Gas stoves. M&Ms. Xboxes. There is no consumer product or domestic practice too banal to serve as fodder in the culture wars now raging on the American right. Indeed, the vigilantes sworn to stamp out wokeness across the nation’s dens and kitchens seem to serve as an Orwellian domestic makeover crew, commandeering the sort of hearth-themed authoritarianism normally reserved for reality TV franchises and self-help bestsellers.
But there’s a still deeper irony in the right wing’s war on the American home front: The militant blurring of the private and public spheres is a signal characteristic of totalitarianism, as mid-century political thinkers understood it. Hannah Arendt, who pioneered the concept, explained that modern totalitarianism broke with the earlier idea of tyranny confined to public life, which “leaves more or less intact certain nonpolitical communal bonds between the subjects, such as family ties and common cultural interests.” Totalitarianism, Arendt argued, intervened in the private sphere:
If totalitarianism takes its own claim seriously, it must come to the point where it has “to finish once and for all with the neutrality of chess,” that is, with the autonomous existence of any activity whatsoever. The lovers of “chess for the sake of chess,” aptly compared by their liquidator with the lovers of “art for art’s sake,” are not yet absolutely atomized elements in a mass society whose completely heterogeneous uniformity is one of the primary conditions for totalitarianism. From the point of view of totalitarian rulers, a society devoted to chess for the sake of chess is only in degree different and less dangerous than a class of farmers for the sake of farming. Himmler quite aptly defined the SS member as the new type of man who under no circumstances will ever do “a thing for its own sake.”
Arendt’s insight commanded wide assent among both liberals and conservatives in mid-century America, bolstered in large part by the dystopian portrait of totalitarian rule in George Orwell’s 1984, which portrayed a future totalitarian state that treated romantic love and personal nostalgia as thought crimes. Cold War social critics were preoccupied with the alleged crisis of cultural conformity—an ethos of uncritical belonging promoted by the overlapping bureaucracies of the state and the corporate workplace. It was indeed this sense of a fragile capacity for personal autonomy that drove the cultural Cold War, which sought to undermine collectivist thinking in the Eastern bloc via propaganda broadcasts and CIA-funded literary journals. Right-wing intellectuals such as William F. Buckley Jr. bemoaned the state’s encroachment on personal mores and cultural life—though he saw the soulless cunning of the totalitarian order in the court-ordered dismantling of Jim Crow segregation in the South rather than in the enforcement of social hierarchy.
Whatever else the Trumpian right may be, it is not at all squeamish about the politicization of private life. Intellectual historian Robert Westbrook, the Joseph F. Cunningham Emeritus professor of history at the University of Rochester, contends that the cultural right is pursuing its own version of “Gleichschaltung—the Nazi program for coordination, which meant at every level, society would be nazified. Its adoption depends on who the enemy is, and a lot of other variables that lended its particular color…. But there’s a heightened sense on the American right that culture is the fulcrum of society and politics—that you have to intensify the culture wars.”
The right’s intellectual vanguard is now making that case in more and more explicit authoritarian terms, Westbrook notes: “The national conservatives, the intellectual wing of Trumpism… they’re promoting a program for reconstructing the entire society through culture and turning it into a Catholic authoritarian social order.”
The Trump movement did not conjure this movement into being, but it has served as a powerful accelerant. The Reagan coalition was an often tense shotgun marriage between culture warriors broadly aligned with the evangelical right and the GOP’s business establishment. Trump and his followers have cleared the way for that marriage’s annulment, as invasive culture war rhetoric and policy-making have become the principal calling cards of right-wing politics. Trump’s own ongoing assault on the electoral structure of our democracy is itself a brand of culture warfare, with sinister election workers and voting-machine makers undermining the rightful pride of place accorded to white nationalist rule in the American system.
This is also how the tabloid-friendly fare of the stove wars and the M&Ms uproar turn genuinely dangerous: It’s but a slight tweaking of the lead players and the relevant content that produce genuinely fascist initiatives like Florida GOP Governor Ron DeSantis’s ideological pillaging of the state-run New College and public school libraries. Culture-war rhetoric is also the motivating force behind DeSantis’s war on AP African American Studies instruction—a right-wing jihad now gone national, thanks to the supine policy shift just announced by the national College Board, which administers AP programs as well as national college admissions tests.
The term “jihad” is used advisedly here. “I was just reminded of that Dinesh D’Souza book in 2007 that called for an alliance between Christian fundamentalists and Muslim ones” says Kevin Mattson, Ohio University’s Connor Study professor of contemporary history. “That was an important moment when a lot of people said, Whoa, the right’s really off its rails. It was an attempt to locate a foreign power you could identify with, kind of like the small number of Americans who were joining the Communist Party during World War II.”
The larger lesson here is that D’Souza suffered no ostracism on the right for coddling a revanchist cultural regime as a prospective ally; he is now the most successful political documentarian in the country, and is so serenely un-self-aware of his own authoritarian predilections that he’s published a tract titled The Big Lie: Exposing the Nazi Roots of the Political Left. (“They’re irony-challenged on the right,” Westbrook drily notes.) Nor is the Never Trump faction immune to such plank-in-the-eye hypocrisies. Jonah Goldberg, a former editor at the Buckley-founded National Review, who has since been recruited for reasonable-conservative duty as a commentator for NPR, published a similar agitprop screed in 2008 called Liberal Fascism—which bore the subtitle The Totalitarian Temptation from Mussolini to Hillary Clinton until Goldberg scotched it at the last minute.
D’Souza is something of a zeitgeist on horseback for the totalitarian-leaning right, Mattson notes. “He is a culture-war fascist in a way, and he got his start decrying political correctness. And DeSantis is now trying to make a college of his own, espousing a right-wing version of political correctness.”
DeSantis, who has also spearheaded wide-ranging assaults on ballot access, is now, even more than Trump, the principal reminder that the all-consuming culture war takes on an instantly fascist coloration when wedded to state power. The Desantis agenda is rooted “in the half-self-conscious recognition that democracy poses a problem for fascism,” Westbrook says. “Even as thin and anemic a democracy as ours is. You can’t launch a coordination from the top if you’ve got all these distracting little people exercising their thinking and voting, running around talking about pluralism.” Thus you have what might be a new governing formula for the new American right, Westbrook says: “The point seems to be that our politics is at the same time becoming increasingly trivial and increasingly dangerous.”