After Hurricane Ian devastated Florida in late September, the U.S. state’s Republican governor Ron DeSantis used some unusual language to criticize American press coverage of the storm. He said the “national regime media” had wanted to see Ian hit the city of Tampa, which ended up largely spared, because that outcome would have been “worse for Florida” and helped the media to “pursue their political agenda.” DeSantis’ claims were strange and baseless—there’s no evidence that journalists were rooting for harm to Tampa or anyplace else—but they were also part of a trend among politicians and others on the right in America to speak of ominous “regime” that’s both opposed to their party and subverting their country. Far-right members of the U.S. House of Representatives—such as Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, and Paul Gosar—have been railing against the “Biden regime,” but many more across the American right argue that an oppressive regime extends far beyond government to the press, universities, nongovernmental organizations, and “woke” corporations. Ohio’s Republican Senate nominee J.D. Vance claimed that the far-right media personality and conspiracy theories Alex Jones was “censored by the regime.” The former Trump national security official Michael Anton has described a “regime” composing “the people who really run the United States of America.” What are they talking about?
Laura K. Field is a scholar-in-residence at American University and a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center in Washington. Field says the adoption of the language of “the regime” has quickly become a kind of catch-all term among people in quarters of the American right for any number of political and cultural power centers that they perceive to be working against them and wielding power illegitimacy. As Field sees it, the rising popularity of the term is an indicator of how radical ideas are migrating from the far-right fringe of politics into the mainstream—often popularized by niche intellectuals and other ideological entrepreneurs and then embraced by politicians, media commentators, and other influencers. Field notes that many of these figures have tried to articulate intellectual frameworks to support Donald Trump’s politics since 2016 and are now working to develop a form of right-wing populism that can outlast Trump. It’s a populism that’s centered on their understanding of America’s distinctive history and strengths but that also now targets some of America’s core institutions—and shows signs of potentially even rejecting the country’s liberal-democratic system itself.
Graham Vyse: What’s “the regime”?
Laura K. Field: Social scientists commonly use the term regime to refer to a system of government, but we haven’t much heard this term in mainstream U.S. political conversation until quite recently. It’s now being taken up by a constellation of politicians, public commentators, and intellectuals aligned with Donald Trump—a broad group often labeled “the new right”—who’ve started giving the term a specific, negative, even cynical, new meaning in the American context.
They mean it to portray the Biden administration as an effectively authoritarian government colluding with progressives who control the media, the universities, and a “woke” elite that dominates the corporations. There’s a clearly sinister edge to the rhetoric, tying in with the falsehood that the 2020 election was stolen and Biden’s government is fraudulent—while also conveying a broader sense that the left is exerting despotic power over Americans, and against Republicans in particular, in all kinds of illegitimate ways. It’s very all-encompassing and, notably, very threatening.
Vyse: Where did the rhetoric come from?
Field: There’ve been different variations of if on the American right over the past few years. Take Trump’s 1776 Commission, for example. The Commission report used the word regime a number of times to describe tendencies on the left—including reference to “identity politics” as a “regime of formal inequality” and “a regime of rewards and privileges assigned according to group identity.”
[Also known as the 1776 Project, this advisory committee, formed late in the Trump administration, created a report on “patriotic education” responding to The New York Times’ 1619 Project, which had argued that the “true founding” of the United States was the year American slavery began.]
This language was very similar to what you’d hear from the Claremont Institute, a research and advocacy organization in California that describes itself as working to restore America’s founding principles—and that had close ties to the Trump administration. [Michael Anton, a senior fellow at Claremont, is a former Trump national security official. John Eastman, the founding director of Claremont Institute’s Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence and another senior fellow, was the lawyer who helped Trump rationalize his attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election results.] There’s a strong tendency among those at a place like the Claremont Institute to view the United States as having been fundamentally transformed by progressivism—and to see themselves as counter-revolutionaries working to bring things back to a more authentic American condition.
Then there’s a group of religious traditionalists—sometimes referring to themselves as “post-liberals”—who also use this language of the regime. Patrick Deneen, a Notre Dame professor and the author of Why Liberalism Failed, has a forthcoming book called Regime Change: Toward a Postliberal Future. So it’s not necessarily just rhetoric; some of those using the language have big ideas about changing politics. Some post-liberal Catholics, for example, are outspoken in their support of Hungary’s very illiberal Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Some groups, such as the National Conservatism organization, promote a populist economic nationalism.
It’s not necessarily just rhetoric; some of those using the language have big ideas about changing politics.
Vyse: How do you see these emergent tendencies on the American right as having influenced Republicans?
Field: When Trump took power, he didn’t display a clear sense of what he stood for politically beyond the rhetoric of his presidential campaign. In that context, there were various right-wing intellectuals who identified with the essential politics of Trump’s campaign and offered ideas about what it might ultimately stand for—and arguments for these ideas. It will always sound absurd to many liberals and other Trump opponents that there would be an intellectual component to Trumpism, but that’s what these intellectuals have tried to foster—and some of them have been effective at it, drawing on a lot of knowledge about American history and political theory. They’ve been able to find ways to rationalize, and sometimes justifiably defend, what Trump-era Republicans have been trying to do—even if the intellectual weight of it all didn’t always come through in what Trump would say.
Another notable figure on the new right is Curtis Yarvin, who’s known to be one of the fathers of something called the neo-reactionary movement, or Dark Enlightenment, and used to blog under the pseudonym Mencius Moldbug. Yarvin wants to overturn democracy and create a new regime—a sort of techno-monarchy—and he and his ideas have gotten quite a lot of play on the right.
He’s close with the billionaire entrepreneur Peter Thiel, who’s in turn been a big supporter of J.D. Vance and other populist Republican candidates. Yarvin talks a lot about “the cathedral,” which is essentially another way of speaking about “the regime”—the media, the universities, etc.—but it suggests in particular that there’s something spiritual or quasi-religious at work in what he’s referring to, with a lot of dogmatism and orthodoxy.
Vyse: Yarvin is still a fairly obscure character, despite appearing last year on Tucker Carlson Today and being cited by politicians like Vance. But another idea I’ve heard from Yarvin concerns what he sees as the failure of democratic elections to change what goes on in the U.S. government. He argues that “the regime” or the “deep state” have much more entrenched power than voters understand, and the bureaucracy was able to prevent Trump from actualizing his agenda as president. Do you see that argument taking hold on the new right?
Field: Absolutely. This thinking suggests that votes for Trump don’t matter, because the whole system has been taken over by illegitimate forces outside voters’ control. There’s an implicit call to action in the argument—to radical, even possibly violent action—to stop what’s going on. If you genuinely believe that people don’t have the control they should have over their government in a democracy, there’s a tacit imperative in the logic of that belief to upend the system. It’s a kind of logic that led to the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol.
If you genuinely believe people don’t have the control they should have over their government in a democracy, there’s a tacit imperative in the logic of that belief to upend the system.
Vyse: I suppose the element of truth in Yarvin’s narrative is that Trump really was stymied at various points by his staffers, advisors, and administration officials. Sometimes it was because he was trying to do things that were impractical, impossible, or illegal, but the dynamic existed.
Field: Sure. He was elected within a constitutional system, not one in which he could simply enact his will. Every president is stymied.
Vyse: So Yarvin seems to be arguing that the guardrails that exist on a presidency shouldn’t really be there at all, and the president should have massive unilateral power.
Field: Yes. It’s certainly the case that an administration might be bloated or that those guardrails might be placed imperfectly, but Yarvin doesn’t take a particularly nuanced view of those issues. He speaks as though every effort to thwart Trump—every reasonable legal barrier—was illegitimate, when actually, they’re some of the best features of the U.S. constitutional order. Of course, people like Yarvin aren’t ultimately saying the system needs to be reformed; they’re saying it needs to be overturned. They talk a lot about dismantling the administrative state.
Vyse: Are there any other examples you’d point to of language or ideas from the new right having become mainstream in the Republican Party?
Field: One example is the idea that “critical race theory” is being taught in America’s public schools. That idea really took off, and it didn’t come from Donald Trump initially. New-right figures decided “critical race theory” would be an effective term to use to go after certain educational approaches to anti-racism or race consciousness that they disagreed with. The young right-wing activist Christopher Rufo, who led this effort, tweeted in early 2021 that his goal was “to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’” Using this language became a powerful mode of attack.
Elements of the new right have also mainstreamed the idea of a Great Replacement—a conspiracy theory that nefarious forces are attempting systematically to import immigrants into the U.S. to “replace” the native-born population.
The regime rhetoric itself works by being vague. The term suggests a phenomenon that’s sinister, authoritarian, and aggressive, but those who use it have plausible deniability. They can say they’re only using it in an innocuous way. To an ordinary person, though, it has an ominous tone.
The regime rhetoric itself works by being vague. The term suggests a phenomenon that’s sinister, authoritarian, and aggressive, but those who use it have plausible deniability.
To be clear, there’s some truth to the idea that liberals or progressives have more cultural clout than conservatives in America—that Hollywood has a liberal or progressive bias, and many mainstream news sources and universities do too. But this conspiratorial notion of a regime that includes the government, corporations, and law enforcement all colluding to oppress Republicans says something very different—and fundamentally absurd. There may be a hardening of language on both sides of the American political divide, but it’s important to distinguish which parts of that reflect reality and which don’t.
Vyse: Thinking about that hardening of language on both sides, isn’t talking about fighting “the regime” in some ways analogous to talking about being part of “the resistance,” as many on the American left did after Donald Trump’s election in 2016?
Field: As you say, people on the left started talking about being part of “the resistance,” because they saw Trump as fundamentally illegitimate in certain respects. I sympathized with that, because Trump is a demagogue and there’s a cruelty to his language and his actions. Some of the first things he did after taking office were enacting a Muslim ban and announcing that he was going to prohibit transgender Americans from serving openly in the military. Still, liberals and progressives have to remember, he was elected by the American people according to American law.
I do see the idea of resisting as different than trying to delegitimize the whole system, though. There’s a certain danger to America’s fundamental system of government coming from the right that isn’t coming from the left. Language is hardening on the left too, but it’s largely against legitimate threats from the right. I know that sounds hyper-partisan, but it doesn’t mean conservatives are wrong about everything; it means there’s a fundamental asymmetry in how language is hardening in American political life.
There’s some ongoing commentary, on right and the left, about the term “fascist” being thrown around on the left. And there’s some truth to that. But what I largely see on the American left—setting aside random people on Twitter using the term as a catch-all description of the right—is a lot of conversation about the word and whether it’s appropriate. There’s a lot of parsing and endless discussion about it. President Biden said some Republicans are “semi-fascist,” but that’s about as far as it’s gone among Democratic politicians.
When right-wing leaders use language like the regime, the public is being primed not necessarily to accept the results of elections—and possibly push back against results they don’t like. There’s real uncertainty about what’s to come, especially given what happened on January 6th. Maybe this all ends up being just a bunch of overblown rhetoric; or maybe there’s potential for more political violence. I don’t think people are going to try to topple the Biden “regime,” but the possibility of more radical action is in the air.