Andrew Sullivan has really been on fire lately. I think his leaving blogging and returning to long-form essays has been great for him. In his latest piece for New York, Sullivan writes about why everyone needs to take reactionaries seriously. Excerpts, with my comments interspersed:
Reactionism is not the same thing as conservatism. It’s far more potent a brew. Reactionary thought begins, usually, with acute despair at the present moment and a memory of a previous golden age. It then posits a moment in the past when everything went to hell and proposes to turn things back to what they once were. It is not simply a conservative preference for things as they are, with a few nudges back, but a passionate loathing of the status quo and a desire to return to the past in one emotionally cathartic revolt. If conservatives are pessimistic, reactionaries are apocalyptic. If conservatives value elites, reactionaries seethe with contempt for them. If conservatives believe in institutions, reactionaries want to blow them up. If conservatives tend to resist too radical a change, reactionaries want a revolution. Though it took some time to reveal itself, today’s Republican Party — from Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution to today’s Age of Trump — is not a conservative party. It is a reactionary party that is now at the peak of its political power.
He’s right about reaction not being the same thing as conservatism. I don’t agree that the GOP is a reactionary party, though I can see why one might think so. Maybe the Republicans are headed that way, but whatever the GOP is, powerful is not a word I would use to describe them. True, they hold the White House and Congress, and ought to be powerful. But they can’t seem to get much of anything done. Our Big Reactionary President is an administrative incompetent of no particular political or philosophical conviction. That doesn’t necessarily spare him from the “reactionary” label, and certainly true reactionaries were enthusiastic about his candidacy. But Trump? Not really.
That said, I believe Andrew is onto something. Right-of-center politics is going to be more reactionary in the future. The problem with reactionaries right now is they are not politically organized. Trump is turning into a more or less normal Republican because he doesn’t know what else to do, and it’s a role that a lot of DC Republicans are willing to help him learn. What’s going to be interesting is to see if and how reaction rises from the grass roots right. I don’t sense a lot of enthusiasm for the standard Republican positions. (Similarly, on the left, I don’t think we’re going to see any more Hillary Clinton types, though this is going to take a lot of time to sort out.)
You can almost feel the g-force today. What are this generation’s reactionaries reacting to? They’re reacting, as they have always done, to modernity. But their current reaction is proportional to the bewildering pace of change in the world today. They are responding, at some deep, visceral level, to the sense that they are no longer in control of their own lives. They see the relentless tides of globalization, free trade, multiculturalism, and mass immigration eroding their sense of national identity. They believe that the profound shifts in the global economy reward highly educated, multicultural enclaves and punish more racially and culturally homogeneous working-class populations. And they rebel against the entrenched power of elites who, in their view, reflexively sustain all of the above.
I know why many want to dismiss all of this as mere hate, as some of it certainly is. I also recognize that engaging with the ideas of this movement is a tricky exercise in our current political climate. Among many liberals, there is an understandable impulse to raise the drawbridge, to deny certain ideas access to respectable conversation, to prevent certain concepts from being “normalized.” But the normalization has already occurred — thanks, largely, to voters across the West — and willfully blinding ourselves to the most potent political movement of the moment will not make it go away. Indeed, the more I read today’s more serious reactionary writers, the more I’m convinced they are much more in tune with the current global mood than today’s conservatives, liberals, and progressives. I find myself repelled by many of their themes — and yet, at the same time, drawn in by their unmistakable relevance. I’m even tempted, at times, to share George Orwell’s view of the neo-reactionaries of his age: that, although they can sometimes spew dangerous nonsense, they’re smarter and more influential than we tend to think, and that “up to a point, they are right.”
This is true. In France, nobody really believes that Emmanuel Macron is the future. He will probably win the French presidency this weekend because most French voters fear a National Front future. But the issues that drive the National Front are at the core of France’s politics. As my colleague Scott McConnell writes, quoting an unnamed National Front activist, if Marine Le Pen had a different last name, she might be winning this thing. Anyway, if you were betting on French politics over the next 20 years, would you really bet on the cosmopolitan centrists, or the reactionary right? This may not be the National Front’s year, but the forces that have carried the party toward the center of France’s politics are only going to grow stronger. Do you doubt it?
Sully offers short profiles of three reaction-oriented contemporary thinkers — Claremont’s Charles Kesler, Michael Anton, and Curtis Yarvin (Mencius Moldbug) — some of whose ideas sound great to me, but others (Yarvin’s “Receiver”) are nuts. The point to take from this is that there is real variation among the reactionary right. And then he writes:
Reaction is a mood before it is anything else, and I know its psychological temptations intimately. Growing up steeped in traditional religion, in a household where patriotism seemed as natural as breathing, I became infatuated with a past that no longer existed. I loved the countryside that was quickly being decimated by development, a Christianity that was being overwhelmed by secularism, and an idea of England, whose glories — so evident in the literature I read, the history I had absorbed, and the architecture I admired — had self-evidently crumbled into dust. Loss was my youthful preoccupation. The mockery I received because of this — from most of my peers, through high school and college — turned me inward and radicalized me still further. I began to revel in my estrangement, sharpening my intellectual rebellion with every book I devoured and every class I took. Politically I was ferociously anti-Establishment, grew to suspect and even despise much of the liberal elite, and rejoiced at Margaret Thatcher’s election victories.
So a sympathy for writers and thinkers who define themselves by a sense of loss comes naturally to me. I’ve grown out of it in many ways — and the depression and loneliness that often lie at the core of the reactionary mind slowly lifted as I grew more comfortable in the only place I could actually live: the present. But I never doubted the cogency of many reactionary insights — and I still admire minds that have not succumbed to the comfortable assumption that the future is always brighter. I read the Christian traditionalist Rod Dreher with affection. His evocation of Christian life and thought over the centuries and his panic at its disappearance from our world are poignant. We are losing a vast civilization that honed answers to the deepest questions that human beings can ask, replacing it with vapid pseudo-religions, pills, therapy, and reality TV. I’ve become entranced by the novels of Michel Houellebecq, by his regret at the spiritual emptiness of modernity, the numbness that comes with fully realized sexual freedom, the yearning for the sacred again. Maybe this was why as I read more and more of today’s neo-reactionary thought, I became nostalgic for aspects of my own past, and that of the West’s.
Because in some key respects, reactionaries are right. Great leaps forward in history are often, in fact, giant leaps back. The Reformation did initiate brutal sectarian warfare. The French Revolution did degenerate into barbarous tyranny. Communist utopias — allegedly the wave of an Elysian future — turned into murderous nightmares. Modern neoliberalism has, for its part, created a global capitalist machine that is seemingly beyond anyone’s control, fast destroying the planet’s climate, wiping out vast tracts of life on Earth while consigning millions of Americans to economic stagnation and cultural despair.
I was surprised to read my name in this piece, though Andrew and I are friends. I catch hell from actual reactionaries for failing to be sufficiently reactionary. In fact, I have never identified as a reactionary precisely because the people who do see me as “cucked.” Though I hate the term, they’re not wrong, in that I recoil from the hard edges of their point of view, especially the racialism that motivates so many of them. I suppose for me, I’m much less interested in political reaction than I am in cultural reaction. And unlike Yarvin, I fear a strong state, much preferring a weaker state with strong mediating institutions.
Unlike many reactionaries, I do not believe there was a Golden Age in the past to which we should return, unless you consider the vastness and complexity of the Christian era of the West a “Golden Age.” I don’t consider it a Golden Age in the sense that there were no problems, but it was a better time than we have today because we held religious truth in common, and whatever conflicts arose from that, we had a commonly-held source of moral truth and authority with which to solve them. More than politics, though — and I need to stress this — we lived within a civilization that, however imperfectly, understood itself as peoples of the Bible. The loss of this fundamental truth entails the loss of many others. It is seemingly impossible to convey to moderns — many Christians among them — why the rise in material living standards in the post-Christian era cannot begin to compensate for that loss.
I question too Andrew’s characterizing his moving away from reactionary views a matter of growing in maturity. Perhaps it was with him, but couldn’t it be that for some people, moving towards reaction is growing in maturity, if by “maturity” we mean wisdom? I can think of a couple of reactionaries I know who strike me as deeply immature men. But I can think of many more progressives I know whose progressivism derives from not being able or willing to face the more challenging realities in life. I think we need to be careful about this kind of thing. My guess is that what most people believe politically from age 18 to 25 has more to do with their inward emotional state than with a serious consideration of ideas.
And is it any wonder that reactionaries are gaining strength? Within the space of 50 years, America has gone from segregation to dizzying multiculturalism; from traditional family structures to widespread divorce, cohabitation, and sexual liberty; from a few respected sources of information to an endless stream of peer-to-peer media; from careers in one company for life to an ever-accelerating need to retrain and regroup; from a patriarchy to (incomplete) gender equality; from homosexuality as a sin to homophobia as a taboo; from Christianity being the common culture to a secularism no society has ever sustained before ours.
I give Sullivan a lot of credit here. It hardly needs to be pointed out that he, as a gay man, has been one of the great beneficiaries of these changes. Yet he recognizes the staggering revolutionary nature of these changes — and, because he doesn’t believe that his homosexuality is the only relevant part of his identity, he also feels the loss of the old world, to a certain extent. He grasps the self-serving delusion embraced by so many Westerners today: that progress is not only inevitable, but always a good thing. Indeed, that’s why they call it “progress.”
But what if the changes are not progress at all, but rather regress? To call it “progress” is to have a fixed goal in mind, and to believe that we are steadily moving in that inevitable direction. The British political philosopher John Gray has powerfully criticized the modern view of progress, calling it (rightly) a secularization of the Christian belief that history is headed toward a fixed conclusion. Marxism adopted this worldview, and reframed the End of History as the realization of Full Communism, and the withering of the State. Progressives today, both of the liberal and conservative variety, accept unthinkingly that history is moving towards a global paradise of free markets and free individuals all exercising maximal Choice. In this sense, there is less difference between Ronald Reagan and Hillary Clinton than between Ronald Reagan and a contemporary reactionary.
Sully is not, however, a neoreactionary:
This, of course, is not to defend the neo-reactionary response. Their veiled racism is disturbing, and their pessimism a solipsistic pathology. When Anton finds nothing in modernity to celebrate but, as he put it to me, “nice restaurants, good wine, a high standard of living,” it comes off as a kind of pose, deliberately blind to all the constant renewals of life and culture around us. When Houellebecq has one of his characters sigh, “For a man to bring a child into the world now is meaningless,” I chortle. When Dreher hyperventilates that today’s youngsters “could be one of the last generations of this thing called Western civilization” and that American Christians today must “live lives prepared to suffer severe hardship, even death, for our faith,” I take my dogs for a walk. When Yarvin insists that “if the 20th century does not go down in history as the golden age of awful government, it is only because the future holds some fresher hell for us,” I check my Instagram account. There is something hysterical here, too manically certain, bleaker than any human being can bear for long.
Well, to be clear, I don’t at all agree with Yarvin or Houellebecq, and I don’t think I agree with Anton either. Only a few years before I was born, in my Southern town apartheid was legal, and black citizens lived under a reign of terror. I’m serious: read this 1964 magazine article describing events in my own town. A few years back, I met three Freedom Riders who had been part of those events. It really happened. Thank God those days are over.
Yet we cannot easily dismiss the words that a melancholy older black man, a taxi driver, said to me in 1993 as he drove me down a decimated avenue of Washington, DC, which was then at the peak of its murder epidemic. He told me about what it was like for him growing up in segregated DC. He pointed to storefronts and buildings that were now vacant and decaying. “That was a bakery, and that was a drugstore,” he said. “Black-owned. We had something back then.” On and on he went, describing the way this blasted-out part of town looked in his youth, and cursing the young black men who do nothing but sell drugs and shoot each other. I squirmed in the back seat listening to this older black man tell these stories to me, a young white man, but he didn’t hold back. I got the feeling that he wasn’t even paying attention to me, but was rather just musing aloud. He ended by telling me that he wasn’t sure at all that there had been progress. Yes, segregation was gone, but look around you, son, at what we black folks in DC have lost in the last thirty years.
That is a reactionary sentiment. And it’s important. I did not experience that old black taxi driver calling for the return of segregation, or lamenting its passing. I experienced him as a man aware of human tragedy. The progressive narrative requires that the old man’s views be suppressed. But he knew what he saw all around him.
In The Benedict Option, I write of a conversation between two women I know personally:
On a warm evening in the late autumn, a recently retired woman sits on the front porch of her neighbor’s house, talking about the ways of the world. It is two weeks before the Trump-Clinton election, and everything seems to be going to pieces, the neighbors agree. How did our country get to this place? they wonder. Both of the women are working class by culture, born into poverty but thanks to economic and cultural changes in the mid-twentieth century, they are now entering their golden years as members of a modest middle class. America has been very good to them and their families.
Yet neither woman is confident about the future for their grandchildren. One tells the other that in the past year, she has gone to six baby showers for young women in her family and social circles. None of the expectant mothers had husbands. Some had more than one child out of wedlock. The gray-haired women know what poverty and insecurity are like, and they can’t believe that these young women would bring children into the world without fathers in the home, given how much more likely children in those situations are to be poor. And where are the fathers, anyway? What is wrong with young men these days?
These women are pro-life Christian conservatives who would never countenance abortion. They would rather see babies born than exterminated in the womb, no matter what the cost. Still, the normalization of having children outside of marriage is hard for them to take. In the 1940s, when they were born, the out-of-wedlock birth rate among whites was 2 percent. It is now nearly 30 percent (the overall birth rate to unwed mothers is 41 percent). “It’s like the whole world is coming apart,” sighed one of the women.
“I’m glad I’m not going to be around to see it,” said the other.
The world of today is more kind to babies born outside of wedlock and to their mothers in one respect. Yet it is harsher in another one, in the sense that the relaxation of the taboo against unwed childbearing has brought about a hell of a lot more of it — and with it, more poverty and more social unraveling. These two old women have high school educations and could not analyze what happened and why with much historical or sociological awareness. But they feel the impact of the change, and they don’t know how the future is going to play out, because they have never lived in a world in which the traditional family has collapsed. They can barely comprehend such a thing. But they see it every day, and grieve over it. I know these women, and know they both have very kind hearts. Their grief is not out of anger, but out of pity and concern for those children, and the hard lives they know those kids will have.
I bet they and that old black DC cab driver would have a lot to say to each other about progress.
Anyway, on Sullivan’s piece, read the whole thing. He talked about how unworkable reactionary political programs are, and my guess is that he’s right. In my own case, I don’t see the Benedict Option as any kind of political program. I see it as an orientation towards the modern world, and a set of practices that will prevent Christians from being torn apart by the forces reshaping our culture. It is a strategy of resistance and resilience — indeed, of resistance through resilience. Whether our country remains on the liberal democratic, consumerist, globalist track, or whether it convulses in reaction, the Christian faith faces immense challenges, now and in the future. We had better be ready.