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The conservative movement is rejecting America

A recent essay in a prominent right-wing outlet gives an unusually clear window into the modern right’s anti-democratic worldview.

A Trump supporter in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 2018.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

The right-wing rebellion against American democracy is often subtle, expressing itself through tricky changes to election law without a full-throated acknowledgment of what lawmakers are actually doing. But sometimes, the mask slips — and someone in the conservative movement openly tells you what’s really going on.

One such slippage took place last week when the American Mind — a publication of the Claremont Institute, an influential conservative think tank based in California — published an incendiary essay arguing that the country has already been destroyed by internal enemies.

“Most people living in the United States today — certainly more than half — are not Americans in any meaningful sense of the term,” Glenn Ellmers, the essay’s author, writes. “They do not believe in, live by, or even like the principles, traditions, and ideals that until recently defined America as a nation and as a people. It is not obvious what we should call these citizen-aliens, these non-American Americans; but they are something else.”

These seditious citizens are opposed, according to Ellmers, by “the 75 million people who voted in the last election against the senile figurehead of a party that stands for mob violence, ruthless censorship, and racial grievances, not to mention bureaucratic despotism.”

If Trump voters and conservatives do not band together and fight “a sort of counter-revolution,” then “the victory of progressive tyranny will be assured. See you in the gulag.”

What exactly this counter-revolution entails is unclear, but Ellmers has some tips. “Learn some useful skills, stay healthy, and get strong,” he writes. “One of my favorite weightlifting coaches likes to say, ‘Strong people are harder to kill, and more useful generally.’”

Ellmers’s essay has been widely discussed in American media and intellectual circles, due to its bracing honesty about the modern right’s worldview and the prominence of the outlet that published it. Claremont is an influential institution of the right; one of its publications, the Claremont Review of Books, published the notorious “Flight 93” essay arguing that the 2016 election was a choice between Trump and national extinction. (“2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die,” that essay declared in its opening line.)

In the post-Trump era, the type of hard-right politics preached in Claremont publications “is simply conservatism writ large,” as Jane Coaston writes in a Vox essay on the California right. They’ve become the intellectual organ of Trumpist conservatism — an organization whose mission looks more and more like manufacturing an intellectual justification for the GOP’s right-wing populist.

The rhetoric of national emergency and decline that you hear in Claremont publications permeates mainstream GOP rhetoric. Minutes before the January 6 assault on Capitol Hill, former President Donald Trump told his assembled supporters that “if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” In a 2019 speech, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) warned that “we have come again to one of the great turning points in our national history, when the fate of our republican government is at issue.” In a 2020 Facebook post, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy declared that “Democrats want to defund, destroy, and dismantle our country.”

As absurd as it may seem, Ellmers’s essay should be taken seriously because it makes the anti-democratic subtext of this kind of conservative discourse into clearly legible text. And it is a clear articulation of what the movement has been telling us through its actions, like Georgia’s new voting law: It sees democracy not as a principle to respect, but as a barrier to be overcome in pursuit of permanent power.

The right against “conservatism”

Inasmuch as there is a central argument in Ellmers’s piece, it is this: The label “conservative” no longer accurately captures what the American right should be about. This is because “conservatism” implies preserving or protecting something already in place, when in fact America is so hopelessly corrupted that there’s little worth saving.

“The US Constitution no longer works,” Ellmers writes. “What is actually required now is a recovery, or even a refounding, of America as it was long and originally understood but which now exists only in the hearts and minds of a minority of citizens.”

Many traditional conservatives, in his mind, are blind to this fact. Trump’s victory represented the true people rising up against an establishment that was unwilling to openly state how precarious the country’s situation is:

The great majority of establishment conservatives who were alarmed and repelled by Trump’s rough manner and disregard for “norms” are almost totally clueless about a basic fact: Our norms are now hopelessly corrupt and need to be destroyed. It has been like this for a while—and the MAGA voters knew it, while most of the policy wonks and magazine scribblers did not… and still don’t. In almost every case, the political practices, institutions, and even rhetoric governing the United States have become hostile to both liberty and virtue. On top of that, the mainline churches, universities, popular culture, and the corporate world are rotten to the core. What exactly are we trying to conserve?

Trump’s main failing, on Ellmers’s telling, is not that he was destructive — but that he was too ignorant and poorly advised to attack the right targets.

“As if coming upon a man convulsing from an obvious poison, Trump at least attempted in his own inelegant way to expel the toxin,” Ellmers writes. “By contrast, the conservative establishment, or much of it, has been unwilling to recognize that our body politic is dying from these noxious ‘norms.’”

Ellmers is not all that interested in the mechanisms of how and why the country has become so broken. He doesn’t really explain in any detail the nature of the nefarious forces that have polluted most American minds; he rails against “the progressive, or woke, or ‘antiracist’ agenda that now corrupts our republic” and takes it as a given that his audience will agree that this threat is apocalyptic.

He is more interested, instead, in rallying the forces of Real America against enemies he describes in strikingly dehumanizing terms.

“If you are a zombie or a human rodent who wants a shadow-life of timid conformity, then put away this essay and go memorize the poetry of Amanda Gorman,” Ellmers writes. “Real men and women who love honor and beauty, keep reading.”

Trump at the 2020 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).
Getty Images

Ellmers is hardly the only person on the right to see the opposition in a starkly negative light. A February poll found that a solid majority of Republicans, 57 percent, preferred to describe Democrats as “enemies” rather than as the “political opposition.” One of the central attitudes underpinning democracy — that sometimes the other side wins, and that’s okay — is buckling on the right.

The implications of Ellmers’s worldview are chilling. In a January 2020 essay, he predicted — more in sorrow than in anger, of course — that a civil war is coming.

“Not for the first time in our nation’s history, if this state of affairs continues force may be embraced as the only alternative when reason fails,” Ellmers writes. “We must fervently hope that things will change before they become violent. But if the clueless attitudes of our sclerotic elite remain unaltered, it is not hard to see what’s on the horizon.”

Freedom against democracy

If the extremism of Ellmers’s essay strikes you as similar to what you’ve heard from authoritarian political movements of the past, you’re not alone.

John Ganz, a perceptive critic of American conservatism, recently wrote that Ellmers’s essay should properly be termed “fascist.” Excommunicating a large percentage of the population from the body politic, describing once-idyllic society hopelessly corrupted by the forces of change, describing one’s enemies as animals or diseases, invoking the threat of physical force in a political context — these are all historically hallmarks of fascist rhetoric.

This analysis holds despite the fact that Ellmers speaks in a democratic idiom, portraying himself as a defender of the American democratic tradition against its enemies. Ganz notes that calls to restore “freedom,” “liberty,” and even “democracy” were used by fascist intellectuals and movements in interwar Germany, France, and Italy because they were culturally powerful — a way of recruiting the people to one’s way of thinking by speaking their language.

“In the US context it also makes sense that the reactionary mind would inevitably mythologize a ‘truer’ version of our republican and democratic traditions as the author does in this piece, because those are the basic symbols of our political tradition,” he writes. “In the French context, many fascist and para-fascist groups declared fealty to the ‘republican’ tradition, which is as nearly predominant in that country as it is in our own.”

One does not need to go to Europe to see political oppression defended in democratic terms. In 1963, Alabama Gov. George Wallace delivered an inaugural address in Montgomery, casting the South’s long tradition of oppression of African Americans as integral to southern freedom:

Today I have stood, where once Jefferson Davis stood, and took an oath to my people. It is very appropriate then that from this Cradle of the Confederacy, this very Heart of the Great Anglo-Saxon Southland, that today we sound the drum for freedom as have our generations of forebears before us done, time and time again through history. Let us rise to the call of freedom- loving blood that is in us and send our answer to the tyranny that clanks its chains upon the South. In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny . . . and I say . . . segregation today . . . segregation tomorrow . . . segregation forever.

Ellmers’s essay is in line with this tradition, identifying freedom as a right that only a certain section of the population deserves. Those outside of it, either because they come from the wrong background or think the wrong way, have no just claim on our political system. When they wield power, it is by definition oppression.

In some ways, this is the central animating idea of the broader conservative movement in America. Ellmers is a radical who sees himself as opposed to “establishment” conservatism, but in reality, many on the broader right share a more attenuated version of his worldview — and pursue the disempowerment of their political opponents.

Barack Obama’s 2008 victory, and the attendant talk of a coalition of minorities and young voters creating a “permanent Democratic majority,” helped spread anxieties about declining electoral power on the political right. After the 2010 midterm elections, which swept Republicans into power in statehouses across the country, they acted — drawing gerrymandered maps and passing laws, like voter ID, seemingly designed to suppress Democratic-leaning constituencies.

A woman stands in front of the Georgia Capitol holding a bullhorn.
A March 8 protest against new voting bills in Atlanta, Georgia.
Megan Varner/Getty Images

The state-level Republican lawmakers were often quite honest about their aim of locking Democrats out of office.

“I think electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats,” former North Carolina Rep. David Lewis, who chaired the state’s recent redistricting committee, once said. “So I drew this map in a way to help foster what I think is better for the country.”

The January 6 attack on the Capitol was a pure expression of Ellmers-ism, a violent lashing out against a system that conservatives believe to be fraudulent and corrupt. The new round of voter suppression bills represents the more subtle 2010 variant of Republican anti-democratic attitudes: that the system can be rigged such that the Democratic threat is locked out of power for good.

There are at least eight proposals from Republican lawmakers in state legislatures around the country to seize partisan control over electoral administration. One of the most egregious examples, in Georgia, was passed into law last week. More broadly, there are over 250 state bills under consideration that would curtail voting rights in one way or another.

That these proposals are justified in the language of “restoring confidence” in elections and “preventing fraud” does not make them actually defensible in democratic terms — anymore than Ellmers’s thinly-veiled pining for a civil war is “democratic” because he wants to wage it in defense of a warped conception of liberty.

In a sense, Ellmers is right that America’s political system no longer works. He’s just wrong about who broke it — and why.


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