Pro-Trump protesters gather in front of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, in Washington, DC. A mob later stormed the building, breaking windows and clashing with police officers. Five people died as a result. | Brent Stirton/Getty Images
Sam Adler-Bell on why scorched-earth radicals are winning the battle for the soul of conservatism.
I remember watching the assault on the US Capitol last January in a state of complete disbelief. Even today, a year later, it’s hard to believe that it actually happened.
But I also remember thinking, once the shock of that day subsided, that the insurrection would be a transformative moment for the Republican Party. It simply had to be. The election lies, the inflammatory rhetoric, the misinformation — it all led to the violence that day. And if that wasn’t enough, the fact that people were marching through the Capitol building chanting “hang Mike Pence” seemed like it should’ve prompted a course correction from the GOP.
Instead, the Republican Party has become more extreme and more illiberal. We haven’t seen any eruptions of violence like the riot on January 6, but the GOP remains in thrall to Trump, Republicans across the country continue to believe the lies about the 2020 election, and the party appears to be laying the legal and rhetorical groundwork for something like an electoral coup in 2024.
Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images A protester at the pro-Trump “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington, DC, on January 6, 2021, the day of the US Capitol riot.
So I reached out to Sam Adler-Bell, the co-host (along with Matthew Sitman) of the podcast Know Your Enemy, an indispensable listen for anyone interested in the conservative movement, and the author of a recent essay in the New Republic about the future of the American right.
Adler-Bell’s piece is about the intellectual foundations of a radical, post-liberal conservatism in the ascendant — a faction being called the “New Right.” They hate the Republican establishment and they’ve essentially abandoned liberal democracy. These are not the people who sacked the Capitol, but they are part of the climate that made that day possible in the first place. And while they may hold establishment Republicans in contempt, they’ve helped remake the party in their image.
Beyond the significance of January 6, 2021, and how America got to that point, Adler-Bell and I discuss the evolution of conservative media, why American conservatism is now a counter-revolutionary movement, and where he thinks the right can go from here.
A transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.
From our perch nearly a year later, how do you situate January 6 in the broader right-wing cosmology?
That’s a hard question. I’m not sure I have a fully satisfying take on how it all hangs together. I guess I think of January 6 as continuous with other events occurring among the illiberal right that have taken place over the course of 2020. So you could see versions of it in the occupations of state capitols in early 2020, where people were carrying rifles inside state legislature buildings. There’s definitely overlap between the militia groups that were involved in those protests and the organizations I’d call the vanguard of the January 6 protests.
I would say that the next phase was the mobilization of militia groups during the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. That was a moment where organized militia groups traveled to cities where there were protests in order to stand guard and protect private property. But they were also there to menace protesters, to carry guns, and of course, as we saw in the Kyle Rittenhouse case, two people ended up dead and another maimed.
“It’s probably impossible to overstate the fact that Trump had a personal propaganda channel which would never contradict him, or rarely contradict him”
Since you brought it up, I’ll ask: Do you think January 6 happens without the eruption of political energy we saw in the summer of 2020 following the murder of George Floyd?
First, I want to be sure not to let Trump off the hook here. The minimal condition for January 6 is the sitting president saying, “No, I won the election. I won the election.” And even the phrase “stop the steal,” that’s an active intervention. It’s not like an abstract fight for election integrity. It’s a “We’re going there today to stop the steal,” the “steal” being what’s going to happen inside the chambers of the Capitol. And so the minimal condition, no question, is Trump not acknowledging that he lost the election.
In terms of what was motivating people on the ground, their willingness to be violent, their willingness to treat the moment as an existential threat — surely what happened in 2020 was an input. And I think that when you do talk to people on the right, as I do frequently, the 2020 uprisings after George Floyd’s murder have shaped their consciousness in a way that cannot be overstated.
Whether you agree with their account of why it happened and what it consisted of, which I tend not to, for them those protests and what they see as the license given to those protests by Democrats, by corporations, by all of progressive culture, felt like a real turning point, which contributes to this pervasive sense on the right that we’re at the point of no return.
A lot of people focus on the LARPers and the QAnon enthusiasts and the militia types who stormed the Capitol, but I’m more interested in the high-minded conservatives who probably think those insurrectionists are buffoons but still see them as useful foot soldiers in a much bigger struggle to reclaim Western civilization, and this is really what your New Republic piece is about. So tell me about intellectual currents on the right that helped prepare the ground for something like January 6.
Throughout Trump’s presidency there’s been a concerted effort by an idiosyncratic and not entirely coherent group of conservative intellectuals to provide a high-minded, intellectual justification and kind of elaboration of what Trump represents.
The National Conservatism Conference, which first took place in 2019, and then was repeated in 2021 in November, is representative of that. So is the Claremont Institute. And then there’s also the sort of post-liberal currents represented by people like Sohrab Ahmari and Patrick Deneen. And then there’s also this kind of Catholic theocratic tendency, in a way, that’s come to mainstream prominence in conservative politics, which is represented more by people like the Harvard professor Adrian Vermeule and Gladden Pappin at University of Dallas.
What these currents share is a sense that the conservative movement, as it operated pre-Trump, was not willing to wield state power to actually achieve conservative cultural ends and wasn’t sufficiently aware of the threat posed by the left.
This New Right no longer believes we’re in a neutral liberal contest between competing ideas and concepts of the good. They believe the progressive left have taken over every aspect of American society and wield an authoritarian power over what, in particular, white Christians are allowed to say and think in this country; therefore this kind of libertarian consensus — which has presided in American conservatism, especially since Reagan — which prescribes a kind of private traditionalism and a public-facing liberalism, is totally insufficient for this moment.
So elite conservative currents have tried to provide an intellectual scaffolding for Trumpism, which we should acknowledge is a little silly. Trump is Trump. As one of the young conservatives I talked to in my piece said, “He’s a moronic boomer who tapped into something by accident.” But this intellectual scaffolding that they’ve tried to provide, it combines elements that they think are sufficient to respond to that level of threat from the left.
I appreciate that the New Right looks at the establishment Republican Party and concludes that they haven’t been fighting a real culture war. I know people will read that and think I’m nuts because culture war is all the GOP does now, but they haven’t been doing it earnestly. What the GOP has done is create a cultural grievance machine that functions as a laundering device for corporatist economic policies. But these New Rightists are actual culture warriors and see through the con and they’re totally transparent about it.
No, it’s true. I don’t disagree. And I think one of the things about the term “culture war” in our discourse is that we tend to think of it as a sideshow, like a distraction from real politics. I think that’s wrong on the merits. Culture war is about how we define our social reality. It’s a competition over defining social reality, which is not a sideshow. And for the New Right, for these Trump-supporting culture warriors, this is the only game in town. They believe there’s no war but culture war. All materialist politics, they believe, is downstream of culture.
For someone not steeped in this world, it’s hard to understand the intensity of the New Right or something like the Claremont Institute, the genuine sense of emergency they feel. From their point of view, this really is the Alamo, right? It really is “charge the cockpit or you die.”
“Charge the cockpit or you die” is an appropriate reference because, as I’m sure you know, the person who wrote the Flight 93 election piece, Michael Anton, is a scholar at the Claremont Institute and is a prominent thinker in this milieu. [“The Flight 93 Election” was an influential 2016 essay making the case that conservatives should support Trump despite his flaws because “death is certain” if Hillary Clinton won.]
He was briefly in the Trump administration, and Claremont plays a role in every aspect of this. It played a role in January 6 because John Eastman, a constitutional scholar who wrote a series of memos outlining how the vice president could “legitimately” overturn the election, is a scholar at Claremont.
And a lot of these young right-wing intellectuals that I wrote about have gone through Claremont’s programs. They’re one of these conservative institutions that do a really good job at mentorship. They provide young, smart intellectuals with opportunities to get together and feel like they’re reading into the counter-tradition of conservative political philosophy, and feel like they’re being led into this little secret world where all the answers are clear and the moral ends are explicit and shared.
Claremont has been punching way above its weight in the Trump era, and that’s because people like Anton identified the potential utility for populist Christian conservatives in Trump much earlier than the rest of the conservative movement. When he wrote Flight 93, he wrote it under a pseudonym. And it was at a time where most of the intellectual right despised Trump and were distancing themselves from him. And Claremont made an early good bet on Trumpism, and it’s paid off for them. Because for a long time they were considered ultra-conservative weirdos in California who are obsessed with political philosophy, but don’t really play in the big-kid tent.
But in the Trump era, they’ve had their fingerprints on many of the big events. They also helped push the anti-CRT backlash, and before that they played a big role in crafting the 1776 Project, which was the last thing that the Trump administration did and basically their counternarrative to the 1619 Project.
I have to ask about the role of conservative media in all of this. We learned that several Fox News anchors were texting Mark Meadows, the former chief of staff for Trump, during the January 6 riot urging him to get Trump to do or say something to stop it, while a lot of on-air commentary continued (and continues) to amplify the bogus election fraud claims.
Do you see the media as a cause or symptom?
Oh, it’s way more a cause than a symptom. As important as the Claremont Institute is, Fox News remains much, much more important. And post-war conservatism — meaning conservatism after 1945, the movement launched in the pages of National Review by William Buckley — has always been a media phenomenon, that’s not new.
And the necessity to create counterinstitutions has always been a part of the conservative strategy because they have always seen themselves as a besieged minority, at least in elite culture. They needed to have counterinstitutions that deprogram the masses from their progressive indoctrination. And that’s the role that Fox News has played.
It’s probably impossible to overstate the fact that Trump had a personal propaganda channel which would never contradict him, or rarely contradict him. I mean, Tucker Carlson has the most popular news program in America. And to bring it back to January 6, he’s putting out a documentary about how it was all an FBI hoax designed to give the liberal deep state justification for hounding down conservative activists and throwing them in prison. And that’s the most popular show on prime time news.
What lesson do you think the New Right draws from January 6? The fact that it happened at all, that it didn’t provoke any kind of course correction from the GOP, that it reinforced their anti-democratic drift — I have to believe most New Right-types look at all that and think to themselves, “We won.”
I don’t know if they think, “We won.” I think that it may have encouraged them in their ongoing battle against the more moderate forces in conservative politics, and encouraged them that they could win that battle. I’m sure that it also reinforced this sense that the party should never disown anybody to their right.
One of the things that distinguish the New Right from the traditional Buckleyite conservative politics is that Buckley’s role in the conservative movement was to help set the guardrails. He was the one who disowned the John Birch Society. He was the one who kicked people like Joe Sobran out of acceptable conservative politics. He was the one who, if you got too racist or too anti-Semitic, you would get read out of conservatism, whether you were an activist or an intellectual or a pundit.
The perspective of the New Right, certainly people like Anton and people at Claremont Institute, is: no enemies to our right, and anything we do to shave off the aggressive or populist edges of conservatism is doing the left’s bidding for the left. And there’s enough people on MSNBC and in the pages of the New York Times who will try to demonize the rest of us by stigmatizing the right flank.
So there was a moment after January 6, where it seemed like the right was ready to disown Trump. They were ready to disown everybody who was involved in January 6. And for all kinds of reasons that was a very brief window that didn’t last. And certainly the fact that it didn’t last reinforced the New Right’s perspective that there was no sense in trying to win some kind of acceptance in the mainstream by demonizing the far-right crazies. And I think that’s a very disturbing prospect.