Why might a conservative become a reactionary?

That question has been much on my mind in recent years, as the ranks of conservative intellectuals has thinned out, with some shifting leftward and many others taking a leap into the outright reactionary politics that has flourished on the right since Donald Trump took over the Republican Party back in 2016.

In making sense of these changes, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has been a useful guide, since through it all he's remained a conservative, and an especially thoughtful and measured one at that. He's one of the very few on the right to maintain a studied distance from the liberalism of the Democratic Party while also steadfastly resisting the reactionary temptation to which so many others have succumbed.

But that track record is also why Douthat's column in the Times this past weekend — and one line in it in particular — was so surprising. In the midst of discussing this very tension between liberal and reactionary impulses on the right, he wrote the following: "In the end, conservatives need to believe the things they love can flourish within the liberal order, and it isn't irrational to turn reactionary if things you thought you were conserving fall away."

Though the double-negative formulation ("isn't irrational") may indicate hesitation or an effort at hedging, this is nonetheless a striking statement that implies Douthat himself feels tempted by the lure of reactionary politics — or at least that he thinks those of his compatriots who feel such a temptation have ample grounds for making the leap.

How can this be? In what sense, if any, can reaction be considered rational for a conservative?

The best way to begin exploring these questions is to clarify what the concept of "reaction" means — and the best way to do that is to contrast it to concepts normally attached to the left, such as "radical" and "revolutionary."

The left side of the ideological spectrum begins near the center with liberal incrementalists who believe in using government power to improve the lives of citizens and to respond to evidence of injustice in the status quo. Further out on the left come more radical reformers, like socialists, who seek greater change to unjust traditions, institutions, and structures of society and the economy. Finally, on the leftward extreme, we find communists and other revolutionaries who aim to overthrow these traditions, institutions, and structures altogether in the hopes of bringing a whole new social and economic order into being.

A similar dynamic can be seen on the right, though of course with the ideological polarities reversed. Adjacent to the center and rubbing shoulders with the most modest liberal reformers are conservatives who don't oppose change entirely but seek to enact it slowly and deliberatively, with new policies and programs rooted in long-standing norms and traditions, building on those foundations without uprooting or tearing them down. Then, further out to the right, one finds groups that define themselves by resistance to change and look back fondly to the past in the hope of reviving aspects of it by reversing some recent trends. Finally, on the far right, are those who believe corruption and decay is so far advanced in the present that there's little or nothing worth conserving. These are the reactionaries — figures who define themselves by their intensely negative reaction to the appalling moral and political circumstances that supposedly surround them.

What are the practical implications of the reactionary's rejection of the present? In one mode, it can point toward apolitical withdrawal. Author Rod Dreher explored this possibility in his influential 2017 book The Benedict Option, which held out a future for the religious right that involved pulling back from efforts to exercise political rule as the country became ever more thoroughly secular and inhospitable to devout Christians. In place of the overtly political battles that have engaged Christian conservatives since the 1970s, Dreher advised them to focus their energies instead on deepening their own faith and cultivating communities of like-minded believers capable of adhering to the church's historic teachings about sex, marriage, and family, while also working to protect themselves from the new dark ages spreading around them.

Then there's the path of reactionary political engagement.

Convinced that there is nothing much worth conserving in the present and unwilling to accept stepping back from the political fray, the post-conservative right embraces outright destruction, taking direct and merciless aim at the corrupt, and corrupting, institutions and ideas they see all around them. Where the far left sees a revolution as the first step toward undertaking a great leap forward, the far right seeks a counter-revolution that would make possible a leap both forward and backward. First it seeks to tear down the world as it is — or rather, it looks to empower any political force that promises to smash the existing order. Then, once the abomination of the present has been swept away, it hopes to be able to reconstruct a world of virtue, piety, authority, and obedience atop the rubble.

Is there any sense in which this mode of reactionary politics can be described as "not irrational"? Indeed there is, since it follows, with rigorous logic, from conservative premises: If present institutions and ideas maintain a continuity with past glories, then they are worth conserving. But if, by contrast, those institutions and ideas are now thoroughly debased, then they should not be conserved but rather actively opposed, torn down, uprooted, and destroyed, as a precondition for future rebirth. In this way, under certain conditions, conservative premises can justify radical, indeed nihilistic, actions. To judge by developments on the American right in recent years, growing numbers of conservatives believe we are currently living in precisely such circumstances.

But there are other, deeper senses in which reactionary politics is the furthest thing from rational. For one thing, as author John Ganz has recently reminded us in an insightful Substack post, such impulses are an expression of what historian Fritz Stern called, in a famous study of late-19th and early-20th-century German reactionaries, the "politics of cultural despair." Despair is an emotion, one that is next of kin to self-pity and embittered desperation. To the extent that contemporary American reactionary politics is an expression of related feelings, it is no more rational than rage or disgust — and just as toxic as those equally volatile emotions for the conduct of political life.

Reactionary politics is also irrational when it is judged on its own terms — by its capacity to achieve the goals that ostensibly motivate it. When in all of human history has the impulse to lash out at and tear down a decadent status quo produced anything other than unspeakable cruelty and tyranny? Far from laying the groundwork for a return to a golden age of recovered virtue, it leads everywhere to its opposite: a renaissance of barbarism.

This means that the turn to reaction must always be considered irrational for a conservative — at least for one who is committed to remaining firmly grounded in reality and unwilling to make a leap into political fantasy.

At certain moments, the temptation to make such a leap can be powerful, just as resisting it can be a lonely business. But refusing the reactionary temptation has the advantage of having both reason and truth on its side, even if it doesn't always feel that way, and even if one's erstwhile ideological allies have no immediate use for such sources of restraint.

That's something wise conservatives will keep in mind as things go ever further off the rails on the American right.