What a new conservative call for “regime change” in America reveals about the culture war

“most of his anti-liberal broadside is at once underbaked and overheated.
The critique is underbaked in the sense that it’s not clear from his account how exactly this rather large “elite” is responsible for the destruction of conservative norms and small-town America. How can we hold a graphic designer in Chicago or a Whole Foods supply chain specialist in Austin responsible for the decline of Christian morals and the hollowing out of small towns?

It’s overheated in the sense that Deneen turns his rivals into cartoon villains, arguing that “the current ruling class is uniquely ill-equipped for reform, having become one of the worst of its kind produced in history.”

Roman nobles were legally permitted to rape their slaves. The military elites of the Mongol Empire were constantly murdering civilians and each other. In France after the Black Plague, the impoverished aristocracy stole from their already-suffering peasants to continue funding their lavish lifestyles. The elite of the early American South centered their entire society around the racist brutality of chattel slavery.

Is the American elite out of touch with the working class in ways that have tangible and negative consequences for the country? Sure. But it’s not remotely comparable to the bad elites of previous centuries.

This loss of perspective tarnishes Deneen’s argument throughout the book — a problem most vividly on display in his treatment of the divide between “the many” and “the few.”

In Deneen’s thinking, it is axiomatic that the central divide in Western politics is between the villainous liberal elite (the “few”) and the culturally conservative mass public (“the many”). The liberal elites wish to impose their cultural vision on society and attack the customs and traditions of ordinary people; the many, who are instinctively culturally conservative, have risen under the banner of leaders like Trump to oppose them.

Except how do we know that liberals really are “the few?”

Deneen doesn’t cite election or polling data to support his theory of a natural conservative majority. Trump has never won the popular vote while on the ballot; his party performed historically poorly in two midterm elections since his rise to power. Polling on the cultural issues Deneen so cares about, like same-sex marriage, often finds majority support for liberal positions.”

The ludicrous idea that Trump is losing his grip on the GOP

“In Arizona, Senate nominee Blake Masters and likely gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake are Trump-endorsed 2020 election deniers. In Michigan, gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon is cut from a similar cloth. Michigan Rep. Peter Meijer, one of 10 House Republicans to vote for Trump’s impeachment in 2021, lost his bid for reelection to yet another Trump-endorsed Big Lie supporter (two other House impeachment supporters, Washington Reps. Jaime Herrera Beutler and Dan Newhouse, seemed on track to fend off Trump-backed challengers in Washington state’s open primary). Rusty Bowers, the Arizona House speaker and star January 6 committee witness, lost a state Senate primary to — you guessed it — a Trump-backed election conspiracist.

It’s a splash of cold water on the narrative of a waning Trump.

“Pundits trying to will into existence a GOP that has moved beyond him are way beyond the facts,” the Atlantic’s Ron Brownstein wrote on Wednesday morning. “This remains a Trump-ified GOP, with most openly embracing him and almost none openly confronting him.”

Brownstein is right. And he’s right for a fundamental reason: Trump’s vision of politics, a war between true Americans and a system that has betrayed them, describes how many Republican voters see the world.”

“The simplest barometer of whether Trump still dominates the party is the 2024 presidential polls. And by that metric, Trump’s grip is pretty hard to question.

The RealClearPolitics poll average has Trump leading the field by an average of 26.2 points. All but one national poll cataloged by FiveThirtyEight in July had Trump beating DeSantis by a similarly large double-digit margin (the sole outlier, from Suffolk University, had Trump ahead by a “mere” 9 points).

Granted, any challenger against an “incumbent” like Trump probably wouldn’t pop up on many voters’ radars this far ahead of an election. But much of the “Trump is slipping” coverage skips past all this vital context. For example, the New York Times recently ran a write-up of its poll with Siena College headlined “Half of G.O.P. Voters Ready to Leave Trump Behind, Poll Finds.” And indeed, the poll did find that 51 percent of Republicans would vote for someone other than Trump if the primary were held today.

Yet the headline is misleading. The Times poll found that Trump still commanded 49 percent support in the party; his next closest rival, DeSantis, garnered a mere 25 percent. In the article, reporter Michael Bender notes that the results show that “Mr. Trump maintains his primacy in the party,” contradicting the piece’s headline.”

“If you read studies of the American conservative movement, Trump’s continued strength should be no surprise. The political strength of the movement never came from its policy ideas. Many of its positions, like tax cuts for the rich and stringent abortion restrictions, have ultimately proven to be extremely unpopular.

Instead, its strength has been rooted in grievance: the bitterness of those who believe that modern America is changing too fast, beyond recognition, turning “traditional” citizens into aliens in their own country.

A charitable observer might call this sentiment nostalgia for a bygone America. A more critical one might call it the venting of reactionary white male rage against a more egalitarian country. But whatever your assessment, it is this politics of cultural grievance that animates the GOP base.”

Opinion | The Supreme Court Decisions on Guns and Abortion Relied Heavily on History. But Whose History?

“History has always played a role in constitutional interpretation, for some jurists more than others. But if history is going to be a key driver for the Supreme Court’s decisions — on the assumption that it is more legitimate than other forms of judicial discretion — then it is imperative to ask where the justices are getting their historical sources, whether those sources are fact-checked, and (most importantly) who is narrating the history.

Increasingly, the justices are relying on amicus briefs for historical information. Amicus briefs — also called “friend of the court” briefs — are submitted by third parties and have gone through a tremendous growth spurt at the Supreme Court in recent years.”

“These amicus briefs — sometimes signed by historians, sometimes not — are virtually all written by lawyers and often filed by motivated groups that are pressing for a particular outcome. The history they present, in other words, is mounted to make a point and served through an advocacy sieve. That distinguishes this type of history from the work product of professional historians who (even when they have a point of view) are trained to gather evidence dispassionately. As historian Alfred H. Kelly once put it, “The truth of history does not flow from its usefulness.” But usefulness is exactly the point when litigating a case at the Supreme Court — and historical sources are being used by the advocates to win.”

“The modern reality is the justices look to their friends and allies for historical sources, and rather than fact-check them — which they don’t have the time, resources, or expertise to do — they accept these historical narratives at face value. In the end, this creates an echo chamber where the history the justices cite is the history pressed to them by the groups and lawyers they trust, which conveniently comports with their preexisting worldviews and normative priors.”

“Professional historians are already complaining that the court got the history wrong in its recent cases, either by cherry-picking authorities or leaving out important nuance or both. When it came to the history of gun regulation, the court was awash in competing historical amicus briefs. The court chose one side, and in so doing caused historians to cry foul that the other history was ignored or distorted. In the abortion case, historians of the Middle Ages say some of the texts the court cites as proof that abortion was a crime in the 13th century are not about what we would think of as crime at all, but instead about “penance” imposed by the Church — an ambiguity easily lost on people who are unfamiliar with medieval Latin. Indeed, it is worth noting that much of the 13th-century history the court recounts seems to have come from a brief filed not by historians, but by professors of jurisprudence who publish on the moral implications of abortion — well-respected professors in their fields, perhaps, but certainly not medievalists.
This reveals a systemic problem about relying on amicus briefs for historical narratives: The amicus market is dominated by motivated scholars. Because many neutral experts do not pay attention to the courts or participate in advocacy, the historical accounts presented to the justices are necessarily incomplete and motivated to build a particular argument.”

“the Supreme Court should require anyone who files an amicus brief to disclose who paid for it. Current rules require disclosure only of whether the party contributed financially or otherwise to the brief, but they do little to shed light on briefs filed by neutral-sounding organizations that are in reality funded by those with an interest in the case (even if not the party).”

“the justices should borrow a practice from the laws of evidence and forbid any amicus brief presenting historical or other factual claims from adding accompanying legal argument. At trial in lower courts, there are strict limits on expert witnesses offering opinions on the law or generally opining on the case’s outcome. The idea is that this legal commentary detracts from the status of the expert as a neutral adviser, and that it oversteps the value and point of an expert witness in the first place.”

“justices should build in a process to request the specific history they are interested in earlier in the case’s timeline — in an attempt to recruit historians who may not be following the court’s every move but who are actual experts in the matter. If historians of medieval law knew their knowledge on abortion in the 13th century was so valuable when the court took the case (as opposed to after the leak in Dobbs) there might be incentive for more of them to participate in the briefing process.”

“If we are going to empower judges to referee history we must start paying more attention to the process through which they acquire that history. Many Americans see the court’s recent decisions as a threat to judicial legitimacy; perhaps one under-recognized threat to that legitimacy lies in the process used to make them.”

A New History of the Old Right

“The discontent Trump used to propel himself to the White House has always been present on the American right. When Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R–Wis.) began his crusade against “the hidden Communists in America and their liberal Democratic protectors,” for example, he found support in the Republican Party and in the few conservative publications that existed at the time—The American Mercury, Human Events, even the libertarian-leaning Freeman. As McCarthy’s accusations multiplied and “became more outrageous, more galling, and more disconnected from reality,” Continetti writes, conservatives such as William F. Buckley Jr. still backed his crusade. There are similarities in the way Sen. Robert A. Taft (R–Ohio) responded to McCarthy’s conspiracy theories and the way Sen. Mitch McConnell (R–Ky.) has responded to Trump’s. While McCarthy ultimately undermined himself by launching outrageous accusations against President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Continetti demonstrates just how long conservatives have been tempted to follow aggressive demagogues while they lambaste liberals.

Traditionally, conservative elites have tried to channel populist sentiments into a respectable and successful movement. No one had to grapple with this question more than Buckley, the founder of National Review. The usual conservative narrative says that Buckley legitimized conservatism by being a gatekeeper: In keeping the conspiracism of the John Birch Society and the radical individualism of Ayn Rand at arm’s length, he made it less likely that conservatives would be labeled extremists. In the case of the John Birch Society, Buckley wrote a 5,000-word essay, “The Question of Robert Welch,” that condemned the group’s founder, arguing that “the best thing Mr. Welch could do to serve the cause of anticommunism in the United States would be to resign.” Buckley’s purges are often held up as a great success, but the reality is that Welch did not resign and the John Birch Society continued to have influence.

While Buckley initially aligned his magazine with segregationists in the South, a choice that has marred the movement’s reputation ever since, he was resolute in opposing Alabama Gov. George Wallace’s particular brand of populism. Wallace, of course, was a strident proponent of segregation in the 1960s. During his second run for president, on a third-party ticket in 1968, the candidate turned heavily to anti-elitist rhetoric. “As he began to attack the federal government and its know-it-all politicians and bureaucrats,” Continetti writes, “his support among conservatives grew.” Buckley called Wallace “Mr. Evil,” “a dangerous man,” and a “great phony.” He was also taken aback by the “uncouthness that seems to account for his general popularity.”

Other conservatives joined the denunciations. Wallace’s conservative fans, National Review founding senior editor Frank Meyer wrote, need to recognize that “there are other dangers to conservatism and to the civilization conservatives are defending than the liberal Establishment, and that to fight liberalism without guarding against these dangers runs the risk of ending in a situation as bad as or worse as our present one.” In modern parlance: Don’t back a man like Wallace to own the libs.”‘

The conservative Supreme Court is just getting warmed up

“In addition to overturning a nearly half-century-long federal right to an abortion, the court struck down gun-licensing laws in the most populous states, expanded state funding for religious schools, broadened the rights of public-school employees to pray publicly at work and halted lower court orders requiring two states to redraw congressional boundaries to give minority voters a better chance of electing candidates of their choice.

“What the court did just on abortion, guns and congressional power in the last eight days—that alone is momentous [but] if these justices stay together over the next few years, I don’t even think the first shoe has dropped,” University of California at Irvine Law Professor Rick Hasen said. “There’s so much more the Supreme Court could do to change American society.”

On Thursday, minutes after dealing a severe blow to President Joe Biden’s plan to reduce power-plant emissions to combat climate change, the high court announced it will take up a case from North Carolina next term that could give state legislatures vast power to draw district lines and set election rules even if state courts, commissions or executive officials disagree.

The so-called independent state legislature theory has lingered at the fringes of election-law debates for years, but was seized upon by former President Donald Trump in 2020 in his unsuccessful efforts to overturn Biden’s win.

“It’s kind of uncharted territory,” Hasen said. “It could have some far-reaching and unintended consequences.”

A sweeping Supreme Court ruling on the state-legislature issue might give state lawmakers the authority to appoint presidential electors, regardless of what state courts say or how a majority of a state’s voters cast their ballots.

In the 30 states with Republican legislatures, a ruling upholding the theory could give the GOP a big leg up in more routine House and Senate elections. But the effect in Democratic-run states could also be polarizing, with a redistricting commission in California put out of business and efforts by New York courts to limit gerrymandering reversed.

That case will join other polarizing issues already on the docket for next term: a new Voting Rights Act challenge from Alabama, a pair of cases challenging race-based affirmative action programs in higher education and a case brought by a web designer claiming that she should be able to ignore a Colorado law barring discrimination against same-sex couples.

As with many of the cases the Supreme Court decided in recent weeks, any of those cases could qualify as the most significant of an ordinary court term, but the justices have decided to hear them all.”

A New History of the Old Right

“Unlike most accounts of the American conservative movement, Matthew Continetti’s The Right begins in the 1920s, when two Republican presidents returned the country to normalcy after World War I. The ideals of that era’s Republicans were not so different from those espoused by former President Donald Trump today: They believed in cutting taxes, restricting immigration, and protecting American industry through tariffs. But there was one fundamental difference: Presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge rejected the populism of their age. They aimed to preserve American institutions. Trump is more like William Jennings Bryan, riding the coattails of discontent. He represents a time, Continetti argues, when an increasingly apocalyptic conservative movement “no longer viewed core American institutions as worth defending.””

“Traditionally, conservative elites have tried to channel populist sentiments into a respectable and successful movement. No one had to grapple with this question more than Buckley, the founder of National Review. The usual conservative narrative says that Buckley legitimized conservatism by being a gatekeeper: In keeping the conspiracism of the John Birch Society and the radical individualism of Ayn Rand at arm’s length, he made it less likely that conservatives would be labeled extremists. In the case of the John Birch Society, Buckley wrote a 5,000-word essay, “The Question of Robert Welch,” that condemned the group’s founder, arguing that “the best thing Mr. Welch could do to serve the cause of anticommunism in the United States would be to resign.” Buckley’s purges are often held up as a great success, but the reality is that Welch did not resign and the John Birch Society continued to have influence.”

“Continetti’s major contribution comes in explaining how conservatism has changed since the end of the Cold War. Here he details the conflict between neoconservatives, such as Bill Kristol, and paleoconservatives, such as Pat Buchanan. With their dedication to the culture war and their opposition to foreign intervention and immigration, the paleoconservatives presaged Trump’s electoral success in 2016.
The paleocons lost the political battles of the 1990s and 2000s. But the War on Terror ultimately discredited the neoconservatives, opening the door for populist discontent to capture the Republican Party. The first manifestation of this was the Tea Party movement. While Continetti draws a straight line from this to Trump’s election, in reality the Tea Party encompassed several strands of conservatism (all populist in nature) with conflicting conceptions of what 21st century conservatism should entail. Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Marco Rubio of Florida, and Ted Cruz of Texas all rode the Tea Party wave to victory in 2010–12, and all had very different visions for the future of the nation—and very different visions from Trump’s. Nonetheless, the anti-establishment politics that emerged in the wake of the Iraq War and the 2008 financial crisis ultimately brought Trump to power.

It was during this time, from 2010 to 2016, that Continetti believes “the populist American Right [became] less interested in preserving institutions than in tearing them down.” One could hardly think of a better instrument for that purpose than Trump. Trump condemned illegal immigration and trade with China, announced “support for a ban on Muslim entry into the United States,” and recalibrated “American politics along the axis of national identity.” Many conservatives initially condemned him, and National Review even released a special issue titled “Against Trump.” One of its contributors called the candidate “a philosophically unmoored political opportunist who would trash the broad conservative ideological consensus within the GOP in favor of a free-floating populism with strong-man overtones.” Nonetheless, Trump won.”