Culture Wars/Current Controversies

Why the growing talk on the U.S. right of a “regime” in America?

The Signal

Why the growing talk on the U.S. right of a “regime” in America? Laura K. Field on an emergent idea shaping the politics of the Republican Party.
Norbert Kowalczyk
Norbert Kowalczyk
After Hurricane Ian devastated Florida in late September, the U.S. state’s Republican governor Ron DeSantis used some unusual language to criticize American press coverage of the storm. He said the “national regime media” had wanted to see Ian hit the city of Tampa, which ended up largely spared, because that outcome would have been “worse for Florida” and helped the media to “pursue their political agenda.” DeSantis’ claims were strange and baseless—there’s no evidence that journalists were rooting for harm to Tampa or anyplace else—but they were also part of a trend among politicians and others on the right in America to speak of ominous “regime” that’s both opposed to their party and subverting their country. Far-right members of the U.S. House of Representatives—such as Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, and Paul Gosar—have been railing against the “Biden regime,” but many more across the American right argue that an oppressive regime extends far beyond government to the press, universities, nongovernmental organizations, and “woke” corporations. Ohio’s Republican Senate nominee J.D. Vance claimed that the far-right media personality and conspiracy theories Alex Jones was “censored by the regime.” The former Trump national security official Michael Anton has described a “regime” composing “the people who really run the United States of America.” What are they talking about?
Laura K. Field is a scholar-in-residence at American University and a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center in Washington. Field says the adoption of the language of “the regime” has quickly become a kind of catch-all term among people in quarters of the American right for any number of political and cultural power centers that they perceive to be working against them and wielding power illegitimacy. As Field sees it, the rising popularity of the term is an indicator of how radical ideas are migrating from the far-right fringe of politics into the mainstream—often popularized by niche intellectuals and other ideological entrepreneurs and then embraced by politicians, media commentators, and other influencers. Field notes that many of these figures have tried to articulate intellectual frameworks to support Donald Trump’s politics since 2016 and are now working to develop a form of right-wing populism that can outlast Trump. It’s a populism that’s centered on their understanding of America’s distinctive history and strengths but that also now targets some of America’s core institutions—and shows signs of potentially even rejecting the country’s liberal-democratic system itself.
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Graham Vyse: What’s “the regime”?
Laura K. Field: Social scientists commonly use the term regime to refer to a system of government, but we haven’t much heard this term in mainstream U.S. political conversation until quite recently. It’s now being taken up by a constellation of politicians, public commentators, and intellectuals aligned with Donald Trump—a broad group often labeled “the new right”—who’ve started giving the term a specific, negative, even cynical, new meaning in the American context.
They mean it to portray the Biden administration as an effectively authoritarian government colluding with progressives who control the media, the universities, and a “woke” elite that dominates the corporations. There’s a clearly sinister edge to the rhetoric, tying in with the falsehood that the 2020 election was stolen and Biden’s government is fraudulent—while also conveying a broader sense that the left is exerting despotic power over Americans, and against Republicans in particular, in all kinds of illegitimate ways. It’s very all-encompassing and, notably, very threatening.
Vyse: Where did the rhetoric come from?
Field: There’ve been different variations of if on the American right over the past few years. Take Trump’s 1776 Commission, for example. The Commission report used the word regime a number of times to describe tendencies on the left—including reference to “identity politics” as a “regime of formal inequality” and “a regime of rewards and privileges assigned according to group identity.”
[Also known as the 1776 Project, this advisory committee, formed late in the Trump administration, created a report on “patriotic education” responding to The New York Times’ 1619 Project, which had argued that the “true founding” of the United States was the year American slavery began.]
This language was very similar to what you’d hear from the Claremont Institute, a research and advocacy organization in California that describes itself as working to restore America’s founding principles—and that had close ties to the Trump administration. [Michael Anton, a senior fellow at Claremont, is a former Trump national security official. John Eastman, the founding director of Claremont Institute’s Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence and another senior fellow, was the lawyer who helped Trump rationalize his attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election results.] There’s a strong tendency among those at a place like the Claremont Institute to view the United States as having been fundamentally transformed by progressivism—and to see themselves as counter-revolutionaries working to bring things back to a more authentic American condition.
Then there’s a group of religious traditionalists—sometimes referring to themselves as “post-liberals”—who also use this language of the regime. Patrick Deneen, a Notre Dame professor and the author of Why Liberalism Failed, has a forthcoming book called Regime Change: Toward a Postliberal Future. So it’s not necessarily just rhetoric; some of those using the language have big ideas about changing politics. Some post-liberal Catholics, for example, are outspoken in their support of Hungary’s very illiberal Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Some groups, such as the National Conservatism organization, promote a populist economic nationalism.
Olesya Yemets
Olesya Yemets
More from Laura K. Field at The Signal:
When Trump took power, he didn’t display a clear sense of what he stood for politically beyond the rhetoric of his presidential campaign. In that context, there were various right-wing intellectuals who identified with the essential politics of Trump’s campaign and offered ideas about what it might ultimately stand for—and arguments for these ideas. It will always sound absurd to many liberals and other Trump opponents that there would be an intellectual component to Trumpism, but that’s what these intellectuals have tried to foster—and some of them have been effective at it, drawing on a lot of knowledge about American history and political theory. They’ve been able to find ways to rationalize, and sometimes justifiably defend, what Trump-era Republicans have been trying to do—even if the intellectual weight of it all didn’t always come through in what Trump would say.”
This thinking suggests that votes for Trump don’t matter, because the whole system has been taken over by illegitimate forces outside voters’ control. There’s an implicit call to action in the argument—to radical, even possibly violent action—to stop what’s going on. If you genuinely believe that people don’t have the control they should have over their government in a democracy, there’s a tacit imperative in the logic of that belief to upend the system. It’s a kind of logic that led to the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol..”
There’s some truth to the idea that liberals or progressives have more cultural clout than conservatives in America—that Hollywood has a liberal or progressive bias, and many mainstream news sources and universities do too. But this conspiratorial notion of a regime that includes the government, corporations, and law enforcement all colluding to oppress Republicans says something very different—and fundamentally absurd. There may be a hardening of language on both sides of the American political divide, but it’s important to distinguish which parts of that reflect reality and which don’t.”

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