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Loving America while hating Americans

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Zach Beauchamp has an interesting piece in Vox on how America’s radicalized conservative movement has curdled into an explicitly anti-American ideology, if “American” means the actual American culture(s) and people(s), as opposed to a reactionary fantasyland that has never existed, and that is now even less connected to reality than ever:

This dark depiction of the state of the country has become a hallmark of the Trumpified GOP, and Democrats’ 2020 electoral victories only deepened the conservative sense of betrayal at the hands of their countrymen. In late July, Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance warned that “we have lost every single major cultural institution in this country” — and suggested that America “has built its entire civilization” around selfish, miserable people. Earlier that month, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem said “I look at Joe Biden’s America, and I don’t recognize the country that I grew up in.”

The Olympics have brought out this sense of alienation from America on the right. When conservatives see American athletes representing values at odds with their vision for the country, they don’t back Team USA in the name of patriotism — they turn on the icons of the nation itself.

Queer female soccer stars demanding equal pay, Black basketball players kneeling to protest police brutality, the world’s best gymnast prioritizing her mental health over upholding the traditional ideal of the “tough” athlete — this is all a manifestation of the ascendancy of liberal cultural values in public life. And an America where these values permeate national symbols, like the Olympic team, is an America where those symbols are worthy of scorn.

“So much of the self-perception of the American right is about losing the culture war. And that, specifically, is where some of this overt anti-Americanism — especially from the grassroots — is coming from,” says David Walsh, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Virginia who studies the history of the right.

That disdain has also seeped into the right’s recent rhetoric toward an institution that conservatives have typically celebrated: law enforcement.

When Capitol police officers testified to the House about their experiences during the 1/6 attack, ostensibly pro-police conservatives vilified them. Fox’s Tucker Carlson laughed at Officer Michael Fanone’s claim to experience “psychological trauma” after the attack; fellow host Laura Ingraham gave out mock acting awards to the officers, implying their experiences were fake or ginned up.

The willingness to attack police officers who defended an attack on the seat of American government gets at the through-the-looking-glass ugliness of contemporary right-wing patriotism.

Over the weekend, the New York Times reported that leading elected Republicans have “concocted a version of events in which those accused of rioting were patriotic political prisoners and Speaker Nancy Pelosi was to blame for the violence.” Their base is listening: a recent poll from CBS-YouGov found that over half of Trump voters believe it’s appropriate to describe the events of January 6 as an act of “patriotism.”

The intellectual center, such as it is, of this movement has become the Claremont Institute, which is about as favorably disposed to actually existing Americans and their institutions as Al Qaeda:

In a May podcast, Hillsdale College lecturer and former Trump administration official Michael Anton chatted with entrepreneur Curtis Yarvin — a self-described monarchist who wants to appoint a Silicon Valley CEO king of America — about their shared desire to topple what Anton terms the American “regime.”

During the episode, Yarvin muses about how an American strongman — whom he alternatively calls “Caesar” and, more honestly, “Trump” — could seize authoritarian control of the US government by turning the National Guard and FBI into his personal stormtroopers. Critic Damon Linker identifies this politics, which meets with little pushback from Anton, as “broadly coterminous with fascism” — and it’s hard to see where he’s wrong. The pining for a strongman stems from disgust with an America Yarvin and Anton no longer recognize, a country they describe as a “theocratic oligarchy” controlled by a cadre of progressive “priests.” . . .

And an essay in the Claremont Review of Books by scholar Angelo Codevilla describes a country whose government is clinging to “an illusion of legitimacy” after “a half-century of Progressive rule’s abuse” has demolished American society.

“The War on Poverty ended up enriching its managers while expanding the underclass that voted for them. The civil rights movement ended up entitling a class of diversity managers to promote their friends and ruin their opponents,” Codevilla writes. “There is no end to what the Left can do because there is so little that conservatives do to fight back.”

Over email, Tait tells me that Claremont has become the foremost center of anti-American right-wing thinking in large part because of its “sacralized view of American history as an ideal regime.”

Even among conservatives, generally a nostalgic bunch, Claremonters are particularly inclined toward veneration of the unique wisdom of the country’s founders and early America. This makes them particularly inclined towards a sense of political betrayal — and the same kind of hyper-patriotic anti-Americanism that motivates anti-Olympian, pro-Capitol riot punditry.

Although comparisons between the radical right and the radical left can be too glib and facile, there’s a level at which horseshoe theory actually does become descriptively accurate: The Claremont Institute wants to quite literally burn down what America is today, just as surely as the Weather Underground wanted to do so a half century ago.

One gigantic distinction, however, looms over this historical analogy: radical leftists had then and continue to have now zero political influence, let alone actual power, in American life, while the equally radical reactionaries that are in an important sense their ideological soulmates have now taken over one of the nation’s two major political parties.

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