The joyless puritanism of the New Right
America’s conservative influencers are becoming as illiberal and intolerant as their enemies on the left.
A few weeks ago, the US political right went crazy over a pin-up calendar.
Towards the end of last year, the conservative start-up Ultra Right Beer released the Conservative Dad’s Real Women of America 2024 Calendar. It featured PG-rated bikini and short-skirt pics of right-leaning personalities, such as ‘the Redheaded Libertarian’, Josie Glabach, and Riley Gaines, the American swimmer who once lost out to swimsuited man Lia Thomas. Major conservative influencers reacted with complete and unexpected hysteria. Former Donald Trump consigliere Jenna Ellis referred to the calendar as pornography. Rapper Bryson Gray, founder of the ‘MAGA Music’ genre of rap, publicly called the calendar ‘demonic’.
The whole silly situation spread far beyond right-wing social-media influencers. It attracted the attention of literally tens of millions of people. Popular website Know Your Meme now has a full page for what it calls ‘Calendargate’. By the time the ‘scandal’ had run its course, completely random outlets such as the US Midwest’s McHenry County political blog – which ran a cartoon depicting one of the women on the calendar being forced into an Islamic burka – had covered it. Understandably, the conclusion reached by most observers seemed to be that the right had gone completely mad.
Calendargate is important not because of the calendar itself. It matters because it captures the puritanical turn of the American right. Over the past year or two, this right has been increasingly enthusiastic about proposing bans or severe limitations on all manner of things. These currently seem to include bans on pornography and erotica, maternal surrogacy, virtually all abortions (including abortions for most fetuses in non-viable pregnancies), and even ‘sodomy’ and the ability of women to vote.
The broad public reaction to these proposed bans has been universally negative, which is pretty much what one might expect in a modern Western country. Even in core heartland states like Kansas, voters have ‘resoundingly’ and overwhelmingly defeated plans to limit access to contraception and to ban all or most legal abortions, following the 2022 reversal of Roe v Wade.
Other new initiatives, such as the anti-pornography ‘Fight the New Drug’ campaign, seem all but certain to meet the same fate. According to one 2018 study, 91.5 per cent of men and 60 per cent of women at least sometimes consume legal, consensual erotica. There also seems to be little evidence that this causes mass social harm (although young people, especially young men, should obviously be told to never do things like choke sexual partners without their consent). In fact, the recorded rate of sexual assault in the US has declined fairly steadily during the modern internet era – falling from 109,000 recorded rapes and felony sex assaults in 1992 to 91,000 just before a redefinition of the crime in the late 2010s.
This new, unpopular taste for puritanism and censorship poses a big potential problem for the right. For the past five years or so, many on the right have been in the unusual position of being seen as defenders of freedom. This is because they’ve largely found themselves standing up against woke loons who propose national departments of anti-racism and jail time for ‘misgendering’. However, it’s now clear that both factions have a tendency towards tyranny.
The so-called New Right would do well to pay heed to recent history. In the US, the religious right famously spent the 1980s and 1990s picketing outside rock concerts and academic panels on evolution, proposing ‘abstinence’ as the only acceptable topic for inner-city sex education classes and chasing Twisted Sister and 2 Live Crew through congress and the courts. Many Americans have not forgotten this. If the right insists on putting calendars featuring pretty women baking pies on the book-burning pyre, then that old image of the zealous religious right will be at the back top of everybody’s mind. While no one really wants Dr Ibram X Kendi running the country, no one wants Pat Robertson doing so either.
My advice for the right would be to do what Eisenhower and Reagan and even Bill Clinton did. That is, try to win by focussing on those aspects of your agenda that the huge majority of citizens actually believe in and want to support. This does not mean abandoning any particular ‘moral’ principle – but what is said and thought inside the church can often remain there.
The right needs to learn a harsh but simple truth: puritanism is not popular.
Picture by: Conservative Dad’s Ultra Right Beer.
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