Dave Portnoy is the future of the conservative movement
Over the coming months, hundreds of thousands of words will be written about Donald Trump’s presidency and the future of the Republican Party. This seems to me a mostly fruitless endeavor, not least because the relationship between Trump and his adopted party was very publicly transactional. He used the GOP to win the White House with very little help from the institutional party, whose leaders abandoned him on the eve of two successive general elections, and they were happy to allow him to appoint 234 judges to the federal bench and sign one tax bill in the first year of his administration. Trump will disappear from the political considerations of Republican elected officials as swiftly as he entered them on the fateful day of the escalator.
A more interesting question is what effect Trump had upon the so-called “conservative movement,” that somewhat more nebulous entity, with its magazines, its think tanks and conferences, its canons of half-understood books, its pantheons of gods and heroes. Despite what some have argued, the movement and its institutions have never been synonymous with the Republican Party, which tacitly made its peace with the New Deal when the oldest living Americans were children. What the movement offered the party instead was a kind of geological survey: a map of the sedimentary layers in American political life, and the potential riches waiting to be unearthed by skillful miners of right-wing public opinion.
Like many observers, including an enormous number of the president’s loudest detractors, I believe that Trump brought the conservative movement to an end. But what its destruction means is something very different from the prophecies of permanent Democratic supermajorities issuing forth from the former president’s critics. Trump’s greatest achievement, one that speaks far more than his actual record in office to his business acumen, was recognizing that in the 2012 presidential election, the old movement vein had been exhausted and that a much richer one was awaiting exploration.
What Trump recognized was that there are millions of Americans who do not oppose or even care about abortion or same-sex marriage, much less stem-cell research or any of the other causes that had animated traditional social conservatives. Instead he correctly intuited that the new culture war would be fought over very different (and more nebulous) issues: vague concerns about political correctness and “SJWs,” opposition to the popularization of so-called critical race theory, sentimentality about the American flag and the military, the rights of male undergraduates to engage in fornication while intoxicated without fear of the Title IX mafia. Whatever their opinions might have been 20 years ago, in 2021 these are people who, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, accept pornography, homosexuality, drug use, legalized gambling, and whatever GamerGate was about. On economic questions their views are a curious and at times incoherent mixture of standard libertarian talking points and pseudo-populism, embracing lower taxes on the one hand and stimulus checks and stricter regulation of social media platforms on the other.
I have come to think of the people who answer to the above description as “Barstool conservatives,” in reference to the popular sports website, especially its founder and CEO, Dave Portnoy. For many years the political significance of Barstool was implicit at best, reflected mainly in its conflicts with Deadspin and other members of the tacitly liberal sports journalism establishment.
But in the last year, as Portnoy emerged as one of America’s most visible critics of the lockdown policies instituted by virtually every state governor, it became clear to me that more so than anyone else he embodied the world view of millions of Americans, who share his disdain for the language of liberal improvement, the hectoring, schoolmarmish attitude of Democratic politicians and their allies in the media, and, above all, the elevation of risk-aversion to the level of a first-order principle by our professional classes. This, I suspect, is why in the last 24 hours I have received several text messages asking me whether I thought he had any interest in running for president. (My guess is no, though I also believe that his prospects for electoral success would be decent.)
Regardless of Portnoy’s own ambitions, I fully expect the future of the Republican Party to belong to Barstool conservatives, which is to say, to a growing but so far almost invisible coalition that could very well carry the White House. The Barstool conservative movement will not have institutions in any recognizable sense, certainly not think tanks or highbrow magazines, but it will be larger, more geographically disparate, younger, and probably more male. It will also, I suspect, be more racially diverse, much like the portion of the electorate that gave Trump 74 million votes in 2020.
Where will Barstool conservatism leave what remains of the old conservative movement? In the case of free market dogmatists, I believe there is almost zero daylight between them. The policy papers on why blockchain-enabled futures markets in organ donation brought to you by ManScaped will revitalize Dayton, Ohio, will write themselves. Meanwhile, a small number of earnest social conservatives will be disgusted. But I suspect that a majority of them will gladly make their peace with the new order of things.
This is in part because while Barstool conservatives might regard, say, homeschooling families of 10 as freaks, they do not regard them with loathing, much less consider their very existence a threat to the American way of life as they understand it. Social conservatives themselves have largely accepted that, with the possible exception of abortion, the great battles have been lost for good. Oberfegell will never be overturned even with nine votes on the Supreme Court. Instead the best that can be hoped for is a kind of recusancy, a limited accommodation for a few hundred thousand families who cling to traditions that in the decades to come will appear as bizarre as those of the Pennsylvania Dutch.
BREAKING: Tim Ryan just gave a MUST-SEE speech demolishing Republicans over the January 6 commission.
–A Fox News debate during Sean Hannity’s program between Geraldo Rivera and Dan Bongino explodes and is of no substantive value whatsoever
“Ted Cruz has mocked Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez over lawmakers’ fears during the assault on the Capitol as he raged against “political theatre” following the attack, as well as mask guidance during a pandemic that has killed more than 500,000 Americans within a year, among other right-wing grievances while his state recovers from a devastating winter storm.”*
A straight line runs from Reagan to the Trump dead-enders.
Republicans spent most of 2020 rejecting science in the face of a runaway pandemic; now they’re rejecting democracy in the face of a clear election loss.
What do these rejections have in common? In each case, one of America’s two major parties simply refused to accept facts it didn’t like.
I’m not sure it’s right to say Republicans “believe” that, say, wearing face masks is useless or that there was widespread voter fraud. Framing the issue as one of belief suggests that some kind of evidence might change party loyalists’ minds.
In reality, what Republicans say they believe flows from what they want to do, whether it’s ignore a deadly disease or stay in power despite the voters’ verdict.
In other words, the point isn’t that the G.O.P. believes untrue things. It is, rather, that the party has become hostile to the very idea that there’s an objective reality that might conflict with its political goals.
Notice, by the way, that I’m not including qualifiers, like saying “some” Republicans. We’re talking about most of the party here. The Texas lawsuit calling on the Supreme Court to overturn the election was both absurd and deeply un-American, but more than 60 percent of Republicans in the House signed a brief supporting it, and only a handful of elected Republicans denounced the suit.
At this point, you aren’t considered a proper Republican unless you hate facts.
But when and how did the G.O.P. get that way? If you think it started with Donald Trump and will end when he leaves the scene (if he ever does), you’re naïve.
Republicans have been heading in this direction for decades. I’m not sure whether we can pinpoint the moment when the party began its descent into malignant madness, but the trajectory that led to this moment probably became irreversible under Ronald Reagan.
Republicans have, of course, turned Reagan into an icon, portraying him as the savior of a desperate, declining nation. Mostly, however, this is just propaganda. You’d never know from the legend that economic growth under Reagan was only slightly faster than it had been under Jimmy Carter, and slower than it would be under Bill Clinton.
And rapidly rising income inequality meant that a disproportionate share of the benefits from economic growth went to a small elite, with only a bit trickling down to most of the population. Poverty, measured properly, was higher in 1989 than it had been a decade earlier.
Anyway, gross domestic product isn’t the same thing as well-being. Other measures suggest that we were already veering off course.
For example, in 1980 life expectancy in America was similar to that in other wealthy nations; but the Reagan years mark the beginning of the great mortality divergence of the United States from the rest of the advanced world. Today, Americans can, on average, expect to live almost four fewer years than their counterparts in comparable countries.
The main point, however, is that under Reagan, irrationality and hatred for facts began to take over the G.O.P.
There has always been a conspiracy-theorizing, science-hating, anti-democratic faction in America. Before Reagan, however, mainstream conservatives and the Republican establishment refused to make alliance with that faction, keeping it on the political fringe.
Reagan, by contrast, brought the crazies inside the tent.
Many people are, I think, aware that Reagan embraced a crank economic doctrine — belief in the magical power of tax cuts. I’m not sure how many remember that the Reagan administration was also remarkably hostile to science.
Reagan’s ability to act on this hostility was limited by Democratic control of the House and the fact that the Senate still contained a number of genuinely moderate Republicans. Still, Reagan and his officials spent years denying the threat from acid rain while insisting that evolution was just a theory and promoting the teaching of creationism in schools.
This rejection of science partly reflected deference to special interests that didn’t want science-based regulation. Even more important, however, was the influence of the religious right, which first became a major political force under Reagan, has become ever more central to the Republican coalition and is now a major driver of the party’s rejection of facts — and democracy.
For rejecting facts comes naturally to people who insist that they’re acting on behalf of God. So does refusing to accept election results that don’t go their way. After all, if liberals are servants of Satan trying to destroy America’s soul, they shouldn’t be allowed to exercise power even if they should happen to win more votes.
Sure enough, a few days ago the televangelist Pat Robertson — who first became politically influential under Reagan — pronounced the Texas lawsuit a “miracle,” an intervention by God that would keep Trump in office.
The point is that the G.O.P. rejection of facts that has been so conspicuous this year wasn’t an aberration. What we’re seeing is the culmination of a degradation that began a long time ago and is almost surely irreversible.