In 2002, I got it into my head that I wanted to attend what was then described as the “Old Latin Mass.” I had been reading in the dingy corners of the Internet, which is always dangerous, and these Latin Mass people seemed able to explain some of the gap between the grand ideas I was studying in a medieval-theology class at my college and the worship at most Catholic parishes, which, to me, seemed little different from the Lutheran services I’d seen as a teenager. One Sunday morning I got in my car, and life has never been the same.
For most of the people I met there, the Old Mass was the one quixotic cause to which they were attached. They knew that the local bishop didn’t like this movement, and that it placed them outside the mainstream not only of their culture but of their own Church. But they believed.
The price for their conviction was that they had to put up with the others – the people for whom the Latin Mass was just the first or the latest in a long line of disreputable fascinations and commitments. One of these folks told me that every bishop and cardinal and even the pope himself was homosexual. Another let on that she frequently wrote encouraging letters to certain Bourbon descendants. And honestly, it was the freaks and conspiracy theorists who seemed more kind and generous with their time, and who generally were less discriminating in everyday ways. They might be worried that Freemasons in the government were spying on them, but they really didn’t notice bourgeois morality or care about what you did for a living.
Eventually, Pope Benedict made clear that the Latin Mass was a good thing and said the bishops shouldn’t give us such a hard time. Since then, the ratio of normal people to kooks has changed dramatically in favor of normal people.
Which brings us to the strange liberty-to-fascism pipeline.
According to a theory Matt Lewis recently floated, libertarianism is some unique gateway drug to neo-Nazism. Lewis runs through a few white supremacists who have become notorious since Charlottesville and finds that some of them once self-identified as libertarians or have tried recruiting at libertarian events.
But it’s not just libertarianism. Jason Kessler, the lead organizer of the Charlottesville torch march, was formerly in Occupy Wall Street. And he’s not the only Occupy veteran who found himself on the alt-ish side of the street. Online activist Justine Tunney went from Occupy to Gamergate to creating a petition for a CEO of America, fitting her new net-reactionary views.
Lewis comes across the most powerful explanation for the pipeline when professor Kevin Vallier tells him, “Libertarianism is an unpopular view. And it takes particular personality types to be open to taking unpopular views.” Indeed, marginal ideas attract marginal people. The experience of conversion itself can be intoxicating, and so often the first conversion is not the final one.
It also takes a particular sort of character to handle marginal ideas safely. People don’t just think themselves into their ideas; they feel their way to them emotionally, and they are socialized into them. Adopting a big new idea can be like adopting a new wardrobe; it can signify and propel a change in persona.
Before the Latin Mass, I spent some time in Evangelical churches, and I count many Evangelicals as friends and spiritual peers. But after 15 years of socializing myself into my religious views, I think one of the chief barriers to my ever concluding that Martin Luther correctly interpreted St. Paul’s letters is that I don’t want to become a person who wears khakis and a broad smile when prefacing a difficult conversation with the words, “The Lord put something on my heart.”
I’m sure there’s someone who looks at my religious views and thinks, “I don’t want be the kind of person who talks about G. K. Chesterton to strangers and tells their kids to ‘offer it up’ when they fall and scrape their knee.” There’s no logical connection at work. You can have Luther’s view of justification without being a typical American Evangelical. Martin Luther himself managed that trick. But the human machine isn’t strictly logical. To believe something isn’t just to accept the conclusion itself; it’s to accept yourself as the type of person who believes it.
To believe something isn’t just to accept the conclusion itself; it’s to accept yourself as the type of person who believes it.
Cranks therefore come to accept or even embrace their own crankishness. One marginal idea leads to the next even more marginal idea. And the mainstream they rejected isn’t just wrong; its proponents become contemptible and corrupt. And contempt spreads easily: Normal people don’t care about ideas, the crank’s thinking goes, and endure the corruption around them in nearly silent docility. It’s the “normies” that kooks really can’t stand.
Like religion, politics attracts kooks and grifters because it is a field where results have a mysterious and hard-to-trace relationship with the time, effort, and cash invested in them. Grifters use this to create lucrative and low-effort consulting jobs. For kooks, the comfort is more psychological. If a kook can convince himself — or better yet, others — that Freemasons, Jews, or Cultural Marxists run the whole world, he’s suddenly relieved of the burden of explaining to himself and others the shipwreck of his own talents and ambitions.
And speaking of grifters, if kooks start digging into the crack in their minds and sometimes end up with a cracked will, grifters start with a cracked will and usually end up with an empty mind. Anything like a conviction could get in the way of the money-making.
If libertarians have a pipeline for kooks, it is probably because they have some non-mainstream views. But if you have perfectly acceptable views, you probably have a pipeline for grifters. Conservatives have a mix of mainstream views and non-mainstream views. Consequently we are always fending off kooks on one side while being preyed upon by grifters on the other.
If libertarians have to account for Christopher Cantwell, Richard Spencer, and a hundred other kooks, perhaps the respectable types need to explain the long parade of money-grubbing nullities marching through political media and political power. All the way from Dick Morris and Morris Dees to Tom Daschle, Trent Lott, and the functionaries at the Clinton Foundation. What pipeline produces these, and who is willing to clean it up?
— Michael Brendan Dougherty is a senior writer at National Review.