by Christopher Roach
Over the past month, the far-Right’s troll culture turned against Conservatism, Inc., by haranguing the establishment’s “youth outreach” guy, Charlie Kirk of Turning Point USA (TPUSA). TPUSA is a large and well-funded youth movement, but it is starting to lose its audience because many are asking what exactly TPUSA aims to conserve?
The answers they are getting are unclear.
Although Kirk makes some modest concessions to the nationalist Right in his essay, for the most part he has been pushing the old and failed conservative strategy of sticking to “free-market principles,” while being “liberal on social issues.” This is why he confuses conservatism, which is really a disposition and set of instincts, with a laundry list of positions that he labels “dogma.”
While decrying identity politics, he and his guests have often pursued a type of conservative identity politics, which aims to reach out to minorities in explicitly racial terms. At the same time, Kirk and TPUSA deny the legitimacy of any form of white American identity.
While TPUSA’s signature event this year is called Culture War, it aims not so much to fight one as to have those on the Right surrender to the dominant leftist culture. Kirk suggests his critics from the nationalist Right are engaging in purity tests, but has little bad to say about the losing conservatism that prevailed before Trump came on the scene—the “conservatism” of the proposed Bush amnesty and National Review’s defenses of transgenderism and same-sex marriage. His article projects weak energy and carries with it a tone of resignation to the forces to his Right, rather than suggesting that he is its vanguard.
TPUSA’s Fake Culture War
Unlike Pat Buchanan, whose invocation of a culture war in 1992 was powerful, genuine, and ahead of its time, Charlie Kirk appears AWOL on the culture war. Young conservatives can be forgiven if they believe that for him, it’s just a marketing gimmick. Fighting a culture war means addressing the culture, and this means rejecting leftist notions of the family, of sexuality, of nationhood, of gender, and all the rest. Doing so no doubt will cross the Chamber of Commerce and may invite fresh smears from the SPLC, but why should they get to set the terms of respectability?
Instead of rejecting the Left and striking a blow for a right-wing counterculture, Kirk has used much of his time on stage to attack critics to his right using the patois of the Left. He has spent much time and in many venues going after those he considers bigoted, racist, and anti-semitic. He has mocked them as loser basement dwellers, as if such ill fortunes are not due, at least in part, from obstacles like the H1B visa program, affirmative action, or declining social capital in a land of increasing diversity. It is telling that he reaches for words popular on the Left like “xenophobia” and “racism,” seemingly unaware of how they have lost their punch, as they’re invoked so promiscuously to silence anyone to the right of Paul Ryan.
For many years, the Republican Party and the official organs of conservatism have channeled their supporters’ energy into policies that work chiefly to increase the wealth of corporations and the donor class. This was the “established dogma of the Bush-McCain-Romney years,” including low taxes, high immigration, and indifference to off-shoring. Not only are these policies destructive of family life and stable communities, but corporations have not returned the favor, instead becoming eager enforcers of leftism through draconian HR departments and widespread censorship in social media. Fighting a culture war means distinguishing between friends and enemies. In the realm of politics, it means exposing the areas of bipartisan consensus—on trade, on immigration, on social issues, and even sometimes on Israel, for that matter—as often inimical to the interests of the American people.
The Right’s Netroots
Things have not been going according to plan. Instead of facing blue-haired Antifa weirdos, Kirk is finding that increasingly he is being harassed by an army of “Groypers.” A variation of Pepe the Frog and the Clown, the Groyper avatars are ubiquitous among young right-wing activists on Twitter. Belying the myth they’re losers stuck in mom’s basement, these mostly well-spoken young men have shown up at TPUSA events “irl,” asking tough questions of Kirk about changing demographics, the nature of America’s relationship with Israel, and whether surrendering to the LGBTQ+ agenda actually advances the Right in the culture war.
Kirk and TPUSA’s frustration is clearly rising. America First activist Nicholas Fuentes has now been banned from Culture War events—ostensibly for being disruptive, but mostly because he is the self-proclaimed leader of the far-right troll army. I doubt this conflation of this movement with one man reflects reality. The dissident Right is dispersed, and their rejection of Conservatism, Inc. is spontaneous. Focusing on one very young man with an outsized internet presence and who is, thereby, bound to make some rhetorical missteps as the symbol or “leader” of right wing nationalism is just a means of discrediting it, by allowing critics to focus on unfortunate things a single person might have said years ago. The ideas animating the movement, not the individual personalities, are what really matter.
Kirk and his guests have often responded to questioners the way the Left usually does: with sputtering and ad hominem insults. This is just weak. Groypers have not been rioting or even heckling at TPUSA’s events; rather, a slew of pointed questions have exposed TPUSA as purveyors of the same thin gruel cooked up by Conservatism, Inc.
Trump’s election did not dissipate the meme army of 2016, which even now Kirk does not really understand. He, and many others in the Republican establishment, just wanted a good establishment conservative, like Cruz or Rubio. The civil war within the Republican Party was a rejection of that form of “good conservative,” not least because of their penchant for foreign wars and their hand-in-glove relationship with big business and woke capital.
Since Trump’s victory, Kirk and others in Conservatism, Inc. have made formal peace with Trump and his nationalist core supporters, but their words and actions show a long-term goal of redirecting their energy into approved directions, just as the Tea Party was co-opted and defanged.
These young right-wingers are still angry, energetic, irreverent, and alienated. Admittedly, they’re also disorganized, diverse, and a little dangerous in their views. This comes not least from their youth but also because they’re autodidacts, seeking answers to forbidden questions where answers can only be found in old books and various anonymous corners of the internet. They’re as likely to take their cue from Russell Kirk as from Alex Jones.
They would benefit from a genuine liberal education and an introduction to the grand tradition of conservative thought, of course, but so would Kirk himself. Conservatism is not a checklist of particular positions, an “established dogma” or set of “doctrines.” It is a disposition, a love of what already is, and is in danger of being lost.
The Left depends on indoctrination and is threatened by genuine critical thinking. It requires a great deal of propaganda because it goes against our nature, including the love of our own people and the familiar. Conservatism, Inc. masquerades as an intellectual movement to give voice to conservative sentiments. But it has turned out to be just as unthinking, beholden to its donors, and comfortable with censorship and the destruction of traditional life as the Left which, supposedly, it is opposing.
To be clear, I don’t endorse everything Kirk’s critics say, nor do I always approve of how they say it. Nor do I doubt he is a Trump supporter (when it’s safe and useful to be one). But support for Trump the man should be secondary, far secondary, to supporting what Trump represented: a break with the “doctrines” of Conservatism, Inc.
Trump’s earlier supporters recognized that the Left and Conservatism, Inc. functioned together to narrow the range of acceptable discourse, to secure the Left’s victories of yesteryear, and to habituate conservative voters into accepting that their job is to lose.
A Taste of Victory
Nothing impresses the mind like success. The 2016 election was a time of unbridled energy. Instead of “losing with honor,” the Right finally won. The victory came not from embracing watered down “compassionate conservatism” or better explanations of conservative “doctrine”; instead, Trump won by explicitly embracing right-wing nationalism. He willingly dropped certain false mandates from Conservatism Inc., such as “pure free trade.” And he won in spite of the gatekeepers and the resistance of official conservatism.
Back then, Trump got help from Frogtwitter, various underground podcasters, and local activists, who together made mincemeat of Trump’s opponents in the primary and general elections. Among other tactics, they did it with memes and with trolling. This asymmetrical, uncoordinated, and unpaid activism hurt Hillary so badly that she gave an entire speech condemning the right’s online youth culture. Fittingly, someone shouted out “Pepe” during the event.
Young right-wingers’ energy is mostly a positive thing—and, at the very least, it is certainly a powerful thing. It won’t be channeled into healthier directions through invoking the shopworn talking points of Conservatism Inc.—points made no more persuasive when they are adorned with glitzy marketing and guilt trips.
Coastal elites have projected their own preferences onto the young—social liberalism and free-market orthodoxy—but it turned out that young people want something more vital and meaningful. They grew up not particularly concerned about socialism—something that, however dangerous, is a boomer cultural touchstone and holdover from the Cold War.
Instead, what moves and alarms them is the very real and oppressive political correctness they experience directly at work and in school. They have seen tolerance for gays morph into “bake the cake, bigot” and “drag queen story hour.” In school, they experienced the dangers of diversity worship. They face joblessness for stepping out of line. They have had enough.
These young people will not settle for legacy “sit-down-and-shut-up”-style conservatism. They are wary of Kirk’s formulae praising “legal immigration” or “American exceptionalism” or that Israel is always and in all cases “our greatest ally.” To their well-tuned ears, this sounds like propaganda in support of demographic replacement, a nation loosened from any historical identity, and endless wars in the Middle East.
The source of their passion is not only their life experience, but also young people’s natural hostility to authority. Trump’s love of trolling only amplified their identification with him. The young right’s facility with memes is reminiscent of the joking resistance among Soviet dissidents. Then, as now, a brittle and humorless establishment found its rhetoric diverging more and more from reality. Such a system is always vulnerable to a good joke.
The young men of the Right want real change. They want their country back. They want to fight a real culture war, not a facsimile of one. And they’re having a lot of fun trolling the repackaged messages of Conservatism, Inc.
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Christopher Roach is an attorney in private practice based in Florida. He is a double graduate of the University of Chicago and has previously been published by The Federalist, Takimag, The Journal of Property Rights in Transition, the Washington Legal Foundation, the Marine Corps Gazette, and the Orlando Sentinel. The views presented are solely his own.
Photo “MAGA Hat” by James McNellis. CC BY 2.0.