America’s right wing intellectuals undergo illiberal transformation
By Marc-Olivier Bherer
(South Bend, Indiana; Steubenville, Ohio; and Washington, DC, special correspondent)
Published on November 5, 2022 at 12h00 14 min.
A nexus of American Catholic intellectuals are advocating a regime change to end abortion and fight the increased focus on identity issues, which they associate with liberal democracy.
Donald Trump haunts the American religious right. His likely candidacy for the presidency in 2024 is delighting authors who are working to apply a veneer of respectability to the democratic regression he embodies. Marginal until recently, the intellectual enterprise to reverse political liberalism, the philosophical project that has defined America, is gaining influence. A counter-model with the objective of restoring traditional hierarchies is being formulated. The November 8 midterm elections are a new test for the populism that has taken hold of the Republican Party. If a significant number of Trumpist candidates succeed, the theorists of this dark world will see their approach validated at the ballot box.
Brilliant scholars, political science professors and journalists are now quoting the great names of philosophy to justify their desire to see what they call “the regime” fall. Our times are described in apocalyptic terms.
In this radicalized context, a collective of traditionalist Catholic intellectuals has been most successful in theorizing the anger that is gripping religious voters. Some of these thinkers claim to be integralists, a current which aims to subject all of human existence and endeavors to Catholic truth. They have articulated a vision of the government that could be very useful to a right-wing movement that has long seen government as the problem but now wants to take back control of American society.
Patrick Deneen, born in 1964, is one of the leading members of this Catholic collective and a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame (South Bend, Indiana). Amy Coney Barrett, a devout Catholic who was appointed to the Supreme Court by Donald Trump in 2020, studied there. In June, she backed the decision to end constitutional protection for abortion. But she does not belong to the same movement as Mr. Deneen, as she is closer to the conventional right. Like five other members of the nine-member Supreme Court, she comes from the most influential legal organization in the United States, the Federalist Society. Its philosophy is conservative and libertarian, that is to say, radically opposed to government intervention.
Ms. Coney Barrett has joined a Catholic majority in the Supreme Court. Seven justices belong to that faith. Only one of them is not part of the conservative bloc, Sonia Sotomayor. Joe Biden is also a Catholic, albeit a left-wing one. All this attests to the intellectual and political influence of Catholicism in the US, particularly on the right. As Gene Zubovich, a researcher at the University of Toronto (Canada) and historian of the relationship between religion and politics in the US, said, “Evangelicals provide the votes, Catholics the brainpower.”
220 Catholic universities
Evangelicals constitute the largest group of believers in the US. They massively support the Republican Party. In order to engage the hardcore segment of this electorate, the campaign for the midterms is based, among other things, on religious themes. A recent poll conducted for Politico showed that 61 % of Republican voters are in favor of declaring Christianity the country’s official religion. Doug Mastriano, Republican candidate for governor in Pennsylvania, argued in April that the separation of church and state is a myth. Catholics are a minority compared to evangelicals, but they have significant influence, especially through some 220 Catholic universities across the country. Not all professors employed at these institutions are ardent traditionalists, but some of them have been involved in the country’s political changes in order to give it a theoretical foundation.
Notre Dame is part of this vast network of Catholic universities. Behind the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on campus, a replica of the Lourdes grotto has been built and remains a place of devotion: the faithful kneel on the prie-Dieu and others do the same from the surrounding public benches. Made of stones assembled to form a nave, the grotto is dominated by a statue of the Holy Virgin, in front of which stands a sculpture representing Bernadette Soubirous. The founder of the university, French priest and missionary Edouard Sorin (1814-1893), vowed to have this replica built during one of his pilgrimages to Lourdes.
Patrick Deneen feels at home here. He found a vibrant community that allows him to exercise a very specific authority: denouncing liberal democracy. Since the publication of his 2018 book Why Liberalism Failed, he has established himself as one of the main opponents of that political project. The book has received so much attention that in 2018, it was included on Barack Obama’s annual summer reading list. Mr. Deneen’s next book will be entitled Regime Change: Toward a Postliberal Future, tobe published in the spring of 2023. As soon as it was announced, it shot to the top of Amazon’s pre-order lists.
William Kristol, Mr. Trump’s main opponent on the intellectual right and founder of The Weekly Standard magazine, which was once the bible for neoconservatism, is not convinced: “It’s all well and good to criticize political liberalism, but let’s not exaggerate. We’re not at the height of the crisis caused by the 1929 stock market crash.” Laura Field, a researcher at American University (Washington, DC) and a specialist in right-wing intellectual history, said that “Patrick Deneen gives a hyperbolic description of the evils caused by liberalism. He forgets that liberalism can provide solutions to those problems.”
Mr. Deneen owes much of his success to perfect timing. “He published his book Why Liberalism Failed at the right time,” said Joshua Tait, a historian of the American right. “In 2018, Trump’s election was still recent. Intellectual circles were still working to catch up with events to make sense of them. “With this book, Deneen was the first to reinterpret the ideas of the traditionalist current. He became a spokesman for that activist base that had always felt wronged within the conservative movement.” Since the 1980s, the Republican Party’s coalition has been based on a three-way marriage between hawks (supporters of a strong foreign policy), free-market economic advocates and religious traditionalists.
However, this last group has long felt that it has been cheated, as the Republican Party has done nothing to prevent the liberalization of morals and the transformation of the country. “Trump’s victory has allowed writers whose views were marginal to take center stage. The most radical Catholics can now make their voices heard,” said Matthew Continetti, a researcher at the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank and author of The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism.
Mr. Deneen does not care about those criticisms. On the bright autumn day when we met him in his office, he said he was full of hope: “The decline of the regime is so obvious that, for the first time in my life, I believe it is possible to think beyond liberal categories.” The collective of Catholic intellectuals bases their thinking on an illiberal viewpoint. This adjective was revived in the 1990s by the American journalist Fareed Zakaria to describe democracies where the rule of law and freedoms are under assault.
But that still nascent definition does not satisfy some researchers who are trying to better define the phenomenon. That is the case for political scientist Julian Waller, who participates in the work of the Illiberal Studies Program directed by historian Marlene Laruelle through the political science department of George Washington University (Washington, DC). Mr. Waller is very attentive to the activities of the Catholic intelligentsia and notes that their ideas fall under the label of illiberalism. “With this term, we designate a system of thought that is characterized above all by a radical opposition to liberalism and the desire to define a counter-project. That polymorphous ideology took shape in Europe, mainly in Hungary, and is now developing in the United States.”
Embracing this perspective constitutes a clean break with the American right as it was structured after World War II. Until recently, conservatism subscribed to the idea of progress, to liberalism and to its economic doctrine as reinterpreted by the American economist Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950), among others, as a path to innovation. Ronald Reagan led his conservative revolution under that banner.
Today, different intellectual communities dream of an illiberal revolution. The Catholic collective is not alone in trying to define a counter-model. The national-conservative movement, which is present in several countries (mainly in Hungary and the US but also in Israel) combines tradition and nationalism. And the Claremont Institute, a think tank on the West Coast of the US, spreads an openly heinous narrative in the name of an American ideal supposedly compromised by multiculturalism. There exists a form of emulation in this ecosystem, and authoritarianism is at the forefront. Members of the Catholic collective maintain ambiguity on the subject. Mr. Deneen views Mr. Trump as a “flawed person” and said nothing about his intentions for 2024. He is much more vocal about Hungary, sharing selfies on social media taken with Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
Mr. Deneen sees wokeness, “this religion of humanity” that replaces true religion, as a sign of civilization’s decay. According to him, the woke fervor was already germinating in the work of English philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), one of the founders of liberalism that enabled the propagation of a form of theology of progress and of the individual. Originally, the ambition was to free humanity from the limits imposed on our rights by the state,” explained Mr. Deneen. Today, the quest for emancipation leads to the desire to get rid of all limits. “Against the arbitrary, one now reaches the point of asking for a constant intervention of the state, notably in the private sphere and with regard to the body.” Gay marriage, transhumanism and “transgenderism” are said to challenge the boundaries defined by nature.”
To make matters worse, according to him, there is nothing to be expected from elites trained in universities corrupted by gender studies or by the recent retelling of US history placing slavery at its center. A populist political agenda must be pursued, namely, to rein in universities, public administration and even private enterprise, all of which are guilty of leaning to the left. “The power of the ‘Demos,’ the people, must be used to counter the power of these institutions, which cannot be reformed by conventional means,” said Mr. Deneen. He praised the action of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis who enacted a law removing Disney’s favorable status in the state. Mr. DeSantis criticized the company’s CEO for denouncing a law promoted by the governor prohibiting the discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools. In Mr. Deneen’s view, this kind of move is simply payback to the left for its bullying tactics, such as exaggerating the significance of the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the Capitol to control public debate. In this context, a counter-elite is needed to edify the people, to “ennoble” them, as he put it in 2019.
We caught up again with Mr. Deneen a few days later in a small town in Ohio, where he was to participate in a conference. Steubenville (population 18,000) is one of those urban centers that have become ghost towns due to relocations. The neoclassical buildings in the center of town are almost all that remains of the prosperity the old steel mills once brought. Opiate addiction is widespread. There was no sign that America was in the midst of an election campaign: few midterm posters lined the streets. On the hill overlooking the city, however, sits a tree-lined hamlet, the campus of Franciscan University. A banner reads, “End all abortions.” The recent Supreme Court ruling against abortion is not enough. Every state in the union is still free to allow the procedure. That is still too much for them.
The university is hosting a conference headlined “Restoring a Nation: The Common Good in the American Tradition” with Mr. Deneen and other speakers. About 250 people attended, including students, onlookers, lawyers and pro-life activists. The community, very active on social media, was happy to gather again. The event opened with the slogan of alter-globalization: “Another world is possible.” The enemy of American conservatism, the New Deal, was defended in Steubenville and Marxist authors were even quoted.
For two days, classical philosophy as well as Ultramontane Catholicism were also invoked to defend social and economic policies aimed at protecting the traditional family. Pope Francis was barely mentioned. Pope Leo XIII, who reigned from 1878 to 1903, was preferred. His legacy was reinterpreted to emphasize his role in defining the church’s social doctrine and his criticism of modern, more individualistic freedoms. In his time, he was a figure hated by conservatives because he recognized the autonomy of temporal power. The name of a French thinker was also regularly mentioned: philosopher Pierre Manent, who in recent years has clearly toughened his criticism of liberalism.
The most anticipated speaker was undoubtedly Adrian Vermeule, a distinguished professor of constitutional law at Harvard. His colleague Samuel Moyn, a professor of legal history at Yale and an openly left-wing intellectual, called him “the most brilliant constitutional scholar of his generation” and uses his book Common Good Constitutionalism in his lectures. He also sees in him a valuable support coming from the right for national solidarity initiatives, public policies that are still strongly opposed by the Republican Party but which Mr. Vermeule supports. The Harvard professor is also valued by his colleague Cass Sunstein, another highly regarded legal and constitutional scholar who served in the Obama administration. They have co-authored several books.
In Steubenville, Mr. Vermeule stood for something else entirely. In the eyes of one anti-abortion activist I met, he represents “a Catholicism that flexes its muscles.” A specialist in administrative law, he defended torture authorized by the Bush administration during the Iraq war. His conversion to Catholicism in 2016 accelerated his break with the conservative establishment. In a country where values of the ruling class continue to be inspired by Protestantism and liberalism, adopting traditionalist Catholicism is a form of elite populism. Conversions are the latest craze, especially since the historical continuity of the Church of Rome provides the intellectual basis for building an oppositional discourse.
Mr. Vermeule draws precisely on the legal tradition inherited from Antiquity and Catholicism, more particularly from natural law, for which every society is governed by the same moral principles. In his writings, he also refers to the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt (1888-1985) and the American legal philosopher Richard Dworkin (left, 1931-2013). He attacks the conservative constitutional doctrine of originalism, which intends to interpret the US Constitution in accordance with the intentions of its 18th-century authors. That theory of law dominates the Supreme Court today and serves to limit government action as much as possible.
The professor criticizes originalism for being too defensive in the face of liberalism. Unlike the right, he defends state intervention, with the ambition of remodeling society. He advocates a more robust approach, an illiberal legalism that is more substantive on a moral level, as he wrote in The Atlantic magazine in 2020, causing controversy. Against individualism, he wants a “common-good constitutionalism.”
A kind of mystique
In Steubenville, Mr. Vermeule revisited the powers vested in the head of state as defined by Justinian (born around 482, died in 565), a Byzantine emperor who left a considerable body of legal work but who also distinguished himself by his authoritarianism. In a professorial and monotonous tone, Mr. Vermeule explained that bureaucracy and executive power are best placed to defend the common good. The discourse, rich in references unknown to the general public, lends a kind of mystique to the populist reinvention of the state. A thinly veiled rejection of parliamentarianism is evident, with references to the corruption of the “senatorial class” of the Roman Empire: “Today, the relevance of the idea that an elite is incapable of governing honestly in the service of the public interest need not be explained.” In contrast, “the authority delegated to the executive branch and the resulting administration can be seen as a massive force deployed by the many to protect themselves from abuses by the few,” he said.
Julian Waller, a specialist in illiberalism who also attended Steubenville, noted that “Adrian Vermeule continues to be provocative, and his speech can be understood in many different ways. This is the first time he has gone so far in defining a counter-project that could resemble a democracy with extensive powers for the executive or an electoral dictatorship,” he said. After the conference, he explained that “democracies, constitutional monarchies, republics and a variety of other types of regimes can be and have been well organized, in [his] view.” Non-democratic political models, therefore, seem possible.
Until recently, Mr. Vermeule was an outspoken advocate of Catholic fundamentalism, the subjugation of temporal power to the spiritual power of the Vatican. Faced with scandal, he now prefers to speak of “political Catholicism,” a more ambiguous term. In 2020, he suggested on Twitter that the presidential election might have been rigged in favor of Joe Biden. He is now more cautious.
Sohrab Ahmari is the third most important figure of this collective. He is the one who works on popularizing their ideas. A former journalist in the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal and then the New York Post, he converted to Catholicism in 2016. He announced his decision on social media with the hashtag #iamjacqueshamel, in reference to the priest murdered by a jihadist at the church of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray. In March, he launched the magazine Compact with Matthew Schmitz, another traditionalist Catholic, and Edwin Aponte, a journalist who describes himself as a “populist Marxist.” The project brings together authors from the far left and the far right, including articles by Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek and Curtis Yarvin, a theorist of American-style techno-monarchism. “We want to have a robust debate,” said Sohrab Ahmari, although he said he disagrees with Mr. Yarvin. Mr. Ahmari is very much committed to social issues.
In late September, he wrote an article with Matthew Schmitz, in which he says he still supports Donald Trump, specifically for that reason. “The Republican Party has not shed its economic Reaganism. With this article, we want to fight that trend.” When reminded that Joe Biden secured legislation far more favorable to American industry than Trump, he brushed the argument aside. “As a father, I don’t want my children to be exposed to gender ideology. For me, that’s visceral.” Faced with ideas imposed from above by the left, he believes Catholics in the US today suffer “dhimmitude,” the subjugation that religious minorities are said to have experienced in Islamic countries, according to a far-right understanding of history.
The last speaker in Steubenville was none other than J.D. Vance, a Republican candidate for the Senate whose biography has been particularly noteworthy. He made a name for himself with his 2016 book Hillbilly Elegy, adapted to film by Netflix in 2020. In it, he recounts his childhood as a White boy in Ohio with an addict mother and a grandmother who came to his rescue. In 2016, Mr. Vance was opposed to Mr. Trump. He changed his position after entering the Senate race in 2021. Meanwhile, Mr. Vance converted to Catholicism in 2019. In Steubenville, he praised the quality of the intellectuals gathered, then revisited the role of money in politics: He said it is an indispensable resource for winning an election campaign. He can, for his part, count on the support of techno-billionaire Peter Thiel, one of the largest donors to the Republican Party for the midterms and a supporter of Donald Trump in 2016.
After a rather banal speech, Mr. Vance was warmly applauded. In a 2021 interview, he said that if Trump were re-elected, he would have to “fire every single mid-level bureaucrat, every civil servant in the administrative state, replace them with our people. And when the courts stop you, stand before the country, and say –quoting Andrew Jackson – ‘the chief justice has made his ruling. Now let him enforce it.'”
Such a scenario is firmly rejected by Mr. Vermeule. No need for him to go that far, others are doing it for him. A keen observer of the radical right and vice president of policy studies at the center-right think tank Niskanen Center Geoffrey Kabaservice said, “America will never be a Catholic theocracy, but candidates like Vance are normalizing the idea that if Trump gets a second term he must go further in his attacks on our democratic institutions and norms.” In the United States, since Mr. Trump, intellectuals who build utopias are in danger of being overtaken by reality.