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The Leeroy Jenkins Caucus
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The Leeroy Jenkins Caucus

It only takes a few people to barge in and blow up everything.

Matt Gaetz and Lauren Boebert during the fourth day of elections for speaker of the House. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.)

Dear Reader (Including the clerks of the House who can’t even),

It’s up to you whether you take this as a promise or a warning: I’m going to get to the glorious monkey poo fight that is the Republican Party right now. 

But since this is one of the most covered stories in modern memory—there’s probably at least one reporter for each member up on the Hill right now—I think I should lean into my comparative advantage and come at it from a different angle. Let’s do it like a “news”letter version of The Love Boat or Cannonball Run with cameo appearances by various philosophers. 

So let me get my pocket knife and whitling stick and park these tired bones in a rocking chair on the porch, and talk to you about identity and authenticity. Pour yourself some lemonade.

Back in my day, there were all sorts of subculture tribes, like hippies, goths, punks, skinheads, etc. These cultural clans—and brands—still exist, but I’m sure there are new ones I don’t know about because I really don’t care. One of the things all of these groups had in common was a—sometimes smug—sense of righteous rebellion from mainstream or middle class or “yuppie” norms. Unlike those 9-to-5ers, they weren’t “sellouts” to the corporate bourgeois “system.” To borrow a phrase from before my time, they weren’t going to join the ranks of the men in gray flannel suits. They were non-conformists, baby, true to their authentic selves. Being “real” was their identity.

The funny thing, of course, is that most of the people who brag about being non-conformists are really, really into conformity in the Monty Python-esque, “we’re all individuals!” sense.

Don’t believe me? Imagine a goth kid wiping off his eyeliner and meeting his buddies in a blue blazer and khakis. Or see how long it takes for your slacker pothead buddies in the Walmart stockroom to explain that you’re selling out when you tell them you’re applying for the management training program.

The point I’m getting at is that often what passes for authenticity is really just saying, “Those guys are fake so I’ll do the opposite and that will be authentic.” We often mistake rebelliousness for “realness.”

The irony of this is that by rejecting the uniforms and practices of the in-group you despise, you’re still letting that group define you. It’s fine to say, “Those people are all fake,” but if you tailor your lifestyle to be the opposite of the alleged fakers, you’re simply embracing a different kind of fakery. It’s still an affect, a fashion, a fad—just one that takes its cues by doing the opposite of some other conformist group.

This dynamic is central to understanding vast swaths of history. This is central to Nietzsche’s theory of ressentiment. The theological conflicts that sometimes became social and military conflicts within Christianity (Gnosticism, antinomianism, etc.) and between Christianity and other faiths (including secularism and atheism) cannot fully be understood without appreciating that people will often embrace the opposite beliefs of their opponents and imbue those beliefs with perceived authenticity. One of the reasons nations have gone to war with each other over what Freud called the narcissism of small differences is that we have an inherent tendency to believe those small differences are actually like insignia differentiating friend from foe.    

Now, of course, this isn’t true of every individual, but it is true to one extent or another of many, if not most, groups—particularly groups that fancy themselves cool rebels. By the way, a recent EconTalk podcast on Rene Girard’s mimetic theory had a great discussion of this. Part of the reason I liked it so much is that it covered—in new and interesting ways—so many of the ideas I covered in Suicide of the West. I highly recommend it.

For instance, Girard—the father of mimetic theory—writes about the “Romantic lie.” This is the idea that all of our desires are autonomous and self-directed, generated from our own “authentic” desires. This can’t be generally true. If it were, it would be a wild coincidence that millions of people suddenly and completely independently decided to be hippies or yuppies or goths or whatever. That’s not how humans think or behave. (The idea that each and every transgender person attached to that sexual identity independent of any outside influence strikes me as a mathematical and genetic impossibility.)

The reason it’s called “romantic” is that, starting with Rousseau, the West has been infected with a brain parasite that insists civilization is artificial (it is!) so therefore rejecting civilization makes you “authentic.” Never mind that uncivilized, “authentic,” humans are tribal savages. Rousseau and Marx solved that problem with the anthropological lie that, “Ackshually uncivilized humans are super noble.” (I paraphrase.) Romanticism was born as rebellion against the reason of the Enlightenment—the “establishment” of its day. The Romantics insist that Enlightenment-based ideas were inauthentic and fake so rebelling against reason and listening to your gut made you authentic and real.

Fighting to Lose.

I would love to go on about all of this but I need to stay on my flight path to punditry. Still, the point I want you to keep in mind is that being rebellious doesn’t necessarily imply you are being more faithful to your authentic self, never mind some external, abstract, concept of “authenticity.” Rebelliousness against the Powers that Be is obviously a form of non-conformity, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be conformist asininity. Just because you’re willing to take on “the establishment” doesn’t grant you greater moral seriousness and it doesn’t mean you’re right. The Bolsheviks rejected everything about the Czarist aristocracy, but their radical alternative to it was even more conformist and authoritarian.

Which brings me to the slow-motion political septic tank explosion on Capitol Hill.

I just ranted about this on The Remnant podcast, but let me summarize my gripe. First of all, the idea that there’s a coherent and consistent intellectual and ideological motivation to the 20 or so Republican “rebels” is nonsense. There are members of the House Freedom Caucus supporting McCarthy and there are members who aren’t. Chip Roy’s stated reasons for opposing McCarthy are simply different from Matt Gaetz’s or Lauren Boebert’s. There are very serious conservative people on both sides of the fight. There are very unserious conservative people on both sides of the fight. There are performative MAGA poltroons in both camps. But, partly because of the dearth of adequate vocabulary, the rebels get called “hard right” or “conservative hardliners,” and the McCarthy supporters get called moderates or defenders of “the establishment.”

It’s all nonsense. Think of it this way. You know that meme about “Leeroy Jenkins”? It comes from a (staged) clip from the game World of Warcraft. Everybody in the war party wants to win the impending battle. They have a plan to achieve their goal. But one character—Leeroy Jenkins—says screw it, and just barges in, ruining everything and getting everyone killed. According to the romantic delusion that passion and intensity are superior to reason and deliberation, Leeroy Jenkins should be an authentic hero. But he is in reality what military strategists call an idiot. Specifically, the kind of idiot who gets everyone else killed.

This is the GOP’s problem in a nutshell. Thanks to the widespread belief that conservatives shouldn’t have to engage in the political process in a grown-up, reasoned and reasonable manner the right has defined authentic conservatism as Leeroy Jenkins-ism.

This idea has deep roots and a long history. Conservatives—much like many progressives—have convinced themselves that the right is the real majority in this country but has been stymied by a system “rigged” by—take your pick—the left, the Deep State, woke corporations, the media, Big Tech, globalists, liberal constitutionalism, and—in certain pestilential swampy corners—the Jews. Thus the system is inauthentic and illegitimate and “real” conservatives should pay it little heed or deference.

Today marks the second anniversary of the tragic apotheosis of this romantic mindset: The assault on the Capitol. According to some of the dumbest and/or most cynical gargoyles affixed to the commanding heights of the conservative infotainment complex, the dupes and goons who stormed the Capitol were the embodiment of true conservatism and patriotism. Their persecution” by the “Deep State” renders them political prisoners. The sad woman who died is the romantic martyr, the Horst Wessel, of the movement.

Even if you believe the election was stolen—it wasn’t—the violent assault on the Capitol was among the least conservative and least patriotic acts in American history. Whether or not Donald Trump legally incited this mob of Leeroys to storm the Capitol, he clearly inspired them to do so. He got them drunk on the romantic idea that the system is corrupt and therefore true commitment, authentic patriotism, and “real” conservatism required them to resort to violence. More to the point, even if they had been right in every regard, even if Hugo Chavez’s ghost had stolen the election, the tactic was doomed to fail.

But that’s why romanticism is a hell of a drug. Because today many conservatives believe passionate failure is preferable to pragmatic, if only partial, success.

The early argument for Trump was boiled down to the dumb slogan “at least he fights!” The idea behind this is that it’s better to have a “real” fighter who loses than an institutionalist who makes necessary compromises.

The Leeroy Jenkins caucus in the House—and its various enablers on Twitter, at the Heritage Foundation, and cable news—remains committed to this idea. The other night McCarthy reached a deal with the Club for Growth and his own super PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund (though of course by law he doesn’t coordinate with his own super PAC), hammered out an agreement that the CLF wouldn’t spend money in open primaries in “safe” districts. The basic idea being that the “establishment” CLF supports “moderates,” blocking the ascendancy of MAGA types like Lauren Boebert and Matt Gaetz.

The problem with this political malpractice is that it’s based on the delusional notion that being electable in the eyes of the “establishment” makes you a “moderate” and therefore not a real or authentic conservative. First of all, this is not true. Pat Toomey was electable, but that doesn’t make him a moderate. But just as important, being electable is a good thing. Of course, in some districts MAGA types are electable, too. But that doesn’t mean the “establishment” shouldn’t want to support better, more qualified candidates who care about actual governing. If the House was full of Dan Crenshaws, Mike Gallaghers, Steve Scalises, and Pete Meijers and purged of all the Marjorie Taylor Greenes and Matt Gaetzes, it would be just as ideologically conservative if not more so, but it would be a lot less amateurish and crazy. And that would be good for the GOP, conservatism, and the country—because voters don’t just vote for individual candidates, they vote for which party they want to see in power. So of course, all things being equal, the “establishment” should err on the side of supporting candidates who make the party more attractive to voters generally.

But it’s not true in another way. Not only is it false that being acceptable to “the establishment” makes you less conservative, it’s not true that there is an “establishment” in the first place. That’s why I’ve been using up my yearly quota of scare quotes in the first week of 2023. The idea that there is a powerful, moderate, establishment keeping the real conservatives down is false on both ends because most of these Leeroys aren’t that conservative and there is no such establishment. To the extent there has been an establishment GOP for the last two years it’s been headquartered at Mar-a-Lago and Fox News. That’s why Kevin McCarthy went down there with his tail between his legs. The GOP apparatus is infested with Trumpies, not Nelson Rockefellers. Not because the Rockefeller Republicans aren’t in power, but because the Rockefeller Republicans don’t exist.  When you hear these beer muscle Bannonites boasting about how they’re “taking on the establishment!” replace “establishment “with “Lizard people” because it makes almost as much sense.

And that’s what I find so infuriating. Proof that rebelliousness is mostly a fashion or fad rather than the product of Rousseauian authenticity has been obvious for decades. Corporate America coopted “shock the bourgeoisie” shlock before I was born. In 1968, CBS Records launched an ad campaign, “The Man Can’t Bust Our Music!” The fashion industry made billions off of hippy, punk, and grunge couture. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is a gift shop for Social Security beneficiaries. Hollywood has been making movies about the prison camp that is suburbia for almost a century.

The intellectually serious left has hated this obvious fact from the get go. But at least when the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Who sell their revolutionary anthems to sneaker or cola companies, we get good music out of it. The monetizing of right-wing rebellion gives us Trump trading cards and his progeny hawking patriotic Bibles for $80 a pop.

This is what is so funny about the new anti-capitalist radicalism on the right. Some of it is sincere, and no less ridiculous for it. But all of it stands on the shoulders of a guy who is a caricature of the commodification and commercialization they claim to despise. What better proof could there be than the fact that Donald Trump—the dashboard saint and martyr of the new radicals—wanted to trademark the phrase “Rigged Election.”

It’s an eminence front, a put on. And those who don’t understand that aren’t “real conservatives,” they’re marks.

Various & Sundry

Canine update: Alas, I’ve got to get on the road. But the girls are all doing great.


And now, the weird stuff

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.