Jordan Peterson is not a political scientist or an ideologue and does not purport to be. The wildly popular clinical and academic psychologist packages his lectures as self-help. His best-selling book “12 Rules for Life” is not by any means a political tirade or manifesto. However, regardless of his wishes or intent, the Canadian Professor has become a key face of American conservatism.
But this points to the bigger question: what does it mean to be a conservative in the United States in 2018?
Donald Trump, the Republican President, is hardly a right-wing archetype. Trump is a wealthy real-estate tycoon known for his foul mouth and sexual promiscuity. Trump has been known to insult his opponents in ways that would cause conservatives of previous eras to vomit. Trump insulted John McCain for being captured during the Vietnam War. Trump boasted about his own lack of military service, and referred to his struggles with venereal disease during his youth as his own “personal Vietnam.”
Trump’s Vice President, Mike Pence, is a highly masculine evangelical Christian who grabbed national headlines as Governor of Indiana. Trump’s policies have certainly involved de-regulation and privatization. But overall, anyone who is familiar with the Post-World War Two American right-wing from William F. Buckley to Ann Coulter must look at Trump and wonder “What has happened?”
The Decline of Cold War Liberalism
In order to understand the Neoconservative American right that seemed so powerful in the age of Reagan, it is first necessary to understand Cold War Liberalism. By the mid-1950s the civil defense drills and Congressional witch-hunts left the American public weary, and soon a new brand, loved by Hollywood and TV producers, stepped up to dominate American politics.
Rod Serling’s television program “The Twilight Zone,” the novels of George Orwell, and the eventual rise of John F. Kennedy pointed toward a new interpretation of the geopolitical confrontation with the Soviet Union. The way to beat the Soviets was to be true to the “American ideals” of democracy and freedom.
The widely celebrated Science Fiction film “The Manchurian Candidate” portrayed a right-wing, extremist politician who was mind controlled by Chinese Communists. The intent of the Communists was to push these extreme right-wing politics in order to make the United States seem hypocritical and foolish. The message was that right wing authoritarianism, militarism, and repression helped America’s enemies.
The Civil Rights Movement, which became part of the national conversation during the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-1956, was the biggest expression of Cold War Liberal sentiments. The Soviet Union had long portrayed US human rights rhetoric as hypocritical by pointing to Jim Crow Segregation. The response of the Cold War liberals was to prove them wrong, correct an injustice, and steal their thunder.
Cold War liberalism plowed onward after the assassination of John F. Kennedy with the expansion of the welfare state. Lyndon Johnson expanded social programs arguing that poverty among urban African-Americans and Appalachian and southern whites was a stain on America’s conscience.
However, Cold War liberalism met its climax in 1969. The Civil Rights Movement had left many Blacks unsatisfied, and the Black Liberation Movement of Marxist-Leninists and Nationalists arose to fill its shoes. Young American liberals who opposed the Vietnam War also became increasingly radical as the war continued. Student protests and rebellions became more violent and confrontational. Students for a Democratic Society, founded as a liberal social-democratic activist group, was eventually dominated by Marxist-Leninists.
Neoconservatism swept in to beat back the storm created by the unsatisfied promises of Cold War Liberalism. The message was “my country, right or wrong” and “if you don’t like it here, move to some other country.” Nixon famously referred to anti-war protesters saying “These are not romantic revolutionaries, but the same kind of common thugs who have always plagued the good people.” The FBI cracked down on the Black Nationalists, the US withdrew from Vietnam, and ultimately the short-lived episode of social unrest was halted.
Neoconservatism, rooted in a kind “know nothing patriotism” and loyalty to a vague concept of America emerged to ride high and dominate American politics. The Reagan-era, Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America,” and the George W. Bush administration all continued this tradition of the Nixon-era blend of militarism, patriotism, evangelical Christianity, and neoliberal economic reforms.
The New Post-2008 Conservatism
For years conservatives tended to focus on cultural issues, and would dismiss talk of poverty and income inequality with claims that poor people were simply lacking motivation and intelligence. The response to liberal calls for economic reform would be “don’t fix it if it ain’t broke.” The unemployed and low income Americans were told to “go get a job.” Welfare was portrayed as nothing more than rewarding laziness.
Such arguments became rather ineffectual when Midwestern neighborhoods were dotted with foreclosed homes, household debt was rising, and unemployment was high during the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash. As Obama took office, suddenly conservative anti-intellectualism was scaled back and ideological free market theories took center stage. The Tea Party movement pushed Atlas Shrugged, and Paul Ryan, a conservative who cited Ayn Rand as his great influence, became the voice of Congressional Republicans. Glenn Beck’s nightly FOX news program told of how Marxism and left-wing economic ideas were contrary to the very definition of Americanism, and every effort must be made to deregulate, lower taxes, and let the private sector flourish.
But the rise of Trump seems to indicate that among the base of the Republican Party free market economics was not satisfactory. Populist style rhetoric about “Make America Great Again” and fighting for the forgotten, silent majority against “globalist” elites seems to be filling the gap. Trump’s big target was international trade deals. He promised to end foreign interventions and focus on “America First.”
Almost immediately this rhetoric was jumped on by the far-left as proof of fascistic and totalitarian aspirations from Trump. The “Alt-Right” of conservatives who obsess with “western civilization” and “white identity” became a favorite talking point of Hillary Clinton and Trump’s many detractors.
Protests against Trump often became hectic and violent with his campaign rallies in Chicago being shut down. After his election, the protests intensified with airports being crowded in the aftermath of the travel ban. In Charlottesville, activist Heather Heyer was killed after a white supremacist charged his car into a crowd of left wing demonstrators.
Presenting Totalitarianism as Chaos
The right-wing psychologist Jordan Peterson was hailed by the Wall Street Journal as “conservatism’s rebirth.” His self-help lectures meander around in their anecdotes, diagnoses, and personal advice, but almost always Peterson finds his way to quote the Russian anti-Communist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. He also tends to frequently invoke the book Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning which describes Nazi atrocities.
Peterson seems to warn his audience about the evils of those who attempt to recreate or socially engineer human civilization. His anti-totalitarianism seems focused on urging people to simply live moral lives and let hierarchies and traditional structures continue to exist. He argues that inequalities between demographics and income differentials are natural, not the result of the “patriarchal tyranny,” a phrase he utters with scorn. He portrays attempts to correct inequality and push diversity as having largely negative consequences.
Peterson’s Anti-Totalitarianism is the mirror opposite of the Cold War Liberalism of Rod Serling. To Serling and the Cold War liberals, opposing totalitarianism meant being more egalitarian. In order to disprove the allegations of Communists and agitators who opposed the American system, it was necessary to loosen social constraints, correct historic injustices, and prove that the Marxist revolution was unnecessary.
However, in the post-cold war era, the Cold War liberals have evolved into the post-modern left. Instead of urging power to loosen its restraints, often those in seats of power justify their actions with post-modernist and left sounding rhetoric. Countries are invaded supposedly to liberate homosexuals and women from oppression. Big corporations speak of a “global community” as they expand across the planet. The Marxist ideology has faded into the background, most especially its economic basis, but the liberal calls for diversity, sensitivity, and social justice have become the rallying cry of the powers that be, that rule over a global, capitalist market.
As global capitalism makes the world less stable, the left seems to celebrate the instability and chaos as “freedom.” Free markets, free speech, freedom of information in an increasingly unstable world is called progress.
Peterson equates this crusade to bring chaos against alleged oppression with totalitarianism. Unlike the Cold War liberals who urged more chaos in order to make society better, Peterson urges respecting existing authority and hierarchies in the hope of preserving social peace and order. While Cold War anti-totalitarian liberalism warned of the danger of authority and repression as the equivalent of Fascism or Communism, Peterson’s right wing anti-totalitarianism presents the enemy as chaos. Peterson presents what he fears as mob rule, unleashed when people are given permission to rebel amid attempts to correct injustice.
It has been speculated that perhaps Peterson’s sudden popularity is not accidental, and that he has been selected as a voice to calm the brewing storm of young working class white males who are the main demographic of recruiting for the alt-right. Instead of telling them to engage in some kind of fascist insurrection, Peterson is urging them to obey the rules and be personally responsible while maintaining their contempt for feminism and other “anti-oppression” constructs pushed by the establishment. His message, while mocking and holding contempt for leftist narratives, seems to be focused on warning against any big effort to reconstruct society.
The fact that an obscure Canadian psychologist is now the main ideologue for American right-wingers is a sign of the time. Peterson’s rise indicates that the US right-wing, much like the American left, is facing a strange identity crisis. The old messages are not working in a new era full of new political ideas and increasing instability.