Dark Enlightenment, Part Two: The Origins of Anti-Woke and Destruction As Revolution
The second of a two-part series on the neo-reactionary fringe: the dissidents of the New Right, America's ascendant antidemocratic political movement.
Previously: Part One: The Cathedral & the Red Caesar
Conservative politics is not just for Evangelical Christians, anti-abortion crusaders, tax-averse libertarians, neo-Nazis, Q crazies, and MAGA cultists. There has emerged a New Right: young, smart, edgy, urbane—even hip. Its political philosophy is coherent and compelling. Its religion of choice, if it has one, is Catholicism. It operates in large cities like Washington, Miami, and New York. Its thought leaders are high-minded, well-read intellectuals. Known as the neo-reactionary fringe—NRx for short—its radical, antidemocratic ideas have seeped into the Republican mainstream.
Welcome to the Dark Enlightenment.
Part Two: The Origins of Anti-Woke and Destruction As Revolution
V. Dissidents of the NRx
For a loose confederation of would-be monarchists lining up to serve a yet-to-be-crowned Red Caesar, the dissidents of the New Right sure are hard to categorize. Like the NRx movement itself, most of its exemplars are iconoclastic—in both the modern and the Dark Age/Byzantine Empire sense of the word. Who are these people?
My introduction to the NRx came from the intrepid journalist James Pogue, who wrote a long article for Vanity Fair last spring, under the somewhat deceptive title “Inside the New Right, Where Peter Thiel Is Placing His Biggest Bets,” that remains the single best piece I’ve read on the subject. He’s spent time with the neo-reactionaries, spoken with them on and off the record, observed them at first hand, and he, too, finds some difficulty pinning them down:
Part of why people have trouble describing this New Right is because it’s a bunch of people who believe that the system that organizes our society and government, which most of us think of as normal, is actually bizarre and insane. Which naturally makes them look bizarre and insane to people who think this system is normal. You’ll hear these people talk about our globalized consumerist society as “clown world.” You’ll often hear the worldview expressed by our media and intellectual class described as “the matrix” or the “Ministry of Truth,” as Thiel described it in his opening keynote speech to NatCon. It can be confusing to turn on something like the influential underground podcast Good Ol Boyz and hear a figure like [Michael] Anton talk to two autodidact Southern gamers about the makeup of the regime, if only because most people reading this probably don’t think of America as the kind of place that has a regime at all. But that’s because, as many people in this world would argue, we’ve been so effectively propagandized that we can’t see how the system of power around us really works.
This is not a conspiracy theory like QAnon, which presupposes that there are systems of power at work that normal people don’t see. This is an idea that the people who work in our systems of power are so obtuse that they can’t even see that they’re part of a conspiracy.
The NRx are a mass of contradictions: defiant, but seeking out authority; libertarian, but aiming to impose their rigid system on the rest of us; tech-savvy, but willing to roll back industrialization; anti-woke, but awakened to the Dark Enlightenment; highly intelligent, but lining up behind Trump.
They are well educated, and typically have parents who are also well educated. They tend to be financially successful, and to have made a lot of money young. A lot of them defected to the New Right after being disillusioned with the Far Left. While they come from various religious backgrounds, many are Catholic (if the sort of Catholic who doesn’t like the Pope), wearing crosses around their necks, as Pogue puts it, as “transgressive chic.” And unlike, say, the eternally square Evangelicals, the NRx movement is now, in some quarters, considered hip.
Perhaps the hippest of the bunch are Dasha Nekrasova and Anna Khachiyan, two Millennial NYC-based “bohemian layabouts,” born in Minsk and Moscow respectively, who host a cultural commentary podcast called The Red Scare—a sort of dissident gateway drug to the New Right. Listening to some of the episodes (which, it must be said, are both interesting and entertaining), I can’t tell if they really believe the stuff they’re saying, or if they’re just being ironic; their voices betray little emotion beyond disaffected It-girl ennui, and both of them supported Bernie Sanders in the 2020 primaries. They seem to take more delight in the dangerousness of their discourse than the discourse itself. My sense is that they like to play with matches. (Nekrasova’s name might be familiar to viewers of the last two seasons of Succession. She played Comfrey Pellits, Kendall Roy’s publicist who winds up dating Greg Hirsch—who, now that I think about it, would almost certainly be down with the Dark Enlightenment.) Whatever their intentions, there is a sizable audience for their content. The Red Scare brings in over $50k a month on Patreon.
Pogue writes that
The Red Scare hosts are only the best-known representatives of a fashionable dissident-y subculture, centered in but not exclusive to downtown Manhattan. “Everyone dresses like a duck hunter now,” a bewildered friend of mine texted recently. People use the derisive term “bugman” to describe liberal men who lack tangible life skills like fixing trucks or growing food—guys who could end up spending their lives behind the bug-eyed screen of a V.R. headset. Women wear clothes from Brandy Melville, which you can hear described ironically as fashionwear for girls with “fascist leanings,” and which named one of its lines after John Galt, the hero of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. People are converting to Catholicism. “It’s a good thing I have a girlfriend,” my friend texted. “Because casual sex is out.”
The thought leaders of the New Right defy easy characterization. The one thing they seem to have in common is their individuality. Each one is rara avis, a unique snowflake.
Amanda Milius, for example, whom Pogue uses as a sort of point-of-entry character in his piece: She’s a second-generation filmmaker. Her father wrote Apocalypse Now and Magnum Force, was supposedly the inspiration for Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski, and is famously conservative in his politics. She’s a Hollywood insider who worked in Hollywood. She went to the New School, and thus spent a lot of time in Greenwich Village. She’s charming, clever, and hip, and she knows how to move between the woke and anti-woke worlds. She left the former to work in the latter, doing communications in Trump’s White House and State Department, and she directed The Plot Against The President—the most watched documentary of 2020, and, per her production company’s website, “one of the top political documentaries of all time”—in which she frames Devin Nunes, of all people, as some sort of unsung American hero. Nothing about her background is typical; there’s simply no one else like her.
Curtis Yarvin, with his long hair and his Silicon Valley idea of a decentralized internet, we discussed in Part One. To that description, I will add that he earnestly writes poetry. He’s sui generis.
Michael Anton, the former Trump advisor and finance guy who in 2016 wrote the influential editorial “The Flight 93 Election,” is something of an aesthete, known for his impeccable taste in both clothes and cuisine. He wrote a book called The Suit: A Machiavellian Approach to Men’s Style and was a prolific commentator at Styleforum; Vice called him a “menswear troll.” He’s also a wine connoisseur and a classically trained chef who once spent an evening working as a line cook in the Trump White House. No one else’s jib is cut quite like his.
The aforementioned are fans of the pseudonymous shit-poster and author Bronze Age Pervert, or BAP. His self-published book Bronze Age Mindset, lauded by Yarvin and Anton, is in the canon of New Right lit. As Rosie Gray explains in Politico:
Written in his signature slang (“wat means?” “ghey” instead of gay, “gril” for girl), Bronze Age Mindset was BAP’s salvo against contemporary society and liberal pieties. BAP joined a chorus of “trad” voices — short for traditional — gaining traction online who deplored modern society’s emptiness and the replacement of traditional values with progressive ones.
Where BAP differs from many trads is in his veneration of values that have nothing to do with Christian concepts of family or morality. In the book, BAP argues that modern society should take after Ancient Greece, when beauty, strength and courage were prized above all else. In particular, BAP prizes the classical conception of masculinity and wants modern men to emulate it.
BAP is believed to be Costin Alamariu, who came to the U.S. from Romania when he was ten, went to high school in Massachusetts with B.J. Novak and John Krasinski (Joe Rogan is also an alumnus), and got a master’s in philosophy from Columbia and a Ph.D. from Yale. Gray quotes a former classmate of his: “He’s the only person I’ve ever seen wear a swimsuit and a cravat at the same time.” That dude is one of one.
Even the New Right politicians have unusual backgrounds. J.D. Vance is a Marine who served in Iraq, went to Yale Law School, and was encouraged by “Tiger Mom” Amy Chua to write a memoir about his Appalachian roots, which turned into the bestseller Hillbilly Elegy, which film adaptation starred Glenn Close. Blake Masters is a tall, fit former college basketball player turned venture capitalist, and a close associate of Peter Thiel.
What do all these individuals have in common? We may as well ask: Who is John Galt?
VI. The Origins of Anti-Woke
On the stump, railing against “woke” comes off as pandering. “Florida is where ‘woke’ goes to die” would sound bad-ass if Clint Eastwood were muttering it in a Dirty Harry picture, but when given voice by Ron DeSantis, who no one ever confused with Clint Eastwood, the phrase sounds both hollow and ridiculous—not least because what actually goes to Florida to die is not “woke,” but rather a healthy percentage of his constituency, who may not wish to be reminded of this actuarial fact.
Seriously, though: what does that even mean? Who are the “woke” that are being threatened with their lives in the Sunshine State? The answer: trans people, gays and lesbians, women who want or need abortions, people of color, liberal college professors, elementary school teachers, doctors, journalists who ask hard questions. I’m no James Carville or Steve Schmidt, but issuing a sort of papal Bull condemning to death a significant swath of the voting public seems like maybe not the most prudent political strategy.
And yet almost all the Republican politicians do it—even the presumed normies like Nikki Haley. Either they’ve all come down with the anti-woke mind virus, or the word is valuable currency in that post-truth realm—enough to make it worth the risk of alienating a sizable chunk of registered voters.
Even Leonard Leo—rightwing SCOTUS whisperer, co-founder of the Federalist Society, reactionary legal activist, Knight of Malta, and beneficiary of $1.6 billion to put to work on his radical Catholic agenda—has adopted the buzzword. In a video promoting one of his many projects, the Teneo Network, an outfit Pro Publica describes as a “Federalist Society for everything,” Leo says: “I spent close to 30 years, if not more, helping to build the conservative legal movement. And at some point or another, I just said to myself, ‘If this can work for law, why can’t it work for lots of other areas of American culture and American life where things are really messed up right now?’” He goes on to explain that these problems in American life and culture involve “wokeism in the corporate environment [and] in the educational environment.”
“The idea behind the network and the enterprise we built is to roll back liberal dominance in many important sectors of American life,” Leo continued. “I had a couple of decades or more of experience rolling back liberal dominance in the legal culture, and I thought it was time to take the lessons learned from that and see whether there was a way to roll back liberal dominance in other areas of American cultural, policy, and political life.”
But how do they plan to decontaminate corporate America and the U.S. public education system of virulent wokeness? Is it even possible, in the Year of Our Lord 2023, to roll back liberal dominance in cultural, policy, and political life?
For this, we turn to another NRx thought leader, 38-year-old Richard Hanania, “an intellectual muse of the Silicon Valley right,” in the phrasing of New York’s Zak Cheney-Rice. His new book, The Origins of Woke: Civil Rights Law, Corporate America, and the Triumph of Identity Politics, tackles these important questions.
Armed with a law degree and a Ph.D. in poli-sci, Hanania is a former research fellow at the University of Texas and the founder of the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology. He’s also a former blogger, who, Cheney-Rice explains,
between 2008 and 2012…posted pseudonymously on several white-supremacist and misogynistic websites, including VDare and [neo-Nazi] Richard Spencer’s Alternative Right. Hanania inveighed against miscegenation, called for the sterilization of Black people with a “low IQ,” and claimed that women “didn’t evolve to be the decision makers in society.” He confesses he “had few friends or romantic successes and no real career prospects” at the time and was projecting his “personal unhappiness onto the rest of the world.”
Hanania has since cleaned up his public image if not his hateful politics, garnering praise along the way from such prominent New Right admirers as Peter Thiel, Elon Musk, J.D. Vance, Vivek Ramaswamy, David Sacks, and Christopher Rufo, DeSantis’s hatchet man at the New College of Florida.
The Origins of Woke is a fleshed-out version of a piece Hanania wrote on his newsletter two and a half years ago, “Woke Institutions is Just Civil Rights Law.” He begins that piece by offering his own definition of “wokeness,” which, in his mind, has three components:
1) A belief that any disparities in outcomes favoring whites over non-whites or men over women are caused by discrimination (Sometimes wokeness cares about other disparities too, like fat/nonfat, but those are given less attention. I’m putting aside LGBT issues, which seem to be at an earlier stage of wokeness in which the left is still mostly fighting battles regarding explicit differences in treatment rather than disparate outcomes, although the latter does get attention sometimes.)
2) The speech of those who would argue against 1 needs to be restricted in the interest of overcoming such disparities, and the safety and emotional well-being of the victimized group in question.
3) Bureaucracies are needed that reflect the beliefs in 1 and 2, working to overcome disparities and managing speech and social relations.
“Each of these things,” he says, “can be traced to law.” He then proceeds to make that case. And, as with Yarvin’s idea of the Cathedral, Hanania is not wrong. The federal government really did take the lead combatting discrimination (in the way it should have but didn’t during the Reconstruction period). The Civil Rights Act of 1964 did indeed prohibit discrimination based on race and gender; in Title VII, it establishes “protected classes” that include race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. Griggs v. Duke Power Co. (1971) really did bar the use of standardized intelligence tests in hiring. Executive orders issued by JFK in 1961 (E.O. 10925), LBJ in 1965 (E.O. 11246), and Richard Nixon, of all people, in 1969 (E.O. 11478), really did require that contractors and employers “take affirmative action” to avoid discrimination. (To many conservatives, “take affirmative action” is a euphemism for “discriminate against straight white cis men with impunity”—except that they would never use the woke term “cis.”)
As Harvard sociologist Frank Dobbin wrote in Inventing Equal Opportunity, it was civil rights law that revolutionized the American workplace. Corporations started to hire full time staff in order to keep track of government mandates, which were vague and could change at any moment. There was a sense of “keeping up with the Joneses,” in which every company and institution had to be more anti-racist and anti-sexist than the next one, leading to more and more absurd diversity trainings and other programs.
The key word in that paragraph is “absurd.” Is it absurd to want to establish places of business free of harassment? Is it absurd to not want employees to be denied opportunity because they are Black, or Jewish, or women, or were born in Romania? Is it absurd for businesses to establish practices of DEI—diversity, equity and inclusion—to make all employees feel like they belong? Corporate America has been swayed by the business case for diversity, which should be obvious: the wider the net, the bigger the talent pool; the bigger the talent pool, the more talented the employees; the more talented the employees, the better the company.
Peter Thiel disagrees, as Peter Thiel will. “DEI will never d-i-e on its own,” he writes oh-so-cleverly in the blurb for the book. “[W]e need the sticks and stones of government violence to exorcise the diversity demon.”
There is a way to perform a diversity exorcism. Hanania points out that “the anti-woke seem unaware that the things they care about have much to do with policy. They treat every cultural outrage as an isolated event, as just another instance of elites deciding to be ‘woke,’ without such decisions being connected to anything government has ever done.”
If, as Hanania argues, “every one of the main pillars of wokeness can be traced to new standards created by regulators and courts, mostly in the 1960s and 1970s but updated over time,” then a coordinated anti-woke movement has simply to undo all of that: deregulate restrictions on societal behavior. He says that
an anti-wokeness agenda would involve, at the very least,
1) Eliminating disparate impact, making the law require evidence of intentional discrimination.
2) Getting rid of the concept of hostile work environment, or defining it in extremely narrow and explicit terms, making sure that it does not restrict political or religious speech.
3) Repealing the executive orders that created and expanded affirmative action among government contractors and the federal workforce.
That, I think, is what all these anti-woke politicians want to see happen. Ultimately, they want a return to the Mad Men days when white men were able to pat their secretaries on the rear end, bar people of color from management, and shove Jesus in everyone’s face even if it makes their Jewish or Muslim or lapsed Catholic employees uncomfortable. (If you ask me, they are all just butthurt that assholes aren’t a protected class under Title VII.)
If Donald Trump pulls a Grover Cleveland and is elected president for a second, non-consecutive term, however, the death of DEI will be the least our our problems.
VII. Destruction as Revolution
Back in 2013, at a book party at his D.C. townhouse, Steven K. Bannon explained his political philosophy to the author Ron Radosh: “I’m a Leninist,” he said. “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”
Time did not mellow him. Bannon went on to become Trump’s campaign chairman and then his White House chief strategist. His mission, he said in 2017, was nothing less than the “deconstruction of the administrative state.”
This was not just bluster. At the time, you might recall, Trump was busy lining his Cabinet with loyalists who hated the existence of the departments they were tasked to head, or else were too inept to do the job properly. Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education? Rex Tillerson, the former head of Exxon, at State? A climate change denier at the EPA? John Ratcliffe and Ric Grenell as DNI?
Fortunately, our institutions were strong enough to withstand their incompetent leadership. When the buildings are made of stone, there’s only so much damage an arsonist can do.
That won’t be the case in a Trump sequel. The moderating forces have been purged. Trump will appoint loyalists, lackeys, and Leninists, in the Bannon sense of the term, to positions of power. The result will be devastating. First to go: the civil service. Trump will take to heart Curtis Yarvin’s “RAGE” directive: Retire All Government Employees.
would bring back Schedule F, a workforce initiative Trump pushed in the 11th hour of his term to politicize the federal bureaucracy. The former officials and current confidantes are, through a network of Trump-loyal think tanks and public policy organizations, creating lists of names to supplant existing civil servants. They have identified 50,000 current employees that could be dismissed under the new authority they seek to create, Axios reported and Government Executive confirmed, though they hope to only actually fire a fraction of that total and hope the resulting “chilling effect” will cause the rest to fall in line.
Trump won’t stop there. Aid to Ukraine will end. So will funding for Jack Smith’s investigations. I don’t know if there is some sinister purpose to the Alabama Senator and mediocre football coach Tommy Tuberville’s hold on military appointments, as many have suggested, but the result is the same either way: there are now plenty of open jobs in the armed forces for Trump to fill with loyalists. He will weaponize the Justice Department, ordering whatever monster he installs as Attorney General to go after his political rivals. Journalists will be under attack, and scientists, and college professors—Yarvin’s “Cathedral,” Bannon’s “establishment,” Anton’s “regime.” The criminalization of abortion will expand. He may well order a compliant Congress to expand the Supreme Court, and let Leonard Leo pick the newcomers. And he will pardon himself, his family, and every last J6 plotter, forming a private army of faithful mercenaries.
Is this really the future the NRx desires? Why would anyone not named Jared or Ivanka want that? Destruction, remember, is revolution. As Ted Kaczynski correctly observes in his manifesto:
It will be objected that the French and Russian Revolutions were failures. But most revolutions have two goals. One is to destroy an old form of society and the other is to set up the new form of society envisioned by the revolutionaries. The French and Russian revolutionaries failed (fortunately!) to create the new kind of society of which they dreamed, but they were quite successful in destroying the old society.
Maybe the United States turns into a fascist dictatorship. Maybe Leonard Leo coronates King Donald I at the National Cathedral. Maybe another pandemic, caused by climate change, sweeps through the country, killing off a third the population, and there are no scientists left to make new vaccines. Maybe the Northeast states and the Pacific Coast states secede from the Union, on the grounds that the Constitution does not demand allegiance to a monarch. Maybe there will be an actual second Civil War, like the MAGA trolls have been calling for for years.
The New Right doesn’t care. They don’t care. To the neo-reactionaries, any outcome is preferable to the woke society we live in now. As long as the Cathedral—or the Deep State, or the regime, or whatever you want to call it—comes tumbling down, it’s all good, as far as they’re concerned. They don’t care. Let me reiterate: They. Don’t. Care.
The Unabomber—“Uncle Ted,” to them—expresses the objective unambiguously: “We have no illusions about the feasibility of creating a new, ideal form of society,” he writes. “Our goal is only to destroy the existing form of society.”
Photo credit: Pille Kirsi via Pexels.
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