To the Political Fringe
Review of Michael Malice's "The New Right: A Journey To the Fringe of American Politics." | All Points Books | May, 14, 2019
IN JUNE OF THIS YEAR, the libertarian world lost a hero in Justin Raimondo, to whom the summer issue of Austro Libertarian magazine is dedicated. Though Raimondo’s literary career was mostly defined by his fervent and uncompromising opposition to the warfare state, he also made a valuable contribution to the movement with his history of American conservatism in the twentieth century, Reclaiming the American Right. Raimondo’s account helped to flesh out our understanding of American conservatism based on Murray Rothbard’s earlier work, The Betrayal of the American Right.
Much has transpired in American politics since Raimondo’s book was first published in 1993. Two and a half decades later, Michael Malice has revived an interest among libertarians in the phenomenon of the American right, and attempts to set this “New Right” in the context of many of the themes Raimondo, and other writers of the dissenting right have focused on in their time. Malice endeavors to address a relevant topic that has taken on even more importance since the unexpected election of Donald Trump in 2016 and the role of this “New Right” in that victory. True to his subtitle, Malice goes to the fringes of political discourse to provide an understanding of the many elements that make up this loose coalition. Recent political celebrities such as Milo Yiannopoulos, Mike Cernovich, Gavin McInnes, Ann Coulter, as well as some less-savory figures, mostly unknown outside of the political mainstream, such as Jim Goad and Jeremy Taylor, are all featured in Malice’s treatment of the topic.
Malice traces the origin of the movement to Pat Buchanan’s 1992 Republican National Convention speech where Buchanan spoke of a “religious war going on in our country for the soul of America.” The political and media establishment at the time found this to be either absurd or highly offensive. After all, the Cold War had just ended, America’s first foray into the Middle East in the first Gulf War had seemed like a smashing success, President Bush had begun to speak of the birth of a “New World Order,” and Francis Fukuyama had famously argued that we were approaching the “end of history” with the triumph of democracy.
Yet below the surface of this new ideological consensus, considerable dissent was beginning to emerge. Paleoconservatives and paleolibertarians were joining forces to resist America’s push toward becoming a progressivist, neo-liberal world empire, even as the GOP lurched toward the near-abusive application of “conservative” onto its new brand. Malice’s original argument then is that the “New Right” was the offspring of the (short and admittedly strained) marriage of the philosophies of Murray Rothbard and Pat Buchanan. Malice elaborates on the backstory of these two men and their very different careers.
Malice’s overview of Rothbard highlights some of his most important academic works and contributions, but tends to present Rothbard as a rather idiosyncratic and temperamental figure. In Malice’s words, “Rothbard wasn’t a misanthrope so much as he regarded very few people as worthy of his respect and admiration” (37). The fact that Rothbard supported Strom Thurmond for President in 1948 and was then willing to work with the New Left in the 1960s is used by Malice as evidence that Rothbard was somewhat of a flake and hard to take seriously. The fact that Rothbard was not able to maintain a relationship with Ayn Rand, was hesitant to join the Libertarian Party, and fell out with the Cato Institute is used to suggest that Rothbard had a hard time getting along with anyone.
This is certainly a different characterization than the one received from those who knew and worked closely with Rothbard, who would present these same facts as evidence of Rothbard’s devotion to principle and willingness to make common cause with whomever he could. One might suspect that Malice’s emphasis on some of the lesser known and more radical statements made by Rothbard is motivated by his attempt to show continuity with the fringes of the current “New Right.” Despite the shortcomings of his portrayal of Rothbard, Malice certainly raises an interesting question: to what extent was Rothbard and Buchanan’s efforts to seek out unconventional voters and alliances responsible for drawing in the more extreme voices of the “New Right” today?
One of the clear villains that comes through in Malice’s narrative is William F. Buckley Jr. and the organization that he founded, National Review. Buckley is rightly called out for his classless obituaries of both Rand and Rothbard: the former’s philosophy Buckley referred to as “stillborn” and the latter he compared to David Koresh. Malice also takes aim and fires away at mainstream American conservatism’s failure to actually conserve anything. “In fact,” says Malice, “Republican politicians were far more effective at putting over progressivism than the Democrats because there was no one to their right to criticize them for doing so” (45).
Malice illustrates the phoniness of establishment conservatism by pointing out the fact that National Review could go from writing an article comparing homosexuality to necrophilia to making a “conservative case” for gay marriage and transgenderism in the course of two decades —an observation often cited by the eminent paleoconservative scholar Paul Gottfried. While no social conservative himself, Malice establishes his maxim that, for the mainstream Right, “conservatism is merely progressivism driving the speed limit.” It is in this setting of an intellectually bankrupt conservative movement that Malice points to as the fuel for a new right reaction.
The most valuable contribution of the book is Malice’s serious attempt to understand and articulate the strategies of this group he calls the “New Right.” In order to do so, he draws a helpful analogy from gamer culture. Speaking of how gamers think, Malice writes “Their hobby—not their job, but what they do for fun—consists of living in worlds created by others, figuring out the rules those worlds operate under, and then bending or even breaking those rules to get the result that they want. They also…are quite prone to thinking logically and systematically when it comes to achieving their goals” (88). The goal of the video gamer is achieving the mission and advancing to the next level. Thus, he is not focused so much on the particular enemy or obstacle that stands in his way, but rather on the tool, the weapon, or the code needed to counteract that kind of enemy or obstacle.
Likewise, Malice points out that “the overwhelming focus of New Right thinking and activism isn’t about fighting a specific bill or arguing with the left issue by issue” (93). Malice cites the passage of Obamacare in 2009 as an example of the failed conservative strategy that tends to focus on constitutional process while Progressives controlled the narrative and were committed to achieving their end by any political means necessary. “For New Right adherents,” says Malice, “the key is to identify leftist techniques and call them out when they are being used, and to make certain they are being stripped of their efficacy whenever possible” (94).
In this way, the New Right is willing to go beyond the bounds of the political realm and engage leftist opponents in the sociological sphere as well. Though they could hardly be described as traditional conservatives themselves, Gavin McInnes and Mike Cernovich are two examples of New Right leaders who are willing to talk about issues such as masculinity, feminism, demographics, and the importance of family life. These issues represent the problems that lay behind the merely political debates and New Right adherents seem to be more willing to aggressively challenge the progressive consensus in these areas. By contrast, mainstream conservatism tends to be content to speak in much more non-specific terms such as “family values” and “American democracy.” The New Right is also not afraid to take leftist scalps in the entertainment industry, recognizing the reality that culture makers tend to come out of Hollywood or New York City rather than Washington, D.C.
Why is it necessary to combat the Left in this way? Because the New Right understands that Progressives use language and political correctness as a means of control. New Right adherents recognize that the game is rigged against them and are not interested in debate, especially when they will be forced on the defensive. Malice gives several examples of specific tactics employed by the New Right to take the offensive. One such example is the online phenomenon known as “trolling.” A master troll in his own right, Malice explains the art and psychology of this tactic wherein the audience is turned into the performer for the entertainment of the troll. Another, referred to as “agree, amplify, and accelerate,” is to force the radical left to pursue the logic of its own position in defiance of reality in order to hasten its collapse. Still others include “red-pilling” as well as the use of memes where new meaning is infused into words that would escape the dragnet used to shut down nonpolitically correct speech. Malice emphasizes that many of these techniques were useful in stymying the Hillary Clinton campaign and elevating Donald Trump to the presidency in 2016.
Malice touches on a few other points that are worthwhile for reflection and consideration. First, Malice spends a chapter discussing the heroes of the New Right. Surprisingly, Donald Trump is not one of them. It is recognized by all throughout the New Right coalition that Trump is a less than ideal representative and an inconsistent ally. Malice correctly points out that the New Right movement began long before Trump and would have continued even if he had lost the election. What is even more surprising is that the heroes of the movement do not represent a consensus on political philosophy, but rather share a love of nationalism and anti-progressivism.
The leading New Right hero is Nigel Farage, the former leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP). The success of the Brexit campaign in the United Kingdom was actually the first underdog victory of 2016, prior to Trump’s election. Farage’s appeal is his uncompromising and belligerent demeanor toward the political establishment in the European Union. Throughout his political career he refused to play the politically-correct game and was willing to publicly display his contempt for his EU colleagues. Other heroes might seem much less obvious: Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore and Augusto Pinochet of Chile. Both of these leaders are nothing if not illiberal and would cause most mainstream American libertarians to begin clutching their proverbial pearls and virtue-signaling their utter disavowal.
However, without endorsing the centralized state policies of Yew or the violent excesses of Pinochet, it is important to understand the appeal of order, tradition, and nationalism to many of those, especially men, on the right who have been force-fed egalitarian and progressive ideology since birth. It is further evidence that the coming political divide in this country will not be Republican vs. Democrat, nor even authoritarian vs. libertarian as we may have hoped during the Ron Paul moment, but rather between nationalism and universalism.
While Malice’s book offers an insightful perspective on the current political landscape and some of the personalities that inhabit it, his “movement” framework and historical account are less convincing. Unlike Rothbard or Raimondo, Malice does not display familiarity or interest in the historical development of dissenting right movements. His stated intention was to understand the forces that brought about the political upset that was Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 and then dubbed this (very) broad group the “New Right,” supposedly in contrast to the old or traditional conservative right wing that had preceded it. There are several problems with this taxonomy.
First, Malice fails to account for the fact that the conservative movement prior to the emergence of his own “New Right” was not a monolith. While he does make brief mention of a few figures on the “Old Right,” such as H.L. Mencken and Garet Garrett, he does very little to distinguish them as a tradition that exists in distinction from Bill Buckley’s mainstream, and modern, “movement conservatism” (to use a phrase from American historian of conservatism George Nash). In fact, for writers such as Rothbard, Raimondo, and Paul Gottfried, Buckley himself represents the death of an older, traditional right in favor of the centralized and globally influential right of the new post-war conservatism.
Thus, the general framework does not allow an important separation between writers such as Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, and Robert Nisbet (the traditionalists) and the Buckleyite-era conservative fold that would give rise to commentators such as George Will. There is no mention or recognition of the complete shift in approach to the world that marked the rise of Buckley’s New Right. Paul Gottfried, in his neglected The Search for Historical Meaning (page 105), aptly summarized this shift by noting that conservatism preBuckley sought to philosophize about the world, while post-Buckley was determined to change it via political activism. The recent transition away from what has become the establishment conservatism in our current political moment is seen by Malice as merely the legacy of some malcontents and extremists, such as Buchanan and Rothbard, fed up with not having a political voice and not in some way a return to an older “America First” tradition that consistently opposed empire, progressivism, and political universalism.
This leads us to a second problem with Malice’s thesis: can a lasting movement be defined merely by what it opposes without any consistent ideology of its own? Malice himself admits that the New Right is characterized by vast disagreement and is held together merely by its opposition to progressivism, globalism, and political correctness. This very narrow basis for unity might be enough to pull off an election victory, but is it enough to constitute a sustaining movement worth speaking of in the years to come? What Malice describes in his book is chiefly a collection of personalities, tendencies, and strategies. However, I don’t believe he succeeds in establishing that this collection is a lasting coalition that we can look back on as a meaningful political base in any sense, and certainly not the next phase of American conservatism.
About the author
Jared Lovell lives in Northeast Pennsylvania with his wife and three children. He actively works to corrupt the youth as a history and economics teacher at Memoria Press Online Academy and as an ESL teacher to Chinese students.