December 3, 2021

There was a telling moment, for the American Right, in Tucker Carlson’s interview with Kyle Rittenhouse. The 18-year-old had just been acquitted of murder charges for shooting three people, killing two, during riots last summer in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Carlson asked Rittenhouse whether he believed the government would protect him from threats he was receiving. “I hope so,” he said, “but we all know how the FBI works.”

You would expect that kind of statement from a “defund the police” advocate, but Rittenhouse is a former youth police cadet whose support for “Blue Lives Matter” was used to try and paint him as a racist and far-Right extremist. His world-weary cynicism about the FBI, expressed as Carlson nodded along approvingly, signals a major shift in a central axis of American politics.

Distrust of federal law enforcement was, until quite recently, a markedly Left-wing attitude, but it now represents a baseline among Republican voters. In February 2015, a Reuters poll found that almost 84% of Republicans reported a “favorable” view of the FBI. By February 2018, only two years into Donald Trump’s presidency, a different Reuters poll showed 73% of Republicans agreeing that “members of the FBI and Department of Justice are working to delegitimise Trump through politically motivated investigations.” Imagine how those same people feel now, after Special Counsel John Durham’s indictments have exposed the FBI’s role in perpetrating the Trump-Russia dossier fraud.

What does it mean when America’s law-and-order party comes to see law enforcement, along with much of the federal government, as fundamentally illegitimate? The answer is being worked out by a crop of Republicans whose project is to extend the politics of Trumpism beyond Trump. Blake Masters, a close business partner of tech investor Peter Thiel who’s running for a Senate seat in Arizona, has called for “standing up to the bureaucratic national-security state.” In a campaign ad, Masters describes a nation under siege from within, “up against a media that lies to us, schools that teach our kids to hate our country, and corporations that have gotten so big, they think they’re bigger than America.”

There are clear echoes in that message of Steve Bannon, Trump’s original campaign manager and another Thiel associate, who championed a war against the administrative state on behalf of American workers. Bannon lasted less than a year in the White House, but he now runs one of the most popular podcasts on iTunes, War Room, which has more than 100 million total downloads. In an appearance on the podcast this week, Masters told Bannon: “I consider that you simply don’t negotiate with terrorists. And I believe the Democratic Party, Schumer, Pelosi and Biden are holding us hostage.”

Masters, along with two other Thiel-backed political candidates — Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance, who’s running for the Senate in Ohio, and Army Special Forces veteran Joe Kent, a self-described “Trump endorsed America 1st Congressional candidate,” who’s running for a House seat in Washington state — distinguished themselves from other Republicans by offering early and vocal support for Rittenhouse.

It’s easy to see why, since the Rittenhouse trial seemed tailor-made to illustrate the premises of their brand of populist nationalism. A young, working-class, white Trump supporter, Rittenhouse was subjected to a public smear campaign in which President Biden himself impugned him as a white supremacist in a campaign video. Meanwhile, the state prosecution deflected attention away from the evidence supporting Rittenhouse’s self-defence claims and onto his motives by suggesting that he had come to Kenosha looking for trouble — despite the fact that Rittenhouse could be seen on video, shortly before the shooting, offering medical aid to Black Lives Matter protesters.

As the prosecution bumbled its way through the trial and got publicly scolded by the judge, it only further proved the point of those who see an American regime spanning the upper layers of government, media, and business that is not only illegitimate but incompetent, run by emissaries of a “clown world,” as a popular phrase on the Right has it.

“Think about what this says about our disgusting elite leadership in this country,” Vance said in a video message recorded days before the Rittenhouse verdict. “If we don’t defend this young boy who defended his community when no one else was, it may very well be your baby boy that they come for.” The day Rittenhouse’s acquittal was announced, Masters tweeted: “This case reminded us that our justice system, like every other institution our ancestors built, is under siege, and that the besiegers are very close to victory.”

The rallying cry of the “Rittenhouse Republicans,” which at times approaches the rhetoric of revolution, is that the ruling class has become parasitic on the lives of ordinary Americans. “We despise our government & corporations benefiting from the security & labor of our working class solely for the benefit of elites who have no loyalty to our nation, rather they despise us & are using the wealth they generate to fund our decline,” Kent recently tweeted. Both Masters and Kent say they think Trump was the rightful winner of the 2020 election.

Aside from the specifics and symbolism of the Rittenhouse case, publicly supporting him makes sense in terms of the demographic changes in the makeup of the major political parties. While Wall Street business executives and upper middle class professionals now overwhelmingly back the Democrats, the Republicans have, by default as much as by choice, increasingly courted the working class. Over the past decade, the party’s biggest gains have been among white voters without a college degree, and in the 2020 election, it made some inroads with voters of all races without a college degree.

Trump’s conception of a power struggle with the U.S. “Deep State” saw a contest between the voters’ elected representative and the shadowy forces controlling the levers of government behind the scenes. But for Kent, Masters, Vance, and the other aspiring heirs of Trumpism, the state itself is the enemy. Their efforts, like Trump’s, are directed as much against Republican orthodoxies and the Beltway establishment as against Democratic policies. Gone is the old conservative divide between “good” institutions like the military and the corporate boardroom and “bad” ones like the media and teacher’s unions. “Our military leadership is totally incompetent,” Masters said recently in the wake of the U.S. defeat in Afghanistan. “Our top generals have turned into woke corporate bozos,” he tweeted, “and our troops deserve better.”

But where Trump’s approach was visceral and inseparable from his singular personality, his would-be successors are more sober and more ideological. They are also supported by the kind of political infrastructure that was conspicuously lacking in the chaotic and chronically understaffed Trump administration.

Masters, Vance, and Kent are all political newcomers between the ages of 35-41, and all three are backed by funding from Thiel. The Vance and Masters campaigns both received $10 million through super PACs, while Kent got $5,800, the legal limit in his race. Their vision for America, broadly aligned with the post-libertarian ideas Thiel has espoused over the past decade, calls for a secular, nationalist politics of the common good. The greatest threat to the American people, they say, is the unchecked power of the Democrat-dominated administrative state and the transnational corporations operating under its auspices.

The conventional script for beltway Republicans in the pre-Trump era called for limiting the power of government and letting social policy be set by individual choice and market mechanisms. But for the national populists and conservatives of the new post-Trump Right, that laissez faire approach simply cedes power to woke corporations and lobbying interests. The only way to reform the state is to take control of it and replace current ruling class functionaries with a new elite that will serve the interests of working and middle-class Americans.

“The end goal is human flourishing,” Masters recently told the journalist Peter Savodnik. “You want a strong middle class in America. There’s a whole set of values and a whole lifestyle attendant to that. I think that’s a goal, and I think too many conventional, you know, business Republicans they’re agnostic on that. They don’t care what the consequences of their policies are.”

It now remains to be seen whether Masters and the others can win. In Ohio, Vance is battling it out in a tight primary race against the state treasurer, Josh Mandel, another Trump supporter from the party’s increasingly crowded populist wing. In Arizona, Masters was trailing behind the state’s Attorney General Mark Brnovich 27% to 9% in a recent poll. But Trump, who previously called Brnovich “lackluster” for refusing to order an audit of Arizona’s 2020 election result, only entered the race a few weeks ago, with a scheduled appearance at a fundraiser for Masters. In Washington state, a poll from early November shows Joe Kent leading both the Democrat, Brent Hennrich, and the six-term incumbent Republican, Jaime Herrera Beutler, who broke with her party and voted to impeach Trump, in his House race.

With poll numbers for Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris at historic lows, the Democrats are looking exceptionally vulnerable going into the 2022 midterm elections. The crucial question for the Rittenhouse Republicans is how far voters want to go in rejecting the current system. So far, the most visible repudiation of the Democrats has come from the Virginia governor’s race, which was won by Glenn Youngkin, a classic C-suite Republican. Perhaps the greatest challenge to the firebrands of the new Right isn’t from Democrats but from the push by the leaders of their own party to restore the Beltway consensus.

Yet there are signs that the old version of bipartisan centrism in DC may be unsustainable. A recent Harvard poll of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 found that 39% overall believe American democracy is in trouble. That’s a significant segment of young voters, but what’s notable is that the disillusionment was far more pronounced on the Right. More than half of young Trump voters think America is a “democracy in trouble”. Nearly a quarter, 22%, believe it has already “failed”.

Sign up to UnHerd's new weekly email, in which Will Lloyd selects the best (and occasionally worst) writing from around the web.

Free, every Friday morning.