The New Fire on the Right
There’s been a fire burning on the American right. While much of the media attention throughout the 2022 midterm primary season has been on whether former President Donald Trump’s handpicked candidates have won, immediately under the surface has been the more substantive and important discussion about what it even means to be within the stream of American conservatism. Some of this conversation has bubbled to the surface in the Ohio and Pennsylvania primaries with two particularly notable ‘Trump picks’ Dr. Mehmet Oz and J.D. Vance. Dr. Mehmet Oz was noteworthy due to his extensive televised history of social commentary that runs in the exact opposite direction of a vast majority of his contemporary platform. With such a long history of being clearly out of step with the current Pennsylvania GOP primary electorate, it’s no surprise that there was an immediate backlash after he received Trump’s endorsement. But it should come as no surprise that Trump endorses someone with the exact same “conservative” profile as himself – no prior experience running for office.
In an adjacent, but much more nuanced, place is the situation of Ohio GOP primary victor J.D. Vance. To some extent, Vance had political fame prior to running due to his popular book, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. Similarly to Oz, Vance also demonstrated a significant shift in both tone and content after beginning to vie for the U.S. Senate. Although not nearly as radical as a departure from past perspectives, one of Vance’s earlier defining characteristics as a cultural commentator was his abhorrence of Trump, going as far as to tweet in 2016, “Fellow Christians, everyone is watching us when we apologize for this man. Lord help us,” amongst other very public repudiations. Vance went on to apologize vigorously for his criticisms of the former President. The most interesting thing about Vance, however, is what Vance represents for the future of conservatism in the United States.
Despite being vocally opposed to Trump, Vance was one of the most eloquent and bipartisan spokespersons for what was considered the new base of the GOP – the white working class without a college degree. Vance was hailed as a “MAGA whisperer,” if you will, by coastal elites, painting a picture of what working class experiences were like in the post-industrial Midwest. Over time, although Vance’s position on Trump himself has greatly changed, he continues to be a translator for the most politically interesting post-Trump wave of American conservatism known as post-liberal conservatism, national conservatism, or the New Right. In many ways, Vance, if elected, will represent the political vanguard of a new American conservatism that carries the potential of solidifying and advancing the Trump coalition toward a very different end goal. While two other Senators, Josh Hawley of Missouri and Marco Rubio of Florida, have developed strong New Right overtones over time, J.D. Vance represents something of a son of the movement. His major financial backer and former colleague, Peter Thiel, a New Right tastemaker, dropped $15 million into a Vance supporting super PAC, over half of the current amount of total capital he’s poured into campaigns nationwide throughout the entirety of the cycle.
The rise of the New Right and candidates like Vance is not an altogether straightforward look into the future of the GOP. The movement’s coalition is diverse but includes views that run in purposeful and direct opposition to the currently powerful old fusionist consensus of economic libertarianism and social conservatism. Writers and thinkers like Patrick Deneen, Sohrab Ahmari, Curtis Yarvin, and Yarom Hazony, amongst many others, openly critique and dismantle the conservatism that has come to characterize the Right since Ronald Reagan, at least.
The old consensus, grounded in a strong anti-communism, individualist ethos, and push for corporate deregulation is contrasted with a strong orientation to the language of the common good, economic protectionism in trade, and willingness to talk openly about the use of state power as an effective tool to achieve conservative ends. While commentators this midterm season will continue to weigh Trump’s wins and losses across the board, Vance is potentially the harbinger of greater change and realignment in the political landscape than even brought by the election of Donald Trump in 2016.