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The Problem With Right-Wing ‘Regime’ Talk

What the new paranoid buzzword reveals about the New Right.
August 23, 2022
The Problem With Right-Wing ‘Regime’ Talk
(Composite / Photos: GettyImages)

In the right-wing commentariat’s reaction to the FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago, a new buzzword dropped.

“The regime’s decision to take out Trump Banana Republic-style was woefully miscalculated.” In doing so, “the regime made Trump a martyr,” a staff writer at the Federalist reported breathlessly.

“The Regime Wants Its Revenge,” screamed a headline in the American Conservative.

“Anyone you see being demonized is being demonized because what they’re saying is a threat to the regime,” tweeted far-right YouTuber and InfoWars editor-at-large Paul Joseph Watson.

And here’s what Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said to his 1 million Twitter followers:

Close observers of the American right will have noticed that similar “Regime” talk was already bubbling around before the FBI search. In Vanity Fair’s deep dive on Peter Thiel-funded New Right candidates and national conservatism, Ohio Senate hopeful J.D. Vance says despair “serves the regime.” Arizona’s Blake Masters is more equivocal. “‘The regime’ sounds really sexy, right?” he says. “It’s a tangible enemy—if you could just grapple with it in the right way, you can topple it. And I think it’s actually just a lot less sexy and a lot more bureaucratic.” However, he adds, “I’ve read that stuff, and I see what it means.”

Slangy and cynical, the term “the Regime” is freighted with meaning. It demonstrates to the very online Gen Z New Right that the user is based. (It’s no coincidence that many of the writers throwing the term around are recent college graduates.) It signals a rejection of the premises and the defeatism of the postwar conservative movement. It’s more encompassing than “the Deep State” and more militarized than “the Swamp,” but like those terms has the effect of conjuring a faceless other to oppose—thereby allowing conservatives to stay in the familiar stance of a persecuted minority opposing powerful, pernicious forces.

The emergence of “Regime” talk shows how ideas once on the fringe of the American right are becoming received wisdom. Above all, it demonstrates the right’s dangerous lack of commitment to democracy and the rule of law.

What sort of “stuff,” then, does Masters mean?

“Regime” rhetoric draws on three main currents of formerly dissident right-wing thought: the Claremont Institute’s dismal turn against America, the inverted Marxism of once-buried paleoconservatives, and the techno-authoritarianism of the Peter Thiel set’s court philosopher, Curtis Yarvin. Its effect is to treat not only the state, but nearly every institution or force—including ones, like the FBI, until recently held in high esteem by the right—as oppressors.

Funnily enough, the Claremont Institute once used “regime” to refer to the American Republic in an odd but non-pejorative sense. The Claremont school, following its intellectual leader Harry Jaffa and his teacher Leo Strauss, understands societies as ordered by their governments, their guiding myths, and established mores. The Founders established the United States as a good regime. But according to the Claremont Institute’s potted history of the United States, European progressivism and conceptions of the state took hold among sections of the political elite early in the twentieth century. In this understanding, recent political history has been a slow-motion revolution as progressive activists accrue more and more unelected power to the federal bureaucracy—the “administrative state,” a term that emerged from academic political science and came to be embraced by the right. Increasingly, the good American regime of the Founding has been replaced by a secular, anti-democratic and centralizing one.

When Trumpist intellectual and Claremont usual suspect Michael Anton writes about “the Regime” in Compact, it’s partly this despairing use. “The regime can’t allow Trump to be president not because of who he is (although that grates), but because of who his followers are.” Trump is the champion of the Middle Americans. “The rubes have no legitimate standing to affect the outcome of any political process,” Anton writes, “because of who they are, but mostly because of what they want.”

For Anton, the Regime is the administrative state, run by elites, organized against the authentic American, and backed up by left-wing intellectuals and shapers of culture. Intentionally or not, Anton’s formulation conjures the defining work of Samuel T. Francis. A thinker once booted from the conservative mainstream for overt racism and nearly forgotten, Francis, who died in 2005, has undergone a reappraisal for apparently anticipating key elements of Trumpism. Once untouchable, Francis’s thought is becoming a tentative touchstone of the New Right.

Francis conceived of politics primarily in terms of power. On these grounds he lambasted the conservative movement as a failure. He once wrote an essay on the conservative movement called “Ideas and No Consequences,” flipping the cliché. Conservatives’ chief problem, he thought, was that they misunderstood America’s political realities. Francis argued that a managerial class—bureaucrats whose dominance of technical knowledge and jargon gave them the keys to powerful organizations, corporations, and ultimately the state—had seized power since the Progressive Era. The managerial regime set forth a liberal ideology to justify and reinforce their dominance and corrode right-wing institutions. Underpinning the managerial regime, Francis thought, was an alliance between regime elites and an underclass paid off by the state by robbing the middle.

The Reaganite conservative movement failed, Francis wrote in 1991, because it “fundamentally misperceived its own position” to the “managerial regime” and made the mistake of “seeking consensus rather than conflict with the dominant elite of the regime.” There’s nothing left to be conserved. A winning right-wing strategy would be to increase the “polarization of Middle Americans from the incumbent regime, not to build coalitions with the regime’s defenders and beneficiaries.” The right needed a new power base to smash the elite/underclass alliance. Francis meant white “workers, farmers, suburbanites and other non- or postbourgeois groups, as well as small businessmen.” He called them Middle American Radicals, and to appeal to them, the right should focus on “crime, educational collapse, the erosion of their economic status, and the calculated subversion of their social, cultural, and national identity by forces that serve the interests of the elite above them and the underclass below them.” The goal was to “mobilize” Middle America “in radical opposition to the regime.”

It’s ironic Claremont writers would begin to think and speak like Samuel Francis. Francis’s allies once saw Claremont and its intellectual leader Harry Jaffa as liberal cuckoo chicks, stealing vital resources from true right-wingers. Trump united their successors.

There’s another element of this heady brew. “The Regime” echoes Peter Thiel pal and neoreactionary thinker Curtis Yarvin’s use of “the Cathedral” to describe society dominated by liberals. Yarvin used to write under the nom de blog Mencius Moldbug. Now he turns up at tony national conservative events and bizarre right-wing hipster dens. Like Francis, Yarvin sees modern liberalism as an “intellectual political machine” enforcing its control and dictating acceptable thought. The Cathedral “has no center, no master planners.” It reproduces an intellectual elite class whose control over “mass opinion creates power. Power diverts funds to the manufacturers of opinion, who manufacture more,” perpetuating the elite. “To the bishops of the Cathedral, anything that strengthens their influence is a good thing, and vice versa.” You therefore, “have no rational reason to trust anything coming out of the Cathedral—that is, the universities and press.”

In his writing about the Cathedral, Yarvin focused less on the government than the ambient discourse that wends from the professoriate, through graduate school, to journalists and undergraduates becoming ultimately public policy. “In the form of ‘public policy,’ power flows directly from Cathedral to Congress, often leaving public opinion a decade or two behind.” Yarvin construes the Cathedral’s membership widely. “It includes not only the civil service proper—formal government employees—but also all those who consider themselves public servants, including journalists, professors, NGOistas, etc.” The Cathedral has America in a death grip, but organized against it is a “‘populist’ or anti-Cathedral political revival, from Joe McCarthy to Sarah Palin” that will whip itself into a frenzy in opposition.

Put it all together, and you get what is gestured at in the Regime: corrupt cosmopolitan elites in control of a powerful, sprawling and un-democratic state apparatus that aids frequently non-white allies while punishing decent Americans. Its attendant media class not only lies and dissembles, but its ideology permeates culture and deliberately erodes traditional values. Whatever was good about America has been overthrown in a slow-motion coup. And they are hysterically afraid of a populist uprising.

When major politicians like DeSantis bandy about trending terms like “the Regime” it signals to the edgier and often younger parts of the base that they too reject the compromises that tame conservatives—those “beautiful losers”—have made, their norms and their guardrails. Instead, it hints at the more combative and more radical politics of the New Right. “The Regime” also hints to QAnon followers that the user is on the level.

But the mainstreaming of “the Regime” shows an alarming loss of trust in the foundations of liberal democracy.

At the most basic level, calling the stable, democratically elected Biden administration “the regime” demonizes the right’s political opponents. The United States isn’t behind the Iron Curtain. The only other article with the Federalist’s “The Regime” tag is about Venezuela’s Maduro regime. You get the point. In America’s increasingly polarized environment, the right’s use of “Regime” talk further divides by refusing to acknowledge the Democratic party as legitimate.

In functioning democracies, it is vital that political blocs accept their opponents’ electoral victories as definitive and their existence as licit. That was the miracle of the Revolution of 1800, and that’s the basis of democracy. Mainstreaming “Regime” talk is mainstreaming the end of democratic trust.

“Regime” rhetoric doesn’t just undermine trust in democratic opponents. It undercuts faith in public information and the rule of law—both critical foundations of modern democracy.

Media bias no doubt exists. But “the Regime” treats the Fourth Estate—and academia—as apparatchiks of the state allegedly fabricating stories to tarnish the right. When this becomes common practice on the right, as if journalistic commitment to facts or genuine expertise don’t exist, we reach a point where the only sources of information that segments of the right-wing base will trust are conservative media and conspiratorial influencers.

Likewise, if the U.S. government really is merely elites wielding the state against its enemies, there’s no reason to trust that the enforcement of any federal law could be impartial. (See, for instance, Donald Trump Jr.’s reaction to the news that Merrick Garland approved the Mar-a-Lago search.) The right’s erosion of trust in the rule of law encourages grievances, sets the stage for future flashpoints, and risks right-wing retribution for perceived attacks.

And what do people ultimately do to regimes?

They topple them.

To call the Biden administration “the Regime,” or a major component of “the Regime,” is an implicit call to overthrow it. Too many right-wing elites act as if they are spoiling for an actual fight. America isn’t a banana republic, per the Federalist and Ron DeSantis. But a right wing that throws off norms, won’t acknowledge its political foes as legitimate, undermines the rule of law, and spoils for a fight? That’s banana republic territory.

Joshua Tait

Joshua Tait is a historian of American conservatism. He has a Ph.D. in U.S. History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Twitter: @Joshua_A_Tait.