The Agony of Teenage MAGA Populists

Vince Dao
Conservative commentator and American Virtue editor-in-chief Vince Dao speaking at the American Populist Summit on July 19, 2021 in Tampa, Florida.

September 10, 2022

On the menu for today are, regrettably, Twitter MAGA populists who cannot for the life of them read past headlines. Paleoconservative activist organization “American Virtue,” headed by popular conservative commentator Vince Dao (who, curiously, has reserved the title “editor-in-chief” despite there being no published work on the American Virtue website), recently railed against an op-ed in Compact Magazine entitled “The Conservative Case for Critical Theory” by Lisa Nelson.

The first tweet of what is a sizable thread reads:

“THREAD: The Marxist infiltration of the so-called “Populist Right” is happening before your eyes.

Here’s @SohrabAhmari and Compact Magazine openly pushing ‘The Conservative Case for Critical Theory.’”

Now first, in all fairness, the title of the op-ed does appear quite damning. There is, in fact, no conservative “case” for critical theory or any of its derivatives. If you’re a conservative, and you’re at least decently-read on this subject, then you know why this is for obvious reasons. 

We’ve seen such an argument before, such as when columnist Gary Abernathy tripped and fell on his face attempting to justify a “conservative case” for critical race theory in The Washington Post, an op-ed idea I suspect was only approved by the editors to try and convince the Post’s readership that their opinion section wasn’t a total dumpster fire of pseudo-intellectual drivel. A charade of “bipartisanship,” if you will.

Attempting to make such a case in an intellectually honest fashion would fail miserably, as we’ve seen in the past, and perhaps the editors at Compact bear some minor culpability here for allowing that headline to slip into the print—because it’s actually quite misleading.

The op-ed in question isn’t even that long—815 words—and it certainly doesn’t seek to justify a “conservative case” for critical theory. Rather, Nelson actually correctly points out the fatal irony of critical theory itself. Critical theory, as Nelson explains, came from the failures of classical Marxism. There were, indeed, no communist uprisings in first world Western countries as Karl Marx originally prophesied, and the proletariat never mobilized as a class fully aware of its so-called oppression, unable to advocate for itself in a giant collective fashion. Incredibly, as Nelson further notes, the biggest Marxist revolution to ever take place was in Russia, which was by virtually every metric an economic backwater.

With capitalism growing ever more prominent in the West, critical theorists desperately tried to make Marx’s already hilariously disproven theories make sense by bringing them into the cultural sphere. They attempted to do this by essentially positing that whatever consent the proletariat gave the capitalists wasn’t actually true consent. The ideological constraints of capitalism, said the critical theorists, warped and obscured the real ways power constrained our choices, relegating “true freedom” to merely the freedom to consume.

The irony that Nelson so cleverly points out, therefore, is that the institutionalization of critical theory through various government and corporate bureaucracies has produced the very predicament the original critical theorists initially diagnosed: “an ideology that obfuscates the operations of power,” as Nelson succinctly puts it.

(READ MORE: Rainbow Corporatism: How the Left Institutionalized Wokeism)

As Nelson further notes:

“In a supremely ironic turn of events, these same critiques are now institutionalized. Individualism, objectivity, and universalism are no longer invoked to justify the dominant order. Instead, the values promoted across elite institutional spaces are diversity and inclusion; environmental, social, and governance scores; and equity over equality.”

There is no “conservative case” for critical theory being made here. Rather, the article aims to inform conservatives about the fatal irony of critical theory, and how conservatives can further use this irony to interrogate progressive hegemony more effectively. A headline that would perhaps be more fitting for this op-ed might be: “The Fatal Irony of Critical Theory,” or something of the like.

The notion that Compact is attempting to infiltrate the populist right as Marxists in disguise is a silly one, especially when Compact doesn’t purport to be a conservative journal of opinion. Rather, Compact clearly proclaims itself as a “radical American journal” in which the illiberal left and right join forces. Whether or not this premise actually works in praxis in the long run remains to be seen, but that’s an entirely different conversation.

Whatever merits Compact may or may not have as a serious political magazine is generally irrelevant in the face of the current situation: teenage MAGA populists, and their respective activist organizations like American Virtue, utterly failing to properly do their due diligence. What Vince Dao and his band of social media personalities are doing here isn’t a legitimate “intellectual battle” in the culture war, it’s “owning the libs.” The whole charade reeks of the very “grifting” these paleocons constantly go out of their way to condemn. 

Apparently, the kids are not okay.

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