Understanding (and Untangling) the New Right

Establishment conservatives are being replaced by a New Right—one with three influential strains that back more muscular government power

The American right is undergoing a major evolution–but what does the New Right believe? Image Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

If you pay attention to American politics, you’ll know that the American right has undergone something of a revolution in recent years. The small-government ideologues and academics who for so long dominated the conservative movement are being supplanted by something called the “New Right.” But what exactly constitutes the New Right—and what do New Righters actually believe?

Looking narrowly at the party politics, the change that’s taken place on the American right might seem self-evident: Donald Trump and his Make America Great Again movement took over the GOP. But beneath the political surface, a more significant ideological transformation is happening in conservative thought. Trying to untangle why and how the right is changing on this deeper philosophical level can be frustrating, especially to those unfamiliar with the history of the conservative movement and jargon like “fusionism” or “integralism.” But if you unpack the esoterica and a bit of history, the dramatic ideological changes become much easier to comprehend.

How Did We Get Here?

So first, some background. The fundamental thing to understand from the history of modern conservativism is called “fusionism”—that is, the coalition of social conservatives, economic libertarians and foreign interventionists who were united throughout the latter half of the 20th century by a shared animosity toward communism. Once the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed, the coalition started to make less and less sense. The tension continued to grow during the George W. Bush years, and with the disaster of the Iraq War, some in the weakening coalition started to look askance at the foreign interventionists. And when the Great Recession hit, others questioned the wisdom of the economic libertarians and their free-market dogmatism.

MAGA. The success of the Make America Great Again movement set the stage for the rise of the New Right. Image Credit: MANDEL NGAN/Getty Images

A decade later, with the election of Trump, the economic libertarians and the internationalists were officially tossed overboard. Trump had no qualms breaking with conservative dogmas of free trade and international engagement. The one group of the old coalition he continued to court aggressively, however, were the social conservatives.

What was left was an ideological movement that was committed to social conservatism, but not much else. A vacuum now existed where the values of internationalism, small government and personal liberty had once been. The right, in essence, abandoned the values of small-L liberalism—which is to say, not the ideology associated with the American left, but the enlightenment ideology that champions ideas like individual liberty, due process, pluralism, and free speech. In liberalism’s place, the right has begun to champion a more muscular movement eager to wield government power in pursuit of conservative ends.

This enthusiasm for government coercion defines the New Right, and it is what differentiates it from establishment conservatism. Where the currents of thought on the New Right differ, though, is exactly which ends should be pursued and how much state coercion is warranted to get there. With the many overlaps between New Right ideas and thought leaders, drawing clean lines between the various factions is not a science. Even so, making distinctions is important. Doing so brings a better understanding to the various New Right projects, the influence they are having on the conservative movement, and the influence they may one day have on American life.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the three most influential ideologies of the New Right: national conservatism, integralism, and neoreaction.

The National Conservatives

When Trump became president, he broke many of the political rules and ideological fault lines that had long defined the political parties. Because his approach was so new, there was not much of an ideological foundation for the type of nationalist, isolationist, socially conservative politics he espoused. National conservatism is an attempt to build that foundation.

The fundamental idea of national conservatism is that America has idolized individual freedom to an unhealthy extent. Unlimited economic freedom has manifested in jobs being shipped overseas, free trade hollowing out the industrial Midwest, and corporations exploiting workers with low wages. Meanwhile, unlimited social freedom is what has given us “wokeism,” which has led to the point where we teach children about gender fluidity, where we are unable to distinguish between a man and a woman, and where religion has been effectively banished from public life. Together, the obsessive pursuit of economic and social freedom, the argument goes, has eroded the societal fabrics—like family, religion and nation—that bind us together into communities and give our lives meaning.

The remedy to this dystopia, national conservatives believe, is to do away with the universalist and destabilizing ideology of liberalism. Instead, every nation should work on its own to build a society that adheres to its idiosyncratic and unique national traditions. In a “Statement of Principles” published earlier this year, the leaders of the movement put it this way:

We emphasize the idea of the nation because we see a world of independent nations—each pursuing its own national interests and upholding national traditions that are its own—as the only genuine alternative to universalist ideologies now seeking to impose a homogenizing, locality-destroying imperium over the entire globe.

In effect, the national conservative project wants to elevate national tradition and national interest—a project that will require trading away much of the personal freedom that Americans have come to glorify. Exactly what this looks like in practice isn’t always clear. But among the broad goals that NatCons seem to agree on are policies that would restrict trade and immigration (for example, higher tariffs and immigration quotas), encourage the formation of traditional nuclear families (like subsidies for child-bearing), and bring Christianity back into the public sphere (such as prayer in schools and blue laws).

NatCon heir apparent? Donald Trump introduces Ron DeSantis during a Florida campaign rally. Image Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Despite the high-minded rhetoric and philosophy, it sometimes feels like the actual uniting theme of national conservatism is just hatred of what they call “woke neo-Marxism.” If you watch the promo video for the National Conservatism Conference 3, which took place earlier this year, the overwhelming theme is that the social justice left wants to destroy the country and must be stopped. The conference itself had a similar focus, with speech after speech about on how the woke left is ruining everything from technology to media to business.

That conference also showed the influence that national conservatism is starting to have within the GOP. Several party leaders gave speeches—most notably, Florida Gov. (and likely presidential candidate) Ron DeSantis and Sens. Josh Hawley, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott. Clearly, national conservatism has significant political momentum behind it. What remains to be seen is if it will develop into a coherent ideology with clear political goals, or if it will devolve into yet another group on the right defined by its hatred of the left.

The Integralists

Though less mainstream than national conservatism, a religious political ideology called integralism has emerged as influential on the New Right. Integralism, in short, is the idea that the state should be subordinated to Catholic ends. Here is how a leading integralist website describes the tradition:

Catholic Integralism is a tradition of thought that, rejecting the liberal separation of politics from concern with the end of human life, holds that political rule must order man to his final goal. Since, however, man has both a temporal and an eternal end, integralism holds that there are two powers that rule him: a temporal power and a spiritual power. And since man’s temporal end is subordinated to his eternal end, the temporal power must be subordinated to the spiritual power.

The idea that Catholicism should form the foundation of public policy isn’t particularly new. As far back as the 4th century, Catholicism was declared the official religion of the Roman Empire. And over the next thousand years, the pope and church exerted influence over every area of political, religious and personal life, growing to rival the power of kings and emperors.

Though the Catholic Church would lose much of its influence between the 16th and 20th centuries, within the official organs of the church and among its followers, integralism didn’t lose its shine. Even after the church promulgated its 1965 Declaration on Religious Freedom, which embraced the “free exercise of religion in society,” there were those Catholics who still wanted to see a Catholic order imposed on the rest of society. Until recently, however, integralism and its adherents didn’t have much influence in American politics.

Integralism’s contemporary revival has been instigated by the string of political and societal defeats dealt to religious conservatives in recent years—notably the Supreme Court’s legalization of gay marriage, the widespread availability of pornography, the erosion of traditional gender roles and the dramatic decline in religiosity over the last two decades. Such developments infuriated many on the religious right, who see these affronts as evidence that the public square can never really be neutral when it comes to morality and religion. And, integralists think, if the public square has to take on a particular form of morality and religion, then why not Catholicism?

As with any political movement, there are various degrees of extremism within the integralist camp. On one end are figures like Harvard Law professor Adrian Vermeule, who has advocated for a new form of legal thought called “common good constitutionalism” that would “read into” the constitution religious principles and the power to “legislate morality.” From Vermeule’s perspective, we need a new way of legal interpretation that:

…sees that law is parental, a wise teacher and an inculcator of good habits. Just authority in rulers can be exercised for the good of subjects, if necessary even against the subjects’ own perceptions of what is best for them—perceptions that may change over time anyway, as the law teaches, habituates, and re-forms them. Subjects will come to thank the ruler whose legal strictures, possibly experienced at first as coercive, encourage subjects to form more authentic desires for the individual and common goods, better habits, and beliefs that better track and promote communal well-being.

Along with this reimagination of American law, Vermeule wants to see a small coterie of “nonliberal actors strategically locate themselves within liberal institutions and work to undo the liberalism of the state from within.” Together, Vermeule’s plans for the administrative state and legal jurisprudence constitute a sort of undemocratic coup in which a small number of integralists wrestle control over the institutions of political power and impose a Catholic way of life upon the rest of us.

On the other end of the integralist spectrum from Vermeule is an idea put forward by the writer Rod Dreher. Though he shares Vermeule’s criticisms of liberalism, his prescription relies far less on government coercion. Rather than advocating for Catholics to seize control of the state power, Dreher imagines a world where Catholics segregate themselves into small “intentional communities” in which they can live a life according to Catholic rules and traditions. “The Benedict Option,” as Dreher calls it, is a practical way for Catholics to live a Catholic life without all the unsavory things that would be required of a more radical form of integralism.

While their solutions are distinct, Vermeule and Dreher both share a desire for Catholicism to play a significantly greater role in public life. It would be fair to say that Dreher’s looser vision is less truly integralist than Vermeule’s, but it’s instructive to pin them as two ends of the integralist spectrum, within which exist a number of other influential integralist writers and academics—Sohrab Ahmari, Patrick Deneen, Gladden Pappin and Chad Pecknold—each with their own idiosyncratic vision of how to build a more Catholic society.

When it gets down to its practical potential in the United States, an integralist project might seem doomed from the start. Americans see freedom of religion as effectively untouchable, and on top of that, less than a quarter of the country identifies as Catholic. This impracticality is probably why, when it comes to specifics, most of the integralists’ grandiose visions become significantly less ambitious. In terms of hard policy, integralists generally want to ban pornography, abortion and “sex-reassignment” surgery; reinstitute prayer in public schools and blue laws; support families with child tax credits and family leave; and so on.

Some of this agenda might sound distasteful to Americans who value individual freedom, but it is far from a complete subordination of politics to Catholicism. That integralists are pursuing a relatively modest agenda rather than a Catholic revolution seems to show that even integralists know that the very idea of American integralism is a fantasy.

The Neoreactionaries

In the not-so-deep corners of the internet lie a number of extreme ideologies. Most will eventually fade into the depths of obscure web forums and fail to ever gain a real constituency in mainstream politics. Neoreaction (or NRx for short) would seem bound for this kind of insignificance, given that it exists far outside of popular opinion. But against the odds, NRx has become a philosophical inspiration for some of the most influential power brokers and politicians on the American right.

At the core of the neoreaction philosophy is the belief that democracy breeds disorder and chaos, and in doing so has had a distinctly corrupting force on society. To reintroduce stability, democracy must be replaced with a dictatorship—or monarchy, as they tend to call it. Neoreactionaries differ in exactly how they want such a dictatorship to run. Some would prefer a traditional theocracy, while others imagine a more esoteric system where the dictator is a sort of CEO responsible to a board of trustees whose identities are kept secrets.

Along with this nostalgia for the days of kings and queens comes a host of other socially conservative social attitudes, such as the affinity for social hierarchy, traditional gender roles, nuclear families and religion. As with most conservatives, neoreactionaries share a distaste for institutions generally seen as elite or establishment: Chief among them are the media and universities, which together neoreactionaries have dubbed “The Cathedral.”

If this all sounds cryptic and inscrutable, that’s by design. Neoreactionaries tend to think that they’re more learned and have a higher IQ than the typical American, which is perhaps why they’re so enthusiastic about dictatorial rule—they likely imagine that they would be the ones doing the dictating.

This brings us to Curtis Yarvin, the leading figure of the NRx thought. Yarvin, a software engineer who for years wrote a blog under the pseudonym Mencius Moldbug, is doing yeoman’s work of growing the philosophical roots of NRx. This effort has paid off, as Yarvin and his ideas have become influential within certain circles of right-wing thought and politics. His greatest achievement in terms of mainstream visibility was being invited onto Tucker Carlson’s daytime show last year to explain NRx and to lay out how he’d like to see a coup take place in America (“We’re just going to create a new government next to the old one, and we’re going to shut the old one down in a very nice and peaceful way,” Yarvin explained).

If that was the peak of NRx’s influence, perhaps it wouldn’t warrant much discussion. But NRx thought has wormed its way into some of the ascendant figures in Republican politics. J.D. Vance and Blake Masters, the Republican Senate candidates in Ohio and Arizona, have both been influenced by Yarvin’s work and say they support parts of his political agenda—including one idea called RAGE (Retire All Government Employees), which is a plan to do exactly what it sounds like. In a recent book about Peter Thiel, the tech-billionaire and Republican power broker, Yarvin was called the “house political philosopher” for Thiel’s political network.

Despite these recent successes, it’s unlikely that Yarvin or any other NRx thinker will become a regular guest on Fox or a serious politician. Neoreaction is just so extreme that it’s hard to imagine it ever finding serious purchase among the general public. Nevertheless, the philosophy has already had an influence on such figures as Vance, Masters, Thiel and Carlson, who represent a potential future for the Republican Party. And so, while NRx will likely never find widespread popularity, that certainly doesn’t mean it won’t play an important role in the future of right-wing politics.

The Future of the New Right

Exactly how much influence each faction of the New Right will have on the future of right-wing thought and the Republican Party is impossible to know. As of now, national conservatism seems to have gained the most mainstream buy-in and tangible influence on the GOP. But the eminence of national conservatism over integralism or neoreaction is far from settled.

It’s also important to remember that the boundaries among these three New Right groups are fluid. It’s not possible to separate the movements or their followers because they share many of the underlying assessments about what’s gone wrong in American society and what we need to do to fix it. So while a taxonomy is useful as a guide to understanding the currents of thought on the New Right, we should not treat it as a scientific endeavor or imagine that it’s possible to perfectly categorize every idea or person exclusively into one of the three ideologies.

Within all this complexity, one striking thing is clear: None of the New Right ideologies is truly conservative in the sense that they are not trying to conserve anything. Several New Right figures have made this same argument, writing articles with titles like “We Are No Longer Conservatives; We Are Restorationists” and “We Need To Stop Calling Ourselves Conservatives.” The latter article, recently published in “The Federalist,” argues that conservatives “should stop thinking of themselves as conservatives (much less as Republicans) and start thinking of themselves as radicals, restorationists, and counterrevolutionaries. Indeed, that is what they are, whether they embrace those labels or not.”

This plea is sensible: A new term to describe the philosophy of the ascendant right is badly needed, and any of the suggestions from the Federalist article seem appropriate. Because whether the old guard of the American right likes it or not, “conservatism” has had its day in the sun and is swiftly being replaced by a “revolutionary,” “restorationist” and “radical” New Right.

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