Image: Social Trends Institute (modified)

Private passions in the public square

The ground shifts under leading American conservative thinkers like RR Reno

Artillery Row

With the meltdown of Rusty Reno, the coronavirus may have claimed its first intellectual scalp in the world of American conservatism. Reno is the editor of First Things, America’s leading journal of religion and culture, and last week he seemed to suffer multiple conniptions over the wearing of masks in response to Covid-19.

Whatever the context, the global pandemic has not inspired Reno for the better

“The mask culture [is] fear driven,” Reno — who has now deleted his Twitter account — said in a thread of tweets. “It’s a regime dominate[d] by fear of infection and by fear of causing infection. Both are species of cowardice.” He went on to claim that World War II veterans did not wear masks as “they’re men, not cowards”.

Such overblown talk from the editor of one of America’s most important intellectual journals was quickly called out by others, most quickly by Rod Dreher at The American Conservative who condemned Reno’s “contemptible” tweets. “If you think masks are a bad idea to wear, fine, make that case. But to call people who wear masks cowards?! They are actually trying to protect other people from getting sick.”

Dreher referred to Reno getting “ratio’d” which, if like me you don’t keep up with internet culture, is when a tweet gets a disproportionately large number of replies (often signifying disagreement) rather than likes or retweets. Reno’s tweet about Second World War veterans not wearing masks because they’re not cowards provoked over 2,100 responses compared to just thirty-four retweets and 186 likes.

Why any of this is of the remotest importance comes down to the central importance of First Things to what is, for the lack of any better terminology, the intellectual side of American conservatism. The magazine was the brainchild of the Rev Richard John Neuhaus, a Lutheran pastor and 1960s civil rights activist who was shocked by the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalised abortion up to and including the moment of birth. In 1990, Neuhaus founded First Things under the auspices of the Institute on Religion and Public Life, as well as being received into the Catholic Church that year. Cardinal O’Connor of New York ordained him as a Catholic priest a year later.

At the helm of First Things Fr Neuhaus managed to collect an impressively ecumenical array of writers and thinkers, including Catholics, Anglicans, Jews, Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Eastern Orthodox. He somehow managed to be equal measures combative and genial, and while never pulling his punches the serious points he conveyed were often tempered by a light-hearted and sometimes mischievous sense of humour.

While it was true that the Vietnam-War-protesting Neuhaus had moved rightward over the course of the 70s and 80s, the impact was augmented by the massive leftward shift of the society around him. He remained a continual believer in liberal democracy and “democratic capitalism” as ends, not merely means. Neuhaus’s experience of these shifts gave him a natural affinity for the neoconservatives, who liked to portray themselves as “liberals mugged by reality”. It might be more accurate to say they were Trotskyites who, mugged by socialism’s manifold failures, decided to replace it with liberal democracy as the object of their worship.

The end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union sent the neocons searching for new dragons to slay, and their prospects did not look rosy when George W Bush ran in the Republican primaries on an anti-nation-building-abroad ticket against the neocon Senator John McCain. In fact, Bush’s election to the presidency provided neoconservatism with its apogee, in terms of power, and nadir in terms of results. By Neuhaus’s death in 2009, the reality on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan meant that support for the neocon project of remaking the world into a suburban American democracy was haemorrhaging.

The great genius of First Things has always been that it is an observer and participant in the word of politics but has never been a nakedly partisan journal. Its neoconservatism was well known throughout the second Bush presidency but its ecumenical attitude guaranteed that it was always interesting, and Neuhaus had a gift for using his almost chatty ‘Public Square’ section of the magazine to give the reader a feeling of being part of a larger community.

The academic and essayist R. R. “Rusty” Reno had been associated with the journal for many years and took the helm in 2011 after Jody Bottum’s brief interlude as editor following Neuhaus’s death. Reno managed to broaden the scope of the views aired in First Things, along the way challenging some of the shibboleths of America’s brand of market-obsessed conservatism. In Neuhaus’s later years it felt like an always interesting but somewhat comfortable conversation amongst people who knew one another well, but Reno brought in new faces and gave neglected younger names a leg up. Importantly, aside from Modern Age, Reno’s First Things is one of the few American journals that publishes essays in translation by the likes of Pierre Manent, Regis Debray, and others.

Still, reactions to Reno’s tenure are varied. One friend complained that he continued Neuhaus’s pugilistic style yet untempered by the founder’s sense of humour. A very moderate English friend studying theology in Germany, meanwhile, is convinced that Reno is an outright Marxist for some reason.

Whatever the context, the global pandemic has not inspired Reno for the better. He began writing a somewhat navel-gazing ‘Coronavirus Diary’ for the magazine’s website. We are all individuals and lockdown affects different people in different ways. but Reno’s tweeted outbursts somehow felt peculiarly fitting for the age we live in, not least for inevitably having happened on social media. As American conservatism tries to “find itself” in an era of confusion this episode does expose some of the camp’s clearer fault lines.

Back in the 2000s, the big conservative divide was between the neoconservatives, who were few in number but contained many star names, most of them then at points in their careers which meant they stood astride the gates which the media could then still keep, and, more traditional or moderate conservatives, who were more numerous but amorphous in the public square at best, and invisible in the press at worst. Today, however, the divides are plentiful and undeniable.

The ascent of Donald Trump sparked divisions, and conservative reaction to this shoot-from-the-hip New York liberal is still mixed and measured. Trump’s lack of ideology is as refreshing as his lack of intellect is worrying, and he can be genuinely funny, and this has helped attract conservative support. Leading neocons have flocked to parade their Never-Trump credentials, but, after initial caution, Reno seems to have given in to full-fledged, flag-waving Trumpism.

Meanwhile, old terms like nationalism and populism have been given a new lease of life in America’s debate, whether as pejoratives from adversaries or panegyrics from proponents. Even in jurisprudence Adrian Vermeule has dropped bunker busters assaulting originalism, thought until recently to be the cornerstone of conservative constitutionalism and legal thinking, and long championed in First Things under Neuhaus.

Confronted by an ever dominant but ever radicalising liberalism that is now using gender as the latest frontier to expand its power and form the next generation, American conservatism has looked at what weapons of statecraft it has to challenge this onslaught but found its arsenal barren. The response to the pandemic which seems to have undermined Reno’s judgement is just one among the many fault lines that show how divided America’s political, cultural, and intellectual conservatives are.

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