The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Behind Tucker Carlson and J.D. Vance, a revolt against the GOP unfolds

Fox News host Tucker Carlson in March 2019 in D.C. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
11 min

“The Republican Party is getting better,” Fox News host Tucker Carlson informed his viewers some time ago. “We know that because of two new Republican Senate candidates.”

In the next few months, those two candidates — J.D. Vance in Ohio and Blake Masters in Arizona — will face GOP primary voters. This means that, in a sense, Carlson’s kingmaking will be on the ballot.

Carlson’s promotion of Vance and Masters is the subject of an ambitious new piece in the New York Times, which notes that both face stiff challenges from other Republicans. If they lose, Carlson’s mission — to make the GOP “better” — will have fizzled.

The Times piece designates this phenomenon as “the rise of the Tucker Carlson politician.” Vance and Masters hope to ride the electoral passions unleashed by Donald Trump, not through personal loyalty to Trump, but by giving voice to right-wing populist nationalism while seeking to “align instead with Carlson.”

Now this is facing a moment of truth. And it’s an important test. That’s because, if you pull back the curtain a bit more, there’s also a genuine intellectual movement taking shape behind this Vance-Masters-Carlson challenge to the GOP. It falls under the umbrella of what’s often described as the “New Right.”

As it happens, I spent some time recently emailing with some of the New Right’s leading figures. Those conversations leave me convinced that this Vance-and-Masters stand, as a gauge of the political potency of the ideas animating this movement, is significant.

I asked those figures the following question: If you got your dream president and Congress in 2025, what are the first things they should do?

This movement is complicated and has various strains, from “national conservatives” to “post-liberals” to Catholic “integralists.” I chose these people because they’re roughly representative of these strains, and I don’t intend this as definitive of the whole New Right.

The New Right agenda

Let’s start with Nate Hochman, a writer at National Review who speaks eloquently for national conservatives, or NatCons. His chosen president and Congress would dramatically reduce legal immigration, cutting way down on asylum seekers and refugees. He’d pursue industrial policy such as government incentives for multinational corporations to end manufacturing abroad and punitive actions toward companies that do business in China.

But this nationalism would be paired with robust state power to fight the culture wars. Hochman favors continued state bans on the teaching of critical race theory, and he wants the federal government to aggressively incentivize the formation and health of “traditional” families. That includes policies many Republicans oppose, such as paid family leave and near-universal tax credits for children without work requirements for parents.

This NatCon vision fuses economics and culture: The GOP and conservative movement have traditionally been too beholden to macroeconomic metrics such as gross domestic product growth as measures of national greatness. Free-market orthodoxy has undercut more fundamental values such as families and community.

Promoting blue-collar workers’ material interests will buttress their natural inclination toward “traditional” families and stable communities, as bulwarks against cultural liberalism, which the GOP and conservative movement have failed to use state power effectively to do.

“Conservatives haven’t walked the walk,” Hochman tells me, adding that promoting families should be a “public good” that “the state actually has a vested interest in promoting.”

This is also envisioned strikingly by Gladden Pappin, the co-founder and deputy editor of American Affairs journal. Pappin, a post-liberal, told me it should be “the policy of the United States” — of the federal government — to “enable the traditional family” to “flourish at the heart of society.” This would include a “nationally instituted family wage” and the state “defending” the “traditional” family in other ways.

You’d think this might lead in an ugly direction, such as going much further in criminalizing certain types of sexual conduct deemed to undermine “traditional” family formation. But when pressed, Pappin insisted he doesn’t envision coercive policies. Instead, the underlying idea is that people are naturally inclined toward such family formation, so the state should incentivize them to get there.

Thus the state should step in to offset family-unfriendly changes to our economy, such as declining prospects for one of two parents to earn a breadwinner’s wage. “While family must by natural law mean that of a husband, wife and children, legislators must positively use state power to make family life possible and choice-worthy,” Pappin told me. He might direct 5 percent of GDP toward support for family formation.

What makes this post-liberal is the open break from the liberal ideal of a neutral state, the explicit call for the state to incentivize what a higher law — “natural law” — decrees about the correct makeup of the family.

Masters is testing this idea in his Arizona Senate candidacy. He’s campaigning on the idea that “you ought to be able to raise a family on one single income.”

Or consider Saurabh Sharma, whose organization, American Moment, is a training ground for policy talent for future administrations. Its top priority is that “the American family, rooted in faith and tradition, is the bedrock of this nation and must be supported.”

This typical conservative extolment of the family is fused with aggressive nationalism. Sharma would implement a 10-year moratorium on all legal immigration to allow immigrants currently here to culturally assimilate, and aggressively bring back global supply chains.

“The health of countries’ families has to be the metric by which you assess the overall health of the country,” Sharma told me, again showing the New Right’s devaluing of GDP as a controlling measure.

Or take Patrick Deneen, the author of “Why Liberalism Failed,” a canonical post-liberal text. Deneen wants a president and Congress to model family policies on those of Hungary, which invests extensive resources in incentivizing “traditional” family formation.

So Deneen wants subsidies to incentivize more children and government loans to encourage family formation. In a twist, Deneen would fully forgive these loans for parents with three or four children, a big state subsidy for ever-larger families.

Deneen wants “substantial” federal and state support for mothers of young children, and if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, that would be even better: An end to abortion rights would be seen not just as inherently good, but also the foundation for the state to aggressively promote larger families.

Things get more intense still with Adrian Vermeule. An integralist, Vermeule doesn’t identify as a member of the right or a policy expert. He envisions a “common good constitutionalism,” a jurisprudence granting great leeway to deploying the state toward realizing the “common good.”

Judges would be more prone to uphold, say, bans on certain speech and conduct that lawmakers decide would serve the common good. In Vermeule’s vision, judges would grant public authorities a “substantial zone of deference” in determining what morally benefits the whole populace and in legislating against what they deem “corrosive social practices.” His ideal president would appoint five “common good” justices to the Supreme Court.

Virtually every figure I spoke to supports dramatically scaled-down legal immigration, ambitious de-globalization, state promotion of families and the breakup of Big Tech. Vance and Masters are campaigning on a platform along these lines.

Crossover with progressives?

What all this amounts to is this: The New Right breaks with the long-enduring libertarian-plutocratic streak in GOP economic orthodoxy. Many New Rightists agree that we can and should use government power to reconfigure markets to achieve better social outcomes.

This view has crossover potential with progressivism. Collaborations might include an expanded child tax credit and various types of industrial policy to secure positive social ends, such as rebuilding left-behind nonmetropolitan economies.

But if we’re going to invest substantial government resources in buoying traditional families — as a public good that’s essential to human flourishing — why not invest far more extensive social resources in other baseline goods essential to such flourishing, such as universal health care and education?

Indeed, there are many other ways to use the state to boost working-class prospects, from raising minimum wages to strengthening unions. The progressive agenda seems more materially robust and takes the power imbalance between capital and labor more seriously.

Ultimately, buried under these differences are deeper clashes of worldviews. There is a strong positive case to be made for immigration: It doesn’t seriously harm native workers’ wages, spurs economic growth and will support our ballooning elderly population.

But right-wing populists see immigration through a different lens entirely, as a deep threat to social cohesion and national solidarity. If you don’t feel this way, it seems inexplicable — immigrant assimilation seems to be proceeding as it has during previous eras, and immigration flows are not historically high. But some right-wing populists see something else entirely, a culture buckling under invasion and siege.

Or take breaking up Big Tech. Both left and right see serious social harms flowing from technological behemoths. Both support antitrust actions. But as Gilad Edelman demonstrates, the right-wing critique also strays into deep alarm about Big Tech’s role in spreading “woke” culture and about censorship directed at conservatives that sometimes seems tendentious and self-indulgent.

Some New Rightists appear convinced that cultural leftism has irredeemably captured institutions that define our social reality, from Big Tech to universities to the media. One explanation for this is that it reflects genuine alienation from liberal modernity. But from certain New Rightists, this tendency seems prone to a solipsistic cultural catastrophism that has taken on a life of its own.

“Once you land on one side of these questions, it becomes a self-perpetuating tendency,” Matthew Sitman, a former conservative turned proprietor of the “Know Your Enemy” podcast, told me.

Take critical race theory. Whatever legitimate concerns parents have about curriculums and “wokeness” excess, the push for bans on such teaching has long since crossed over into something darker. These curbs sloppily ban entire concepts and sometimes seem deliberately designed to fan fears that schools are infested with subversive radicals. This pulls toward an embrace of all-or-nothing showdowns for their own sake.

These causes “start with a kernel of something real, an issue a parent might be concerned about,” Sitman told me, but then metastasize “beyond all recognition into pure panic and rage and fear,” shaped around a “narrative of catastrophe, of decline.”

This catastrophism can morph into a turn against democracy. Laura Field chronicles how the Claremont Institute moved seamlessly from cultural panic straight to justifying Trump’s effort to overturn his 2020 election loss — as necessary to stave off cultural Armageddon — in a self-perpetuating loop.

Or take the devolution of Vance. After vouching for the integrity of Trump’s loss, Vance eventually felt compelled to voice support for Trump’s 2020 lies to win Trump voters. Vance now justifies aligning with Trump by declaring that Trump has exposed the corruption in our institutions — meaning Trump has exposed how badly they’ve been infiltrated by the hegemonic left.

But this just demonstrates how effortlessly this mental habit flips to turning against democracy. It’s vexing to see a top New Right intellectual talent collapse so easily into rank gutter Trumpism.

But for all this, the New Right’s critique of GOP economic orthodoxy has the potential to forge new spaces of ideological overlap with economic liberals. The New Right challenge should compel liberals to sharpen their justification for core political commitments.

The Vance and Masters candidacies will soon test Carlson’s kingmaking powers. But also at stake is something with important long-term implications for the future of our politics.