Welcome to "Eyes on the Right"
We need to do better
The right is on the rise—and we need fresh thinking about it.
The first of those propositions shouldn’t be especially controversial. From Donald Trump’s successful takeover of the Republican Party to the outcome of the Brexit vote, from the popularity of Viktor Orban’s explicitly antiliberal agenda in Hungary to the growing support for far-right candidates in France, ours is a time when right-wing ideas and aspirations, long relegated to the political margins, have been surging into the mainstream. They are vying for political power, shaping agendas, and forming alliances across borders. It is one of most noteworthy—and troubling—facts about our historical moment.
We don’t lack informed journalistic and scholarly takes on what’s happening. Many of them are valuable and illuminating. But they have their limits.
The Proper Context
For one thing, many of them focus almost exclusively on the American context—Trump and Ron DeSantis, CRT and LGBTQ, BLM and January 6, Roe and Obergefell, the Proud Boys and the “Great Replacement”—and its historical antecedents. Invariably, such work points to continuity with the American past, and above all to the resurgence of the country’s familiar demons: racism, the reign of “whiteness,” xenophobia, misogyny, the puritanical fear of sex, and the ruthless protection of economic privilege.
Such work is worth reading and thinking with, but the relentless focus on the United States can trick us into thinking the return of the antiliberal right is primarily an American story when in fact it’s taking place on a much broader canvas.
There are always many contexts, and a better one for analyzing the return of the antiliberal right is international. The right is now a formidable electoral force in Hungary and France, India and Brazil, Germany and Italy, Poland and Israel, England and America. That points to common causes—intellectual, economic, cultural, technological, demographic, and historical. I will explore those here, obviously spending considerable time on their manifestations within the United States (the context I know best and the one most of my readers will care most about). But I will nonetheless work hard in this newsletter to avoid falling into parochialism about the centrality of the American experience to understanding farther-reaching trends.
Even more important than thinking broadly is keeping our heads. Yes, some of what’s being done and said by right-wing people and parties is genuinely disturbing and dangerous, but not all of it is. Some of it is merely foolish—and yes, sometimes someone on the right even makes a valid point. Yet the prevailing mode of engaging with right-wing ideas is five-alarm panic combined with quite a lot of name-calling, as if it’s reasonable to think the right can be defeated politically and intellectually merely by drawing moral red lines, issuing fulsome denunciations, and affixing scarlet letters.
We need to do better—first, by following the example of sociologist Daniel Bell, who famously defined an intellectual as someone who excels at making relevant distinctions. I attempted to do that in my writing during the Trump administration by regularly distinguishing between acts that were normal for a Republican president from those that were abnormal or truly alarming. I expect some of that kind of work to continue here, as elections come and go in the U.S. and abroad, and as various factions on the right dream about what they would do with political power, and attempt to implement some of those ideas when they get the chance.
Then there’s the question of who on the right is saying what. Conservatives in the U.S. have become extremely adept at deploying the fallacy of composition to their advantage. That’s the fallacy of treating a part as exemplary of a whole. So one far-left professor in a country of 330 million people says something stupid and inflammatory in the classroom; a conservative student films and shares it with a muckraking website, which posts it online; then Tucker Carlson picks it up and broadcasts a 12-minute segment on the professor’s rant to an audience of millions in prime time on Fox News, using it to claim that universities aim systematically to convert the children of conservatives into left-wing radicals.
The shtick might be politically effective, but it’s intellectually shoddy. And so is the reverse. So don’t expect to see posts here in which I focus on an isolated statement from some right-wing Twitter troll, acting as if it reveals the authoritarian impulses of conservatives in general. When I choose to highlight something written, said, or done by someone on the right, I will do my best to evaluate it in terms of who that someone is. Is he or she a journalist? A media entertainer or activist? An intellectual? A policy wonk? An academic? A political philosopher? A donor or influencer? An ordinary voter? A political staffer or party hack? An officeholder or candidate for office? Sometimes the differences won’t matter much, but often they will, shaping my judgments about the significance of the words or deeds.
A Call to Empathetic Understanding
What we need, above all, is deeper thinking about the right—and along with it, greater empathy.
The 18th-century writer J.G. Herder wrote about the possibility and importance of “feeling oneself into” another’s outlook on the world, and how that empathetic act makes understanding possible, even across deep differences. When it comes to the right, I’m well-suited to the task. I once considered myself a conservative, and as I’ll explain in future posts, my liberalism and general outlook on the world have been shaped in various ways by insights and ideas typically associated with the right.
What this means is that this newsletter will take the opposite approach from those who respond to the right by attempting to impose a cordon sanitaire around it. In a free society, that will never work. But even if it could, I would oppose it on principle—because I don’t believe in intellectual quarantines.
Tens of millions of Americans are drawn to the antiliberal right. We need to understand why—to grasp its appeal to so many. Hurling insults—Racist! Fascist! Misogynist! Sadist! Dupe for Disinformation!—might be momentarily satisfying, but in most cases it’s intellectually lazy and politically unwise. Those tens of millions aren’t going anywhere. They are our fellow citizens, with whom we need to share a polity. That calls for something more than reflexive rebukes.
Which isn’t at all to suggest this newsletter will be uncritical of the right. Much of the time, it will be highly critical, sometimes harshly so. But the criticisms will tend to come from the far side of a process of empathetic imagination. Often the criticism will be made from the standpoint of liberalism, when I think its insights into human nature and modern society are superior to those of its antagonists on the right. But at other times, the criticism will be internal to the right, pointing out how some of its ideas and actions clash with and betray its own stated principles and unstated assumptions.
Inspirations and Clarifications
In undertaking this critical work, I have been inspired by a handful of colleagues who take a better approach than most. The “Know Your Enemy” podcast with Matthew Sitman and Sam Adler-Bell has gotten a lot of attention and praise over the past couple of years, and justly so. It’s consistently excellent, bringing a high level of historical and theoretical sophistication to a topic that rarely rises above shrill polemics. John Ganz’s Substack “Unpopular Front” likewise brings deep knowledge of political and intellectual history to his analysis of the contemporary right. I regularly learn valuable things from both sources.
Where I differ from Sitman, Adler-Bell, and Ganz is in my political commitments. All three do their thinking from the social-democratic left, while I am an unapologetic defender of the embattled liberal center. That’s bound to give my commentary a distinctive slant, including a tendency to express exasperation about certain trends on the left. That won’t be my main focus here, but it’s bound to come up, if for no other reason than the rise of the right isn’t happening in a vacuum. The left and the right evolve together over time, each continually provoking and antagonizing the other. That means a newsletter about the right will sometimes have to engage critically with what the left is doing and saying.
What you’ll find here are at least three substantial posts per week. If you subscribe, you’ll receive all public posts in the form of an email at the moment they’re published. If you become a paying subscriber, apart from receiving my gratitude, you’ll gain access to every post (private as well as public) in its entirety. Paying subscribers will also be free to join discussion threads, leave comments, interact with me and each other in the comments sections and on the open threads, and submit questions for me to answer and discuss in occasional reader-response posts.
I hope you’ll join me as I put my eyes on the right. We have plenty of thinking to do.
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I found this site through Andrew Sullivan's link to your Rod Dreher piece, although I've read a number over your pieces over the years. I appreciate iconoclasts who can take a critical look at all sides of an issue. Looking forward to seen what you have to say.
Thanks for the (unexpected) response. I am a retired university professor and was a life-long Republican until the day Trump was elected. I am also a former seminarian (and lapsed Catholic), so I found your discussion of your experience at First Things quite interesting. I decided the Catholic Church was a thoroughly corrupt institution while I was studying to be a Benedictine monk and made a quick exit.. I agree with your observations about Douthat, but I see him as insufficiently attentive to the apparent trend towards theocracy (loosely defined) in the US, perhaps because of his strong attachment to Catholicism. I recently obtained a British passport (thanks to being a “WWII war baby,”) and will move there promptly if Trump is elected in 2024, despite the current sorry state of affairs there.