Newsletter #53: Understanding the Dissident Right
The Online Men’s Sphere
If you’ve been a subscriber since the early days, you know that one reason I started this newsletter was as a response to the large number of men turning to secular gurus to find meaning in life. These young men were not turning to the church, so I wanted to find out why that was and help get us in the game.
The manosphere and other groups were growing in the early 2010s, but the events leading up to the 2016 election (e.g., Gamergate, if you remember that one) caused a wide range of these online communities to congeal into a loosely connected Trump friendly movement. They also exploded in popularity. Figures like Milo Yiannopoulos attracted hundreds of thousands of followers. Later, the more mainstream Jordan Peterson and Joe Rogan found millions of followers. An array of smaller influencers with tens to hundreds of thousands of followers are still out there with new ones emerging regularly.
Why is it important to study and understand these people and groups? Because they are the competition. People are turning to them for identity, meaning, belonging, and guidance in the current age. I want them to turn to Christ and the church instead. So it’s important for us to understand who these secular men’s gurus are and why they are so appealing. To that end, I’m starting an educational series today to help you make sense of these groups.
It is the case that most of these people and groups were and are very different from each other. What does Jordan Peterson have to do with Milo Yiannopoulos, for example? Nothing formally. This online phenomenon was and is highly decentralized, with little in the way of formal institutions, relationships and connectivity. Many of the people involved have radically different views on some subjects and would see each other as opponents or even enemies. Peterson and Milo had their run-ins, for example.
But while I don’t want to play the guilt by association game, I do think there are some commonalities among these groups. For one thing, there’s audience overlap between various of these personalities. There’s also overlap between some of their beliefs. Some of what Jordan Peterson says about gender does overlap with the manosphere’s views, for example. Terminology like “red pill” or “the Cathedral” are often shared. These groups skew heavily towards younger males in audience. They were Trump friendly and often do have right wing politics. (Even where the people in question are traditionally or self-identified as on the left, like Peterson, they are often branded as right wing by others).
In this newsletter I’m going to give a high-level overview of these groups and some of the commonalities they have. To be honest, I’m somewhat troubled by writing it because it will unfairly stigmatize some people. Any honest accounting of these groups must include the white nationalist elements. But people like Jordan Peterson, Rollo Tomassi, Paul Gottfried, and Stefan Molyneux are clearly not white nationalists.
Unfortunately, just mentioning two people together in the same piece links them in the people’s mind no matter how much clarifying you do. Professor George Hawley had the same challenge in his book (see below). But since this world is important to understand, I’m going to write about it nevertheless. I just want to warn you that while we should look for commonalities among these figures and groups, we should judge individuals on the basis of what they themselves believe and do.
The Dissident Right and the New Right
During the 2016 election many of these secular figures and groups were called the “alt-right.” At the time, the alt-right was a pejorative but basically catch-all phrase for lots of people opposing traditional conservatism and supporting Trumpism. There were always explicitly white nationalist groups involved, but the term had a wider meaning. Today, the phrase alt-right has narrowed to mean just white nationalist groups. Because the meaning has shifted, I try to avoid the alt-right term except in specific reference to white nationalists.
I’m going to use the term “Dissident Right” as an umbrella for this group. It’s a term in use internally to many of them already. And it makes a ready contrast with what I call the “New Right.”
I define the Dissident Right as the people and groups that:
Either a) self-identify as right wing or b) are frequently classified as right wing by the media
Opposed to or want to replace mainstream American conservatism
Largely disconnected from participation in mainstream American conservatism
Connected, if in many cases very loosely and informally, to each other even if just in the media’s mind or via overlapping audiences.
I distinguish the Dissident Right from the New Right. I define the New Right as reformist people and groups largely still operating within conservatism. In the New Right category I include the Claremont Institute crowd, Oren Cass and American Compass, Yoram Hazony and the Edmund Burke Institute, the Catholic integralist types like Sohrab Ahmari, American Affairs, etc. This New Right is more like the Tea Party (albeit more intellectual) than the Dissident Right. The New Right is one of the many insurgent and reformist movements that periodically arise within conservatism contesting its direction and leadership. In fact, I’m recycling the term “New Right” from a previous such movement.
The Dissident Right is both more fundamentally opposed to conservatism than the New Right, and mostly excluded from participation in conservative or mainstream institutions. They are also generally more radical in their views.
Who is part of the Dissident Right? I include several groups of people:
Paleocons and Other Conservative Exiles. This includes people like Steve Sailer, Paul Gottfried, John Derbyshire, and Peter Brimelow and his VDARE site. They were victims of various conservative purges from years past, and are sometimes still understandably bitter about it.
Neoreactionaries. A small but influential group, techno-futurist in orientation, that want to replace democracy with a monarchy or patchwork of city states structured as publicly traded sovereign corporations. The biggest name here is Curtis Yarvin, who previously wrote under the name Mencius Moldbug. Neoreaction is more of a thought experiment in governance than an actual political movement.
The True Alt-Right. These are the explicitly white nationalist type people and groups such as Richard Spencer, The Right Stuff, Jared Taylor, and Stormfront.
Neo-Pagans/Neo-Fascists. Includes the Bronze Age Pervert, Thomas 777, and Jack Donovan.
Hard Trumpists/Nationalists. This is a sort of place I put hard to categorize people, who generally want an immigration halt, protectionist trade policies, and who are friendly to identity politics on the right. I’d include Nick Fuentes and his America First movement, Vox Day, and the Proud Boys here.
Manosphere. Pickup artists, Men Going Their Own Way, Men’s Rights Activists, “Incels”
Men’s Self-Improvement Celebrities. Includes Jordan Peterson, Joe Rogan, Scott Adams, and people like that (possibly including Alex Jones).
Dissident Left. People who self-identify as left but who are often treated as right wing by other leftists (sometimes using insults like “Strasserite”) and who sometimes interact with Dissident Right characters. I would include people like Angela Nagel, the Red Scare podcast, Michael Tracey, and Glenn Greenwald in this group.
You can further group these into four buckets. The first two groups (paleocons and neoreactionaries) are political theorists and analysts. The next three groups (the alt-right, the neo-pagans, and the hard Trumpists) are about genuinely hard right politics. The manosphere and the celebrities are less political and more focused on self-improvement. And the dissident left is its own animal. The celebrities and dissident left are also basically mainstream or semi-mainstream influencers.
This should give you something of a sense of the various groups making up the Dissident Right. I’m not going to link to these people, by the way. I don’t want you to accidentally click a link that might get you in trouble at work or something. Nor do I want this newsletter ending up flagged by Google or others for linking to suspect characters. They are easy to find in an online search if you want to check them out.
I am hardly familiar with the work of all these people and groups, but have made it my business to learn about at least some of them and have read a large quantity of some of their works. I’ve even met some of the people.
The group I know the least about is the one that gets the most press, the alt-right. Once somebody calls himself a white nationalist, I usually don’t have any interest in anything else he has to say. I try to give those folks a wide berth. If you want to know more about them specifically, University of Alabama professor George Hawley wrote a book about them called Making Sense of the Alt-Right that you can check out.
As I said, these groups have overlapping audiences, though not everybody follows everyone of course. They also have a few common characteristics and patterns of belief that I will highlight and discuss.
For one thing, the overwhelming majority these people and their followers are male, and mostly younger males. The paleocon leaders are older, but other than them and a few folks like Peterson, few of them are Baby Boomers. They also do tend to have right wing politics (though a lot of the manosphere and self-improvement crowd are functionally apolitical), albeit with elements borrowed from the left such as postmodernism.
A number of their leaders are also very smart. It’s a big mistake to intellectually underestimate them. Paul Gottfried and Jordan Peterson are legitimate scholars. Curtis Yarvin is a world class technologist. Bronze Age Pervert reputedly has a Ph.D. from Yale. Steve Sailer is very smart, and is secretly read by large tracts of regular conservatism as well as by any number of people on the left. The elite of the dissident movement appear to largely be based in the coastal elite “global” cities and often come from elite or semi-elite backgrounds. It was revealed that influential twitter user “Ricky Vaughn” from the 2016 election cycle went to Middlebury, for example. The Dissident Right also has been right on a number of points well ahead of the mainstream elite consensus. They were quick to flag Covid-19 as a major concern while the media was downplaying it, for example.
Beyond these basics, there are a number of other commonalities I will cover more in depth, including:
Atheist or New Age Metaphysics
Red Pill Sexuality
It will likely take me three or so issues to cover all of these. Today I’m going to discuss metaphysics and ethics.
Atheist or New Age Metaphysics
The first thing I noticed about these people is how few Christians or adherents to other traditional religions there are among them. Most of them appear to be actual or functional atheists. People like John Derbyshire, Richard Spencer, and Curtis Yarvin are explicitly atheist. Most others show no signs of having a religion.
Of those who do have some kind of religion, it’s occasionally Jack Donovan style neo-pagan (e.g., worshiping Norse gods. I’m not sure how seriously to take this). But more often it is some kind of New Age spirituality. By New Age I mean an unsystematized belief in the spiritual divorced from a traditional religion. If you are genuinely “spiritual but not religious” then you are New Age. I would include Jordan Peterson’s Jungianism in this category (though he seems to be inching closer to genuine Christianity), and also the people who use psychedelics to attempt to connect with the spirit world.
There’s also what I call the “Deus Vult!” crowd. They seem to recognize that you need religious belief to motivate a people and animate a culture, so they advocate a sort of Christianity for the utilitarian reason of advancing right-wing politics. But they don’t seem to be genuine believers. They are perhaps similar to Charles Maurras and his Action Française in this regard.
Of course there are some exceptions to the rule. There’s a Christian corner of the manosphere. Paul Gottfried is an orthodox Jew I believe. Vox Day is an evangelical Christian (though appears to adhere to open theism). But these are the exceptions.
In fact, one of the things that helps distinguish the New Right from the Dissident Right is that the people in the new right are overwhelmingly serious adherents of traditional religions like Christianity and Judaism. You could probably get an 85% correct sort of these two groups just by using religion as a filtering mechanism. This is one reason I view them as separate groups.
I believe that these root cause of most of the bad beliefs of the Dissident Right is their materialist (atheist) metaphysics. This causes people to see the world in Darwinian terms, and has historically produced extreme political ideologies such as communism or fascism. Their Nietzschean ethics derive from a “survival of the fittest” view where you had better make sure you are one of the winners. Red pill sexuality is rationalized by appeal to evolutionary psychology. And genetic Calvinism is a form biological determinism.
Metaphysics is one area where I have noticed a change. Between 2016 and 2020 there was definitely a turn towards religion among some of these people. It’s still a largely atheist movement but there are more people who have real religious commitments.
The best example is Roosh Valizadeh, formerly one of the world’s most famous pickup artists. He converted to Armenian Orthodox Christianity (to which he had some kind of historic family tie). The manosphere figure Victor Pride also appears to have become a Christian. Even Milo Yiannopoulos is saying he’s returned to faith and is now “ex-gay.”
What should we make of these? In my view, we should look to what John the Baptist said about bringing forth fruit in keeping with repentance. Is there genuine evidence of conversion in their lives? In Roosh’s case, for example, I’d say Yes. He unpublished all of his pickup artist guides that were his primary source of income. And he implemented comment moderation on his forums to prohibit advocacy of un-Christian behavior. He may not be everybody’s cup of tea today, but you do see real change in his life.
Roosh’s politics do appear to remain right wing. If the trend towards more conversions or Christians being attracted into these movements continues, it will be interesting to see how things develop. I would expect it to lead to some changes, but not necessarily an end to right wing politics as such. While ideologies such as communism and fascism are materialist, many right wing politics are traditionally very compatible with Christianity. Joseph de Maistre was a devout Catholic, for example. And of course American postwar conservatism was heavily Catholic in origin and remains heavily supported by Evangelical voters.
I use the term Nietzschean ethics in a broad sense here. Yes, there are people who explicitly channel Nietzsche and have a sort of will to power politics. Bronze Age Pervert is definitely the poster child here. His heroes are people like the conquistadors.
But more common is a self-oriented view of the world and an approach to life characterized by what you might call a cultivated hedonism. The self-oriented view of the world is typical of the mainstream self-improvement business. You can think of Anthony Robbins and his “awaken the giant within” approach. The idea is that you transform yourself by changing your inner state (your “inner game” as the manosphere would put it) and developing new capabilities, which enable you to become a hero of sorts in the real world. This new self-confidence allows you “impose your will on the world” and the like. This is not necessarily or even typically for political purposes, but rather for achieving the life that you want to live. The key is that everything is about reliance on the self. What you get out of life is determined entirely by what you do.
This life is usually what I call “cultivated hedonism.” The pick-up artist, for example, wants to have sex with lots of women. But this is not usually just raw hedonism in the sense of the pure pursuit of pleasure. Rather, it involves cultivating virtue of a sort, in the sense of developing one’s potentialities and disciplining oneself to achieve higher level objectives. This, in essence, is the root of the idea of self-improvement. So the Dissident Right person focuses on eating right, lifting weights, learning new skills, building confidence, avoiding porn and mostly video games, starting a business or side hustle, etc. In fact, as I’ve noted before, the Dissident Right is actually more anti-porn than the Republican Party today. But their rationale for avoiding porn (and sometimes masturbation) is not so much moral as to ensure that they don’t dissipate sexual energy that could be sublimated into some “higher” purpose like having sex with real women, starting a business, etc.
Their pitch would go something like this: reject the lies of a hostile system that only wants to use you and dispose of you. Stop eating the soy, the sugar, the processed junk sold by the corporate food industry. Reject the soma they offer to keep you docile and compliant – the porn, the video games, etc. Stop believing the propaganda about toxic masculinity and stop being a chump by sacrificing all your own desires and ambitions for the sake of other people who are manipulating you and hate you. Reject feminism, woke ideology, etc. that exist only to legitimate the ruling class and corporate oligarchy. Instead, live life on your terms. Get what you want out of life, because there’s never been a better time to do it. Eat the best high-quality food and get in shape. Enjoy lots of loose women and some partying when you are young then settle down to a trad family existence with a nice girl. Keep your costs low and start a business to make you independent of the system. Make sure you take more out of the world than you give or even “enjoy the decline.” Support others like Trump who want to smash a corrupt and perverted system that promotes “bug life.” Or take part in smashing the system yourself. When attacked, punch back twice as hard. Fight without restraint for victory for you and yours.
I have always struggled to relate to even mainstream self-improvement literature. The core concept of reliance on self is entirely contrary to Christianity. Christianity teaches that “unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.” Christians are to find identity in Christ, and to rely on Christ. And there is always an other-directed component to Christian life. Christians have to categorically reject the self-oriented Nietzschean sensibility derived from a materialist conception of life.
I do, however, believe there are some elements here that Christians should give consideration to.
The first is that the self-improvement community broadly speaking appeals to men who want to develop their potentialities – their physical body, their talents and skills, etc. That’s something rarely on offer in the church. Way back in Masc #2 on making a habit of learning new skills, I said this was a gap. Christian ministers seldom speak about developing all of the capabilities and potentialities God has given us as men – something that we should be doing. Also, American Christianity is highly reliant on professional ministers to speak on behalf of the faith in every domain. But pastors aren’t knowledgeable about most subjects. They are frequently quite awful when they opine about them. Instead, lay Christians who are experts in particular fields need to engage in them with a Christian underpinning. For example, I can’t name a diet or exercise site aimed at men written from a recognizably Christian point of view. So where do men turn? To non-Christians, who implicitly provide their own life philosophies along with workout expertise. I don’t think we need the equivalent of Christian rock music here. I’m talking about genuine expertise delivered from an implicitly Christian foundation. Bottom line: the church needs to be encouraging men towards developing their God-given capabilities and achieving excellence in all domains of life; and lay leaders who are experts in their fields need to be engaging in them from an implicitly Christian perspective.
Secondly, the Dissident Right belief that the church and much of society wants you to be a chump is in fact true. I don’t have space to go into too much detail here, but I’ve written about it several times before. Read my Theopolis piece on the manosphere and the church, and my recent essays on the flawed conservative concept of the gentleman, or how the conservative trad con types are functionally your enemy. The “servant leader” concept is of this ilk. Service and self-sacrifice are part of the Christian life, but Christian life is not reducible to them. Christ was a suffering servant, but is also the King of kings, etc.
There seems to be no place in the church today for legitimate self-assertion by men. Self-assertion is only considered legitimate if it is in matters approved of by elite secular culture. So black Christians are allowed to assert a claim for racial justice. Women are allowed to assert their own desires for leadership positions. But unless you are a minority asserting a claim as a minority or engaged in some other culturally approved mode of self-assertion, you are out of luck.
While the Bible says we should love our neighbor as ourself, too often the church tells men to love their neighbor instead of themselves. Men have a perfectly legitimate right to assert their own claims for justice, etc. Yes, Christianity involves service to others, self-sacrifice, etc. But when two Christians have desires in conflict, how should this be resolved? After you. No, after you. And so on ad infinitum? In practice, the church says it is men who should always be the ones to give way in conflict.
By reducing manhood to service and self-sacrifice, this also in essence cancels the creation mandate. The husband is to serve his wife and children, orienting himself inward to the home rather than outward to the world. I wrote a section about this in Masc #33 on “white knighting.” With manhood devoid of mission, the home itself becomes self-referential. There’s no place for the household to extend outward into the world, reordering it in accordance with the kingdom of God. Similarly, a man’s business might run internally on Christian principles (serving employees, serving customers, etc.), but using the power of that business to effect positive restructurings in the community is not even considered. It’s similar when it comes to utilizing political power. Use of a Christian man’s power and authority (as opposed to some self-effacing, self-sacrificing service) to create justice and shalom is absent (again, unless it happens to conveniently align 100% with the secular elite consensus). Historic use of that authority is almost entirely condemned (e.g., the Crusades) and almost never celebrated or approved of with the notable exception of abolition (which is generally presented as an exercise in moral persuasion rather than the exercise of power).
The Catholic neoreactionary writer the Social Pathologist has written a lot about this at a higher level, noting that it seems to be reflective of deeper problems of the church. He traces this to the domination of the “Tolstoyan” viewpoint that Chesterton wrote about (see Coda). He wrote,
Many pious Christian types seem to forget that the monasteries thrived in a peace secured by armed Christians, those who were prepared to defend the Christians from armed attack. I wonder how many monasteries would have survived if Charles Martel had not stopped the Muslim tide? And though Martel was a pious man, he had to resort to the force of arms to get things done. The Siege of Vienna and the Battle of Lepanto weren’t spiritual ones.The more I mediate on this matter the more I am convinced that respectable “Christian masculinity” has produced a type of man who cannot virtuously strike back at evil. Rather he must “passively” take it. Modern Christian theology has virtually made it impossible to wage a just war. The death penalty is effectively losing all theological justification and compassion for criminals assumes a greater significance than justice for the victims.
Rod Dreher had a keen insight into this in a 2016 post called “Re-Tribalizing America” that was one of the inspiration pieces for the Masculinist. In it he wrote:
As a Christian, I am sorry to say that [Dissident Right figure] Jack Donovan is a very smart man who understands something important about what’s happening in this country, something that many of us conservative Christians do not… There are constructive forms of masculinity, and destructive forms of masculinity. Giving oneself over to gun violence and fathering children that you won’t care for is a destructive form. But middle-class male culture, at least white male culture, doesn’t know how to nurture a healthy masculinity. The middle-class white American church certainly doesn’t. Eventually, the provocations of Social Justice Warriors, especially when they are race-based, is going to empower the militant whites, especially those drawn to pagan masculinity, and they are going to do what the rest of us would not do: Fight. This, because the best — that is, those who want peace, civility, and tolerance — lack all conviction to defend the conditions under which we can have those things against their enemies…White liberal middle-class society and many bourgeois conservatives have demonized within themselves, collectively and individually, the instinct that would have given them the strength to fight civilization’s enemies on the Left and on the Right.
I don’t pretend to have all the answers on this. I do feel on solid ground talking about how we need to encourage and help men to develop themselves. The way the church berates men and denies their own right of self-assertion is also pretty clear. But these broader questions are not ones where I have expertise. But it’s obvious something is off, as folks like Dreher and Social Pathologist have pointed out.
Fortunately, this is something that American Reformer will be addressing. It will have scholars bringing to bear the teachings of the Magisterial Reformers, the best Catholic thinkers, the Church Fathers, and of course the Bible to questions like the appropriate Christian use of power. Let’s not outsource our thinking on these to the Dissident Right, but instead let us correct today’s errors with authentic Christian truth. So sign up for American Reformer today for more on this.
For Further Exploration
During this series I will provide additional resources you might be interested in to help makes sense of or sample what the Dissident Right is saying. Note that I will not recommend extreme content, so this material is not a full representation of what’s out there.
I already mentioned George Hawley’s book Making Sense of the Alt-Right. It will give you a good overview of the alt-right group itself. This is an academic book on Columbia University Press, but is very readable.
Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life is a good intro to his work. I think it sold three million copies. I have not read his new book.
Self-improvement celebrity Mike Cernovich’s Gorilla Mindset is another mainstream mode self-improvement book. It’s short and easy to read. His documentary about the media called Hoaxed is superb and Hollywood grade. In fact, it was so good Amazon censored it after it became a most watched title on Prime video.
Paul Gottfried’s book Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt: Towards a Secular Theocracy is a good introduction to him. This is an academic book published by the University of Missouri Press. I should tell you it’s a bit of a dry read.
Vox Day’s SJW’s Always Lie is the best book for understanding the story arc of cancellation attempts. Day is definitely on the hard right, but this book is very useful to even ordinary people, who are usually blindsided by these attacks and often respond poorly (e.g., by foolishly apologizing) because they do not understand who they are dealing with and what is happening to them.
In Masc #48 I told the story of Richard Montañez, the janitor at Frito-Lay who supposedly invented Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. The LA Times recently ran an article debunking that claim. Apparently he still had a pretty compelling personal story, but the part of it about inventing Flamin’ Hot Cheetos isn’t true. I sourced my claim to a mainstream CNBC article. Regardless, I thought it was important to correct the record. Factual rigor is important, even in secondary elements. So where I get something wrong, I want to fix it. I’ll go back and correct the online version of the issue.
It is true that the Church told some men to fight and others not to fight; and it is true that those who fought were like thunderbolts and those who did not fight were like statues. All this simply means that the Church preferred to use its Supermen and to use its Tolstoyans. There must be some good in the life of battle, for so many good men have enjoyed being soldiers. There must be some good in the idea of non-resistance, for so many good men seem to enjoy being Quakers. All that the Church did (so far as that goes) was to prevent either of these good things from ousting the other. They existed side by side…….. Monks said all that Tolstoy says; they poured out lucid lamentations about the cruelty of battles and the vanity of revenge. But the Tolstoyans were not quite right enough to run the whole world; and in the ages of faith they were not allowed to run it.
– G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy
Aaron, I'm coming back to this after reading the Vanity Fair piece that just came out and shared this with a friend so we can make sense of what is going on around us with the recent changes in conservatism. You've been a true blessing.