David Brock, the conservative journalistic hitman turned Hillary Clinton sidekick, described how he first became reactionary in his 2002 book “Blinded by the Right.” He had arrived at the University of California, Berkeley at the dawn of the Reagan era as a Bobby Kennedy-worshipping liberal, but had quickly drifted away from progressive pieties on campus.
“Rather than a liberal bastion of intellectual tolerance and academic freedom, the campus was – although the term had not yet been coined – politically correct, sometimes stifling,” he wrote.
A formative experience was seeing a lecture by Ronald Reagan’s UN ambassador, Jeane Kirkpatrick, interrupted by leftist protesters. “Wasn’t freedom of expression a liberal value? He asked. The more Brock challenged the left, the more he was ostracized and the more his resentment pushed him to the right.
By the time he arrived in Washington, where he became an influential conservative journalist, he had developed what we might now call an “edgelord” sensibility. He traveled to Chile to write a defense of murderous dictator Augusto Pinochet. “I was casually engaging in the extremist one-upmanship that characterized not only me but many young conservatives of the day as well,” he wrote.
Of course, not only at that time. The dynamic described by Brock – extremist one-upmanship designed to outrage hated left-wing persecutors – is a major driver of right-wing cultural innovation. This is why the stories about the American New Right (also called the Dissident Right, National Conservatism, and Neo-Reaction) seem so familiar, even as the movement’s ideology deviates from mainstream conservatism.
Last week, Vanity Fair published James Pogue’s fascinating look at America’s New Right constellation of thinkers, podcasters and politicians, many of whom are funded by Peter Thiel, a tech billionaire who once wrote that the freedom and democracy are incompatible. It is difficult to summarize the politics of the scene; a medium that includes both aggressively anti-cosmopolitan Senate candidate JD Vance of Ohio and the sleazy hipster podcast “Red Scare” lacks a cohesive worldview. What he has is a contempt for social liberalism and a desire to wow the bourgeois.
“It is a project to reverse the thrust of progress, at least as liberals understand the word,” Pogue wrote. One of the movement’s intellectual headliners is Curtis Yarvin, a blogger who sees liberalism as creating a matrix totalitarian system and wants to replace American democracy with a kind of techno-monarchy.
According to Pogue, the movement “has become quietly edgy and cool in new tech outposts like Miami and Austin, and in midtown Manhattan, where New Right politics is in place, and signifiers like a necklace of wise crosses have become the markers of a transgressive chic. .” It may be overstating it, but it’s pretty clear that there’s a cultural energy in opposing the progressive norms and taboos that are derisively called “awakening.”
BuzzFeed News writer Joseph Bernstein captured that energy in a March article about a New York anti-revival film festival funded by Thiel and run by a black queer provocateur named Trevor Bazile. “Call it, if you must, a change of mood: a new generation of internet-native tastemakers — like many people crammed into Bazile’s party — who find the moralistic control of millennials a bit outdated. “, wrote Bernstein.
This change in mood was predictable; when the left becomes severely censored, it incubates its own opposition. The internet makes matters worse, giving the world a taste of the kind of irritating progressive moralism that Brock must have traveled to Berkeley to find.
I met few people on the left who to like progressive online culture. In novels set in progressive social worlds, internet leftism tends to be treated with disdain — not a tyranny, but an annoyance. In Torrey Peters’ “Detransition, Baby,” a young trans woman reacts with outrage to a dark joke shared between the book’s heroine, Reese, and her friend, both older trans women. “Reese recognizes her as one of those Twitter babes eager to offer theoretical perspectives on gender,” Peters writes. “The girl listened to the joke and shakes her head – insensitive! — looking at them over his black-rimmed glasses with teary, hurt eyes.
For those who get most of their politics online, this may be what the left looks like – a humorless person shaking his head at the insensitivity of others. Therefore, an alliance with the most repressive forces in the country can appear, for some, as liberating.
I suspect this can only last as long as the right is not in power nationally. Eventually, an avant-garde flirtation with reaction will come up against the brutal, philistine reality of the conservative regime. (As Brock would find out, being a gay man in a deeply homophobic movement was no fun.)
In the short term, however, it is frightening to think that reactionary politics might somehow become fashionable, especially given the stagnation of the left. In New York magazine, Sam Adler-Bell recently wrote of a disheartening lull in progressive movement building: “There seems to be almost no grassroots energy or urgency on the Democratic side.” The only thing the left could count on in recent years is its cultural capital. What if this is wasted?