What’s Driving Former Progressives to the Right?

In a new essay in the progressive magazine In These Times, the writers Kathryn Joyce and Jeff Sharlet grapple with the contemporary version of an old phenomenon: erstwhile leftists decamping to the right. There have been plenty of high-profile defectors from the left in recent years, among them the comedian Russell Brand, the environmentalist-turned-conspiracy-theorist Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and the journalist Matt Taibbi, a onetime scourge of Wall Street, who was recently one of the winners of a $100,000 prize from the ultraconservative Young America’s Foundation.

What gives this migration political significance, however, are the ordinary people following them, casting off what they view as a censorious liberalism for a movement that doesn’t ask anyone to “do the work” or “check your privilege.” Joyce and Sharlet write, “We, the authors of this article, each count such losses in our own lives, and maybe you do, too: friends you struggle to hold onto despite their growing allegiance to terrifying ideas, and friends you give up on, and friends who have given up on you and the hope you shared together.”

Naomi Klein described similar losses in her great book “Doppelgänger,” which follows the exploits of one of the most infamous of recent progressive apostates, Naomi Wolf, a former liberal feminist who became an anti-vax influencer and a regular on Steve Bannon’s podcast. “Almost everyone I talk to tells me about people they have lost ‘down the rabbit hole’ — parents, siblings, best friends, as well as formerly trusted intellectuals and commentators,” wrote Klein. “People, once familiar, who have become unrecognizable.”

A key question for the left is why this is happening. For some celebrity defectors, the impetus seems clear enough: They lurched right after a cancellation or public humiliation. Klein writes that a turning point for Wolf was widespread mockery after she was confronted, live on the radio, with evidence that the thesis of the book she was promoting was based on her misreading of archival documents. Brand’s right-wing turn, as Matt Flegenheimer wrote in The New York Times Magazine, coincided with the start of investigations into sexual-assault accusations against him. But that doesn’t explain why there’s such an eager audience for born-again reactionaries and why, in much of the Western world, the right has been so much better than the left at harnessing hatred of the status quo.

Part of the answer is probably that the culture of the left is simply less welcoming, especially to the politically unsure, than the right. The conservative movement may revel in cruelty toward out-groups — see, for example, the ravening digital mobs that descended on the podcaster Julia Mazur for a TikTok she made about the pleasures of life without children — but the movement is often good at love-bombing potential recruits. “People go where people accept them, or are nice to them, and away from people who are mean to them,” the Marxist Edwin Aponte, one of the founders of the heterodox but socially conservative magazine Compact, told Joyce and Sharlet.

But I think there’s a deeper problem, which stems from a crisis of faith in the possibility of progress. Liberals and leftists have lots of excellent policy ideas, but rarely articulate a plausible vision of the future. I sometimes hear leftists talk about “our collective liberation,” but outside a few specific contexts — the ongoing subjugation of the Palestinians comes to mind — I mostly have no idea what they’re talking about.

It’s easy to see what various parts of the left want to dismantle — capitalism, the carceral state, heteropatriarchy, the nuclear family — and much harder to find a realistic conception of what comes next. Some leftists who lose hope in the possibility of thoroughgoing transformation become liberals like me, mostly resigned to working toward incremental improvements to a dysfunctional society. Others, looking beyond the politics of amelioration, seek new ways to shake up the system.

The right has an advantage in appealing to dislocated and atomized people: It doesn’t have to provide a compelling view of the future. All it needs is a romantic conception of the past, to which it can offer the false promise of return. When people are scared and full of despair, “let’s go back to the way things were” is a potent message, especially for those with memories of happier times.

One common interpretation of the sort of ideological journeys Joyce and Sharlet wrote about for In These Times is “horseshoe theory,” the idea that at the extremes, left and right bend toward each other. But plenty of the people who’ve followed a rightward trajectory were never particularly radical; Wolf was a fairly standard Democrat, as was Elon Musk, now king of the edgelords.

As Klein argues, a better framework is “diagonalism,” coined by the scholars William Callison and Quinn Slobodian. Diagonalists, they write, tend to “contest conventional monikers of left and right (while generally arcing toward far-right beliefs),” be ambivalent or cynical about electoral politics, and “blend convictions about holism and even spirituality with a dogged discourse of individual liberties.” At the extreme, they write, “diagonal movements share a conviction that all power is conspiracy. Public power cannot be legitimate, many believe, because the process of choosing governments is itself controlled by the powerful and is de facto illegitimate.”

Such conspiratorial politics have rarely if ever led to anything but catastrophe, but that doesn’t lessen their emotional pull. Both Sharlet and Joyce are longtime chroniclers of the right, its ambitions but also its divisions and contradictions. “But in this age of Trump, his presence and his shadow, we’ve witnessed more right-wing factions converging than splitting, putting aside differences and adopting new and ugly dreams,” they write. “They, of course, do not see the dreams as ugly, but beautiful.” To compete with them, the left needs beautiful dreams of its own.

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