Four questions about the "New Right"
An alliance of heterodox anti-establishment conservatives. Sound familiar?
You’re reading Read Max, a newsletter about the future. This edition is free to all; if you like it, please forward it to friends. Read Max is an independent concern that relies on reader subscriptions to survive. Please consider subscribing for roughly the price of one espresso drink or cheap draft beer a month.
Read Max took an unexpected hiatus last week due to a confluence of personal and professional factors that were, frankly, totally foreseeable and easily avoidable, but which were, nevertheless, due to an overall lack of organization and self-discipline on behalf of Read Max's various corporate officers, neither foreseen nor avoided. Please accept our heartfelt apologies; I hope everyone was able to make it through the week without Read Max.
There's been a spate of recent articles about an emerging (or evolving) alliance between tech billionaires, right-wing politicians, Substackers, podcasters, and New York art kids. There was Joe Bernstein's piece in Buzzfeed News about the Peter Thiel-funded "anti-woke" film festival, and the downtown scene from which it emerged; there was Jacob Siegel's exegesis/profile of the scene's favorite philosopher, Curtis Yarvin (f/k/a Mencius Moldbug), which I wrote a little about a few weeks ago. This week, James Pogue has a long report in Vanity Fair on this tendency, which he calls "the New Right":
a much larger and stranger political ferment, burbling up mainly within America’s young and well-educated elite, part of an intra-media class info-war. The podcasters, bro-ish anonymous Twitter posters, online philosophers, artists, and amorphous scenesters in this world are variously known as “dissidents,” “neo-reactionaries,” “post-leftists,” or the “heterodox” fringe—though they’re all often grouped for convenience under the heading of America’s New Right. They have a wildly diverse set of political backgrounds, with influences ranging from 17th-century Jacobite royalists to Marxist cultural critics to so-called reactionary feminists to the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, whom they sometimes refer to with semi-ironic affection as Uncle Ted. Which is to say that this New Right is not a part of the conservative movement as most people in America would understand it. It’s better described as a tangled set of frameworks for critiquing the systems of power and propaganda that most people reading this probably think of as “the way the world is.” And one point shapes all of it: It is a project to overthrow the thrust of progress, at least such as liberals understand the word.
What set of beliefs could unite this manifold scene of "NatCons, post-liberals, and traditionalist figures… Substack writers, podcasters, and anonymous Twitter posters… everyone from rich crypto bros and tech executives to back-to-the-landers to disaffected members of the American intellectual class"? Pogue valiantly attempts to outline the ideological basics of such a diverse group—"it’s a bunch of people who believe that the system that organizes our society and government, which most of us think of as normal, is actually bizarre and insane"—but I think his reporting shows that the New Right is bound together less by a sturdy, deeply penetrating ideology than it is by its relationship to two men: Peter Thiel and Curtis Yarvin. Thiel, of course, provides the money (this recent Carl Beijer newsletter has more speculation about where Thiel's money is going):
One is Peter Thiel, the billionaire who helped fund NatCon [the National Conservativism conference] and who had just given the conference’s opening address. Thiel has also funded things like the edgelordy and post-left–inflected New People’s Cinema film festival, which ended its weeklong run of parties and screenings in Manhattan just a few days before NatCon began. He’s long been a big donor to Republican political candidates, but in recent years Thiel has grown increasingly involved in the politics of this younger and weirder world—becoming something like a nefarious godfather or a genial rich uncle, depending on your perspective. Podcasters and art-world figures now joke about their hope to get so-called Thielbucks. His most significant recent outlays have been to two young Senate candidates who are deeply enmeshed in this scene and influenced by its intellectual currents: Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance, running for the Republican nomination in Ohio, and Blake Masters in Arizona.
While Yarvin—himself funded and elevated by Thiel—provides the intellectual gloss that allows everyone from indifferent libertarians to Catholic integralists, from boomer novelists to zoomer heiresses, to imagine themselves as a (in the words of Walter Kirn) "fractious family of dissenters." Yarvin's particular contribution here is his idea of "the Cathedral," explained thusly in Siegel's profile:
In Yarvin’s worldview, what keeps American democracy running today is not elections but illusions projected by a set of institutions, including the press and universities, that work in tandem with the federal bureaucracy in a complex he calls the Cathedral. “The mystery of the Cathedral,” Yarvin writes, “is that all the modern world’s legitimate and prestigious intellectual institutions, even though they have no central organizational connection, behave in many ways as if they were a single organizational structure.”
I don't think Yarvin is a particularly perceptive thinker, but his real value to Thiel and to the "New Right" lies not in his intellectual ability but in his political usefulness. "The Cathedral" is a flexible and all-encompassing (and aesthetically engaging) theory of politics that coheres the diverse recipients of Thiel backing through a common enemy. It can describe any person or industry or institution a given "dissident" might feel pissed off about—Democrats, Republicans, teachers, students, HR, unions, gallerists, museums, the media, Hollywood, podcasters who are more popular than you, bartenders who won't serve you another drink, seagulls flying past etc. (J.D. Vance uses "the regime" in the same way.) I think it's notable that in the old days, Yarvin's shtick, elaborated at tedious length on his blog, was to say that the U.S. should be run like Google, only more racistly. As far as I can tell he talks a lot less now about corporate monarchism and human biodiversity, and a lot more about "the Cathedral."
My point here is to suggest that the New Right is probably better thought of as a Thielian network, as described by Moira Weigel in her review of Max Chafkin's Thiel biography, than it is as a coherent ideological tendency:
Thiel is not Jobs or Musk, a charismatic CEO associated with a particular invention. He is not an inventor but an investor, and, for the most part, he prefers to stay behind the scenes. He leverages his network—or, more precisely, his status as a node between several networks that were not previously densely connected. To understand his influence, we have to track how his ideas and his practices have traveled and, where they have become a kind of social glue, the people they join together.
In this case, Thiel (through Yarvin) is connecting networks of "NatCons" to networks of "dissident" tech investors to the network that drinks at Clandestino every weekend.
It seems unlikely that the “New Right” will go away as a topic for magazine journalism. I get it: "Tech-industry freaks are teaming up with Dimes Square pill poppers to bring back fascism" is an irresistible pitch to any editor with a pulse. And I’ve been interested in and largely satisfied by the reporting that’s been produced so far. But I think anything that gets written around this scene going forward could stand to orient itself around a handful of key questions that I’m not sure have yet been satisfyingly answered:
How "new" is the New Right?
The "Alt-Right," which served as the big liberal boogeyman of the years around Trump's election, never comes up in Pogue's piece, which seems strange, because the Alt-Right shares a lot of personnel and ideas with the supposed "New Right." (In 2017, when I was at New York magazine, we published a package called "Beyond Alt: Understanding the New Far Right"; Thiel and Yarvin both make an appearance.) And even the Alt-Right of the Trump era could be traced back to Yarvin's earlier blogging, plus the Obama-era "dissident right" of people like John Derbyshire, Steve Sailer, and the psychos at white-nationalist sites like VDare and Unz. I don't think this "New Right" is identical to the Alt-Right of 2016, but I think figuring out the genealogy of the network (and identifying the key differences between it and its predecessors) would be revealing. Is the New Right just a sort of a post-Charlottesville rebranding of the Alt-Right that bounced some of the explicit white nationalists in order to welcome egirls? And, for that matter…
What's its relationship to Trumpism?
The dek to the Vanity Fair piece reads "They’re not MAGA." But … aren't they? Vance just received an endorsement from Trump, who is of course the recipient of Thielbux himself; in the piece, Vance argues that Trump should effect a coup if he becomes president again. Amanda Milius, one of Pogue's interviewees, insists that the New Right "really is separate from the man himself," but acknowledges that "it’s very hard to put your finger on and articulate what it is outside of Trumpism." Vance and Masters, the two actual politicians on the New Right, "are often seen as Trump-aligned culture warriors," Pogue writes, and "have had a lot of trouble working their more complicated policy ideas into our fervid political conversation." (Poor guys! Must be hard!) If not even New Righties themselves can identify the distinction between themselves and Trump, why should we trust that one exists? And if it does exist, does it even matter? Pogue suggests that the New Right sees Trump "as a useful tool," but this seems inadequate—a tool for what? How are they going to use him? Which leads to the next question…
How big or powerful is this network, really?
I still don't really have a clear sense of how big this scene is, or how much sway it has within the conservative movement. If the New Right is going to use Trump as a tool, theoretically it will need a social and political base, and it's not clear that "podcasters and Substackers and Sohrab Ahmari" is a large or powerful enough base to be calling the shots in any Republican coalition. The Alt-Right was very good at convincing liberals and journalists that it was an important and powerful movement, but most of the sympathizers who found their way into the White House in 2017 were quickly booted out. (Unlike, say, Steve Mnuchin, who lasted the full term.) Thiel has done an excellent job of cultivating a reputation as an evil genius, but Vance is likely to lose the Ohio Republican primary, and Masters (who probably will win his primary) is polling behind his opponent Mark Kelly so far. I don't think that Thiel is a nonentity, or that Yarvin is uninfluential, but it would be interesting to see a political balance sheet: What have they actually accomplished, and, just as importantly, how? It was revealing to see the Vanity Fair article drop the same week as the Post's piece on the Twitter account LibsofTikTok, at least in terms of assessing where the power and energy is within the Republican party (i.e. with psychopath real-estate agents who call gay teachers "groomers," not with Pratt dropouts who make wojaks about eating bugs).
Also, aren’t these guys just fascists?
I mean, come on. Right?