Skip to content
The Biggest Threat to Conservatism? The New Right.
Go to my account

The Biggest Threat to Conservatism? The New Right.

It won’t bring about a conservative renaissance, but it could legitimize progressivism.

Conservative activist Charlie Kirk applauds as J.D. Vance shakes hands with Sen. Josh Hawley at a campaign rally on May 1, 2022, in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

For decades, the nemesis of conservatism was big government conservatives, most of whom described themselves as moderate Republicans. They compromised with liberals to block many conservative policies such as controlling federal spending and downsizing the federal government. On top of that, they were the leading voices in the conservative movement arguing for accommodating the social liberalism of progressivism. It was this faction of the GOP that failed to stop the rise of progressivism. It was not Reagan conservatism, but the version espoused by George W. Bush and other moderates. 

But today, some on the New Right blame Reagan’s philosophy of limited government and economic freedom as being too “weak” to stop the progressive left. Some even advocate the very same big government policies that were responsible for the disunity and failure of conservative policies in the first place.

Why would those on the New Right intentionally mislead people about the reasons why conservatism “failed?” 

The short answer is that they want a big government of their own. Some even want to use “progressive” means to achieve conservative ends. They are jettisoning the traditions of limited government and economic freedom because they are no longer really conservatives in the American sense, but nationalists and statists dedicated to creating an alternative style of big government to achieve culturally conservative ends. They favor empowering and using government to ban socially liberal practices, rewarding supporters with federal aid and programs, punishing private individuals and companies with punitive legal and federal action, restricting free speech and expression with which they disagree, and supporting industrial and trade policies that increase the reach of federal power over the economy. 

Will using rhetoric against capitalism that echoes Karl Marx create a winning formula? Will bemoaning “market fundamentalism” and supporting industrial and other economic policies that Elizabeth Warren favors create a conservative majority? Will embracing an anti-American foreign policy that sounds very much like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Ilhan Omar bring about a conservative renaissance?

Of course not. It will only legitimize the very foundations of modern progressivism. For well more than 150 years progressives have wanted a powerful state to guarantee the “common good.” All that talk about liberty and personal responsibility was for chumps. 

And so it is with the New Right: Supporters believe that freedom itself is the problem, that there is too much of it. They know that American conservatism was anchored in liberty, and so conservatism is problematic. Their biggest mistake is equating the liberty of limited government and economic freedom with the personal licentiousness of social liberalism. 

They could not be more wrong. The problem with progressivism is not that it grants too much freedom, but too little. Is a judge or official forcing someone to take a public action against their religious conscience too much freedom? No, it is denying freedom.

Is the state choosing winners and losers in the economy, or the government encouraging colleges to discriminate based on race, too much freedom? No, it is denying freedom.

And are schools pushing transgender ideology on children without their parents’ knowledge or consent granting too much freedom? No, they are denying their parents’ say in raising their children—in other words, their freedom of choice in the matter. 

The New Right has also been guilty of another misdirection: twisting of the meaning of patriotism. Historically, American patriotism was grounded in the universal appeal of the American creed. Sure, there was always the celebration of hearth and home, but it was not ethnically based or grounded in the exclusive nationalism of the Europeans. 

Yet who is now the hero of the New Right? Viktor Orbán of Hungary, who is pro-Putin, governs with oligarchs, runs roughshod over the economy, and uses the power of the state to punish his enemies. Whatever Orbán is, he is no Washington or Madison. He is an old-world nationalist with an imperialist mentality not all that different from his Russian counterpart.

It is a fool’s errand to think that conservatives can create a broad movement by mimicking the authoritarianism of European nationalists. It is equally foolish to believe they can control a big nationalist government. Progressives already occupy the Leviathan state, and making it bigger and more powerful will only give them more power. 

The New Right may think that appealing to socially conservative values on the one hand, while mirror-imaging the left on economics on the other, is a kind of clever triangulation. It is not. All it is doing is alienating moderate conservatives or driving them into the hands of the Democratic Party. Many moderate conservatives have already thrown their lot in with the Democrats. The remaining rump of the GOP may be enough to elect Donald Trump, but the unique circumstances surrounding him are not easily transferable to other candidates. 

Many Democrats understand this dynamic perfectly well. They obsess over Donald Trump and push their “woke” agenda so hard because they believe that the angrier the right becomes, the more it will become radicalized. As Napoleon once said, “Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.” The New Right is committing a huge error in thinking that anger and hubris can build a broad movement. It may be the way to get nominated in presidential primaries—and it sure is good social media copy—but it is not a winning formula for the long run. 

The conservative challenge is to show that limited government and economic freedom are indispensable to our well-being. 

We must start first with admitting what government cannot do. The culture wars are being lost for conservatives mainly in civil society. Progressives have been marching through the institutions for decades. While conservatives looked the other way hoping for salvation in a strong man in the White House, progressives took charge of the schools, universities, mainline churches, the entertainment industry, the arts and sciences, professional organizations, and now increasingly corporate boardrooms. 

If social conservatives want to win the culture wars, they must tend to and change the hearts of minds of people in civil society. They must persuade them and not try to coerce them with governmental power. 

They should, moreover, make a distinction between the natural rights and freedoms that our constitution guarantees, which require a limited government, and the expressive individualism of progressivism whose advocates desire to expand the power of government to advance its agenda. The first understanding of liberty is intended to protect all of our rights equally, whereas the latter envisions using the power of government to favor one group’s rights over another, which in some cases require the suppression of natural rights (such as free speech). 

As for the federal government, the focus should be on cutting the size and intrusiveness of the whole government that enables the alignment with progressive causes. Trimming a liberal program here and there while leaving the overall size of the government intact is self-defeating, like batting at swarms of mosquitoes while ignoring the pond that breeds them. 

Populists claim to care about the “little guy.” As they should. But this does not mean adopting trade policies that will make shopping at Walmart more expensive for poor families. Instead, they should be trying to control inflation by cutting spending.

Want to be a super patriot? Then support a strong national defense and build up America’s power around the world. Anti-American radicals like Noam Chomsky have been bemoaning American “empire” for decades. It is a shame that some on the New Right talk the same way.

If the New Right continues to reject conservative principles on governance, the economy, and foreign policy, it will destroy American conservatism for good. As frustrated nationalists’ resort to more centralized power to punish their enemies, they will find that their illiberalism cannot match the reach and power of the illiberalism of the left. 

For example, they will find that any attempt to use the government to punish “Big Tech” will only validate and expand the power and machinery of government that progressives by and large already control. They will discover that denigrating freedom of speech will only play into the hands of progressives who are eager themselves to use the law and federal power to control the internet and social media. They will see that expanding the welfare state, in the hopes of using it to reward only their constituents, will only result in a larger welfare state for the constituents of progressive politicians. And finally, they will certainly learn that echoing the anti-defense and isolationist policies of the anti-American far left will only legitimize those ideas in the minds of the American people, thus undermining the ability of traditional conservatives to maintain a strong national defense policy. 

It doesn’t matter if the ends and purposes are different. By using similar and sometimes even identical means to enact their agendas, they elevate those means as representing the only legitimate purposes of government. One of the main aims of traditional conservatism is to argue that limiting government—the means if you will of law and government—was necessary to protect our rights and freedoms. Progressivism, on the other hand, always posited that limited government was a sham, and that it must be reduced and even eliminated to enact their notions of social justice and positive rights. 

In this competition, the New Right will always be behind the game. The very identity of progressivism is based on harnessing the power of government to enact its agenda. There is no way a new kind of conservatism can go down this road without turning its back not only the creed of the American Founding, but the history of the conservative movement over the past 70 years. 

Ultimately, the New Right is pushing a losing strategy at the ballot box. Moderates will find themselves making common cause with progressives in elections. Principled conservatives will be marginalized and unwilling to join in the fight because the New Right is insulting their beliefs. Social conservatives will discover that many populists really don’t care about their values but are using them for ulterior purposes. 

While it is true that substance often does not play a decisive role in elections, especially presidential ones, they are symbolic of political orientations in a larger sense. Trump’s ability to make elections all about himself—to effectively make elections policy-free zones—is not normal. Absent Trump, that substance would likely play a bigger role. 

Either way, the current disunity of the conservative movement could have disastrous electoral results. Either a populist like Trump wins, further marginalizing conservative principles and replacing them with nationalism, or a progressive like Biden who despises both conservatism and nationalism wins. 

The tragedy is that it could be otherwise. Polls show that nearly two-thirds of the “none of the above” vote, which could comprise a substantial part of the swing vote in the next presidential election, could easily go Republican if Trump were not on the ballot. This suggests not only that the Trump factor skews the substance of elections, but also that a majority could be formed in his absence based on traditional conservative values and principles. Most Americans are uncomfortable with the direction of the Democrats, but the inability of conservatives to take advantage of this has mostly to do with Trump and the populists of the New Right. 

But don’t forget—it is the big government conservatives of the New Right who are making the change. They caused the break. And they will be to blame if it fails. A second Trump term risks killing off traditional conservatism once and for all. Progressives would be alarmed by Trump’s victory, but they would not be concerned in the slightest if he managed to bring down the nemesis that they themselves have been battling against for decades.

If this is “winning,” I would hate to know what losing is.

Kim Holmes is an author, and he served as the assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs from 2002-2005.