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Can Serious Conservatives Harness the Extremely Online?

During the 1980s, the area of southeast London known as Canary Wharf was transformed from a shabby industrial wasteland into a peninsula of silver towers, tall enough to reach the clouds. This was the promise of Margaret Thatcher–era conservatism, written in glass and concrete: tearing up the old to liberate the new, unleashing the free market to increase prosperity and productivity.

Today, Canary Wharf is still gleaming, still rich. But it’s also soulless. Wide, empty streets run between the towers, with none of the haphazard, organic exuberance of London’s old neighborhoods. Appropriately enough, this was the view that greeted delegates to the inaugural ARC Forum, held last week at Magazine London, a convention center on the opposite bank of the Thames. The acronym stands for Alliance for Responsible Citizenship, an international group of politicians, thinkers, and influencers who “do not believe that humanity is necessarily and inevitably teetering on the brink of apocalyptic disaster.” That statement could reflect a gathering devoted to finding an uplifting vision of the future—or it could be code for climate-change denialism. Hold on to that ambiguity.

One of ARC’s backers is the hedge-fund manager Sir Paul Marshall, who in less than a decade has built a media-influence machine to rival that of Rupert Murdoch, but with far less fuss and far less resistance. Marshall controls a British cable-news channel and a magazine, and might soon have a newspaper. But his empire is torn between two impulses—and so is conservatism as a whole, on both sides of the Atlantic. Like some in the Republican Party, the Marshall Empire—and the ARC—wants to be associated with conscientious capitalism and living a moral life. Yet the quickest route to getting attention on the right is through complaints, cheap jokes, and conspiracism.

ARC’s other two public faces are Philippa Stroud, from a pro-Brexit think tank called the Legatum Institute, and the Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson. Baroness Stroud chaired several sessions, looking aristocratic in a pearl necklace, a pearl headband, and pearl earrings, while Peterson wore some of his most preposterous personalized suits, including one that made him look like Two-Face in Batman. Stroud and Peterson neatly embody the dilemma: Which does modern conservatism care about more—sincere attachment to family, faith, and flag, or wailing about “wokeness” for the algorithm? Hell, Peterson symbolizes the division all by himself. In the course of five years reporting on him, I have identified two types of Peterson fans: people who love his books, and people who love his social-media posts. The books are self-help tinged with mysticism and philosophy. The posts are pronouncements such as “Blame the Faculties of MisEducation For all this Postmodern neoMarxism” and “Never never buy a vehicle with Intelligent Speed Assistance.”

At the conference, Peterson spoke with the swelling cadences of a televangelist about responsibility and hope. At the same time, his YouTube channel posted a “Postmodernist Drinking Song,” in which he mimes along to lyrics that include “Michel Foucault was a genuine pervert / and it made him awful sad.” (Seriously, watch it. Social media’s gain is musical theater’s loss.) One of the two most popular videos to come out of the conference was a happy-culture-warrior speech attacking Greta Thunberg and praising Christopher Columbus. The other was a four-way discussion about the philosophical underpinnings of Western civilization.

According to the press materials, ARC aims to create “an international community that is building a vision for a better world where every citizen can prosper, contribute, and flourish, and where solutions to the challenges we face can be found.” I tried to understand what this well-intentioned gloop actually meant. In effect, ARC was hosting two parallel conferences. One involved earnest, principled conservatives, many driven by deep personal faith, grappling with poverty, social mobility, and injustice. The other involved the kind of apocalyptic denunciations of the “woke mind virus” that are popular on the internet. But do these groups have anything in common beyond their unease at modern culture? And if not, which of them is exploiting the other?

On the conference’s first day, Paul Marshall argued that “free-market capitalism is the greatest instrument of poverty relief that the world has ever seen,” but that it had become corrupted by cronyism and did not respect human dignity. Its existence, he argued, was threatened because younger generations were not experiencing its benefits. It was a good speech, and it showed one possible direction for ARC. “What we’re trying to do is not fringe cultural debates,” the conference organizer Johnny Patterson told me. “It’s actually the real meat of it.” He wanted to address questions such as “How can we respond to spiraling mental health?” and “How can we respond to the collapse of trust in our institutions?”

Given that lofty goal, though, the lineup seemed, shall we say, eclectic. Patterson acknowledged as much. “I don’t think we’ll find many conferences which would have Michael Gove”—a senior politician in Britain’s Conservative Party—“followed by the team from Duck Dynasty,” he told me. “In a way, that speaks to the desire to take politics seriously, but we recognize that culture is part of this.”

Inevitably, I kept comparing ARC with the National Conservatism Conference, held in central London earlier this year, where unappealing populists kept banging on about birth rates. That event felt like a group-therapy session for anti-establishment right-wingers who had gotten everything they’d ever wanted—Brexit, a hard-line Tory government—and couldn’t understand why they were still unhappy.

Overall, the ARC event was less cranky than NatCon. It was also, frankly, better funded and more professional. Heard the joke about cocaine being God’s way of telling you that you have too much money? Wrong! The real splurge is flying Willie and Korie Robertson over to London for a 20-minute interview, even though not a soul in Britain has seen Duck Dynasty. They had to show the audience a video first to explain that it was a reality show about people with big beards who make kazoos.

Both NatCon and ARC have international ambitions: The former is the brainchild of the Israeli author Yoram Hazony, while the ARC conference was heavy on Canadians and Australians. The main effect of this global network, to my mind, is to highlight the howling void where the American center-right used to be. Time after time at ARC, we would hear from moderate conservatives with actual governing experience from the other English-speaking countries. Then America’s contribution was, like, Mehmet Oz or Vivek Ramaswamy.

Many of the speakers referenced their personal faith, or the importance of Judeo-Christian values. Michael Gove, who has served as a cabinet minister under a few recent Tory prime ministers and knows how to tickle an audience, ended a speech on the problem of workplace-diversity programs and the financialization of the housing market by claiming that ARC demonstrated the need to appreciate “what Athens and Jerusalem gave us”—no, not delicious stuffed vine leaves, but a mixture of Promethean and rabbinical spirits. “What we need is the Promethean spirit which grabs fire from the gods,” he said, “and the rabbinical spirit—in particular, that we must take inequality seriously.” Did it make sense? Not really. Did it sound deep? Oh yes. The crowd loved it.

The political kink most on display at ARC was the desire of attendees to relitigate great theological beefs of the past: During one of the breaks, I overheard someone saying, “Of course Saint Augustine was in favor of the Donatists coming back into the Church.” Of course! In a lecture on the second day, the American Catholic bishop Robert Barron recounted an argument between the medieval theologians William of Ockham and Thomas Aquinas on the question of whether God can sin. “I’m going to be up front,” he said, with the air of a man venturing an unusually spicy take. “It’s the Aquinas view that’s the right one.”

One man near me started applauding, loudly. This was Davos for people who have strong thoughts about the Nicomachean Ethics.

So far, there isn’t a handy name for the intersection of Marshall, Stroud, and Peterson’s political ideologies—which is basically the Good Samaritan, but Extremely Online. Then again, maybe it can’t be named, because it lacks internal coherence. Who thinks the Sermon on the Mount would have been better with some cheap gags about Greta Thunberg thrown in?

However, I will give ARC credit for exposing the fault lines in modern conservatism. A series of discussions on energy tried to grapple with the challenge of reducing carbon emissions while delicately ignoring the fact that many on the American right won’t even acknowledge that climate change is a big deal.

Another source of disagreement is the role of institutions—once beloved by conservatives and now more often seen as vectors of crypto-progressivism, or just plain crooks. “Central bankers are a bunch of criminals,” the economist Charles Gave said to loud cheers. Even bog-standard businesses came in for some flak. Gove talked about how privileged bosses were now in bed with “the resentment industry”—by which I presume he meant identity-based civil-rights movements—to preserve their own power. It was a neat flip of the liberal complaint that the right stokes culture wars on guns and abortion to get the working class to vote against its economic interests.

Conservatives, who were once happy to be the establishment, now decry a system that has been rigged against them by Big Tech, the banks, the “deep state,” Anthony Fauci personally, and do-gooding companies with diversity, equity, and inclusion programs. One panel on good governance turned into such a cryptocurrency love-in that the moderator had to intervene and put forth the other side of the case. That didn’t stop a panelist with a man bun, wearing loafers with no socks, from saying that bitcoin was “as if gold and the internet had a baby.” This was apparently a good thing.

I enjoyed all of the “rich people against capitalism” stuff immensely. But I don’t see how Paul Marshall’s call for a new Theodore Roosevelt—“someone who is prepared to take on the vested interests to rid the business world of cronyism, regulatory capture, and false virtue”—will be taken up by Kevin McCarthy, the deposed U.S. House speaker who sent in a video address to ARC, or by Peterson, who once published a lecture titled “Capitalism Isn’t to Blame for Your Lack of Success.” Or, indeed, by the empty provocateurs complaining about “Wokemas” on Marshall’s GB News channel.

The bargain seems to be that you tolerate the circus acts and culture warriors to get people’s attention, and then—presto!—slip in a sober critique of regulatory capture once you have them hooked. I can’t mock this, because journalism does it too, but I do question how well it has worked for the modern conservative movement. A lot of people have gulped down the tasty stuff and pushed aside the vegetables.

On which note, between discussions in the main hall about transcendence, I ducked into breakout spaces, where I kept spotting stalwarts of the intellectual dark web—a group of personalities who became internet famous for challenging various left-wing orthodoxies in the late 2010s. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a campaigner against female-genital mutilation, had made it onto the stage, but the others haunted the periphery, glad-handing and granting interviews. Here was Eric Weinstein, the éminence grise who’d coined the phrase intellectual dark web, talking with the British comedian Jimmy Carr. There was Eric’s brother, Bret, a biologist who lost his job at a university in 2017 and now muses on X (formerly Twitter) about how “Netanyahu is the Anthony Fauci of the Hamas crisis.” (Don’t ask.) At the 20,000-seater O2 arena on ARC’s last night, Peterson, an intellectual-dark-web stalwart, brought the right-wing commentator Ben Shapiro onstage. The old band was back together, more conservative—and, in some cases, more conspiratorial—than when they first came to prominence.

I went to say hello to the anti-woke warrior James Lindsay; the last time we spoke, he had called for COVID scientists to be tried for war crimes and hanged. He seemed far happier than a man who’d just escaped a country racked by war crimes had any right to be, and he confirmed that he wasn’t speaking but was just along for the ride. I had been wondering if the intellectual dark web had stayed in touch through the political shocks of the past five years—COVID-19, the George Floyd protests, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—and here was the answer. It was kind of Peterson to remember his old friends, I reflected, and wise not to put more of them in front of the cameras.

Everyone at this conference could agree on the diagnosis: The modern world is lonely, atomized, and decadent. Proposing a solution is where it all falls apart. No wonder the conservative movement remains fixated on its enemies: It’s easier to complain about “Saint Greta” than to tell fossil-fuel companies that they can make only big profits rather than huge ones. The conservative movement is not one big, happy family. Free-market capitalism is not a pure good. The economic effects of climate change are becoming harder to ignore. Women don’t want to stay home with their children if that nukes the rest of their career, and corporations that only exist to maximize shareholder value won’t help them with that problem. And, good Lord, if cryptocurrencies are the answer, the question is not “How do we prevent another banking crisis?” but “How can I lose my life savings from the comfort of my home?”

I didn’t leave ARC feeling hopeless, just disappointed. Conservatism needs to have the fights that bubbled away beneath the conference’s surface. It also needs to start acting like a movement that can build institutions rather than just tear them down. Most of all, though, it needs to choose between seriousness and the sideshow. The right needs to have some arguments with itself, and it needs to make sure the best people win.

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