The Red-Pill Pusher
Curtis Yarvin claims to teach bracing truths. But are they just consoling lies?
This public post is cross-posted at Persuasion. Since it is roughly double the length of a normal post from me, I will return in a few days with just one additional item for this week.
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I first heard of Curtis Yarvin at some point late in Barack Obama’s second term, several years after he began writing the blog Unqualified Reservations under the pseudonym Mencius Moldbug. New York Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat mentioned him as a prominent “neo-reactionary” thinker who disdained democracy and championed monarchy as a superior form of government. This was just radical enough to grab my attention but just absurd enough to lose it within five minutes.
Less than a decade later, things look very different.
Numerous ideas that once resided on the rightward fringe have since migrated into the political mainstream, and Yarvin’s have traveled further than most. The 49-year-old software engineer, tech entrepreneur (he founded Urbit), and Substack scribe (his newsletter is called “Gray Mirror”) has numerous prominent admirers on the right. These include big-ticket GOP donor Peter Thiel, former White House official and right-wing podcaster Stephen K. Bannon, Fox News host Tucker Carlson, Ohio Sen. JD Vance, failed Arizona senate candidate Blake Masters, and former Trump administration official Michael Anton, as well as others at the Claremont Institute.
Vance, the only elected officeholder on that list, has credited Yarvin as being the inspiration for several politically radical ideas. One is the suggestion that a future Republican president summarily fire “every single midlevel bureaucrat” in the federal government and replace them with “our people.” Another is the proposal that this imagined president disregard a hypothetical order from a judge to block the firings. More generally, Vance credits Yarvin with helping him to see that “we are in a late republican period,” as he put it in September 2021 to far-right podcast host Jack Murphy. “If we’re going to push back against it, we’re going to have to get pretty wild, and pretty far out there, and go in directions that a lot of conservatives right now are uncomfortable with.”
When Murphy asks how Vance has come to espouse such extreme views just a few years after standing in passionate opposition to the presidential candidacy and broader political influence of Donald Trump, Vance responds with yet another idea that Yarvin has popularized over the past decade—one that may well have done more than any other to radicalize the American right: “I saw and realized something about the American elite, and about my role in the American elite, that took me just a while to figure out. I was Red Pilled.”
The Shattering of Illusions
The idea is hardly unique to Yarvin: Reality seems to be one way, but that is an illusion—and I hold the keys to unlock the secret, cut through the fog, and reveal the comprehensive truth of things that lies concealed beneath appearances.
Something of this dynamic has been present in the philosophic and scientific traditions from the very beginning. Ask someone raised in a traditional society about the origins of all things and you will usually be told a story of gods and their role in forming or ordering the earth, sky, and political community. Philosophers doubted the veracity of these stories and began looking for answers that are more compatible with human reason. Modern science does much the same with rigorous, replicable methods. In replacing the one with the other, the philosophers and scientists claim to ascend, at the level of thought, from seeming to being, from the way things appear to the way they truly are.
Religious thinkers in the gnostic tradition took this idea in a much more radical direction. Instead of following Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero in engaging in a deliberate, dialectical ascent to greater understanding and clarity about a common world, the gnostics made a more dramatic move. They insisted on an absolute discontinuity between a world of thoroughgoing illusion in which we first come to awareness and another whose hidden secrets a priestly caste possesses and others might come to know through kind of a leap into the dark. This leap makes it possible to see things in an entirely different light. What Plato described as a gradual “turning around of the soul” became a call to break on through to the other side.
All of us know the trope from the original Matrix movie (1999), which modernized and popularized the idea. Our hero Neo is granted a glimpse of the shocking truth, told by the prophetic character of Morpheus that his life, which looks and feels and sounds so real, and in which he lives, loves, works, and pays his taxes, is actually an illusion from top to bottom. But Neo is given a choice—take the Blue Pill and forget the knowledge that’s been revealed to him so that he can go back to a life of slumbering deception—or take the Red Pill and endure the ultimate shattering of illusions to wakefully confront the true character of reality.
Yarvin’s modest but impressively influential achievement as a thinker is to have applied this idea to our world in a way that paradoxically promises to transform the antiliberal right into a formidable political force by demonstrating just how powerless it truly is.
Trapped in the Cathedral
It seems like we’re free—that we rule ourselves, that we’re a democracy. We proclaim the government derives its powers from the consent of the governed. We hold elections. Information is disseminated and its meaning vigorously debated by a free press. Power alternates between two parties that hold different views. We resolve disputes in courts described as independent. The executive branch is staffed by public-spirited civil servants who aspire to rise above the political fray.
But is any of it true? Yarvin gained a substantial far-right following and became incredibly influential by insisting that every one of these claims is a lie. Real power in our country, he insists, is wielded by what he calls “The Cathedral”—elite media and academic institutions that collectively define and enforce in cultural and moral terms what counts as truth and lies, acceptable and unacceptable positions, with those distinctions sliding inexorably in a leftward direction over time.
Yarvin intends the term “Cathedral” to evoke the centralized unity of the medieval Catholic Church while also ironically highlighting the peculiar fact that our Cathedral operates informally through the unselfconscious collusion of the elites who work in the leading institutions of our world—Harvard, Yale, The New York Times, The Washington Post, National Public Radio, etc. The elites who toil in these organizations don’t perceive themselves to be enforcing an unchallengeable orthodoxy, just as those who consume the information they spew into the world don’t think they’re being brainwashed, but that is nonetheless what’s happening. The Cathedral rewards with praise and power those who affirm and reinforce the orthodoxy, and it punishes those who defy it with public disapprobation and ostracism from positions of privilege and influence in our society.
As Yarvin put it fourteen years ago on his blog, “all the competing 20th-century systems of government … are best classified as Orwellian. They maintain their legitimacy by shaping public opinion. They shape public opinion by sculpting the information presented to the public. As part of that public, you peruse the world through a lens poured by your government.”
Breaking the Spell
But it’s possible to see through this system, to gain a perspective on it from the outside—by reading Yarvin’s own writing and thereby taking the Red Pill. Once that happens, it immediately becomes apparent that “we don’t just live in something vaguely like a Puritan theocracy. We live in an actual, genuine, functioning if hardly healthy, 21st-century Puritan theocracy.”
In contemporary terms, it’s a theocracy in which we are told to “follow the science” wherever the “experts” in government, the universities, and media tell us it leads, including toward accepting the need to shut down the economy because of a pandemic and affirming the imperative to rush into the streets by the thousands to protest the killing of George Floyd during that same pandemic and to view thousands of people showing up on Capitol Hill to protest the 2020 election as seditious traitors and to nod along cheerfully with HR-mandated “white fragility” training at work and to defer to schools and medical clinics when they insist it’s rank bigotry to resist your teenage daughter’s demand to transform her body into a boy’s using pharmaceuticals and surgery.
But once the spell is broken, things begin to look very different. Those who’ve been Red Pilled by Yarvin realize that
You have no more reason to trust these institutions than you have to trust, say, the Vatican. In fact, they are motivated to mislead you in ways that the Vatican is not, because the Vatican does not have deep, murky, and self-serving connections in the Washington bureaucracy…. The Cathedral, with its informal union of church and state, is positioned perfectly. It has all the advantages of being a formal arm of government, and none of the disadvantages. Because it formulates public policy, it is best considered our ultimate governing organ, but it certainly bears no responsibility for the success or failure of said policy. Moreover, it gets to program the little worm that is inserted in everyone’s head, beginning at the age of five and going all the way through grad school.
In case this sounds like a call to conversion from one of our culture’s standard ideologies to another, Yarvin clarifies that it is “no use deciding that the solution is to be a ‘conservative.’” What’s needed is something much more radical—a rejection of the common ground underlying both liberal and conservative, center-left and center-right. As he goes on to argue, “it is wonderful that you’ve gotten past progressivism, but you still need the Red Pill.” Anything short of that will leave you trapped in the echo chamber of ordinary politics in which the Cathedral reigns supreme.
Take note of how often people on the right speak of an insidious Deep State that runs the political show behind the scenes like a progressive puppet master controlling a lifeless marionette, or describe political and cultural elites as a malign “regime” that needs to be resisted or even summarily overthrown. This way of thinking and talking may not always trace back to Yarvin’s direct or indirect influence, but quite often it does—and in most cases it testifies to the extraordinary extent to which the Zeitgeist has come into alignment with his ideas.
The Politics of Right-Wing Desperation
Yarvin is certainly onto something. There really is a lot of mindless groupthink among members of the American elite. Right-thinking people are often pressured to go along with this consensus. And far more often than it should be, the consensus turns out to be wrong. Yarvin is influential because he expresses this point in the grandest possible way, turning it into an all-encompassing account, and indictment, of the country’s politics and culture. But there are other, less radical ways to address the problem—ways that don’t require buying into the whole idea of the Cathedral or being tempted to reject democratic politics altogether.
For one thing, we can begin by recognizing that however irritating and occasionally moronic the elite echo chamber can be, it’s perfectly possible to dissent from it. In fact, I’m doing it right now in an essay for a mainstream website. No harm will come to me as a result. And that means Yarvin’s account of a unified front of elite political-cultural power that can only be challenged by a totalistic break from the system as a whole is a cartoonish exaggeration.
It’s one many on the right find incredibly compelling. Even though the highest-rated cable news channel is right-wing. And it competes for viewers with a series of even more radical alt-right outlets. And the most popular podcast in the country is anti-woke. And right-leaning talk radio remains popular. And right-wing books regularly become bestsellers. And Ben Shapiro, Dan Bongino, and many others have become rich putting out hard-right content online. And Republicans are nowhere close to being shut out of power. They compete, and they do quite well at all levels of politics—local, state, and federal.
What they don’t do is win overwhelming majorities—that is, achieve the kind of electoral victories that would give them a mandate to fundamentally restructure the state in the way that FDR did after he and his party began winning elections by massive margins in 1932. One of the strangest things about Yarvin’s work is its combination of attacks on America’s democratic institutions and calls for the imposition of dictatorship with admiring praise for what FDR accomplished with the New Deal—as if he was an absolute autocrat who right-wingers ought to emulate.
In reality, FDR’s most autocratic move (the attempt to pack the Supreme Court) was unambiguously blocked—and what he did do to expand the size and scope of the federal government was wildly popular with an overwhelming majority of Americans. Nothing the right has attempted or proposed in recent years comes close to commanding that level of popular support.
That’s why Yarvin’s Red Pill politics is best understood as an expression of desperation. He and his admirers want to make sweeping changes to the country, but they can’t seem to win the popular support required to make those changes happen—so they’re giving up on trying, telling themselves consoling stories about how it’s not their fault. They would be winning if only their enemies weren’t cheating.
I think it’s more accurate to say that the country simply isn’t as right-wing as Yarvin and his acolytes would like it to be. But rather than accepting this reality, seeking to move public opinion in their direction through the ordinary process of democratic persuasion, and accepting that the outcome of that effort is uncertain, they prefer justifying the seizure of power and the imposition of their views on the rest of us by force.
That’s certainly one way to respond to the experience of losing fair and square. Whether it’s really one that follows from facing up to hidden truths that lie concealed beneath the surface of things is another matter entirely.
Eyes on the Right is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.