Sullivan: Why the Reactionary Right Must Be Taken Seriously
Look around you. Donald Trump is now president of the United States, having won on a campaign that trashed liberal democracy itself, and is now presiding over an administration staffed, in part, with adherents of a political philosophy largely alien to mainstream American politics. In Russia, Vladimir Putin has driven his country from postcommunist capitalism to a new and popular czardom, empowered by nationalism and blessed by a resurgent Orthodox Church. Britain, where the idea of free trade was born, is withdrawing from the largest free market on the planet because of fears that national identity and sovereignty are under threat. In France, a reconstructed neofascist, Marine Le Pen, has just won a place in the final round of the presidential election. In the Netherlands, the anti-immigrant right became the second-most-popular vote-getter — a new high-water mark for illiberalism in that once famously liberal country. Austria narrowly avoided installing a neo-reactionary president in last year’s two elections. Japan is led by a government attempting to rehabilitate its imperial, nationalist past. Poland is now run by an illiberal Catholic government that is dismembering key liberal institutions. Turkey has morphed from a resolutely secular state to one run by an Islamic strongman, whose powers were just ominously increased by a referendum. Israel has shifted from secular socialism to a raw ethno-nationalism.
We are living in an era of populism and demagoguery. And yes, there’s racism and xenophobia mixed into it. But what we are also seeing, it seems to me, is the manifest return of a distinctive political and intellectual tendency with deep roots: reactionism.
Reactionism is not the same thing as conservatism. It’s far more potent a brew. Reactionary thought begins, usually, with acute despair at the present moment and a memory of a previous golden age. It then posits a moment in the past when everything went to hell and proposes to turn things back to what they once were. It is not simply a conservative preference for things as they are, with a few nudges back, but a passionate loathing of the status quo and a desire to return to the past in one emotionally cathartic revolt. If conservatives are pessimistic, reactionaries are apocalyptic. If conservatives value elites, reactionaries seethe with contempt for them. If conservatives believe in institutions, reactionaries want to blow them up. If conservatives tend to resist too radical a change, reactionaries want a revolution. Though it took some time to reveal itself, today’s Republican Party — from Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution to today’s Age of Trump — is not a conservative party. It is a reactionary party that is now at the peak of its political power.
The reactionary impulse is, of course, not new in human history. Whenever human life has changed sharply and suddenly over the eons, reactionism has surfaced. It appeared in early modernity with the ferocity of the Catholic Counter-Reformation in response to the emergence of Protestantism. Its archetypal moment came in the wake of the French Revolution, as monarchists and Catholics surveyed the damage and tried to resurrect the past. Its darkest American incarnation took place after Reconstruction, as a backlash to the Civil War victory of the North; a full century later, following the success of the civil-rights movement, it bubbled up among the white voters of Richard Nixon’s “silent majority.” The pendulum is always swinging. Sometimes it swings back with unusual speed and power.
You can almost feel the g-force today. What are this generation’s reactionaries reacting to? They’re reacting, as they have always done, to modernity. But their current reaction is proportional to the bewildering pace of change in the world today. They are responding, at some deep, visceral level, to the sense that they are no longer in control of their own lives. They see the relentless tides of globalization, free trade, multiculturalism, and mass immigration eroding their sense of national identity. They believe that the profound shifts in the global economy reward highly educated, multicultural enclaves and punish more racially and culturally homogeneous working-class populations. And they rebel against the entrenched power of elites who, in their view, reflexively sustain all of the above.
I know why many want to dismiss all of this as mere hate, as some of it certainly is. I also recognize that engaging with the ideas of this movement is a tricky exercise in our current political climate. Among many liberals, there is an understandable impulse to raise the drawbridge, to deny certain ideas access to respectable conversation, to prevent certain concepts from being “normalized.” But the normalization has already occurred — thanks, largely, to voters across the West — and willfully blinding ourselves to the most potent political movement of the moment will not make it go away. Indeed, the more I read today’s more serious reactionary writers, the more I’m convinced they are much more in tune with the current global mood than today’s conservatives, liberals, and progressives. I find myself repelled by many of their themes — and yet, at the same time, drawn in by their unmistakable relevance. I’m even tempted, at times, to share George Orwell’s view of the neo-reactionaries of his age: that, although they can sometimes spew dangerous nonsense, they’re smarter and more influential than we tend to think, and that “up to a point, they are right.”
I met Charles Kesler in March on an idyllic sunny day in Pasadena, California, where he lives. He’s a soft-spoken, thoughtful figure, with a shock of white hair and a bemused smile on his face. He grew up in West Virginia, with a schoolteacher mom and a dad who owned a grocery store. They were, he told me, culturally conservative and politically mixed. He is now a professor at Claremont McKenna, where he focuses on the roots of a specifically American conservatism, exemplified by his reading of the Founding Fathers. (He’s the editor of a very popular edition of The Federalist Papers.) He also edits the Claremont Review of Books, a small conservative version of the New York Review of Books that attracted attention first in its critique of George W. Bush’s Iraq War, and again last year, when it came out in support of Donald Trump just when the entire Republican Establishment was trying to destroy him. Along with The American Conservative and the new quarterly American Affairs, it’s now a central forum for many of the sentiments that helped Trump win the presidency.
What on earth was a professor like Kesler doing backing a man who has barely read a book in his life, seems to think Frederick Douglass is still alive, and who’d last less than a few seconds in a Kesler seminar? He smiled a little defensively. He’s perfectly aware of Trump’s manifest flaws — his “crudity, anger and egotism,” as he has written. He has conceded that Trump was seeking a job “for which everyone — everyone — agrees he is conspicuously unready.” Even when we met, he averred: “I don’t know how serious he is.” And yet he still gambled on a despotic, undisciplined, impulsive former Democrat.
It was an act of desperation, he explained. In classic reactionary fashion, he believes that we are living through a crisis of American democracy. The Claremont consensus (to put a name on this strain of thought) holds that beneath the veneer of constitutional democracy, we are actually governed by a soft despotism of permanent experts, bureaucrats, pundits, and academics who ignore the majority of the American people. This elite has encouraged a divisive social transformation of the country, has led us into disastrous wars, and has created a deepening economic crisis for the middle class. Anyone — anyone — who could challenge this elite’s power was therefore a godsend.
Kesler’s worldview is rooted in the ideas of the 20th-century political philosopher Leo Strauss. Strauss’s idiosyncratic genius defies easy characterization, but you could argue, as Mark Lilla did in his recent book The Shipwrecked Mind, that he was a reactionary in one specific sense: A Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, Strauss viewed modernity as collapsing into nihilism and relativism and barbarism all around him. His response was to go back to the distant past — to the works of Plato, Aristotle, and Maimonides, among others — to see where the West went wrong, and how we could avoid the horrific crimes of the 20th century in the future.
One answer was America, where Strauss eventually found his home at the University of Chicago. Some of his disciples — in particular, the late professor Harry Jaffa — saw the American Declaration of Independence, with its assertion of the self-evident truth of the equality of human beings, as a civilizational high point in human self-understanding and political achievement. They believed it revived the ancient Greek and Roman conception of natural law. Yes, they saw the paradox of a testament to human freedom having been built on its opposite — slavery — but once the post–Civil War constitutional amendments were ratified, they believed that the American constitutional order was effectively set forever, and that the limited government that existed in the late-19th and early-20th centuries required no fundamental change. (Jaffa made an exception for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which he believed was the only way to enforce the post–Civil War amendments against southern resistance.)
The expanded government of the last century, begun in earnest by Woodrow Wilson, was, therefore, an unconstitutional and anti-democratic power grab by educated elites. Kesler and many of his fellow Claremonters believe democracy is exercised best at the local level, in accord with the “unenlightened” views of the citizenry, or directly through members of Congress, unencumbered by the layers of bureaucracy, executive fiat, and the control of centralizing modern governments. They call this ever-growing apparatus “the administrative state,” and they loathe it not so much for how it constricts economic growth (as many conservatives do) but for how it creates a kind of political tyranny — a ruling class that can enforce its morality and policy preferences through Executive-branch regulation. The Obama administration’s reworking of Obamacare after its passage, for example, and its climate and immigration policies were all big policy changes that never went through Congress.
The Claremonters were particularly upset last year by the Obama administration’s use of Title IX to direct all public schools to institute transgender-friendly policies for bathroom facilities. “Political correctness,” Kesler believes, “is a serious and totalist politics, aspiring to open the equivalent of a vast reeducation camp for the millions of defective Americans who are products of racism, sexism, classism, and so forth.” He supported Trump because the candidate relished taking on both the administrative state and the PC movement: “If relimiting the government by constitutional means was not an option … then what is left but to use the system as it is, and try placing a strong leader, one of our own, someone who can get something done in our interest, at the head of it?”
Kesler also saw in Trump’s instincts on immigration and trade a return to 19th-century Republicanism, which he believes is newly relevant in a post–Cold War world. The party of McKinley and Coolidge had, after all, been one that favored tariffs. The party platform of 1896 declared, “We renew and emphasize our allegiance to the policy of protection, as the bulwark of American industrial independence, and the foundation of American development and prosperity.” In 1924, the GOP platform reiterated this: “We believe in protection as a national policy.” Kesler saw Trump as tapping into this old Republicanism, noting that he was the first president in living memory to use the word protection favorably in his inaugural address.
On foreign policy, too, Kesler projects onto Trump’s impulses a return to the classic American position before the Second World War: suspicious of multinational entanglements, prickly in the defense of the western hemisphere, and dedicated primarily to the national interest. On immigration, Kesler sees in Trump a return to the 1920 Republican platform, which proposed to limit the number of foreigners to “that which can be assimilated with reasonable rapidity, and to favor immigrants whose standards are similar to ours.” Trump, Kesler wants to believe, vaults the conservative movement back more than 70 years. And he’s fine with that.
“We would happily trade our current government for one that worked exactly as designed in 1787, as amended in 1865 and shortly thereafter.” You would be hard put to find such a blunt declaration in Kesler’s Claremont Review, but it’s just one of many provocations that appeared last year in the now-defunct group blog the Journal of American Greatness. The blog had a madcap feel to it, bristling with almost tongue-in-cheek assaults on the modern world, on stuffy career conservatives, and risible “social justice warriors.” Its authors included a young Straussian, Julius Krein, who is now editing a new journal, American Affairs, and an older student of Jaffa’s, Michael Anton, who now works in the press office at the National Security Council.
Anton is the most interesting intellectual behind Trumpism, today’s American version of reactionism. He’s the suave, credentialed foil to Steve Bannon’s rumpled autodidact, a Trump official who just published a paper on Machiavelli in an academic journal. I recently met him for dinner near the White House. An immensely tall man, of piercing intelligence and meticulous attire, Anton is a product of post-hippie California, one of many contemporary reactionaries who rejected their reflexive youthful liberalism because of their revulsion at the political left they encountered on campus — in Anton’s case, at Berkeley.
Once a conventional Republican, an aide to George W. Bush, and an advocate of the Iraq War, Anton decisively broke ranks in 2016 and came out as a proud reactionary. Anton’s critique of the current moment — and his justification for backing Trump — can best be summarized by the slogan the group blog adopted: “What difference, at this point, does it make?” (It doubled as a snarky reference to one of Hillary Clinton’s comments during the Benghazi hearings.) He became famous for his essay “The Flight 93 Election,” in which he compared America in 2016 to the 9/11 plane hijacked by jihadists and on a course to crash in Washington. In those circumstances, he recommended: “Charge the cockpit or you die. You may die anyway. You — or the leader of your party — may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees. Except one: if you don’t try, death is certain.” It’s not just that Trump is better than the alternatives: “The truth is that Trump articulated, if incompletely and inconsistently, the right stances on the right issues — immigration, trade and war — right from the beginning.”
The Claremont critique of the administrative state and the liberal elite does not appear to be enough for Anton. His aim is at what he calls, rather wickedly, “the Party of Davos,” or the “Davoisie.” This is the administrative state gone global. With The Economist as its Bible and its social liberalism and economic conservatism turned into unquestionable dogmas, the Davoisie, perched in the Alps, luxuriates in self-love. It routinely shoots down any critiques of globalization, sees few problems with mass immigration, and is still busy celebrating an ever-more-powerful European Union and ever-more-expansive free-trade agreements among ever-more countries.
None of this, Anton concluded, has anything to do with the American people and their interests. The Davoisie were too busy lifting foreigners out of poverty and celebrating the latest disruptive tech invention to cast a glance toward, say, the beleaguered inhabitants of Kansas or Michigan. Anton admired Trump, he wrote last year, largely because “he’s single-handedly revived talking about government serving its own citizens first.” Trump understood that the American idea is a compact “for the American people, and not for foreigners, immigrants (unless we choose to welcome them) or anyone else.” Three months into a Trump presidency, Anton hasn’t changed his mind.
Politics comes before economics, Anton insists. Free trade may boost our economy, encourage efficiencies, and advance innovation and wealth, but it affects different people differently. And this matters in a democracy. A society’s stability and fairness and unity count for more than its aggregate wealth — especially when, as in recent decades, almost all the direct benefits have gone to the superrich, and all the costs have been paid by the working poor. In the Journal of American Greatness, Krein scorned the abstractions so beloved of the Davoisie: “There is no ‘free trade’ outside of undergraduate economics textbooks,” he wrote, “and trade agreements exist precisely to determine the winners and losers of those zero-sum transactions inherent in any global competition.” Economically unifying the entire planet is not necessarily in a nation’s interest at all.
Nor, according to today’s reactionaries, is mass immigration. And it’s on this topic — more than any other — where the abstract ideas of neo-reactionaries connect with the fears, passions, and cultural panic of many among the population at large.
The Journal of American Greatness’s position goes something like this: The economic benefits (for capitalist elites) and multicultural delights (for progressive elites) of mass immigration are taken for granted by the Davoisie — and by liberals and free-market conservatives more generally. If you live in a major metropolis, with unprecedented prosperity and a tradition of assimilating newcomers, what’s not to like? And if you’re an immigrant, these places are full of jobs you are happy to take. But if your family is in a rural area or a heartland city, where ethnic diversity has not been the norm in the past, and where globalization has dramatically eroded traditional blue-collar jobs, it’s a little more complicated.
Mass immigration, neo-reactionaries argue, creates more job competition for those without college degrees, and, by the laws of supply and demand, lowers wages for some, even as it massively increases profits for a few. At some point, a citizen on the losing end will surely ask: Why is my country benefiting foreigners and new immigrants, many of them arriving illegally, while making life tougher for its own people? And why doesn’t it matter what I think? It’s this question that Anton has a policy answer for. Scaling back free trade and ending mass immigration would “improve the economic prospects of the lower half of our workforce to a greater extent than either would in isolation,” he has written. “The people have repeatedly said ‘no’ to more immigration, ‘no’ to more free trade … but the administrative state will not allow itself to be driven in a direction it does not want to go. It therefore must be broken.”
And then there is the cultural impact of mass immigration, which the Party of Davos, living in a post-national world, celebrates as a vision of the global future. Neo-reactionaries beg to differ. They get a little vague here — tiptoeing awkwardly around the question of race. A nation, they believe, is not just a random group of people within an arbitrary set of borders. It’s a product of a certain history and the repository of a distinctive culture. A citizen should be educated to understand that country’s history and take pride in its culture and traditions. Honed and modulated over time, this national culture gives crucial legitimacy to the American political system by producing citizens acclimated to the tolerance, self-government, and other civic values that democracy needs if it is to function. And so Anton, who gives America’s long history of successful integration of immigrants short shrift, worries about the influx of what he delicately calls “non-republican peoples.” “What happens when the West ceases to be western?” he asked me. On the blog, he was much more direct: He wrote that “Islam and the West are incompatible” and that Muslim immigration should be almost entirely banned. A country like the United States requires “a certain type or character of people.”
Isn’t all this just code for white nationalism? That’s certainly what self-described white nationalists cite in their support for Trump. When I asked Anton bluntly about whether he believes race matters to a national identity, he turned uncharacteristically silent: “I’m not going to say something that could be used to destroy my livelihood and career.” Kesler, when I confronted him with this as well, responded: “The definition of ‘white’ is a political definition. It may be that a lot of people we now regard as inherently and unchangeably Hispanic will turn out to be whites eventually as their incomes go up, as their place in society changes over time in the same way that Italians and Poles and Central Europeans were once ‘second-class’ whites.” Kesler seemed to be describing a white-nationalist country that slowly absorbs others into the fold — turning their cultural “otherness” into an integrated, but still somehow “white,” American identity. “The rate of intermarriage among African-Americans is going up, too,” he tells me as my eyes widen. “How different would American politics be if Obama had defined himself as multiracial rather than black as such … as a new kind of American transcending race?”
Neo-reactionary unease with mass immigration is exacerbated by what they see as the administrative state’s shift from belief in a “melting pot” model in which all immigrants assimilate to a common American culture to the multicultural model, where the government, business, and society recognize different languages and celebrate ethnic diversity over national unity. Anton notes that America is now “a country in which Al Gore mistranslates e pluribus unum as ‘Out of one, many’ and in his error is actually more accurate to the spirit of our times.” The problems of ethnic division are further compounded by the view growing among the elites that America itself is at root a racist white construction, and that “assimilation” is therefore an inherently bigoted idea.
This notion of a national culture, rooted in, if not defined by, a common ethnicity, is even more powerful in European nations, which is why Brexit is so closely allied to Trumpism. In the case of Britain, the question of race is framed within a euphemism used by the British government itself: a “visible minority” versus an “invisible one.” “Since 2001, Britain’s ‘visible minority’ population has nearly doubled, from 8 percent to 14 percent today,” Benjamin Schwarz, the national editor of The American Conservative, noted last year. “It is projected to rise to about 38 percent by mid-century.” Is Britain changing so fast that it could lose any meaningful continuity with its history and culture? That is the question now occupying the British neo-reactionaries. Prime Minister Theresa May has not said many memorable things in office, except this: “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.”
A year ago, Anton took issue with an article I wrote for this magazine in which I described Trump as reminiscent of Plato’s description of a tyrant emerging out of a decadent democracy and argued that we should do what we could to stop him. Anton’s critique was that I was half-right and half-wrong. I was right to see democracy degenerating into tyranny but wrong to see any way to avoid it. What he calls “Caesarism” is already here, as Obama’s abuse of executive power proved. Therefore: “If we must have Caesar, who do you want him to be? One of theirs? Or one of yours (ours)?” Krein put it even more plainly: “Restoring true constitutional — or even merely competent — government requires a fundamental transformation of the underlying culture and elite opinion. It requires, in a certain sense, regime change in America.”
That indeed is the explicit aim of Curtis Yarvin, who takes Kesler’s and Anton’s dismay at modern America to new and dizzying heights — and reactionism to its logical conclusion. A geeky computer programmer in his 40s, he writes a reactionary blog, Unqualified Reservations, under the pseudonym Mencius Moldbug and has earned a cult following among the alt-right. His magnum opus — “An Open Letter to Open-Minded Progressives” — is an alternately chilling and entertaining assault on almost everything educated Westerners hold to be self-evidently true. His critique of our present is not that we need a correction to return us to traditional notions of national culture and to unseat the administrative state and its elites; it is that we need to take the whole idea of human “progress” itself and throw it in the trash can. Things didn’t start going wrong in the 1960s or under the Progressives. Yarvin believes that the Western mind became corrupted during the Enlightenment itself. The very idea of democracy, allied with reason and constitutionalism, is bunk: “Washington has failed. The Constitution has failed. Democracy has failed.” His golden era: the age of monarchs. (“It is hard not to imagine that world as happier, wealthier, freer, more civilized, and more pleasant.”) His solution: “It is time for restoration, for national salvation, for a full reboot. We need a new government, a clean slate, a fresh hand which is smart, strong and fair.”
At first, Yarvin reads like some kind of elaborate intellectual prank (as well as a legendary exercise in trolling). And he writes with a jocular, designed-to-shock style that is far more influenced by snarky web discourse than anything in, say, the Claremont Review. But the more you read, the more his ideological transgressions seem to come from a deadly serious place. He challenges the idea that the present is always preferable to the past: “There is no strong reason to think that governments recent and domestic are any better than the governments ancient and foreign,” he writes. “The American Republic is over two hundred years old. Great. The Serene Republic of Venice lasted eleven hundred.” The assumption that all of history has led inexorably to today’s glorious and democratic present is, he argues, a smug and self-serving delusion. It’s what used to be called Whig History, the idea that all of human history led up to the democratic institutions and civilizational achievements of liberal Britain, the model for the entire world. This reflexive sense that the world is always going forward has become an American orthodoxy almost no one questions. Insofar as progressives see flaws in the system, Yarvin suggests, it is only because the work of progress is never done.
Why do so many of us assume that progress is inevitable, if never complete? Yarvin, like the Claremonters and American Greatness brigade, blames an elite that he calls by the inspired name “the Cathedral,” an amalgam of established universities and the mainstream press. It works like this: “The universities make decisions, for which the press manufactures consent. It’s as simple as a punch in the mouth.” If that concept of “manufacturing consent” reminds you of the Chomskyite far left, you wouldn’t be wrong. But for Yarvin, the consent is manufactured not by capitalism, advertising, and corporations but by liberal academics, pundits, and journalists. They simply assume that left liberalism is the only rational response to the world. Democracy, he contends, “no longer means that the public’s elected representatives control the government. It means that the government implements scientific public policy in the public interest.”
And the Cathedral has plainly failed. “If we imagine the 20th century without technical progress, we see an almost pure century of disaster,” Yarvin writes, despairing from his comfy 21st-century perch. His solution is not just a tyrannical president who hates all that the Cathedral stands for but something even more radical: “the liquidation of democracy, the Constitution and the rule of law, and the transfer of absolute power to a mysterious figure known only as the Receiver, who in the process of converting Washington into a heavily armed, ultra-profitable corporation will abolish the press, smash the universities, sell the public schools, and transfer ‘decivilized populations’ to ‘secure relocation facilities’ where they will be assigned to ‘mandatory apprenticeships.’ ”
This is 21st-century fascism, except that Yarvin’s Receiver would allow complete freedom of speech and association and would exercise no control over economic life. Foreign policy? Yarvin calls for “a total shutdown of international relations, including security guarantees, foreign aid, and mass immigration.” All social policy also disappears: “I believe that government should take no notice whatsoever of race — no racial policy. I believe it should separate itself completely from the question of what its citizens should or should not think — separation of education and state.”
And with that final provocation, Mencius Moldbug disappears into cyberspace.
Reaction is a mood before it is anything else, and I know its psychological temptations intimately. Growing up steeped in traditional religion, in a household where patriotism seemed as natural as breathing, I became infatuated with a past that no longer existed. I loved the countryside that was quickly being decimated by development, a Christianity that was being overwhelmed by secularism, and an idea of England, whose glories — so evident in the literature I read, the history I had absorbed, and the architecture I admired — had self-evidently crumbled into dust. Loss was my youthful preoccupation. The mockery I received because of this — from most of my peers, through high school and college — turned me inward and radicalized me still further. I began to revel in my estrangement, sharpening my intellectual rebellion with every book I devoured and every class I took. Politically I was ferociously anti-Establishment, grew to suspect and even despise much of the liberal elite, and rejoiced at Margaret Thatcher’s election victories.
So a sympathy for writers and thinkers who define themselves by a sense of loss comes naturally to me. I’ve grown out of it in many ways — and the depression and loneliness that often lie at the core of the reactionary mind slowly lifted as I grew more comfortable in the only place I could actually live: the present. But I never doubted the cogency of many reactionary insights — and I still admire minds that have not succumbed to the comfortable assumption that the future is always brighter. I read the Christian traditionalist Rod Dreher with affection. His evocation of Christian life and thought over the centuries and his panic at its disappearance from our world are poignant. We are losing a vast civilization that honed answers to the deepest questions that human beings can ask, replacing it with vapid pseudo-religions, pills, therapy, and reality TV. I’ve become entranced by the novels of Michel Houellebecq, by his regret at the spiritual emptiness of modernity, the numbness that comes with fully realized sexual freedom, the yearning for the sacred again. Maybe this was why as I read more and more of today’s neo-reactionary thought, I became nostalgic for aspects of my own past, and that of the West’s.
Because in some key respects, reactionaries are right. Great leaps forward in history are often, in fact, giant leaps back. The Reformation did initiate brutal sectarian warfare. The French Revolution did degenerate into barbarous tyranny. Communist utopias — allegedly the wave of an Elysian future — turned into murderous nightmares. Modern neoliberalism has, for its part, created a global capitalist machine that is seemingly beyond anyone’s control, fast destroying the planet’s climate, wiping out vast tracts of life on Earth while consigning millions of Americans to economic stagnation and cultural despair.
And at an even deeper level, the more we discover about human evolution, the more illusory certain ideas of progress become. In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari points out that hunter-gatherers were actually up to six inches taller than their more “civilized” successors; their diets were much healthier; infectious disease was much rarer; they worked less and goofed off more than we do. They didn’t even have much shorter lives: If you survived the enormous hazards of childhood, you could reach the age of 60, and some lived into their 80s (and stayed within their tribes rather than being shunted off into lonely rest homes). Famines and plagues — the great catastrophes of human history — were less common. Harari notes another paradox: Over hundreds of millennia, we have overcome starvation … but now are more likely to die of obesity than hunger. Happiness? Globally, suicide rates keep rising.
Certain truths about human beings have never changed. We are tribal creatures in our very DNA; we have an instinctive preference for our own over others, for “in-groups” over “out-groups”; for hunter-gatherers, recognizing strangers as threats was a matter of life and death. We also invent myths and stories to give meaning to our common lives. Among those myths is the nation — stretching from the past into the future, providing meaning to our common lives in a way nothing else can. Strip those narratives away, or transform them too quickly, and humans will become disoriented. Most of us respond to radical changes in our lives, especially changes we haven’t chosen, with more fear than hope. We can numb the pain with legal cannabis or opioids, but it is pain nonetheless.
If we ignore these deeper facts about ourselves, we run the risk of fatal errors. It’s vital to remember that multicultural, multiracial, post-national societies are extremely new for the human species, and keeping them viable and stable is a massive challenge. Globally, social trust is highest in the homogeneous Nordic countries, and in America, Pew has found it higher in rural areas than cities. The political scientist Robert Putnam has found that “people living in ethnically diverse settings appear to ‘hunker down,’ that is, to pull in like a turtle.” Not very encouraging about human nature — but something we can’t wish away, either. In fact, the American elite’s dismissal of these truths, its reduction of all resistance to cultural and demographic change as crude “racism” or “xenophobia,” only deepens the sense of siege many other Americans feel.
And is it any wonder that reactionaries are gaining strength? Within the space of 50 years, America has gone from segregation to dizzying multiculturalism; from traditional family structures to widespread divorce, cohabitation, and sexual liberty; from a few respected sources of information to an endless stream of peer-to-peer media; from careers in one company for life to an ever-accelerating need to retrain and regroup; from a patriarchy to (incomplete) gender equality; from homosexuality as a sin to homophobia as a taboo; from Christianity being the common culture to a secularism no society has ever sustained before ours.
When this velocity of cultural change combines with a deepening — and accurate — sense of economic anxiety, is it shocking that human beings want to retreat into a past, to resuscitate the nation-state, and to reach backward for a more primeval and instinctual group identity? Or that they doubt the promise of “progress” and seek scapegoats in the governing classes that have encouraged all of this to happen? And is it not evident why, when a demagogue occupies this cultural vacuum and finally speaks this forbidden language, they thrill to him?
Our job in these circumstances is not to condescend but to engage — or forfeit the politics of the moment (and the future) to reaction. Lincoln got the dynamic exactly right with respect to the Trump voter: “Assume to dictate to his judgment, or to command his action, or to mark him as one to be shunned and despised, and he will retreat within himself, close all the avenues to his head and his heart; and though your cause be naked truth itself, transformed to the heaviest lance, harder than steel, and sharper than steel can be made, and tho’ you throw it with more than Herculean force and precision, you shall be no more able to pierce him, than to penetrate the hard shell of a tortoise with a rye straw.”
The tragedy of our time, of course, is that President Obama tried to follow Lincoln’s advice. He reached out to those who voted against him as often as he could. His policies, like Obamacare, were aimed at helping the very working poor who gave Trump the White House. He pledged to transcend the red-blue divide. He acknowledged both the necessity of law enforcement and the legitimate African-American fear of hostile cops. A black man brought up by white people, he gave speech after speech attempting to provide a new narrative for America: one of slowly integrating moral progress, where racial and class divides could be overcome. He criticized the reductive divisiveness of identity politics. And yet he failed. He couldn’t prevent the disappearance of the American middle class; he couldn’t calm the restive anxieties of the white working class; he couldn’t stem the reactionary tide that now washes ever closer ashore. If a man that talented, with that biography, found himself spitting into the wind, a powerful storm is indeed upon us.
This, of course, is not to defend the neo-reactionary response. Their veiled racism is disturbing, and their pessimism a solipsistic pathology. When Anton finds nothing in modernity to celebrate but, as he put it to me, “nice restaurants, good wine, a high standard of living,” it comes off as a kind of pose, deliberately blind to all the constant renewals of life and culture around us. When Houellebecq has one of his characters sigh, “For a man to bring a child into the world now is meaningless,” I chortle. When Dreher hyperventilates that today’s youngsters “could be one of the last generations of this thing called Western civilization” and that American Christians today must “live lives prepared to suffer severe hardship, even death, for our faith,” I take my dogs for a walk. When Yarvin insists that “if the 20th century does not go down in history as the golden age of awful government, it is only because the future holds some fresher hell for us,” I check my Instagram account. There is something hysterical here, too manically certain, bleaker than any human being can bear for long.
And how can you seriously regard our political system and culture as worse than ever before in history? How self-centered do you have to be to dismiss the unprecedented freedom for women, racial minorities, and homosexuals? Or the increased security for the elderly and unemployed, and the greater access to health care by the poor and now the working poor? Compare the air we breathe today with that of the 1950s. Contrast the religious tolerance we take for granted today with the enmities of the past. Compare the racial integration of today, incomplete as it may be, with Jim Crow. Observe the historically low levels of crime compared with the recent past — and the absence of any world wars since 1945. Over the very long haul, too, scholars such as Steven Pinker have found convincing evidence that violence among humans is at the lowest levels since the species first emerged.
If the neo-reactionaries were entirely right, the collapse of our society would surely have happened long before now. But somehow, an historically unprecedented mix of races and cultures hasn’t led to civil war in the United States. In fact, majorities welcome immigration, and enjoy the new cultures that new immigrants bring. A majority backed Trump’s opponent last November. America has assimilated so many before, its culture churning into new forms, without crashing into incoherence. London may be 40 percent nonwhite and repellent to much of rural England — but it works, its inhabitants seem unfazed, its culture remains world-class. The European Union massively overreached by mandating a common currency and imposing brutal austerity, but its conflicts have not led to mass violence, its standard of living remains high, and its achievement of Continental peace is far preferable to the carnage that destroyed Europe in the last century. It may well stagger on, if it can only moderate itself.
It is also one thing to be vigilant about the power of the administrative state and to attempt to reform and modernize it; it is quite another to favor its abolition. The more complex modern society has become, the more expertise is needed to govern it — and where else is that expertise going to come from if not a professional elite? For that matter, the liberal media has nothing like the monopoly it once enjoyed. There are two “Cathedrals” in the 21st century — and only one has helped produce a conservative Supreme Court, a Republican Congress, a Republican president, and near-record Republican majorities in statehouses around the country. Non-leftist thought is suppressed in the academy and is currently subjected to extreme intolerance and even violence on many campuses. That has to change. But some ideas from the neo-reactionary underground — like the notion that carbon has little to do with rising world temperatures — are in the underground for a reason. And still, climate-change denial is the de facto policy of the American government.
Beyond all that, neo-reactionaries have a glaring problem, which is that their proposed solutions are so radical they have no chance whatsoever of coming into existence — and would be deeply reckless to attempt. Their rage eclipses their argument. The notion that public opinion could be marshaled to effect a total reset of American government in favor of a new form of monarchy, as Yarvin suggests, is, to be blunt, bonkers. And is America seriously going to remain a white-majority country? How, exactly? Can the U.S. economy suddenly unwind global manufacturing patterns? Can America simply abandon its global role and its long-standing commitments to allies?
Of course not. And the Trump administration is, day by day, proving this. An isolationist foreign policy collapsed at the first gust of reality. A thinly veiled Muslim immigration ban would have accomplished nothing — most Islamist terrorism is homegrown — and went nowhere. The communities that once thrived off manufacturing or coal mining are not coming back. Even the most draconian mass deportation of undocumented immigrants will not change the demographics of America — or suddenly raise wages for the working class. Global trade has become too entrenched to be reversed. The dismantling of Obamacare dismantled itself — not because of an elite plot but because, when confronted with its being taken away, a majority of Americans balked.
There is, perhaps, a way to use reactionary insights and still construct a feasible center-right agenda. Such a program would junk Reaganite economics as outdated but keep revenue-neutral tax reform, it could even favor redistribution to counter the deep risk to democracy that soaring inequality fosters, and it could fix Obamacare’s technical problems. You could add to this mix stronger border control, a reduction in legal immigration, a pause in free-trade expansion, a technological overhaul of the government bureaucracy, and a reassertion of Americanism over multiculturalism. This is not an impossible direction for the Republican Party to go — though it would have to abandon its know-nothing narcissist of a leader and its brain-dead congressional leaders. The left, for its part, must, it seems to me, escape its own bubble and confront the accelerating extremism of its identity politics and its disdain for millions of “deplorable” white Americans. You will not arrest the reactionary momentum by ignoring it or dismissing it entirely as a function of bigotry or stupidity. You’ll only defuse it by appreciating its insights and co-opting its appeal.
Reaction can be clarifying if it helps us better understand the huge challenges we now face. But reaction by itself cannot help us manage the world we live in today — which is the only place that matters. You start with where you are, not where you were or where you want to be. There are no utopias in the future or Gardens of Eden in our past. There is just now — in all its incoherent, groaning, volatile messiness. Our job, like everyone before us, is to keep our nerve and make the best of it.