Opening Our Eyes to the Right’s Rising Radicalism
How things look when we bracket the F-word
For much of the past week, I’ve been pondering how to respond to something Nate Hochman recently wrote at National Review about the interminable fascism debate. Hochman is one of the most thoughtful interlocutors on the right and very much worth engaging. A few days before his piece appeared, he put out a call on Twitter for suggestions of what he might read about the supposed resemblance between the fascist regimes of the early 20th century and contemporary American conservatism. Substacker John Ganz quickly responded with a thoughtful post, noting, with citations, numerous divergences and continuities between the two ideologies, and much of Hochman’s piece was devoted to engaging with and rejecting Ganz’s claims on points of continuity.
Ganz penned a characteristically smart (and barbed) response to Hochman—and that left me flummoxed about what I might be able to add to the discussion that would be worth anyone’s time. I’d already written a two-part post on the subject back in late July, and there’s nothing much in it I’d want to revise. I argued there that Trump himself was not a fascist but undeniably fasc-ish in numerous ways, as were various Republican officeholders and right-wing donors and writers. I stand by those judgments.
But as much as I think it’s perfectly valid to continue having nuanced arguments about the F-word and its selective applicability in the current context, it might be more illuminating to avoid invoking it in favor of a less inflammatory concept or series of distinctions. Clearly something has changed about the character of the American right over the past decade or so. It’s worth looking for comparative and descriptive terms that allow us to place people and ideas on a spectrum ranging from normal to troubling to truly alarming.
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Conservatives v. Reactionaries
What makes someone a conservative? As the term implies, it describes a person who wants to conserve something about the present. It may not be the present as a whole but merely one embattled or enfeebled aspect of it that traces its roots back into the past. But whatever the case, the impulse is toward protecting something that exists so that it might persist and even thrive into the future. In that respect, conservatism isn’t a destructive impulse or even a reformist one. It wants to keep things in our world (or some specific things within that world) as they are.
In addition to differing from liberals, progressives, socialists, anarchists, communists, and others on the left, a conservative stands in sharp contrast to reactionaries situated further out on the right. A reactionary is someone who believes a specific and crucially important aspect of the world that traces its roots back into the past has already been corrupted or extinguished in our time through prior revolutionary change. The reactionary believes this precipitous decline requires a counter-revolutionary response.
Just as a revolutionary aims to overthrow the world of the present in order to build a new one oriented toward the future, so a counter-revolutionary aims to overthrow the world of the present in order to build a new one oriented toward the past. The reactionary seeks not to stand athwart history yelling, “Stop!,” as a conservative might, but to throw the conveyor belt of historical motion into reverse—or to leap out of the flow of historical change in order to return us to a moment in the past before the revolution took place and forestall the onset of decline this time around.
I think it’s indisputably the case that there are far fewer conservatives on the American right today than there were 20 or 40 years ago, and far more reactionaries.
But that isn’t sufficient to get at all that’s happened and is happening on the right. That’s because reactionary impulses also come in a range of intensities. At the moderate end of the spectrum, there are aestheticized reactionaries who lament the loss of some element of culture and set about reviving it in how they dress or speak or in the habits they personally cultivate. This a lonely (and largely apolitical) kind of reactionary, fighting a mostly individual battle against the cultural tide.
Then there are those who point to broader evidence of decline—in morals, politics, and/or religion. Some of these reactionaries become convinced that the decline encompasses a lot, with very widespread corruption insinuating itself into the present world. Can these various domains of our world be fixed or reformed? Those who think so remain on the rightward edge of ordinary liberal-democratic politics. That’s where I’d place Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, for example, including his efforts at reforming education at both the public-school and university levels, and also his combative approach to Disney and other supposedly “woke” corporations.
Finally, there are reactionaries who believe the system as a whole has succumbed to the rot, breeding hopelessness about efforts at reform that keep existing laws, norms, and institutions intact. These reactionaries easily become tempted to embrace genuine counter-revolutionary politics, calling for the system to be leveled, convinced that our world is so thoroughly corrupt that it must be reduced to rubble as preparation for building anew according to a (real or imagined) model of past greatness.
Counter-Revolutionaries on Parade
Where is the right today on this spectrum? At NR itself, you’ll find a few holdouts from the era of the old conservative Reaganite consensus and a bunch of people (Hochman included) who favor DeSantis’ efforts to work within the existing system to reach reactionary ends. If that were the full spectrum on the right these days, I’d view it as more troubling than what preceded it, when the genuine conservatives ran the show, but hardly something that warranted proclamations of panic and alarm, including references to incipient fascism.
But of course Ron DeSantis doesn’t define the furthest fringe of the right, though his nascent presidential campaign is doing nothing to distance itself from those more extreme reactionaries. The most obvious example of those further out on the fringe is … the Republican former president of the United States, who continues to deny he actually lost the 2020 election, who treats those who attacked the national legislature to prevent the certification of election results on January 6, 2021 as unjustly persecuted (and prosecuted) heroes, and who has now taken to suggesting the Constitution itself needs to be terminated in order to right this historic wrong. This same former president has, of course, also taken to dining with Hitler-loving anti-Semites.
But that’s just Trump! many at National Review would say. He’s a loon we need to leave behind in favor of DeSantis!
That sounds like a reasonable and responsible position—at least until one recalls that Trump and his fringy neo-Nazi dinner guests aren’t alone perched way out on that reactionary limb. Take a look at this thorough account of another, much larger dinner (this one convened by the New York Young Republicans Club—NYYRC) this past Saturday evening in New York City.
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