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The Illiberal Upstarts Trying to Reinvent the American Right

Meet the young intellectuals who think the culture war is not being fought hard enough.

Illustration by Curt Merlo

Today’s youth are overwhelmingly left-wing. So who are the young conservatives? On Episode 40 of The Politics of Everything, hosts Laura Marsh and Alex Pareene talk to Sam Adler-Bell, a writer and the host of the podcast Know Your Enemy, about an energetic cohort who call themselves the New Right. They differ in many ways from the median right-wing voter. They hate the Republican establishment. Their heroes are illiberal authoritarians. Are they going to remake conservatism?


Sam Adler-Bell: These guys are on Twitter all day, every day. From their perspective, when they look out onto the American scene, which is to say, when they log on to Twitter every day, or they read The New York Times, or they watch Netflix, leftists are in charge everywhere they look. They have a stranglehold on the American soul.

Alex Pareene: In everything from election results to highly publicized battles about political correctness on campus, it can seem sometimes like the entirety of American youth is left of center.

Laura Marsh: And that’s actually more true than not. There’s a partisan age gap in American politics, and it’s likely never been wider. Brookings Institution had a report last year that says, “Millennials and Generation Z appear to be far more Democratic-leaning than their predecessors were at the same age.”

Alex: But that doesn’t mean there aren’t any young conservatives. Today we’re talking with the writer Sam Adler-Bell about a group of young intellectuals and activists ready to enter—and maybe eventually lead—the conservative movement.

Laura: When an overwhelming majority of your generational cohort is liberal or left-wing, what issues, attitudes, and commitments drive a young person to the right? What kind of young person actually finds conservatism appealing in an age of Trumpian populism?

Alex: Or maybe a better question is: What kind of young conservative intellectual does an age of Trumpian populism create? I’m Alex Pareene.

Laura: And I’m Laura Marsh.

Alex: This is The Politics of Everything.


Alex: We’re joined now by Sam Adler-Bell, a frequent contributor to The New Republic and co-host of the podcast Know Your Enemy. Sam wrote a feature for the current issue of the magazine called “The Radical Young Intellectuals Who Want to Take Over the American Right.” Sam, thank you for joining us today.

Sam: Hey, thanks for having me.

Alex: Your piece for The New Republic is about a new breed of young conservatives, particularly a fairly radical group of them that are disgusted with the Republican Party establishment and basically believe that the conservative movement, as it exists, needs to be destroyed and rebuilt. You write about, in particular, two young men: Nate Hochman and Jack Butler. And before we get into what they believe, I’m curious how you encountered these guys.

Sam: Nate, it’s an easy answer: He was a fan of our podcast, Know Your Enemy.

Alex: So just give us a very brief description of what your podcast is. Who’s the enemy?

Sam: I co-host a podcast about the American right with my friend—not my enemy—Matthew Sitman, who’s an editor at the liberal Catholic magazine Commonweal. Matt’s a former conservative. I’m a geek about conservative intellectual history. The enemy is American conservatism.

Alex: But Nate, a conservative, was a fan of the show?

Sam: Yeah, that’s right. We have a relatively small subset of historically and intellectually minded young conservatives who like the show, and figuring out exactly why that is is a little bit of a soul-searching thing for us. I think part of it is just that there’s not that many places, even hosted by conservatives, where they go deep into the history and take the ideas undergirding American conservatism seriously, which we do. From the beginning, when Nate first reached out to us, that’s what he said: “I disagree with your conclusions, but I like the way you approach the subject matter.”

Laura: The “know your enemy” part of it, for them, is knowing how the left thinks about their ideas.

Sam: Yeah. And I can imagine the appeal of that. If there was a right-wing podcast that approached left-wing ideas with as much good faith and sophistication, I would definitely listen to it. It would be fascinating.

Alex: That was The Glenn Beck Program. Don’t you remember?

Sam: That’s right! What happened to that guy?

Alex: So Nate was a fan of the show. And he works with Jack?

Sam: Jack, the other main character in the story, is one of the editors at National Review, where Nate is a writer now.

Laura: Jack is representative of someone who holds fairly familiar Republican beliefs, but Nate belongs to this other cohort that have been calling themselves the New Right. You describe them as radical young conservatives. What defines their politics?

Sam: They’re usually more pro-Trump than not, or at least see Trump as a good development in conservatism. They are much more comfortable with state power. They’re much more critical of free markets. They’re isolationists, for the most part, and critical of the global war on terror. They tend to be skeptical of libertarian orthodoxy in conservatism: The idea of “liberty for its own sake” is really concerning to them because, fundamentally, they’re culture warriors, and they think that the right has not fought the culture war hard enough, if you can imagine that. But it’s true. At the risk of giving them a good slogan, if the cry of the internationalist left is, “No war but the class war,” the New Right’s call is something like, “No war but the culture war,” which in their mythology is also itself a class war.

Laura: You described them as culture warriors. What are the issues in the U.S. that get them really riled up?

Sam: They’re super anti-choice. They’re against transgender visibility and rights in every dimension. They are really, really, really concerned about what they call “wokeness”—the whole kind of “racial equity agenda.” They have a real nostalgia for the postwar, single-income, patriarchal, normative family.

Laura: How do they feel about women in general?

Sam: Basically, along with that is a real hostility to the sexual revolution. There are people in this milieu who will talk about the need for a sexual counterrevolution.

Laura: When I think about the culture wars, I think about all those big issues that you’ve named. But when I think about them being fought, the thing that makes it a culture war is that it’s being fought over something patently ridiculous and unworthy of discussion. A recent example is the Mr. Potato Head kerfuffle. A bunch of conservatives were angry that there was now a Potato Head Person.

Sam: “He doesn’t come with a penis anymore.”

Laura: And of course the whole thing was completely misrepresented, and you can still buy a Mr. Potato Head. But are these guys the kind of people who would wade into that level of discussion, or are they a bit more rarefied? Are they keeping their powder dry for something of more substance?

Sam: I think it varies by personality. I mean, these guys are on Twitter all day, every day. They’re not above a Mr. Potato Head freak-out. But they’ll try to describe the problem of the normalization of transgender ideology in a more, like—

Alex: Intellectualize it a bit?

Sam: Yeah, absolutely. There is this sort of sense that we all have that “culture war” means something that’s a distraction, or is superfluous, or is a way of not focusing on the core economic issues and material issues that distinguish the ideological factions in America. But a lot of people on the New Right would say that all issues are culture-war issues. They think that economic issues are culture-war issues. If you create a political economy that encourages women to stay home with their children—encourages the formation of heterosexual families—you have to do that using economic policy, but the outcome is the kind of culture that they want. And so they will say things like “every issue is a culture-war issue.”

Alex: It’s a little bit of funhouse-mirror leftism, isn’t it? Because the argument that all of these things are material is sort of a competing left-wing explanation for some of these issues.

Sam: Totally.

Alex: What’s interesting is, as you say, this is a sort of hip, new, young conservatism, to a degree. And all of them are also right-wing Catholics?

Sam: For the most part.

Alex: That’s fascinating.

Sam: A lot of this is online—these are Twitter personalities who also have purchase at various right-wing magazines. There’s an online phenomenon that’s called “Trad Cath.” But Catholicism also has a really long pedigree on the right. Most of the founders of National Review were either cradle Catholics, like Bill Buckley, or Catholic converts, like Brent Bozell or Wilmore Kendall. Catholicism is really appealing to them because it’s hierarchical, it bestrides antiquity and modernity, it’s patriarchal, and it has a very well-defined concept of moral ends, which can’t be reduced to liberal rationality—which is what they like about it.

Laura: There’s only one person in the piece who was born a Catholic; most of these people have converted to Catholicism.

Sam: And that was true, like I said, of the early conservatives of the postwar era, too. There’s an aspect of the zeal of the converted here. These are people who became dissatisfied with liberal modernity for various reasons and they go out looking for something that feels like a thicker, more demanding religious and political sense of obligation. Also in the background here is the fact that Catholicism has always played this role on the right. A lot of young conservatives convert because it’s kind of the cool thing to do in right-wing elite circles. It always has been. In fact, Nate told me that some of his concern about taking the final step of being confirmed is that he feels like there’s a lot of pressure to do it that isn’t exactly motivated by God, or his theological commitments, as much as it is by his career, because Catholicism has its hooks in the right-wing elite, if not in America—in the masses—because Catholics are still split between the Democrats and the Republican Party.

Alex: So you’ve described what their peeves are, what they don’t like about modern society: trans people, wokeness. Outside of endless war, what is their problem with the Republican Party? It seems to hate those things.

Sam: Like I said, they’re a lot more sympathetic to embracing some kind of welfare state, as long as it encourages certain kinds of family formation, and they think that even though the conservative movement has presented itself as the representative of religious Christians in America, they haven’t fought hard enough and they haven’t been willing to use the levers of the state, in particular, to enforce some kind of moral orthodoxy in the public. But the big thing is that this sort of fusionist bargain—the operating assumption of the American conservative movement since the 1950s, which is that politics is the place where you guarantee liberty, and privately, you want to foster traditionalism and Christian moral values—has been a really bad bargain for Christian conservatives. Because actually, if you let liberalism just run amok in the public sphere, you lose it in the private sphere.

Alex: I was struck by their hostility to libertarianism, because I remember when I briefly lived in Washington, in the tail end of the Bush years, that was the only successful and visible youth conservative movement. They were all Reason magazine and Cato Institute. That’s where the energy was back then.

Sam: Ron Paul.

Alex: Exactly, Ron Paul had his own youth wing. And it seems to have taken quite a shift to this sort of hierarchical, Catholic-inspired culture-war stuff.

Sam: There’s still that stuff out there. There are still young libertarians, and there are still weirdos in the right-wing orbit who are libertarian who would call themselves anarcho-capitalists or paleo-libertarians who are basically just like libertarians, but more racist. It is notable that the energy of this movement feels comparable to what you’re describing among young libertarians back then—the outsiders of a younger generation at war with what they see as the mainstream of the party. It is an irony and a contingent product of history that they take such different perspectives on the use of state power.

Laura: Do they have any heroes from the last 50 years in American politics? Is there a figure—in American politics or somewhere else in the world—that they think is doing things right?

Sam: A lot of them like Pat Buchanan. The sort of paleocon strain in conservatism is more sympathetic to them because it could be more isolationist, it was more nativist. They’re really hard-core nativists. They want to stop illegal immigration, but they want to limit legal immigration significantly, too, as did the Trump administration, at least in word. Some of them do look back to hard-core Christian corporatist governments in the twentieth century. There was a Salazar moment.

Laura: That was a long-lived dictatorship in Portugal.

Sam: Yes. And there are Francoists amongst this group. A lot of them share this enthusiasm for Viktor Orbán’s idea of illiberal democracy in Hungary. Anywhere they perceive a powerful state willing to impose a Christian moral orthodoxy on the public, with a little bit more sympathy for welfarism to support certain kinds of families and certain kinds of workers, they like it.

Laura: That’s so interesting, because I think those examples really help when you’re trying to imagine what that would be like. And the answer is Orbán’s Hungary.

Sam: They’re very explicit about that. The whole Christian democrat tradition in Europe is something that they approve of.

Alex: So the sort of politicians and leaders that these people look up to basically gives away what they are after. They’re looking for illiberal authoritarianism.

Laura: But is anyone listening to them? After a short break, we’ll be back to talk about how much influence this group has. How worried should we be?


Alex: Now that we’ve established what sort of regimes they admire, I feel like we should ask, “Why should we care about these guys?” Your subjects are a couple of young people working at a magazine, right? What’s the case for caring about their wacky beliefs?

Sam: It’s a good question. The place that I came down is that we’re familiar with this argument about the left: that people who graduate from elite universities have pretty extreme left-wing views compared to the median Democrat, and certainly compared to the median voter. The same thing is true of these negatively polarized right-wing, highly educated elites. They’re far to the right of the median Republican, but all the signals point to: We can’t discount it just because it’s a sort of a phenomenon amongst these very strange elite intellectuals, because very strange elite intellectuals—and very young, strange elite intellectuals—have been in charge of the conservative movement forever. It’s just that the character of that movement is changing, because their character is changing.

Laura: You talk about the sense of isolation this group of guys has. Can you explain how that forms in college?

Sam: I would say that for a certain kind of white man who came up in an elite university in the past 10 years, but maybe even more so in the past five, six, seven, there was a sense of a suffocating liberal orthodoxy on their campus. If they have some other kind of ideological inputs pushing them in the direction of misogyny, or nasty racial ideas, or just a contrarian instinct, they may find themselves in a position where they go: “All of the people who are the authority around me on this campus are telling me to believe this set of often superficial but nonetheless progressive things. I’m going to look for the people who are saying the bad thing, the thing you’re not supposed to say.” And then they find each other.

Laura: Some of them are so young, like Nate Hochman. He’s only 23, just out of college. Do they maintain a sense of isolation after college? Because when you look around, elite Conservative Catholics are pretty well represented. Look at the Supreme Court, because on the Supreme Court, for a religious minority to be so well represented—this is not the mainstream version of Christianity in the U.S. They actually have a huge amount of power.

Sam: I’ll say two things. One is that from their perspective, the only place in American life where conservatives have any power is basically the courts and, every once in a while, the federal government. They are very fixated on the fact that progressives and leftists control all the cultural hegemony. That’s precisely why they think it’s so important that when they periodically get power in the form of a Trump, and when they have a supermajority on the court, that they absolutely need to use it to enforce in the private sphere their ideal morals. Otherwise, in every input into American private morality, the morality that reigns regardless of what the government does, liberals and progressives have control. So that’s their perspective. It’s also especially because they live in D.C. and New York and California, where they actually are surrounded by liberals. These people aren’t living in small communities that are conservative, where they could. But they’re intellectual elites who want to work in the power centers. So, their perspective on what America is is totally skewed by the fact that they spend all their time on Twitter.

Alex: It’s mediated, and it’s, like, vibes-based.

Sam: Completely vibes-based.

Alex: And you will never feel like you will win if you have won everything and then see that people still don’t think the right way. That seems like a flaw in their ideology.

Sam: Well, it’s a flaw, but it’s a dangerous and symptomatic flaw that makes them attracted to authoritarianism because that’s how they imagine you’re able to change the way people think.

Laura: The argument that Hollywood is overwhelmingly liberal, and that the people who are conservative are bombarded with liberal propaganda and that they have liberal values rammed down their throats, is one you hear all the time. But the right has its own very robust and incredibly well-funded media infrastructure. You don’t hear of small right-wing magazines collapsing because there’s no money with anything like the same frequency you hear about liberal magazines going under. Going back to what you said about people being radicalized and pushed to the right in college, when they graduate from college, there are jobs for these people. There are so many think tanks you can go and work for if you’re a young conservative, so many magazines where you can get associate editor jobs that don’t exist in the liberal media. What do you make of that, and of that right-wing ecosystem?

Sam: One of the things that Nate said to me in the piece is that he acknowledges that there is this conservative welfare state for unsophisticated but right-wing people who graduate from college and want to write takes, and so he has encountered people who are not particularly smart in that world. But the thing is that there are also a certain number of people like him who are really interested in ideas and are pretty good writers, and do like to think hard about intellectual topics. For those people, it’s an embarrassment of riches. Part of what’s so attractive about it is that you not only get a job, but you get let into this rarefied world that’s both really luxurious and also rebellious. For intellectual conservatives, that is just an intoxicating stew that keeps young people engaged in conservative bullshit for a long time.

Alex: I find it interesting that if you’re a young left-winger on campus, there is no network that will invite you to retreats to drink scotch with rich people, rich leftists. Even if you’re a normal progressive, your entry into this world might be working for the world’s worst boss at a nonprofit, or being abused in a campaign—the lowest rung of the campaign—or freelance writing for no money. I wonder if the right has this way of identifying their future talent, grooming it, and even sort of spoiling it in that way. Why do they do it so differently?

Sam: Well, to take on the left side of it, I think one of the things is that the power centers of the Democratic Party are controlled by mainstream liberals. They’re not scouring the campuses for, like, really sparked Marxists to give internships to, and to be a mainstream liberal, it has much less of this kind of rebellious quality. It’s just kind of like being invited into the power elite in a sort of uncomplicated way. Whereas right-wingers, even though we may think of this as delusional, they still think of themselves as a rebellious, insurgent troupe of outsiders with dangerous ideas, and therefore they feel that they need to teach their new, up-and-coming talent a sort of countertradition of American history and of political philosophy. On the left, there is no comparable thing. I’d like it, as a left-winger who likes reading books, to get paid to live in Pomona for a week and read Karl Polanyi. That sounds good.

Alex: I would love a fellowship. I would love for someone just to give me a fellowship of some kind.

Laura: It’s easier to offer someone the feeling of entering this glamorous elite if your whole thing is hierarchy. The right has this built-in advantage: “This is what we believe, and we’re going to pull you up into it to be one of the important people.” And the whole thing on the left is like, “No, we want equality! We want everyone to be treated the same and to have the same opportunities.”

Alex: I want everyone to get fellowships! Everyone, every working American, deserves a fellowship. I believe this very strongly.

Sam: That’s a really good point, Laura. We have incompatible goals. We don’t want to create an elite elect who understand the true nature of society and then can direct it from on high.

Laura: I think it’s the same with the funding, too, for these magazines, for these think tanks. It’s completely consistent with a right-wing view of the world that you are going to make lots of money and then dump it into an organization so that you can control what people think. That’s not really what left-wing donors are trained to do.

Sam: I think that you can have this experience as a liberal—maybe not as a revolutionary leftist.

Laura: You can have this experience if you’re a liberal who is like, “I’m going to come up with some health care plans that will minimize the amount of coverage we offer to people with stage-four cancer.”

Sam: Exactly.

Laura: Speaking of this whole ecosystem, Claremont is something that comes up in the piece. Can you explain for the uninitiated what that is?

Sam: The Claremont Institute is a right-wing, socially conservative think tank in California. Claremont was one of the first places that came out and said, “Let’s go for Trump.” Because of its populism, its nationalism, it’s way more aggressively patriotic. Claremont has been punching way above its historic weight in the Trump era, and since Trump, playing a role in trying to justify his coup—in effect, playing a role in bringing more illiberal and scary strains into acceptable conservative discourse. A lot of the people who are these young New Right figures move through its very robust programming and fellowships for young conservatives.

Laura: Going back to the coup thing—you mentioned that John Eastman, who wrote the memo on how Trump could try to stay in office despite losing the election, is associated with Claremont.

Sam: Yeah. He’s a legal scholar, a constitutional scholar, associated with them. He wrote the memo for the vice president telling him how he could constitutionally make it so that Trump would stay in power, basically.

Alex: Some of the people you’ve talked to, I think, are actually surprisingly realistic about the unlikelihood of their vision of society happening democratically. But my question is: Are they going to install a Catholic theocracy, though? Like, regardless, are they going to do that?

Sam: I don’t know. I actually don’t know if I have a great answer to this question. Internal to conservative debates and even internal to people who are sympathetic to New Right goals, there’s an acknowledgment that the public is really not with them—the conservative public, even. Trumpism doesn’t represent some victory for hard-core conservatives, like Catholic hierarchical authoritarians. It’s more like a victory for Jacksonian libertarian impulses. Tanner Greer, this right-wing blogger who is quite smart, wrote this blog post about this discrepancy between the means of the New Right and their ends. His line is, “Pity the Whig who wishes to lead the Jacksonian masses!”—that in effect, they are inheritors of some sort of patrician, pietistic, Northeastern puritanical tradition, which wants to impose all these orthodoxies—which is not really what Trumpism represents. That said, if these people are serious about trying to impose this moral orthodoxy on America, then that’s why they become more sympathetic to things like John Eastman telling Trump, “You can keep power, no matter what,” or people like Adrian Vermeule, who’s a Harvard integralist who believes that you should use the administrative state—which used to be the thing that the conservatives hated more than anything—you should use the levers of power and the administrative state to nudge the moral orthodoxy of America toward Catholic theology, that you should use the unaccountable powers of the state, nondemocratic powers, to achieve their ends. And so the reason that there’s this sympathy, I think, for countermajoritarianism, for anti-democratic measures, for state power through the bureaucracy as opposed to through the legislature, is that they know that their ideas are really not a majoritarian proposition.

Alex: Well, I’m alarmed now. Sam, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today.

Sam: As you can see, I could talk about this forever.

Laura: I feel like we very rarely end on a note of being alarmed.

Alex: Not usually, yeah.

Laura: We’ll be like, “Oh, this thing we were talking about didn’t actually exist.”

Alex: “It’s fine!”

Sam: Wait, so we don’t have to be worried about the rats? Was that the takeaway?

Alex: “No more worried than usual” was our conclusion.

Sam: We’re more concerned about Catholic theocracy than rats.

Alex: Than rats, Havana syndrome …

Laura: Or cops dying from seeing fentanyl without touching it or taking it.

Alex: It was really nice talking to you, Sam.

Sam: You too.

Laura: Before we end the show, I have a correction. On our recent episode about rats, I said that 311 doesn’t have a rat response squad. A listener from D.C. wrote in to say that’s actually wrong: Many cities have a whole process for responding to rat complaints. So we looked into this, and the New York City Health Department says that after you call 311, “Your complaint will be routed to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The health department will inspect the property within two weeks of receiving the complaint, unless the property was recently inspected.” My apologies for getting that wrong. If you want to know more about the state of rats in New York, I can highly recommend checking out the rat information portal at nyc.gov/rats.

Alex: I’m sorry, I can’t hear the phrase “the state of rats in New York” without my mind immediately going to Albany.

Laura: Well, do you have a URL recommendation?

Alex: I don’t know—would there be a landing page for Cuomo’s book?