“Rufo’s ‘New Right Activism’ is not the prescription of one who, following Socrates, seeks to be virtuous, but rather one who, following Faust, sacrifices his soul to achieve victory.”
bullshit at the helm of the Republican Party, the postmodern Right has devolved into naked sophistry.t is perhaps the most banal of truisms that politics is not about truth but, rather, about narrative. In the world of politics, it is easy to be cynical about the polemics of politicians, the judgment of journalists, and the antics of activists, grifters, hucksters, and talking heads who are in the game of spin. But in the conspiracy-mongering cesspool of the postmodern Right, where any information from “Establishment” figures or institutions is treated as just another mendacious language game of the Left that deserves insurmountable suspicion, scorn, and rebuke, the distinction between truth and narrative increasingly seems to have been lost altogether. With former President Donald Trump and
When former presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy posted on X on January 16th, after suspending his campaign, that his “entire campaign is about speaking the TRUTH,” as if capitalizing “truth” made it a truer statement, it was easy enough to roll one’s eyes and chalk it up to spin. But this was from a man who seems to have never met a conspiracy theory he did not like, no matter how often it has been debunked, such as the idea that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) hatched the plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer in order to entrap the perpetrators, or the absurd allegation that January 6th was an “inside job.” After recently being asked in Iowa about 5,000 pedophiles in the Department of Defense whom President Trump supposedly arrested in 2019, Ramaswamy did not miss a beat, responding that they need to be held accountable without a flinch of doubt that the assertion was true. Most recently, he has felt right at home engaging in “some wild speculation” that pop icon Taylor Swift is being used as a psy-op to sway the upcoming presidential election. The right-wing conspiracy theorist par excellence, Alex Jones, has even dubbed Ramaswamy “Alex Jones 2.0.”
For Ramaswamy, it has never been about the truth. It has always been about winning. It is not winning the race, of course, since he was trounced in Iowa. It is about winning praise from a sufficiently large audience that he should come to the attention of people who will advance his brand. Branding makes sense for a man with a billion dollars and an entrepreneurial background, and it does not seem a stretch to infer, especially after his fawning endorsement of President Trump, that he has been aiming for Vice President or a Cabinet position all along, assuming President Trump wins the general election. If he has to sacrifice “TRUTH” on the altar of bull—, the national limelight is worth it.
Unfortunately, Ramaswamy is only one more glaring example of the audacious casuistry that now plagues activism by the New Right. In MAGA country, where New Right activism finds its most bombastic and chest-thumping expression, if one praises President Trump, he is a great American. Refuse to do his bidding, and one is a “birdbrain” like former United States Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley. Virtue, reason, and truth are of virtually no consequence.
The Virtue of Dialectic
The Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote “[h]e who loves fame considers another man’s activity to be his own good…but he who has understanding, considers his own acts to be his own good.” In other words, “[e]verything which is in any way beautiful is beautiful in itself and terminates in itself. Neither worse than or better is a thing made by being praised.” Marcus, like many Greek and Roman philosophers before him, regarded the good as beautiful. It is virtue, not praise, that makes a thing good and, thus, beautiful.
In the philosophical tradition of ancient Greece and Rome, wisdom was one of four cardinal virtues – the other three being temperance, courage, and justice. They were not virtues that operated separately from each other, but they worked in tandem–the unity of virtue. A wise man acts courageously for the right reasons when the circumstances call for it—for example, when justice is at stake. Temperance keeps the mind even keeled, focused on the prize of truth.
The anointing of virtue as the essential basis for living a good life emerged within the tradition of dialectic introduced by Socrates. Dialectic is a technique for discovering truth through question-and-answer examination. This “Socratic method” operates by rigorously examining the assumptions underlying an argument and the logical consistency, or inconsistency, with which the argument travels along the path from assumptions to conclusion. The Socratic dialectic has survived for centuries and is taught as a standard part of contemporary law school curriculums.
In the ancient world, the practice of dialectic aimed not to win over an audience for the mere sake of winning a debate. It was to care for the soul. It was to discover how to be virtuous, not how to be famous, praised, powerful, or otherwise regarded highly by peers who themselves may not be virtuous. It was to pursue and secure the knowledge that is helpful to nurturing the soul so that one can lead a good (i.e., virtuous) life.
Dialectic is an appeal to the conscience rather than an appeal to an audience. Is it idealistic? Yes, but only if one cares about the odds of political victory. Socrates paid a dear price for defending his practice of dialectic in the courtroom and then refusing an offer to give up dialectic in return for exoneration. Socrates was determined to employ reason and pursue truth to the end. For Socrates, it was virtue—not his life or victory in the court of public opinion—that he valued most.
His mission in life was to seek wisdom, at least ever since he found that he was puzzled by a proclamation of the Delphic oracle that no one was wiser than Socrates. He did not think he was wise. Determined to prove the oracle wrong, he decided to go around seeking conversations with men deemed to be wise, but he discovered through examination that the opinions of supposedly wise people were fraught with logical inconsistencies. He concluded that he was deemed wise because he recognized that he was not wise, unlike the many men who paraded their reputation for wisdom.
For Socrates, the pursuit of truth involved a careful, deliberative process of examining facts, assumptions, and the logical inferences derived from them. The exercise of dialectic is methodical and arduous, with truth always provisional and subject to the next objection that a clever gadfly might raise. Dialectic requires patience and stamina, but rather than being wearisome, it is energizing and inspiring because the payoff of truth is virtue. The cultivation of a good soul, guided by virtue, was, for Socrates, the only goal worth pursuing because it is in virtue that we find happiness.
A virtuous life is happy because it is grounded in the harmony of the soul. When the virtues work in tandem, wisdom embraces courage for the right reasons, under the right circumstances, and exerts self-control in the face of temptations that would divert attention from the pursuit of justice. A harmonious soul is the fundamental condition for living a flourishing life.
The Sophists of Ancient Greece and Postmodern Politics
Turning to the ancient Greeks is instructive when we begin to reflect on the laughable homage to “TRUTH” by cynical, conspiracy-mongering politicians such as Ramaswamy. The Socratic turn was a reaction against the sophistry of a group of itinerant teachers and intellectuals who were prevalent in Athenian society when Socrates began his search for wise men after the Delphic oracle’s proclamation. The sophists, or “wise men,” had turned away from the philosophical inquiries of pre-Socratic philosophers such as Thales, Parmenides, Anaximander, and Heraclitus. These men had ignited the Western tradition of speculating about the nature of reality, seeking after truth about fundamental elements and first causes.
Ultimately, the pre-Socratics are credited with asking the questions that set the agenda for the future of Western philosophy. But perhaps because they had so many conflicting ideas about the nature of reality—was reality monistic or pluralistic? Was earth, fire, air, or water the basic element?—the sophists seemed to despair of their seeming inability to agree about the nature of reality. They gave up on speculative philosophy and resorted to rhetorical tricks to win public acclaim.
When Socrates entered the milieu in his quest to prove the Delphic oracle wrong, it was the sophists who controlled the climate of intellectual inquiry in Athens. The sophists excelled in the language games of rhetoric but not truth. Then, Socrates came along practicing a dialectic that exposed flaws in their reasoning and pedagogical praxis. For several years now, right-of-center intellectuals and activists have been telling a similar story about how the postmodern Left controls the climate of intellectual discourse in many institutions in the West and excels in the language games of rhetoric rather than truth. The 2020 book Cynical Theories argued that there is a systemic strain of activist scholarship heavily influenced by postmodern theories about the limits of reason and truth.
When it was published in May of 2020, Cynical Theories was a culmination of sorts for the initial round of conservative backlash to militant “woke” activism in the 2010s. This backlash galvanized the rise to fame of provocateurs such as Jordan Peterson who insisted that postmodern philosophers such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida were the antecedent masterminds of “woke” social justice activism raging against the Enlightenment ideals of truth and reason. Right-wing critiques were reasonably concerned with the monolithic ideology of progressive “woke” activism and its unwillingness to consort with any hint of dissent or critique aimed at the core, or even peripheral, tenets of what was branded, with the characteristic vanity of a progressive vanguard, as “social justice.”
This right-wing band of brothers waging a crusade against the totalitarian tendencies of woke ideology risked cancellation and institutional exile by simply, and usually innocently, calling for a renewed commitment to reason, truth, and objectivity, and a revival of enthusiasm for the achievements of the Western cultural tradition. It was not unlike how Socrates implored his contemporaries to reclaim the initiative of reason in the pursuit of truth rather than public reputation.
In fairness, the sophists were a group of intellectuals who understandably may have been dismayed by the seeming incommensurability of ideas propagated by the pre-Socratics, from the monistic cosmology of Parmenides and Zeno to the pluralistic universe of Heraclitus and Democritus that highlighted constant change. This was not unlike how 20th century postmodern philosophers grew weary of totalizing, seemingly incompatible, grand narratives and began to shift focus to the variety of localized narratives and language games. But to the dismay of conservatives, with their steadfast commitment to a liberal tradition of relying on reason as a path to universal truth, postmodernists could not let go of the idea that “truth” never remains untainted, or inseparable, from the context of power in social relations. In short, both the ancient sophists and contemporary postmodernists were skeptical that “pure” truth can be ascertained. For the sophists and the postmodernists, reason was a game of winning friends and influencing people.
Hence, the turn to rhetoric by the sophists, and to “language games” by the postmodernists. This is, of course, a politicized depiction of postmodern philosophy, but that is the point. While Jean-Francois Lyotard, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and others sought to dissect and destabilize our understanding of traditional ideas in the Western philosophical canon about what it means to know or to be, their insights about the nature of knowledge, meaning, and reality had a political dimension that was playfully oriented toward the expansion of freedom. At the same time, it was sufficiently subversive of prevailing institutional norms to become attractive to an emerging generation of politically-minded scholars and activists keen to reform or even overturn the status quo.
The political aspect comes down to two words: social constructivism. The idea is that much, if not all, of what we think and talk about in our daily lives, specifically with respect to how we relate to other people, does not stem from something innate or integral about human nature. Instead, our norms and habits are a function of how we think and talk about the world we inhabit. Reality is a social construct, a historically driven set of circumstances that we come to comprehend interpersonally in terms of the language we use to describe it to each other. As Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, “the meaning of a word is its use in the language.” Race, gender, sexual orientation, and ability are not inherent features of the people we interact with; they are words we use to describe social roles we expect people to perform based on the features we associate with the color of their skin, their private anatomy, their sexual orientation, or their ability to carry out “normal” tasks. The major political ramification is that these social roles stratify different races, genders, sexual orientations, and abilities along hierarchical lines arranged by reference to a race, gender, orientation, or capacity that is deemed “normal.”
Human nature is malleable because the words we use to describe it change over time. Not even differences in physical anatomy associated with the inheritance of one or two X chromosomes define what it means to be a man or a woman. Gender is an act we perform according to a prevailing discourse about what roles a man or a woman is expected to fulfill in society. In the context of modern social justice activism and its discontents, this is important because power resides in the control of discourse. This obsession with the social construction of reality not surprisingly turned attention to the examination of conditions under which many social groups were historically marginalized by linguistic practices that reinforced social hierarchies. For example, patriarchal discourse may entrench the expectation that women should become housewives.
There was a good deal of merit in the project undertaken by fields such as Critical Race Theory (CRT) to critique the social and historical vicissitudes of domination and oppression. Racism, sexism, imperialism, and other “isms” are a part of our history, and it is to the benefit of society to “problematize” how they emerged if we are to transcend their legacy of injustice. There is nothing wrong with being a housewife, but there is something seriously wrong with society if girls continue to be brought up to believe that every “good” and “normal” woman must become a docile housewife.
Unfortunately, however, the effort to interrogate these “isms” increasingly became an exercise not only in the illumination of injustices committed in the past but also in delegitimization of present societies no matter the degree of progress achieved. For example, in a recent video, the founder of “Woke Kindergarten” stated that “I believe Israel has no right to exist. I believe the United States has no right to exist. I believe every settler colony who has committed genocide against native peoples has no right to exist.” These statements exhibit the pervasive proclivity among militant social justice activists to throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater.
As I wrote in a defense of Andrew Jackson, “[i]t is like dismissing all the philosophical contributions of Aristotle because Aristotle considered slavery to be a natural state of affairs and justified the practice of slavery on the grounds that some people were born to rule and some people were born to be ruled.” In glossing over the many intricacies and complications of American expansion in the West over the course of an entire century, it is an effort not simply to illuminate injustices to achieve a reckoning, but an effort to delegitimate and wreck the foundations of society.
The Sophistry of the New Right Activism
The combative response from the Right to this torrent of leftist ideological tyranny in the last decade has been swift, strident, and successful. From the proliferation of books like Cynical Theories, American Marxism, and Race Marxism, to the radicalization and pugnacity of right-wing media, to the deluge of grievances cascading in echo chambers on X about vaccine mandates, Anthony Fauci, lab leaks, “globalists,” illegal immigration, transgender “grooming,” the managerial class, and the institutional monolith of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) prerogatives, as well as zillions of other histrionic jeremiads that have grown like weeds in the “swamp” of the right-wing grievance industry, reasonable conservative resistance to left-wing orthodoxy has transformed into outright manic mutiny against the mainstream, “Establishment” institutions of media, Hollywood, universities, government, and Republicans In Name Only (RINOs).
The incessant, vociferous refrain of the Right is that everything one is being told by any voice from the (left-wing) Establishment is just another big lie. It is not simply that we should exercise healthy skepticism when informed that mRNA vaccines are safe, that DEI is innocently trying to level the playing field of opportunity, that transgender activism is not responsible for the spike in gender dysphoria, that efforts of the federal government to combat misinformation were not designed to suppress all conservative views on social media, and other tall tales told by the Left.
Rather, anything construed as being even remotely hostile to conservative opinion is seen as another manifestation of a “cultural revolution” that has swept through the operational, institutional machinery of centralized government and society. The only guarantee that we will no longer be lied to is to tear it all down and start over. There has been no greater testament to this reckless insurrectionism than the coalescence of the right-wing grievance industry around the cult of President Trump, the Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen, and the conspiracy theory that January 6th was an “inside job” conducted by the federal government to undermine MAGA populism.
The New Right has found its vision and voice in the hardball rhetorical tactics of provocateurs like Christopher Rufo, the conspiracy-peddling of Ramaswamy, and the populist demagoguery of a presidential candidate currently facing indictment for 91 counts of criminal conduct in state and federal court, the most serious of which involves an illegal plot he conducted from the White House as a lame-duck president to overturn the 2020 election results.
In short, in its anti-woke campaign to ban CRT from the classroom, defame transgender activists as “groomers,” shut down DEI bureaucracies, and most shockingly, trying to elect a strong-man mob boss whose bull— dispenses with any difference between truth and lies, the postmodern Right, for all its tributes to truth expressed by the likes of Rufo and Ramaswamy, has chosen the path not of Socrates but of the sophists. The path to truth has taken a hard detour on the road of rhetoric.
In its capitulation to the post-truth world of postmodernity, the Right has gone all in on rhetoric at the expense of truth in its crusade to win at all costs. In a recent manifesto written for IM-1776, crystallizing a plan of activism for the New Right, Rufo straightforwardly and unapologetically dismisses the tiresome “neutrality” of the old guard Right. In keeping with his abrasive, brawling modus operandi, he argues for recapturing the culture by reclaiming its “language, institutions, and ends.” His activism aims to reshape the language of cultural discourse, capture institutions to effect a change in cultural discourse, and to do it all with a telos in mind because “ends will ultimately triumph over means; men will die for truth, liberty, and happiness, but will not die for efficiency, diversity, and inclusion.” Maybe, but not if truth itself has already died.
In essence, Rufo’s manifesto advocates a return to the rhetorical casuistry of the ancient sophists. As he baldly states:
“…feelings almost always overpower facts. Reason is the slave of the passions. Political life moves on narrative, emotion, scandal, anger, hope, and faith—on irrational, or at least subrational, feelings that can be channeled, but never destroyed by reason.”
Rufo claims that the agitprop of the new Right activism does not “mean sacrificing the truth, but rather, channeling the truth, toward victory.” [Emphasis original] Indeed, Rufo channeled the truth of former Harvard president Claudine Gay’s serial plagiarism toward the “victory” of her resignation. Moreover, Rufo unabashedly admits that the takedown of Gay was conceived and executed as “a coordinated and highly organized conservative campaign” backed by his own “narrative leverage,” the “financial leverage” of university donors, and the “political leverage” of Trump-stumping Congresswoman Elise Stefanik. He has clearly found a formula for political success.
But when one’s conservative movement coalesces around a demagogue who knowingly and maliciously flouted the Constitution, rule of law, and peaceful transfer of power in a strong-arm effort to overturn an election he lost, it is difficult to take seriously the claim that one is channeling rather than sacrificing the truth as the key to victory. When one’s movement attempts to ban CRT from public schools as opposed to advocating for a classroom critique of CRT on the merits, it is difficult to take seriously the claim that one is acting in the name of courage rather than a cowardly retreat from good faith, substantive critique. When one’s movement calls for a return to Aristotle’s eudaimonia, it is difficult to take seriously the claim that one will die for happiness when the language of eudaimonia one finds in ancient philosophy was the language of caring for the soul, not that of ripping apart the soul of the republic by gladly joining hands with Congresswoman Stefanik, a politician competing with Ramaswamy to join the ticket of a man who incited an insurrectionary mob in his soulless, vindictive, and viciously cynical plot to intimidate former Vice President Mike Pence into violating the Electoral Count Act and declare President Trump the winner of an election he did not win. Finally, when one sensationalizes the ouster of Gay with the unbridled spirit of schadenfreude, it is difficult to see one’s activist enterprise as anything but an impostor for virtue.
It is equally difficult to take this activism seriously when it becomes increasingly apparent that Rufo and others on the Right do not evince a convincingly deep or accurate understanding of the ideas they are targeting. Rufo’s recent book on “America’s Cultural Revolution” is a compelling read, offering a vivid, detailed, and gripping account of the careers of some of the most celebrated activists and intellectuals on the Left in the last half century, as well as some of the most damaging consequences of their activism in terms of their impact on cultural institutions such as the university. This is a valuable contribution to the effort to expose the ideological overlay of leftist politics on many of the premier institutions of American cultural life in the last half-century.
Yet, as Matt McManus and Nathan Robinson correctly observe, “Rufo does not so much offer an argument as a story, recounting the life histories of radical intellectuals like Herbert Marcuse, Paulo Freire, Angela Davis, and Derrick Bell and arguing that their ideas have infiltrated all of the most powerful institutions of society. Interestingly, Rufo does not make much of an actual case for why the ideas of these people are wrong.” [Emphasis original] This is a devastating blow for a book written by an activist whose raison d’etre is “channeling the truth toward victory.” Admittedly, McManus and Robison are diehard members of the Left and cannot be expected to yield an inch by acknowledging that left-wing orthodoxy may exert even a minimally pernicious influence on cultural institutions like the university. But their critiques of the substance of Rufo’s book, and more generally the ideas germinating out of the postmodern Right, are not without merit. The leading lights of the postmodern Right are people with an increasingly obvious pseudointellectual flair like Jordan Peterson, who promotes Stephen Hicks’s flawed book on postmodernism as if it were seminal contribution, an obvious signal that Peterson does not possess a deep understanding of the modern philosophical tradition of West aside from the usual platitudes about truth and reason.
Rufo, Peterson, and the rest of the postmodern Right are not fighting windmills. They are right about left-wing capture of institutions over the last generation. They are right that there are many flaws in the paradigm of Critical Social Justice. They are right about the totalitarian proclivities of social justice mobs that were much in evidence during the mass movements that pervaded America over the last decade. Unfortunately, however, their activist bent has taken a very wide turn from the virtue of those who would engage in intellectually honest critique to the rhetorical sophistry of activism that is ready to sacrifice truth on the altar of political victory at all costs.
Socrates died a happy man because he did not sell out his integrity. Socrates avoided the public quest for power in favor of a private life pursuing wisdom. The postmodern Right and its avatars have put aside the private cultivation of virtue in favor of the public acquisition of power. Rufo pays homage to Machiavelli, but Machiavelli understood that he was explaining how to gain power, not how to become virtuous. The New Right activism of Rufo and his band of impostors effectively disavows the pursuit of truth while cynically claiming to be risking their careers for the cause of Truth.
Socrates, who embodied the unity of the four cardinal virtues of the ancient world, and who was an inspiration to future generations of philosophers, was the ultimate warrior for truth. He was never concerned with the politics of winning. He was concerned with caring for the soul and living a good life based on virtue. He makes his case that the unexamined life is not worth living when he defends the practice of dialectic in the Apology, but he was unable to convince the jurors and was sentenced to death. In the Crito, he makes the case for why he should refuse the offer of friends to help him escape, arguing that disobeying the law would be an act of injustice that would tarnish his soul. In the spirit of dialectic, we can argue with Socrates about whether he was right to defend the law while being the victim of an unjust verdict. However, it is still the case that Socrates made the best argument he could in the spirit of seeking truth, not a dirty victory.
That is the challenge of truth. It is the challenge of dialectic, encouraging dialogue over debate, reason over emotion, truth over falsehood. As the Bible asks, “for what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” In becoming a right-wing version of the postmodern relativism that it has besieged so ferociously, the postmodern Right has lost sight of the soul of truth. Rufo’s “New Right Activism” is not the prescription of one who, following Socrates, seeks to be virtuous, but rather one who, following Faust, sacrifices his soul to achieve victory. The postmodern Right would do well to learn that truth and virtue always win in the long run.
Jonathan Church, a contributing editor at Merion West, is also a government economist and author. He is author of Reinventing Racism: Why “White Fragility” Is the Wrong Way to Think about Racial Inequality, as well as Virtue in an Age of Identity Politics: A Stoic Approach to Social Justice. He can be found on X @jondavidchurch