Culture Wars/Current Controversies

The self-radicalizing logic of conservative intellectuals

By Damon Linker, The Week

How an unlikely hope led to a dark new radicalism among the right’s intelligentsia.

Much has been written about the transformation of the GOP over the past several years from the party of Ronald Reagan to the party of Donald Trump and his populist imitators. But at the same time a parallel change has been taking place among conservative intellectuals.

This evolution of ideas and temperament has been catalyzed by the political shift to Trumpian politics, but it isn’t reducible to that change. Ideas, like psychological dispositions, shift according to their own logic. What we have been witnessing among growing numbers of conservative thinkers is a process of self-radicalization driven by the interaction of political events with prior ideological assumptions and moods.

The most pessimistic and culturally alienated thinkers on the American right have been given hope — and that distinctive mixture is an ideal fuel for political extremism.

During my own time as an ideological conservative, which overlaps quite closely with the first term of George W. Bush’s presidency, I worked under Richard John Neuhaus at First Things magazine. Neuhaus was a conservative Catholic priest, but he was also an American patriot and (usually, though not always) an optimist who wanted to believe that all good things could go together. So he sought to develop an ideological outlook that smoothed over tensions among various institutions and projects: The Reaganite Republican Party, including the Bush administration’s Global War on Terrorism; the American experiment in democracy; free-market capitalism; political liberalism, rightly understood; evangelical Protestantism; and the Catholic Church of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

According to the outlook cultivated and promoted by First Things in that era, one could be — moreover, one ought to be — a moral traditionalist, a Republican, a promoter of American democracy and neoliberal economics at home and American-style democracy and political economy abroad, and a devout (orthodox) believer in Abrahamic religion. (There were a small number of Orthodox Jews in the First Things orbit, and, prior to the 9/11 attacks, the magazine made overtures to Muslims as well.)

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