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The New Right's Bourgeois Counter-Revolution
In the New York Times last week, one of the young rising stars of the conservative movement, Nate Hochman, was given the opportunity to articulate what he takes to be the direction and meaning of the American right. The central thesis of his essay is that the religious right has been supplanted by “a new kind of conservatism” that is more secular in orientation and focused on culture war issues like gender, identity, and what he ever-so-gently calls “race relations.” In Hochman’s telling, this new conservatism is based in a kind of class consciousness, with much of the coalition being made up of dissatisfied—“exploited”—middle Americans fighting back against the depredations of cultural elites: “Today’s right-wing culture warriors think in distinctly Marxian terms: a class struggle between a proletarian base of traditionalists and a powerful public-private bureaucracy that is actively hostile to the American way of life.” (I just want to note briefly here the irony of this invocation coming from a right winger after his side has been howling so much about “Cultural Marxism,” but more on that later.)
To bolster his claims, Hochman refers to the work of Don Warren’s 1976 book The Radical Center: Middle Americans and the Politics of Alienation:
The right’s new culture war represents the worldview of people the sociologist Donald Warren called “Middle American radicals,” or M.A.Rs. This demographic, which makes up the heart of Mr. Trump’s electoral base, is composed primarily of non-college-educated middle- and lower-middle-class white people, and it is characterized by a populist hostility to elite pieties that often converges with the old social conservatism. But M.A.Rs do not share the same religious moral commitments as their devoutly Christian counterparts, both in their political views and in their lifestyles….
These voters are more nationalistic and less amenable to multiculturalism than their religious peers, and they profess a skepticism of the cosmopolitan open-society arguments for free trade and mass immigration that have been made by neoliberals and neoconservatives alike. “M.A.Rs feel they are members of an exploited class — excluded from real political representation, harmed by conventional tax and trade policies, victimized by crime and social deviance and denigrated by popular culture and elite institutions,” Matthew Rose wrote in “First Things.” They “unapologetically place citizens over foreigners, majorities over minorities, the native-born over recent immigrants, the normal over the transgressive and fidelity to a homeland over cosmopolitan ideals.”
But most notably perhaps, Hochman refers to the work of the late right-wing writer Sam Francis. As readers of this blog probably know, I also think that Francis, one of the paleoconservatives who augured the rise of Trump, is among the best guides to understand the contemporary right wing. For Hochman, it’s Francis’s cartoons of Marxist categories that’s most useful to describe the trajectory of the right:
What is occurring on the right, then, is a partial realization of the program that the hard-right writer Sam Francis championed in his 1994 essay “Religious Wrong.” He argued that cultural, ethnic and social identities “are the principal lines of conflict” between Middle Americans and progressive elites and that the “religious orientation of the Christian right serves to create what Marxists like to call a ‘false consciousness’ for Middle Americans.” In other words, political Christianity prevented the right-wing base from fully understanding the culture war as a class war — a power struggle between Middle America and a hostile federal regime. He saw Christianity’s universalist ideals as at odds with the defense of the American nation, which was being dispossessed by mass immigration and multiculturalism. “Organized Christianity today,” he wrote in 2001, “is the enemy of the West and the race that created it.”
Hochman acknowledges that Francis’s politics became “more openly white nationalist toward the end of his career,” thereby underlining the fact that they were always implicitly so, but avers that “it would be wrong to reduce these developments to racial animus.” Okay, then.
First of all, let’s stop playing this game that Francis is some wing-nut. As I mentioned earlier, Hochman, with his kind of qualified embrace of Francis, is at the core of the more intellectual side of the movement. His fellow National Review staffer Michael Brendan Dougherty once wrote an admiring essay on Francis. Rush Limbaugh read a piece of Francis’s writing on air to describe the Trump movement. There’s even rumors, which I can’t currently confirm, of Sam Francis being the favored reading of some Department of Homeland Security officials. Francis is not a marginal or eccentric figure:—he is being read by prominent conservatives as both prophet and guide.
As to the question of the secularism of the new right, I am kind of unsure. As many people have pointed out, there are good empirical reasons to insist on the continued importance of the specifically religious right as a constituency, from their role in Trump’s election and continued support to the assault on Roe to the centrality of churches to the political base of the Republican party. But I do think the religious right is just part of a larger whole; a broader right-wing whose central inspiration is not primarily religious.
I think it’s worth pointing out some other features of Francis’s vision here that I think are also instructive when thinking about the contemporary American right. First, the radicalism of the project: Francis was not really a conservative; he felt that the conservative movement had failed and even urged his friend Pat Buchanan to drop the label when running for president. His vision of nationalism was as much a new order as a return to the past. In his 1992 essay Nationalism, Old and New, he rejects the “old nationalism” of Hamilton and Lincoln and proposes a “new nationalism” that will replace its individualism and egalitarianism with something else:
The pseudo-nationalist ethic of the old nationalism that served only as a mask for the pursuit of special interests will be replaced by the social ethic of an authentic nationalism that can summon and harness the genius of a people certain of its identity and its destiny. The myth of the managerial regime that America is merely a philosophical proposition about the equality of all mankind (and therefore includes all mankind) must be replaced by a new myth of the nation as a historically and culturally unique order that commands loyalty, solidarity, and discipline and excludes those who do not or cannot assimilate to its norms and interests. This is the real meaning of "America First": America must be first not only among other nations but first also among the other (individual or class or sectional) interests of its people.
Whereas the “old nationalism,” which Francis admits is one of the country’s oldest political traditions, spoke the “abstract” and “alienating” language of universalism, the “new nationalism” is supposedly something rooted in the essence of the “real” American people. Here Francis is speaking the language of the “concrete nationalism” of Maurras and Barrés that emerged in Europe towards the end of the 19th century, which differed from the “old nationalism” of liberté, égalité, fraternité. As the French Historian Michel Winock writes, this nationalism would “subordinate everything to the exclusive interests of the nation, that is, the nation-state: to its force, its power, and its greatness” and was of a much more dour tone than the old patriotism:
Now one could just alter “varying dosages appropriate to the publics targeted” to include anti-transgenderism, immigration fears, the thinly veiled racism of the anti-CRT panic, or any of the other demagogic issues the right trots out here and there to get a pretty accurate picture of the state of the conservative movement that Hochman is describing.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that Francis would sound this way since he was an admirer of the work of Georges Sorel, a heretic socialist and Dreyfusard turned anti-Dreyfusard. The major concept that Francis gets from Sorel is the of the importance of political myth. Myths in this sense are concrete, imaginative embodiments of a group’s self-conception and political aspirations; they are not abstract party programs or utopias. Francis believed that the Middle American Radicals and their leaders had to develop such a myth to replace the myths of “old nationalism,” all that bullshit about “all men being created equal.” Well, they have at least one now in the form of the “stolen election:” what better way to concretely embody the entire sentiment of dispossession, be it ideological or explicitly racial, than the idea that political power is being held illegitimately by one’s opponents. Another such myth is QAnon, which imagines an elaborate, evil cabal pulling the strings and then a sudden moment of eschatological deliverance from their machinations. Arguably anti-vaxx sentiments function this way, too: creating an opposition between a rapacious overclass and the resistance of “salt of the earth” wisdom of the people. You’d probably have to say “the Great Replacement” is another one, too. Hochman is probably embarrassed speak about the centrality of these lurid myths on the right, but they might help explain the “secularization” of the G.O.P.: maybe there are just other, more chtonic gods now.
Let’s briefly turn to the question of class and the “Marxian” elements of the new right. I actually agree totally with Hochman about the class struggle part of the element, but just disagree about one whose behalf it is being fought. (Actually, even Hochman seems to know who it’s all for, even though he sneaks one mention of the “proletarian” character of the class.) One of the characterizations right-wing culture warriors like to make about identity politics or critical race theory is that it replaces some dispossessed ethnic group with the structural role “proletariat” once had in Marxism: so, instead of the industrial working class, now it’s—I don’t know—LGBT+ Latinx people with disabilities who are supposed to be the bearers of the revolutionary project, since the proletarian revolution failed.
For what it’s worth, this sounds like a shitty interpretation of Georg Lukacs’ conception of class-consciousness, but it’s also exactly what Hochman and his fellows are doing: their class might not be really working class—Hochman is a little bit too honest and can’t engage in the wholesale lying his fellow conservatives usually employ, so he admits its really the middle and lower-middle class—but they are somehow still “proletarian,” the revolutionary, or in case the “counter-revolutionary, subjects that are achieving class consciousness of their historic mission to Make America Great Again. This is almost exactly “Cultural Marxism:” it replaces the material determinations of class struggle with the terms of the “culture war.” (See also how Hochman also uses “alienation,” another borrowing from the Marxist tradition.)
So who is the class that is doing the struggling here? Again, maybe it’s worth returning to Francis. At some points in his writing, Francis calls his Middle American Radicals “post-bourgeois” to emphasize their dispossession and alienation from the old bourgeois traditions and values. But in his mature work Leviathan and its Enemies, he opposes the feared and hated managerial class that supposedly runs the state and corporate bureaucracies to the plain-old bourgeoisie, that is to say class that owns, the proprietors of the “entrepreneurial firm (the partnership, family firm, or individual entrepreneurship),” to quote Francis. Hochman is being too modest when he says it’s just the middle and lower-middle class: The right can boast of the patronage many great magnates: Thiels, Kochs, Mercers, Uihleins, Princes, DeVoses, etc. As I wrote recently, and I don’t think Hochhman would even dispute, the Republican coalition is just the alliance of the most reactionary sections of the whole property owning class, the bourgeoisie from petit to haute. I’d argue their attack on the administrative state and their tax raiding has as much to do with the protection of their interest in this regard than any feeling of “cultural dispossession.” Indeed, the Right now seems to be successfully attracting a broader swath of the entrepreneurial class, as Elon Musk recently signaled his “new” Republican allegiance over…you, guessed it...labor issues.
Since he’s fond of Marxist categories, I’d like to introduce Hochman to another one: totality. This refers to the notion that we have to analyze a social and political situation in its entirety, and that failing to do so will give us a false or incomplete picture. While he is more frank than most, Hochman doesn’t want to look at the Right in its totality. While he seems comfortable with the portions of the right that, despite being demagogic and repressive, remain within the bounds of legal and civic behavior, like the anti-trans and anti-CRT campaigns, he doesn’t really want to talk about January 6th, or the stolen election myth, great replacement, or the cultish worship of Trump, or the Proud Boys, who now have a significant presence in a largely Hispanic Miami-Dade Republican party.—The new, multi-ethnic G.O.P! But these things are as much, if not more, emblematic of the modern Republican party as young Mr. Hochman in his blazer over there at The National Review. As Sam Francis knew and was much more open about, it was these more primal forces that were the real right, with the think tank intelligentsia trailing behind or vainly trying to guide the masses.
So now let’s recapitulate the totality of the political situation, with the help of Mr. Hochman’s fine essay. He wants to say this new right is essentially a secular party of the aggrieved mittelstand that feels the national substance has been undermined by a group of cosmopolitan elites who have infiltrated all the institutions of power; that believes immigrants threaten to replace the traditional ethnic make up of the country; that borrows conceptions and tactics from the socialist tradition but retools them for counter-revolutionary ends; that is animated by myths of national decline and renewal; that instrumentalizes racial anxieties; that brings together dissatisfied and alienated members of the intelligentsia with the conservative families of the old bourgeoisie and futurist magnates of industry; that looks to a providential figure like Trump for leadership; that has street fighting and militia cadre; and that has even attempted an illegal putsch to give their leader absolute power. If only there was historical precedent and even a neat little word for all that.