Is there a more notable Conservative Wunderkind than Ross Douthat? Douthat, age 36, has been an established presence on the New York Times Op-Ed page since 2009. The only Times columnist to vocally oppose both Abortion and Sodomite “Marriage,” Douthat fills the niche of evil Right-Wing Bogeyman/Piñata nicely for the enlightened readership of the Grey Lady. These stances have earned him much endearment and many accolades amongst the nation’s good natured conservatives who have come to view Douthat as their champion amongst the Imperial City’s humanist heathens. In spite of his social conservative bonafides and unofficial designation as the Catholic Church’s “Apostle to the Liberals,” no other Pundit has been as intransigent a foe to the rise of Donald Trump than Douthat (whose regressions into desperate Anti-Trump wishcasting have now become the stuff of legend). But the question remains as to why Douthat, whose religious convictions are naturally hostile to Liberal claims concerning the nature of society, remains at the end of the day so doggedly against the Illiberal Populism which Trump represents and dedicated to the maintaining of a strong Liberal order.
Douthat’s upbringing was one of Upper Optimate Caste leisure and learning in New Haven Connecticut. Attending the prestigious Hamden Hall Country Day School, whose current base tuition for grades 9-12 runs at a cool $36,000/yr, he cultivated the tedious meritocratic resume necessary to gain entrance to Harvard University. Once admitted Douthat distinguished himself, rising through the ranks of the collegiate conservative intelligentsia, obtaining an internship at National Review, as well as the favor of the late Conservative luminary William F. Buckley. After graduating magna cum laude, Douthat immediately took a position writing for The Atlantic (the most earnest of middle-brow, Neo-Liberal shitrags). After an extended tenure as a senior editor, he was offered the position of Regular Op-Ed contributor for The New York Times. At the tender age of 29, Douthat had ascended to the pinnacle of Brahmin Caste thought-leadership, the penultimate catbird seat toward which every tweed bowtie-wearing young fogey can only impotently aspire. Thus, while Douthat’s socially conservative heart may appear bright red on the outside, the blood it pumps within itself is deep blue.
Douthat’s Coastal Liberal enculturation only goes so far in explaining his die-hard faith in the Liberal project, however. His belief in Liberalism, unlike some of the more cynical Conservatives writing at The Times, for all intents and purposes appears completely genuine. His thought still bears the unfounded optimism usually only reserved for winsome young men (a breed Douthat, now in his mid 30s, somehow remains). While Douthat is more than willing to criticize the obvious decadence of late American culture, the punch of his rhetoric always lands more like a pillow than a cinder block.
Douthat’s criticism of Liberalism is almost always of the constructive variety, like an elderly aunt admonishing a ne’er do-well nephew about the damage his licentious lifestyle is doing to his otherwise promising career. A Fukuyamaist at heart, Douthat submits uncritically to Liberalism’s Hegelian pretension of being the final stage in human development. Even when entertaining the possibility of a Post-Liberal world order, his logic strains hardily against the strong current of contemporary reality to attain its preordained conclusions. As we can witness in a particular December 2015 column, in which he backhandedly asserts the futility of all anti-Liberal impulses:
In the twenty-five years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the architecture of liberal modernity has looked relatively stable. Not flawless or wonderful or ideal, to be sure; not free of discontents and decadence. But it’s been hard to imagine the basic liberal democratic capitalist order cracking up, let alone envision what might take its place… Here in the dying days of 2015, though, something seems to have shifted. For the first time in a generation, the theme of this year was the liberal order’s vulnerability, not its resilience. 2015 was a memento mori moment for our institutions — a year of cracks in the system, of crumbling firewalls, of reminders that all orders pass away…
Initially, Douthat is willing to admit Liberalism’s new found vulnerability openly, yet the train of his logic is always stopped very carefully just before arriving at its destination. For Douthat, despite all of the intrinsically pathological aspects of the Liberal tendency, it remains the only viable option:
Trump is the big story, and deservedly. His mix of reality-TV shamelessness, European-style nationalism and boastful authoritarianism might be a genuinely new thing in U.S. politics. And the fact that so many disaffected voters find it attractive is a revelation, an objective correlative to polls showing declining faith in democracy, and a window, perhaps, into a more illiberal politics to come.
Now: Trump will not be the Republican nominee (yes, really). Bernie Sanders won’t beat Hillary. Far-left antics at Amherst and Oberlin and Claremont McKenna and Yale are not as significant as elite college graduates like to think.
In Europe, Jeremy Corbyn probably won’t be Britain’s next prime minister, Marine Le Pen probably won’t be France’s next president, Sweden probably isn’t about to turn fascist, the E.U. probably isn’t about to break apart. Houellebecq’s vision of an Islamified Europe, like ISIS’s vision of a new Islamic empire or Putin’s Stalinist nostalgia, is more a resonant fantasy than a plausible atlas of the future.
It’s still wise to bet on the current order, in other words, and against its enemies and rivals and would-be saboteurs.
The striking thing about Douthat’s assertions is just how uniformly wrong they are. The type of willful ignorance required to make them is on an order of magnitude that is more impressive than dismaying. Douthat doesn’t even attempt to argue the points, he merely asserts them. In Douthat’s mind, Anti-Liberal forces will fail not because of the weakness of their arguments or methods (even though such flaws indeed exist), but because a functioning Post-Liberal world order is very literally inconceivable for him.
In a more recent column and follow-up blog post, Douthat addressed Neo-Reaction directly. Paraphrased simply, his argument is reducible to the assertion that Reactionary theory has been banished justly from the public sphere due to its intransigent “Racism” and “Anti-Semitism” (the latter, of course, being code for lack of enthusiasm for Political Zionism). Douthat’s sole concession is to admit that the Reactionary impulse can find a place in public life — much like the works of T.S. Eliot or Nicolás Gómez Dávila — but only as an aesthetic and artistic sensibility, not as an ideology or political rival to Liberalism.
Of course, one is tempted to ask, as a natural rejoinder: “well, why not?” Douthat’s answer is reducible to the claim that Reactionary thought is confused and, in our American context, tied too closely with “Lost Cause” nostalgia for the Old Confederacy.
But without a “Lost Cause” mythology to give them shelter, reactionary ideas in America tend to flit about like a bird without a nest, now alighting on Wendell Berry, now on Henry Adams, now on the anti-Federalists, now on European/Catholic/Orthodox alternatives, now on the idea that the entire American founding was a Lockean mistake … and lately, of course, on neoreaction.
This is perhaps Douthat’s sole substantive point: that the American Reactionary project is, at least historically, beset by ideological confusion and conflicting streams of thought out of which a coherent alternative to Liberalism is unlikely to be able to blossom. At present this is of course entirely accurate, but it assumes that Reaction would appear on the American scene like other conventional conservative ideologies, as a legislative programme (perhaps led by a charismatic “intellectual”) which would seek to legislate its version of the good life through banal acts of legislation. In reality, any truly Reactionary movement in the United States would have to begin, even if steeped in the rhetoric of Patriotism, with an open rejection of the uncritically assumed goodness and desirability of the American Liberal project itself. This Anti-Liberal insight would be the only necessary consensus required, after which anything would be possible.
While it is instructive to appreciate and rebut Douthat’s more logically consistent criticisms of Reaction (tightly worded examples of which can be found throughout the Reactosphere). It is more important still to note that Douthat’s aversion to Reactionary ideology is, despite superficial indicators to the contrary, ultimately a sub-rational one. One that rests upon purely intuitive, aesthetic and even Freudian motivators. In this sense, Douthat is symptomatic of American Conservatism writ large, his instinctive aversion to Anti-Liberal thought is, ironically, quite Reactionary.
Douthat’s Reactionary Liberalism is a matter of faith for him — literally — being rooted in an idiosyncratic version of Catholicism. The phenomenon of “Whig Catholicism,” to which Douthat adheres, traces its intellectual lineage back to one John Courtney Murray. Murray, a Jesuit writing in the middle of the 20th century, who dedicated his life to reconciling Catholic thought and the American Enlightenment Tradition. In Murray’s mind, the Anglo-American Tradition was superior to the Traditionally Catholic one, which had up until the Second Vatican Council openly rejected Liberalism and Democracy. Which to his mind had overemphasized community at the expense of the individual.
Thus began the Modern Conservative Catholics’ enthusiastic embrace of American Liberalism. From William F. Buckley to John Richard Neuhaus, Catholics fell over themselves trying to prove that they were the more earnest Liberals than the next guy. While Buckley is, of course, more well known, it was Neuhaus that shaped the particular religious and political context which produced Douthat’s brand of Liberalism. As Douthat himself explained in the obituary he wrote shortly after Neuhaus’ Death:
I only met him twice, but he was a mentor nonetheless… Neuhaus as an archetypal post-Vatican II figure, whose deepest intellectual interests lay in finding compatibilities and building bridges … above all between Christianity and liberalism. His chief political cause, the pro-life movement, he always saw as a continuation of his years as a civil rights activist (and man of the Left)… No modern intellectual did so much to make the case for the compatibility between Christian belief and liberal democratic politics
Neuhaus can be forgiven for his peculiar brand of Liberal Catholicism, which we can understand in retrospect as the naive delusions of an otherwise good man, who was historically too close to the horrors of 20th century Communism to see clearly the intrinsic deficiencies of a Liberal order in which he placed too much uncritical faith.
The same cannot be said for Douthat, who has witnessed and documented the pathologies and decadence of modern Liberalism and the trail of death and chaos it has left in its wake. Douthat sees these horrors only too clearly, yet refuses to abandon the ideology that birthed them into the world. Douthat is the worst kind of battered wife, the genuine masochist who with each blow that lands loves her abuser just a little more.
It is here that we come to Douthat’s true religion, not a Liberal-flavored quest for the Catholic dream of sainthood and Salvation but rather the inverse: a Catholic-flavored quest for the Liberal dream of bourgeois respectability. This is ultimately the telos of Douthat’s faith, and as we all know he is quite the pious man. The primary sacrament of his religion is Submission to the Liberal order, after which almost anything is allowed (minus the perpetually increasing list of thought crimes of course). This is the one thing Douthat cannot afford to question and which would cost him the Brahmin respectability he holds so dear, hence why a return to a notion of historical Christendom and a rejection of Liberalism is so unpalatable to him.
Rather than attempt to dream dangerously about the forms of life and culture which will exist after the demise of Liberalism (a demise which is inevitable), Douthat chooses the comfort provided him by a lifetime of servitude. Better to impotently watch the literal death of White America than risk his social status by making the radical decision to support the Republican nominee for President openly. Better to swallow his pride and dignity than cease exchanging cordial tweets with the likes of Matt Yglesias and Jonathan Chait, “friends” who usually greet Douthat’s good-natured attempts at rapprochement with little more than sneering contempt. Better to live under the yoke of a regime which seeks to impose a grotesque LGBT sharia thought-code upon millions of children than dare to embrace the embryonic Neo-Christendom potentially forming in Russia and Poland. Better to submit willingly to utter defeat and inevitable annihilation than dare to dream of what victory would look like.
This is the theme which binds all of Douthat’s disparate strains of thought together: that ultimately the only real victory available is the one found while lying supine at the feet of your foes. This is the only freedom Douthat will allow himself, the one that is found in absolute submission to his enemies.