The Intellectual Tradition of the Political Right: An Interview with Matthew McManus 

Colton Bernasol interviews author and philosopher Matt McManus on the nature, origins, and proponents of right-wing political thinking.

The political right continues to grow in the United States. Despite deceitful claims of election fraud, Donald Trump remains a popular candidate for the presidency, polling higher than any other Republican running for president. The normalization of Trump-style politics has galvanized and popularized reactionary politicians who, alongside Trump, have denied the results of the 2020 election. This has led to right-wing retrenchment at the level of policy. Consider Ron Desantis, the Florida governor who has not hesitated to pass state bills banning abortion, limiting history lessons in race, sexuality, and gender, and universalizing conceal-and-carry for any Florida citizen regardless of having a permit. This network of political actors and thinkers has normalized anti-immigrant, white supremacist, sexist, and transphobic rhetoric and policies. 

This situation did not come from nowhere. Underlying the contemporary right-wing is an influential set of norms and commitments, a tradition of thought that has shaped politics in the West for centuries. Matthew McManus, a lecturer in Political Science at the University of Michigan, a regular contributor to Bias Magazine, and a prolific writer for outlets like Jacobin and Commonweal, has sought to understand the intellectual tradition shaping right-wing politics in the United States. In his recently published The Political Right and Equality: Turning Back the Tide of Egalitarian Modernity, McManus charts the intellectual influences of right-wing politics.

When I wrote to him asking why he was interested in the political right and reactionary right-wing political theory on its own terms, he shared two reasons. The first, he wrote, “was the desire, in the parlance of the day, to know my enemy.” He cultivated this interest during his Ph. D. studies when it was “quite rare for left-leaning intellectuals to spend a lot of time reading about conservatism and the political right.” The situation, he acknowledged, has since changed. There are “some truly exemplary scholars like Corey Robin, Wendy Brown, and Daniel Tutt who have done some great work on the right from a left-wing perspective.” His interests were not only theoretical. “The second main reason for my project,” Matt wrote to me, “was, of course, the rise of right-wing populism and soft authoritarianism in the United States, Hungary, India, and beyond. This was a major shift that few anticipated, and it had transformative effects. Like many I was surprised by Trump’s election in 2016. It provoked me to go back and spend more time learning about the right and its core claims.”

I asked Matt to share more about the nature of right-wing political thinking. I was especially interested in the origins of right-wing political theory, who its main intellectual proponents were, and how Christians with a commitment to egalitarian politics might wrestle with the role that their own faith has played in shaping right-wing thought.

COLTON R. BERNASOL: What are the defining principles, claims, and narratives for those political theorists elaborating what you describe as a “reactionary right-wing” politics?

MATT MCMANUS: F. A. Hayek (1899–1992) articulated and critiqued the core political principle for the right very effectively some time ago. In his essay “Why I Am Not a Catholic,” Hayek argued that to be right-wing is to believe that there are recognizably superior people in society. Societies that properly function ensure these superior people possess the lion’s share of wealth, power, status, and cultural influence. In The Reactionary Mind, Corey Robin (b. 1967) adds another major piece to the development of reactionary right-wing politics. He points out that a commitment to an unequal society became far more self-conscious after the Age of Revolutions (1776–1848) when movements for equality were gaining intellectual and cultural traction. The rising popularity of egalitarian ideologies shocked many for whom the idea of a hierarchical society was simply natural. 

It’s important to stress that modern conservatism had to become self-conscious in defending inequality precisely because it had been taken for granted for so long, going back to antiquity. Take Aristotle (384–322 BC) for example. Aristotle is a magnificent thinker whose work has inspired progressive liberals like Martha Nussbaum (b. 1947) and radicals like Karl Marx (1818–1883). But Aristotle’s thinking is often appealed to in order to justify natural inequalities. Consider his influential work on political theory, Politics. In Politics, Aristotle insisted that in any society there are those who possess virtue and a capacity for reason and those who do not. These better people, thought Aristotle, should rule society. The people who did not possess these qualities were “natural slaves,” members of society fit only for manual labor who were not entitled to political or social rights and privileges. Charles Taylor (b. 1931) describes Aristotle’s vision for public life as predicated on “hierarchical complementarity,” the belief in superior and inferior castes of people. In my understanding of reactionary right-wing thinking, hierarchical complementarity is foundational to their vision of public life. Even today, it remains very attractive to many on the right. 

The contrary insistence—that we are all equal and that inequalities need to be explained and overcome—emerged in the modern era, shocking those who took inequality for granted.

CRB: You recently wrote an essay on the Bronze Age Pervert who, to my mind, exemplifies a more vulgar and unapologetic right-wing reactionary “intellectual,” if one can or ought to call him that. He has gained popularity among online right-wing audiences. How does his politics reflect the tradition of reactionary right-wing politics, and who else do you see as carrying on the legacies of the right? 

MM: Bronze Age Pervert (BAP) is an emblematic figure of what I call the new “three-legged stool” of the American right. Let me explain. From the 1950s through Goldwater to Romney, the modern American right has had three major legs: anti-New Deal and welfarist libertarians, white social conservatives, and anti-Communist or pro-interventionist Hawks. Conservative politicians like Ronald Reagan deployed the metaphor of a three-legged stool to describe the intellectual and popular coalition of the modern American right. This coalition assumed hegemonic status in the 1970s and 80s through Nixon and Reagan. They agitated for and achieved many long-standing conservative objectives: rolling back the welfare state, implementing tough-on-crime policies, and remaking the judiciary to advance social conservative policies. 

From this old-three legged stool, a new coalition has emerged. This new coalition consists of national conservatives, committed to the idea that America should abandon liberalism for a kind of ethno-religious nationalism. There are also post-liberals, who argue instead for a commitment to a right-wing communitarian universalism bordering on theocratic integralism (or sometimes just slipping over). They overlap with national conservatives in many respects, but reject the ethno-nationalist framing for a more universalistic perspective-often centered around Catholicism. Its possible this might wind up being a largely theoretical dispute, but it could become more in the event that the post-liberals aren’t capable of appealing to non-Catholic, let alone non-Christian, ethno-nationalists. The third leg of this stool is what I’ve called the Nietzschean right. The Nietzschean right, as exemplified by figures like BAP and Richard Hanania, is more secular and appeals to pseudo-scientific arguments about the need for a typically male and white (though there are some exceptions) elite to gain greater power in America. In BAP’s case this takes the form of arguing for fascism or, as he puts it, “something worse,” in a rather trollish way. Hanania is a bit closer to the mainstream. He argues for a capitalist Nietzscheanism where entrepreneurs aren’t subjected to democratic constraints in their pursuit of the kind of “greatness” that has taken Elon Musk’s X to new heights. They conflate the idea of Nietzsche’s superman with the idea of the entrepreneur. Never mind that Nietzsche himself (1844–1900) posited the artist-philosopher as the ideal superman and was largely contemptuous of businessmen.

CRB: You describe the political right as a politics opposed to egalitarian modernity. Could you briefly describe what you mean by egalitarian modernity and what right-wing thinkers find particularly threatening about the general tide of political egalitarianism?

MM: To understand the right’s reaction to modern egalitarianism, one must understand liberalism. Liberalism is a complex credo that has regressive and progressive variations. It has its roots in the emergence of both market capitalism and protestantism. In its early form, political liberals believed that people are by nature equal, entitled to equal rights and basic liberty. Of course, this was highly qualified in its early variations. People of color, women, children, and slaves, for example, were not given rights. But it’s important to recognize that even in its early form this rudimentary commitment to the idea of equality had radical implications. People who once held no authority or power could now appeal to their right to liberty. They could demand a greater share of power and status for themselves. Revolutions in Great Britain, the United States, Haiti, and France can be traced, in part, to the influence of liberal ideas. 

These revolutionary movements shocked and horrified aristocrats committed to the old order. Their traditional arguments for hierarchical complementarity no longer had taken-for-granted purchase. Liberal philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), for instance, famously dismissed Aristotle as wrong about nearly everything, and held that the advances of science showed how utterly equal persons were in a state of nature. Even Kant (1724–1804), who made his racism rather apparent, held that each individual possessed universal reason and was entitled to participate in a republican system of government. Charles Mills rightly pointed out that in these cases we need to read Kant’s philosophy against his racism.

The failure of old arguments to legitimize political hierarchy provoked the emergence of the modern intellectual right. These figures are looking for ways to advance ancient claims about the hierarchical structure of society. Some of its major figures to this day work to re-legitimate older arguments for justifying subordination. John Finnis or Adrian Vermeule represent intellectuals on the right committed to retrieving a peculiarly right-wing Christian outlook. But others like Edmund Burke or Nietzsche took a different route. They decided to invent new modes of argumentation for hierarchy and subordination.

CRB: Today, many right-wing thinkers appeal to being both “classical liberals” and “conservatives.” You write that liberalism was originally opposed to right-wing reactionary politics. How are today’s reactionary politicians reconciling political positions that at one point were viewed as diametrically opposed? 

Classical liberalism emerged as a revolutionary and progressive credo. Critics like Marx nodded at classical liberalism approvingly when they noted how its destabilization of entrenched ideologies contributed to the overthrow of the feudal mode of production and aristocratic class rule.

But aligned with the capitalist mode of production, it very quickly became an ideological to articulate new kinds of justifications for inequality. These inequalities were less calcified than the old aristocratic ones, but no less problematic. Thomas Malthus (1766–1834) is a good example of this turn. Rather than showing a kind of Christian pity for the destitute, he blamed much of their situation on a combination of vice and indolence. Oswald Spengler (1880–1936) was talking about “gutter children” and the curse they imposed on society going forward. This rhetoric shows that these emerging liberal justifications for hierarchy could be just as vicious as what came before, if not more so. 

Monarchists like Robert Filmer (1588–1653) held that the aristocracy was like a patriarchy, with the king being the stern but loving father of his people. By contrast classical liberals committed to possessive individualism could hold that while we start out equal in nature, or at least in our basic rights, we by no means stay equal. Through our own efforts we rise and fall in a competitive market economy. As Wendy Brown notes in In the Ruins of Neoliberalism, this liberal justification climaxes in the rather funny neoliberal ethos that those who are successful in our society made it there exclusively through their own merits. They owe nothing to anyone. Those who are poor weren’t set there by nature or God. Instead, classic liberals blamed poverty on individual lack of talent or work ethic. Consequently the poor were owed nothing; they should blame themselves for their own subordination. 

This is a profoundly alienating outlook, responsible for much of the anger that marks our epoch, good and bad. Empirical political scientists like Roger Eatwell and Matt Goodwin show that a lot of the anger driving people toward Trump flows from the public’s perception that political actors are bought and paid for by economic elites. And researchers like Martin Gilens and Thomas Piketty have shown how the public is right to think that; economic elites do in fact wield outsized influence. The bad result is that post-liberals find an attentive audience when they argue that the response to neoliberalism should be a return to a pre-liberal epoch. They believe that society would be in better shape if a new conservative elite came into power and rolled back many of liberalism’s positive gains. 

But liberalism can also take other forms. Liberals at their best have recognized that many elements of capitalism are incompatible with the sincere desire to establish a society defined by equality and liberty for all. From J. S Mill (1806–1873) to Chantal Mouffe (b. 1943), liberal socialists in particular have articulated very attractive visions of society. Liberal socialist politicians like Willy Brandt (1913–1992) have helped establish some of the most successful societies we know. He helped to introduce co-determination models in the workplace, where workers elect representatives to sit on company boards and participate in governance. This means workers have a real say in how the firms they work for are governed and where the profits go. We should prioritize saving this radical and socialist form of liberalism. It is something I discuss in the book I’m writing now: The Political Theory of Liberal Socialism. 

CRB: Religious commitments, especially those narrated through Christian theology, are central to the development of right-wing politics. Could you say more about this? 

Christianity, at its core, has always had an egalitarian bent toward social justice. After all, the Bible preaches that it is not the wealthy or the powerful but the “wretched of the earth” who will know that God is on their side. To my mind, the socialist connotations of the New Testament are indisputable.

But right-wing Christianity has long had a far more prominent place in our politics, even producing some of the more profound critiques of modernity. One can see this in the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821–1881). I think he stands with Nietzsche and Burke at the very summit of right-wing thought. Dostoevsky began his life as a Christian radical who advocated for social reform. But his position changed after he was sentenced to time in prison for allegedly undermining the regime. In prison, he came to the conclusion that the working classes he valorized were in fact very different from the expectations of middle-class intellectuals. From Dostoevsky’s standpoint, the working class put little stock in political agitation; they were nationalistic and traditionalist; they were very suspicious of the atheism and secularism they associated with liberalism and socialism. In the great novels of his maturity, Crime and Punishment and Devils, Dostoevsky articulated a deep critique of modern ideas such as utilitarianism and socialism, holding that they led to psychological and spiritual malaise in the individual. He believed this malaise would lead to tyranny if implemented worldwide. Instead, Dostoevsky placed his political hopes in a kind of renewed Christian nationalism complemented by a great deal of faith in single individuals to obtain salvation through personal suffering and struggle.

This is enormously powerful stuff and the left can obviously learn from it. What left-wing thinking can learn from Dostoevsky is the importance of the spiritual dimension of life, and how questions of existential meaning cannot be evaded through political or social fixes.

Still, I think Dostoevsky was mistaken about the correct politics. In The Political Right and Equality, I discuss an alternative Christian politics put forward by his contemporary Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910), who offered an extraordinary defense of Christian anarcho-socialism and pacifism. Tolstoy noted how insular it was to assume that Christianity was about individual salvation and deference to tradition without any robust account of social justice. He thought that focusing on individual salvation against social issues would produce very anti-Christian results in tsarist Russia. Christians would have to stay silent about the enormous wars of expansion launched by the tsar and his cronies. Christians would have to ignore the fusion of religion and nationalism. And Christians would have to ignore the Bible’s very bold discussions of the gap between rich and poor. To my mind Tolstoy understood the message of the Bible better than Dostoesvky and other religious nationalists.

CRB: What do you think Christians on the left can gain from understanding reactionary right-wing politics on its own terms? Is Christianity ultimately doomed to being a conservative social force?

Christianity came into the world as a force for justice and salvation. It is no more doomed to being socially conservative than Christ was doomed to being erased by Rome. Yes, we need to recognize that socially conservative Christianity is a very powerful and active force in American politics today. Obery M. Hendricks in particular has done extraordinary work unpacking the scale of what we are up against, and we underestimate it at our peril. 

But I also think that Christianity is about faith in a God who calls people to hunger for justice and a better world. After all, the most transformative and significant left-wing movement in American history, the Civil Rights movement, was deeply embedded in both socialism and Christianity. The two together are very powerful—more powerful than all the idolatries of the world.

Colton Bernasol (he/him) is a Mexican and Filipino American writer and editor based in Chicago, Illinois. He writes at the intersection of religion, culture, and politics.  

Photo Credit: Matthew T Rader, MatthewTRader.com, License CC-BY-SA


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