why couldn’t they simply direct the inchoate sense of discontent in the country?”
The New Right knows itself to be a Remnant, has no illusions that it could be otherwise—but why not a Remnant that rules?
* This article originally misstated Butler’s age and Hochman’s hobbies.