The abortion of a rally last week in Charlottesville shoved much in Americans’ faces that was depressing, infuriating—and obvious. It appeared to deeply retrench battle lines that were carved long ago, but recently re-filled to bristling with readily identifiable combatants. Coming as it did in the immediate wake of the Google ordeal, the debacle in Charlottesville revealed something new, outside our set frames of celebration and condemnation.
It should now be clear that the Nazi sympathizing or appropriating element of today’s reactionary insurgency is showing itself incapable of serving as a transformative political vanguard. At the same time, however, a kinder and gentler, but also wiser, wealthier, weirder, and more worldly wing of the Right unrepresented in the GOP is swiftly coalescing around its own political identity and agency. Liberals are out of time to stop this movement. But they, like their friends and foes on the Right, may want to pause and take note.
A Truly New Kind of Right Wing
Of course the likes of David Duke and Richard Spencer fail the basic tests of leadership, even among the alt-right as a whole. But because so many on all sides are so consumed—thanks, social media—by the mania of the day, very few have been able to detect, much less begin to understand, exactly what sort of leaders are going to emerge in the next building wave on the “alternative” right. This despite glaring clues emanating from the direction of Google and its ilk.
Things are more subtle and fluid than a vision of James Damore riding his meme-orandum into battle at the head of a red-pilled nerd army might suggest. But even that vision has more to tell us about the incoming future than the person snapped in Charlottesville with the Hitler-quoting T-shirt tucked into his jeans.
Think of it this way: Damore appears to be a leading indicator; in fact, he is a lagging one. Significantly but not exclusively in tech, a generation or two is coming of political age that broadly shares the following characteristics. They have little or nothing to owe the Republican Party. They have self-policed to rise as high in the corporate ranks as their merit and skill permits, or have avoided working for a boss entirely, spending little if any time “weighing in,” especially on social media, on the issues of the day.
They are not income-poor, but are aware of the precariousness of almost all fortunes today and are weighed down by a concern that the right kind of life is becoming ever more costly, rare, and disapproved of outside the hinterland. They are cosmopolitan by nature in the sense of seeing other deep thinkers worldwide as their peers (many have lived or frequently traveled abroad).
They are also predominately male, think of male family leadership as an irreplaceable source of rich and durable social goods big and small, and view human life and purpose multigenerationally. The people who more or less inhabit this pattern of characteristics and dispositions have been moving sharply right over the past decade, but have grown more undetectable over the same span. (Until now.)
Everyone’s Majoring on the Minors
Because of this, liberals have walked into a double cultural and political trap. First, they grew convinced that victory was theirs or had become the normal or baseline condition of contemporary history. Second, they came to believe that their string of victories advancing the causes of social justice was actually incremental, thanks to old-style bigots and new-school racists.
In fact, the old bigots are swiftly aging out of influence, while the already meager influence of the new racists, out of all proportion to the attention they have attracted, is continuing to wane. We have seen this pattern before, in the Bush years, when neoconservatives concluded simultaneously that victory was inevitable in the short term but blocked by people too reconciled to evil. That double bind led to the infamous “Mission Accomplished” moment—not the first time a seemingly supreme and triumphant movement far outstripped its sociopolitical supply lines, only to face a crushing reversal from which it has still not recovered.
On the whole, the organized left feels as if progress toward justice is moving with unacceptable slowness. It is true that Republicans have long felt the exact opposite, that progress toward injustice is moving with intolerable speed.
But the Republican Party has been troubled for generations and became too fragmented among ineffective groups to describe and critique the failing-yet-dominant liberal order in a way that could draw out and mobilize the shadow constituency rising now to lead the post-“Nazi” alternative right. Liberals have focused so much on their public fight with old bigots and new racists that it is too late for them to compensate for the losses inflicted in their more private and consequential repression of the younger-and-wiser new right.
The Conflict You See Is Not the Most Important One
So much of today’s political anxiety, regardless of ideology, swirls around fears that the Old World has come lurching across the Atlantic to drag us New Worlders kicking and screaming back into the hell of its history. On the Right, people fear that the logic of equality will finally catch up with America, stripping away our exceptionalism, sinking us into socialism, and supplanting our vibrant faith with enervated secularism. On the Left, the fear is the opposite—that the invidious logic of inequality will make us just another preening and paranoid ethno-nationalist garrison state fueled by superstition and exploitation.
True, the cosmopolitanism of those on the next wave of the “alternative” right reads America’s impasses against the successes of “unlikely” regimes ranging from the Habsburg or Byzantine Empires to the republics of Singapore or Venice. It is poised to process the social engineering plans of the dominant tech firms more in Old World terms (bad kings antagonistic to free lords) than New World ones (innovators leveling the playing field on new frontiers).
But as Charlottesville has already begun to show, their fusion of New and Old World patterns of thinking will make far larger and deeper an impact on the re-founding of the American social order to come than any rough continental beast trying, at last, to come round.