In contrast to the optimistic rhetoric and imagery of neoliberal politicians such as Bill Clinton and Emmanuel Macron, the post-modern right is defined by antagonism. The message of the post-modern right, a growing phenomenon in North America and Europe, is remarkably consistent across continents, as is their paranoia of their enemies: the unlikely alliance of financial and cosmopolitan elites, the mainstream press, and immigrants bent on destroying national identities.
In March, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban ominously declared that Europe was “under invasion” by immigrants and warned that “countries that don’t stop immigration will be lost.” Orban peddles the theory that American-Hungarian magnate George Soros is conspiring with the UN to open Hungary’s borders to immigrants. Marine Le Pen, reading the same playbook, proposed to “expel foreigners who preach hatred on our soil” and positioned herself as the sole candidate brave enough to stand against “la caste”; an apparent admixture of pro-EU political elites and the press. Finally, in another hemisphere, we see the hyperbolic, anti-immigration rhetoric of Donald Trump, whose Twitter feed continues to spew invective against the alliance of his political opponents, the news media, and his own justice department. Why this post-modern conservatism is characterized by this paranoid rhetoric is a crucial question for progressive thinkers today.
The post-modern right is defined by antagonism.
We argue that the paranoia expressed by post-modern conservatives is the symptom of a collective anxiety in an increasingly global society. The paranoia expressed by post-modern conservatives is often directed against a nefarious alliance bent on their destruction, an amorphous enemy against which they have no recourse. The character of post-modern right wing paranoia is such that the world of “others,” which includes everyone from elites to terrorists, is conspiring to dismantle the paranoiac’s world. This world of cultural tradition, stability, and order—and the identity at home within it—must be defended at all costs.
The Big Other and the Constitution of Tradition
Here, it is worth looking to the psychoanalytic theories of Lacan and Zizek for guidance. According to these authors, human beings constitute themselves under the gaze of a “big other.” The “big other” provides the individual with the standards of behaviour which should be followed, whether or not the individual consents consciously with them. While it does not exist as an actual identity, the “big other” is unconsciously accepted as the guarantor of mores and identity. Individuals internalise the rules of the “big other”, which order and stabilize their experience of the world.
Moreover, the mores and traditions we internalise from the “big other” link the past to the present, consequently promising that the future will be stable, and consistent with what we know. The product of these psychic processes it to construct a coherent, yet highly idealised, worldview. Put more simply, the payoff of adhering to the “big other’s” rules is a sense of security about how the world is and should be ordered.
There is, however, a tradeoff for acquiring this order and stability. The real world is always more complex and variant than the worldview constructed by these psychic processes. Furthermore, since we are unconsciously aware that our experience of order and security is ultimately constructed, it runs the risk of unraveling. Real “otherness,” that which we do not understand and remains outside the construct, threatens the coherence of the world.
Post-modern conservatives politically exploit this haunting anxiety.
Post-modern conservatives politically exploit this haunting anxiety, thereby fostering a paranoiac worldview. They name and signify enemies, reinforcing anxiety over an absent or ambiguous otherness coherent identity—the elite caste, the mainstream media, radicals, and perhaps most unfortunately, immigrants, all of which form a unified conspiracy to liquidate “us.”
On one hand, the foreign other can be regarded as an invader who must be destroyed, yet the root of this fear goes deeper than mere unfamiliarity. The real problem is that the foreign “invader” threatens to reveal that our “big other,” the watchful guarantor of our mores and traditions, is a local construction. For example, being confronted with Muslims who accept the validity of their religion on “faith,” threatens to expose the fundamental contingency of the Christian worldview. How might we reject the argument of Muslims, who accept the validity of their religion on “faith,” and yet maintain that our Christian values are unassailably true if they’re based on similarly contingent commitments? If we choose not to face such a reality—which would require no less than a reordering of the world itself—we may instead signify “the Muslim” as an antagonist from which nothing can be learned and against which “we” must defend ourselves at all costs. The paranoiac worldview of post-modern conservatives is a reactionary defense against all things “other” due to the profound anxiety caused by the possibility that the world might be more complex than their psychic construction.
Establishing the Other as an Enemy
To maintain the coherence of their worldview, post-modern conservatives transform the foreign/cosmopolitan/wealthy “others” into a unified enemy. The enemy, somehow, emerges from their rhetoric as a bizarre alliance of refugees with the global elite, opposing political parties, and cosmopolitan celebrities, the purpose of which is to infiltrate, steal from, disenfranchise, or terrorize “us.” Many liberal critics correctly show that the logic of post-modern conservative positions is contradictory, yet itself a symptom rooted in something immune to logic and far more valuable: to wit the coherence of the world and one’s identity therein.
To wit the coherence of the world and one’s identity therein.
While we should note the absurdity of simultaneously blaming global elites and destitute refugees for the collapse of tradition and order, we should also recognise that this confluence is the transference of a real but undefined fear. As strange as it may seem, the paranoiac’s world remains stable if Syrian families are the tools by which some powerful cabal plans to undermine civil society. The paranoiac’s world remains stable if Mexican immigrants are a means for the Democratic Party to take and seize power permanently, while the importance of the conservative Christian bloc, upon which Republicans depend, diminishes. Post-modern conservatives project the cracks of their worldview’s internal conflict—the identity-forming beliefs that are proving to be inconsistent with the real world—outwards. In this externalised conflict, post-modern conservatives are heroically fighting a war on all fronts. To their peril, rather than adapt their worldview to the changing world, they seek to politically reform the world so that it better resembles the worldview.
As we have argued elsewhere, the basis of post-modern conservative arguments are not reality, but the hyper-reality of a culture war. The conservative post-moderns do not defend Western culture for its merits. Rather, they deride enemies for their part in a conspiracy seeking their destruction. When analysed as symptoms of the psychic pressures we have described, it results in antagonistic politics, vicious in its treatment of both the foreign other and perceived internal enemies. Post-modern conservative paranoia seeks to glaze inconsistencies with hyperreal rhetoric, one which seeks only to preserve the stability of their image of reality. Every fissure where their constructs of “our national identity” or “Western civilisation” breaks with the world is conveniently covered over, for turning away the other outside is far less taxing than facing the other within.