The awful advent of reactionary chic
By Michelle Goldberg
David Brock, the conservative journalistic hit man turned Hillary Clinton acolyte, described how he first became a reactionary in his 2002 book “Blinded by the Right.” He’d arrived at the University of California, Berkeley, at the dawn of the Reagan era as a Bobby Kennedy-worshipping liberal but grew quickly alienated by the campus’s progressive pieties.
“Rather than a liberal bastion of intellectual tolerance and academic freedom, the campus was — though the phrase hadn’t yet been coined — politically correct, sometimes stiflingly so,” he wrote.
A formative experience was seeing a lecture by Ronald Reagan’s U.N. ambassador, Jeane Kirkpatrick, shut down by left-wing protesters. “Wasn’t free speech a liberal value?” he asked. The more Brock challenged the left, the more he was ostracized, and the more his resentment pushed him rightward.
By the time he got to Washington, where he became an influential conservative journalist, he’d developed what we might now call an “edgelord” sensibility. He traveled to Chile to write a defense of murderous dictator Augusto Pinochet. “I was flippantly engaging in the extremist one-upmanship that characterized not only me, but many young conservatives of the era,” he wrote.
Of course, not just that era. The dynamic Brock described — extremist one-upmanship meant to scandalize hated left-wing persecutors — is a major driver of right-wing cultural innovation. That’s why stories about the American New Right (also called the dissident right, national conservatism and neo-reaction) seem so familiar, even if the movement’s ideology is a departure from mainstream conservatism.
Last week, Vanity Fair published James Pogue’s fascinating look at the American New Right’s constellation of thinkers, podcasters and politicians, many funded by Peter Thiel, a tech billionaire who once wrote that freedom and democracy are incompatible. It’s hard to summarize the scene’s politics; a milieu that includes both the aggressively anti-cosmopolitan Senate candidate J.D. Vance of Ohio and the louche hipster podcast “Red Scare” doesn’t have a coherent worldview. What it does have is contempt for social liberalism and a desire to épater le bourgeois.
“It is a project to overthrow the thrust of progress, at least such as liberals understand the word,” Pogue wrote. One of the movement’s leading intellectual lights is Curtis Yarvin, a blogger who sees liberalism as creating a Matrix-like totalitarian system and who wants to replace American democracy with a sort of techno-monarchy.
According to Pogue, the movement “has become quietly edgy and cool in new tech outposts like Miami and Austin, and in downtown Manhattan, where New Right-ish politics are in, and signifiers like a demure cross necklace have become markers of a transgressive chic.” This might be an overstatement, but it’s pretty clear that there’s cultural energy in the opposition to the progressive norms and taboos that are derisively called “wokeness.”
BuzzFeed News writer Joseph Bernstein captured this energy in a March article about an anti-woke New York film festival funded by Thiel and headed by a Black queer provocateur named Trevor Bazile. “Call it, if you must, a vibe shift: a new generation of internet-native tastemakers — like many of the people crowded into Bazile’s party — who find the moralistic gatekeeping of millennials all a bit passé,” wrote Bernstein.
This vibe shift was predictable; when the left becomes grimly censorious, it incubates its own opposition. The internet makes things worse, giving the whole world a taste of the type of irritating progressive sanctimony Brock had to go to Berkeley to find.
I’ve met few people on the left who like online progressive culture. In novels set in progressive social worlds, internet leftism tends to be treated with disdain — not a tyranny, but an annoyance. In Torrey Peters’ “Detransition, Baby,” a young trans woman reacts with priggish outrage to a dark joke shared between the book’s heroine, Reese, and her friend, both older trans women. “Reese recognizes her as one of those Twitter girls eager to offer theory-laden takes on gender,” writes Peters. “The girl has listened in on the joke and shakes her head — insensitive! — staring at them over her black-framed glasses with watery, wounded eyes.”
For those who get most of their politics online, this can be what the left looks like — a humorless person shaking her head at others’ insensitivity. As a result, an alliance with the country’s most repressive forces can appear, to some, as liberating.
I suspect this can last only so long as the right isn’t in power nationally. Eventually, an avant-garde flirtation with reaction will collide with the brutish, philistine reality of conservative rule. (As Brock would discover, being a gay man in a deeply homophobic movement was not cheeky fun.)
In the short term, however, it’s frightening to think that backlash politics could become somehow fashionable, especially given how stagnant the left appears. In New York magazine, Sam Adler-Bell recently wrote about a dispiriting lull in progressive movement-building: “There appears almost no grassroots energy or urgency of any kind on the Democratic side.” The one thing the left could count on in recent years is its cultural capital. What happens if that is squandered?