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Populism and the Defence of Norms by Jonathon Van Maren

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Populism and the Defence of Norms

A drag queen who goes by the name Xochi Mochi reads a story to children at the Michelle Obama Neighborhood Library in Long Beach, California.

Photo: Courtesy of the Christian Post.

“A passionate tumultuous age will overthrow everything, pull everything down; but a revolutionary age … transforms that expression of strength into a feat of dialectics: it leaves everything standing but cunningly empties it of significance,” Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wrote in The Present Age in 1846. So it is today, when our Potemkin civilization still boasts its great architecture, art, and literature, but has almost entirely lost the beliefs that animated those who built this heritage. 

We have been gutted by the sexual revolution, and from the family to the church, every key institution has been torn down—but there are many who would like us to believe that everything is just fine and that there is no cause for alarm. Most notably, many of these figures—highly intelligent, literate, and well-informed folks who claim to be classical liberals or conservatives—insist on believing that the world we are currently inhabiting is a ‘normal’ one that must be defended rather than repulsed.

The defenders of the current order constantly insist that the populists from Hungary to Poland to America are destroying ‘norms.’ David Frum was nearly beside himself each time he watched Donald Trump’s semi-literate banter or uncovered more run-of-the-mill Washington corruption; Bill Kristol flung himself into campaigning for Democrat Joe Biden; Anne Applebaum wrote an entire book titled Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism, detailing the many ways in which norms are being smashed by populists and their conservative allies.

Applebaum’s book is representative of the views of her cohort. She believes that darkness is spreading across the West: the Law and Justice party in Poland, Brexit in Britain, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, and Trump(ism) in America. She also believes that conservatives who are friendly with or defend these politicians and political movements are sell-outs seduced by authoritarianism—the late Roger Scruton, John O’Sullivan, J.D. Vance, Laura Ingraham, Tucker Carlson. For a variety of reasons—fear, desire for power, crass opportunism, temporary insanity—these people are willing to side with the norm-smashers destroying the West.

But here is where we need to define our terms. What ‘norms’ are Applebaum, Frum et al defending? We can agree that corruption is … well, corruption, and that it should not be excused. We can also agree that Trump in particular is a boor who offended the sensibilities of the elites on all sides, and that a fraction of self-control would have done him much good (although, if he’d had it, he’d likely still be president). But for the rest—what ‘norms’ does a man like Joe Biden actually defend?

I happen to be one of those who believe that the times we’re living in are not ‘normal’ and that we have smashed many essential norms. Most Westerners now inhabit nations where the entire political and academic class believe the phrases “pregnant man” and “her penis” are valid ones. Marxist academic disciplines have spawned scores of new genders. Children are identifying as “transgender” in the tens of thousands, and adults are giving them drugs so they can grow beards and breasts and destroy their fertility and sexual function before they can vote or drive. 

The insanity of our current moment, of course, is the end result of other norms we smashed. We decided that children in the womb were not children (contrary to human reason, instinct, and 96% of biologists) and that suctioning them to death or dismembering them was excusable. This was done because the sexual revolution had eliminated norms surrounding coital encounters. 

Prior to 2000, not a single nation on earth had redefined marriage—but now, gay ‘marriage’ is considered a societal bedrock, with Christians being told that they are on the “wrong side of history” for adhering to 2,000 years of history and tradition rather than joining the twenty-year trend. This new norm ushered in the annual month-long Pride carnival, where adult men frolic nude on public streets and families watch simulated sex acts on colorful floats. A Dutch photographer won €2,500 this August for “the most iconic, meaningful, and aesthetic” photo—of a toddler playing while men in latex bondage gear gathered around the child.

That brings us to the colonization of children’s entertainment by the LGBT movement, from Drag Queen Story Hour to the incessant pushing of LGBT content on children’s TV shows. This wasn’t a ‘norm’ even five years ago, but now saying that drag queens shouldn’t be reading stories to children at daycares and kindergartens is likely to get you called a bigot—or many merely ‘economic conservatives’ will tell you that you shouldn’t get so worked up about the sexualization of children when there are real live fascists to defeat.

What do progressives mean when they talk about ‘normal’? Most of them mean the power to carry on with their revolution unhindered. They mean hormone blockers for kids; double mastectomies for healthy, beautiful girls with gender confusion; sex education for everyone and abortions to boot. That is why Donald Trump’s siding with socially conservative groups triggered such hysterical rage; that is why the Dutch prime minister has declared that Hungary must be “brought to its knees” over Viktor Orbán’s popular law banning LGBT propaganda targeting children; and that is why progressives believe that the right-wing populists must be destroyed.

It isn’t because populists are smashing norms; it is because they are, in many cases, defending the norms that progressives are busy dismantling.

I’m not claiming that someone like Anne Applebaum supports this entire agenda. I’m sure Applebaum and Frum abhor what the transgender movement is doing to children. But I wonder why Applebaum, Frum, and the others don’t ever consider the fact that many who support the populists are actually doing so in defence of norms rather than out of a desire to break them? 

What if one of the primary drivers of populism isn’t an attack on liberal norms but a defence of other, more fundamental norms that are themselves under attack? It is certainly true that this sort of nostalgia and rhetoric can and is co-opted by grifters, crass opportunists, and cynics, but that doesn’t explain why it works—only that it does.

There is also the fact that the real authoritarianism in most Western nations is coming more from the Left rather than the Right. The entertainment industry, the academy, most media outlets (with notable exceptions)—all have fallen to the progressive cultural revolution. ‘Cancel culture’ is a tool of the Left, not of the Right. Big Business has gone ‘woke,’ not populist—and they’re happy to use their power to further the LGBT agenda wherever possible. Tucker Carlson, one of Applebaum’s targets, pointed this out on a recent trip to Hungary where he read out one of her tweets to his audience. “In Orban’s Hungary, more than 90% of the media is controlled by the ruling party. Businesses are physically and legally harassed if they don’t tow the party line,” he read. “Elections are manipulated. Party leaders are mysteriously rich.” Carlson paused, and then laughed uproariously. “I thought to myself—that sounds familiar. I live in that country!”

There were similar responses to David Frum’s tweet earlier this year that during his 2016 visit to Hungary, he saw people leaning forward and whispering because they “feared for their jobs.” National Review’s Michael Dougherty quipped: “So, you’re saying it’s like a Fortune 500 company.” Ilya Shapiro of the Cato Institute was more to the point: “When was the last time you visited America, David?” Their point is a simple one: folks like Frum are selective about what upsets them because fundamentally, they believe that the excesses of progressives amount to too much enthusiasm on behalf of a ‘good thing.’ Frum and Applebaum (who, to her credit, penned an essay for The Atlantic recently condemning the radicalism of the woke) evolved with the culture, and they’ve come around to much of the sexual revolution. Thus, they appear largely incapable of understanding the backlash to it.

Most people want to defend norms of some sort. For some of us, it is the natural family and a society rooted in reality. Others care about the new norms—same-sex marriage, electing polite leaders who quietly push radical agendas, and ensuring that the Long March through the Institutions doesn’t frighten the horses. They want decorum, ceremony, Hail to the Chief, solemn state dinners, and quotable speeches. They want everything to be ship-shape as the ship goes down. The band must play on. Courteousness is essential. “What? My son is a girl? I see. So it is, then.” This sort of conservatism, as one wag noted, is simply progressivism driving the speed limit.

I have no desire to defend every populist and every populist political movement. There are plenty of right-wing politicians I won’t defend, for that matter—Trump, for instance, is a flawed—and, in many ways, repugnant—man. But much of current political commentary really has to do with where one sees the greatest threat to civilization. To some, the sexual revolution is the new normal, and it must be defended—just as the next iteration of that same revolution will be defended by the same folks. To others, that revolution itself is the danger—and it requires a proportionate response. It is true that the reactionaries now appear revolutionary, but that is only because progressives have triumphed so completely in the West—and there are so few leaders willing to stand up against them.

Those who do, with all their faults, foibles, and sins, can always count on many supposed conservatives to oppose them—while the real revolutionaries utilize them as useful idiots in the ongoing destruction of civilization as we knew it. 

Jonathon Van Maren has written for First Things, National Review, The American Conservative, and is a contributing editor to The European Conservative. His latest book is Patriots: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Pro-Life Movement.

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