The Ideological Vanguard

It’s been a year since the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville unleashed pandemonium and terrorism in hockey helmets and brownshirts. The internet is overflowing with retrospectives and analyses and opinions about the state of white nationalist politics in the year since the August 11 and 12 rally. Adam Serwer has the best at The Atlantic. The extreme right on display at the rally has collapsed in the year since – in total and comically pitiful fashion. He summarizes as follows (hyperlinks are his):

"Jason Kessler, one of the organizers, was practically run out of town and faces a lawsuit that could force him to name his funders and ideological comrades. Christopher Cantwell, who put on a tough-guy act for Vice cameras but spent a lot of time crying on YouTube after a warrant was issued for his arrest, has turned state’s evidence. The anti-Semitic gadfly Tim “Baked Alaska” Gionet was banned from Twitter and has had difficulty reconstituting his online presence. Richard Spencer, the white-nationalist who lives off his family’s largesse and government subsidies, and is best known for being punched in the face, says his miniature Nuremberg rallies are no longer “fun” because of the leftist militant group Antifa. Matthew Heimbach of the Traditionalist Worker Party was arrested for assaulting his wife and stepfather-in-law after the latter caught Heimbach sleeping with hiswife. Andrew Anglin’s website, The Daily Stormer, has had trouble finding and maintaining a host in the United States and abroad. One by one, several of the white nationalists who participated in the cowardly assault on the black counter-protester DeAndre Harris have pleaded guilty or been convicted."

But the column in which notes the fiasco of the celebrity white right has an odd title: “The White Nationalists are Winning.”

Serwer argues that observers don’t notice the progress white supremacists have made toward their goal because they don’t understand the role of an “ideological vanguard.” The purpose of an ideological vanguard is not to reshape the world in its image – though they may think it is – but rather to gain traction in the political mainstream and pull the squishy middle an inch at a time toward its unyielding fringe. Serwer writes:

"But the alt-right and its fellow travelers were never going to be able to assemble a mass movement. Despite the controversy over the rally and its bloody aftermath, the white nationalists’ ideological goals remain a core part of the Trump agenda. As long as that agenda finds a home in one of the two major American political parties, a significant portion of the country will fervently support it. And as an ideological vanguard, the alt-right fulfilled its own purpose in pulling the Republican Party in its direction."

Serwer is right. He tends to be. But that same slow pull is visible in other ways. Its political impact is slow and insidious, crawling rather than leaping. Political revolution collides with massive institutions that need to be stripped away, laws changed or invalidated, opposition marginalized or purged. The process is sudden and catastrophic or – far more often – incremental in the way that Serwer describes. But, as right-wing hero Andrew Breitbart would say, politics is downstream from culture.

Changing the culture is a precursor to changing the politics. For years, the extreme right and its white supremacist fringe have been changing the culture, priming it for the sort of political change that Serwer describes. The conservatism of George H.W. Bush that guarded political institutions, remained cautious in chaotic times, and balanced nationalism with a sense of duty gave way in the 1990s. A combative right-wing ideology emerged in its place that aimed for extreme change, denied the value of institutions themselves, had a radically different notion of American nationalism, and would dangle their constituents over any cliff to realize it.

A horde of demagogues and provocateurs – Limbaugh, Hannity, Imus, Coulter, Yiannopolous, Beck, and Jones – spewed aggressive and outlandish bigotry and conspiracy. They yanked the airwaves so far to the right that we didn’t bat an eye when “conservative” politicians denied a President’s citizenship, proposed detaining or surveilling Muslims and applying ethnic and religious tests to immigration, said that immigrants were a threat to western culture, or encouraged police brutality. For almost two decades, the extreme right foamed about a crisis not of policy but of culture. The problem was not taxes, health care, unemployment, or foreign policy, but a country that was being seized and given away to someone else. The problem was not serious but existential. According to Serwer:

"While few sitting Republican legislators echo these sentiments publicly, Republican audiences are now being fed white-nationalist philosophy through mainstream conservative figures with national followings. Unless something changes, conservative constituencies will eventually begin to demand that their representatives adopt those views as well."

Serwer might be a little optimistic. Republican constituencies demanded such a representative three years ago and the moderates, conservative firebrands with scruple to spare, and libertarians were forced either to adopt the same racial antagonism or bow out entirely. The white supremacist right’s brief ascent, flirtation with media organs, and extraordinary collapse happened after, not before. Right-wing media has grown more strident, not less. As Serwer notes, their rhetoric has ventured into territory that is more in line with white nationalism, not less. The only Republicans willing to come out and criticize the administration publicly, even for its worst excesses, are either already retired, punished immediately, or walk their statements rapidly back. The extreme right shoved Republican constituencies to a place where they demand, at the very least, silence and apathy in the face of white nationalism.

Observers of revolution and upheaval often note the shift in conversation, and the advantage of radicals when that conversation outpaces defenders of the institutions. George Orwell, for five years in the run-up to the Second World War, observed leftists see-sawing between fear of confrontation and enthusiasm for war. He lamented the directionless popular fronts who caved in the vice-grip of fascism on the right and militant communism on the left. He berated liberals and socialists who abandoned their moral compass in the face of Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, and Stalin. Six decades later, Tony Judt argued in Ill Fares the Land that liberal and leftist politicians and activists took the postwar social order for granted and missed their transition in the public eye from radicals and progressives to guardians of the existing order. According to Judt:

“It is the Right that has inherited the ambitious and modernist urge to destroy and innovate in the name of a universal project. From the war in Iraq through the unrequited desire to dismantle public education and health services, to the decades-long project of financial deregulation, the political Right – from Thatcher and Reagan to Bush and Blair – has abandoned the association of political conservatism with social moderation which served it so well from Disraeli to Heath, from Theodore Roosevelt to Nelson Rockefeller.”

Judt wrote those words in 2010 and passed away shortly thereafter. In the years after, he likely would’ve added to his list of universal projects a revitalization of a white, Christian culture. Still, he implored social democrats: “There is much to defend.”

Orwell lamented a squishy middle that refused to see its mistakes and make the radical change that the time demanded. Judt lamented a left too preoccupied with its self-image to defend its gains. Both would look at Serwer’s ideological vanguard and see a resurgent right outflanking a liberal social order. They would see a left too interested in being radicals to adapt to their new role as defenders of what little social democracy remained. They would see a paralyzed liberal and center-right establishment, too preoccupied with institutions to realize that some were completely broken. They would scream at the top of their lungs for a purposeful and deliberate radical morality to challenge the radical amorality on the right.

The ideological vanguard in Serwer’s piece has been far more successful than anyone seems interested in admitting. But the political success is built on a much more diffuse sort. They’ve managed to change the conversation in a fundamental way. The vanguard of the extreme right has slipped their radicalism under the comforting cloak of “conservatism,” and the switch was so skillful that many on the left were unaware that they had become defenders – that they, in a sense, became the conservatives. Liberals and progressives defend institutions, unaware that “conservatives” want them crippled or destroyed, and offer lukewarm progressivism, unable to admit that the alternative is no longer a milquetoast constitutionalism but an adaptable extremism.

The meaning of “conservatism” has changed. It’s adapted to accommodate firebrand radicalism without shedding its veneer of mainstream respectability. The motley gang of celebrity extremists and radical media personalities’ greatest victory might not be in the policy gains of the Trump administration, but rather in the extraordinary cultural shift they initiated to enable more gains for years to come.