Rise of the Barstool conservatives

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.

This Is How Wokeness Ends

My friend Rod Dreher recently had a blog post for The American Conservative called “Why Are Conservatives in Despair?” He explained that conservatives are in despair because a hostile ideology — wokeness or social justice or critical race theory — is sweeping across America the way Bolshevism swept across the Russian Empire before the October Revolution in 1917.

This ideology is creating a “soft totalitarianism” across wide swaths of American society, he writes. In the view of not just Dreher but also many others, it divides the world into good and evil based on crude racial categories. It has no faith in persuasion, or open discourse, but it shames and cancels anybody who challenges the official catechism. It produces fringe absurdities like “ethnomathematics,” which proponents say seeks to challenge the ways that, as one guide for teachers puts it, “math is used to uphold capitalist, imperialist and racist views” by dismissing old standards like “getting the ‘right’ answer.”

I’m less alarmed by all of this because I have more confidence than Dreher and many other conservatives in the American establishment’s ability to co-opt and water down every radical progressive ideology. In the 1960s, left-wing radicals wanted to overthrow capitalism. We ended up with Whole Foods. The co-optation of wokeness seems to be happening right now.

The thing we call wokeness contains many elements. At its core is an honest and good-faith effort to grapple with the legacies of racism. In 2021, this element of wokeness has produced more understanding, inclusion and racial progress than we’ve seen in over 50 years. This part of wokeness is great.

But wokeness gets weirder when it’s entangled in the perversities of our meritocracy, when it involves demonstrating one’s enlightenment by using language — “problematize,” “heteronormativity,” “cisgender,” “intersectionality” — inculcated in elite schools or with difficult texts.

In an essay titled “The Language of Privilege,” in Tablet, Nicholas Clairmont argues that the difficulty of the language is the point — to exclude those with less educational capital.

People who engage in this discourse have been enculturated by our best and most expensive schools. If you look at the places where the splashy woke controversies have taken place, they have often been posh prep schools, like Harvard-Westlake or Dalton, or pricey colleges, like Bryn Mawr or Princeton.

The meritocracy at this level is very competitive. Performing the discourse by canceling and shaming becomes a way of establishing your status and power as an enlightened person. It becomes a way of showing — despite your secret self-doubts — that you really belong. It also becomes a way of showing the world that you are anti-elite, even though you work, study and live in circles that are extremely elite.

The meritocracy has one job: to funnel young people into leadership positions in society. It’s very good at doing that. Corporations and other organizations are eager to hire top performers, and one sign of elite credentials is the ability to do the discourse. That’s why the C.I.A. made that widely mocked recruiting video that was like a woke word salad: cisgender, intersectional, patriarchal.

The people at the C.I.A., Disney, Major League Baseball and Coca-Cola aren’t faking it when they perform the acts we now call woke capitalism. They went to the same schools and share the same dominant culture and want the same reputational benefits.

But as the discourse gets more corporatized it’s going to get watered down. The primary ideology in America is success; that ideology has a tendency to absorb all rivals.

We saw this happen between the 1970s and the 1990s. American hippies built a genuinely bohemian counterculture. But as they got older they wanted to succeed. They brought their bohemian values into the market, but year by year those values got thinner and thinner and finally were nonexistent.

Corporations and other establishment organizations co-opt almost unconsciously. They send ambitious young people powerful signals about what level of dissent will be tolerated while embracing dissident values as a form of marketing. By taking what was dangerous and aestheticizing it, they turn it into a product or a brand. Pretty soon key concepts like “privilege” are reduced to empty catchphrases floating everywhere.

The economist and cultural observer Tyler Cowen expects wokeness in this sense won’t disappear. Writing for Bloomberg last week, he predicted it would become something more like the Unitarian Church — “broadly admired but commanding only a modicum of passion and commitment.”

This would be fine with me. As I say, there are (at least) two elements to wokeness. One focuses on concrete benefits for the disadvantaged — reparations, more diverse hiring, more equitable housing and economic policies. The other instigates savage word wars among the highly advantaged. If we can have more of the former and less of the latter, we’ll all be better off.

The Woke Will Always Break Your Heart

Justin Trudeau
RYAN REMIORZ / THE CANADIAN PRESS VIA AP
Updated at 8:30 p.m. ET on October 6, 2019.

The 2019 election is a test for Canadian progressives: style or substance. The Liberal government of Justin Trudeau is the most successful progressive government in the world. It

  • instituted a carbon tax and
  • legalized marijuana. Last year, for the first time, Canada
  • settled more refugees than any other country.
  • Because of higher government benefits, child poverty is at its lowest level in history.
  • Economic growth this year reached 3 percent.

That is what Trudeau has done. He also appeared in brownface at an Aladdin-themed costume party in 2001 at the age of 29.

Canadian progressives, like progressives all over the world, must decide whether they care more about the pursuit of social and cultural change, through the eradication of racist and sexist imagery, or the pursuit of transformative policies. In 2015, Trudeau promised both. He was the shining ideal of maximum wokeness, imposing a gender-equal cabinet and offering as the explanation, “Because it’s 2015.” Well, it’s 2019 now.

How racist Trudeau’s appearance in brownface was, and therefore how forgivable, is subject to debate. People of color in Canada—by no means a contiguous body or voting bloc—have differences of opinion about the gravity of Trudeau’s browning up. Sunny Khurana, a Sikh man who appears in one of Trudeau’s photos from the “Arabian Nights” theme party at West Point Grey Academy, did not find his appearance there racist in the slightest. “He wasn’t trying to demean anybody who was a person of color, and from what I can recall from that function, it never came across as that, not at all,” he said recently. “I mean, I didn’t even think twice of it. It was a good party. We had fun.”

Others read the costume as symptomatic of Canada’s racist history generally, and in particular its history with minstrel shows, which is more extensive than you might think. (The composer of Canada’s national anthem performed in blackface.) Others, such as the society gossip columnist Shinan Govani, have acknowledged personal conflicts: “It is the season of moral gymnastics, here in Canada,” he wrote in theDaily Beast.

Needless to say, dispassionate debate about the significance of Trudeau’s costume—parsing his intentions and the context—is not possible, given that we’re in the middle of an election. The picture went viral; that’s what counts. Liberal Party candidates have been struggling. “It was wrong then, and it’s wrong now,” Harjit Sajjan, the defense minister, told the CBC. “But I’m also here to talk about the person I know, in terms of how much he is standing up for people.”

Whatever Canadians may think about the photograph itself, it closes off a major line of attack for Trudeau. Live by the sword of political correctness, die by the sword of political correctness. You can’t argue that your opponents are a bunch of embarrassing antiquities living in the political past—by, say, replaying the Conservative leader’s 2005 speech opposing gay marriage, which the Liberals were doing right up until this story broke—when the internet is rife with your face in brown makeup.

The Trudeau scandal points to a larger problem: The woke will always break your heart. It’s not just that nobody’s perfect, and it’s not just that times change, and it’s not even that the instinct to punish that defines so much of the left is inherently self-defeating. If people want to sell you morality, of any kind, they always have something to hide.

The main criticism from Trudeau’s opponents on the right has usually been that he’s a spoiled brat—a son of privilege—not up to running the country. A faker. The brownface debacle has now become, on the left, a symbol of his lack of real commitment to progressive values. But the cross-party consensus that Trudeau is slight and phony doesn’t survive even a cursory examination of his record. An independent assessment by two dozen Canadian academics found that Trudeau has kept 92 percent of his campaign promises, fully or partially, the most by any Canadian government in 35 years. He is measurably, demonstrably the most sincere and effective prime minister in living memory. He is the rare case of a man whose virtue-signaling has distracted from his real virtues.

Only the left struggles with these standards of style. Right-wing political opponents in Canada and elsewhere have a completely different understanding of acceptable behavior. In the United States, President Donald Trump’s supporters take his brand of nastiness, his aggressive rejection of even the most basic social norms, as a sign of authenticity. Meanwhile, Senator Elizabeth Warren is still apologizing for her Cherokee-ancestry claim.

This imbalance matters, because the left’s aesthetic vulnerability comes at a moment of real threat for progressives. Multiculturalism as a project is dying globally, and not because of a sudden outbreak of brownface performances. The “Howdy Modi” event in Houston revealed how the world is turning: populism, xenophobia, the bragging stupidity of ethnic pride. During the last election, Trudeau’s main opponent, the Conservatives, promised “barbaric cultural practices” hotlines and “Canadian values tests” alongside a two-tiered citizenship system under which dual citizens and immigrants could have their citizenship revoked while natural-born Canadians could not. If voters who believe in multiculturalism cannot forgive face paint, the multicultural project as policy may not survive.

In this context, it’s unclear whether the extreme blandness of Trudeau’s main opponent, Andrew Scheer, helps or hurts the prime minister’s chances for reelection. Scheer does not bother with costumes. He’s not photogenic enough. He, too, is embroiled in a scandal, however—about whether he was properly accredited to claim he worked as an insurance broker for a few months. This may be not just the most boring scandal in this election, and or in Canadian history, but the most boring scandal imaginable. I cannot imagine a duller one. Nobody thinks about Scheer much. But perhaps Canadians want a prime minister they don’t have to think about much.

“The fact of the matter is that I’ve always—and you’ll know this—been more enthusiastic about costumes than is sometimes appropriate,” Trudeau acknowledged in the first of a seemingly endless series of apologies. Progressives loved Trudeau’s best costume: Captain Woke. We’ll find out in October whether they were with him for his policies or his poses. They can’t have both. But they can have neither.

Acceptable Bigotries

But the glib and fashionable double standard against traditionalists and orthodox Christians isn’t what I have in mind. It’s the far more widespread and fashionable bigotry against the past.

If a visitor from Sudan comes to your house for dinner, it’s simply good manners to make allowances for the cultural differences. If you go to a foreign country, it’s understood by most decent people that you should be making the lion’s share of adjustments to how people do things. The quintessential ugly American refuses to bend to — or even respect — the norms of foreign cultures, norms that can sometimes be ugly, nasty, or backward by a lot of Western standards.

The arguments in favor of deferring to foreign cultures ranges from Emily Post bromides about etiquette to swirling torrents of words about colonial this, patriarchal that, and imperial the other thing. Fine.