In British politics, the term “new right” conjures memories of the philosophy of the Thatcher years: individualism, free-market economics and a small state. In today’s US, it conjures a radical break with such views. Broadly speaking, denizens of the American new right advocate an industrial strategy, welfare programmes consistent with the traditional family unit, a crackdown on immigration and using the power of the state to enforce rightwing moral values. Its most worrying common strand is an apocalyptic fury at “woke” leftists and their supposed totalitarian hold over corporations, colleges and culture – with some proponents even believing that doing away with democracy would be a price worth paying to stop them.
Although the new right is not synonymous with Donald Trump, it has certainly built on his authoritarian worldview and the scorched intellectual earth he left behind after setting fire to the Republican party. Key figures associated with the new right have hitched themselves personally to Trump’s wagon, while others have bolstered his conspiracies about the 2020 election. Its ideas are gaining serious momentum now, attracting many young adherents and inspiring a rush of trend pieces in mainstream US media. JD Vance, a new right darling, has just won the Republican nomination for a Senate seat in Ohio. Tucker Carlson, a big Vance booster, has built one of the most racist and possibly most successful shows in the history of cable news, as the New York Times put it.
The worldview of the new right is not limited to the US. Many adherents see Hungary – where Viktor Orbán has eroded democratic institutions and LGBTQ rights while banning the teaching of gender studies and building fences at the border – as a model worthy of emulation (a big meeting of American conservatives took place there last month). In France’s recent election, Marine Le Pen played to feelings of economic insecurity and nationalism. Some British pundits are starting to pay new right ideologies more heed. Last month, UnHerd produced a podcast with Curtis Yarvin, an American blogger who believes that the US would be better off with a centralised monarchy than its current system of checks and balances.
If the Thatcherite vision of the right has caused huge economic and social damage, British progressives should clearly not take comfort in the prospect of this authoritarian revolution against it, nor see it as a totally distant threat. In the past, US political currents have exerted an outsized influence in the UK. The Conservative party’s own Thatcherite consensus is slowly crumbling. Could the new right soon be on the march in the UK too?
If you squint, it’s already possible to discern some of its ideas in Boris Johnson’s approach. His levelling up agenda is hardly a rust belt manufacturing strategy, but it pays lip service to reducing inequality in “left behind” areas. Senior Tories have recently adopted some of the language of the US’s culture wars, railing against “woke” lefties and “cancel culture”. In some cases, this has translated into more concrete proposals to weaken liberals’ supposed hold on cultural institutions, including the BBC and museum boards. Ministers have pushed authoritarian policies around immigration, protest rights and trans rights.
Mostly, these trends don’t add up to a UK equivalent of the US ew right. The British government’s culture war rhetoric is half-hearted and inch deep. Influential Thatcherites act as a brake on big state intervention, while on other issues, Johnson’s stances would seem anathema to many new right thinkers. On Ukraine, he has cast himself not only as a Russia hawk but as a cheerleader for the liberal world order. (The new right tends to be a lot more isolationist, though again, it’s complicated.) Various new right thinkers, meanwhile, would reorganise the state around traditional Catholic moral principles. Johnson may be a Catholic , but he’s also a thrice-married libertine.
As I see it, there are more deep-rooted reasons why the new right, in its most dangerous form, is more likely to take off in the US. Religion is a more active political force there, as is fealty to the constitution; both these forces have been at play, for example, in the push to strip away national abortion rights. The new right can also be seen as a revolutionary reaction against American political institutions that have stopped being able to do, well, just about anything. For better or worse, Britain’s institutions are nimbler at passing legislation and – thanks to our hierarchical two-party system – less easily captured by a grassroots authoritarian insurgency, with aspirants for office generally unable to circumvent their party’s establishment by appealing directly to voters, as Trump and so many others have done in the US.
And yet none of this is any reason for complacency. At root, the new right project is about gaining and retaining power for hardline rightwingers – and that holds obvious appeal for the forces of reaction everywhere. We should perhaps ask not whether new right ideas will take hold in the UK in their fullest form, but whether they could. Because they absolutely could.
It’s possible to envision a future, for instance, in which a new right-aligned Trump returns to power, fairly or not, at roughly the same time as a post-Johnson Tory party is casting about for a new political identity. Even if the new right is rooted in specifically American cultural ideas, something comparably authoritarian could spring up here around different reference points. Indeed, in the way he has pursued Brexit and his agenda, Johnson has already sown the seeds.
If the recent trajectory of US politics can teach us anything, it’s that we shouldn’t be complacent about the appeal of new right-style ideas. As various US commentators have suggested, one way to neutralise their appeal is to co-opt their economic core – offering an alternative to Thatcherite free markets that speaks to economically insecure young people, in particular, while also being anti-racist and proudly democratic, and defending people of different genders and sexual orientations. For now, though, it’s hard to see this strain of thought taking off either.