Everyone loves to discuss the future of conservatism, especially with the departure of Donald Trump. Will conservatism return to the days of Paul Ryan, or will it go down a more nationalist path? Will it celebrate the free market or will it challenge the excesses of modern capitalism? Will it invoke traditional social values or will it accept the new norms and societal changes? Will it continue to embrace Trump or will it reject him?
These questions predominate conservative commentary right now. Many different factions are battling it out, all seeking the mantle as the “future of conservatism.” But one element may come to the fore that isn’t quite represented by any figure in the Republican Party—at least, not yet.
They’re “Barstool conservatives.” The Week columnist Matthew Walther coined this term in a recent article. Named after the popular sports outlet, Barstool conservatives distinguish themselves from past conservatism and build on what Trump created:
What Trump recognized was that there are millions of Americans who do not oppose or even care about abortion or same-sex marriage, much less stem-cell research or any of the other causes that had animated traditional social conservatives. Instead, he correctly intuited that the new culture war would be fought over very different (and more nebulous) issues: vague concerns about political correctness and “SJWs,” opposition to the popularization of so-called critical race theory, sentimentality about the American flag and the military, the rights of male undergraduates to engage in fornication while intoxicated without fear of the Title IX mafia. Whatever their opinions might have been 20 years ago, in 2021 these are people who, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, accept pornography, homosexuality, drug use, legalized gambling, and whatever GamerGate was about. On economic questions, their views are a curious and at times incoherent mixture of standard libertarian talking points and pseudo-populism, embracing lower taxes on the one hand and stimulus checks and stricter regulation of social media platforms on the other.
Barstool conservatism is best represented by Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy. Portnoy is somewhat of a Trumpian figure. He’s regularly derided as a “misogynist” by left-wing outlets and he knows how to create a media spectacle. He’s adored by his audience for his bravado and controversial opinions, even though he mostly avoids conventional politics.
But, as Walther notes, Portnoy became a more political figure last year with his very public opposition of the lockdowns, which made him a hero to many conservatives. “[Portnoy] embodied the world view of millions of Americans, who share his disdain for the language of liberal improvement, the hectoring, schoolmarmish attitude of Democratic politicians and their allies in the media, and, above all, the elevation of risk-aversion to the level of a first-order principle by our professional classes,” Walther writes.
Portnoy now regularly appears on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show and had a jovial meeting with Trump last year at the White House. The sports honcho seems fine with his newfound conservative reputation.
Walther argues the conservative movement, as it existed before Trump, is dead. “I fully expect the future of the Republican Party to belong to Barstool conservatives,” he writes. “The Barstool conservative movement will not have institutions in any recognizable sense, certainly not think tanks or highbrow magazines, but it will be larger, more geographically disparate, younger, and probably more male. It will also, I suspect, be more racially diverse, much like the portion of the electorate that gave Trump 74 million votes in 2020.”
The conservative columnist warns that this new movement will not be socially conservative, nor will it challenge Conservatism, Inc.’s free-market platitudes. But it will tolerate social conservatives and devout Christians, which is more than can be said of contemporary liberals.
Walther also notices developments that several “post-liberals” and national populists overlook about Trumpism. It was largely secular and devoid of past social conservative concerns. Yes, Trump declared himself pro-life and depended on evangelical support for both of his campaigns. But his culture war was very different from that of Jerry Falwell. It was more concerned with issues that deal with race and identity rather than religious matters. Trump didn’t barnstorm about school prayer and abortion. He railed against critical race theory and illegal immigrants. He never spoke of “Judeo-Christianity”; he shouted America First. Walther may uncharitably describe this phenomenon, but it does ring true.
Even though some intellectuals such as Patrick Deneen and Adrian Vermeule hope to exploit the Trump moment to push for a more Christian conservatism, the Trump movement points toward something more secular. Barstool conservatism bears more resemblance to Trump rallies than integralism does.
But there are crucial differences between Trumpism and Barstool conservatism. Immigration was the defining issue of Trump’s first campaign and colored his second. Portnoy, so far, has said nothing about immigration. If he ever ran for higher office, he could support immigration restriction, or he could favor mass immigration. It’s not clear where he would stand. What is clear is that immigration and demographic worries do not animate the Barstool crowd. They care more about the right to be (occasionally) politically incorrect.
Walther implies that Barstool conservatives are young, middle-class, college-educated men who have lives similar to urban liberals. They’re just fed up with wokeness. That may be true for Portnoy’s base but it’s not true for Trump’s. Trump’s core supporters were non-college educated whites who lived in rural areas. Many of them are devout Christians who deeply care about abortion and traditional morals. Evangelicals were a vital part of Trump’s constituency. These aren’t people who care deeply about GamerGate or accept porn.
They voted for Trump because he—a not-so-devout Christian with a checkered past—promised to take the country back from their enemies. Trump’s core supporters see the new America as an alien country that leaves no place for them. It transforms their small towns through refugee resettlement and tears down their statues. It teaches their kids to feel guilty for the color of their skin and look upon the founders as racists. It censors them if they express their opinions online and pushes radical ideas in television advertisements. Trump may not share the same faith as his supporters do, but he shares their concerns.
Portnoy, at this moment, does not tap into these concerns. His greatest appeal lies with young bros who live in the city, don’t go to church, and probably don’t care about statue removals. They do care about the excesses of political correctness, particularly when it affects their favorite athletes. They may even like Trump, but they probably think he says too many “racist” things and they might not mind immigration. They’re best thought of as “cultural libertarians” rather than as national populists.
Portnoy could appeal to Trump’s base if he ever decides to run for president. Like the former president, he’s brash, high energy, and never apologizes. He certainly has more charisma and speaking power than nearly all Republicans. But he needs more than combative style to win over Trump’s base—he needs to adopt the issues that defined Trumpism as well. Portnoy would need to become an unlikely champion for middle American and speak to their alienation from the new America. He would need to address mass immigration, espouse law and order and defend America’s heritage to follow in Trump’s footsteps.
Barstool conservatism will only be the Right’s future if it adopts Trumpism.