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The Aristocrats

Can an intellectual star of the anti-liberal right shepherd the faux-populist GOP?

Regime Change: Toward a Postliberal Future by Patrick Deneen. Sentinel, 288 pages. 2023.

In its elaborate campaign to rebrand the Republican Party as something other than an alliance of big money and cultural grievance, the GOP has taken great pains to fashion itself “populist.” Since 2016, when Donald Trump railed against a “rigged system,” the right’s performance of populism has become so familiar that it reads as grotesque self-parody. Roll, scene, take: J.D. Vance invokes his “hillbilly” childhood, Josh Hawley bemoans “big tech,” and Ron DeSantis disciplines Disney. In the genre of faux populism, staying in character is essential but also really hard. At any moment, reminders of one’s Ivy League education or ties to billionaire donors can threaten to blow the whole show.

Patrick Deneen has an idea for changing this script. His new book, Regime Change, is about and for the rising stars of the GOP. Rather than hiding their elite status, he wants DeSantis, Vance, and Hawley to embrace it. And he wants other aspiring leaders to follow in their footsteps. As his book jacket insists, Deneen proclaims that “a better ‘elite’ is possible and lays out a plan for cultivating a new ruling class that would be accountable for promoting the good of all.”

Regime Change is a horrible book, a highbrow version of reactionary insurrectionism that literally ennobles the practice of authoritarian rule. But for a GOP in search of a lasting paradigm that expands and cements their own will to power, it may provide a working blueprint for the next phase of their campaign. Unfortunately, that means we can’t simply dismiss it as just another piece of reactionary performance art.

A Star Is Born

Today, Deneen is one of the most prominent figures of the right’s rising postliberal movement—a network of right-wing intellectuals, politicians, and activists enlisted in a crusade to break the shackles of liberalism that have constrained the conservative movement since the days of William F. Buckley. Alongside Harvard law professor Adrian Vermeule and the journalist Sohrab Ahmari, Deneen has played a critical role in upending the modern conservative movement’s consensus around the sacred tenets of liberal individualism and the free market. For the first time in decades, the right is increasingly denouncing not just “limousine liberals” or “woke progressives” but liberalism itself.

Just a few years ago, however, Deneen was a relatively obscure political theorist whose name barely registered outside the narrow world of the humanities professoriate. After earning his PhD at Rutgers University, he did a short stint of speechwriting at the United States Information Agency before returning to academia in 1997. For the next fifteen years, he taught at Princeton and Georgetown. In 2012, he moved to Notre Dame, where he currently teaches. By the time of the 2016 elections, Deneen had published three books of political philosophy, two of which focused on liberalism and democracy in American political thought, though neither reverberated beyond the academy.

Then, in 2018, he published Why Liberalism Failed, a book that synthesized his critique of liberalism for a wider audience. Perfectly timed, it provided an intellectual framework and justification for the rise of Trumpist populism in the United States and around the world. Invoking Aristotle, Edmund Burke, and Alexis de Tocqueville, Deneen took liberalism to task for prioritizing individual freedom over traditional belief and custom. While preliberal forms of authority—family, church, and town—had been able to counteract these forces in the past, the last several decades, he contended, had cemented the hegemony of liberalism. Liberalism “has failed because it has succeeded,” Deneen declares in the book’s introduction. “It has generated pathologies that are at once deformations of its claims yet realizations of liberal ideology.” Dominating both progressive and conservative politics in the West, liberalism, in Deneen’s rendition, destroyed the well-being of ordinary Americans and gave rise to populist demagogues like Donald Trump.

Deneen struck a chord. In contrast to liberal pundits, politicians, and strategists who blamed Trumpist populism on nativist white supremacy, he highlighted the failures of a belief system created and perpetuated by liberal elites. But in contrast to Trumpist thugs who peddled conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton and Pizzagate or Jews and the Great Replacement, he unraveled and challenged the ideas of John Locke, John Stuart Mill, and John Dewey to give reactionary anti-liberalism a sense of erudition and decorum. The book garnered attention and praise from across the political spectrum, including a blurb from Barack Obama, an obvious target of its critique who nonetheless celebrated its “cogent insights into the loss of meaning and community that many in the West feel.”

Almost instantly, Deneen was transformed from a tweedy professor into an intellectual celebrity of sorts. While his earlier work had a distinctive right-wing tilt, his speeches and articles became increasingly ideological and strident. “Today’s most vibrant and intellectually exciting critiques of capitalism, monopolies, globalism, cosmopolitanism, the financialization of the economy, and structural class inequality are not found on the Left,” he declared in a 2020 piece for The American Conservative, “but among a new generation of conservatives who not only reject progressivism but have split with individualistic libertarians and warmongering ‘neoconservatives.’” At a packed lecture hall at Catholic University, he proclaimed, “I don’t want to violently overthrow the government. I want something far more revolutionary.” Today, in the anti-liberal crowd, Deneen is considered something of a philosophical guru. At conferences and other events, populist firebrands like Vance line up in excitement to greet him. Senator Marco Rubio’s chief of staff recently called Deneen “one of the important people thinking about why we are in the moment we are in right now.”

The Faux Pas of Faux Populism

Regime Change is marketed as a follow-up to Why Liberalism Failed that offers a more pragmatic roadmap for a postliberal future. Despite claiming to move beyond his critique of liberalism, roughly half of Regime Change is just that. And while Deneen still goes to great lengths to shroud his political mudslinging in philosophical garb, the gloves are clearly off. He emerges as a much angrier and more militant culture warrior, ready to enter the ring and take down his liberal foes.

Like Burke, Deneen claims to hear the instinctive conservative voice of the people.

Much of the first ninety pages consists of a long-winded diatribe against the “liberal elite” that echoes Deneen’s earlier critique but frames it for a wider audience that is fed up with “woke” politics. The particularities of this argument will be familiar to anyone who is versed in the genre of faux populism: today’s “ruling class” are produced in and by universities; i.e., “training grounds” for the “managerial elite.” These institutions provide the technical and cultural skills they need to access and navigate the other liberal institutions that dominate contemporary society: Hollywood, big tech, establishment media, and corporate America.

According to Deneen, ordinary Americans, or “somewheres”—a word Deneen borrows from journalist David Goodhard—are rooted in time and place and attached to local communities, whereas detached “anywheres” float from coast to coast in search of individual success and hedonistic pleasure. The latter is an “oligarchic minority,” a coalition of “classical liberals,” who prioritize economic freedom, and “progressive liberals,” who prioritize social justice. Despite their differences, they share a faith in progress and an idea of meritocracy that they exploit to advance their own interests, all the while claiming to care about diversity and equality. This, in a nutshell, is the “new tyranny” of “woke” liberalism. While Locke, Mill, and Dewey still get attention, they now compete with Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman—exemplars of progressive elites who are really just corrupt liberals.

In fact, most major critiques of liberalism following World War II had a more progressive tilt. Deneen’s mentor and intellectual hero, the beloved and charismatic professor at Rutgers, Wilson Carey McWilliams, was an unabashed leftist communitarian. His 1973 magnum opus, The Idea of Fraternity in America, tapped into an alternative anti-liberal tradition, not in order to restore a lost hierarchical order but, instead, to highlight the ongoing quest for more horizontal forms of solidarity.

The communitarians of McWilliams’s generation drew heavily upon the work of Louis Hartz, whose 1955 book The Liberal Tradition in America became an instant classic in the field of political theory. Hartz sought to explain why the United States remained so narrowly liberal. But instead of invoking an alternative conservative tradition, he yearned for a socialist one. Meanwhile, Regime Change both uses and distorts the insights of this tradition to serve a very different agenda.

Deneen v. DeSantis

Perhaps more than any other GOP politician, DeSantis comes closest to an anti-liberal manifestation of what Deneen imagines in Regime Change. Although Deneen does not refer explicitly to the Florida governor, in many ways Ron DeSantis’s reign of kulturkampf terror anticipates his vision for the “new elite.”

Deneen presents himself as a visionary but, often, he is just playing catch-up with the politicians.

The second half of the book is an elaboration of Deneen’s call for the cultivation of “aristopopulism” and a new class of aristoi who will serve as active agents of a regime change that ushers in the postliberal future. In contrast to liberal elites like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama who hold the people in contempt, condemning them as a “basket of deplorables” and denigrating them as people who “cling to guns or religion,” Deneen calls for the creation of a “virtuous” elite that shares and respects the values of “the people.”

This is the basis of the “common good” conservatism that Deneen and other postliberals want to install as the successor to the liberal regime. In opposition to liberalism, which divides “the people” and “the elite,” the common good—hypothetically—brings them together. In elaborating this vision, Deneen once again invokes the age-old wisdom of Aristotle, Burke, and Tocqueville; this time not simply to attack liberalism but also to promote the rise of a traditional aristocratic elite that would assume its natural position in society. Against Plato’s rule by experts, he advocates for Aristotle’s faith in “common sense” and what he calls “ordinary virtue.” In contrast to the bourgeoisie’s attempts to destroy traditional customs and beliefs, he cites Burke’s defense of “our old prejudices.” Opposing liberalism’s suspicion of the mob, he upholds Toqueville’s defense of the landed gentry whose noblesse oblige binds them to the people.

In Deneen’s vision of aristopopulism, virtuous elites articulate the inner feelings and desires of the commoners. Like Burke, Deneen claims to hear the instinctive conservative voice of the people. “What is needed—and what most ordinary people instinctively seek—is stability, order, continuity, and a sense of gratitude for the past and obligation toward the future,” he writes. “What they want, without knowing the right word for it, is a conservatism that conserves.” Deneen thus frames aristocratic paternalism as a form of democracy. Because ordinary people have the right instincts but not the knowledge to articulate them nor the wisdom to understand their meaning, it is therefore the responsibility of elites “to give voice to the nature of the good itself,” to be “stewards and caretakers of the common good.”

Deneen calls this alliance between the virtuous elite and the people a “mixed constitution” and argues that this configuration is the only way to prevent either the domination of the people by the elite—the endpoint of today’s liberal regime—or the domination of the elite by the people—the endpoint of Trumpist insurrectionism.

Regime Change devotes only a few pages to the substance of this “mixed constitution.” Deneen’s proposed policies run the gamut, including some very uncontroversial and not particularly conservative measures, such as the idea of enacting a public service program or offering incentives to young people to pursue careers in the public interest. These technocratic solutions are intermingled with more explicit forms of cultural warfare: withholding federal funding from corporate and educational institutions that refuse to toe the ideological line, and using trustees to discipline resistant faculty in colleges and universities.

“Mixing,” it seems, is anything that uses the authority of the state to diminish the cultural influence of progressives. Although Deneen suggests that this alliance will evolve organically through the political process, he describes it using vague and ominous language that hinges on coercion and the threat of violence. Invoking the need for “Machiavellian means” toward “Aristotelian ends,” he writes, “It is safe to conclude that an ennobling of our elite will not come about from goodwill, but rather through the force of a threat from the popolo.”

Imagining a “better aristocracy brought about by a muscular populism,” Deneen calls for the “peaceful but vigorous overthrow of a corrupt and corrupting liberal ruling class.” For a book that ostensibly takes great pains to distance itself from the Trumpist mob, Regime Change is remarkably comfortable with neofascist turns of phrase. For too long, the liberal elite has “displaced” the common-good elite, Deneen insists. “The power sought,” he writes, “is not merely to balance the current elite, but to replace it.”

Although Regime Change doesn’t specify what will happen to liberal elites through this process, it offers a broad set of principles for an elaborate program of ideological pressure and persecution. “Where necessary,” explains Deneen, “those who currently occupy positions of economic, cultural, and political power must be constrained and disciplined by the assertion of popular power.” After the regime change, “existing political forms can remain in place,” but only as long as they are guided by common-good principles. Once installed, the new elite will work to reverse the liberal order, using its power to “alter, transform, or uproot an otherwise hostile anti-culture.” Deneen warns, “Those who seek to remain in the ruling class must be forced to adopt a fundamentally different ethos.” Adherence to tradition and custom will then become “the price of admission to elite status itself.”

While Deneen offers these ideas as a blueprint for the future, DeSantis seems to be quite far along in actually building the thing. In both the education and corporate sectors, the Florida governor has pioneered the “mixed constitution” avant la lettre, accelerating these efforts over the past year as he pivots toward the presidential primaries. DeSantis’s notorious “Don’t Say Gay” bill was initially limited to elementary schools but has since been expanded to middle and high schools. Opposition to this bill provoked the governor’s much-ballyhooed war on “woke Disney,” which stripped the company of some of the privileges afforded by its semisovereign status and put its oversight board under the governor’s control.

New College, a tiny gem of progressivism in Florida’s public higher education system, was ground zero in DeSantis’s war on “woke” universities. The Florida governor has successfully overhauled the old Board of Trustees by installing his own right-wing loyalists, including fellow aristopopulist Christopher Rufo, who made a name for himself warning the right against the rising scourge of “critical race theory” in schools. Subsequently, DeSantis has signed bills expanding these interventions across the state, eliminating diversity programs, weakening tenure, and empowering trustees handpicked by the state’s conservative officials.

Ultimately, these policies constitute an actually existing form of regime change. With his aristopopulist vision, Deneen is not so much painting a picture of the postliberal future, or even reaching into the preliberal past, as much as he is abstracting from the postliberal present. Like other reactionary intellectuals who have tried to provide roadmaps for the post-Trump era, Deneen presents himself as a visionary but, often, he is just playing catch-up with the politicians, putting their instinctive authoritarianism into a lofty philosophical framework ex post facto.

The Rules of Movement

Today, there are not one but many reactionary anti-liberalisms. Moving forward, which, if any, of them will emerge as a blueprint for the GOP’s future remains unclear. While it’s still too soon to say, the political winds suggest that Deneen’s paradigm faces a steep uphill battle.

But the people Deneen claims to speak for are currently moving in the opposite direction.

Despite the similarities between Deneen’s ideas and DeSantis’s actions, the two men are on opposing sides of a growing schism within the anti-liberal right. In the corridors of this labyrinthine civil war, there are deep and escalating tensions between Catholic integralists like Deneen, who want to tear down the boundaries separating church and state and install a full-on theocracy, and national conservatives—or “NatCons,” as they are sometimes called—like DeSantis, who invoke the secular “nation” as their guiding light. In 2019 and 2021, Deneen attended and spoke at NatCon conferences, but in 2022, when DeSantis headlined the event in Miami, he was nowhere to be seen.

In its unabashed religious zealotry, Catholic integralism is clearly out of touch. The final chapter of Regime Change offers a watered-down version of integralism in which Deneen reflects on the need to create the conditions for “the life of prayer among ordinary people.” But the people Deneen claims to speak for are currently moving in the opposite direction. As the American public grows increasingly secular, Trump’s insurrectionist base believes in what some have referred to as a “shadow gospel” that is less influenced by Christianity per se than it is by secular forms of illiberalism that, as often as not, push up against puritanical traditionalism.

In the face of these trades, Deneen cannot escape his own version of elitist contempt. Although he idealizes the traditionalist image of the people, he abhors their libertine ways. He confesses as much in a brief aside about the working class’s “manifest shortcomings,” including their racism, which bothers him a little, and their secularism, which bothers him a lot; “by every measure, people in the working classes have abandoned their traditional affinity to associational life.” Instead of going to church, getting married, and having kids, he laments, they bow to the individualist gods of consumption and look to drugs to treat their pain.

Both Trump and Silvio Berlusconi, who merged faux populism with playboy culture, instinctively grasped the libertine authoritarianism that has become central to the political zeitgeist. In his own way, DeSantis does too. While he plays up his image as a family man, DeSantis’s anti-woke zealotry is not particularly Christian. While he is more than happy to restrict abortion in Florida and enlist religious conservatives in his culture war, his own Catholicism is decisively muted and much more in tune with the shadow gospel and existing dynamic wherein GOP politicians simply exploit religious conservatives to advance their own agendas.

And then there is the critical issue of money and donors. While Deneen’s version of anti-liberalism prioritizes the culture war, it cautiously opens the door to a more generous welfare state and other economic policies that support his theocratic vision. Of course, any Republican politician who embraces a semblance of true populism can pretty much rule out getting Koch money. And the Koch network’s support of DeSantis in past elections is a testament to the governor’s free-market credentials. For all his concerns about the children, DeSantis remains a diehard neoliberal, who has opposed minimum wage increases, rejected federal aid for food stamps, and slashed corporate taxes.

Meanwhile, Peter Thiel has emerged as the big donor of faux-populist campaigns and projects. It is safe to assume that pigs will fly before Thiel’s hard-earned billions will be spent on anything that would meaningfully reduce wealth inequality or radically change an economic system that rewarded him so well. But while Thiel claims DeSantis would make a “terrific president,” even he has questioned the right’s obsession with the culture wars to its neglect of real economic issues.

Destination Unknown

The future will tell whether Deneen’s vision of aristopopulism will actually become the political roadmap for an increasingly anti-liberal GOP. For the time being, at least, the closest working model of Deneen’s ideas is not fully onboard with his anti-liberal vision. And the clearest electoral path for the faux populists he wants to empower remains deeply divergent from his own anti-liberal roadmap to utopia.

Still, these pesky realities are unlikely to diminish Deneen’s status as a guru of the anti-liberal right. As new faux populists join the ranks of DeSantis, Hawley, and Vance, there is every reason to expect that they will continue lining up to hear Deneen speak about the sins of liberalism and the dream of a better elite. And they will continue to evoke him whenever they feel the need to justify their own versions of anti-liberalism. Just as Deneen cribs his grand vision from the politicians he claims to inspire, so do they use his ideas to give their actions a veneer of intellectual and political legitimacy.

In this reactionary symbiosis, the right’s anti-liberal politicians and theorists are happy to exploit one another to boost their own ambitions and keep the performance of faux populism going. In the meantime, if the left is to make real gains against the anti-liberal right, it will also have to recover and elaborate its own vision of the common good.