Are Elite Conservatives Getting Too Weird to Win?Roundup
tags: conservatism, far right, political history
Graham Gallagher is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of Florida, where he specializes in political myth and the history of reactionary political thought. He is also an editorial assistant at Perspectives on Politics.
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, West—a close ally of Donald Trump—tweeted 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 different—though parallel—phenomenon 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 shift—a 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 see—with even greater clarity—in 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 progress—the core values of republicanism and the Enlightenment—are ones they try to live by. While the content and meaning of those values have always been contested terrain, opposing them is a nonstarter.
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