The Reactionary Temptation
An open-minded inquiry into the close-minded ideology that is the most dominant political force of our time — and can no longer be ignored.
Photograph by Richard Misrach Border wall near Los Indios, Texas, 2015.
Look around you. Donald Trump is now president of the United States, having won on a campaign that trashed liberal democracy itself, and is now presiding over an administration staffed, in part, with adherents of a political philosophy largely alien to mainstream American politics. In Russia, Vladimir Putin has driven his country from postcommunist capitalism to a new and popular czardom, empowered by nationalism and blessed by a resurgent Orthodox Church. Britain, where the idea of free trade was born, is withdrawing from the largest free market on the planet because of fears that national identity and sovereignty are under threat. In France, a reconstructed neofascist, Marine Le Pen, has just won a place in the final round of the presidential election. In the Netherlands, the anti-immigrant right became the second-most-popular vote-getter — a new high-water mark for illiberalism in that once famously liberal country. Austria narrowly avoided installing a neo-reactionary president in last year’s two elections. Japan is led by a government attempting to rehabilitate its imperial, nationalist past. Poland is now run by an illiberal Catholic government that is dismembering key liberal institutions. Turkey has morphed from a resolutely secular state to one run by an Islamic strongman, whose powers were just ominously increased by a referendum. Israel has shifted from secular socialism to a raw ethno-nationalism.
We are living in an era of populism and demagoguery. And yes, there’s racism and xenophobia mixed into it. But what we are also seeing, it seems to me, is the manifest return of a distinctive political and intellectual tendency with deep roots: reactionism.
Reactionism is not the same thing as conservatism. It’s far more potent a brew. Reactionary thought begins, usually, with acute despair at the present moment and a memory of a previous golden age. It then posits a moment in the past when everything went to hell and proposes to turn things back to what they once were. It is not simply a conservative preference for things as they are, with a few nudges back, but a passionate loathing of the status quo and a desire to return to the past in one emotionally cathartic revolt. If conservatives are pessimistic, reactionaries are apocalyptic. If conservatives value elites, reactionaries seethe with contempt for them. If conservatives believe in institutions, reactionaries want to blow them up. If conservatives tend to resist too radical a change, reactionaries want a revolution. Though it took some time to reveal itself, today’s Republican Party — from Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution to today’s Age of Trump — is not a conservative party. It is a reactionary party that is now at the peak of its political power.
The reactionary impulse is, of course, not new in human history. Whenever human life has changed sharply and suddenly over the eons, reactionism has surfaced. It appeared in early modernity with the ferocity of the Catholic Counter-Reformation in response to the emergence of Protestantism. Its archetypal moment came in the wake of the French Revolution, as monarchists and Catholics surveyed the damage and tried to resurrect the past. Its darkest American incarnation took place after Reconstruction, as a backlash to the Civil War victory of the North; a full century later, following the success of the civil-rights movement, it bubbled up among the white voters of Richard Nixon’s “silent majority.” The pendulum is always swinging. Sometimes it swings back with unusual speed and power.
You can almost feel the g-force today. What are this generation’s reactionaries reacting to? They’re reacting, as they have always done, to modernity. But their current reaction is proportional to the bewildering pace of change in the world today. They are responding, at some deep, visceral level, to the sense that they are no longer in control of their own lives. They see the relentless tides of globalization, free trade, multiculturalism, and mass immigration eroding their sense of national identity. They believe that the profound shifts in the global economy reward highly educated, multicultural enclaves and punish more racially and culturally homogeneous working-class populations. And they rebel against the entrenched power of elites who, in their view, reflexively sustain all of the above.
I know why many want to dismiss all of this as mere hate, as some of it certainly is. I also recognize that engaging with the ideas of this movement is a tricky exercise in our current political climate. Among many liberals, there is an understandable impulse to raise the drawbridge, to deny certain ideas access to respectable conversation, to prevent certain concepts from being “normalized.” But the normalization has already occurred — thanks, largely, to voters across the West — and willfully blinding ourselves to the most potent political movement of the moment will not make it go away. Indeed, the more I read today’s more serious reactionary writers, the more I’m convinced they are much more in tune with the current global mood than today’s conservatives, liberals, and progressives. I find myself repelled by many of their themes — and yet, at the same time, drawn in by their unmistakable relevance. I’m even tempted, at times, to share George Orwell’s view of the neo-reactionaries of his age: that, although they can sometimes spew dangerous nonsense, they’re smarter and more influential than we tend to think, and that “up to a point, they are right.”
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This notion of a national culture, rooted in, if not defined by, a common ethnicity, is even more powerful in European nations, which is why Brexit is so closely allied to Trumpism. In the case of Britain, the question of race is framed within a euphemism used by the British government itself: a “visible minority” versus an “invisible one.” “Since 2001, Britain’s ‘visible minority’ population has nearly doubled, from 8 percent to 14 percent today,” Benjamin Schwarz, the national editor of The American Conservative, noted last year. “It is projected to rise to about 38 percent by mid-century.” Is Britain changing so fast that it could lose any meaningful continuity with its history and culture? That is the question now occupying the British neo-reactionaries. Prime Minister Theresa May has not said many memorable things in office, except this: “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.”
A year ago, Anton took issue with an article I wrote for this magazine in which I described Trump as reminiscent of Plato’s description of a tyrant emerging out of a decadent democracy and argued that we should do what we could to stop him. Anton’s critique was that I was half-right and half-wrong. I was right to see democracy degenerating into tyranny but wrong to see any way to avoid it. What he calls “Caesarism” is already here, as Obama’s abuse of executive power proved. Therefore: “If we must have Caesar, who do you want him to be? One of theirs? Or one of yours (ours)?” Krein put it even more plainly: “Restoring true constitutional — or even merely competent — government requires a fundamental transformation of the underlying culture and elite opinion. It requires, in a certain sense, regime change in America.”
That indeed is the explicit aim of Curtis Yarvin, who takes Kesler’s and Anton’s dismay at modern America to new and dizzying heights — and reactionism to its logical conclusion. A geeky computer programmer in his 40s, he writes a reactionary blog, Unqualified Reservations, under the pseudonym Mencius Moldbug and has earned a cult following among the alt-right. His magnum opus — “An Open Letter to Open-Minded Progressives” — is an alternately chilling and entertaining assault on almost everything educated Westerners hold to be self-evidently true. His critique of our present is not that we need a correction to return us to traditional notions of national culture and to unseat the administrative state and its elites; it is that we need to take the whole idea of human “progress” itself and throw it in the trash can. Things didn’t start going wrong in the 1960s or under the Progressives. Yarvin believes that the Western mind became corrupted during the Enlightenment itself. The very idea of democracy, allied with reason and constitutionalism, is bunk: “Washington has failed. The Constitution has failed. Democracy has failed.” His golden era: the age of monarchs. (“It is hard not to imagine that world as happier, wealthier, freer, more civilized, and more pleasant.”) His solution: “It is time for restoration, for national salvation, for a full reboot. We need a new government, a clean slate, a fresh hand which is smart, strong and fair.”
At first, Yarvin reads like some kind of elaborate intellectual prank (as well as a legendary exercise in trolling). And he writes with a jocular, designed-to-shock style that is far more influenced by snarky web discourse than anything in, say, the Claremont Review. But the more you read, the more his ideological transgressions seem to come from a deadly serious place. He challenges the idea that the present is always preferable to the past: “There is no strong reason to think that governments recent and domestic are any better than the governments ancient and foreign,” he writes. “The American Republic is over two hundred years old. Great. The Serene Republic of Venice lasted eleven hundred.” The assumption that all of history has led inexorably to today’s glorious and democratic present is, he argues, a smug and self-serving delusion. It’s what used to be called Whig History, the idea that all of human history led up to the democratic institutions and civilizational achievements of liberal Britain, the model for the entire world. This reflexive sense that the world is always going forward has become an American orthodoxy almost no one questions. Insofar as progressives see flaws in the system, Yarvin suggests, it is only because the work of progress is never done.
Why do so many of us assume that progress is inevitable, if never complete? Yarvin, like the Claremonters and American Greatness brigade, blames an elite that he calls by the inspired name “the Cathedral,” an amalgam of established universities and the mainstream press. It works like this: “The universities make decisions, for which the press manufactures consent. It’s as simple as a punch in the mouth.” If that concept of “manufacturing consent” reminds you of the Chomskyite far left, you wouldn’t be wrong. But for Yarvin, the consent is manufactured not by capitalism, advertising, and corporations but by liberal academics, pundits, and journalists. They simply assume that left liberalism is the only rational response to the world. Democracy, he contends, “no longer means that the public’s elected representatives control the government. It means that the government implements scientific public policy in the public interest.”
And the Cathedral has plainly failed. “If we imagine the 20th century without technical progress, we see an almost pure century of disaster,” Yarvin writes, despairing from his comfy 21st-century perch. His solution is not just a tyrannical president who hates all that the Cathedral stands for but something even more radical: “the liquidation of democracy, the Constitution and the rule of law, and the transfer of absolute power to a mysterious figure known only as the Receiver, who in the process of converting Washington into a heavily armed, ultra-profitable corporation will abolish the press, smash the universities, sell the public schools, and transfer ‘decivilized populations’ to ‘secure relocation facilities’ where they will be assigned to ‘mandatory apprenticeships.’ ”
This is 21st-century fascism, except that Yarvin’s Receiver would allow complete freedom of speech and association and would exercise no control over economic life. Foreign policy? Yarvin calls for “a total shutdown of international relations, including security guarantees, foreign aid, and mass immigration.” All social policy also disappears: “I believe that government should take no notice whatsoever of race — no racial policy. I believe it should separate itself completely from the question of what its citizens should or should not think — separation of education and state.”
And with that final provocation, Mencius Moldbug disappears into cyberspace.
Reaction is a mood before it is anything else, and I know its psychological temptations intimately. Growing up steeped in traditional religion, in a household where patriotism seemed as natural as breathing, I became infatuated with a past that no longer existed. I loved the countryside that was quickly being decimated by development, a Christianity that was being overwhelmed by secularism, and an idea of England, whose glories — so evident in the literature I read, the history I had absorbed, and the architecture I admired — had self-evidently crumbled into dust. Loss was my youthful preoccupation. The mockery I received because of this — from most of my peers, through high school and college — turned me inward and radicalized me still further. I began to revel in my estrangement, sharpening my intellectual rebellion with every book I devoured and every class I took. Politically I was ferociously anti-Establishment, grew to suspect and even despise much of the liberal elite, and rejoiced at Margaret Thatcher’s election victories.
So a sympathy for writers and thinkers who define themselves by a sense of loss comes naturally to me. I’ve grown out of it in many ways — and the depression and loneliness that often lie at the core of the reactionary mind slowly lifted as I grew more comfortable in the only place I could actually live: the present. But I never doubted the cogency of many reactionary insights — and I still admire minds that have not succumbed to the comfortable assumption that the future is always brighter. I read the Christian traditionalist Rod Dreher with affection. His evocation of Christian life and thought over the centuries and his panic at its disappearance from our world are poignant. We are losing a vast civilization that honed answers to the deepest questions that human beings can ask, replacing it with vapid pseudo-religions, pills, therapy, and reality TV. I’ve become entranced by the novels of Michel Houellebecq, by his regret at the spiritual emptiness of modernity, the numbness that comes with fully realized sexual freedom, the yearning for the sacred again. Maybe this was why as I read more and more of today’s neo-reactionary thought, I became nostalgic for aspects of my own past, and that of the West’s.
Because in some key respects, reactionaries are right. Great leaps forward in history are often, in fact, giant leaps back. The Reformation did initiate brutal sectarian warfare. The French Revolution did degenerate into barbarous tyranny. Communist utopias — allegedly the wave of an Elysian future — turned into murderous nightmares. Modern neoliberalism has, for its part, created a global capitalist machine that is seemingly beyond anyone’s control, fast destroying the planet’s climate, wiping out vast tracts of life on Earth while consigning millions of Americans to economic stagnation and cultural despair.
And at an even deeper level, the more we discover about human evolution, the more illusory certain ideas of progress become. In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari points out that hunter-gatherers were actually up to six inches taller than their more “civilized” successors; their diets were much healthier; infectious disease was much rarer; they worked less and goofed off more than we do. They didn’t even have much shorter lives: If you survived the enormous hazards of childhood, you could reach the age of 60, and some lived into their 80s (and stayed within their tribes rather than being shunted off into lonely rest homes). Famines and plagues — the great catastrophes of human history — were less common. Harari notes another paradox: Over hundreds of millennia, we have overcome starvation … but now are more likely to die of obesity than hunger. Happiness? Globally, suicide rates keep rising.
Certain truths about human beings have never changed. We are tribal creatures in our very DNA; we have an instinctive preference for our own over others, for “in-groups” over “out-groups”; for hunter-gatherers, recognizing strangers as threats was a matter of life and death. We also invent myths and stories to give meaning to our common lives. Among those myths is the nation — stretching from the past into the future, providing meaning to our common lives in a way nothing else can. Strip those narratives away, or transform them too quickly, and humans will become disoriented. Most of us respond to radical changes in our lives, especially changes we haven’t chosen, with more fear than hope. We can numb the pain with legal cannabis or opioids, but it is pain nonetheless.
When the velocity of cultural change combines with economic anxiety, is it shocking that human beings want to retreat into a past?
If we ignore these deeper facts about ourselves, we run the risk of fatal errors. It’s vital to remember that multicultural, multiracial, post-national societies are extremely new for the human species, and keeping them viable and stable is a massive challenge. Globally, social trust is highest in the homogeneous Nordic countries, and in America, Pew has found it higher in rural areas than cities. The political scientist Robert Putnam has found that “people living in ethnically diverse settings appear to ‘hunker down,’ that is, to pull in like a turtle.” Not very encouraging about human nature — but something we can’t wish away, either. In fact, the American elite’s dismissal of these truths, its reduction of all resistance to cultural and demographic change as crude “racism” or “xenophobia,” only deepens the sense of siege many other Americans feel.
And is it any wonder that reactionaries are gaining strength? Within the space of 50 years, America has gone from segregation to dizzying multiculturalism; from traditional family structures to widespread divorce, cohabitation, and sexual liberty; from a few respected sources of information to an endless stream of peer-to-peer media; from careers in one company for life to an ever-accelerating need to retrain and regroup; from a patriarchy to (incomplete) gender equality; from homosexuality as a sin to homophobia as a taboo; from Christianity being the common culture to a secularism no society has ever sustained before ours.
When this velocity of cultural change combines with a deepening — and accurate — sense of economic anxiety, is it shocking that human beings want to retreat into a past, to resuscitate the nation-state, and to reach backward for a more primeval and instinctual group identity? Or that they doubt the promise of “progress” and seek scapegoats in the governing classes that have encouraged all of this to happen? And is it not evident why, when a demagogue occupies this cultural vacuum and finally speaks this forbidden language, they thrill to him?
Our job in these circumstances is not to condescend but to engage — or forfeit the politics of the moment (and the future) to reaction. Lincoln got the dynamic exactly right with respect to the Trump voter: “Assume to dictate to his judgment, or to command his action, or to mark him as one to be shunned and despised, and he will retreat within himself, close all the avenues to his head and his heart; and though your cause be naked truth itself, transformed to the heaviest lance, harder than steel, and sharper than steel can be made, and tho’ you throw it with more than Herculean force and precision, you shall be no more able to pierce him, than to penetrate the hard shell of a tortoise with a rye straw.”
The tragedy of our time, of course, is that President Obama tried to follow Lincoln’s advice. He reached out to those who voted against him as often as he could. His policies, like Obamacare, were aimed at helping the very working poor who gave Trump the White House. He pledged to transcend the red-blue divide. He acknowledged both the necessity of law enforcement and the legitimate African-American fear of hostile cops. A black man brought up by white people, he gave speech after speech attempting to provide a new narrative for America: one of slowly integrating moral progress, where racial and class divides could be overcome. He criticized the reductive divisiveness of identity politics. And yet he failed. He couldn’t prevent the disappearance of the American middle class; he couldn’t calm the restive anxieties of the white working class; he couldn’t stem the reactionary tide that now washes ever closer ashore. If a man that talented, with that biography, found himself spitting into the wind, a powerful storm is indeed upon us.
This, of course, is not to defend the neo-reactionary response. Their veiled racism is disturbing, and their pessimism a solipsistic pathology. When Anton finds nothing in modernity to celebrate but, as he put it to me, “nice restaurants, good wine, a high standard of living,” it comes off as a kind of pose, deliberately blind to all the constant renewals of life and culture around us. When Houellebecq has one of his characters sigh, “For a man to bring a child into the world now is meaningless,” I chortle. When Dreher hyperventilates that today’s youngsters “could be one of the last generations of this thing called Western civilization” and that American Christians today must “live lives prepared to suffer severe hardship, even death, for our faith,” I take my dogs for a walk. When Yarvin insists that “if the 20th century does not go down in history as the golden age of awful government, it is only because the future holds some fresher hell for us,” I check my Instagram account. There is something hysterical here, too manically certain, bleaker than any human being can bear for long.
And how can you seriously regard our political system and culture as worse than ever before in history? How self-centered do you have to be to dismiss the unprecedented freedom for women, racial minorities, and homosexuals? Or the increased security for the elderly and unemployed, and the greater access to health care by the poor and now the working poor? Compare the air we breathe today with that of the 1950s. Contrast the religious tolerance we take for granted today with the enmities of the past. Compare the racial integration of today, incomplete as it may be, with Jim Crow. Observe the historically low levels of crime compared with the recent past — and the absence of any world wars since 1945. Over the very long haul, too, scholars such as Steven Pinker have found convincing evidence that violence among humans is at the lowest levels since the species first emerged.
If the neo-reactionaries were entirely right, the collapse of our society would surely have happened long before now. But somehow, an historically unprecedented mix of races and cultures hasn’t led to civil war in the United States. In fact, majorities welcome immigration, and enjoy the new cultures that new immigrants bring. A majority backed Trump’s opponent last November. America has assimilated so many before, its culture churning into new forms, without crashing into incoherence. London may be 40 percent nonwhite and repellent to much of rural England — but it works, its inhabitants seem unfazed, its culture remains world-class. The European Union massively overreached by mandating a common currency and imposing brutal austerity, but its conflicts have not led to mass violence, its standard of living remains high, and its achievement of Continental peace is far preferable to the carnage that destroyed Europe in the last century. It may well stagger on, if it can only moderate itself.
It is also one thing to be vigilant about the power of the administrative state and to attempt to reform and modernize it; it is quite another to favor its abolition. The more complex modern society has become, the more expertise is needed to govern it — and where else is that expertise going to come from if not a professional elite? For that matter, the liberal media has nothing like the monopoly it once enjoyed. There are two “Cathedrals” in the 21st century — and only one has helped produce a conservative Supreme Court, a Republican Congress, a Republican president, and near-record Republican majorities in statehouses around the country. Non-leftist thought is suppressed in the academy and is currently subjected to extreme intolerance and even violence on many campuses. That has to change. But some ideas from the neo-reactionary underground — like the notion that carbon has little to do with rising world temperatures — are in the underground for a reason. And still, climate-change denial is the de facto policy of the American government.
Beyond all that, neo-reactionaries have a glaring problem, which is that their proposed solutions are so radical they have no chance whatsoever of coming into existence — and would be deeply reckless to attempt. Their rage eclipses their argument. The notion that public opinion could be marshaled to effect a total reset of American government in favor of a new form of monarchy, as Yarvin suggests, is, to be blunt, bonkers. And is America seriously going to remain a white-majority country? How, exactly? Can the U.S. economy suddenly unwind global manufacturing patterns? Can America simply abandon its global role and its long-standing commitments to allies?
Of course not. And the Trump administration is, day by day, proving this. An isolationist foreign policy collapsed at the first gust of reality. A thinly veiled Muslim immigration ban would have accomplished nothing — most Islamist terrorism is homegrown — and went nowhere. The communities that once thrived off manufacturing or coal mining are not coming back. Even the most draconian mass deportation of undocumented immigrants will not change the demographics of America — or suddenly raise wages for the working class. Global trade has become too entrenched to be reversed. The dismantling of Obamacare dismantled itself — not because of an elite plot but because, when confronted with its being taken away, a majority of Americans balked.
There is, perhaps, a way to use reactionary insights and still construct a feasible center-right agenda. Such a program would junk Reaganite economics as outdated but keep revenue-neutral tax reform, it could even favor redistribution to counter the deep risk to democracy that soaring inequality fosters, and it could fix Obamacare’s technical problems. You could add to this mix stronger border control, a reduction in legal immigration, a pause in free-trade expansion, a technological overhaul of the government bureaucracy, and a reassertion of Americanism over multiculturalism. This is not an impossible direction for the Republican Party to go — though it would have to abandon its know-nothing narcissist of a leader and its brain-dead congressional leaders. The left, for its part, must, it seems to me, escape its own bubble and confront the accelerating extremism of its identity politics and its disdain for millions of “deplorable” white Americans. You will not arrest the reactionary momentum by ignoring it or dismissing it entirely as a function of bigotry or stupidity. You’ll only defuse it by appreciating its insights and co-opting its appeal.
Reaction can be clarifying if it helps us better understand the huge challenges we now face. But reaction by itself cannot help us manage the world we live in today — which is the only place that matters. You start with where you are, not where you were or where you want to be. There are no utopias in the future or Gardens of Eden in our past. There is just now — in all its incoherent, groaning, volatile messiness. Our job, like everyone before us, is to keep our nerve and make the best of it.
*This article appears in the May 1, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.