The Republican intellectual establishment is united against Trump – but his message of cultural and racial resentment has deep roots in the American right
Au 16, 2016 – The Republican party, its leaders like to say, is a party of ideas. Debates over budgets and government programmes are important, but they must be conducted with an eye on the bigger questions – questions about the character of the state, the future of freedom and the meaning of virtue. These beliefs provide the foundation for a conservative intellectual establishment – thinktanks such as the American Enterprise Institute, magazines such as National Review, pundits such as George Will and Bill Kristol – dedicated to advancing the right’s agenda.
Over the last year, that establishment has been united by one thing: opposition to Donald Trump. Republican voters may have succumbed to a temporary bout of collective insanity – or so Trump’s critics on the right believe – but the party’s intelligentsia remain certain that entrusting the Republican nomination to a reality television star turned populist demagogue has been a disaster for their cause and their country. Whatever Trump might be, he is not a conservative.
That belief is comforting, but it is wrong. Trump is a unique character, but the principles he defends and the passions he inflames have been part of the modern American right since its formation in the aftermath of the second world war. Most conservative thinkers have forgotten or repressed this part of their history, which is why they are undergoing a collective nervous breakdown today. Like addicts the morning after a bender, they are baffled at the face they see in the mirror.
Writing under pseudonyms borrowed from antiquity, such as “Decius”, the masked authors described the site, called JAG by its fans, as the “first scholarly journal of radical #Trumpism”. Posts analysing the campaign with titles such as The Twilight of Jeb! alternated with more ambitious forays in philosophy such as Paleo-Straussianism, Part I: Metaphysics and Epistemology. More intellectually demanding than the typical National Review article, the style of their prose also suggested writers who were having fun. Disquisitions on Aristotle could be followed by an emoji mocking the latest outraged responses to Trump.
The Republican intellectual establishment is united against Trump – but his message of cultural and racial resentment has deep roots in the American right
The authors at JAG were not all backing Trump himself – officially, they were “electorally agnostic” – but they were united by their enthusiasm for Trumpism (as they put it, “for what Trumpism could become if thought through with wisdom and moderation”). They dismissed commentators who attributed Trump’s victory to his celebrity, arguing that a campaign could not resonate with so many voters unless it spoke to genuine public concerns.
JAG condensed Trumpism into three key elements: economic nationalism, controlled borders and a foreign policy that put American interests first.
These policies, they asserted, were a direct challenge to the views of America’s new ruling class – a cosmopolitan elite of wealthy professionals who controlled the commanding heights of public discourse. This new ruling class of “transnational post-Americans” was united by its belief that the welfare of the world just happened to coincide with programmes that catered to its own self-interest: free trade, open borders, globalisation and a suite of other policies designed to ease the transition to a post-national future overseen by enlightened experts. In the language of JAG, they are the “Davoisie”, a global elite that is most at ease among its international peers at the World Economic Forum in Davos and totally out of touch with ordinary Americans.
Mainstream conservatives and their liberal counterparts were equally complicit in sustaining this regime, but JAG focused its attention on the right. Leading Republican politicians and the journalists who fawned over them in the rightwing press were pedlars of an “intellectually bankrupt” doctrine whose obsessions – cutting taxes, policing sexual norms, slashing government regulation – distracted from “the fundamental question” Trump had put on the agenda: “destruction of the soulless managerial class”.
A dissenting minority has been waging a guerrilla war against the conservative establishment for three decades
JAG unleashed salvo after salvo against “Conservatism Inc”, the network of journals and thinktanks that, along with talk radio and Fox News, has made defending the party of ideas into a lucrative career path. “If Trump ends up destroying the Republican party,” they wrote, “it is because the Republican party, as it exists today, is little more than a jobs programme for failed academics and journalists.”
News of JAG began circulating on the right shortly after its debut early in the primary season. “The first time I heard someone refer to it, I thought it was a joke,” says former George W Bush speechwriter David Frum. But it quickly found an audience. “They got a huge response almost immediately,” says conservative activist Chris Buskirk, who recalled excited emails and frantic texting among his colleagues. In June, the Wall Street Journal columnist and former Ronald Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan alerted her readers to the “sophisticated, rather brilliant and anonymous website”. A link from the popular rightwing website Breitbart News drove traffic even higher, and JAG seemed poised to shape the discussion over the future of conservatism.
Then it disappeared. Months of posts, totalling more than 175,000 words, were scrubbed from the internet, replaced by a note labelling the site an “inside joke” that had spiralled out of control. Within the right, rumours swirled about the real motives behind the vanishing act; fans of JAG took its self-immolation as further evidence that the conservative establishment would not tolerate any dissent. But the brief life of the Journal of American Greatness did more than provide grist for feverish speculation on Twitter. Patrolling the boundaries of acceptable thought on the right has always been one of the central duties of the conservative intellectual, and JAG’s voluntary purging was the latest chapter in a long battle to define the meaning of conservatism.
But there is another way of interpreting the history of the American right, one that puts less emphasis on the power of ideas and more on power itself – a history of white voters fighting to defend their place in the social hierarchy, politicians appealing to the prejudices of their constituents so they can satisfy the wishes of their donors, and the industry that has turned conservatism into a billion-dollar business.
White segregationist demonstrators protesting in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1959. Photograph: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images
This is the explanation preferred by leftwing critics, who typically regard the Republican party as a coalition fuelled by white nationalism and funded by billionaires. But this line of attack also has a long history on the right, where a dissenting minority has been waging a guerrilla war against the conservative establishment for three decades. Now the unlikely figure of Donald Trump has brought in a wave of reinforcements – over 13 million in the primaries alone. Their target is the managerial elite, and their history begins in the run-up to the second world war, when a forgotten founder of modern American conservatism became a public sensation with a book that announced the dawning of a civilisation ruled by experts.
The Managerial Revolution: What Is Happening in the World was the most unlikely bestseller of 1941. The author, James Burnham, was a philosophy professor at New York University who until the previous year had been one of Leon Trotsky’s most trusted counsellors in the US. Time called Burnham’s work a grim outline of “the totalitarian world soon to come” that was “as morbidly fascinating as a textbook vivisection”.
The son of a wealthy railway executive, Burnham graduated near the top of his class in Princeton in 1927 before studying at Oxford and then securing his post at NYU. But the Great Depression radicalised him, and he began a double life, lecturing on Aquinas by day and polemicising against capital by night. By 1940, Burnham had lost his faith in the revolution of the proletariat. While Trotsky denounced his erstwhile disciple as an “educated witch doctor”, Burnham started work on the book that would justify his apostasy.
According to Burnham, Marxists were right to anticipate capitalism’s imminent demise but wrong about what would come next. Around the turn of the 20th century, he claimed, the scale of life had changed. Population growth surged, immense corporations gobbled up smaller rivals, and government officials struggled to expand their powers to match the growing size of the challenges they faced.
These structural changes fundamentally altered the distribution of power in society. In the 18th century, authority had rested with aristocrats; in the 19th century with capitalists; in the 20th century it had passed on to the managers, whose authority derived from their unique ability to operate the complex institutions that now dominated mass society.
Technocrats had become the new ruling class. According to Burnham, fascism, Stalinism and Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal were all products of this transformation, and there was no use struggling against the world that was coming into being – a world where state ownership of the means of production had become the norm, where sovereignty had shifted to a bureaucratic elite, and where the globe was divided into rival superstates.
Burnham was not the first to foresee a society run by managers, but the arguments he borrowed from others took on a different meaning when brought together in this form. His sweep was global, his narrative reached back centuries, and he almost seemed to welcome a totalitarian future. For Burnham, the only sensible response to the managerial revolution was to recognise that it had occurred and accept there was no point in trying to bring back a world that was already lost. This bleak forecast captured the public imagination. Fortune called it “the most debated book published so far this year” and it went on to sell more than 200,000 copies.
William F Buckley Jr collects an honorary doctorate from Yale University, 2000. Photograph: Bob Child/AP
But Burnham quickly moved on to new territory. His true subject, he concluded, was power, and to understand power he needed a theory of politics. Marx had been his guiding influence in The Managerial Revolution; now he turned to Machiavelli, constructing the genealogy of a political theory that began with the author of The Prince and continued into the present.
For a Machiavellian, Burnham wrote, politics was an unending war for dominance: democracy was a myth, and all ideologies were thinly veiled rationalisations for self-interest. The great mass of humanity, in Burnham’s dark vision, would never have any control over their own lives. They could only hope that clashes between rival elites might weaken the power of the ruling class and open up small spaces of freedom.
Burnham’s newfound zeal for defending freedom led him, in 1955, to a conservative magazine called National Review, and to the magazine’s charismatic young founder, William F Buckley Jr. Buckley’s goal was to turn a scattered collection of reactionaries into the seeds of a movement. His journal set out to make the right intellectually respectable, stripping it of the associations with kooks and cranks that allowed liberals to depict it as a politics for cave-dwellers who had not reconciled themselves to modernity. Burnham was there at the start, one of five senior editors on the masthead of the first issue.
Soon Burnham was Buckley’s ranking deputy. But in an editorial staff riven by abstract debates between ardent libertarians and devout Christians, Burnham was the pragmatist who urged his colleagues not to ask politicians for more than the electorate would accept. For the right to win over working-class voters, Burnham argued, the movement had to embrace a more populist economic policy – contrary to the wishes of his anti-statist colleagues and their corporate backers, who wanted to lower taxes on the rich and roll back the welfare state. “Much of conservative doctrine,” Burnham wrote in 1972, “is, if not quite bankrupt, more and more obviously obsolescent.” Less than a decade later, Ronald Reagan was president, and it was Burnham who seemed like a relic of the past.
For a long time, the only major study of Burnham’s work was a slim volume published in 1984 by a minor academic press under the title Power and History. The book’s author, Samuel Francis, seemed a typical product of the insurgent conservative movement Burnham had helped to create – though by the late 1990s, when Francis published an updated version of Power and History, it made more sense to speak of a new conservative establishment. Outsiders who arrived at the White House with Reagan had become senior executives in Conservatism Inc. With the end of the cold war, the right had lost the glue that had bound its coalition, but there were still battles to be waged, and the money was better than ever.
Francis was never going to become a star in the emerging rightwing infotainment complex. Shy and overweight, with teeth stained from smoking, he had difficulty making it through cocktail parties. After completing a PhD in British history at the University of North Carolina, Francis left academia for Washington – first working at a rightwing thinktank, then serving as an aide to a Republican senator, and finally joining the editorial staff of the capital’s influential conservative daily newspaper, the Washington Times.
Francis retained his academic interests while he ascended into the ranks of the conservative establishment. He published six books in his lifetime, but he worked in private on one massive volume that he hoped would bring together all the disparate strands of his thought. Finished in 1995 but not discovered until after his death a decade later, the result was published earlier this year under the title Leviathan and Its Enemies. It is a sprawling text, more than 700 pages long, digressive, repetitive and in desperate need of an editor.
It is also one of the most impressive books to come out of the American right in a generation – and the most frightening. It is a searching diagnosis of managerial society, written by an author looking for a strategy that could break it apart.
Like much of Francis’s writing, Leviathan and Its Enemies began with Burnham – in this case, quite literally. “This book,” Francis announced in the first sentence, “is an effort to revise and reformulate the theory of the managerial revolution as advanced by James Burnham in 1941.”
Paleoconservatives depicted themselves as spokesmen for the forgotten residents of flyover country
Francis agreed that society had been taken over by managers, but he believed the new ruling class was far more vulnerable than Burnham had realised. Not everyone had benefited from the rise of the experts – and Francis saw this unequal distribution of rewards as the managerial regime’s greatest weakness.
For reasons he never quite explained, he insisted that the cosmopolitan elite threatened the traditional values cherished by most Americans: “morality and religion, family, nation, local community, and at times racial integrity and identity”. These were sacred principles for members of a new “post-bourgeois proletariat” drawn from the working class and the lower ranks of the middle class. Lacking the skills prized by technocrats, but not far enough down the social ladder to win the attention of reformers, these white voters considered themselves victims of a coalition between the top and bottom against the middle.
According to Francis, this cohort had supplied the animating spirit of rightwing politics since the death of Franklin Roosevelt in 1945. They had supported Goldwater – but Francis regarded Goldwater’s programme, like the “movement conservatism” of the National Review, as a “quaintly bourgeois” throwback to the oligarchic politics of the 19th century, with nothing to offer the modern working man. Their tribune was not Goldwater but George Wallace, the notorious segregationist and Democratic governor of Alabama – who won five southern states as an anti-civil rights third-party candidate in the 1968 presidential election. Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan had appealed to this group, too, but neglected their interests after taking office. Despite having elected multiple presidents, the post-bourgeois proletariat had yet to find a voice.
Third-party presidential candidate George Wallace campaigns in Boston, 1968. Photograph: AP
Yet Francis had difficulty explaining why managerial society would generate so much opposition in the first place. In Leviathan and Its Enemies, he argued that resistance to the cosmopolitan elite would be driven by “immutable elements of human nature” that “necessitate attachment to the concrete and historical roots of moral values and meaning”.
He was more candid in a speech he gave while working on the book. “What we as whites must do,” he declared, “is reassert our identity and our solidarity, and we must do so in explicitly racial terms through the articulation of a racial consciousness as whites.” Where mainstream conservatives depicted the US as a nation whose diverse population was linked by devotion to its founding principles, Francis viewed it as a racial project inextricably bound up with white rule. The managerial revolution jeopardised this racial hierarchy, and so it must be overthrown.
Francis delivered his remarks on racial consciousness at a conference organised by American Renaissance, an obscure journal devoted to promoting white nationalism. Years earlier, Francis had struck up a friendship with Jared Taylor, who went on to found the magazine with Francis’s encouragement. From their first encounter, Taylor recalled, he and Francis “understood each other immediately”.
Francis’s employers at the Washington Times were not as sympathetic. The paper fired him after his comments were released, a move that was part of his larger expulsion from the respectable right. Buckley himself dismissed Francis as “spokesman” for a group that had “earned their exclusion from thoughtful conservative ranks”.
Yet Francis would not be so easily purged. For years he had cultivated a relationship with Pat Buchanan, a one-time Nixon protege who had become one of the country’s most recognisable conservatives thanks to his role as co-host of CNN’s popular debating programme Crossfire. In 1992, Buchanan launched a long-shot campaign against incumbent president George HW Bush that, against all expectations, garnered almost 3m votes in the primaries. While all this was going on, Buchanan was growing closer to Francis, whom he later called “perhaps the brightest and best thinker on the right”.
Francis and Buchanan were linked by their association with a breakaway faction on the right known as paleoconservatism. While mainstream conservatives had taken advantage of cushy gigs in New York and Washington, paleocons depicted themselves as spokesmen for the forgotten residents of flyover country. Francis urged Buchanan to make another run for the White House in 1996, this time as the candidate of the post-bourgeois resistance. That campaign would be based on three issues: protectionism, opposition to immigration and an “America First” foreign policy that repudiated global commitments and foreign interventions in order to focus on defending the national interest.
Buchanan listened, and he went on to a surprise win in New Hampshire’s pivotal early primary, convincing Francis that the managerial elite was more vulnerable than at any point in his lifetime. While mainstream Republicans and Democrats celebrated forecasts that the US population was on track to become less than 50% white as a sign of America’s capacity to adapt and grow, Francis believed that the members of his post-bourgeois proletariat regarded these shifting demographics as another reminder of their dwindling power.
Buchanan’s campaign fizzled after New Hampshire, but Francis had a ready explanation for the collapse: Buchanan was too loyal to the Republican party to seize the opportunity he had been granted. “Don’t even use the word ‘conservative,’” Francis told Buchanan. “It doesn’t mean anything any more.” The managerial class had absorbed Buckley and his followers. They, too, were the enemy.
After Buchanan’s defeat and his own exile from mainstream conservatism, Francis devoted himself to what he called “racialpolitik”. He was a regular contributor to outlets promoting white racial consciousness – becoming, in Jared Taylor’s words, “the intellectual leader of a small but growing movement”. Francis denied that he was a white supremacist, but he condemned interracial sex, warned of “incipient race war” and drafted a manifesto for a white nationalist group arguing: “The American people and government should remain European in their composition and character.”
Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan at the Cross Roads of the West gun show in Phoenix, Arizona, 1996. Photograph: Jim Bourg/Reuters
When he looked ahead, Francis was especially concerned with the threat that one rising political star posed to his vision of the future. Barack Obama, he remarked in 2004, was “the model of what the New American is supposed to be”. Ivy League-educated, effortlessly cosmopolitan, promising to transcend barriers of race – Obama was the embodiment of the managerial elite. He represented everything Francis loathed about the contemporary United States.
The fact that Obama, Francis’s symbol for American decadence, became one of the most popular figures in the country brought the great contradiction of his thought into relief. The 19th century belonged to the bourgeoisie and the 20th century to the managers, he argued, because these rising classes had performed necessary social functions. His post-bourgeois proletariat, by contrast, were on the decline.
So was Francis. The supposed realist who cast hunger for power as the driving force of world history spent most of his time writing for journals with subscribers in the low five figures. In his last years, he was a lonely man. Before his sudden death from a cardiac aneurism in 2005, he had begun a study of conservatism and race. His masterpiece, Leviathan and Its Enemies, was still tucked away in a box of floppy disks; when it was published 11 years later, it would be under the auspices of a white-nationalist press. The right-leaning Washington Examiner ran one of his few obituaries. “Sam Francis,” it said, “was merely a racist and doesn’t deserve to be remembered as anything less.” It seemed just as likely that Francis would not be remembered at all.
“I want you to really listen to this,” Rush Limbaugh told his listeners in January this year. The king of rightwing talk radio was lecturing his audience, which averages around 13 million people a week, on Samuel Francis. Prompted by a magazine article casting Francis as the prophet of Trumpism, Limbaugh read aloud from one of Francis’s post-mortems on the Buchanan campaign. “What’s interesting,” Limbaugh said, “is how right on it is in foretelling Trump.” Before abandoning the subject, he added one point. Francis, Limbaugh noted, “later in life suffered the – acquired the – reputation of being a white supremacist”, a reputation Limbaugh insisted was undeserved.
The white nationalists who rallied to Francis in the last decade of his life disagree on that point, but they also see Trump as a vindication of their longtime inspiration. “Sam would have said that Trump is doing exactly what he advised Patrick Buchanan to do,” maintains Jared Taylor, who made news in the primary season when it was revealed that he had recorded automated phone messages endorsing Trump. (“White Supremacist Robocall Heartily Urges Iowa Voters to Support Trump,” reported a headline in the conservative Daily Caller.) According to Taylor’s American Renaissance, “Francis would be very pleased to see the GOP and conservative establishments mocked and destroyed.”
Even liberal commentators are looking back at Francis – whose prediction of a white working-class backlash against a globalist ruling elite seems to be coming true not just in the US but across Europe. “If you just drop the white nationalism a lot of Francis makes sense,” says Michael Lind, who once worked as an assistant to Buckley but now describes himself as a “radical centrist”. According to Lind, conservatives have been “spurning their natural constituency – the mostly white working class”, creating space for the rise of Trump.
Francis was also an inspiration for the team at the Journal of American Greatness, who called him “the closest thing to what could be described as the source of Trumpian thought” in their very first post. They admitted that Francis’s writing “overtly indulges various Southern nostalgias”, but insisted that his “deservedly criticised statements on race” could be separated from the core of his analysis. The managerial class was still the enemy, and only Trump seemed even dimly aware of what it would take to mount an effective challenge.
The authors of JAG looked at the problems facing the US and concluded that Donald Trump might be the answer
But the authors at JAG wanted to do more than add chapters to the history Francis had already sketched. While they remain anonymous, sources have identified them as part of a conservative establishment located outside the Washington-New York axis that dominates the intellectual life of the American right – probably associated with the California-based Claremont Institute and the midwestern Hillsdale College.
Trump the candidate, they admitted, was at best an imperfect messenger. But it was the message that counted: “The American regime – like nearly all its cousins in the west – has devolved into an oligarchy.” JAG was not just arguing that Trump’s campaign had a coherent agenda – a controversial assertion, given that many on both the left and right have dismissed Trump as an unhinged demagogue jabbing randomly at pressure points in the electorate. It was arguing that Trump succeeded because of his platform. Without those ideas, he would have been just another novelty candidate. Armed with them, any of Trump’s more disciplined rivals might have stolen the nomination from him – but instead they opted for recycled bromides from the Reagan era.
The site could be fiery in its defence of Trump, but the best moments came when its targets were the grandees of the right. There are plenty of scathing articles about rightwing thinktanks written from the left, but none of their authors could write a sentence such as “Seeing conservatives court billionaires – which I have had occasion to do dozens, if not hundreds, of times – is like watching dorks tell cheerleaders how pretty they are.”
For all that, the authors of JAG were still thinkers who looked at the problems facing the US and concluded that Donald Trump might be the answer. They denounced conservatives for accepting “the leftist lie” that having a “natural affinity for people who look, think and speak” alike “is shameful and illegitimate”. “The ceaseless importation of people unaccustomed to liberty,” they wrote – referring to “mass third world immigration” – “makes the American people less fit for liberty every day”. Islam was a subject of particular concern. “What good,” they asked, “has Muslim immigration done for the United States and the American people?” Francis would have approved.
With its archive deleted, JAG’s internet presence is now confined to the occasional mournful tweet from one of its former readers, but the problems it identified on the right are more glaring than ever. “The conservative movement’s mission has become providing comfortable professional livelihoods to literally hundreds of people,” David Frum told me recently. Although this behemoth has proved effective at turning a profit, the intellectual returns on the investment have been paltry. “Conservatism was a lot more creative and effective when it had less money,” Frum said.
This narrowing of intellectual ambitions has coincided with a crisis of authority. When asked to name the dominant theme of the right’s intellectual history since George W Bush left office, conservative journalist Michael Brendan Dougherty responded with one word: “disintegration”. Buckley has been dead for the better part of a decade, and no successor has emerged with the clout to take up his role as arbiter of the true faith.
Meanwhile, the little magazines that once set the tempo of debate have struggled to maintain their influence in the age of social media. “Twenty years ago if you got the summer internship at National Review you were high-fiving everyone you knew,” one conservative activist told me. “That was like getting the Goldman Sachs internship. You were set.”
Charles Kesler, a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute and professor at nearby Claremont McKenna College, sees a generational change underway. His best students, he says, used to seek out three paths: some went into academia, others into politics, and a third group tried to navigate a path between the two as writers for middlebrow journals such as National Review. But that middle ground has eroded in the last decade, Kesler says. Now many feel “revulsion” at the state of public debate and take refuge in academia – or they succumb to a “populist tug” and end up at rightwing clickbait factories such as Breitbart News. That pull will only grow stronger now that Trump has shown how little influence establishment conservatives have over the constituency they claim to represent.
In Washington, a policy-minded cohort dubbed the reformicons has become the great hope for conservatives planning their response to the rise of Trump. Long before this year’s campaign, they had begun to devise a more populist agenda to appeal to the working-class voters who have become an increasingly significant part of the Republican electorate. With an eye to the future, they are also convinced that Republicans need to reject Trump’s brand of white identity politics if it hopes to win elections in a country becoming more diverse by the day.
From the reformicon perspective, Trump represents a pathological response to the legitimate complaints of voters whose concerns have been overlooked for too long. The challenge for savvy Republican politicians is to convert the impulses that have propelled Trump’s rise into a platform that can appeal to a multiracial coalition.
Donald Trump speaks at the Republican national convention in Cleveland, Ohio, July 2016. Photograph: Mike Segar/Reuters
Yet the well-intentioned reforming wonks have struggled to find an audience outside the capital. Part of the problem is financial. “There’s no money from rich donors even for reasonable populism,” says Michael Lind. To the ears of conservative billionaires, pleas for economic policies that appeal to workers sound like the prelude to tax hikes on the wealthy. For a Washington-based movement offering what the sceptics at JAG called “managerialism with a human face”, a lack of wealthy donors is a potentially fatal obstacle.
Of all the forces unleashed by the rise of Trump, the one that may pose the greatest threat to the relevance of the conservative intellectual establishment is the gleefully offensive movement known as the alt-right. Nurtured by online forums such as Reddit and 4chan, along with white-nationalist standbys such as American Renaissance, the alt-right has become a vehicle for the simmering anger of mostly white and mostly young men – with strong links to the earlier varieties of racialpolitik promoted by Francis, who is sometimes cited as a founder of the alt-right. Mainstream conservatives have reacted with shock and horror to this development. “The nasty mouth-breathers Buckley expelled from conservatism have returned,” declared a typical response from Commentary, one of the major journals of the establishment right.
But the new iconoclasts of the alt-right can’t be purged from a conservative movement they have no desire to join, especially when they can reach an audience of millions on social media. If there is an heir today to the young William F Buckley – who launched his career with exuberant attacks on the hypocrisy of the liberal establishment and managed to make conservatism look like a stylish rebellion against the powers-that-be – it might be someone like Milo Yiannopoulos, a professional provocateur who has become a spokesman for the alt-right. At one typical event this spring, Yiannopoulos, who refers to Trump as “Daddy”, delivered a lecture with the title Feminism Is Cancer after being ushered into the auditorium on a throne held aloft by students wearing “Make America Great Again” hats. Yiannopoulos’s critics are rightly concerned that his main agenda is promoting himself, but Brand Milo is a booming business.
The future looks more precarious for the guardians of True Conservatism. They have strong support from leading figures in the Republican party such as Paul Ryan, and retain control over an infrastructure of donors, thinktanks and journals. A landslide defeat for Trump could still revive their cause, but they could just as easily be swept aside by a rising generation of rightwing activists with a more Trumpian set of concerns.
Their brand of conservatism won’t disappear, but it could become more a curiosity than a movement, as it was in the days before the birth of the modern right over half a century ago. “The whole Buckley experiment may have been a passing phase,” says Lind – a strange interlude when a cohort of writers mistook their ideological preferences for the will of the people and, even stranger, provided the basis for an industry based on that delusion. The anxiety that its time has passed lurks underneath all the conservative establishment’s impassioned denunciations of Trump: a fear that his unprecedented victory in the Republican primary has demonstrated it is already obsolete. “I’m a conservative,” Trump said in April, “but at this point who cares?”
But Trump may have unintentionally pointed the way for a new kind of American conservatism, driven by resentment at the globalist diktats of the hated managerial class. Over the last year, that anger has emerged in surprising venues. In language that Francis would have recognised, the billionaire PayPal co-founder and Silicon Valley guru Peter Thiel declared that America is no longer a democracy – since it has become a country “dominated by very unelected, technocratic agencies”.
Thiel has been an outspoken libertarian since his days as an undergraduate at Stanford in the 1980s, and in 2008 he supplied $500,000 for an attempt to create manmade islands that would provide an “escape from politics in all its forms”, but lately he has started to associate himself with a different crowd. In July, following an outpouring of criticism, he cancelled a planned appearance in front of a group that has provided a meeting ground for libertarians and white nationalists, including Francis’s close friend Jared Taylor. But a similar public outcry did not persuade him to drop another speaking engagement earlier that month: a speech on the final night of the Republican national convention, where he had come as a delegate to cast his vote for Donald Trump.