Given the Alt Right’s recent break from Donald Trump, this article may seem a little mistimed. However, I think there’s a deeper truth to explore here that is not contingent on the blowing winds of transient current events.
What would you say if I asked you what your vision was of an ideal society? What are the values that your society would be centered on and organized toward achieving?
A libertarian may have values he wants to achieve, and he may even think that a libertarian order would be the most effective means for achieving them, but he doesn’t think society should be organized towards achieving anything. At least, not anything other than giving people an economy that makes it easier for them to buy whatever goods or services they’d like to buy.
Most libertarians focus on the ways in which value is subjective: if I want to spend my life masturbating and eating Cheetos, then the value of that activity is subjective to me. If you want to spend your life raising well-adjusted children, then the value of that activity is subjective to you. And if I’m willing to spend more money to be able to masturbate and eat Cheetos than you are on raising healthy families, then, well . . . it follows that in the libertarian framework, masturbating and eating Cheetos is more valuable than raising families in the only sense of the word “value” that means anything to the libertarian.
Most readers will be familiar by now with the research of Jonathan Haidt, the social psychologist at New York University. We could summarize the research of Jonathan Haidt by saying that according to liberals, the supreme value around which society should be organized is everyone being nice to everyone. In his academic research on moral foundations, Haidt identifies five primary dimensions by which morality can be measured. Liberals don’t care about what he calls “authority,” “loyalty,” or “purity,” but they do care about “fairness” and “care.” Thus, the two most important things to ask are, was everyone treated according to the same rules, and did anyone get hurt?
Haidt has infamously established that conservatives actually understand the way liberals think far better than liberals understand conservatives. Because of research like this, Haidt has distanced himself from the liberal label. But Haidt’s framing of these issues still reflects the fact that he is, in his heart of hearts, a liberal. He still doesn’t intuitively get the impulses that a Rightist naturally feels. I believe Haidt is best understood as a reformer – that his inner hopes are on reforming liberalism so that he could feel comfortable calling himself a liberal once again.
This is an extremely important point: those of us on the Right side of the political spectrum don’t care about “authority” and “loyalty” just because we think those things are important in and of themselves. With these terms in place, the questions still remain: loyalty to whom? Who do you recognize as an authority? Hillary Clinton? The SPLC? CNN?
And when I think of the process by which Social Justice Warriors have infiltrated institutions and done things like watering down the standards for becoming a firefighter in order to allow in greater numbers of people from groups that perform worse on the entry tests, it occurs to me that those kinds of rules will necessarily be put in place and enforced by . . . “authorities.” Yet, no matter how high the Alt Right, or the Right more generally, might score on “authoritarianism,” I can’t bring myself to imagine a world where defending these kinds of rules just because authorities implemented them is the central point of the Right’s moral compass. Indeed, I could very well imagine conservatives actively working to subvert those rules, and the kinds of authorities that would uphold them. So claiming the Right puts greater value on “authority” than the Left really seems to miss the point.
I’d like to propose that when Donald Trump made “Make America Great Again” his campaign slogan, as trite as it may seem, this actually struck a much deeper chord than it appears at first glance, even to those of us who were taken in by his campaign. Those of us in the Alt Right will be more explicit about this, but I think it struck the same chord with a significant portion of the “normie” public as well: the value we want our ideal society to be organized towards achieving is greatness. And this really is just as significant and central to our political philosophy as the individual’s natural rights are for the libertarian or care and fairness are for the liberal. We may have different views of what it would take to achieve greatness, or of what greatness would look like, but the fact that we share this core value in common when we envision an ideal society is an extremely significant aspect of what unites us despite these differences.
Thus, the reason I can’t picture Right-wingers defending the kinds of “authorities” who do things like lower standards for entry into firefighting departments for the sake of so-called “equality” is this: these kinds of rules directly undermine the greatness of that firefighting department’s performance. The rationale for attributing an intrinsic valuing of “authority” to the Right is only because “authorities” are usually people who are leading institutions towards greatness! But as in the case of firefighting departments lowering their entry standards, we can clearly see that when “authority” and “greatness” come into conflict with one another, the Right would choose greatness, and thus, greatness is the essential value.
To his credit, Richard Spencer may be the only person I’ve yet heard who explicitly picked up on this when, in his 2016 appearance at Texas A&M, he said:
I agree with liberals who say, “Oh, Donald Trump, he’s vulgar, he’s ridiculous.” Look, I agree. But just the fact that Donald Trump said that word, “great” – that he had a sense of height, of upward movement, of greatness, that striving towards infinity – however vulgar he might be, at least he had a sense of it. And that’s what inspired the Alt Right . . .
This, I’d suggest, is why atheistic Nietzscheans and Randians find a natural home in the Alternative Right alongside Deus Vult Catholics: the ideal of the übermensch is about nothing other than placing greatness at the center of the reason for why society exists.
Quoting from Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra:
The overman is the meaning of the earth. . . . Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman . . . What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end . . .
Quoting from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s exposition of Nietzsche:
In modernity, the emergence of such figures seems possible only as an isolated event, as a flash of lightening from the dark cloud of humanity. Was there ever a culture, in contrast to modernity, which saw these sorts of higher types emerge in congress as a matter of expectation and design? Nietzsche’s early philological studies on the Greeks, such as Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, The Pre-Platonic Philosophers, “Homer on Competition,” and “The Greek State,” concur that, indeed, the ancient world before Plato produced many exemplary human beings, coming forth independently of each other but “hewn from the same stone,” made possible by the fertile cultural milieu, the social expectation of greatness, and opportunities to prove individual merit in various competitive arenas. Indeed, Greek athletic contests, festivals of music and tragedy, and political life reflected, in Nietzsche’s view, a general appreciation for competition, rank, ingenuity, and the dynamic variation of formal structures of all sorts. Such institutions thereby promoted the elevation of human exemplars.
We can see here that it is central to the Nietzschean worldview that society is organized towards achieving greatness – that the value of greatness be reflected in the structures underpinning society.
Commentators often note that while the Right side of the political spectrum is united by its rejection of egalitarianism, it has no equivalent uniting principle of its own. This perspective defines Right-wing philosophy in the negative: it is anti-egalitarian, it is about opposition to the value the Left-wing places on egalitarianism. But why do we oppose egalitarianism? Is it not obvious that it’s not only because it is a fact that people are unequal, but because they are unequal in achieving greatness? And is the reason we care about this not because greatness needs to be differentiated from inferiority because we want to see, and be a part of, a society that works to elevate, promote, and encourage the former?
I would suggest, too, that this is why Ayn Rand’s fiction has always been more popular than her non-fiction in her so-called “philosophy.” While my view of the latter is mostly negative (I think she was a nearly incoherent philosopher in many ways), I also think the underlying spirit of her fiction is one of fixation on greatness. In a letter to Ayn Rand dated January 1958, Ludwig von Mises made this observation in a particularly biting way:
Atlas Shrugged is not merely a novel. It is also – or may I say: first of all – a cogent analysis of the evils that plague our society . . . You have the courage to tell the masses what no politician told them: “You are inferior and all the improvements in your conditions which you simply take for granted you owe to the effort of men who are better than you.”
There is obviously harsh emotion behind this statement, but I would suggest that the disdain he displays is not merely a reaction to the masses’ inferiority; it is a reaction to their lack of appreciation for greatness. Were the masses to remain just as “inferior” as they already are, but appreciate the greatness represented by those of their betters who improve the human condition, I see no reason to think Rand would have held the same contempt towards them. She loathed the masses not merely for being what they were, but for their lack of appreciation for the achievements of greatness.
All of you welfare preachers – it’s not unearned money that you’re after. You want handouts, but of a different kind. I’m a gold-digger of the spirit, you said, because I look for value. Then you, the welfare preachers . . . it’s the spirit that you want to loot. I never thought and nobody ever told us how it could be thought of and what it would mean – the unearned in spirit. But that is what you want. You want unearned love. You want unearned admiration. You want unearned greatness.
1. Walter Kaufmann (ed.), The Portable Nietzsche (New York: Viking Penguin, 1982), pp. 125-127.
2. Mises: The Last Knight of Liberalism (Auburn, Al.: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2007), p. 996.,
3. Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (New York: Signet, 1996), p. 821.