The Alt Right and the Impossibility of Conservatism

This essay, which has been lightly revised for clarity, was first published at Taki’s Magazine on July 26, 2009. The author had recently founded a right-wing youth group called Youth For Western Civilization.[1]

It’s 1964. A stranger approaches and tells you two political movements will arise in the near future, the New Left and the New Right. One of these movements will dominate American electoral politics for a good quarter century. It will capture a political party, whose activists and politicians will adopt its language and thinking. Some political scientists will define the entire period in terms of the ascendancy of this group; historians will write books naming this age after the movement’s most successful leader. Politicians, scholars, and activists of the Right and Left will go so far as to call it a “Revolution.”[2]

Imagine then that you could look at the America (such as it is) of November 5, 2008, at the end of this era.

The election of Barack Obama, “the most liberal man in the Senate,” is a crowning moment for a federal welfare state that’s grown steadily for over 50 years, regardless of which party was in office. Each individual state is merely an administrative unit for a centralized bureaucracy. All important decisions are made by the Supreme Court. On social issues, conservatives have been in abject retreat, even as leftists bemoan the rise of “Christian fascism.” The ban on school prayer, enacted in 1962 with Engel vs. Vitale, has about as much chance of being overturned as the 1964 Civil Right Act. Gay marriage is a reality in several states. Mass immigration from the Third World is not just permitted but hailed as a moral imperative and encouraged by leaders of both political parties. The children of those immigrants receive preferences in education and job placement over Americans whose roots go back to the Founders.

Iconic American corporations such as McDonald’s, General Motors, and Coca-Cola fund far Left groups with hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants each year—even as some struggle to make profits. Universities are filled with “ethnic studies” and “women’s studies” majors, who are skilled in organizing protests against Western Civilization but can’t read the books that define it. News articles habitually reference public schools removing the names of George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, to be replaced by some community organizer or another who was successful at stealing taxpayer money.

All of the above—and much more, of course—have occurred during and after the “Reagan Revolution” and the mighty deeds of its heroes that are regularly recounted in story and song at the foundations, think-tanks, and non-profits that occupy Northern Virginia. The cadres of Young Americans for Freedom may have gotten elected to office, but we live in the world of Students for a Democratic Society. During the Age of Reagan and conservative hegemony, the New Left decisively won the culture wars, by largely abolishing, often through state fiat, the previously existing culture.

The American Right won past electoral victories by appealing to Middle America, posing as its defenders against the left-wing radicals who spat on the society that gave them so much privilege. Beyond lip service though, the conservative movement didn’t actually do anything to conserve that society, never mind roll back the gains of the Left.

Appealing to the heroic American past, traditional values, or the need for a strong defense of the American society is no longer a sound election strategy because the “Moral Majority” no longer exists. More than that, it is doubtful an American people—conscious of itself as a people with a particular culture, tradition, and identity—even exists.

In my view, the graying boomers who run and staff the current “conservative movement” probably represent the last generation of the Right that can justifiably call itself “conservative.” The constitutional and laissez-faire republic is long gone, a victim of the world wars, hot and cold. And the traditional Protestant and upright culture that once characterized American society as a whole, as well as the United States’ identity as a European and Anglo-Saxon nation-state, won’t last much longer if present trends continue.

More than that, at a core level, we should ask ourselves seriously: What is there going to be worth conserving in the America of the next generation?

I’ve often thought that we got here because the conservative movement’s fetish about “the state” and the size of government fatally compromised its ability to challenge the left-wing ruling class. Who is a more important question than What, and a political movement that has as its chief concern what level of bureaucracy should handle policy can not accomplish anything important.

In contrast, Daniel McCarthy has argued that there is an anti-state Right and a national Right concerned about American identity, virtue, and culture. He points out the stupidity of trying to protect America through the government since,

The state is the indispensable means by which the Left carries out its transformation of the country, and government in 21st century America cannot be turned into an instrument of virtue or nationhood.[3]

I’d first counter that there hasn’t been much of a “national Right” in this country to begin with. Those “conservatives” most interested in using the state for their ends have been “social gospel” types, who are as equally invested as the Left and the neocons in the idea of America as a “universal” nation.

But in the end, this debate doesn’t really matter much—conservatives lost the battle against the state and the Left. Progress is not possible on either front without dismantling the current managerial regime.

In 1941, at the height of the German bombardment of Britain, the patriotic leftist and democratic socialist George Orwell wrote,

It needs some very great disaster, such as prolonged subjugation by a foreign enemy, to destroy a national culture. The Stock Exchange will be pulled down, the horse plough will give way to the tractor, the country houses will be turned into children’s holiday camps, the Eton and Harrow match will be forgotten, but England will still be England, an everlasting animal stretching into the future and the past, and, like all living things, having the power to change out of recognition and yet remain the same.[4]

He was dead wrong. Orwell’s England is being eradicated, deliberately, consciously, and with staggering speed—even though Eaton, Harrow, and the stock exchange still stand. The British upper class, which Orwell loathed for its jingoism and self-satisfied nationalism, now champions this dispossession, with the indigenous working and middle classes serving as the only resistance. Much the same is happening here: the once dominant WASP upper crust is about as likely to take back their America as are the Cherokees.

Enoch Powell may have argued that he would fight for his country even if it had a Communist government. At a certain point though, it is no longer a question of a different form of government for a country but a different country altogether. The position of American conservatives regarding the regime they live under is approaching that of a pagan Roman after the eternal fire of Vesta was extinguished, or a Catholic Frenchmen after the slaughter in the Vendee. An appeal to a shared past will no longer work because that shared past does not exist. The legacy of the Founders can only be defended by incorporating them into a universal progressive history that ignores their actual beliefs. A legalistic identity based on a murky conception of universal human rights has not sufficed to hold together other regimes, and I doubt it will be able to do the same in America.

Such rhetoric seems apocalyptic, but something is happening on the American Right.

Who could have imagined average conservatives even using the kind of rhetoric we hear today? Who would have predicted that a governor would even mention the idea of secession?[5] More to the point, who could have seriously argued even three years ago that the most dynamic movement in American politics—on both left and right—would be headed up by Texas Congressman Ron Paul? Even the Tea Party phenomenon, easily mocked as it is, represents conservatives actually taking the first few tentative steps into something resembling an activist mindset. It may just be a safety valve, as such talk will be easily forgotten when the next Republican is elected. Still, rhetoric has consequences, and you can’t just start throwing words like “revolution” around without changing the mindset of the people involved.

The Ron Paul movement must be credited for opening up space for conservatives on ideas such as the Federal Reserve, secession, and the accepted narratives about American history. Even more remarkable is the seeming refusal of the mainstream conservative movement to engage with the emerging liberty movement, even though it is a huge potential source of activists, donors, and serious candidates.

Perhaps the reason behind this disconnect is that the Paul movement is the beginning of the post-conservative era for the American Right. If conservatism is about defending established institutions, Paul is not a conservative. The liberty movement fundamentally challenges the legitimacy of the state, and implicitly challenges the cultural regime that supports it. A group that can cheer wildly when Abraham Lincoln is denounced as the worst president in American history is certainly a radical departure.[6] The Paul movement’s historical revisionism, anti-state line, overt hostility towards the corporate (as opposed to capitalist) and government establishments, and indifference towards questions of respectability and permissible associations suggest that a decidedly anti-system Right is emerging.

The attacks on the liberty movement from the Left seem oddly divorced from reality. Left-wing sneers at Paul, the Tea Party, and the Right (such as it is) generally have little to do with inflation, federal power, and government spending. The federal and state governments, with the clear help from the Fed-like, pseudo-private “watchdog” groups, have been issuing warnings about the danger of organizations like the Constitution Party and the Campaign for Liberty morphing into “militias” dedicated to–of course—white supremacy. The inevitable move towards European-style speech codes is justified by similar fears, that cries of “End the Fed” will somehow turn into “Wir müssen die Juden ausrotten!” And of course, we have the claims by innumerable leftists that the Tea Parties are actually “White Power” rallies. There is no engagement with the Right on the issues that they are actually talking about and organizing around.

But let’s give the Left a little credit, because as usual, the Left understands the Right better than the Right knows itself. As Paul Gottfried wrote at (before it was cool),

While the Left rails against the bogus Right ... it knows where its real domestic enemy is to be found. The media Left lurches fitfully into attack mode against the Militia Men as rightwing extremists, a reaction that is never apparent when it discusses the Black Panthers or Hispanic racial nationalists. One likely reason is that, in contrast to designated indignant minorities, “rightwing extremists” are not clients of the administrative state. In fact they would be happy to junk this entity entirely.[7]

Right-wingers mobilizing around economic issues and the Fed may be a threat to the system, and the multiculturalists grasp this. However, it is the war on the West itself that mobilizes the cultural Marxists and provides the real justification for their redistributive economic policies.

The entire Obama presidency seems to be justified purely on cultural grounds, whether redeeming us from our sinful racist past, making us look better in the eyes of the world, or liberating us from the dark Christian theocracy of the Bush years and the “old America.” I have yet to meet an Obama supporter who has tried to tell me how the stimulus plan will really benefit the economy or that the Democrats have better ideas on how to reduce the deficit. On the other hand, I’ve met plenty who think that only Obama stands between them and the vengeful White rednecks waiting to seize power.

Mass immigration and cultural disintegration will continue to exist if the Fed—or the state—magically disappears tomorrow. Even materialists must concede that we can’t even begin to talk about issues like education, health care, crime, poverty, or whether we have a society worth living in without talking about issues of multiculturalism and demographics. These issues need to be confronted by someone, if not by libertarians themselves. The reaction to Tom Tancredo’s visits to the University of North Carolina and Providence College shows how fully the Left becomes unhinged even with a message like Tancredo’s, which includes fairly standard and even boring stuff about assimilation and the rule of law.[8]

Hence, Youth for Western Civilization[9], despite mostly being funded out of what’s left of my salary (post condo fees), has garnered huge headlines and controversy, even though we don’t have a single employee. Thus far, YWCers can’t even really be placed on the “Alternative Right,” as we are essentially just echoing standard conservative rhetoric on immigration, multiculturalism, and American identity. (The difference is that we actually mean it.) But even this moderate approach is too much for leftists. Calls to completely transform the structure of the American economy meet far less opposition than suggesting that we enforce existing immigration laws. This tells us what the real forbidden issues are in America today and where the Left really sees the battle lines falling. (Hint: they don’t really care about monetary policy.)

In this environment, “breaking the clock of social democracy,” as the libertarian radical Murray Rothbard demanded[10], requires not just economic analysis or more tired rhetoric about classical liberalism. The Left is the Establishment, the financial and cultural elite of the Western world supports them, and all the SDSers, “antifascists,” and the rest are nothing but the managerial state’s militant wing, lackeys of the powerful as surely as were Pinkerton detectives.

To defeat them requires mobilizing those constituencies that are excluded from the current political and social structure, and that means mobilizing the conservative base to fight—for once—in their own defense. The potential possibility that they will do this, whether it’s in the name of stopping mass immigration, ending the Fed, cutting taxes, or whatever, is what really scares the Left.

With the Paul movement, the Tea Parties, and the general shift in rhetoric after President Obama’s election, there are signs that conservatives are finally learning that the Establishment is not something to defend or join. Some are even questioning whether the American system is fatally broken. If conservatives understand that, they cease to be a safety valve and can accomplish something other than tax cuts for left-wing millionaires. A post-conservative and post-national Right can become a voice for a “revolution” that isn’t just rhetoric.

  1. Kevin DeAnna, Taki’s Magazine, July 26, 2009, accessed July 1, 2016, ↩︎
  2. See, for instance, Steven F. Hayward, The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order: 1964-1980 (New York: Prima Publishing, 2001); Craig Shirley, Rendezvous with Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2009). ↩︎
  3. Daniel McCarthy, “Winning Elections and Losing the Culture War,” The New Guard, September 2008, accessed July 1, 2016, ↩︎
  4. George Orwell, “England Your England,” February 19, 1941; collected in The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius, accessed July 1, 2016, ↩︎
  5. In July of 2009, Rick Perry, then-governor of Texas, suggested that Texas might secede over President Obama’s proposed healthcare law. ↩︎
  6. Ron Paul received these cheers when he appeared at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in 2009, see David Weigel, “A voice in the wilderness no more,” The Guardian, 28 February, 2009, accessed July 1, 2016, ↩︎
  7. Paul E. Gottfried, “Upset Is Not the Word,”, December 7, 2006, accessed July 1, 2016, ↩︎
  8. The Carolina Alumni Review:

    “UNC police used pepper spray and the threat of a Taser to break up a crowd of protesters on April 14 in Bingham Hall after the planned protest halted a talk about illegal immigration by former U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo.

    Members of Students for a Democratic Society, Carolina Hispanic Association and Feminists Students United staged a protest against the Republican from Colorado, an outspoken critic of illegal immigration.

    The muzzling of a speaker who had been invited to the campus brought down a hail of public criticism on the University. Chancellor Holden Thorp ’86, UNC System President Erskine Bowles ’67 and trustees Chair Roger Perry ’71 deplored the protesters’ actions.

    One week later, six people – none of them UNC students – were arrested on disorderly contact charges for their involvement in disrupting a speech by Virgil Goode, a former U.S. representative from Virginia. Goode, an opponent of affirmative action, was able to speak to about 150 in the Great Hall of the Student Union. Some protesters held banners and tried to speak over Goode, but officers quietly escorted them out of the building.”

    April 16, 2009, accessed July 1, 2016,

    See footage of the protest:

  9. YWC was founded in 2008 by Kevin DeAnna, with Rep. Tom Tancredo as its national chairman. It was dissolved in 2012. ↩︎
  10. Murray Rothabrd, “A Strategy for the Right,” Address to the John Randolph Club, Herndon, Virginia, January 18, 1992, accessed July 1, 2016, ↩︎