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How a horny beer calendar sparked a conservative civil war

It’s called “Calendargate,” and it’s raising the question of what — and whom — the right-wing war on “wokeness” is really for.

A person wearing glasses shaped like beer mugs. Oli Scarff/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.

While most people were enjoying the holidays, extremely online conservatives were fighting about a pinup calendar.

Last month, Ultra Right Beer — a company founded as a conservative alternative to allegedly woke Bud Light — released a “Conservative Dad’s Real Women of America 2024 Calendar.” The calendar contains photos of “the most beautiful conservative women in America” in various sexy poses. Some, like anti-trans swimmer Riley Gaines and writer Ashley St. Clair, are wearing revealing outfits; others, like former House candidate Kim Klacik, are fully clothed. No one is naked.

But this mild sexiness was just a bit too much for some prominent social conservatives, who started decrying the calendar in late December as (among other things) “demonic.” The basic complaint is that the calendar is pandering to married men’s sinful lust, debasing conservative women, and making conservatives seem like hypocrites when they complain about leftist immorality.

“This is the problem with conservatives who think they can act just like the secular world,” writes Jenna Ellis, one of Donald Trump’s attorneys during the 2020 election fight. “If conservatives aren’t morally grounded Christians, what are we even ‘conserving’?”

Other conservatives, led by several of the women who posed in the calendar, defended the calendar — decrying their critics as nosy puritans who exemplify the right’s inability to connect with ordinary people.

The fight between these factions, dubbed “Calendargate,” started on X but has exploded outward — becoming an inescapable topic on the right in the new year. Prominent right-wing media figures like Tim Pool and Megyn Kelly have weighed in; articles dissecting the controversy have appeared in National Review and the American Conservative.

On one level, this is all very stupid. No one is going to be hurt by the calendar, nor will the controversy surrounding it change anything of political significance. This is an obvious fact that some of the Calendargate participants themselves acknowledge.

At the same time, Calendargate is deeply revealing about the fault lines inside the conservative movement.

Broadly speaking, the Trump-era conservative movement has involved an alliance between traditional social conservatives and so-called “Barstool conservatives”: leave-me-alone bros who resent what they see as censorious political correctness. These two factions are aligned on the need to fight the left, but deeply at odds on social policy questions ranging from abortion to pornography.

Calendargate raises the question of what the war on “wokeness” is for: freeing conservatives to have raunchy fun without fear of left-wing censorship, or imposing a new vision of right-wing virtue in place of the reining liberal cultural ethos?

How the right’s ideologues end up answering that question could well shape the future of the Republican Party.

The conservative divide at the heart of Calendargate

The idea of an “alternative” set of conservative goods is not a new one. From evangelical film studios to right-wing literary imprints to borderline scammy survival kits, there’s a long and storied history of products being marketed specifically to conservatives as counterweight to what they see as the unacceptably liberal mainstream.

Such cultural and economic counterprogramming has become particularly important in the last few years, as conservatives have increasingly come to see big business as an enemy stronghold. The rise of conservative corporate boycotts in 2023 speaks to just how alienated many on the right feel from mainstream American consumer society.

Ultra Right Beer and companies like it have sprung up to sell to this market. The company was founded in the midst of the great Bud Light controversy — when conservatives swore off the beer brand in response to its advertising partnership with trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney. The calendar’s explicitly transphobic emphasis on “real” women in the calendar is a callback to these origins.

All sorts of conservatives jumped on board the anti-Bud Light train, leading to a large and seemingly sustained drop in beer’s sales. But that doesn’t mean Ultra Right was poised for success. Setting aside the question of whether the beer is good — I haven’t had the pleasure — there’s also a question of what kinds of conservatives you expect to buy your beer. Judging from the calendar, Ultra Right’s founders have a specific demo in mind: the “Barstool Conservative.”

The term, coined by writer Matthew Walther in 2021, refers to the popular male-oriented Barstool Sports media empire owned by a pushing-50 bro named Dave Portnoy. Barstool has a well-deserved reputation for catering to the lowest common male denominator: The “pics” section of the site features a running feature from its Chicago affiliate titled “smokeshow of the week.”

Barstool conservatives are the sort of people (okay, mostly men) who like Barstool’s vibe. They are the kind of dudes angry that Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit magazine now features photos of older, plus-size, and trans models. They tend to dislike liberals, specifically the kind of liberal who would chide them for objectifying women or laughing at a racist joke. They tend to see Trump’s history of womanizing and conspicuous consumption not as turnoffs but as selling points.

But while part of the post-Trump right-wing coalition, they are very different from traditional social conservatives. They don’t see a society with widespread porn access and legalized weed as a problem; they see it as progress. Christian sexual morality holds less than zero appeal to them; they might even support same-sex marriage or (like Portnoy himself) legalized abortion.

So while both Barstool and social conservatives groups might be comfortable voting for Trump and his fellow Republicans to fight against “wokeness,” they have wildly different views of what an ideal society might look like — including the kinds of cultural products they want to consume. In essence, it’s a question about what should be conserved.

“Either the sexual revolution was fun and games until a bunch of overzealous feminists and LGBT activists ruined it, or the sexual revolution was doomed from the start and the ’90s-style smut found in advertising, movies, and calendars isn’t much removed from our present degradation,” National Review’s Madeline Kearns writes in her piece on Calendargate. For her part, Kearns argues for the latter:

What needs conserving is not the liberalism of yesterday but timeless virtues and norms: a courtship culture, one that emphasizes male and female sexual complementarity, abstinence before marriage, fidelity within it, openness to the gift of children, as well as the cultivation of a culture in which beauty is prized over the vulgar and obscene. Lust, however lucrative, undermines this project.

The gulf between this social conservatism and the quasi-libertarianism of Barstool types creates a huge problem for companies looking to sell their products to “conservatives” as a bloc. “Sex sells” is generally a pretty good rule when you’re selling to Barstool conservatives, but it might lose you fans among the pious evangelical crowd.

Ultra Right’s calendar ran headfirst into this problem, and an absurd internet controversy was the result.

Whither the “anti-woke”?

Much like conservative-focused brands, the Barstool-versus-social-cons fight is hardly new.

In a 2023 column, the New York Times’s Jane Coaston traced it back to a debate between William F. Buckley, the patron saint of movement conservatism, and Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy magazine. In 1966, Hefner appeared on Buckley’s television show Firing Line to defend a political doctrine he defined as “anti-puritanism” — the idea that “man’s morality, like his religion, is a personal affair best left to his own conscience.”

In Coaston’s view, the conservative movement’s increasing reliance on Barstool types is a sign that Hefner has been winning the debate. “There’s been a subtle warping of the conservative movement as it sounds increasingly less like itself and more like its horny, libertine opposition, in the pursuit of electoral gains and cultural relevance,” she writes.

At the same time, there’s been some movement in the precise opposite direction. A new generation of “postliberal” Republicans — like Sens. J.D. Vance and Josh Hawley — want to not merely defend traditional social norms but use political power more aggressively to impose them on the rest of America. Vance has, for example, called for outright banning pornography (in defiance of clear First Amendment jurisprudence).

These postliberals are reacting to the same thing that the Barstool conservatives are: a sense that liberal social ideas have come to dominate American politics and culture. But they disagree profoundly on why that’s bad: The Barstool conservatives hate “wokeness” for restricting liberty, while postliberals think the problem is that liberalism restricts freedom for the wrong reasons and in the wrong ways.

The two strains of conservatism are different not just substantively, but sociologically.

Postliberalism is a highly intellectualized elite movement, popular among Catholic college professors and Ivy-educated senators. It was born out of a sense that traditional social conservatives, the kinds of people who objected to the Ultra Right calendar, were insufficiently ruthless in wielding power to crush their cultural enemies.

Barstool conservatism, by contrast, is a politics of the gut (Coaston calls it a “conservatism of feels”). There are no intellectuals avatars, worked-out doctrines, or glitzy conferences; it’s not really a “movement” in any organized fashion. It’s just an inchoate sense, seemingly widely shared among the current GOP electorate, that the woke are trampling on their freedom to speak their mind and have fun.

It makes sense, then, that this movement has more influence in conservative countercultural institutions than its more elitist postliberal rival.

The guy behind Ultra Right Beer, who goes by the pseudonym “Conservative Dad,” isn’t out there to advance Catholic integralism. He wants to make money by appealing to the sense among conservatives that political correctness has gone too far — and what better way to do that than by appealing to men who pine for the days when you could ogle “real women” in the workplace?

The logic of the market is not the logic of the postliberal intellectual, or even the traditional social conservative. As conservatives become increasingly frustrated with mainstream corporations, there will be demand for something other than schlocky films about the end of days. And what the people want now isn’t, for the most, part, what social conservatives want them to want.

This isn’t lost on postliberals. Writing on Calendargate in the American Conservative, former Ron DeSantis speechwriter Nate Hochman bemoans the way that so-called conservative brands play into mainstream culture rather than challenging its premises. “The narrow ideological frame that the right operates in permits only a long, unending line of ‘conservative alternatives to [X],’ reproducing the values and animating assumptions of the dominant culture with a thin coat of right-wing policy priorities painted on top,” he argues. “An anti-trans Bud Light is still, in essence, Bud Light. An anti-woke Playboy is still, in essence, Playboy.”

This, more than anything else, is what makes Calendargate worthy of notice. While an essentially ridiculous controversy pitting a series of too-online conservatives against each other, it exposes the ways in which the attempts to remake conservatism in the “anti-woke” era will create new sources of tension inside the conservative camp — and highlights the way this struggle might play out inside conservative cultural spaces.

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