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How Bizarre

Elite Conservatives Have Taken an Awfully Weird Turn

As it leaves behind American values, has the right gotten too strange to win elections?

Mario Tama/Getty Images
Republican Arizona Senate candidate Blake Masters

An inkling of the Republican Party’s shocking underperformance in the midterms could be seen in a literal, not figurative, crusade. Allen West, former congressman and Texas Republican Party chairman, decided in September that the time was ripe to join the Knights Templar, the infamous sect of medieval soldier-monks. Photographed standing in a white robe emblazoned with a red cross draped jauntily over his tuxedo, Westa close ally of Donald Trumptweeted that he had taken “an oath to protect the Christians in the Holy Land.”

The real Knights Templar, of course, were dissolved in 1312. The organization West joined is an American-based “chivalric order” that grants its members “knighthood” and, aside from its name, shares nothing with the actual Knights Templar.

West’s bizarre fascination with the imagery of medieval Europe does not exist in a vacuum: The right is getting weirder. That might begin to cost Republicans elections in years to come and undermine their own appeals to American patriotism in a way policy extremism alone could not. American voters see the political parties as equally extreme in policy, ignoring evidence that Republicans have moved right much faster than Democrats have moved left. However, a party fixated on genital sunning, seed oils, Catholic integralism, European aristocracy, and occultism can alienate voters not because of its positions but because of how it presents them—and itself. Among the right’s intellectual avant garde and media elites, there is a growing adoption of habits, aesthetics, and views that are not only out of step with America’s but are deliberately cultivated in opposition to a national majority that the new right holds in contempt.

This is a differentthough parallelphenomenon from the often raucous, conspiratorial personality cult that surrounds Donald Trump and his devoted base. This new turn has predominantly manifested among the upper-class and college-educated right wing. Indeed, as Democratic strategist David Shor noted, as those with college degrees become more left leaning, the remaining conservatives have gotten “really very weird.” In this well-off cohort, there exists a mirror of the excesses often attributed to the college-educated left, fairly or unfairly: an aversion to mainstream values and an extreme militancy.

The ascendant weird right will likely struggle to sell its deeply anti-patriotic vision to many voters. In these segments of the mostly young, online-influenced American right, the optimistic vision espoused by Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America” has been discarded. The elite educated right has moved even beyond the overt pessimism of Donald Trump’s “American carnage”now disgust with equitable citizenship, personal liberty, and democratic self-governance is commonplace. Fed by an endless outrage cycle and a motivated and well-resourced donor class willing to pour money into increasingly reactionary think tanks like the avowedly anti-democratic Claremont Institute, right-wing thinkers and activists have begun to identify the foundational pillars of the United States itself with immorality and adopted a new fascination with medieval Catholicism and imported European extremisms. Today, the right has shed its American and conservative roots and seeks a radical shifta national “refounding.” Indeed, leading right-wing intellectuals like John Daniel Davidson have said that “the conservative project has failed” and that people like them constitute the educated vanguard of a “revolutionary moment.”

As we can now seewith even greater clarityin the wake of the election, American voters respond poorly to a toxic brew of pessimism; the promise of radical cultural transformation; and the imposition of foreign ideas, values, and aesthetics. Nine in 10 Americans believe that being “truly American” involves respecting “American political institutions and laws,” the Public Religion Research Institute found last year. Americans consistently affirm that liberty, equality, and progressthe core values of republicanism and the Enlightenmentare ones they try to live by. While the content and meaning of those values have always been contested terrain, opposing them is a nonstarter.

The weird elite right risks losing these “normie” (as it calls them) Americans as it embraces what is fundamentally a niche subculture. The toxic far-right ideas that percolate in online youth communities and among cloistered college-educated young Republicans have not remained thereincreasingly they have spilled out to influence policy and may have been deciding factors in close races this year.

John Gibbs, a Republican nominee for a Michigan swing seat, founded a think tank that argued for overturning the Nineteenth Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. The country, he said, had “suffered” from women’s suffrage. He narrowly lost his bid. Blake Masters and J.D. Vancetwo Republican candidates for Senate funded in part by tech billionaire and new-right linchpin Peter Thielhave embraced new-right ideas and actively courted the “weird right.” Vance has questioned whether women should leave violent marriages; Masters has praised domestic terrorist Theodore Kaczynski’s infamous manifesto, argued against legal access to contraception, and openly said that democracy is a smokescreen for the masses “stealing certain kinds of goods and redistributing them as they see fit.” (Americans on balance like democracy; legal contraception is almost universally popular; and Kaczynski’s unpopularity is so widely assumed that pollsters rarely ask about him.) Masters, perhaps unsurprisingly, lost his bid to unseat Mark Kelly, and Vance badly underperformed in his blood-red home state.

The most outwardly visible element of the extremely online weird right is its often nonsensical lifestyle and consumption habits. The subculture has not only embraced vaccine hesitancyonce primarily a creature of the leftbut also fringe health and dietary practices that recall the wildest excesses of 1960s new age spiritualism. The claims are varied and, to differing degrees, absurd: Real men don’t eat soybeans; seed oils are dangerous; meat substitutes will turn men into women and also are made from bugs (they aren’t); the best diet is all-meat. This is no mere online phenomenon: Representative Ronny Jackson of Texas has stated that if one eats artificially cultured meat, “you’ll turn into a SOCIALIST DEMOCRAT.”*

These trends are partly the result of declining social trust among conservatives. Loss of trust, in this case, manifests as hardening the body as a site of personal control. Health, arguably, is not the pointrather, expressing gender identity is. This is certainly true of “testicular tanning,” the belief that exposing the testicles to direct sunlight boosts testosterone (and therefore “manliness”), an idea that blends pseudoscience, tantric spiritualism, and self-help. Even this has not remained confined to the internet: Tucker Carlson has discussed it seriously.

Perhaps the most pernicious element of right-wing weirdness occurs at the intersection of standard traditionalist opposition to equal gender roles and an online youth subculture that has sought to make women’s disempowerment trendy. The idea of the “trad wife”women who embrace subservient roles as homemakers and mothers, eschewing political leadership and careersstands, like many of the weird right’s shibboleths, at the crossroads of internet meme, sociological critique, and political program. Trad wives are a pastiche of the idyll of the 1950s housewife and the imagined premodern agrarian mother, realities that only fully existed in advertisements and storybooks. They usually espouse complete submissiveness to husbands and a totalizing dedication to raising children.

By removing women from the labor market and circumscribing women’s social roles, the movement offers the illusion of sanctuary from modern woes and economic demands. It goes beyond simply reacting to perceived leftist excesses and embraces a sociopolitical program that would, if enacted, essentially remove the ability of American women to determine the course of their own livesmaking them, once again, primarily subservient to and dependent upon male breadwinners. Millions of Americans are stay-at-home parents; most would likely be ill suited to the trad wife’s world. The aesthetics of trad wives are intertwined with darker impulses on the activist right toward a state that legally mandates specific gender rolesa form of recontainment that traps women in marriages and bars them from basic autonomy and self-sufficiency.

Women’s and reproductive rights are areas where meme-infused weirdness and actual policy align to set the right against most American voters. When right-wing writers like National Review’s Nate Hochman argue that no-fault divorce was “a tragic mistake” (a view shared by numerous other far-right figures), he is not only embracing a position outside the bounds of conventional American life but one that is deeply politically unpopular, opposed by at least four-fifths of Americans. The activist right’s legal alternative is “covenant marriage,” which allows divorce only under extreme circumstances like felony conviction or child abuse. Covenant marriage has recently made its way into the Texas Republican Party’s official platform as a replacement for existing marriage law.

Trad wife aesthetics are partly a result of right-wing influencers’ embrace of traditionalist religious attitudes. The embrace of traditionalist Catholicism and the rise of integralists like Harvard Law School professor Adrian Vermeulewho espouses a quasi-theocracy that even the conservative stalwart George Will has said is “un-Americanare critical pieces of the aesthetic and moral revanchism now in vogue on the right.

The growing fascination with Catholicismparticularly sedevacantism, which denies the current pope’s legitimacyis, according to one critic, indicative of the educated and activist right’s “admiration for the [European] aristocratic past” and a longing for a new elite to which it feels it belongs. This segment of the right has, both programmatically and aesthetically, lost interest in conserving that which is American and moved on to mine its influences from stranger sources. Constitutionalism, Enlightenment rationality, religious freedom, and republicanism are out. European aristocracy, crusading holy orders, and mysticism are in. Mr. West may still make the usual overtures to Americana in press releases, but the Knights Templar (so far as I know) never made it to Texas.

That idealization of the European right has led not just to the fetishization of historical monarchismcheerled by figures like the reactionary thinker Curtis Yarvinbut to more immediate fascination with contemporary autocrats, especially Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary and President Vladimir Putin of Russia.

One such admirer is Nick Fuentes, a prominent activist among college Republicans and also a white supremacist and antisemite who has become cozy with some congressional Republicans. Fuentes has praised Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. “We continue to support czar Putin in the war effort,” Fuentes said, saying Putin would “liberate Ukraine from the Great Satan and from the evil empire in the world, which is the United States.” In this narrative, Putin’s invasion is a component of a broader war against American influence and democratic valuesa goal shared by Orbán’s government, which has promoted “illiberal democracy,” decried “race-mixing,” crushed freedom of speech, and curtailed LGBTQ rights. Naturally, the Conservative Political Action Conference was held in Hungary earlier this year.

Among Americans more generally, the right-wing embrace of Putin is dismally unpopular: Just 6 percent U.S. adults have a positive opinion of the Russian president, the Pew Research Center found this year. Meanwhile, the “MAGACommunism” movement has combined American nationalism with praise for another authoritarian leader despised by most Americans, China’s Xi Jinping.

Alienating mainstream voters by embracing fringe values and off-putting aesthetics is not a new follyon the left or the right. In the early twentieth century, French voters regularly elected left-leaning governments despite numerous crises that beset the nation. One socialist essayist, Charles Péguy, argued that the right was actually “far less conservative” than the leftwhile the right pushed radical transformation, reorganizing France around the Catholic Church and reestablishing a powerful monarchy, the leftin Péguy’s viewsought to preserve hard-fought but deeply held French values like the separation of church and state, equitable citizenship, and republican liberty.

In the U.S., the “cultural left” of the late twentieth century managed to alienate many voters through its pessimistic belief that America could not be reformed by material policy, only transformed through a shift in social consciousness. As the philosopher Richard Rorty wrote in Achieving Our Country, while a reformist left gained popularity with a multiracial, multiclass electoral coalition in the early twentieth century by painting an optimistic image of what America could be, the latereducated and mostly well-off“cultural left” chose as its enemy “a mind-set rather than a set of economic arrangements,” removing itself from what voters actually cared about and instead defining itself by its cultural consumption and outlandish aesthetic preferences. The cultural left saw material political conditions as a downstream afterthought from culture and so tacitly abandoned both politics and cultureand got weird. The decades of backlash, from Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush, were inevitable.

While many Republicans are embracing the fringe cultural positions emerging from this radical and elite milieu, pushing the view that America is a degenerate society that cannot be saved, elements of the left may have learned their lesson. Eschewing what the writer Sam Adler-Bell has called “insular language that alienates those who haven’t stewed in the same activist cultural milieu,” some Democratic Socialists of America chapters have become more involved in recent unionization drives, fights for workers’ rights, and campaigns against monopolistic corporate power. It’s a focus not on posting but on materially supporting the working classand embracing core American values to do it.

The right is learning the opposite lesson. Far-right YouTuber Paul Joseph Watson suggested in 2020 that the right is “the new punk rock.” But that may not be to the right wing’s electoral advantage. Subcultures, by their very nature, exclude or look down on the bulk of the public and tend not to win electoral power, a lesson the left learned the hard way. Far-right billionaires can pump money into New York film festivals and sceney parties, but in doing so, they are unlearning the language of American majoritarian values. Even as the leftin fits and startsrelearns normalcy, the right is abandoning it.

* This article originally misidentified Rep. Jackson’s first name.