The kids are not all alright.
Nor is bad English. “All right” is two words.
That’s the message from Vanity Fair, the May issue of which includes a report from a small but colorful corner of the intellectual and political landscape. In the after-parties and corridors of the National Conservatism conference held in Orlando last October, reporter James Pogue discovered a subterranean network of “podcasters, bro-ish anonymous Twitter posters, online philosophers, artists, and amorphous scenesters.” Attracted to the right but far from conservative, these dissidents dream of overthrowing some of the basic premises of 21st-century American life. Where others might see a threatened but legitimate constitutional order or a struggling yet still functional economy, they perceive a tyrannical yet incompetent “regime” collapsing under its own weight.
The shock value associated with these views is an important part of their appeal. As the boundaries of acceptable opinion shift to the left, at least within major institutions, the opportunities for dissent have become concentrated on the right. In universities, media, and many big companies, there’s nothing controversial about saying that white people are an essentially malign portion of the human race, that gender is independent of biological sex, or that people who voted for former President Donald Trump are an existential threat to democracy. If you aim to provoke, you’d better reject these claims, loudly and often. On social media, this countercultural quality is known as being “based.”
But there’s more to the “new right,” as it’s somewhat anachronistically known (a succession of movements with similar names has emerged since the 1950s), than being based. This motley crew is composed of people in their 20s and early 30s, largely though not entirely men. A recurring theme in their conversation, in the piece as well as the blogposts, Twitter threads, and private chats where they develop their ideas, is the belief that some kind of revolution would be necessary for them to achieve goals that once would have seemed utterly mundane. Not so long ago, professional advancement, stable romantic relationships, and residential independence seemed like the birthright of young Americans industrious or lucky enough to graduate from college and make it to one of the metro areas heavily populated by others of their kind. Today, these markers of adulthood can be delayed by years or decades — and increasingly seem out of reach.
The frathouse atmosphere Pogue describes reflects that arrested development. Unlike the buttoned-up official sessions of the conference, the new right confabs revolved around late nights, many drinks, and casual attire. Despite the contempt for academia that infuses the new right, its intellectual and social style derives more from the college campus than from the “real America” that its participants idealize.
In that respect, the new right can be viewed as a negative image of the woke left. Both movements invoke a favored cohort of the truly disadvantaged. In practice, they’re more attentive to the anxieties of what George Orwell called the “lower-upper-middle class” — in updated terms, the journalists, academics, and other “knowledge workers” whose expectations outstrip their income. On the left, that encourages a fixation on symbolic diversity, student debt, radical police reform, and other issues that are distant from the actual concerns of the poor and racial minorities. On the right, it leads to otherwise perplexing obsessions with content moderation on social media, bodybuilding, and other displays of flamboyant manliness and obscure theological doctrines.
You can acknowledge the tensions between the nominal goals of extremist youth movements and their underlying inspiration without dismissing them as poseurs or fools. Moralistic tendencies dominate precisely because they’re not driven by outright material deprivation. The appeal of the new right doesn’t lie in its policy proposals, which range from sketchy to fanciful. It lies in the ability to tell a sweeping story about what’s worth fighting for, why it’s so elusive, and who is to blame.
Early in 1941, the German-Jewish political philosopher Leo Strauss delivered a consideration of the generational appeal of the far-right to his colleagues on the faculty of the New School for Social Research. Drawing on his experiences as a young intellectual in the 1920s and early ’30s, Strauss argued that opposition to the Weimar Republic among his educated contemporaries was essentially a protest against the formless boredom of modern life. Assured of survival without enjoying real security and lacking causes to inspire sacrifice, “young nihilists” turned not only against liberal democracy but against civilization itself.
In the lecture on “German nihilism,” Strauss suggested that this energy could have been diverted from its rendezvous with National Socialism by more skillful education, particularly in ancient philosophy. I have always found this conclusion dubious. The yearning for risk and commitment he describes can only rarely be satisfied in the library or classroom. For the young and the restless, ideas are appealing to the extent that they inspire action rather than merely offering the opportunity for contemplation.
To be clear, the revolutionary instincts of today’s pseudonymous bloggers, underemployed graduate students, and freelance journalists have limited appeal at the moment. As Pogue emphasizes, this strand of the new right is somewhat distinct from the more populist and electorally consequential MAGA movement. J.D. Vance and Blake Masters, both supported by their former employer Peter Thiel, have tried to bridge the gaps in campaigns for the GOP Senate nominations in Ohio and Arizona, respectively. With Trump’s endorsement, they may best divided fields in the upcoming primaries (neither is currently leading). But their efforts so far have relied more heavily on familiar culture warring than the reactionary modernism found in online conversations.
Still, the dissidents at the Orlando afterparty are both responding to a transformation of the intellectual right and helping to ensure that it continues. While they remain staples of think tank issue papers and fundraising appeals, ritualized appeals to the Founders, the Constitution, or patriotic loyalty to the existing United States have become passé among a younger generation of thinkers, writers, and readers. It’s no use to tell these elements of the new right that they’re not particularly conservative, because they already know that. With building hopes for a kind of Caesar willing to mount a frontal assault on “the regime,” the question is what comes next.
NatCon, as this conference is known, has grown into a big-tent gathering for a whole range of people who want to push the American right in a more economically populist, culturally conservative, assertively nationalist direction. It draws everyone from Israel hawks to fusty paleocon professors to mainstream figures like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. But most of the media attention that the conference attracts focuses on a cohort of rosy young blazer-wearing activists and writers—a crop of people representing the American right’s “radical young intellectuals,” as a headline in The New Republic would soon put it, or conservatism’s “terrifying future,” as David Brooks called them in The Atlantic. …They have a wildly diverse set of political backgrounds, with influences ranging from 17th-century Jacobite royalists to Marxist cultural critics to so-called reactionary feminists to the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, whom they sometimes refer to with semi-ironic affection as Uncle Ted. Which is to say that this New Right is not a part of the conservative movement as most people in America would understand it. It’s better described as a tangled set of frameworks for critiquing the systems of power and propaganda that most people reading this probably think of as “the way the world is.” And one point shapes all of it: It is a project to overthrow the thrust of progress, at least such as liberals understand the word.This worldview, these worldviews, run counter to the American narrative of the last century—that economic growth and technological innovation are inevitably leading us toward a better future. It’s a position that has become quietly edgy and cool in new tech outposts like Miami and Austin, and in downtown Manhattan, where New Right–ish politics are in, and signifiers like a demure cross necklace have become markers of a transgressive chic. No one is leading this movement, but it does have key figures. …At one end are the NatCons, post-liberals, and traditionalist figures like Benedict Option author Rod Dreher, who envision a conservatism reinvigorated by an embrace of localist values, religious identity, and an active role for the state in promoting everything from marriage to environmental conservation. But there’s also a highly online set of Substack writers, podcasters, and anonymous Twitter posters—“our true intellectual elite,” as one podcaster describes them. This group encompasses everyone from rich crypto bros and tech executives to back-to-the-landers to disaffected members of the American intellectual class, like Up in the Air author Walter Kirn, whose fulminations against groupthink and techno-authoritarianism have made him an unlikely champion to the dissident right and heterodox fringe. But they share a the basic worldview: that individualist liberal ideology, increasingly bureaucratic governments, and big tech are all combining into a world that is at once tyrannical, chaotic, and devoid of the systems of value and morality that give human life richness and meaning—as Blake Masters recently put it, a “dystopian hell-world.” …Vance believes that a well-educated and culturally liberal American elite has greatly benefited from globalization, the financialization of our economy, and the growing power of big tech. This has led an Ivy League intellectual and management class—a quasi-aristocracy he calls “the regime”—to adopt a set of economic and cultural interests that directly oppose those of people in places like Middletown, Ohio, where he grew up. In the Vancian view, this class has no stake in what people on the New Right often call the “real economy”—the farm and factory jobs that once sustained middle-class life in Middle America. This is a fundamental difference between New Right figures like Vance and the Reaganite right-wingers of their parents’ generation. To Vance—and he’s said this—culture war is class warfare.