In recent months, we’ve all seen a flurry of think pieces denouncing Bronze Age Pervert. Most recently, Jack Butler’s back-to-back inanities in the Daily Beast and at National Review Online have been shared widely across social media. Among other charges, Butler takes the Claremont Institute to task for supposedly “platforming” BAP and helping to spread his popularity with younger right-wingers. Quoting Clemson political scientist C. Bradley Thompson, Butler writes that “the Claremont Review of Books and American Mind ‘appear to have forgotten or abandoned the founders’ classical liberalism and sanctioned (at least indirectly) the deviant views of [BAP’s] fans.”
Butler also laments the move away from Christianity that BAP surely represents. In essence, Butler is simply trying to prevent anyone from looking too closely at the more appealing alternatives to “movement conservatism.” He is doing what mainstream conservatives have done to dissident and populist right-wingers for decades—most notably and catastrophically with the paleoconservatives.
The response to all of this seems fairly clear to me: If conservatives had been willing to grapple with their own past failures, they wouldn’t now seem so pathetic in their attempt to warn people off of dissident right-wing voices. The latter would have no appeal if conservatism had been a success.
The refusal of “movement conservatism” to deal with its foreign policy and trade policy failures gave us Donald Trump. But for all the paeans to his various “successes,” the reality is Trump accomplished almost nothing. His platform was largely thrown by the wayside, and what little he did achieve could have come from any Republican. I used to say to my Trump-enthusiast friends that he ran like Pat Buchanan but governed like Jeb Bush—appointing people to key positions in his cabinet who seemed to share exactly none of his unorthodox, dissident, or populist policy goals.
My goal here isn’t to defend BAP or his hangers-on, about whom I have mixed feelings, though I do understand their appeal. His fans respond to BAP’s debased (or perhaps somewhat tongue-in-cheek) Nietzscheanism much as anyone would expect them to, given that the genuine article indeed does a better job grappling with our current clown world than any kind of “conservatism.” In fact, “conservatism” is just as much a constituent of that clown world as are the tenets and exemplars of the “progressive” or woke Left.
Conservatives gave us decades of foreign policy disasters and debacles which, in addition to squandering our national wealth, helped the military-industrial complex further cement its hold on our governing institutions and political class. Conservatives gave us the foundations of neoliberalism and “free trade”—which have destroyed whole cities, impoverished and humiliated a plurality of our working class, and fueled the rise of drug addiction, declining life expectancies, and deaths of despair. And conservatives gave us mealy-mouthed excuses for their failures and an insistence on the unmixed glories of the market, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary. This was the best they could do when faced with the breakdown of social norms, institutions, and traditions. As long as the market was given breathing room from pesky regulations, the rest of their commitments were negotiable—especially their commitment to their constituents.
Again, all of this explains why Trump’s 2016 platform, shaped largely by Steve Bannon, was so powerful and garnered so much immediate and vociferous support. His failure to accomplish most of the goals set out in that platform also explains why he lost his reelection bid. And, of course, the lesson most conservatives chose to take from that defeat: voters didn’t really want populism at all, but a return to Reaganite platitudes and policies—essentially one long, unbroken fellatio of corporate power.
Butler concedes that conservatives “need to do better,” that they have failed in the postwar period to provide adequate guidance to young right-wingers, etc. But his entire conception of “doing better” presupposes that the theoretical underpinnings of “conservatism” are fine, and that the problem has been not selling it particularly well to the voters. His goal is to rekindle the American Right’s love affair with Christianity and classical liberalism. In other words, he just wants to resuscitate fusionism, that mix of cold war liberalism with political Christianity and libertarianism that the used car salesmen at National Review have been hawking for decades.
Similarly, he advises us that the crisis of masculinity can be solved by starting families, and that “men should worship God, not themselves.” In other words, he simply responds with standard conservative talking points, even after claiming that such talking points are insufficient. How exactly going to services in today’s enervated churches is supposed to satisfy men who long for opportunities to strive for noble actions or to test their courage is never made clear. BAP, whatever his faults, at least seems to grasp the tension between masculinity and Christian piety, while Butler hopes to sweep the whole problem under the rug.
But more to the point, nowhere in his two essays does Butler mention specifically how and in what ways conservatives have failed the country. I mentioned several examples above—it wasn’t hard. By now, they should be obvious to everyone. So that the only explanation for not mentioning them is that he really cannot recognize them. And the only explanation for that is ideology. He’s still stuck in a fusionist, “movement conservative,” Reaganite delirium.
But it’s more than just a refusal or an inability to admit recent foreign and trade policy blunders—this goes back to conservatism’s inability to properly and seriously account for the entire last century. Most on the American Right are stuck in a kind of strange “limited government” delirium, in which the last century’s “growth of government” can only be explained as a kind of unnecessary progressive victory, which might well have gone the other way. Had we pushed back against “the Left” a bit harder, we’d still be living in some kind of Jeffersonian idyll.
By itself, this is simply delusional, but taken as a core aspect of conservatism’s self-justification and explanation, it is disqualifying. You can’t possibly lead in the 21st century if you have yet to come up with a plausible account of the 20th. The “growth of government” was as much about industrialization and urbanization alongside a technology explosion as it was about “progressive ideals”—arguably the latter were little more than inept attempts to grapple with the former.
What does this have to do with BAP’s vitalism or “nihilism,” you might ask? Well, it has to do with the appeal of such things to young right-leaning men who look at conservatism and simply laugh. Conservatives don’t understand power, we can’t help but notice, and hide behind “limited government” platitudes when what’s needed is an exercise of state power for the good of the country. We see conservatism as the ideology of controlled opposition at best, or as an empty grift at worst. We can’t see it as the successful counterweight to ever-advancing leftism for the simple reason that it has failed utterly to be that.
If conservatives are really interested in reducing the appeal of BAP’s neofascist frolic and vitalist LARP, they should get serious in their thinking about the concept of the political as such (i.e., not hiding every political consideration behind economic questions). Moreover, they ought to abandon their obviously Christian-inspired and missionary moralist foreign policy, in which trillions are spent for the sake of women’s liberation in Afghanistan, while bridges and other infrastructure here are crumbling and while former industrial towns with high standards of living collapse into post-urban blight and catastrophe.
Instead of paying lip service to the founding, conservatives would do well to focus on the American citizen—the problems he is having here and now. And they should ask, whatever they think of BAP’s proposed solutions, if he isn’t striking a chord precisely because the issues he raises—on the persecution of masculinity, on the disaster of egalitarianism and where it has led us politically, etc.—have not been answered adequately by anyone in their circle.