Even if he’s handed a defeat in November, there probably won’t really be anything like a truly “post-Trump” politics for a long while: Donald Trump himself is likely to stick around one way or another and so, too, obviously, will the Republican voters who’ve already come to see him as their Reagan. Those who believe him to be the silent avenger of trafficked children will be with us for some time as well. With fully half of the Republican Party subscribing to the belief that “top Democrats are involved in elite child sex-trafficking rings” according to YouGov, the QAnon phenomenon—in its inanity, reach, and roots in cultural animus—seems like a direct successor to the birtherism that sent Trump to the top of conservative politics in the first place. Last week, Business Insider reported that Republican strategists have come to “view QAnon believers and the movement not as a liability or as a scourge to be extinguished, but as a useful band of fired-up supporters.” The grand lesson they’ve taken from the Trump era, it seems, is that Republicans should harness the madness for as long as they can.
But the growth of QAnon is just one indication of how unruly things are getting on the right—in general, the conservative movement is getting more ideologically crowded. There are “Never—But Wait Actually, Maybe—Trump” conservatives of the GOP’s former establishment slinking back into the fold. There are tweedy conservative intellectuals hoping that there might be a life for a post–laissez faire right-wing populism beyond Trump, a tendency that some have called “national conservatism.” There are old-school social conservatives hoping a 6–3 court will get the opportunity to rule their way on abortion and perhaps gay rights. There are integralists who believe the religious right will only prevail once originalism and the conservative movement’s traditional legal nostrums are abandoned.
And then there are the voters who’ve made all of this ideological ferment possible—the white working-class defectors from the Democratic Party who helped Trump to victory in 2016 and who are actually less religiously committed as a group than the more affluent whites Trump has pushed away. The conservative coalition now runs from religiously ambivalent voters who believe or pretend to believe that Hillary Clinton drinks the blood of molested children, through Ben Shapiro, and all the way to wayward administrative law scholars set on undoing the separation between church and state in order to reestablish the United States as a Catholic dominion.
It’s all a bit of a mess, probably more so than those angling to lead or direct the conservative movement have ever had to contend with. But, as Ross Douthat wrote in a Saturday piece for The New York Times, the Trump era has also produced some of the potentially unifying conditions set to animate the next stage of the culture wars, including a shared horror of social media censorship and, more broadly, a deepened hatred of liberal elites whose cultural power, conservatives believe, fully justifies their defense of the right’s structural political advantages.
“Just as liberals see political authoritarianism in a Republican Party clinging to power via the Senate’s rural bias, conservatives increasingly see that same GOP as the only bulwark against the cultural authoritarianism inherent in tech and media consolidation,” he wrote. “As long as the Republicans retain some power in Washington, Twitter will face subpoena threats when it blocks right-leaning sites and Facebook will remain a safe space to share Ben Shapiro posts … but once you hand full political power to liberalism as well, the right fears that what starts with bans on QAnon and Alex Jones will end with social-media censorship of everything from pro-life content to critiques of critical race theory to coverage of the not-so-peaceful style in left-wing protest.”
Douthat offers reasons for skepticism about all this. As he notes, social media companies have real financial incentives to keep as many users of all stripes as possible, and the notion that the right is up against a progressive cultural monolith understates the extent to which “The Left” of the conservative imagination is, in his words, “beset by internal contradictions.” This is putting it mildly—the campus Marxists who’ve read Frantz Fanon and a J.P. Morgan executive kneeling in front of a bank vault in support of Black Lives Matter simply aren’t engaged in the same political project. But Douthat adds that he ultimately believes the right’s anxieties are partially grounded. “Power lies in many places in America,” he concludes, “but it lies deeply, maybe ineradicably for the time being, in culture-shaping and opinion-forming institutions that conservatives have little hope of bringing under their control.”
But does power really lie in all that many places in America? And more to the point, is it actually the case, as conservatives are trying to convince themselves now, that efforts to restrict the franchise and the inequities of the Supreme Court, Senate, and Electoral College are meaningfully counterbalanced or outweighed by the post moderators at Facebook and Twitter? Is the functional veto the right will hold over national public policy absent Democratic action really negated by drag queens hosting events at public libraries? Can cultural power be cashed in for health insurance? Is there a way we might put it into the accounts of the eight million people pushed into poverty in this country since May? Will it stop the bullets of an AR-15? Is it a source of renewable energy?
In a sense, actually, it is. The idea of conservative helplessness in the face of liberal culture has powered the right for generations: William F. Buckley Jr. began his long career as a crusader against liberals on college campuses; the Moral Majority fought against the depraved totalitarians it saw in Hollywood and the media. Until recently, culture war material sat alongside a fairly full economic policy agenda—dismantling the American welfare state, dramatically limiting the federal government’s capacity to rebuild it, weakening regulations, and destroying the labor movement. That’s an agenda that the right mostly succeeded in implementing—with the Democratic Party’s eventual assistance. But now perhaps most of the public believes the conservative economic project has been a disaster. And until the movement reaches a new settlement (or revives the last one) on where to go next, cultural resentments and anxieties will be the whole game—the thin tissue from which something passing for a policy agenda will have to be built.
They might be able to pull it off. Last week, Republicans on the Hill were up in arms over Facebook and Twitter blocking shares of the New York Post’s dubious exposé of Hunter Biden. The leader of the pack was, unsurprisingly, anti-tech crusader Josh Hawley—perhaps the most prominent of the right’s so-called populists in Washington next to Trump. In an interview with Sean Hannity on Thursday, Hawley argued that users with blocked posts should be able to sue Facebook and Twitter and painted the stakes of the issue for the right. “If Republicans don’t stand up and do something about this, these companies are going to run this country,” he said. “That’s their desire, these woke capitalists, they want to run America. Big government, big tech—they want to run America. We have got to stop them, we have got to do something.”
The “something” that Hawley’s angling for specifically is the amendment or repeal of Section 230, a law that renders websites immune from lawsuits their users might bring over user-provided content, and that functionally gives social media companies broad latitude to moderate themselves. Trump signed an immediately challenged executive order to curb Section 230 protections earlier this year, surely without much of an idea of what the full implications of the move might be. But Hawley knows—the fight over pro-Trump posts is the initial skirmish in a new campaign against what he called the “cosmopolitan elite” in a speech at the National Conservatism conference last year. “It’s about more than economics,” he said. “According to the cosmopolitan consensus, globalization is a moral imperative. That’s because our elites distrust patriotism and dislike the common culture left to us by our forebears.” The movement is about “more than economics,” in other words, because it’s belatedly realized that much of the corporate power it spent the last several decades building has gone to cultural liberals and those more radical than them who’ve made effective use of their new platforms—an error that now needs to be addressed.
They don’t seem particularly likely to succeed, policy-wise, but the project does give them something to do and, almost as importantly, offers the conservative movement a way to maintain credibility in the eyes of the mainstream press and the Democratic Party. The handwringing about the right’s cultural alienation and progressive overreach we’ve seen throughout the Trump era suggests a nontrivial portion of liberals really will be guilted into understanding their cultural cachet as an oppressive force—an understanding that might encourage them to oppose structural reforms that would disempower the right. And wonky legal projects spearheaded by superficially intelligent men like Hawley and conservative lawyers will seem to many like a substantive step forward from Trumpism—efforts liberals can convince themselves to respect even if they disagree with them. The question, of course, is whether Hawley and figures like him can pull a shroud over the movement’s more visibly alarming elements—or, more accurately, whether those elements will let them.