March 1, 2024

“Despair,” he signed off, “serves the regime.”

Part of why people have trouble describing this New Right is because it’s a bunch of people who believe that the system that organizes our society and government, which most of us think of as normal, is actually bizarre and insane. Which naturally makes them look bizarre and insane to people who think this system is normal. You’ll hear these people talk about our globalized consumerist society as “clown world.” You’ll often hear the worldview expressed by our media and intellectual class described as “the matrix” or the “Ministry of Truth,” as Thiel described it in his opening keynote speech to NatCon. It can be confusing to turn on something like the influential underground podcast Good Ol Boyz and hear a figure like Anton talk to two autodidact Southern gamers about the makeup of the regime, if only because most people reading this probably don’t think of America as the kind of place that has a regime at all. But that’s because, as many people in this world would argue, we’ve been so effectively propagandized that we can’t see how the system of power around us really works.

This is not a conspiracy theory like QAnon, which presupposes that there are systems of power at work that normal people don’t see. This is an idea that the people who work in our systems of power are so obtuse that they can’t even see that they’re part of a conspiracy.

“The fundamental premise of liberalism,” Yarvin told me, “is that there is this inexorable march toward progress. I disagree with that premise.” He believes that this premise underpins a massive framework of power. “My job,” as he puts it, “is to wake people up from the Truman Show.”

We spoke sharing a bench outside in the dark one evening, a few days into the conference. Yarvin is friendly and solicitous in person, despite the fact that he tends to think and talk so fast that he can start unspooling, reworking baroque metaphors to explain ideas to listeners who have heard them many times before.

Strange things can happen when you meet him. I’d gotten in touch with him through a mutual friend, a journalist I knew from New York who once had a big magazine assignment to write about him. The piece never came out. “They wanted him to say I was really evil and all that,” Yarvin told me. “He wouldn’t do it and pulled the piece. And I thought, Okay, that’s a cool guy.” This friend has now made a bunch of money in crypto, works on a project Yarvin helped launch to build a decentralized internet, and lives hours out into the desert in Utah, where he’ll occasionally call in to New Right–ish podcasts. He recently had dinner with Thiel and Masters—both Masters and Vance have raised money by offering donors a chance to dine with Thiel and the candidate.

Yarvin has a pretty condescending view of the mainstream media: “They’re just predators,” he has said, who have to make a living attacking people like him. “They just need to eat.” He doesn’t usually deal with mainstream magazines and wrote that he’d been “ambushed” at the last NatCon, in 2019, by a reporter for Harper’s—where I also write—who made him out to be a bit of a loon and predicted that the NatCons’ populist program would soon be “stripped of its parts” by the corporate-minded Republican establishment.

But the winds are shifting. He told me about how he’d gone to read poetry in New York recently, at the Thiel-funded NPC fest. “A bunch of lit kids showed up,” he said, grinning. I had grown into adulthood in the New York lit-kid world; even a few years ago, there was no question that anything like this could have happened. But now Yarvin is a cult hero to many in the ultrahip crowd that you’ll often hear referred to as the “downtown scene.” “I don’t even think antifa bothered showing up,” Yarvin said. “What would they do? It was an art party.”

Yarvin had asked his new girlfriend, Lydia Laurenson, a 37-year-old founder of a progressive magazine, to vet me. The radical right turn her life had taken created complications.

“One of my housemates was like—‘I don’t know if I want Curtis in our house,’ ” she told me. “And I’m like, ‘Okay, that makes sense. I understand why you’re saying that.’ ”

Laurenson had been a well-known blogger and activist in the BDSM scene back when Yarvin was the central early figure in a world of “neo-reactionary” writers, publishing his poetry and political theory on the Blogger site under the name Mencius Moldbug.

As Moldbug, Yarvin wrote about race-based IQ differences, and in an early post, titled “Why I Am Not a White Nationalist,” he defended reading and linking to white nationalist writing. He told me he’d pursued those early writings in a spirit of “open inquiry,” though Yarvin also openly acknowledged in the post that some of his readers seemed to be white nationalists. Some of Yarvin’s writing from then is so radically right wing that it almost has to be read to be believed, like the time he critiqued the attacks by the Norwegian far-right terrorist Anders Behring Breivik—who killed 77 people, including dozens of children at a youth camp—not on the grounds that terrorism is wrong but because the killings wouldn’t do anything effective to overthrow what Yarvin called Norway’s “communist” government. He argued that Nelson Mandela, once head of the military wing of the African National Congress, had endorsed terror tactics and political murder against opponents, and said anyone who claimed “St. Mandela” was more innocent than Breivik might have “a mother you’d like to fuck.”

He’s tempered himself in middle age—he now says he has a rule never to “say anything unnecessarily controversial, or go out of my way to be provocative for no reason.” Many liberals who hear him talk would probably question how strictly he follows this rule, but even in his Moldbug days, most of his controversial writings were couched in thickets of irony and metaphor, a mode of speech that younger podcasters and Twitter personalities on the highly online right have adopted—a way to avoid getting kicked off tech platforms or having their words quoted by liberal journalists.

He considers himself a reactionary, not just a conservative—he thinks it is impossible for an Ivy League–educated person to really be a conservative. He has consistently argued that conservatives waste their time and political energy on fights over issues like gay marriage or critical race theory, because liberal ideology holds sway in the important institutions of prestige media and academia—an intertwined nexus he calls “the Cathedral.” He developed a theory to explain the fact that America has lost its so-called state capacity, his explanation for why it so often seems that it is not actually capable of governing anymore: The power of the executive branch has slowly devolved to an oligarchy of the educated who care more about competing for status within the system than they do about America’s national interest.

No one directs this system, and hardly anyone who participates in it believes that it’s a system at all. Someone like me who has made a career of writing about militias and extremist groups might go about my work thinking that all I do is try to tell important stories and honestly describe political upheaval. But within the Cathedral, the best way for me to get big assignments and win attention is to identify and attack what seem like threats against the established order, which includes nationalists, antigovernment types, or people who refuse to obey the opinions of the Cathedral’s experts on issues like vaccine mandates, in as alarming a way as I possibly can. This cycle becomes self-reinforcing and has been sent into hyperdrive by Twitter and Facebook, because the stuff that compels people to click on articles or share clips of a professor tends to affirm their worldview, or frighten them, or both at the same time. The more attention you gain in the Cathedral system, the more you can influence opinion and government policy. Journalists and academics and thinkers of any kind now live in a desperate race for attention—and in Yarvin’s view, this is all really a never-ending bid for influence, serving the interests of our oligarchical regime. So I may think I write for a living. But to Yarvin, what I actually do is more like a weird combination of intelligence-gathering and propagandizing. Which is why no one I was talking to at NatCon really thought it would be possible for me to write a fair piece about them.


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