Only the reactionary is really capable of being a moderate. Only we stand sufficiently aloof from modernity to judge it dispassionately. A healthy pessimism inoculates us against the two really fatal temptations in politics: reckless optimism and impotent despair. T.S. Eliot summed up our credo pretty well when he observed that “there is no such thing as a Lost Cause, because there is no such thing as a Gained Cause.”
The first true reactionary moderate in this country was Orestes Brownson. “God pity us!” he cried,
For to carry this huge republic, with its Mammon worships, and its Christian churches reared on traders’ shops, and its party strifes, its rush for office, its forgetfulness of man’s brotherhood of man, its morality of Let us alone, Save who can, and the devil take the hindmost; workers no longer finding work to do; master-workers counting their obligation to their workmen discharged in full when the stipulated wages are paid; it is no easy matter.
When causes are neither lost nor gained, one is never tempted to play the short game, or even the long game. The reactionary knows the game doesn’t end this side of paradise.
Usually it’s a long road to that liberating pessimism; in the meantime, these Christian conservatives are just as susceptible to utopian fantasies as any socialist or progressivist. Eliot could have easily gone the way of his friend Ezra Pound. He played modernity’s game, and so wound up locked in a cage by his own countrymen for collaborating with Mussolini.
There’s a certain Poundian mystique surrounding Nicholas J. Fuentes and the Groyper movement. The Groypers, apparently, are like the alt-right without the racism. They’re also much younger: they’re “Zoomers,” or Generation Z, not Millennials. According to the great Ben Sixsmith: “They focused on promoting themselves as ‘America First’ nationalists and valued ‘good optics,’ which entailed humor more than outrage, Old Glory and not Nazi flags, Christianity and not paganism, and clever trolling operations and not public rallies.”
Yet Mr. Fuentes’ humor hints strongly at Holocaust denial, and he’s expressed his wish that antifa was actually “fa” so he could join in. “If they were waving the banner of Falangism, if they were waving the banner of Franco, and they were saying ‘Catholic fascism now,’ I would join them,” he said. “I would become a part of antifa. I would welcome antifa. Yes: take over the country. Storm DC. Take over the Capitol.”
This may hit a little too close to home for some of my fellow Millennials. Many reactionaries go through a phase where they feel the need to defend “good” fascists—Mussolini, Dollfuss, and Petain—as opposed to “bad” fascists like Hitler and Rockwell. Usually these chaps are former Ron Paul Revolutionaries, emerging from what Michael Brendan Dougherty astutely calls the libertarian-to-fascist pipeline. (By the grace of God—and Russell Kirk—I was spared that ordeal.) They want to believe they can restore the Old Order without fully rejecting the New.
Clearly, Mr. Fuentes isn’t the Moses of the American Right his supporters believe him to be. He’s just the latest shitlord to carve out a mini-kingdom in meme culture. But his rejection of white nationalism may signify that the libertarian-to-fascist pipeline is nearly empty. Most of his followers had no political interest during the 2016 election. They’re indigenous to far-right meme culture, not the YouTube comments box and Facebook flame-wars where my generation first developed a political consciousness.
So much for the Zoomers. What are the Millennials up to? Their current fascination seems to be Kanye West, an egomaniacal rapper married to that porn star with the transsexual father. Mr. West used to claim to be Jesus; with the release of his new album Christ Is King, it seems he’s come to believe that Jesus is, in fact, Jesus. Now the Catholic blogosphere is treating him like the second coming of the Prophet Elijah.
They, too, are desperate for some sort of touchstone in the modern world. They want to believe they can reconstruct Western civilization from the top-down before the foundation completely disintegrates. They want the elites to convert themselves, in order to avoid the coming Dark Age foretold by Rod Dreher in The Benedict Option, when we’ll be forced to stop relying on op-eds and tweets and begin the hard work of rebuilding Christendom from the bottom-up. We can hardly blame them, but it’s all vanity.
Meanwhile, the more serious minds of Generation X have found a new champion in Senator Marco Rubio, who has become the unlikely spokesman for Catholic social teaching in America. This past August, the Floridian legislator published an essay at First Things extolling Pope Leo XIII’s landmark encyclical Rerum Novarum. It’s an astonishing polemic. Senator Rubio extols the dignity of the worker against the greed of business elites, the stability of the working class over the comforts of the middle, and the need for stronger communities over higher profit margins. He invokes a worldview that “sees past our stale partisan categories and roots our politics in something larger: the inviolable dignity of every human person, the work he or she does, and the family life that work supports.”
Senator Rubio renewed this theme on November 5 during a speech at the Catholic University of America. “The economy should be at the service of the common good,” he said. “It should work for us, not people for the economy.”
I think it’s safe to assume that neither Fuentes’ neo-Falangism nor post-Yeezian Integral Rubioism will emerge as the new and enduring political order in the United States. How, then, do these new tendencies make it easier for us to carry this huge republic? Maybe—at last—we’re living in the final moments of the American Right’s collaboration with modernity.
Maybe the Republican establishment is finally ready to part ways with its market fundamentalism. Speaking to the Catholic News Agency after his talk at CUA, the senior senator from Florida tried to skirt the inevitable charge of heresy from Acton Institute types by claiming that “Reagan economics was very much centered on dignified work,” while pointing out that “when Ronald Reagan was president, the architecture of our economy was very different.”
That rings more like Taqiyya than truth, but whatever. I don’t think anyone expected Leonine corporatism would emerge as the right-wing intelligentsia’s must-have accessory of 2019, though I’m not complaining. Whatever your creed, the social encyclicals of popes like Leo, Pius XI, and Benedict XVI offers the only stable framework for weaving Trumpian nationalism back into the Western political tradition without succumbing to either socialism or fascism.
Then again, maybe this is just a clever ploy by the Republican establishment (which declared Rubio its “rising star” in 2016) to win back religious conservatives, now that the evangelical-led Christian Right has become morally and intellectually bankrupt under the leadership of Jerry Falwell, Jr. We’ll see how far the senator runs with this theme, and how much support he can pick up from his colleagues.
And maybe, when Mr. Fuentes’ star inevitably fades, the Zoomer Right will become disillusioned, drag themselves out of the nihilistic swamp of internet culture, and set about building a more authentic, durable traditionalism. Or maybe their wills have been so crushed by memes and porn that they’ll simply be reprocessed into compliant, well-mannered consumer-capitalists. We’ll see.
Anyway, I met a couple of self-professed Groypers at a conference last weekend. One of them described himself as a paleoreactionary, to distinguish himself from the “neo-reactionaries” of the alt-right. We talked about Donoso Cortés and how smoking doesn’t actually cause cancer. There’s always hope.
Michael Warren Davis is associate editor of the Catholic Herald. Find him at www.michaelwarrendavis.com.