It’s easy to become inured to the extremism that has suffused the Republican Party in recent years. Donald Trump, the dominating front-runner for the party’s presidential nomination, spends days in court, in a judicial system he regularly disparages, charged with a long list of offenses and facing several trials.
In the House, Republicans recently chose a new speaker, Representative Mike Johnson, who not only endorsed the attempted overturning of the 2020 election but also helped to devise the rationale behind it.
We shouldn’t grow complacent about just how dangerous it all is — and how much more dangerous it could become. The efforts to overturn the 2020 election failed. We’re told that’s because the institutions held. But it’s more accurate to say that most of the individuals holding powerful positions within those institutions — the White House, the Pentagon, the courts, election officials in Georgia and other states — sided with the Constitution over Mr. Trump’s desire to remain in power.
But what if key individuals decide differently the next time they are faced with this kind of choice? What if they have come to believe that the country is in such dire straits — has reached a state of apocalyptic decadence — that democracy is a luxury we can no longer afford?
A coalition of intellectual catastrophists on the American right is trying to convince people of just that — giving the next generation of Republican officeholders, senior advisers, judges and appointees explicit permission and encouragement to believe that the country is on the verge of collapse. Some catastrophists take it a step further and suggest that officials might contemplate overthrowing liberal democracy in favor of revolutionary regime change or even imposing a right-wing dictatorship on the country.
The list of people making these arguments includes former officials in the Trump administration, some of whom are likely to be considered for top jobs in the event of a Trump restoration in 2024. It includes respected scholars at prestigious universities and influential think tanks. The ideas about the threat of an all-powerful totalitarian left and the dismal state of the country — even the most outlandish of them — are taken seriously by conservative politicians as well as prominent influencers on the right.
That makes this a crucial time to familiarize ourselves with and begin formulating a response to these ideas. If Mr. Trump manages to win the presidency again in 2024, many of these intellectual catastrophists could be ready and willing to justify deeds that could well bring American liberal democracy to its knees.
The Claremont Catastrophists
Probably the best-known faction of catastrophists and the one with the most direct connection to Republican politics is led by Michael Anton and others with ties to the Claremont Institute, a right-wing think tank in California. Mr. Anton’s notorious Claremont Review of Books essay in September 2016 called the contest between Mr. Trump and Hillary Clinton “The Flight 93 Election.” Mr. Anton, who would go on to serve as a National Security Council official in the Trump administration, insisted the choice facing Republicans, like the passengers on the jet hijacked by terrorists intent on self-immolation in a suicide attack on the White House or the Capitol on Sept. 11, was to “charge the cockpit or you die.” (For a few months in 2000 and 2001, Mr. Anton was my boss in the communications office of Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and we have engaged in spirited debates over the years.)
Mr. Anton’s “Flight 93” essay originally appeared on a website with modest traffic, but two days later Rush Limbaugh was reading it aloud in its entirety on his radio show. The essay set the tone of life-or-death struggle (and related imagery) that is common among catastrophists.
After leaving the Trump White House, Mr. Anton updated and amplified the argument in a 2021 book, “The Stakes: America at the Point of No Return.”
America faced a choice: Either Mr. Trump would prevail in his bid for re-election or America was doomed.
John Eastman, a conservative lawyer also at the Claremont Institute, agreed. That is why, after Joe Biden won the 2020 election, Mr. Eastman set about taking the lead in convincing Mr. Trump that there was a way for him to remain in power, if only Vice President Mike Pence treated his ceremonial role in certifying election results as a vastly broader power to delay certification.
Despite legal troubles related to the efforts to overturn the election, Mr. Eastman’s attitude hasn’t changed. In a conversation this summer with Thomas Klingenstein, a leading funder of the Claremont Institute, Mr. Eastman explained why he thought such unprecedented moves were justified.
The prospect of Mr. Biden’s becoming president constituted an “existential threat,” Mr. Eastman said, to the survivability of the country. Would we “completely repudiate every one of our founding principles” and allow ourselves to be “eradicated”? Those were the stakes, as he viewed them.
Once a thinker begins to conceive of politics as a pitched battle between the righteous and those who seek the country’s outright annihilation, extraordinary possibilities open up.
That’s how, in May 2021, Mr. Anton came to conduct a two-hour podcast with a far-right Silicon Valley tech guru and self-described “monarchist,” Curtis Yarvin, in which the two agreed that the American “regime” is today most accurately described as a “theocratic oligarchy.” In that arrangement, an elite class of progressive “priests” ensconced in executive branch agencies, the universities, elite media and other leading institutions of civil society promulgate and enforce a distorted and self-serving version of reality that illegitimately justifies their rule.
In this conversation, Mr. Anton and Mr. Yarvin swapped ideas about how this theocratic oligarchy might be overthrown. It culminated in Mr. Yarvin sketching a scenario in which a would-be dictator he alternatively describes as “Caesar” and “Trump” defies the laws and norms of democratic transition and uses a “Trump app” to direct throngs of his supporters on the streets of the nation’s capital to do his bidding, insulating the would-be dictator from harm and the consequences of his democracy-defying acts.
A year ago, Mr. Anton revisited the topic of “the perils and possibilities of Caesarism” on “The Matthew Peterson Show” with several other intellectual catastrophists with ties to the Claremont Institute. (Another panelist on the online show, Charles Haywood, a wealthy former businessman, used the term “Red Caesar,” referring to the color associated with the G.O.P., in a 2021 blog post about Mr. Anton’s second book.)
On the Peterson show, Mr. Anton described Caesarism as one-man rule that emerges “after the decay of a republican order, when it can no longer function.” (He also said that he would lament the United States coming to these circumstances because he would prefer the country to embrace the principles of “1787 forever.” But if that is no longer possible, he said, the rule of a Caesar can be a necessary method to restore order.)
The Christian Reverse Revolutionaries
Those on the right primarily concerned about the fate of traditionalist Christian morals and worship in the United States insist that we already live in a regime that oppresses and brutalizes religious believers and conservatives. And they make those charges in a theologically inflected idiom that’s meant to address and amplify the right’s intense worries about persecution by progressives.
Among the most extreme catastrophists writing in this vein is Stephen Wolfe, whose book “The Case for Christian Nationalism” calls for a “just revolution” against America’s “gynocracy” (rule by women) that emasculates men, persuading them to affirm “feminine virtues, such as empathy, fairness and equality.” In its place, Mr. Wolfe proposes the installation of a “Christian prince,” or a form of “theocratic Caesarism.”
Other authors aspire to greater nuance by calling the dictatorship weighing down on religious believers soft totalitarianism, usually under the rule of social-justice progressivism. These writers often draw direct parallels between the fate of devout Christians in the contemporary United States and the struggles of Eastern Europeans who sought to practice their faith but were harshly persecuted by Soviet tyranny. Establishing the validity of that parallel is the main point of the most recent book by the writer Rod Dreher, “Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents.” (The title is drawn from the writings of the Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.)
But Patrick Deneen of the University of Notre Dame offers the most elaborate and intellectually sophisticated response in his recent book, “Regime Change: Toward a Postliberal Future.” (Mr. Deneen and I worked together professionally at several points over the past two decades, and Mr. Dreher and I have been friends for even longer.)
Mr. Deneen’s previous book, “Why Liberalism Failed,” was praised by writers across the political spectrum, including former President Barack Obama, for helping readers understand the appeal of the harder-edged populist conservatism that took control of the Republican Party in 2016. “Regime Change” is a much darker book that goes well beyond diagnosing America’s ills to propose what sounds, in certain passages, like a radical cure.
The book opens with a tableau of a decaying country with declining economic prospects, blighted cities, collapsing birthrates, drug addiction and widespread suicidal despair. The source of these maladies, Mr. Deneen claims, is liberalism, which until recently has dominated both political parties in the United States, imposing an ideology of individual rights and historical progress on the country from above. This ideology, he says, denigrates tradition, faith, authority and community.
Growing numbers of Americans supposedly reject this outlook, demanding a postliberal government and social, cultural and economic order — basically, hard-right policies on religious and moral issues and hard left on economics. But the forces of liberalism are entrenched on the center left and center right, using every power at their disposal to prevent regime change.
Mr. Deneen is inconsistent in laying out how postliberal voters should achieve the overthrow of this progressive tyranny. In some passages, he advocates a “peaceful but vigorous overthrow of a corrupt and corrupting liberal ruling class” and proposes modest reforms to replace it. They include relocating executive branch departments of the federal government to cities around the country and the establishment of nationwide vocational programs.
But in other passages, Mr. Deneen goes much further, describing the separation of church and state as a “totalitarian undertaking” that must be reversed so that American public life can be fully integrated with conservative forms of Christianity. He even affirmatively quotes a passage from Machiavelli in which he talks of the need to use “extralegal and almost bestial” forms of resistance, including “mobs running through the streets,” in order to topple the powers that be.
Despite that shift in content and tone, Mr. Deneen has been embraced by many New Right conservatives and G.O.P. politicians like Senator J.D. Vance of Ohio. Senator Marco Rubio’s former chief of staff has called him “one of the important people thinking about why we are in the moment we are in right now.”
Mr. Deneen and other discontented intellectuals of the religious right can perhaps be most accurately described as political reactionaries looking to undertake a revolutionary act in reverse.
The Bronze Age Pervert and the Nietzschean Fringe
Farther out on the right’s political and philosophical extremes there’s Costin Alamariu, the person generally understood to be writing under the pseudonym Bronze Age Pervert.
He self-published a book in 2018, “Bronze Age Mindset,” which follows Friedrich Nietzsche and other authors beloved by the European far right in proclaiming that Western civilization itself is on the verge of collapse, its greatest achievements far in the past, its present a “garbage world” in an advanced state of decay.
All around us, Mr. Alamariu declares, greatness and beauty are under assault. Who are its enemies? Women, for one. (“It took 100 years of women in public life for them to almost totally destroy a civilization.”) Then there’s belief in democratic equality. (“I believe that democracy is the final cause of all the political problems I describe.”)
But blame must most of all be laid at the feet of the creature Mr. Alamariu calls the “bugman,” a term he uses to describe a majority of human beings alive today. This insectlike infestation venerates mediocrity and is “motivated by a titanic hatred of the well-turned-out and beautiful.”
Mr. Alamariu proposes breeding great men of strength who model themselves on pirates, disregarding laws and norms, plundering and taking anything they want and ultimately installing themselves as absolute rulers over the rest of us. Mr. Trump, Mr. Alamariu believes, has pointed us in the right direction. But the former president is only the beginning, he writes. “Now imagine a man of Trump’s charisma, but who is not merely beholden to the generals, but one of them, and able to rule and intimidate them as well as seduce the many. … Caesars and Napoleons are sure to follow.”
In a recent essay, Mr. Alamariu wrote: “I believe in fascism or ‘something worse’ …. I believe in rule by a military caste of men who would be able to guide society toward a morality of eugenics.”
It’s hard to know how seriously to take all of this. Mr. Alamariu, who has a Ph.D. in political science from Yale, writes in such a cartoonish way and laces his outrageous pronouncements with so much irony and humor, not to mention deliberate spelling and syntax errors, that he often seems to be playing a joke on his reader.
But that doesn’t mean influential figures on the right aren’t taking him seriously. Nate Hochman, who was let go by the presidential campaign of Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida after sharing on social media a video containing a Nazi symbol, told The New York Times that “every junior staffer in the Trump administration read ‘Bronze Age Mindset.’”
Mr. Alamariu’s recently self-published doctoral dissertation reached No. 23 on Amazon sitewide in mid-September. Among those on the right treating the author as a friend, ally or interlocutor worthy of respectful engagement are the prominent activist Christopher Rufo, the author Richard Hanania and the economist-blogger Tyler Cowen.
Combating the Catastrophists
Some will undoubtedly suggest we shouldn’t be unduly alarmed about such trends. These are just a handful of obscure writers talking to one another, very far removed from the concerns of Republican officeholders and rank-and-file voters.
But such complacency follows from a misunderstanding of the role of intellectuals in radical political movements. These writers are giving Republican elites permission and encouragement to do things that just a few years ago would have been considered unthinkable.
In a second term, Mr. Trump’s ambition is to fire tens of thousands of career civil servants throughout the federal bureaucracy and replace them with loyalists. He also reportedly plans to staff the executive branch with more aggressive right-wing lawyers. These would surely be people unwaveringly devoted to the president and his agenda as well as the danger the Democratic Party supposedly poses to the survival of the United States.
These writers also exercise a powerful influence on media personalities with large audiences. Tucker Carlson has interviewed Curtis Yarvin and declared that with regard to the 2024 election, “everything is at stake. What wouldn’t they do? What haven’t they done? How will you prepare yourself?” Other right-wing influencers with large followings assert more bluntly that if conservatives lose in 2024, they will be hunted down and murdered by the regime.
It’s important that we respond to such statements by pointing out there is literally no evidence to support them. Other intellectual catastrophists are likewise wrong to suggest the country is ruled by a progressive tyranny, and we can know this because people on the right increasingly say such things while facing no legal consequences at all.
Yes, our politics is increasingly turbulent. Yet the country endured far worse turmoil just over a half-century ago — political assassinations, huge protests, riots, hundreds of bombings, often carried out by left-wing terrorists — without dispensing with democracy or looking to a Caesar as a savior.
The question, then, is why the intellectual catastrophists have gotten to this point — and why others on the right are listening to them. The answer, I think, is an intense dislike of what America has become, combined with panic about the right’s ability to win sufficient power in the democratic arena to force a decisive change.
None of which is meant to imply that liberalism is flawless or that it doesn’t deserve criticism. But the proper arena in which to take advantage of liberalism’s protean character — its historical flexibility in response to cultural, social and economic changes over time — remains ordinary democratic politics, in which clashing parties compete for support and accept the outcome of free and fair elections.
Those on different sides of these conflicts need to be willing to accept the possibility of losing. That’s the democratic deal: No election is ever the final election.
In refusing to accept that deal, many of the right’s most prominent writers are ceasing to behave like citizens, who must be willing to share rule with others, in favor of thinking and acting like commissars eager to serve a strongman.
There may be little the rest of us can do about it besides resisting the temptation to respond in kind. In that refusal, we give the lie to claims that the liberal center has tyrannical aims of its own — and demonstrate that the right’s intellectual catastrophists are really just anticipatory sore losers.
Damon Linker writes the Substack newsletter “Notes From the Middleground.” He is a senior lecturer in the department of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and a senior fellow in the Open Society Project at the Niskanen Center.
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