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#NRORevolt, explained

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Donald Trump has been tearing the Republican primary apart for months now, and the success of his campaign has begun exposing cracks in the broader conservative movement.

One window into these strains is the #NRORevolt hashtag, in which NRO stands for National Review Online, the digital edition of the flagship publication of the American conservative movement. As it's become clear that the Trump surge has some real staying power, the National Review has become increasingly vocal in its criticisms of Trump — referring to his campaign, for example, as a "medicine-man show."

The #NRORevolt is a backlash to the National Review's historic role as the self-appointed monitor of what is and is not an acceptably mainstream view in the American conservative movement, including its sporadic "purges" of excessively anti-Semitic or racist elements. But it relies in part on a broader critique that the mainstream right is filled with "cuckservatives" who refuse to stand up for white interests and are laying the groundwork for LGBTQ equality, and encompasses an ugly critique of Jewish "kikeservatives" and other anti-Semitic themes.

Most of all, the #NRORevolt takes much of what is merely the subtext of the Trump phenomenon and turns it into text. The explicit question it raises is whether the American conservative movement should be organized around tax cuts, business-friendly regulations, and a hawkish foreign policy — an ideology that, in practice, happens to be overwhelmingly supported by white people — or whether it should be an explicit vehicle for white interests in an increasingly diverse society.

What sparked #NRORevolt?

The hashtag got started in response to a Jonah Goldberg column titled "No Movement That Embraces Trump Can Call Itself Conservative," in which Goldberg argued that the Trump phenomenon is "catharsis masquerading as principle, venting and resentment pretending to be some kind of higher argument."

Where Goldberg broke new ground was in attacking not just Trump, but Trump's fans among the conservative rank and file. "What we are seeing," he wrote, "is the corrupting of conservatism

Conservative affection for Trump, Goldberg argued, involved conservatives behaving as irrationally as black people or college students:

And when I say "the people" I don’t mean "those people." I mean my people. I mean many of you, Dear Readers. Normally, when conservatives talk about how the public can be wrong, we mean that public. You know the one. The "low-information voters" Rush Limbaugh is always talking about. The folks we laughed at when Jay Leno interviewed them on the street. But we don’t just mean the unwashed and the ill-informed. We sometimes mean Jews, blacks, college kids, Lena Dunham fans, and countless other partisan slices of the electorate who reflexively vote on strict party lines for emotional or irrational reasons. We laugh at liberals who let know-nothing celebrities do their thinking for them.

Well, many of the same people we laughed at are now laughing at us because we are going ga-ga over our own celebrity.

In short, Goldberg was trolling Trump supporters — going out of the way to antagonize a portion of his audience in order to provoke a response. The #NRORevolt hashtag, on the most basic level, is the response to that trolling.

But the backlash quickly went well beyond Goldberg's column, or even Donald Trump.

What is a cuckservative?

The term "cuckservative" is an apparent portmanteau of "cuckold" and "conservative," and it enjoyed a boom in July (see David Weigel's explainer) as a more or less generic term of disapprobation for a conservative sellout or a RINO (Republican in name only). But as Jeet Heer reported at the time, it specifically arose on the white nationalist site the Right Stuff as a term for white conservatives who failed to exhibit sufficient racial consciousness.

"It is the cuckold who, whether knowingly or unknowingly, loses control of his future," Richard Spencer of the white nationalist National Policy Institute told Weigel in July. "This is an apt psychological portrait of white 'conservatives,' whose only identity is comprised of vague, abstract 'values,' and who are participating in the displacement of European Americans — their own children."

The general idea of conservatives castigating other conservatives for being insufficiently conservative had broad appeal in conservative ranks, but once the specific linkages between the use of the term cuckservative and white nationalism came to light it began to fade out from general use. But it's become a key term among avowed practitioners of white identity politics and other advocates of a more race-conscious brand of conservative politics.

Plenty of mainstream conservatives will attack Ohio Gov. John Kasich for accepting the Obama administration's Medicaid expansion funds, but you won't see Kasich called a "cuckservative" by anyone mainstream these days. By contrast, a large share of the participants in the #NRORevolt freely call their enemies cuckservatives.

The Trump campaign has nothing in particular to do with Jews or anti-Semitism, but the NRORevolt/cuckservative phenomenon has gotten mixed up with another hashtag — kikeservative — being used by right-wing anti-Semites.

On the simplest level, that's just because Goldberg is Jewish and a lot of white supremacists also hate Jews. But as we'll see, the Trump phenomenon has gotten mixed up with some seemingly unrelated trends like an ideological purge from the late 1950s and the post–Cold War foreign policy debates of the 1990s.

What does Donald Trump have to do with white nationalism?

Officially, nothing. Thematically, a great deal.

As Vox has observed before, Trump's ideological profile looks much less like orthodox US conservatism than it does like European "far-right" political parties such as the National Front in France, the True Finns, or the Sweden Democrats. Like successful European far-right leaders, he eschews explicit racial politics but merges extreme anti-immigration policies, populist hostility to the political establishment, and moderate views on social assistance to the elderly. In Trump's case, this is combined with an explicit nostalgia appeal — he says he wants to "Make America Great Again," presumably back to how it was before we had gay marriage and black presidents.

Goldberg's column did not really address the racial element of the Trump campaign. But an earlier anti-Trump column from a conservative media outlet did frame the issue this way.

"Are Republicans for freedom," asked Ben Domenech in an August 21 Federalist column, "or are they for white identity politics?"

The basic idea here is that while Trump appeals to a set of grievances that are widely shared in the (overwhelmingly white) conservative base, he does so without grounding the grievances in any set of universalistic principles. He combines nativism, nationalism, and nostalgia with the promise that even the most expensive entitlement programs can be defended as long as they happen to be popular with the kind of older white voters who are most likely to enjoy appeals to nativism, nationalism, and nostalgia.

Domenech worries that Trump's ideas will spread inside the GOP and "set America’s political path on a direction along the lines of what we have seen in democracies in Europe," where right-of-center political parties are much less hostile to big government and where new populist movements offer a "brand of conservatism [that] is frequently xenophobic, anti-capitalist, vaguely militarist, pro-state, and consistently anti-Semitic."

What is National Review? What is the alt-right? And why are they at war?

National Review is a magazine (and now a website) that, though never all that widely read, has long played a central role in the history of the US conservative movement.

It was founded in 1955 near the high-water mark of New Deal liberalism, when the Republican Party was marginalized in congressional and state politics and led at the national level by moderate Dwight Eisenhower. The magazine worked to forge a coherent ideological movement out of disparate groups opposed to the New Deal consensus — from Southern traditionalists to libertarians to strident anti-communists to devout Catholics — and helped create the ideological superstructure of what would emerge under Richard Nixon and especially Ronald Reagan as an electorally potent conservative movement.

Part of this project has always been defining certain groups and individuals out of the conservative movement. In the 1950s, that meant marginalizing the conspiracy theorists of the John Birch Society and anti-Semitic elements associated with the pre–World War II opposition to Franklin Roosevelt. Later, that meant rejecting the explicit racism of George Wallace's 1968 presidential campaign. More recently it's included purges of Pat Buchanan and other "unpatriotic conservatives" who dislike the tenor of post–Cold War conservative hawkish foreign policy, as well as figures like Peter Brimelow, whose anti-immigration advocacy was seen as crossing the line into racism.

But digital technology has made it relatively easy for purged elements — along with younger figures who sympathize with the purged — to simply launch new publications such as, Taki's Magazine, and the Right Stuff.

The question of purging is itself a defining issue in these "alt-right" circles.

The Right Stuff's Hateful Heretic concedes that "you'll find some neo-Nazis here and there" in alt-right circles. But while he himself is not a neo-Nazi he has no intention of purging anyone from the movement for being too racist:

The alt-right is a safe space for crimethink. I recognize certain groups are double plus ungood, but as someone who's already at least ungood plus, I don't see any value in signaling that they're too extreme and hateful for me. The purpose of purges is to maintain respectability. Well, I think it's quite apparent that Buckleyite conservatism has failed. What the last 50 years has shown is that once you're done purging one group for being too extreme, the left just turns the ratchet, and now some formerly-acceptable group is the new Nazi. Once, it was Birchers. Today, it's anyone who doesn't clap hard enough for Bruce Jenner.

This worldview — that American politics is dominated by an Orwellian consensus ("crimethink" and "double plus ungood" are both ironic reclamations of terms used by the totalitarian propagandists in Orwell's 1984) that operates through periodic purges — is foundational to the alt-right. And while Trump may not be an avowed supporter of their cause, he is definitely someone who declines to self-censor his views of women and Mexicans, and he's unquestionably someone whom mainstream conservatives are trying to purge from their ranks.

Why is this blow-up happening now?

In a sense, the current divide is a recapitulation of fights that have been ongoing since the 1990s and most prominently exhibited themselves around Pat Buchanan's various presidential campaigns.

Classic conservative politics in the US was a three-legged stool:

  • Pro-business economic policies
  • Traditional religious values
  • Strident anti-communism

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the third leg became irrelevant. But it was an excellent complement to the first two. This is in part because anti-Communism abroad is a very natural complement to a defense of religion and capitalism at home. But conservative movements everywhere tend to be nationalistic, and in the American context anti-communism served as a particularly American form of nationalism — an ideological nationalism that was about the superiority of America's founding creed to the USSR's creed, rather than about the virtues of Americans versus Russians.

Mainstream conservatism has replaced this third leg of the stool with "neoconservative" foreign policy that continues to emphasize the idea of aggressive global military engagement on behalf of American ideals.

The perils of radical Islam have taken the place of communism in this approach. But while the politics of anti-Islamism has broad structural similarities to anti-communism, it also contains important differences. Notably, anti-Islamism is not a defense of traditional religious values in the face of atheistic communism. At times it involves castigating Muslim traditionalists for poor treatment of women, gays, and lesbians. Anti-Islamism also has a strong alliance with Israel at its core — a red flag for the anti-Semitic elements of #NRORevolt.

An alternative proposal, long associated with Buchanan, is that anti-communism should be replaced with straightforward ethnic nationalism. In this vision the United States would:

  • Take a "mind your own business" approach to world affairs
  • Adopt a more nationalist approach to trade policy
  • Attend carefully to the threat that immigration from Asia and (especially) Latin America poses to American national identity

The first plank of that alternative largely lost its appeal to the Republican mainstream after 9/11, and the second plank puts Republicans too squarely at odds with their core supporters in the business community. But the third plank has long had meaningful support among grassroots conservatives, conservative talk radio, and many rank-and-file Republican Party politicians.

At the same time, the very tippy-top of the Republican coalition has always been skeptical of nativist politics. In 2000, 2004, and 2008 the GOP nominated pro-immigration candidates. In the wake of the 2012 election, the Republican National Committee issued a postmortem that largely blamed Mitt Romney's defeat on his anti-immigration rhetoric in the primary rather than something more obvious like his plan to raise taxes on the middle class in order to finance tax cuts for the rich.

In 2016, both Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio are avowed proponents of a comprehensive immigration reform approach, and while Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has often also been supportive of comprehensive immigration reform, word keeps leaking out that he's saying something else privately.

Trump became a national political sensation largely on the back of his anti-immigration rhetoric, and while the mainstream conservative pushback to Trump isn't about his immigration plan (Goldberg's anti-Trump column didn't take issue with his harsh and inhumane approach), the impulse to purge Trump fits into what many see as a pattern of elite betrayal on this issue.

Can we end with some grand, sweeping conclusions about American politics?

Absolutely. Consider these two facts:

  • According to exit polls from 1980, Ronald Reagan won 56 percent of the white vote en route to winning 51 percent of the overall vote.
  • According to exit polls form 2012, Mitt Romney won 59 percent of the white vote en route to winning 47 percent of the overall vote.

In other words, the demographic math of the Reagan coalition doesn't work anymore. To win, conservative politicians either need to broaden their appeal to African-American or Latino voters or else significantly improve their performance among white voters from an already high level.

The strategy favored by much of the party elite — including George and Jeb Bush, John McCain, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, most of the business community, and the RNC in its official 2012 postmortem — is to try to neutralize the immigration issue in the Latino community and then win votes from more affluent or more religiously devout Hispanics. The alt-right/identitarian/Trump strategy is to do the opposite, and make increasingly explicit appeals to ethnic nationalism to try to make whites more uniformly loyal to the GOP.

But as reflected in the conduct of the House GOP — which has simply refused to bring any sort of immigration bill to the floor — the bulk of party actors would prefer a third option: do neither. Given the heavy pro-Republican tilt of the House map and the whiter skew of the midterm electorate, this is good enough for Republican congressional candidates and most statewide offices. But it doesn't work nearly as well in presidential politics and doesn't actually address the ongoing demographic shifts that will eventually filter down through the system.