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Is the Anti-Woke Alliance Already Dead?
A war between ‘trads’ and ‘cads’ fractures the nascent new right
On June 24, with the news that the Supreme Court had overturned Roe v. Wade with its decision in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case, Barstool Sports CEO Dave Portnoy took to Twitter with an “emergency press conference” decrying the decision. Portnoy’s sports- and pop-culture-focused media company, not to mention his own Boston bro persona, is known for an adolescent male impatience with the social-justice-oriented sex and gender proprieties that have governed elite U.S. culture in the past decade. Portnoy’s raunchy anti-wokeness proved so popular and resonant that Matthew Walther, in a 2021 article in The Week, coined the term “Barstool Conservatives” to describe the unspoken-for contingent, presumably quite a large one, who shared this attitude.
A Barstool Conservative is not systematically political at all, according to Walther, but likely to be a youngish male with libertarian inclinations in both politics and economics. In Walther’s telling, this Barstool bro is aggrieved at woke culture for adultering his football games with Black Lives Matter displays and his superhero movies with queer representation or feminist heroism. This frustrated everyman will therefore be forced to become, whether he likes it or not, “the future of the conservative movement,” because this movement is all that can hold back the tide of elite progressivism. The Barstool libertines will be compelled to make common cause with religious conservatives since they share a common enemy, an alliance between what the writer Mary Harrington has called “cads” and “trads.”
Until, that is, Dobbs threw cold water on these strange bedfellows and forced Portnoy to leap out from under the covers. In his Twitter press conference, Portnoy denounced the Supreme Court decision, made a standard liberal plea for women’s rights, dismissed the Constitution in woke-activist style as an irrelevant document “written by people who had slaves,” and declared that “95% of the people in the country think like me: They’re socially liberal and they’re financially conservative.” Lamenting that the religious right was going to make him “vote for the morons like Biden,” Portnoy effectively scuttled the trad-cad alliance. In return, the Barstool editor was slammed by standard social conservatives like Fox News host Dan Bongino.
But Portnoy’s barroom brawl with the traditionalists is only the most visible foreshock of a deepening fissure in the so-called new right that has arisen in recent years to challenge woke hegemony. Only a few months after this bewilderingly heterogeneous political tendency made its debut with relatively neutral coverage in mainstream media organs like Vanity Fair and The New York Times, its internal contradictions threaten to cancel its potency from within.
Take, for example, the journal Compact, founded earlier this year by two Catholics and a Marxist on an ecumenical platform of “a strong social-democratic state that defends community … against a libertine left and a libertarian right”—the opposite of Portnoy’s Clinton-era social liberalism plus fiscal conservatism. And in keeping with its nonsectarianism, Compact has published an ideologically diverse company of writers encompassing not only Catholic traditionalists and Marxist populists but also transgressive artists, dissident feminists, and renegade novelists. Yet just a few months after the magazine’s founding, on June 30, the masthead’s founding Marxist, Edwin Aponte Jr., tweeted, “The Catholic integralists, with their legislating of morality, and the libertine, transgressive anti-wokes are not going to be able to hold it together.” Two days after that, the journal announced that he would be “depart[ing] to work on other projects,” replaced by British philosopher Nina Power, whose latest tweet, as of this writing, predicts, “Religions that strongly oppose liberal ‘values’ will only grow in strength.” So much for the libertines.
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This conflict between the traditionalist and libertine is now everywhere in the nebulous network of podcasts, Substacks, and social media accounts comprising the new right. Jack Mason, the host of the celebrated podcast “Perfume Nationalist,” has decried as homophobic the populist right’s new focus on “groomers” who allegedly insert radical ideologies of sex and gender into early education. Mason contrasts the traditionalists, living in what he calls “a doomed political fantasy of the past” with his hope for “the psychedelic ’20s D. H. Lawrence gays, guys, and gals forging a future of creativity, freedom, and art.” Meanwhile, populist Ohio Senate candidate J. D. Vance has recently called for a ban on pornography. No love for D. H. Lawrence here—we could live to see Lady Chatterley’s Lover banned again.
The trad-cad conflict might be dismissed as mere subcultural dustups among shock jocks and obscure podcasters, but that could prove as big a mistake as when commenters a decade ago claimed that social-justice activism was just a few college kids who were acting up but would soon grow out of it. With the midterm elections looming and the evidence mounting that our culture at large has wearied of the woke—whether you consider the Netflix layoffs or compare the box-office returns of Lightyear to Top Gun: Maverick—the new right has momentum in both the political and social spheres. For that reason alone, we should pay attention to their values and goals and to the movement’s inner divides and diverse motivations.
As with any political movement, their motivation in the end is power. The conflict underlying my examples above, after all, is not really so much about sexual freedom or artistic license but, as Portnoy keenly understands, about economics and the social hierarchy. Whose values should prevail—those of the metropolitan libertine, who cherishes personal liberty and who moreover can afford to enjoy this freedom, or those reputedly traditional ideals of faith and family celebrated by the suburban and rural middle and working classes, with their focus on economic advancement and the discipline necessary to achieve it? In other words, what has anti-wokeness been about this whole time: frontally challenging and displacing the metropolitan elite and the economic system that sustains its power, as the traditionalists would prefer, or convincing it to lighten up on the censorship and identity politics and thereby become the proper steward of an advanced society, as the libertines would surely advocate?
We will see in the coming years which tendency on the right will prevail, but listeners might have seen a glimpse of the future in a recent episode of the podcast “Red Scare,” ground zero for the new right’s incursion into metropolitan culture. Hosts Anna Khachiyan and Dasha Nekrasova were joined by the new right’s premier political philosopher, self-styled monarchist Curtis Yarvin. When the hosts asked this theorist of elite power whether his fiancée, a self-described liberal and former BDSM writer, might not be an untoward companion for an arch-reactionary, he replied that liberals were today’s American aristocracy and that he felt himself irresistibly drawn to aristocrats, as all reactionaries are.