Politics & Policy

The Changing Conservative Disposition

Candace Owens at CPAC 2018 (Gage Skidmore)
To many, the word conservative is starting to describe an attitude of suspicious revolt against everything.

Donald Trump has reshaped the conservative brand in endless ways, and much has been written about how his idiosyncrasies present an existential challenge for traditional conservative policy and moral credibility. Yet the more important story may be how Trump and his loudest supporters are redefining the conservative disposition — the mood or motive that makes people self-identify as conservative in the first place — into an attitude of alienation, suspicion, and defiance. This isn’t an exclusively Trump-centric phenomenon, but the president’s rise, along with the subsequent development of a Trumpist political-media complex justifying him, has helped expedite an evolution of rightist temperament that was already under way.

The Atlantic recently ran a long profile of Stephen Miller, the 32-year-old Trump aide who serves as one of the leading avatars of this temperamental shift. The profile frames Miller as a man of inherently “trollish” disposition, inclined to his ideas largely because they’re disruptive and rebellious. Miller doesn’t deny it. “I’ve always been a nonconformist,” he says in the article. “In today’s culture, the nonconformists are conservatives.”

It’s an implication commonly heard on the right these days, especially among its youthful, online faction. Progressives, this faction argues, control so much of mainstream society that any true revolt against power necessitates identifying with the Right. Yet different people can interpret this mantra in different ways, and it’s here where the new conservative disposition begins to cause problems for those who value ideological coherence.

If the instinctive nonconformist possesses loyalty to relatively orthodox Republican politics, then his conservative trolling will take the form of feisty advocacy for standard center-Right causes unloved by progressive elites in the media, Hollywood, academia, or the so-called Deep State. Miller, who was raised on a diet of Rush Limbaugh, certainly seems happy to advocate what he imagines to be a standard agenda of law-and-order measures, albeit with ratcheted-up intensity regarding illegal and Islamic immigration. Yet if one possesses a less discriminating hostility to power, then the logic of conservatism-through-rebellion can easily solidify into a cruder disposition of cynical nihilism in service of nothing in particular.

Such has been the critique of rising conservative star Candace Owens, for instance. Owens is increasingly infamous for making a number of overzealous, confused comments implying that basically anyone who affects some pretense of fighting the system can and should be taken seriously as a potential ally of the American Right, from Kanye West to Alex Jones to even Louis Farrakhan. Owens is 29 and speaks with the earnestness of what she is, a self-described newcomer to conservative politics eager to be useful. Yet because her awakening has occurred in the present moment, “her ‘conservatism,’” as Cathy Young criticized it in Quillette, seems mostly “a mix of opportunism, personal grievances, canned slogans and paranoid conspiracy theories.”

Once known as “Red Pill Black,” Owens emerged from YouTube, where her flavor of right-wing politics forms a powerful intellectual subculture. The site is home to a vast array of Trump-backing talking heads in their 20s, many with subscriber counts eclipsing Owens’s 223,000 and with ideological identities similarly oriented around grievance and paranoia. Though the enemy of such channels may be described as “the Left,” in practice these YouTubers are concerned less with progressivism per se than basically anyone wielding political or cultural power in the contemporary U.S.: a list that runs the gamut from comic-book publishers to the Pentagon, from Google to the GOP itself. Through rants of widely varying credibility with narratives pulled from across the ideological spectrum, these YouTubers tell sensational tales of sinister elites conspiring to censor and screw the little guy, with 4chan and Reddit providing the supplementary reading.

In an earlier era, a persistent inclination to assume the worst of America’s leaders and institutions wouldn’t be considered particularly conservative.

In an earlier era, a persistent inclination to assume the worst of America’s leaders and institutions wouldn’t be considered particularly conservative. Nor would an observable antipathy for public policy, economics, patriotism, the Constitution, or faith. Yet through a mix of affinity for the current Republican president’s anti-establishment bona fides and contempt for the Democratic partisans who hold leading positions in American culture, government, technology, and business, an instinct of apolitical recalcitrance is fast becoming how a sizable chunk of tech-savvy Millennials conceptualize what it means to be of “the Right.”

Redefining conservatism as an eccentric coalition of aggrieved populists is not without strategic logic. As Americans’ trust in their country’s major institutions remains broadly low, one can easily question whether a viable political movement can still be built around the traditionalist’s call to preserve the foundations of the status quo. Progressives have, in fact, colonized enough of American life that even an overly wide net of contempt will ensnare plenty of worthy targets. Resentment comes easier than appreciation, and as Stephen Miller said, there’s a certain attraction that comes from being on the side of resistance. When Candace Owens expresses giddy amazement at the varied constellation of characters she’s been able to befriend — from Steve Bannon to Paul Joseph Watson to Judge Jeanine — she’s not wrong to call it an unprecedented coalition.

At present, there remain enough competing poles and institutions of conservative thought to counter and compete with this uniquely resentful, paranoid, and policy-blind strain. Yet as a generation raised to conceptualize rightist politics as knee-jerk nonconformism begins to assert a larger role in conservative activism, media, and politics — as it is already doing, buoyed or, in some cases, employed by President Trump — it will become an inescapable part of the alliance. Those whose conservatism grows from some other impulse should expect an uncomfortable future.

J. J. McCullough — J. J. McCullough is a columnist for National Review Online and the Global Opinions section of the Washington Post.

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