Hillbilly Elegy author JD Vance was already some way along a journey when he took the stage at the first "National Conservatism Conference" in July 2019.
In the runup to 2016, he had been an outspoken critic of Donald Trump's candidacy. "I find him reprehensible," he tweeted a month before the election. "Fellow Christians, everyone is watching us when we apologize for this man."
Within three years, his views had evolved sufficiently to put him on the program of an event widely viewed as an attempt by right-wing pundits and scholars to erect an institutional structure—or at least some intellectual scaffolding—around the Trump phenomenon.
Earlier this year, just after announcing a run for U.S. Senate, he apologized to Ohio voters for having been "wrong about the guy."
But only last week did the full force of Vance's spiritual reversal become apparent: "I think our people hate the right people," he told The American Conservative magazine.
"Our people" might be understood broadly as the Republican base, while those he sees as worthy of contempt might be understood broadly as leftists and members of the coastal elite. Reached for comment, his campaign press secretary affirmed that "JD Vance strongly believes that the political, financial and Big Tech elites…deserve nothing but our scorn and hatred."
By suggesting that antipathy toward the correct out-group is itself a moral imperative, Vance was engaging a powerful political current that has recently resurfaced within the conservative movement. He is not the first to be swept up in it.
In 2016 and 2017, New York Post op-ed editor Sohrab Ahmari wrote a pair of long magazine articles sounding the alarm to people of faith about rising illiberalism at home and abroad. "Simply put," he said in the second piece for Commentary magazine, "in the real-world experience of the 20th century, the Church, tradition, and religious minorities fared far better under liberal-democratic regimes than they did under illiberal alternatives."
Two years later, Ahmari had had enough of all that. In a now-infamous broadside in the Christian journal First Things, he insisted that conservatives learn to see "politics as war and enmity," that they shed their "great horror" of "the use of the public power to advance the common good," and that they be willing "to fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils."
At the very core of the new illiberal conservatism is a yen for power—and an unabashed willingness to use it to destroy one's political opponents. Summing up the problem with libertarians and "establishment" conservatives in an essay last year, Hillsdale College's David Azerrad assailed "the cowardice and accommodation in the face of leftist hegemony" exhibited by the "long list of enemies to the Right." The more "manly" and "combative" conservatism that Azerrad claimed to speak for "understands not just ideas," he said, "but power."
Demands of this sort can be plausibly justified only if one's adversaries are irredeemable and one's life itself is at stake. Listen to the new conservatives' online chatter and you'll hear just such claims: that the left wishes to "subjugate" or "exterminate" them; that progressives have no qualms about using state power to accomplish their ends; that to do anything less than respond "in kind" amounts to "unilateral disarmament"; that this is a "war" in which the only choices are "suicide" or victory at any cost.
And these sentiments are not limited to anonymous accounts on the dark edges of social media. In July, former Trump official (and "Flight 93 Election" essayist) Michael Anton lambasted conservatives for not responding appropriately to the "proto-genocidal rhetoric" of the left. In February 2020, Harvard Law professor Adrian Vermeule stepped into hot water by tweeting that the anti-Trump attendees of a center-right conference would be "the very first group for the camps." (He meant that their opposition to Trump will not be able to save them from the "gulags" when the "extremist left" takes over, he later clarified.) As talk radio provocateur Jesse Kelly put it this spring, "The Left and the Right have existed in a System where only the Left plays offense and the Right plays defense. They've existed in this System so long, both sides think it's normal. And permanent. It's not."
A couple of things should be clear at this point. For one, this is not a left-right schism. For those I call "Will-to-Power Conservatives," the fusionist right is no less an enemy than is the progressive-identitarian left. (Now would be a good moment to acknowledge that the politics of hate are not exactly foreign to segments of the progressive movement, either. Neither side has a monopoly on illiberalism.)
Second, this divide is not primarily about technocratic policy.
Consider that the same nationalist conference at which Vance spoke in 2019 featured a debate. On one side, representing the MAGA faction, former Mitt Romey adviser Oren Cass argued that Washington should use its powers of taxation and regulation to prop up American manufacturing against foreign competition. On the other, Richard Reinsch, an editor at the libertarian publisher Liberty Fund, made the case for free markets and against attempts by the state to choose winners and losers.
It can seem like this type of studious wrangling over the proper size and scope of government is the main rift on the right today. It's not. Cass' top-down industrial planning is about as far from my free trade libertarianism as a political agenda can be. But as a dispositional liberal, Cass recognizes, just as Reinsch and I do, that people can disagree without despising one another.
The same, I fear, cannot be said of Vance and his compatriots. And once hate becomes a virtue to be celebrated and opponents become enemies to be destroyed, before long, no response is off the table.
Students of intellectual history may be picking up a hair-raising resonance. The new illiberal conservatives have (sometimes quite explicitly) taken a page out of the book of Carl Schmitt, an anti-modernist, pro-authoritarian German political philosopher known for insisting that the core distinction of politics "is that between friend and enemy."
It's occasionally said that Schmitt's ideas were meant to be descriptive, not normative. Yet he plainly believed that blowing up constitutional limitations on the executive and withholding mercy from the out-group were the legitimate province of a sovereign state. Democracy, he once wrote, "necessarily involves first homogeneity and secondly—if necessary—the elimination or annihilation of heterogeneity."
As if to prove how strong the current of hate-based politics can be, Schmitt's beliefs would lead him to a stint as the "crown jurist of the Third Reich." Though he eventually left the Nazi Party, he refused to renounce the worldview that had made him one of Hitler's most prominent apologists.
With their talk of enemies and enmity and civilizational war, it seems the new illiberal conservatives have tapped into something that isn't so new after all.