If you tuned in to the first Republican Party presidential debate of the 2024 cycle, you may have suffered ideological whiplash. The eight candidates onstage in Milwaukee—minus the far-and-away front-runner, Donald Trump—argued every which way over legal, economic, social, and foreign-policy questions. The party’s ideological and policy incoherence was on full display. Did Mike Pence do the right thing on January 6, 2021? Where should Republicans draw the line on abortion? Does military aid to Ukraine and Israel make America stronger? Is an indicted, and possibly convicted, Trump an electoral asset or a liability? There was no consensus.
But there was genuine conflict. Mike Pence and former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley jousted over pro-life policy. Haley went after her fellow Palmetto State pol, Senator Tim Scott, on federal spending. Former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson suggested that the 14th Amendment disqualifies Trump. And everybody piled on Vivek Ramaswamy, the 38-year-old businessman who stole the show by flouting conventional opinion, generating controversy, and otherwise behaving like an obnoxious know-it-all.
Ramaswamy said the former and current elected officials on stage were “bought and paid for.” He defended his evolving views on the Capitol riot and clashed with Haley over aid to Israel and the stakes in Ukraine. He said the “climate-change agenda” is a hoax and pledged to shut down the FBI. He kept referring to former vice president Pence as “Mike.”
Ramaswamy’s glib manner, changing opinions, and utter shamelessness irritated his fellow candidates. But his smugness paid dividends. At this writing, Ramaswamy has moved into third place in the RealClearPolitics average of national polls, seven points behind Ron DeSantis and 47 points behind Trump. Ramaswamy is the sort of figure who could exist only in the shadow of the former president: a hyperactive operator cynically using the populist social-media ecosystem to advance his personal brand.
Ramaswamy embodies the GOP’s current crisis. Republicans haven’t issued a platform since 2016, and it shows. What the party stands for is no longer central to its identity. Enraptured by Trump, the GOP’s vanguard longs above all for outsiders who promise to rebuke the left, upend the political system, and restore America to lost glory. The details are to be filled in later. In today’s GOP, positive messages and government experience are out; novelty, conspiracy theory, and a sense of foreboding are in. “It is not ‘Morning in America,’” Ramaswamy told Pence. “We live in a dark moment, and we have to confront the fact that we’re in an internal sort of cold cultural civil war.”
This vision—America on the precipice in a war that promises to destroy the country and all of Western civilization—has put Ramaswamy at the vanguard of the Republican Party’s newest “New Right.”1 Ramaswamy speaks for those Republicans, many of them young and very online, who believe that the GOP ought to be remade in Trump’s image.
In the New Right’s view, Reagan-era Republicans had a few accomplishments between 1980 and 2008 but have had little useful to say in the years since. That is why the New Right network—which includes media and technology personalities such as Tucker Carlson, Elon Musk, and David Sacks, and legacy institutions such as the Heritage Foundation—wants radically to revise the Right’s positions on foreign intervention, free markets, and limited government.
The first thing to say about the New Right is that it can get weird. Its ranks are composed almost entirely of men. They inhabit a social-media cocoon where they talk a lot about manhood, and strength, and manliness, and push-ups, and masculinity, and virility, and weight-lifting, and testosterone. “Wrestling should be mandated in middle schools,” write Arthur Milikh and Scott Yenor in the collection Up from Conservatism. “Students could learn to build and shoot guns as part of a normal course of action in schools and learn how to grow crops and prepare them for meals. Every male student could learn to skin an animal and every female to milk a cow.”
The second aspect of the New Right that deserves attention is its flirtation with anti-Semitism and racial bigotry. Earlier this year, one of the contributors to Up from Conservatism, the international-relations scholar Richard Hanania, was revealed to have written hateful Internet posts under a pseudonym. The pro-Trump Breitbart reported that Pedro L. Gonzalez, an associate editor at Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture who boosts DeSantis on his social-media account, had a history of anti-Semitism. Around the same time, DeSantis fired speechwriter Nate Hochman, a New Right wunderkind who had promoted an online video that incorporated neo-Nazi imagery.
Most New Right writers shy away from explicit racism and anti-Semitism. Some are more interested in foreign policy, while others focus on economics and trade. All of them, however, share one quality: They sound more like left-wing progressives than actual conservatives.
Consider Ramaswamy’s approach to the world. He wants to cut aid to America’s allies, old and new, and spend the money on domestic concerns. The Heritage Foundation made a similar argument in a television spot aired during the GOP debate that disingenuously shows images from the devastation in Lahaina, Hawaii, without mentioning Putin’s war crimes abroad. According to the Washington Free Beacon’s Alana Goodman, Ramaswamy wants to meet with Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks and a left-wing icon. He says he would free Assange and pardon Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker who currently resides in Russia.
On Twitter/X, Heritage Foundation president Kevin Roberts has posted approvingly of former Democratic congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, an apologist for Vladimir Putin and Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Tucker Carlson has also defended these war criminals. In Tucker: The Biography, the former Fox News star tells author Chadwick Moore that Venezuela’s socialist strongman Nicolás Maduro is a fan of his. Carlson comes across as more amused than appalled.
Now it’s true that fissures in American foreign policy cut across partisan lines. There are internationalists and isolationists in both parties. And it’s true that, before World War II, Republicans were known for their opposition to permanent alliances and to involvement in European affairs. But that was almost a century ago. Postwar conservatives have been known for their antagonism toward anti-American tyrants and their sympathy for U.S. international leadership, a strong defense, and military force.
Any individual conservative might oppose specific actions—in the Balkans, say, or in Iraq—without contesting American exceptionalism or America’s role as guarantor of international security. Not so the New Right, which seems to long for a repudiation of American power. Trump and Carlson equate U.S. foreign policy with Putin’s. Trump has said the greatest threat to America isn’t China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, nuclear proliferation, or global terrorism, but our very own “deep state.” The Heritage ad suggesting we are more concerned with Kyiv than Lahaina smacked of leftist Democrat George McGovern’s “Come home, America” slogan in 1972.
One’s attitude toward American foreign policy tends to reflect one’s view of America’s national condition. If you think America is a good and noble country, you are more likely to support international engagement. Conversely, if you think America is a clumsy or malevolent actor on the world stage, you are more likely to think there is something wrong with your countrymen. The New Right’s negative stance toward foreign intervention is in line with its apocalyptic view of the United States.
Hillsdale College’s Michael Anton, whose then-pseudonymous “Flight 93 Election” essay from 2016 was a New Right manifesto, has nary a kind word to say about his native land. “American carnage” doesn’t begin to describe his take. Everything is rotten, failed, disgusting. “The people are corrupt,” Anton writes in Up from Conservatism, in a passage that recalls the “Amerika” literature of the Vietnam-era left.
Also like the New Left, the New Right casts a critical eye on our ideals and values—the wellsprings of American activity abroad. Claremont Institute fellow Carson Holloway writes in Up from Conservatism that “propositional-nation conservatism,” inspired by Abraham Lincoln’s adherence to the equality clause of the Declaration of Independence, is “a source of political failure for the Right—indeed, of the kind of failures that threaten the security of our civilization.”
The Claremont Institute where Holloway hangs his hat was established to promote the teachings of Professor Harry Jaffa, who believed that the equality clause—“we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”—was the most significant piece of writing since the Christian New Testament and that Lincoln was the greatest statesman in world history. Jaffa is not mentioned in Holloway’s essay or elsewhere in Up from Conservatism. But his nemesis, the author and presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, is cited approvingly several times.
This culture-war faction of the New Right is interested in restraining America abroad, restricting immigration, criticizing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and casting out the last vestiges of the Republican “establishment.” It’s eager to crack down on publicly funded universities, woke corporations, and Big Tech platforms.
But the culture-war faction has company. There is another group of New Right thinkers affiliated with the journal American Affairs and the think tank American Compass. These institutions are part of an effort to move the GOP toward greater state intervention in the economy. Readers of American Affairs will find paeans to the Chinese authoritarian model, discussions of industrial policy, and jeremiads against Wall Street. Socialists and postmodernists such as the German Marxist Wolfgang Streeck and the Slovenian charlatan Slavoj Zizek mingle with up-and-coming Trumpist thinkers. The publication has the feel of left-wing theoretical journals from the 20th century—dreary, turgid, and gray. It might be more influential if it weren’t so recondite.
American Compass is livelier. Its leader, the feisty Oren Cass, went from Bain & Company, Harvard Law, and Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign to become the tribune of the working man. In his 2018 book, The Once and Future Worker, and more recently in the glossy publication Rebuilding American Capitalism: A Handbook for Conservative Policymakers, Cass urges conservatives to privilege politics over economics and pursue policies that, if all goes according to plan, will materially benefit the non-college-educated voters who have come to be the base of the GOP.
The emphasis that Cass puts on the value of work is laudable. Some of his proposals, such as opening non-college pathways to career development and lessening America’s dependence on China, are attractive. Others deserve close scrutiny. Put simply, why would voters worried about inflation react favorably to an economic nationalism that raises prices by increasing tariffs? Rebuilding American Capitalism calls for the elimination of the trade deficit but has little to say about the budget deficit. It would be a tragedy, for the working class most of all, if the GOP decides that the only stuff it wants to import are bad ideas from Europe and Asia.
Of the New Right groups, American Compass probably has the most pull inside the Beltway. It is not hard to see why. Cass offers a ready-made diagnosis of troubled communities, as well as a helpful menu of policy options, for ambitious Republicans eager to placate and someday inherit Donald Trump’s non-college-educated constituency. Senator J.D. Vance of Ohio is champing at the bit to claim Trump’s throne by harking back to the 1980s—combining Dick Gephardt’s industrial labor policy with Tom Harkin’s dovish foreign policy.
Gephardt and Harkin were Midwestern Democrats, of course, both of whom ran for president in 1988. And the more closely one looks at the epigones of the New Right, the more they begin to resemble the left-wingers of that time: anti-institutional, hostile to expert opinion, skeptical of America abroad, and dirigiste at home. Little separates Vance—other than his Yale Law degree and fortune from venture capitalism—from Vietnam War hero and former Virginia senator Jim Webb, whose opposition to the 2003 Iraq War and concern with rising income inequality prompted him to leave the GOP and become a Democrat. Under the aegis of Trump, the tendency that Webb represented and the people he spoke for are finding their home in the GOP…minus the trappings of conservatism.
The former COMMENTARY writer Sohrab Ahmari is a leading indicator of the New Right’s ultimate destination. Having helped launch the New Right with his 2019 attack on the conservative writer David French for failing to fight the culture war furiously enough, Ahmari went on to co-found Compact, a “radical online journal.” Lately he has said less about his conservative Catholicism and more about his radical politics. His latest book, Tyranny Inc., begins with a false equivalence between specific working conditions in America and general political conditions in China, Russia, and Iran.
Like progressive writers Barbara Ehrenreich and Thomas Frank, Ahmari alternates between human-interest reporting and denunciations of corporate greed. His arguments all run in the same direction: “The general tendency of Tyranny, Inc.,” Ahmari writes, “is the domination of working- and middle-class people by the owners of capital, the asset-less by the asset rich.” In his memoir From Fire, by Water, published when he was 34, Ahmari described his college-age Marxism. He’s relapsed.
Ahmari doesn’t go for subtlety. In his capable prose, the New Deal is without fault, and the liberal economics writer and Harvard professor John Kenneth Galbraith is a forgotten genius. What America needs is workers’ rights and Galbraith’s concept of “countervailing power,” with labor organizations and government regulators constraining business. Conservatives, Ahmari says, are beholden to the mistaken notions of the 16th president. “Lincoln’s quaint view of industry,” Ahmari writes, “blinded him to the injustices inherent in his free-labor ideal.”
Take that, Abe!
Unsurprisingly, Ahmari has found an audience among the writers and editors of the New York Times, who have taken to tracking the minutiae of his career with an intensity they normally reserve for Beyoncé. A recent piece for the Times quotes Oren Cass saying that Tyranny, Inc. “bravely goes where few conservatives dare tread, to the ideologically fraught realm in which the market appears inherently coercive and capitalism appears in tension with economic freedom.” Perhaps one reason conservatives have not trod upon this ideologically fraught realm, where markets are coercive and freedom is just oppression under a different guise, is that it is the preserve of the left.
Confusing, isn’t it, when movements lose their bearings. Freedom becomes tyranny, constitutionalism and the rule of law become passé, and America becomes the source of, not the solution to, the world’s ills. Today’s GOP, like the candidates on the debate stage, can’t make up its mind, creating the space for opportunists like Vivek Ramaswamy to flourish.
We can expect the tics and eruptions of the New Right to spread if the Trump era endures. The clique is busy preparing for a second Trump term, or perhaps J.D. Vance’s or Josh Hawley’s first one. Its ambition is as far-reaching as its rhetoric. “Ruling requires taking responsibility for the good of your people and defending them against their enemies,” Arthur Milikh writes in the introduction to Up from Conservatism. “Ruling in this sense is inspiring, invigorating, and beautiful to behold. The New Right must become the party of beauty, vitality, strength, truth, high purpose, and fierceness.”
Good luck with that. It’s up to the rest of us to expose the New Right for what it truly is: ugly, pessimistic, base, weak toward America’s enemies, and, like its progressive twin, corrosive of the American tradition of liberty.
1 The term “New Right” was famously applied to the young conservatives who became a leading force in the GOP after the candidacy of Barry Goldwater in 1964. They highlighted social issues in particular and dedicated themselves to grassroots organizing and fundraising.
Photo: AP Photo/Morry Gash
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