What I saw at the American Academy of Religion.
BAP’s Bait and Switch
The dissident Right has no idea where it’s going, but it knows it wants to get there fast.
In my ideal world, Bronze Age Pervert would be treated as a symptom of our politics rather than a theorist of them. Actually he wouldn’t exist, as there’d be no internet.
We do not live in my ideal world, however—and by reviewing Bronze Age Mindset for the Claremont Review of Books, Michael Anton has effectively elevated its author to Serious Status, in which capacity BAP has now written a response to Anton for The American Mind, shorn of sexual solecism and passable (if far from lyrical) at the level of writing.
At the level of argument, though, it is every bit as maudlin and muddled as the elite discourse it attacks. It’s also deceptive—ironic, given BAP’s stated commitment to reality—a chimera of falsehood and false equivalence that makes Anton’s own “Vichycons” essay look tame by comparison. This deception includes, but is not limited to:
—BAP’s claim that a columnist for the Huffington Post “wrote an article titled ‘Towards a Concept of White Wounding,’ apparently calling for racial violence.” The article does no such thing; in context, it’s clear “white wounding” means something like “white guilt”—inane, yes, but hardly inciteful, unless you think self-flagellation is a form of violence.
—BAP’s claim that National Review has “repeatedly published eliminationist rhetoric, the most notable example being Kevin Williamson’s notorious piece arguing quite plainly for an end to the white working class.” The piece actually attacks “the white American underclass” for being “in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles”—which, Williamson concludes, is why they should leave that culture behind, for their sake as much as anyone’s. Insensitive and unrealistic? Sure. But a call to eliminate whites qua whites or replace them with nonwhites? No.
—BAP’s claim that Marco Rubio has “openly excused Antifa mob violence for political purposes.” This appears to be a reference to Rubio’s comment in the wake of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia that its organizers were “100% to blame” for the violent clashes involving white nationalists, Antifa, and others—a far cry from justifying Antifa’s actions.
—BAP’s claim that “anti-male and anti-White rhetoric of the new left…approaches exterminationist propaganda seen only in, e.g., the Hutu against the Tutsi in 1990’s Rwanda.” Uh-huh. Noted.
It’s easy to dismiss all this as the rantings of one Very Online Madman (or Madwoman; you never know). But that would be to miss the significance of BAP, and of the moment he represents.
The Dissident Right
What’s going on right now isn’t just a “rejection of the ruling authorities” by young people, pace BAP, but also, on the Right, a Schmittian turn toward agonism—from a politics of talk and discussion to one of “war and enmity,” as Sohrab Ahmari put it in his over-discussed salvo against David French.
Or, to quote Michael Anton’s “Flight 93” essay: “How does one deal with…an enemy [who] intends your destruction? You don’t compromise with him or leave him alone. You crush him.” That’s how the Left views conservatives, Anton continued, and a fortiori how conservatives should view the Left. “So what do we have to lose by fighting back?”
Nothing, both authors concluded—hence their disdain for a conservative establishment that had supposedly made peace with progressivism, with the abolition of pastors and borders and genders in the name of limitless autonomy. Enough cant about “norms”, decorum, civic renewal, tax-cuts. Time to storm the cockpit—or at least hold a hearing on drag-queen story hour.
In this respect, BAPism is just a secularized form of Ahmari-ism, albeit less measured and somewhat racist. The “Interahamwe Left” (Pink Police) peddles “vicious and exterminationist hatred” (anti-Christian rhetoric) that “should have been opposed by mainstream conservatives” (David French). “Instead, we see the absurd phenomenon of conservatives who joined in this hatred” (libertarians, fusionists), and who “have completely discredited themselves by failing to oppose the…other forms of insanity coming from the new left”. That, BAP insists, is the point of the new, online Right: self-preservation in the face of “tyranny”, enforced through “state-supported mob violence” on a scale “even more repressive than the Eastern Bloc.” To be sure, Anton and Ahmari don’t characterize our regime in quite these terms. But their language—of a “tyrannical liberalism” that “dictates” policy, of “fearful, beaten dogs” who “bend over backwards” to appease a woke “junta”—suggests they basically agree with BAP about what ails conservatism, if not his positive vision of what bears conserving.
Which is to say: Each believes a crash is imminent.
I think there are two problems with this view, one logical and one substantive. The logical problem is that just because a movement has failed does not mean it hasn’t tried. BAP, Anton, and Ahmari often write as though “Conservatism Inc.” welcomes losing, as though it could have stood athwart history if it really, truly wanted to. On immigration and executive power, maybe. But on many other issues—from gay marriage to abortion to pornography to the welfare state—public opinion has simply made winning impossible, if by “winning” one means “undoing those things.” It’s not that conservatives didn’t fight; it’s that they fought the culture war but lost the culture, democratically, fair and square. To the extent judicial usurpation played a role, it was either as a lagging indicator of social change (Obergefell) or else a catalyst for social backlash, Roe v. Wade being the paradigm case.
And BAP and Ahmari say as much. Their whole point is that conservatives lose because they play by the rules of classical liberalism—that, as Ahmari put it, progressives are “much better at winning in the realm of culture than David French will ever be.” To blame conservatives for losing, then, is just to blame them for following the rules…which logically entails a demand to break the rules, and, implicitly, a desire to alter them.
So when BAP writes that “reality, not regime change, is the point,” he is at best contradicting himself and at worst lying through his teeth. If an essential feature of our regime is that it “seeks to repress” reality with “coercion and violence,” and your goal is “to bring into view, unapologetically, th[is] reality”…aren’t you seeking regime change by definition? And if the regime’s go-to method of repression is force—not bribery, not obloquy, but actual, physical force—won’t regime change be kind of dangerous?
Ahmari’s bait-and-switch is similar. In one essay, he calls the New Right’s policy proposals “small-beer,” well within the bounds of what fair-minded liberals “should be prepared to entertain.” Then, six paragraphs later, he writes that “a great deal” of liberalism’s “peaceful freedom” has “already” been “lost”—note the BAPian implication that America isn’t peaceful—and ends by accusing liberals of subverting the popular will through “underhanded procedural means”, which, Ahmari made clear in a debate with French, apparently include viewpoint neutrality under the First Amendment.
Both things cannot be true at the same time. If “underhanded procedural means” are synonymous with constitutional constraints, to “resist” them is necessarily to resist the American regime. And if they’re not synonymous, if the New Right’s program does fall within the scope of American liberalism…well, then why position yourself as post-liberal?
The Real Problem
The easiest way out of this conundrum, for both Ahmari and BAP, is to bite the bullet and say yes, regime change actually is the point in one form or another. Which form will depend inter alia on how rightwing agonists characterize the problem—whether they see Americanism as an old regime in need of restoration, following Anton, or whether, like BAP, they think it is “long dead,” incapable of being updated or brought back for the post-millennial West.
Both views, however, share a common premise: Each insists the Left has taken total, totalitarian control of America, such that conservatives/dissidents/white men have no real power, none at all, against progressivism’s proverbial Megaphone. Which brings us to the substantive problem with BAP, and Ahmari, and Anton, and their many online acolytes: This premise is false.
Or rather incomplete. It’s true, of course, that the Left controls most culture and opinion-making industries, that cultural power confers political advantage, and that on certain issues (especially sexual ones) the America public has grown less conservative over time, often to its detriment.
But political advantage does not entail political dominance. And we know this because—news flash—Donald Trump is the freaking president of the United States. In which capacity he has made 157 judicial appointments, two of them to the Supreme Court, and tilted a third of our government right for at least a generation. Never mind that Republicans still hold the Senate, which means the House-led impeachment effort will probably fail and potentially backfire…which means Trump has a non-negligible shot at four more years.
Say what you will about the Western bloc, dude, at least there’s an opposition party.
And we should be clear about what it’s opposing. If official leftism really did have a stranglehold on “the culture,” 63 million people would not have voted for Trump, and the formulation “out-of-touch elites” would be incoherent—you can’t be out of touch unless the public, or a significant part of it, rejects your values and assumptions and folkways, the very things that make your culture authentically your own.
What’s being opposed today, in other words, is a discourse endemic to elite circles but anathema almost everywhere else. Call it Rotten Tomatoes syndrome: a condition where bien pensant preferences diverge systematically and quantifiably from those of the people (compare critic and audience reactions to Joker, The Last Jedi, and Dave Chappele), so that there is structural-but-sustainable conflict between the producers and consumers of culture, litigated through political proxy wars that show no signs of cooling down.
The best analogy for our present situation, then, may not be a hijacked flight so much as a divided cockpit, in which the pilot and co-pilot disagree (have different recollections of?) where they are supposed to go. The result is a kind of chronic holding pattern, with the plane/country burning fuel/energy as it drifts, nukes and all, through the air.
And the danger of this situation, this stasis, is that sooner or later we’ll be running on empty, at which point a fiery crash does become probable—an economic collapse, say, or maybe a constitutional crisis, something we’re too weak and divided to prevent, let alone navigate. In the meantime passengers (citizens) might grow restless, and perhaps cause unrest, increasing the odds of a metaphorical hijacking by this or that disgruntled faction.
But we aren’t there yet. And by acting as if we are, BAP and Anton are effectively shutting their eyes to the true nature of the problem, and making it harder to solve.
Not that they’re the only ones. A striking feature of contemporary progressivism is its performative navel-gazing, the way it fixates on impossibly trite concepts—privilege-checking, micro-aggressing, the aforementioned white wounding—in the name of a “resistance” whose leaders all seem to be based in coffee shops. Indeed, part of what makes our pilots’ disagreement so intractable is that at least one of them has headphones on, which blocks or (worse) distorts communication between the two. BAP often writes as though the Left has imperial impulses, insatiable except by total conquest, and to some extent that’s true. But it’s also true that these impulses are in tension with, and at times undercut by, progressivism’s inward-looking, fantastical character. A worldview that “abandons” reality will probably struggle to conquer it, no matter how many institutions it controls, and the question today is not whether reality will reassert itself, but when and in what form.
“Not for a while” is my reassuring yet troubling guess: reassuring, because it suggests we have some time before a true crisis materializes; but troubling too, because the fact that we’re not in a crisis makes posturing and complacency very easy, which means the underlying problems will continue to fester until something gives, and apocalyptic rhetoric becomes warranted. “We are then at an impasse,” as Shadi Hamid has argued at TAM, “with two large groups of people—all Americans, and the vast majority of them believing that they are true to America’s creedal requirements—thinking that the other has betrayed that creed.”
And I don’t see any way out unless both groups accept that their ideal regime isn’t coming back or into being—that even an agonistic politics depends, at some level, on compromise and consensus, two words with which BAP and Anton and Ahmari seem wholly unfamiliar. Self-styled “samizdat,” online or in First Things, won’t help.
The best we can hope for now is that our pilots will pick a destination, any destination, while we’re still bingo fuel. Because even if you don’t like where we end up—and let’s be real, you probably won’t—at least we’ll land there in one piece.