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What Makes A Radical?

Late liberalism is creating conditions in which extremism appeals as an answer
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Well, another weekend in Budapest, waiting on my visa that will allow me to travel in Europe. It's a lovely city, and my son Matt and I plan to settle here in the coming year, but it is frustrating to be here now, paying for a hotel room while also paying rent on a flat in Vienna that I can't get to, and missing out on research trips I had planned. Again, it's all my fault, for being unaware of visa regulations, so I can't blame anyone but myself for this folly. The good thing about it is that I get to learn more about the city and this country.

Last night, I went to dinner at an old-style restaurant north of the city, in the ancient part known as Obuda. It's called Zöld Kapu Vendeglo, and what they serve there is pork knuckles and Czech beer, as well as assorted other Middle European dishes. Friday is a fast day in the Orthodox church, meaning no meat, but I was invited here by new friends, and it would have been rude to say no. Friends, I ate the knuckle and drank the beer, and was very, very happy. I could use some happiness in my life right about now; the stress and the sorrow over my divorce can be overwhelming. As I type this, I am sitting in a coffee shop listening to Professor Longhair play "Big Chief" on the soundtrack they are playing. This makes me very, very happy too. There is even a little bit of New Orleans on the Muzeum körut in Magyaropolis.


I'm still thinking about all the things I heard at dinner last night. My hosts were a young Christian couple I recently met. Both in their early twenties. He's American, she's Hungarian, and they will marry soon. I like them a lot.

The man -- I'll call him Jeremy -- told me that he had fallen into far-right radicalism and drug abuse before his conversion. He's from a middle-class family in the American South. I asked him how he became radicalized. He said it was simple. In school, he was a nerdy outcast, bullied and isolated. He retreated into online life, and there found what felt like solidarity and companionship. Jeremy said that the ranks of the far right are filled with outcast young men who are desperate for meaning, purpose, and solidarity (N.B., Hannah Arendt said in her book The Origins of Totalitarianism that this condition is why so many are swept up in totalitarian political movements.) "When you are suffering, and nobody seems to care about you, you are easy prey for people who offer a clear explanation for why you are suffering, and why nobody cares about you," Jeremy said.

He also said that he was driven by a passionate search for the truth -- and that you'd be surprised by how many young far-rightists can say the same thing. He didn't articulate it quite like this, but what he was saying is that young people today live in a world where nobody trusts any authority. But nobody can live not trusting any authority. When radicals come along with a clear claim to authority -- that is, when they speak with passion and conviction about their correctness -- that can be crack to young minds searching for certainty. As Jeremy spoke, I kept thinking about this amazing essay by Katherine Dee, about where mass shooters come from. Dee writes in it:

As I interviewed people about [Sandy Hook shooter Adam] Lanza, a common theme emerged. Yes, there was something obviously wrong with the material circumstances of America in the early 21st century—an economy that seemed incapable of providing for the many, decaying institutions, the ubiquity of our screens. But there was something else. Something more abstract. It was that we now lived in a world where everything revolved around the individual. We had morphed from a universe of moral absolutes to broad social and communal forces to an all-consuming solipsism—a terrifying oneness, a “culture of narcissism,” as Christopher Lasch put it, where the self is central.

This narcissism is expressed through our perpetual identity crises, where chasing an imaginary “true self” keeps us busy and distracted. We see it in the people who use their phones and computers like they’re prosthetic selves, who are always there, but never present, gazing endlessly at their own reflection in the pond. Our shared inability to commit to anything that might make life meaningful, like children or a partner or putting down roots in a single place. It pervades Western humor, which is dominated by a sense that the world is ending, so we may as well drink and smoke ourselves to death because nothing really matters.

In this world, the individual was everything and nothing, architect of the future and hapless cog in a vast and deafening black. In this place, one murdered wantonly with the knowledge that all of us were just accidental bits of flesh bookended by eternities, that we meant nothing, that the possibility of meaning was a ruse.

The debate over more guns or fewer guns completely misses the horrifying heart of the matter: the world built by modern liberalism, which took for its telos the maximization of individual autonomy, and thus guaranteed total alienation, breeds the nihilism behind these shootings. Ultimately, these killers could not cope, the way the rest of us do every day, with the crushing weight of the existential angst that is the promise of liberalism. Even the more thoughtful takes on fatherlessness and mental illness are only still addressing the symptoms of the disease. Until we see this, the ground of the problem, we will be no closer to answers, let alone solutions for these 21st-century horrors.

These are exactly the people that Jeremy was talking about. This is exactly the kind of person Jeremy was, until he found Jesus Christ. Strangely, he spent some time in what he calls a radical Catholic street gang. It was a group of young males who had this idea that they should live together in community ("The Benedict Option was a book we all read," he said), and try to lead people to the Catholic Church. In truth, they were just leaderless young radicals looking for trouble, and finding it. There was lots of drugs, booze, and sex, and very little Catholicism.


Jeremy told me that he was enamored for a while with white supremacy, as a teenager. He said that he had been raised in a community with lots of black people, and had been brought up to believe the Martin Luther King color-blind gospel -- the one in which we are told to judge people not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. Then came progressive race-radicalism in the guise of anti-white Critical Race Theory. Nobody used the term "Critical Race Theory" when Jeremy was in high school, but it was obvious to him and his friends that the culture had shifted away from race-neutral liberalism to an objectively anti-white position. He described a situation in which he was bullied and alienated, and faced diminished economic prospects in life, but was suddenly being told that he was filled with privilege and was, by virtue of his skin color, the main thing wrong with the world. Everything in him rebelled against this, understandably -- but the only people pushing back against it meaningfully, he thought, were white supremacists.

To be clear, he rejects that today! But he helped me to understand how a young man like him could be radicalized by neo-Nazis and other white supremacists. What drew him away from that was the increasing awareness that this way of life was a way of death -- the hate, the violence, the drugs and alcohol. Today, he says, he thinks the only way out for any of us is to lead lives of radical Christian discipleship, cleaning up our own spiritual rooms, building strong families, and communities of families, and simply enduring the times.

His fiancée, whom I will call Noemi, said she dallied on the outskirts of similar communities in Hungary when she was younger. Noemi said that life is difficult for young people in Hungary, where salaries are very low, and economic prospects not good. Religion is not popular here, so it is unusual that she found her way into it, in a serious way. She described her family as nominally Protestant.

Noemi said that Hungarians are still suffering immensely from the twentieth century. Jeremy and I agreed that the most striking thing to a foreigner arriving here is learning how intensely aware all Hungarians, of whatever political faction, are of the Trianon Treaty, which settled accounts with Hungary for its role in World War I, and took away two-thirds of Hungary's historic territory. On paper, it appears that Trianon simply carved out parts of Hungary where a majority of people were not Magyars, and either gave it to existing nations (e.g., Transylvania to Romania), or created new nations out of it (e.g., Slovakia). But it's not so simple. Many, many Magyars still lived in those regions, as their ancestors had for many generations. Suddenly, if you were Hungarian, you found yourself living in another country, by virtue of a treaty. Your ancestors' graves were no longer in Hungary, but in another land. I've heard this story before, but somehow, listening to a young woman born eighty years or so after the treaty was proclaimed talking about it as if it were current events really hit me hard.

The humiliation of it is hard for us Americans to grasp. Jeremy said this must be what it was like for our Southern ancestors, when the Civil War was something our families still cared about. I had to laugh, because I didn't learn that the South had lost the war until I was six years old, and my dad's old Coast Guard buddy from up North came to visit us, and joked with me about the Yankees whipping us. "Daddy, did the Yankees win?" I asked my dad, incredulous. Yes, son, they did, he said. I remember exactly where I was standing in the kitchen when he said that, and the horrible truth was made clear to me. It simply had not occurred to me that I could ever be part of a country (so to speak) that lost a war. I laugh at that now -- and yes, I'm glad the South lost the war, because we fought for a bad cause -- but the feeling of national humiliation here in Hungary is still very much alive, a century later. It wasn't only that they lost the war -- a war that was declared by the Austrian emperor who ruled the Magyars, and other peoples -- but that in its aftermath, they had most of what they regarded as their country taken from them. You don't have to oppose the Trianon Treaty to appreciate how terrible, psychologically, this humiliation must have been for them, any more than you have to have supported the Confederacy to grasp what total defeat meant for white Southerners.

Understand what I'm saying: I'm not saying this or that side was correct in the matter of war. I'm talking about entering into the psychology of radicalism, to try to understand how and why it happens. Noemi was describing how and why so many Hungarians today are so demoralized.

Noemi talked about how the patriarchalism that is so apparent in Hungarian society to outsiders is really only superficial. This country is a de facto matriarchy, she said. Hungary lost so many men in the wars of the twentieth century that women had to rise to take care of business. Noemi who looks to be in her mid-twenties, said there was a flagrant gender double standard in her high school education. Boys were thought to be triflers who couldn't be expected to do much, but girls were treated with total seriousness, and held to higher standards. This actually reflects prejudice against males, what George W. Bush called "the soft bigotry of low expectations." According to Noemi, women are to a surprising degree the breadwinners in Hungarian families -- a social change with deep psychological ramifications, in her view.

She also talked about how fatherlessness is becoming a huge issue in Hungary. According to official statistics, almost half of all births in Hungary are to unmarried women -- higher than in every US state, except a handful with large black or Hispanic populations (the overall out-of-wedlock birth rate in the US is 40 percent -- a staggering statistic, and sign of social decay; in 1960, it was five percent). The connection between father-absence and a host of social ills -- multigenerational poverty, crime, substance abuse -- is well-established in social science. The pálinka had been flowing freely at that point in our conversation, so I can't remember the precise points she was making, except to say that Hungary, like other Western nations where the traditional family model has broken down, faces huge problems. It is certainly true that same-sex marriage is not legal here (though same-sex domestic partnerships are), and that homosexuality is generally not accepted, though Budapest itself is far more liberal in these matters than the countryside. It seems to me, though, that one should understand the Orban government's moves to shore up traditional marriage as part of trying not only to raise the birth rates, but to re-establish the marital bond as the normative framework for childbearing.

How one does that outside a meaningful recovery of religious belief and practice, I have no idea. I've mentioned in this space in the past how shocking it was to me in 1980 to go to an evening assembly at my high school, and to see girls -- black girls -- I saw every day in the halls at school, there holding their babies, with their own mothers (never a father present). It was a real jolt. It was understood that out of wedlock childbearing was a thing for black people (my school was half-black), but it was very much taboo among whites. Somehow, seeing the disorder of all this helped me to understand better a reason why black people from our part of the world were so poor. How could you ever focus on your studies, much less go to college, with a baby? Yet out of wedlock childbearing was completely normalized in the local black community. Forty years on, we know now that it is well on its way to becoming so in the white working class. The out-of-wedlock birth rate in the US today for whites is 29 percent -- and that is concentrated in the white poor and working class. Marriage is becoming something that only middle class and wealthy people do. This is true throughout the developed world, which is also seeing a collapse in Christianity. To normalize non-traditional (that is, non-Christian) family forms might seem realistic and compassionate, but what it really means is giving up on the possibility of stopping father-absence. This is going to have catastrophic effects on social trends. The US black community was an outlier. What has happened to them is going to happen to us all, and indeed is happening.

This morning I was reading from a new history of Budapest, written by Victor Sebestyen (it's not yet available in the US; I bought my copy in England). I had Noemi's tales of how the past affects the present, and Jeremy's tales of paths to radicalism, on my mind as I read about the 18th century in Hungary. Under Habsburg rule, the social system was radically unjust to the great majority of Hungarians. The nobles were a parasitic class that ground the faces of the poor in ways that were remarkable even for that time. And the Hungarians as a whole were pushed around mercilessly by the Habsburg monarchy. It struck me, reading this history, that any patriotic young Hungarian man would have had to have felt inspired to revolt. There were Jacobins in Hungary, and the Habsburgs did away with them. This was no bad thing, given how bloodthirsty the Jacobins were. Still, reading all this, I was reminded of this passage from Live Not By Lies:

At dinner in a Russian Orthodox family’s apartment in the Moscow suburbs, I was shaken by our table talk of Soviet oppression through which the father and mother of the household had lived. “I don’t understand how anybody could have believed what the Bolsheviks promised,” I said glibly.

“You don’t understand it?” said the father at the head of the table. “Let me explain it to you.” He then launched into a three hundred-year historical review that ended with the 1917 Revolution. It was a pitiless tale of rich and powerful elites, including church bureaucrats, treating peasants little better than animals.

“The Bolsheviks were evil,” the father said. “But you can see where they came from.”

The Russian man was right. I was chastened. The cruelty, the injustice, the implacability, and at times the sheer stupidity of the imperial Russian government and social order in no way justifies all that followed—but it does explain why the revolutionary Russian generation was so eager to place its hope in communism. It promised a road out of the muck and misery that had been the lot of the victimized Russian peasant since time out of mind.

In Live Not By Lies, I describe an America that is increasingly unstable, and vulnerable to totalitarianism. I won't repeat the diagnosis here, but let me say again that all of Hannah Arendt's signs of a society susceptible to totalitarianism are vividly present in contemporary America. My belief is that this is far more likely to become a left-wing totalitarianism, not only because the elites hold beliefs and execute policies consonant with this, but also because the young -- Millennials, and especially Zoomers -- are far more left-wing and illiberal, from the Left, than older generations. But it is also the case, per Jeremy, that there could arise a right-wing authoritarianism. (I don't think it would be totalitarian, because the character of the contemporary American Right is ill-suited to totalitarianism, but rather favors authoritarianism -- a distinction with a meaningful difference, but not worth getting into here.) The point I think we can all agree on is that we are on the cusp of something dramatic. I talked the other day with a young Hungarian who said that in the spring elections, he voted for the anti-Orban opposition, but now he is glad that Orban won, because this young man believes something catastrophic is coming, and he's glad that a strong, capable prime minister is in place to lead Hungary through it.

David Brooks wrote in the NYT yesterday:

I’d like you to consider the possibility that the political changes that have rocked this country over the past six years will be nothing compared with the changes that will rock it over the next six. I’d like you to consider the possibility that we’re in some sort of prerevolutionary period — the kind of moment that often gives birth to something shocking and new.

He then lists reasons justifying this conclusion, including inflation, widespread frustration with the state of the country, and voter detachment from the two political parties. (Again, read your Arendt!) He concludes:

If I were a cynical political operative who wanted to construct a presidential candidate perfectly suited for this moment, I’d start by making this candidate culturally conservative. I’d want the candidate to show by dress, speech and style that he or she is not part of the coastal educated establishment. I’d want the candidate to connect with middle- and working-class voters on values and to be full-throatedly patriotic.

Then I’d make the candidate economically center-left. I’d want to fuse the economic anxieties of the working-class Republicans with the economic anxieties of the Bernie Sanders young into one big riled populist package. College debt forgiveness. An aggressive home-building project to bring down prices. Whatever it took.

Then I’d have that candidate deliver one nonpartisan message: Everything is broken. Then he or she would offer a slew of institutional reforms to match the comprehensive institutional reforms the Progressive movement offered more than a century ago.

I guess I’m looking for a sort of modern Theodore Roosevelt. But heck, I don’t know. What’s coming down the pike is probably so unforeseeable that I don’t even have categories for it yet.

My friend David has been pining for Teddy Roosevelt for decades. I hate to break it to him, but the figure he's looking for is an American version of Viktor Orban. I would add that the American Orban would need to deliver a total and unrelenting attack on wokeness as anti-American, and offer concrete legislation and policies to roll it back. Future historians of the United States will find it hard to believe that a political party (the Democrats) and all elite institutions in the US embraced an ideology that promoted such cultural conflict, and divided Americans along racial lines, at a time when national unity was needed more than ever. Wokeness -- the elites' "successor ideology" (Wes Yang's apt term) to liberalism -- is a radicalism generator for all people. It justifies leftist soft totalitarianism, and pushes rightists towards illiberal reaction, even to the point of embracing white supremacy. I do think Brooks is right about the upheavals ahead, and I can only hope that we can be led by a hardline opponent of wokeness who will also address the economic distress of the young and the working class.

Live Not By Lies has sold 170,000 copies in the US since its September 2020 debut, despite virtually no coverage from the mainstream media. It's been mostly by word of mouth, best I can tell. The media have wanted to dismiss the book as alarmist kookery, because its message is frightening, and holds them, and the institutions like them, responsible for increasing oppression in America, even leading to the point of implementing a form of totalitarian control. The book makes a calm argument, marshaling the evidence for what immigrants to the US from communist countries can feel in their bones is happening. I would like to suggest that David Brooks's newfound sense that we are in a "pre-revolutionary period" in the US is something that those immigrants have been feeling for at least a decade, and which the widely-ignored bestseller Live Not By Lies identifies. Me, I don't want to live under an oppressive system of either the Left or the Right, but we may all find ourselves in the situation facing Spaniards during Spain's Civil War: having to choose between either right-wing authoritarianism or left-wing totalitarianism, the center having been annihilated. We Americans have to hope and pray and work for a movement and a leader who can decisively defeat woke totalitarianism without succumbing to the worst of the Right. If you want to prevent more young right-wing radicals like Jeremy used to be before his religious conversion, then you had better hope that we can find a way to crush wokeness democratically. As the Russian father said at dinner, you don't have to bless Bolshevism to recognize that the Bolsheviks arose in response to actual existing repression and widespread exploitation of the masses by the elites.

That said, with reference to Katherine Dee ("the world built by modern liberalism, which took for its telos the maximization of individual autonomy, and thus guaranteed total alienation, breeds ... nihilism"), any gains we make on protecting traditional American liberties will mean nothing without a reclamation of the Christian faith and the Biblical, Judeo-Christian values that ground and bound liberalism. It is hard to be hopeful on that point, but who knows? Jeremy is right: the main thing is to devote oneself to Christ, and to building strong families, and communities of strong families, as arks within which to ride out the storms to come. Whatever you may wrongly think from having read about the book, not having read the book, this is the Benedict Option.

I'll leave you with this passage from Live Not By Lies, which should be read as a kind of coda to the Brooks "pre-revolutionary" column:

In 1905, Moscow high society gave a banquet in honor of the Russian arts impresario Sergei Diaghilev at the Hotel Metropol in Moscow. Diaghilev had recently curated an epic Saint Petersburg exhibition of portraits he had selected on an exhaustive tour of private homes of the wealthy. The dinner was to celebrate his success. Diaghilev knew that Russia was on the precipice of something big. He rose and delivered this toast:

We are witnesses of the greatest moment of summing-up in history, in the name of a new and unknown culture, which will be created by us, and which will also sweep us away. That is why, without fear or misgiving, I raise my glass to the ruined walls of the beautiful palaces, as well as to the new commandments of a new aesthetic. The only wish that I, an incorrigible sensualist, can express, is that the forthcoming struggle should not damage the amenities of life, and that the death should be as beautiful and as illuminating as the resurrection.

What Russia’s young artists, intellectuals, and cultural elite hoped for and expected was the end of autocracy, class division, and religion, and the advent of a world of liberalism, equality, and secularism. What they got instead was dictatorship, gulags, and the extermination of free speech and expression. Communists had sold their ideology to gullible optimists as the fullest version of the thing every modern person wanted: Progress.

Hey readers, we are working on improving the comments situation on the new site. I hate it too, the way it is now. Let me offer this: if you have a lengthy, substantive comment to make, or a substantive one that you want to make anonymously, e-mail it to me at rod -- at -- amconmag -- dot -- com, and put in the subject line, in all caps, COMMENT. I will select a few and append them as updates. This seems to be a possible workaround until we can get the deal straight. Note well that I cannot promise to post all comments received this way, but I do promise you to consider them.