The rise of the 'New Right intellectuals': Political theorist explains how the Trump era warped conservatism

The rise of the 'New Right intellectuals': Political theorist explains how the Trump era warped conservatism
Donald Trump and William Barr in 2019, U.S. Department of Justice

During Donald Trump's four years in the White House, some prominent conservatives — from former Republican strategist Rick Wilson to media figures like the Washington Post's Max Boot, The Bulwark's Charlie Sykes and MSNBC's Joe Scarborough — railed against him relentlessly, denouncing him as a disgrace to the conservative movement who shamelessly pandered to extremists. Those conservatives were hoping that traditional Reagan conservatism would ultimately prevail over MAGA ideology. But author Laura K. Field, in an in-depth essay published on the Niskanen Center's website this week, argues that the "intellectual ecosystem of the American right" is now closely allied with Trumpism and "conspiracism."

Field writes, "One of the strongest temptations of the Trump era (was) to assume that Republican support for Trump was fundamentally limited to fringe groups and the economically disadvantaged — to struggling rural Whites and those without much higher education…. There is a strong temptation to attribute phenomena like QAnon and the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol to fringe elements of the GOP…. To buy into this sanguine view is to seriously misunderstand the intellectual ecosystem of the American right today."

Field adds that her "aim in this essay is to shine some light on a few clear examples of conservative political theorists peddling conspiracism in the Trump era." And she lays out some reasons why "New Right intellectuals" are making extremism mainstream within the modern Republican Party.

Field explains, "I sort the New Right intellectuals into three distinct but overlapping groups: the nationalists, the pseudo-Republicans and the religious traditionalists…. Each of these groups has its own specific set of concerns and issues, some of which are in serious tension with those of the other groups…. Although I do think they often share a conspiratorial outlook, it's important to be clear that, so far as I can tell, these groups are not themselves operating in a coordinated, conspiratorial way."

The term "New Right" was used a great deal in the early 1980s to describe the fragile right-wing coalition that united behind President Ronald Reagan, but the "New Right" that Field is referring to isn't the Reaganism of 40 years ago. The "New Right" that Field is referring to is something much more Trumpian in its outlook.

According to Field, "The political conspiracism of the New Right takes various forms."

"The first sort is the exaggerated attack on the political opposition," Field observes. "Here we see New Right thinkers attacking the legitimacy of the left, with the added suggestion that the left is out to destroy the country. The second is the exaggerated attack on the establishment/existing institutions more generally. The final kind of conspiratorial claim involves exaggerated attacks on the political system itself, including the electoral system…. My impression is that many of the New Right intellectuals share a fundamentally conspiratorial view of the left — a view that is often deeply cynical and/or detached from reality."

Field cites former Attorney General Bill Barr as an example of a Republican who embraced the "conspiracism" of the "New Right." Describing an October 2019 speed Barr gave at Norte Dame University, Field observes, "Throughout the speech, Barr speaks in extremely reductive 'culture war' terms about the progressive left. He paints a picture of two radically divergent 'moral systems' — the good, traditionalist Christian system, and the new, secularist, progressive one. It's worth reading the complete screed, as it offers a good encapsulation of the hyperparanoid outlook of many on the conservative right today."

Another prominent "New Right intellectual," according to Field, is political science professor and author Patrick J. Deneen.

"Deneen's work often pretends to a kind of nonpartisan neutrality," Field observes, "but he singles out liberal elites for blame, in a conspiratorial way, when it comes to the alleged problem of contemporary cultural decay…. According to Deneen, liberalism is a destructive doctrine grounded on individualism, and this tends to tear apart the social fabric."

Field cites Thomas Klingenstein and Ryan P. Williams of the Claremont Institute as two other examples of "conspiracist" thinking on the "New Right."

"According to Williams and Klingenstein," Field writes, "the violence and unrest this summer had nothing to do with the killing of George Floyd; nothing to do with police brutality, law enforcement and broader inequities in the criminal justice system; and nothing to do with racism. It was actually all the result of elite lies and malevolence."

A common trait of "conspiracism" in "New Right" thinking, according to Field, is finding an "other" to vilify.

"Given how much more psychologically satisfying it is to find a particular other or group to blame — for our hardships or declining influence — conspiratorial thinking will probably always have a role to play in human affairs," Field explains. "Even so, under Trump, we saw the continued asymmetrical growth of conspiracism on the right, where it has increasingly made it into the Republican Party's mainstream. The culminating event of the political conspiracism came in the form of Trump's 'Stop the Steal' lies and the insurrection of January 6."

Field wraps up her lengthy essay by stressing that rational thinkers must do everything they can to push back against "conspiracist" thinking.

"Among other things — like free and fair elections, the rule of law, a free press, good public education — democracy runs on a healthy combination of civic faith, civic skepticism and common sense," Field argues. "Conspiracism, in contrast, has the allure of the radical and of the forbidden, but it destroys all three of these more tempered habits and virtues. One important way to counter conspiracism — including in its more sophisticated iterations — is to cultivate these other more sober habits, relentlessly."

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