The Right’s War on Fun

The Right’s War on Fun

In their hunt for new grievances, conservatives are now targeting ordinary pleasures like having a drink and taking a day off work.

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If 1967 brought us the Summer of Love, 2023 is on track to launch the Summer of Right-Wing Inquisition. The hammer-and-tongs assault largely began as a spittle-flecked chorus of outrage over the alleged “grooming” agenda behind Gay Pride Month. And now it’s in the process of morphing into an unhinged tirade from right-wing influencers and political leaders of all description. At bottom, it’s an existential protest against fun and pleasure, extending the scowling and humorless politicization of private life on the right into an all-purpose program of scolding and boycotting in the name of preserving a Western civilization on the brink of collapse.

The high-water mark in the crusade—for now—may be Mike Cernovich’s recent tweet professing to locate an ideological agenda in the act of drinking. “Alcohol culture is woke,” the famed Pizzagate publicist announced. “This is what the left wants.” Apparently referencing the Covid lockdowns, Cernovich darkly observed that “liquor stores stayed open while gyms and churches shut down.” Just do the math, sheeple!

Cernovich’s position certainly poses key problems for a gin-soaked tradition of reactionary American politics, from Joe McCarthy’s drunken anti-communist crusade to Richard Nixon’s bibulous latter days in office to Rudy Giuliani’s flamboyantly in-the-bag Trumpist career. It’s true that Donald Trump is a teetotaler, but he’s also a cheerful vineyard owner. More to the point, Trump also plies a brand of the positive-thinking gospel that’s increasingly out of touch with the dour Spenglerian mood of the online right. Trump has always been a transactional, rather than ardently convicted, promoter of this vein of rightist agitprop; that’s why he’s lately been heard musing on the stump about the galvanizing power of right-wing culture crackdowns.

Cernovich’s prohibitionist outburst is but the latest installment in a rightist putsch against anodyne consumer objects and pastimes that verges on the paranoid. In the wake of the successive anti-LGBTQ+ boycotts against Bud Light and Target, Turning Points USA founder Charlie Kirk has been interrogating the contents of his fridge to determine which condiments may contain the dread bacillus of wokeness. Kirk also spent the recent Juneteenth holiday sternly instructing Americans that they “should be working today” instead of observing “a CRT-inspired federal holiday that competes with July 4th.” He went on to expose his own ignorance of the holiday’s origins while claiming that it was designed to “smear and slander white America.” The whole performance culminated of course in the reactionary troll’s lament that he was unfairly being maligned as racist. Beyond all these hoary tropes of MAGA click-harvesting was the broader right-wing agenda of gratuitous fun-spoiling: Not only does Juneteenth represent a powerful vindication of the cruelly deferred promise of freedom for all Americans; it’s never been the case that national holidays operate on a zero-sum basis, with one somehow intended to delegitimize and undermine another. (Well, OK, maybe Labor Day.)

In the same anhedonic vein, Daily Wire contributor Michael Knowles responded to a performance by a duo of trans and nonbinary singers at the Grammys with the delirious claim that demons are definitionally trans. In most pop-culture appearances by creatures of the underworld, Knowles (incorrectly) observed, they’re “never super duper hyper-masculine chads. They’re never beautiful, truly gorgeous women with classical proportions and representations of beauty. They’re always androgynous. They’re always trans.” The agenda here is all too plain, by Knowles’s lights: “The reason for that is that…the difference between man and woman, the complementarity of man and women, is right there at the heart of human nature. And the Devil hates humanity and so he tries to cut away at the very core of humanity.”

Knowles is perhaps the most dogged inquisitor in the new right-wing fatwa on pleasure-having. The same week that Cernovich issued his indictment of alcohol, Knowles took to his podcast to urge the conservative faithful to build a bridge to the 13th century. Noting that young poll respondents had lately registered the highest level of identification with social conservatism since 2012, Knowles proclaimed this merely a “good start”: “If 2012 is the endpoint, we may as well pack it in, guys. I do not want America to be as socially conservative as it was in 2012. I want our civilization to be as socially conservative as we were in 1220…before all the modern ideology started corroding our civilization.”

He then circled around to the main point: “This is the thing about liberalism. Liberalism—including the old classical liberalism—it’s just like an acid that you pour onto your civilization. And I don’t know, maybe you like it. Maybe it’s like lysergic acid, maybe it’s kind of a drug or something. People like this acid, but it just starts to eat away at the thing on which it must rest.”

Of course, laments about rampant civilizational decline have been the stuff of standard conservative agitprop throughout the modern era—as has nostalgia for the alleged order and discipline of the Middle Ages. And the increasingly eschatological cast of political theorizing on the right rests in no small part on a strain of reflexive doomsaying holding that our godless, gender binary-starved, indulgent, and over-tolerant civilization is asking for every infernal punishment coming to it. What is Judgment Day for the American right, after all, but the final act of the anti-woke inquisition?

But the present rightist assault on pleasure is distinctly at odds with an equally influential liberationist-business tradition on the right—one that assailed leftists and liberals for their alleged aversion to consumerist fun, while mocking them as tireless killjoys. The signal difference between today’s rampaging moral panic over “wokeness” and its nineties forerunner in the furor over “political correctness” is that the crackdown on wokeness seems to provoke a strategic escalation of anti-pleasure policing, whereas the PC scare tended to resolve on declarations of laissez-faire market ideology. In his 1992 State of the Union address, President George H.W. Bush could still casually invoke this cultural-libertarian consensus when he defended a proposed capital gains tax cut by saying its detractors “remind me of the old definition of the Puritan, as someone who couldn’t sleep at night worrying that somehow someone somewhere was out having a good time.”

Now, it’s increasingly the conservative movement faithful who are losing sleep over the fun of others, divining stealth woke agendas in a wide array of pastimes, consumer products, and workplace protocols. The interlocking crusades over Pride Month, DEI training, and environmental-social-governance investing protocols all target largely symbolic corporate-inclusion initiatives via the willful misapprehension of their intent. These programs are aimed almost exclusively at procuring market share and guarding against liability in workplace lawsuits rather than recruiting youth, mandating same-sex elective affinities, or destroying Christianity. While they do also incrementally advance laudable goals of tolerance and inclusion, the logic behind them in structural and institutional terms isn’t all that far afield from that of the capital gains tax cuts that the first George Bush championed with warmed-over liberationist rhetoric in 1992. Maybe one could convene an Obama-style beer summit to go over all this in patient detail, but how do you convey ideas like this to a movement that thinks alcohol is treacherously woke—and that its would-be liberal interlocutors are all tripping on acid?

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