Sep 9 • 1HR 22M

Matthew Rose On The Radical Right

His new book delves into the philosophers behind the alt-right's assault on liberalism and Christianity.

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Andrew Sullivan
Unafraid conversations about anything

Matthew Rose is a scholar of religion. He’s currently Senior Fellow and Director of the Barry Center on the University and Intellectual Life — a project of the Morningside Institute — and he previously taught at Villanova. He’s written for magazines such as First Things and The Weekly Standard, and his newest book is A World After Liberalism. It’s an examination of five far-right thinkers, from Julius Evola to Sam Francis, who are proving increasingly influential in post-liberal conservatism in America.

It’s the first of several episodes in which I hope to explore more deeply the radical alternatives to liberal democracy being touted on the right. Think of it as a balance to my focus this past year on the illiberal alternatives being touted on the woke left.

You can listen to Rose right away in the audio player above (or on the right side of the player, click “Listen On” to add the Dishcast feed to your favorite podcast app). For two clips of our convo — on the anti-Christian nature of the New Right, and why liberalism needs religion to stay resilient — pop over to our YouTube page.

Speaking of reactionary thinkers, a listener writes:

One of your readers commented that the episode with Sohrab Ahmari made Ahmari more likable and his ideas even more objectionable. I agree. I hesitated to listen, because I expected I would feel angry. I was wrong. I felt curious and sympathetic. I’m glad I listened and that you interviewed him because it humanized Ahmari. In a world where it’s easy to see people as “other,” humanizing controversial figures is a service to society.

A moment stood out, when Ahmari said communities within a larger collective can be different. That’s what he would call Frenchism!

I think you’re right that Ahmari’s unusual childhood shapes his thinking. I also think he is probably living in the wrong place. He should sort himself into a more socially conservative community than NYC.

Nothing reveals how impossible it is to control other people than raising kids. By the time a parent has teens, if not sooner, they are either humble or lying. So it will be interesting to see if Ahmari shifts his views about liberalism as his kids grow and challenge his authority. I don’t mean they may become drag queens or atheists or Muslim — they may, but kids push on the most subtle and inconsequential of beliefs all the time. As a parent you can either make space for your kids to be different or drive them away with an authoritarian thumb on them. Once you’ve accepted that offspring are autonomous beings with their own beliefs and opinions, you kind of have to recognize other adults are too. We can advocate for a way of living but are never going to force it onto anyone.

Which takes me back to the blue laws. I would agree that everyone would benefit from a weekly sabbatical day — but by choice, on a day that works for them, not because the government decides to close all the stores on Sunday. I assume Ahmari would object if the government forced Chick-Fil-A to open on Sundays; he can’t have it both ways. Defining the common good is highly subjective.

From another listener:

Your conversation was Sohrab Ahmari was entertaining and enlightening, but to my ears, it focussed mostly on why Ahmari isn’t a liberal. I had to wait until virtually his last sentence to hear a clear admission of why he isn't a conservative either: “Some things that the moderns got right are right — let’s accept that, and some things they got wrong they got wrong — and we reject that... the movement of time doesn’t ratify..."

I just wish you had hammered him right there on this point: for Burkean conservatives like you, me, this is the fundamental description of our worldview. The movement of time does ratify. It cannot justify what’s right, nor correct what is wrong, but what exists today and how long it’s existed are the central facts limiting what tomorrow’s political action can change and how. It is beyond bizarre that Ahmari should claim such reverence for tradition and yet dismiss the power of the passage of time.

To bleed into another subject popular among your dissenters, this is why I lament the demise of Roe; not because I think the moderns got it right (I don’t); not because I think it was the most stable compromise (I don’t); and not because I think a judicial solution is superior to a political one (I don’t). It’s because Roe was the law of the land for so long and had become such a feature of our politics, that even if we could find a “better,” “more rational” abortion regime — and I pray we can — we should rightly fear the unintended consequences of opening Pandora's Box (as the most authentically conservative voices on the Court — Roberts, Breyer, and for many years Souter — knew).

I agree. It was also central to my opposition to Brexit. Britain’s EU membership began in 1973, around the time of Roe. By 2016, it was deeply woven into every aspect of the law, economy and government. The sheer upheaval of reversing this is something a more principled conservative would have taken much more seriously than the Brexiteers did. But both issues are moot now.

The most recent episode of the Dishcast featured Dexter Filkins, and here’s a snippet if you missed it:

The conversation “struck a chord with this Montanan”:

I liked having my preconceptions about Ron DeSantis challenged, but I especially enjoyed two lovely tangents: Dexter Filkins’ pride and delight in his time with the Miami Herald and the details of how a good daily paper intersects with workaday democracy, plus his obvious love for his home state as a physical place — for growing up hearing the Atlantic out his window, the detail about the wildlife corridors, how the state's ecology and public lands bind its incoherent inhabitants to each other.

Another veteran of the New York Times, Jill Abramson, joined the Dishcast earlier this summer:

She made the point that the NYT remains the best and most authoritative news source in the country. The Fifth Column, which I love, regularly makes the same point — that for all its flaws, the NYT’s investigative journalism is still top-notch.

I think this is probably true, but I have a hard time internalizing it. Keeping the opinion pages separate from the reporting is fine in theory, but for ideological reasons they forced out Donald McNeil, who was (by their own admission in a letter to the Pulitzer committee) doing world-class work on Covid. They are happy to stealth-edit their 1619 Project pages to silently remove claims that were in the first printing, and then deny ever having made the claims — and it seems no one at the paper minds. Don’t forget Dean Baquet’s leaked townhall meeting. How am I supposed to trust that their journalism remains intact when things like that happen, and when journalistic norm after journalistic norm falls by the wayside?

I believe that there is still world-class, honest investigative reporting happening there, but my default posture has become (against my own wishes) “maybe, but you’re going to have to prove it.” So I’ll require a lot of looking before I take anything they say at face value, especially on race/gender.

I agree. Their complete adoption of woke ideology in hiring, firing and promotion — i.e. basing almost everything on identity, race, sex, gender identity and so on — permeates everything. You really notice now when a story does not simply echo these far-left, postmodern themes on how society operates.

For me, their knowingly publishing a deceptive piece of racist propaganda and distortion in the 1619 Project was a moment of reckoning. As was their disgraceful coverage of the Floyd riots, when they abandoned even a pretense of fairness or balance. But good people still work there; and their resources are enormous. I’d rather criticize and engage than hand them over to the fanatics entirely.

Back to another listener on Dexter:

I think your conversation with him is just about the best I’ve ever heard on the Dishcast. Please have him on again.

Around minute 31, Filkins said something about DeSantis’s patriotism and he felt obliged to qualify it by saying that it wasn’t “cheesy.” Why was that qualification necessary? What a condensed symbol of American division that is. Filkins is totally aware of that, but must submit to those conventions.

I’ve also come to see that the existential division between white Americans in red states and blue states is that red America does not feel ashamed of being white.  For blue America, the great redemptive gesture is shame for being white. And I think that blue America hates, yes, hates, red America because it seems to evince no shame in whiteness. That lack of shame means the deplorables feel no need to have minorities redeem their sins, which is the core existential/religious pilgrimage of blue America.

In terms of borders, take a look at Beto O’Rourke’s policy and note how little, almost parenthetical, a distinction he makes between legal and illegal immigration. My sense is that he would be fine having de facto open borders, or near that … even if de jure you have something else.

This next listener has had enough of the immigration debate:

Thank you for the weekly podcast! Always interesting, always enlightening. This week I was wondering if you could please better articulate the reduced immigration argument? I agree with you and Dexter Filkins that this is a weak spot for Democrats. What I don’t understand is the urgency? I’m more concerned about things that could directly affect my life:

  • climate change — no water? dangerous heat? storm damage?

  • health care — access? not afford? push expensive new solution over older simple treatment?

  • real estate bubble — taxed out of home?

  • government leadership — poorly-considered laws/policy? poor execution?

What is the thing you won’t be able to do if immigration is not reformed? Is one part of the population affected strongly and another part affected weakly, thus leading to wildly different legislative priorities? If the problem is job competition, I don’t understand how people who can read and write English and who understand American laws and culture would not be able to compete against immigrants who don’t speak the language and don’t know the culture?

I think the political cost of a government failing to control its borders is profound. It destroys trust, undermines citizenship, and brews unnecessary resentment. It is a core task of any government to sustain credible borders - without them, no sovereign state can properly exist. I find the refusal of both parties to fulfill this basic obligation as inexcusable.

A listener has a suggestion:

You recently seemed to defend the legacy of the British Empire. I would love to hear you go head to head with Caroline Elkins, a serious scholar at Harvard, who recently wrote Legacy of Violence.

Another endorsement:

I think Freddie DeBoer would be a great podcast guest! I recall you saying admiring things about Freddie’s views on some other topics. But I’d especially love to hear a conversation focused on Freddie’s “recovery” from bipolar disorder. I found his new short essay powerful, perceptive, and inspiring. 

Freddie was one of our best guest-bloggers back in the Daily Dish days, and we covered his book on the Weekly Dish, so it’s just a matter of time before we have him on the pod. Thanks as always for the suggestions and other comments: dish@andrewsullivan.com.

Lastly, a reader reflects on Provincetown:

I’ve always enjoyed your meditations on the outer Cape. Your most recent, The Joy of Doing Nothing, seemed to lament the seasonal roar after two years of quiet. If I’m right, it’s because I sympathize.

The pandemic summer of 2020 was divine. At its peak, everything was closed. The festivities, cancelled. I’m sure you’ve one of those “PTown 400” t-shirts with a pilgrim wearing a medical mask. All you could do that summer was nothing. There was nobody there. And whoever was there sounded less like “alien frequencies” and more like confessions whispered over glasses of wine deep into the night.

On one of those nights in early July, my daughter and I were walking along Commercial St. A light came from the small tobacco shop just past the library. A few people were about and my daughter pointed: “Look, that beagle has three legs.”

I thought of you. There must not be too many three-legged beagles in Provincetown. So I glanced around. I saw a weathered woman, leaning into the shop while holding a cigarette outside of it, gesticulating about some offense. Standing in the street was a rather shabbily dressed man, hoodie up, his hands clasped behind his back. On the opposite side were two youngish men smoking a joint together. No one seemed in the mood to chat with a stranger (myself included), so we carried on.

My daughter and I returned this year, to Wellfleet, for a post-pandemic family reunion of sorts. It was a good thing to do and I’m glad it’s now done because doing nothing was not on the agenda. Perhaps my daughter and I will return to Ptown after Labor Day and spend a long weekend there. All the shops will be closed. The bathers will be gone. And we will have Herring Cove, once again, all to ourselves.

Bowie is indeed the only three-legged beagle in Ptown, so that was almost certainly me, at the local convenience store, which Bowie drags me to every day twice a day because they always give her a treat. This little bitch is living her best life right now, and I’m here for it.

Bowie in her element on Labor Day