As Donald Trump’s presidential term went (technically) into its final stages, I considered whether it was valuable to participate in that scribbler custom of “explaining” the “meaning” of the outgoing commander-in-chief. I rejected this idea, seeing as we’ve been engaging in it continuously throughout his term to no profit as there is little about Trump that requires extensive explanation. Moreover, it took away from what I thought was actually interesting about that time.
The thing is, I’d discovered an irony: Donald Trump, the most anti- or non-intellectual president in a long time, coexisted alongside a volatile intellectual climate—particularly when it came to politics. Though this seems less ironic in its context. Trump’s disruptive leadership compounded an already exhausted and cumbersome state of the federal government. Disruption led to disenchantment which propelled an escape into a mindset I call “pulp civics.”
I stole pulp civics from a friend who coined it in 2017 to describe a stylistic trend in which political writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Sam Kriss traded in concrete analysis for speculative, baroque polemic. But as the Trump era trudged on, I found that it could be applied more widely to the ideas themselves. The dreary mediocrity and alarming dysfunction of American politics instilled bright, usually extremely online anxiety-havers with a thirst for adventure. Political philosophy (or something like it) is an adventure of a kind, sometimes a risky one, but the sheer frenzy and frequency of the adventuring seemed noteworthy to me. At times it felt like there were too many ideas to keep up with. I wanted to take stock in the activity and this is my attempt.
This is not a complete list, and some omissions like rationalism and neoreaction will be noted. Here I exerted my intellectual license. Some ideas didn’t interest me while others had clearly taken a back seat to successors noted below. The summaries are pretty much all critical, but maybe I’ll post a prescriptive appendix at a later date, as this piece is already too long for its purpose.
If there is a finer point to pulp civics in the Trump era, however, it is that our incapacity for being governed is equal in our capacity to dream about being governed by literally anything else. Or something like that.
The election of 2016 not only ushered Donald Trump into the White House, but a new and very precarious political moment: the crisis of liberalism. New political moments require a new class of political sage, which this moment was more than ample in its supply. Everyone, it seemed, had something to say about the crisis of liberalism, though none were more well-regarded (or in any case consistently referenced) than these four: Patrick J. Deneen, Adrian Vermeule, Rod Dreher, and Curtis Yarvin. Each represented the crisis in different capacities. Deneen and Vermeule are university professors, Dreher is an opinion journalist, and Yarvin is a computer engineer-turned-blogger.
Not that this helps clarify the core of illiberal thought. Illiberal views on liberalism depend on the thinker, or even the context or mood. It is either an inherently weak worldview undone by its own principles of tolerance and human rights or an intolerant, vengeful hegemon that will destroy anyone who dares dissent from it. Their views on Trump are no less varied. He is either the answer to the crisis of liberalism or its symptom.
Nevertheless, liberals who for decades were unaccustomed to being on the defensive proved a fumbling match for the rigor and confidence of these writers. They cut impressive swaths into the discourse itself. Dreher’s writings encouraging orthodox Christians to turn away from the influence of mainstream culture, so infected is it by the liberal progressive ethos as much as they can have become bestselling books. Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed was name-checked by Barack Obama. Vermeule was published in The Atlantic this one time.
How willingly their ideas are embraced by the American readership beyond their perceived freshness is another matter. It’s not so much that they suffer from the limitation, common among these other trends, of being diagnostic rather than prescriptive, but that their prescriptions tend to go beyond American shores, to nations like Poland, Hungary, Brazil, and Franco-era Spain. Nations with present or historically noteworthy regimes high in Catholic piety, low in democratic sentiments, and which have next to nothing in common with the United States. Illiberalism has a way of presenting its ideas as a reflection of globalism, prizing a set of ideas regardless of any one nation’s reasons for applying them. It has also encouraged the wider intellectual trend of skepticism, if not outright hatred, of the American project. Ironic, since there is nothing more American than treating smaller, dependent nations as political Lego sets.
White nationalism and the alt-right entered the American collective consciousness in 2016 conjoined at the hip before imploding in the same manner a year later in Charlottesville. “Alt-right” did not survive for long as a countercultural signifier and faded even as a derogatory term, the elements comprising it having splintered into stranger, more niche variations in more obscure online forums and even more obscure lingo and signifiers.
White nationalism’s adherents spent their time in the limelight desperate for the acknowledgement of the president, who seemed only to do so obliquely and clumsily, either because he was as racist as everyone says or because doing otherwise made him look weak. They trudged along the zeitgeist more as an anthropological subject for The New York Times occasionally pontificate on when there was space to fill. Like the skinheads in Green Room, they are ominous but anachronistic. They belong in gritty dramas and HBO documentaries from the ‘90s. They are out of joint with the times where “whiteness” is a broad threat, at once covert and obvious, detectable in the CEO, the beat cop, the suburban mom with the angular bob cut, or the Walmart greeter. The idea of an explicitly racist white person is a redundancy, less a position than a defect of the mind, one that we are allowed to ostracize, which is, after all, the dream.
Intellectual Dark Web
The people who make up the “intellectual dark web” spend a lot of time telling others what they’re not: they’re neither “far-right” nor are they fascist or even automatic Trump supporters. They are a rather eclectic grouping of entrepreneurs, entertainers, pundits, professors, writers, and various self-professed “dissident” types who run the ideological gamut from mainstream conservative to disillusioned liberal. They are in all cases truthtellers, advocates for freedom and whatever other humanistic ideals are lying around. That’s fine as far as it goes. Voltaire and Diderot were such advocates. Is Jordan Peterson our Voltaire? Is Joe Rogan our Diderot? Maybe it’s more that the philosophes were imprisoned, suppressed, and exiled so that the IDW could be suspended, deplatformed, and heckled.
The IDW has a larger appeal than most of their critics are willing to admit. Joe Rogan inspires easy hatred because he will talk to anybody with the same affable and reasonable comportment. Rather than get censored, Rogan is, in a sense, failing upward into larger audiences. Neither will the publishing middle-management meltdowns prevent Jordan Peterson’s books from being sold in sufficient quantities so long as the market finds them amenable. But that hatred has its role. The IDW thrives all the more on adversity. If they can’t satisfactorily cohere themselves, their haters will do it for them, and people who already hate the haters will flock to them just as quickly, a festival of animosity and self-absorption ensues. The IDW is the Jim Rose Circus of the intellectual landscape, an entertainment sideshow fueled by the transgressive rumblings from underground and a public willing to imbibe them at a safe distance.
And yet even that is too high praise. For with the exception of Rogan, the IDW is marked by a brutalist joylessness. Jordan Peterson’s self-appointed quest to rescue the lost boys of Western Civilization has an interesting loophole. Lost boys tend to have lost minds, and they are eager for the knowing guidance of any father figure who’s offering. The IDW don’t believe in coercion because they don’t need to coerce anyone. Their followers are “guided” to read whatever they suggest—their own books and content, of course, 1984, and, time permitting, the Bible. What they call “postmodern” is strictly forbidden. It never occurs to the IDW that their followers might have inclinations of their own that compel them to “postmodern” thought and writing. Why? Who knows? And who gives a shit? In the end true freedom is attained less by cleaning one’s room or triggering social justice warriors than by biting the finger that wags.
Bronze Age Perversion
It was only a matter of time before the right-wing would get its answer to Subcomandante Marcos. Someone, that is, who would come out of nowhere, his identity mostly concealed, with only his flair for writing and for charming the media to carry him. Such was the effect of Bronze Age Pervert who like Marcos wants to build an insurrectionary force (albeit a force armed with memes rather than guns) to take on the decadent and sclerotic political mainstream. And also like Marcos, one needs always to discuss BAP, if discuss BAP one must, in a two-tiered process.
The first tier is explaining the BAP phenomenon. That phenomenon came and went in a minute, but it was a very hot one. BAP’s seductive aura, or in any case his aura as clickbait, was difficult to resist. Conservative outlets like The Claremont Review of Books and its satellite site The American Mind committed considerable words to BAP Thought—some of them BAP’s own. Vox and maybe one or two other semi-mainstream outlets also made some mention of him. I can’t remember anything specifically written, only the pervasive tone of self-assurance of having discovered something that has evidence of intellectual depth and not a little street cred. These were more or less intelligent people trying to grasp at whatever the zeitgeist was throwing their way. That’s life, I guess, but it didn’t need to appear so unseemly and self-satisfied. The moment didn’t get too far because it was rooted in the idea of BAP and not BAP’s ideas, which are a little more difficult to parse.
The second tier, then, is explaining BAP as best as one can. I’ve read Bronze Age Mindset in its entirety to make sense of the circular and bizarrely acrimonious flame wars raging around it. It is at once hard to summarize adequately and not nearly as interesting as some BAPtists have insisted it would be. BAP is sort of like an intellectual collage work, a kind of cerebral folk art. BAP takes ideas and styles from the darkest corners of philosophy and literature: the mystical reactionary thought of Julius Evola and Yukio Mishima, the Great Man fetishization of Carlyle, the urban existentialism of Michel Houellebecq, occasionally the bombast of Nietzsche, but mostly the dourness of Schopenhauer. BAP is kind of racist—or as David Duke would put it, pro-white. He describes anything he doesn’t like as being “sperg” or “autist.” He is unequivocal in his disdain for democracy. He celebrates Caligula as “the greatest troll ever.” He praises the conquistadores at the expense of the Church, and the freelance mercenary activity of Bob Denard. Though he holds Charles I of Anjou in the highest regard, which is to say, with the most plausible sincerity.
BAP classes himself as a dissident in the Solzhenitsyn mold. The conversation of how, exactly, one qualifies as a dissident in the United States remains to be had. (Is he more of an outlaw than, say, the imprisoned Barrett Brown? Does relative obscurity make one a dissident? If so, that is great for me.) At least with Biden coming into the White House and a continuously volatile political situation BAP has an oppositional edge he didn’t have before. How he decides to use that, and whether people should prepare in some special way for that use, I have no idea. Maybe like his pipe-smoking lefty counterpart in Mexico he will settle into postmodern mythology, an ambiguous nether realm where he is equally real and fictional. He will be a new kind of icon for aspiring rebels, who will go on to do only God knows what; they will probably read more if nothing else.
The tremors of 2016 were felt at every level of American society, but none felt it more intensely and more ominously than suburbanites. Suburbanites had grown accustomed to a regime that favored their way of life and aspirations. It lasted for decades and was little affected by changes in parties. The perpetuity of the middle-class regime is easy to take for granted. While some suburbanites welcomed Trump’s election, others felt that he threatened the middle-class regime in unprecedented ways (he did not) or were made uncomfortable by the moral cost of maintaining the regime his election exposed. Trump put suburbanites in the awkward position of having to think about their role in American society. Polite neutrality was no longer acceptable; no more sleepwalking into the wrong side of history and all that.
The ideas that make up woke intersectionalism have been floating around the United States in one form or another since the 1920s. They congealed into a kind of practice run in the universities in the 1970s and again in the 1990s. By the 2010s wokeness became the most popular ideology in the developed world. Growing off the social liberalism of mainstream America helped, but so did the internet which made the severity of certain social justice-related concerns (police brutality) more concrete and information about these concerns easier to distribute. The woke phenomenon isn’t really about a set of beliefs or actionable demands as it is about finding the most accessible language to articulate them to the widest possible audience and at the most optimal time. 2015 to 2020 was the high point of reaching out from the campuses and into the McMansions.
Wokeness in its present form is similar to Bronze Age Pervert’s work in that it’s a hodgepodge of different, not always copacetic ingredients. It seeks the moral authority of the Civil Rights Movement, but it’s charged with the righteousness of the student left and the rhetoric of critical theory removed several generations from its French sources. But its crux goes back further to Rousseau’s infamous paradox in The Social Contract: “In order that the social pact should not be an empty formula, it contains an obligation which alone can give force to the others, that if anyone refuses to obey the general will he will be compelled to do so by the whole body; which means nothing else than that he will be forced to be free …” “To force a man to be free,” Isaiah Berlin put it more succinctly, “is to force him to behave in a rational manner.” And like good followers of Rousseau, they do not need to read Rousseau to achieve that freedom. One does not need to read to be awakened to the Truth.
For all its good intentions, and outward appearance to the contrary, wokeness rivals Trumpism in its anti-intellectual sentiments. This is the nature of activism generally but it has become starker here as the ideas spread. People who have never uttered a single political opinion become, almost overnight, policy experts and speak like wobbly agitators who’ve read the same five pages of Judith Butler. At the same time, it doesn’t seem to matter that there is no one understanding of what it means to “defund the police” or that few can tell the difference between racism and systemic racism, so long as the terms are known and in circulation. When Nikole Hannah-Jones expressed interest in writing “about how Latino is a contrived ethnic category,” it was not out of genuine desire to highlight the little-appreciated complexity of Latin American society but because certain Spanish-speaking populations broke the wrong way in the 2020 election.
The pretension and conformity fostered by the spread of wokeness is far more pertinent than the typical laments of cancel culture. It mostly shows that liberation and equity are giving way to power. Whereas IDW needs its opposition to be seen and heard in order to have definition, the enemies of wokeness need to be silent and invisible but still omnipresent. That is how it always goes. Any group that wants power in the widest operational capacity also wants—or needs—the power of inquisition.
National conservatism had all the potential for success. It brought together some of the smartest writers in the American conservatism (Julius Krein, James Poulos, Daniel McCarthy, Yuval Levin, among others) it had a well-regarded magazine to publish them (American Affairs), it had a sizable convention with guest speakers like Tucker Carlson, Josh Hawley, and J.D. Vance. With all that networking prowess and funding capability, not to mention the aid of press controversy, national conservatism’s vision could dominate in a crowded field. If only it did not have two major weaknesses.
First was its failure to cohere. Broadly, national conservatism had a promising appeal to the wider right-wing movement. The sea-change brought about by Trump’s election called for a radical rethinking of what conservatism means in the 21st century. That meant ditching the Reaganism of the past with a conservatism better attuned to the priorities of working-class people and more antagonistic to corporate oligarchy and free-market economics for its own sake. It wasn’t socialist per se, but it seemed eager to compete for the fiscally liberal, socially conservative voters the Democrats weren’t interested in cultivating. It was in the details where they faltered. There were far too many ideas with regards to the economics, political theory, and tech regulation, and far too few—or far too conflicting—ideas in matters of culture and foreign policy.
Second was national conservatism’s appearance in 2019 rather than, like, 1974. It may not have been successful from an electoral standpoint, but it was a context better suited to plant roots for later success. I could be wrong here and national conservatism is just as capable of doing that now, but from where I sit it had to struggle in a level of intellectual anarchy not seen since the Revolutionary era. The most influential intellectual ideas emanated from the dingy spiders’ nests of the internet, not from think tanks. It is a time when dazzling the imagination with DIY systems and influencing the discourse with bespoke jargon took precedence over building coalitions or arriving at solutions to concrete problems.
This is unfortunate, for there was also no better moment for national conservatism to rise to the occasion than the COVID-19 pandemic. Here was a crisis that called for sober leadership and national solidarity that did not seem out of place with national conservatism’s stated purpose. Clearly neither of those things appeared on their own accord, and whether national conservatives were unwilling or unable foster them themselves may be debated forever by those who care enough.
It helps to think of the dirtbag left as something similar to neoconservatism. Like neoconservatism it is a “persuasion” rather than a newly synthesized ideology. Like the neoconservatives, dirtbag leftists were “mugged by reality” away from their earlier idealism, just switch Leon Trotsky for Che Guevara, Ayn Rand, or Air America-era Rachel Maddow. Though they may not have a large audience, they are savvy at getting their message out to those most in need of hearing it, sometimes through magazines but often through podcasts. And also like their neocon predecessors, they are at once capable networkers and fervent infighters. The comparisons end there.
Instead of going explicitly right-wing, the dirtbag left went backwards in the ideological timeline to a pre-New Deal labor- and class-centric socialism that they express with a contemporary irreverence. Imagine a Clifford Odets play with characters from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. To paraphrase Bill Hicks, they’re like Christopher Lasch with dick jokes; or anyone who’s watched an Adam Curtis documentary in its entirety. Their positive program is focused squarely on making Bernie Sanders president; but their negative program of irritating mainstream Democrats and liberals understandably attracts a following that crosses ideological lines.
The Trump era was a disappointing time for the dirtbag left. Like their liberal enemies they were both certain of and hoping for Hillary Clinton’s victory, if only because the dirtbag left’s offensive arsenal was designed to go up against pseudo-imperial technocracy, not another version of populism. But with Trump out of the way, they can return to their polemical happy place. Indeed, the coalition assembled by Red Scare, TrueAnon, What’s Left, and others are poised to be more at the forefront now than they were in the last five years. A government that employs Neera Tanden is probably not good for the country, but it’s great for Cum Town.
Of all the ideologies here presented, I thought this was the one I could work with best. I, too, understood that the surest way to restore social bonds was through fostering small-scale communities and that the pre-existing ideological spectrum was insufficient in breaking down the needs and aspirations of real people trying to navigate an increasingly isolated society. Some of my best ideas were geared toward articulating this view as I saw it. Such as here, here, and, to a certain extent, here and here. But they did not gel to any extent that I noticed. At least not for very long. This is mainly to say that I, too, was enchanted by pulp civics. I just wasn’t very good at it.
I was going to say that Trumpism was the Trump era ideology that got closest to having real power. But this is not strictly true. Donald Trump had real power; the Trumpists waited and hoped for him to use it in such a way that it would satisfy them. Of course satisfaction for Trumpists, like power for Trump, is a relative term.
I saw less of Trumpism than I did of wokeness in my daily life, and I wonder if I’d been in a more Republican part of the country (though the GOP presence in my congressional district is not trivial) that I’d write about the former as I wrote about the latter here. It would certainly be easy to go that route; Trumpism took about as much oxygen as wokeness did in the era and each thrived off of the energy of the other. But that would mean discounting those aspects I did see that make them more distinct.
My main impression of Trumpism comes from a flag I saw flying from a house in a neighborhood I frequently walk through. I could tell it was a Trump flag by its shade of dark blue and huge white letters. It was hard to make out the details if the wind wasn’t blowing especially hard; but when it did, its bottom text of “NO MORE BULLSHIT,” though smaller than the above “TRUMP 2020,” was striking. I was less surprised by the profanity itself than by the fact that it was profanity being displayed in the middle of a suburban street, less than a mile away from an elementary school. This was instructive to me; just as the people who drove around town flying full-sized thin blue line flags from their rears of their trucks and jeeps were instructive. They were far outnumbered by the profusion of “IN THIS HOUSE” lawn signs, which blended into a cozy sameness as perhaps they were designed to do. These displays were unsurprisingly more intrusive. On the surface the dueling signage appears to be matter of virtue signaling against vulgarity signaling, though it’s more accurate to say it’s between quiet certainty and showy desperation.
This may not seem likely looking back on the course of about 2015 to 2019. In that time, Trump exuded plausible confidence in his leadership capabilities. It radiated like a spray-tanned sun onto his supporters eager for validation. It is a bit glib and liberal of me to render a purely psychological verdict onto a political movement, but I’ll be fucked if anyone can make sense of what Trump’s presence in the White House was supposed to be about beyond that. He ran as a populist but levied a pretty mainstream Republican tax cut. He promised to curb illegal immigration but deported fewer people than Obama. He did not start any new overt wars but he didn’t significantly lessen our foreign presence and he even ramped up our already hellacious drone program. Are these the faults of experimental governance or the continued resilience of saying one thing and doing another?
It makes more sense to say that Trumpists hold a certain view of the presidency, which is hardly limited to them but which serves as an extreme culmination. It’s the president-as-advocate, in which the chief executive’s actions are measured against how favorably they signal to his or her given base. No signal is ever unfavorable, of course, even when actions run contrary to a professed promise or platform. The special twist of Trumpism may be that actions were also measured against how much it perturbs the opposition.
Trump derived most of his confidence from a sense of having control over events. Anything could be a medium for the art of the deal. Lots of presidents can coast on that, for good and ill consequence, provided no unforeseen events burst like the Kool Aid man onto the national psyche. Trump, to say nothing of the citizens he governs, were not so lucky in this regard. In that light, the aesthetics of Trumpism took on its negative meaning. Every public display—the boat parades, the highway-congesting mini-rallies—seemed as much urgent as they were gleefully disruptive. It seemed always to be working toward something bigger. Storming the Capitol Building was not how I thought it would crescendo, but the progression tracked; something had to give. I suspect many of them thought they were giving their leader a gift.
People watching, whether in horror or delight, probably felt the catharsis as well, but no release of tension. Anxieties were cycling anew; uncertainties piled upon older, still-lingering uncertainties. A movement noted for its regression now sets the tone for the future.