White Christian nationalism has been shown by researchers to be strongly connected to authoritarianism and anti-democratic sentiment. “White Christian nationalism is not just in the people who stormed the Capitol but it’s powerfully associated and a leading predictor of whether people affirm authoritarian tactics to control populations they think are problems,” sociologist Sam Perry told The Washington Post. More and more of the Right’s representatives are claiming the mantle of Christian nationalism openly, rather than dismissing it as a left-wing conspiracy theory as they have in the past.
Even in the midst of the increasing bombastic and violent rhetoric coming from the Right, however, a recent article in The Federalist managed to reach new heights on the “saying the quiet part out loud” podium. In it, Federalist senior editor John Daniel Davidson openly calls for conservatives to embrace totalitarianism to rebuild society in their image. Conservatives’ task, he claims, has been to prevent the “ascendent left” from dismantling “our constitutional system and transform America into a woke dystopia.” This is a stunning case of projection, as he then goes on to describe a truly nightmarish, dystopian totalitarian state—but one that conservatives should establish by weaponizing state power to bend society to their will.
Davidson argues that it’s time for conservatives to stop calling themselves “conservatives,” because according to him, there’s nothing left to “conserve” that the Right once cherished. He begins his treatise with a truly unhinged set of claims:
“After all, what have conservatives succeeded in conserving? In just my lifetime, they have lost much: marriage as it has been understood for thousands of years, the First Amendment, any semblance of control over our borders, a fundamental distinction between men and women, and, especially of late, the basic rule of law.”
One might wonder, why even pay attention to an article that’s so clearly not rooted in reality? After all, had Davidson published his piece on a QAnon message board or in a Reddit comment section we’d ignore it as another hysterical rant from a right-wing nutjob.
But this article was published in The Federalist—an online magazine firmly rooted in American conservatism, not its fringes. It was founded in 2013 by Ben Domenech and Sam Davis. Domenech, who’s married to Meghan McCain, has worked with right-wing think tanks like The Heritage Foundation and The Heartland Institute. To this day, it’s unclear who funds the magazine—although, according to the Center for Media and Democracy’s Alex Kotch, 2019 tax returns reveal that at least some of its money comes from shipping supply billionaire and Republican mega-donor Richard Uihlein, and some from the Koch-linked DonorsTrust, which has been dubbed the “dark money ATM” of the Right.
According to conservative commentator Matt K. Lewis, “sites like The Federalist try to bridge the gap” between more stodgy, traditional conservative outlets like the National Review, and a conservative version of Buzzfeed, “by providing serious commentary that is typically written by young, pop culture–savvy writers.”
In recent years, this has meant increasingly bellicose rhetoric, as well as a focus on “owning the libs” and “culture wars.” They’ve published incendiary pieces that smear transgender people and the doctors who care for them; and spread COVID misinformation and climate change denial. Just like its editor-in-chief, Mollie Ziegler Hemingway, The Federalist has gone from criticizing Trump before he became the GOP candidate in 2016 to one of his most vocal supporters.
So what should conservatives be calling themselves, then? According to Davidson, they need to “start thinking of themselves as radicals, restorationists, and counterrevolutionaries. Indeed, that is what they are, whether they embrace those labels or not.”
As a historical example to aspire to, he quite tellingly offers “the Pilgrims—those iron-willed and audacious Christians who refused to accept the terms set by the mainstream of their time and set out to build something entirely new.” That, in many cases, they tried to establish theocratic enclaves is nothing that deters Davidson, as we will soon discover, so this choice of historical aspiration is on-point for him.
His disdain for his fellow conservatives’ reservations against wielding state power and calls to abandon any libertarian influence make perfect sense: the belief in “small government” that’s been a part of the GOP for so long stands in the way of the totalitarian use of state power to enforce the minority’s will on the majority of Americans. Davidson spells out exactly what he means:
“Put bluntly, if conservatives want to save the country they are going to have to rebuild and in a sense re-found it, and that means getting used to the idea of wielding power, not despising it. Why? Because accommodation or compromise with the left is impossible.”
This assertion—that the left isn’t just a political opponent, but a fundamentally un-American force that needs to be squashed, is now a mainstream view in American conservatism. Therefore, Davidson claims, conservatives need to embrace government power—and use it to shape the society that they envision—a society where White, conservative Christians rule, and everyone else has to bend to their will, democracy be damned:
“The left will only stop when conservatives stop them, which means conservatives will have to discard outdated and irrelevant notions about ‘small government.’ The government will have to become, in the hands of conservatives, an instrument of renewal in American life—and in some cases, a blunt instrument indeed.”
This is an open threat—and a call to conservatives to use the state power to suppress their political opponents. In fact, not only those, as it turns out, but everyone who does not fit into or embrace their version of society. Davidson isn’t an outlier: his suggestions were lauded by conservative commentator Rod Dreher in The American Conservative:
“I favor the Christian Democracy of the Viktor Orban-Giorgia Meloni school—a conservatism that values localism, sovereignty, the natural family, and religion, and that is anti-woke and market-oriented, but sees the market as necessarily limited by a broader conception of the common good. And, crucially, this is a pro-family right-wing governing program that is not afraid to use the power of the state to push its own priorities.”
Again, Dreher is firmly rooted in the conservative mainstream of today, as is The American Conservative. Citing right-wing authoritarian Orban and Italian neo-fascist Meloni as paragons for the future of conservatism, while reveling in the idea of using state power to suppress one’s political opponents is an open threat. But we need not read into Davidson’s words to deduce this, because he’s done us the favor of formulating his totalitarian wishlist of how state power should be wielded to destroy a pluralistic society:
“To stop universities from spreading poisonous ideologies will require state legislatures to starve them of public funds. To stop the disintegration of the family might require reversing the travesty of no-fault divorce, combined with generous subsidies for families with small children.”
Keep universities and schools in line that do not toe the White Christian nationalist line. On the state-level, Ron DeSantis has charged forward, using the power of the state legislature to threaten universities with defunding should they not behave to conservatives’ liking. Other conservative influencers like trans-hating Matt Walsh have not made a secret of their disdain for the existence of no-fault divorce. A society where women can leave marriages, simply because they choose to? To them, this is an abomination.
It’s therefore not surprising for Davidson to claim that “marriage as it has been understood for thousands of years” no longer exists or that he remembers fondly “the medieval European traditions of arranged marriage.” If any doubt remains as to what Davidson and his friends have in store, he spells it out bluntly: those who don’t fit into his worldview will be jailed.
“In other contexts, wielding government power will mean a dramatic expansion of the criminal code. It will not be enough, for example, to reach an accommodation with the abortion regime, to agree on ‘reasonable limits’ on when unborn human life can be snuffed out with impunity. (…) The Dobbs decision was in a sense the end of the beginning of the pro-life cause. Now comes the real fight, in state houses across the country, to outlaw completely the barbaric practice of killing the unborn.”
This would, of course, mean making abortion a crime—and jailing women and their doctors for murder, a crime which in some states is still punishable by death. Davidson’s totalitarian dream would also entail finding a solution to what he calls “the transgender question”—rhetoric that sends chills down the spine of everyone who knows even the vaguest thing about German history between 1933 and 1945:
“Conservatives need to get comfortable saying in reply to people like [David] French that Drag Queen Story Hour should be outlawed; that parents who take their kids to drag shows should be arrested and charged with child abuse; that doctors who perform so-called ‘gender-affirming’ interventions should be thrown in prison and have their medical licenses revoked; and that teachers who expose their students to sexually explicit material should not just be fired but be criminally prosecuted.”
This totalitarian fantasy would lead to the criminalization of gender affirming care, outlawing the existence of trans people and therefore erasing them from society. It is eliminationist, genocidal language that targets one of the country’s most vulnerable, most marginalized populations. But it’s not enough for Davidson to strip doctors who provide life-saving health care for trans people of their livelihood and throw them in jail, to jail parents who take their kids to Drag-Queen Story Hour, or to take their children away from them—teachers, of course, must also be criminally (!) persecuted.
And make no mistake: Davidson adopts the language of various anti-LGBTQ bills that have been introduced and passed in Republican legislatures. “Sexually explicit” material refers to any sex education or the mere acknowledgement of the existence of LGBTQ people. Davidson closes his totalitarian fever dream with a laissez-faire comment to his fellow conservatives who express fears over extreme tendencies and abuse of power within their movement, should they go down this path:
“If all that sounds radical, fine. It need not, at this late hour, dissuade conservatives in the least. Radicalism is precisely the approach needed now because the necessary task is nothing less than radical and revolutionary.”
What he imagines is a new founding; a rebirth of what he considers the “true” America, one that is White, conservative, and Christian. He makes it abundantly clear, that there can be no compromise:
“For now, there are only two paths open to conservatives. Either they awake from decades of slumber to reclaim and re-found what has been lost, or they will watch our civilization die. There is no third road.“
You are either with him or against him—on board with fascism or to blame that “Western civilization” withers and dies, wilted and ultimately killed by the corrupting forces of social justice, civil rights, secularism and democracy. His vision for America is a mirror of the dystopia he accuses the left of trying to establish: a fascist nightmare, in which White Christian men have the right to power, and everybody else either knows their place or is forced into submission or silence by the power of a totalitarian state. The quiet part is out loud; the question is whether or not we’ll listen.