During the Democratic National Convention, we talked about the tense relationship between the American Left and the Democratic Party. Since we’re currently amidst the Republican National Convention, let’s talk a little the American Right, the Republican Party, and the sometimes uneasy relationship between the two.
As I discussed last time, each of the four intersections between the x- and y-axes have different ideas about who should have power and who that power should serve. But parties are coalitional, not philosophical. The Democratic Party establishment is defined by its relationship to the y-axis; it is an elitist party. The Republican Party establishment, on the other hand, is defined by its relationship to the x-axis; it is a fundamentally conservative party. They aren’t oppositional, as much as a two party system makes them appear to be. But while the Democrats are currently challenged by an antithetical force — a populist movement pulling them in an opposite direction — the Republicans are a bigger tent being stretched thin as they cover too much conservative ground.
But let’s start with intersections. If the Left is defined by the intersection of populism and progressivism, then the Right, at least in America, is defined by the intersection of elitism and conservatism. The two are natural partners. Elitism prioritizes individual excellence; conservatism prioritizes hierarchy. Together, you have a worldview in which there are certain inherent hierarchies, in which some people are just born better, and those people deserve not just to lead, but to rule. In a very real way, this point of view is best exemplified by Margaret Thatcher, who once said:
[T]here’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first.Margaret Thatcher in an interview for WOMEN’S OWN in 1987
You’ve heard this kind of thing before. You have a responsibility to yourself and to your family, to get as much as you can and step on whoever you need to step on to succeed. It’s the ‘Greed is Good‘ mentality of the Reagan 80s. The Right fundamentally believes that, in order for social order to be upheld, people need to know their place — and, if they don’t have the power they know they deserve, they have to take it.
Elitism is, at its heart, about the excellence of the individual. Just as populism can be progressive or conservative, so too can elitism. Elitist progressives believe that power should be held by the best and the brightest, who will shepherd us into a better future. Elitist conservatives believe that power should be held by those who can take it, and their only responsibility is to keep on winning. When Milton Friedman argues that the only responsibility a company has is to its shareholders and Ronald Reagan argues that the best way to improve society is to give more resources to the wealthiest and most powerful, this is what is behind that belief.
You can win by cheating, you can win by outsmarting the rest of the market, you can win by overpowering or outspending them — but you can’t win with help. Teachers unions aren’t winners, no matter how much political power they accrue, because they help ‘bad’ teachers and ‘good’ teachers alike. They aren’t an excellent individual, but a collection of people. They might win, but to the Right, they are basically gaming the system.
The Republican Party unites along the conservative axis. While they typically govern as elites, they often run as populists. A populist-driven white nationalist rallying cry like “Build the Wall!” rapidly transitions to “Cut taxes for Apple!” when in office, as we’re seeing now with Donald Trump. Even some notable up-and-coming populists in the party hew a bit closer to the elites than they like to pretend.
Because of that, there’s plenty of tension in the Republican Party. But where the Democrats are functionally at war with their left flank, many on the Right have embraced their populist flank.
But what is the populist flank of the conservative movement? If the Left is the intersection between Progressive and Populist, and the Right is the intersection between Elitist and Conservative… what is the Populist Conservative movement?
Say hello to the Alt-Right.
The Alt-Right is, in many ways, a populist movement. The Right opposes collective action, lionizing the individual; the Alt-Right is fine with collective action, as long as it only collects the white–I mean, the right people. Both groups have a knee-jerk distrust of equality, favoring rigid hierarchies. But where the Right’s hierarchies are primarily (this word is doing a lot of heavy lifting) individualistic, the Alt-Right’s tend to be a bit more ethnic.
That said, that belief in hierarchy helps them work together. The Right wants to cut taxes and eliminate the social safety net, so no one gets help they don’t deserve; the Alt-Right wants to hurt communities of color, which are overwhelmingly in need of that help. You can see how they complement each other. In case you can’t, though, Republican strategist Lee Atwater explained how these two things go together in an infamous 1981 interview in which he described what came to be known as Nixon’s ‘Southern Strategy.’
You start out in 1954 by saying, “N*****, n*****, n*****.” By 1968 you can’t say “n*****”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.…Lee Atwater, as reported in The Nation.
There are many on the Right who don’t understand why they get linked with the Alt-Right. Ben Shapiro, for example, is often touted as a conservative’s conservative, a fast-talking, small-government-except-for-forcing-women-to-give-birth-giving-the-cops-infinite-cash-neverending-military-intervention-and-money-for-Israel leader of the new philosophical Right. Shapiro himself has fought back against the Alt-Right label, despite his place on the path to radicalization being fairly well-trod ground. So why do figures who consider themselves classical conservatives, staunchly in the Right and firmly against the Alt-Right, keep finding themselves linked with someone they consider an enemy?
Remember that study I mentioned earlier? The one that interviewed hundreds of alt-right activists and found that the alt-right favored ethnic collective action? Well, there were other things that united them, such as an extreme tendency to dehumanize other ethnic and religious groups, particularly Black folks and Muslims.
Anyway, here’s one of Ben’s tweets, apropos of nothing at all.
You might notice that this is not a critique of individuals. Ben is not talking about individual Israeli people or individual Arabs; this is about ethnic superiority. The thing that separates extreme conservatives on the Right from the Alt-Right is their opposition to collective action and their belief in and defense of the elite. And yet Ben frequently dips his toes in collective White outrage. You might notice, all of those takes play on White identity and aggrievement. These are not individualist takes, but collective ones. Rationally, some of his fans begin to ask themselves: Why shouldn’t we organize? Why shouldn’t we fight back?
From “small government” Ron Paul defending big government apartheid because he saw Black people as inherently inferior to Reagan’s Welfare Queen digs and the neverending War on Drugs, powerful figures on the Right have weaponized White identity and White rage to form a populist base that defends elitist rule. This is why the Right and the Alt-Right work so well together, despite the tension: The Culture War unites them. Not all of them, of course! Some are too elitist to comfortably do so. But enough to make a difference.
As I said before, party politics are inherently coalitional. The alliance that defines the Republican Party has changed radically since the 1960s, when Phyllis Schlaffly, Barry Goldwater, and Jerry Falwell pushed a radical White populist agenda into the mainstream of the party, moving down and to the right slowly but surely over the course of decades. The culmination of this trend has not yet arrived, and if I’m being frank, I hope it never does, even as I am more and more sure that it will.