I want to read something to you. I want you to really listen to this.” Rush Limbaugh opened his radio show on January 20, 2016, in the tone he normally reserves for breaking Clinton scandals. But his topic that afternoon was less sensational, and he would spend the next thirty minutes reading passages from a five-thousand-word magazine essay. It warned of globalist “elites” who “manage the delegitimization of our own culture, and the dispossession of our people.” It complained of leaders who “drag the country into conflicts” and “preside over the economic pastoralization of the United States.” It encouraged Republicans to campaign on limiting immigration, saving blue-collar jobs, and restoring Middle Americans to their central place in the nation’s life.
The essay was titled “Principalities & Powers,” and Limbaugh hailed it as the Trumpist manifesto that no one, including the candidate, had been able to formulate. It described a voting base, misunderstood and exploited for decades, that more resembled a “proletariat” than a propertied middle class. “Nationalism and populism,” as Limbaugh put it, not free-market orthodoxy, represented the Republican party’s best way forward. Yet the essay, despite anticipating the presidential inauguration exactly one year later, had not been written by an observer of the 2016 primary season. It had been published in 1996, and its author was not available for interview, because he had been dead for more than a decade.
When he died in 2005, Samuel Francis was nobody’s idea of the most prescient observer of American politics. He had arrived in Washington twenty-eight years earlier, one of many young conservative thinkers and activists drawn to the capital by the election of Ronald Reagan. But he had been constantly and irritatingly out of step: arguing against free trade in the heyday of globalism, defending entitlements in an era of tax cuts, protesting foreign wars in the face of bipartisan agreement, and questioning Christian influence at the apogee of the religious right. His career began promisingly, with early positions at the Heritage Foundation and on Capitol Hill, followed by years as a columnist at the Washington Times. But Francis could not conceal his growing contempt for a movement that he believed failed to understand, let alone challenge, the institutional power of American liberalism. He considered First Things and its founder among the organs of the collaborationist American right.
Francis was a pathologist of American conservatism, a movement he considered terminally ill even during its years of seeming health. As Republicans won five of seven presidential elections and took control of Congress for the first time in four decades, Francis saw a movement being assimilated slowly into the structures of power it professed to reject. His contrarianism won him admirers on the paleoconservative right, who read his essays in small-circulation journals and applauded his attacks on globalism and his defenses of those he called, without irony, “real Americans.” But he won almost no access to major conservative outlets, where his views were denounced, with varying degrees of accuracy, as racist, chauvinist, and unpatriotic. Francis spent his last decade as an editor of far-right newsletters, having been fired by the Washington Times in 1995 for defending the morality of slavery. At the end of his life, his defenders included Patrick Buchanan, whose presidential campaigns he advised, and Jared Taylor, a white nationalist who eulogized Francis as the “premier philosopher of white racial consciousness.”
Purged and marginalized in life, Francis has attained extraordinary prominence since his death. Journalists seeking the elusive source code of Trumpism have looked to his books and essays for insight. This new interest will not issue in his redemption—his views on race and religion seem to ensure lasting condemnation—but his work, including the massive Leviathan and Its Enemies, a manuscript discovered only recently, can help us better understand our populist moment and its political logic. Francis points to a conservatism no longer devoted to lower taxes at home and democracy promotion abroad. He envisions a revolutionary politics, one in which the liberal elite and its conservative lackeys are overthrown by members of the historic core of the nation. More ominously, his investment in racial biopolitics demonstrates the cruel incoherence of a populism based on human differences rather than shared loves. “The real masters of the house,” vowed Francis, “are ready to repossess it and drive out the usurpers.”
Samuel Todd Francis was born in 1947 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and raised amid vestigial reminders of an earlier social order. Though he identified as a Southerner, and wrote passionately about his heritage, he lacked regional sentimentality. He was a skeptic by temperament and an academic by training. He studied Latin and Greek in high school before attending Johns Hopkins University and later the University of North Carolina, where he received a doctorate in British history.
If Francis’s background was traditional, his outlook was modern. Francis was well versed in the canon of American conservatism and wrote admiringly about Whittaker Chambers, Richard Weaver, Willmoore Kendall, and Eric Voegelin, intellectuals who shaped conservatism’s postwar revival by drawing on classical and religious sources. But Francis had misgivings about their philosophical orientation. He acknowledged that American conservatism had developed a sophisticated body of ideas and an articulate body of spokesmen to defend them. But its “proclivity to abstraction” and “philosophical mystifications,” he charged, had prevented its effective engagement with the bruising realities of political power. “I have less faith in the power of intellectual abstractions than most of my conservative colleagues,” he explained.
Francis sought a philosophical perspective from which conservative goals could be attained politically, and not only elaborated theoretically. He found it in the tradition of political thought he called “counter-modernism.” It included Machiavelli, Montesquieu, and Hume, and it prioritized the study of history over speculative argument. It accepted the materialism and secularism of modern thinking, rejecting the primacy of metaphysics and theology. Most important for Francis, it described political life as an unending contest for power, emphasizing the human appetite for power as our overriding social passion. This body of thought saw politics not as a sphere in which human beings can order their common life through rational deliberation, but as an arena in which they seek to dominate one another or escape domination by others.
Francis was introduced to this school of thought by his study of Vilfredo Pareto, whom he discovered through the work of James Burnham. Pareto was an early-twentieth-century Italian sociologist who sought to construct a “science of power” (in Burnham’s words) by observing recurring patterns of change in political history. With this approach, Pareto believed, it was possible to discern universal laws of social organization. He argued that all political societies, except for the most primitive, were dominated by an elite minority. Even modern societies that called themselves democratic in fact functioned as oligarchies. Pareto did not endorse elite government in the form of aristocracy, and he denied that elites were better, wiser, or more virtuous than the multitude. Elites were simply inevitable, and political history was the story of how the composition of the dominant class “circulated” over time, according to the changing character of a nation.
Pareto explained minority rule through its use of ideology, whose nature, he argued, was hidden even from its beneficiaries. Elites governed society largely for their own benefit, but they rarely ruled through violence or intimidation. They ruled through myths, stories, and ideals that justified their domination by endowing it with moral credibility. Pareto was one of the first scholars of ideology, and he carefully examined discrepancies between the abstract content of political rhetoric and its real-world uses. He distinguished between the “formal” and “real” meanings of political ideology. The formal meaning of an ideology is communicated by its explicit concepts and values, and can be understood philosophically. Its real meaning is revealed through its intended effects on political behavior, which are disguised by its rhetoric. Though Pareto saw ideologies as self-serving, he did not believe their sole purpose was to deceive the masses. They reflected a genuine human desire, shared by both rulers and ruled, to live together on the perceived basis of morality rather than force.
Francis used Pareto’s work to explain the impotence of American conservatism. Why had conservatives, despite election victories, failed to reduce the size of government or stop social liberalization? Francis had a cynical view of Republican politicians, attacking even Reagan at the height of his popularity. But he placed the blame on conservative intellectuals, who had made two compounding errors. The first was to take the formal meaning of liberalism at face value. Under the popular slogan “ideas have consequences,” they had assumed that liberal ideas, rather than the political interests they advanced, were their primary enemy. Francis’s writing in the 1980s frequently attacked influential conservatives such as Irving Kristol, George Will, and Richard John Neuhaus, criticizing their “esoteric” preoccupations. While conservatives were staging conferences to ponder the moral foundations of democracy, liberal intellectuals were perfecting strategies for seizing institutional power. Neuhaus may have offered “formal defenses” of traditional institutions, Francis complained, but his respect for civil debate only served to “legitimize managerial control.”
Conservatives’ second error was to ignore the relationship between their own ideology and its disintegrating social basis. From its birth after World War II, American conservatism had defended individual liberty, free markets, and moral traditionalism. Though Francis generally shared these values, he contended that conservatism, no less than liberalism, was an ideology fused to class interests. Or at least it had been. Although Republicans continued to win elections, by the early 1980s Francis saw the party as increasingly detached from its grassroots base. With each election cycle, an ideology rooted in the cultural identity and material interests of the postwar middle class lost touch with its voters, who worried about their declining social status and stagnating incomes. Worse, conservatives spoke of America not as a people defined by a shared history and culture, but as an idea defined by universal principles.
Francis proposed that the study of politics was not principally the study of ideas but the study of power: how power is acquired, lost, used, and concealed by a dominant minority. He concluded that the primary political question is always which elites shall rule, not whether elites shall rule. The resonance with Marxism was unmistakable, and Francis’s writings bore evidence of his having studied not only Marx, but Gramsci and Adorno as well. Though he rejected the Marxists’ views on economics and much else, he was impressed by their understanding of social power and envied the ideological uses to which the American left had put them. In time, Francis would outline a radical strategy by which a “New Right” might retake power, but he first asked what social and economic changes had effectively extinguished the “Old Right.” By way of an answer, he offered a revision of the work of James Burnham, the one conservative thinker who, he believed, had nearly seen things right.
While other conservatives were debating the roots of Western culture, Francis was studying management theory and the history of corporate governance in the basement of his Maryland home. He assumed that most Americans held their political views sincerely and were genuinely motivated by them in civic life. Yet he also thought that their views were shaped by an ongoing “civilizational revolution,” and that blindness to the reality and consequences of that revolution was the debilitating failure of the American right.
Francis arrived at this realization through his reading of Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution (1941). Burnham is a central and intriguing figure in the history of American conservatism. An academic philosopher who became a communist during the Depression, Burnham feuded publicly with Trotsky in the 1930s over Stalinism. The result was his disillusionment with Marxism and his transformation into a prominent anti-communist. In 1955 Burnham left his faculty position at NYU and joined the fledgling National Review, to which he contributed a foreign affairs column until his retirement. In some ways the opposite of Francis, Burnham was a Northerner, a philosopher, and a defender of the Republican establishment. But Francis found in Burnham a key to reading the history of the twentieth century and its sobering implications for American conservatism.
Francis tended to overstate his reliance on Burnham and downplay their disagreements, but his debt was real. He credited Burnham for discovering, if not fully understanding, the great revolution of his time. That revolution was being waged not by statesmen and soldiers on the battlefields of Europe, nor by intellectuals in Western universities. It was being effected by administrators and accountants in government and corporate offices. Burnham announced it was a “managerial” revolution, and his book sold more than 200,000 copies. He argued that Marxists were right about the imminent demise of the bourgeoisie, but wrong about the social class that was rising to take its place. Burnham predicted a world of managerial mega-states, ruled by a new elite on the basis of its technological and administrative expertise. Burnham considered this revolution inevitable and irreversible, and thought that conservatives should seek to direct it from within. Francis accepted Burnham’s social vision, but he rejected its political fatalism and sought, in effect, to rewrite the book from another perspective.
Leviathan and Its Enemies is the most ambitious book by an American conservative in the last quarter-century. Found in a stack of floppy disks after Francis’s death, it was published in 2016, more than twenty years after he had finished it. It is easy to see why he made no attempt to publish it in his lifetime. Repetitive, disorganized, and eight hundred punishing pages, it displays little of his rhetorical skill. But it is the most substantial thing he ever authored, synthesizing three decades of journalism and private study into a single work. In Leviathan, Francis attempted to write the book he believed the conservative movement desperately needed but scarcely knew it lacked. Leviathan describes the historical process by which American liberalism captured the institutions of government, education, and media, rendering itself invulnerable to conventional conservatism—but exposed to nationalist populism.
Francis wrote Leviathan in the early 1990s, when he believed America was entering the terminal stage of a protracted period of social transformation. He called it a “revolution of mass and scale,” as world-historical as the neolithic transition from subsistence hunting to farming. This revolution was not the product of conscious design. It had begun with America’s explosive population growth at the turn of the previous century and the consequent enlargement of virtually every major institution in the country. Leviathan details the steady expansion in scale, complexity, and reach of various sectors of American life. Government, business, education, unions, churches, media, and entertainment were all transformed by a new social pattern. Organizations once rooted in local relationships, family ties, and regional cultures became larger, more impersonal, and more standardized.
The revolution required a new elite to advance it. Its distinguishing trait, suited to the institutions it controlled, was the possession of special forms of expertise. The managerial class knew how to run bureaucracies, develop the technologies on which they depended, and communicate their benefits to the masses. Leviathan follows Burnham’s pioneering work on this new class and describes the self-reinforcing process by which growing populations made social reorganization necessary, while new technologies and sciences of management made it possible. But Francis possessed a sharper eye for political conflict than did Burnham, and he examined more closely the shifting distribution of social power. Leviathan proposes that the managerial revolution can explain the major inflection points in postwar American politics. For Francis, the sharp ideological debates of recent decades—over the Cold War, civil rights, the New Left, Nixon, the religious right, and globalism—masked conflicts between ascending and declining elites.
His most important thesis is that the disagreements between liberalism and conservatism were a mock battle of ideas, reflecting antagonisms between rival elites and their supporters. In the managerial revolution, as in all revolutions, new elites displaced the old, whose lingering presence hampered the revolution’s progress. Francis referred to the old elites as the bourgeoisie, and he defined them not by habits or lifestyle but by the social basis of their power. Bourgeois power had rested in private firms and institutions, inherited property, Protestant moral codes, and kinship networks. The bourgeoisie had dominated American life from the end of the Civil War to the New Deal, but it had proved incapable, institutionally and morally, of running a diverse mass society. With each generation, Francis observed, its power base had shrunk, as its values and institutions were overtaken by a new social model. The bourgeoisie lacked the ability to stop this trend, Francis argued, but it retained the ability to slow its own eclipse. Its doomed attempts to do so generated the central conflict of American politics.
The drama Francis retells in socio-political terms in Leviathan emerges from this conflict. Liberalism does what all ideologies do: It rationalizes and justifies the rule of an elite minority. Francis acknowledged that liberalism was a diverse intellectual tradition and that many people believed in its doctrines, even at cost to themselves. But its political function (its real meaning) was to advance the interests of some groups and suppress the interests of others. Francis examined the policy goals of postwar liberalism in crime, poverty, public health, and education. In every case, he alleged, liberal goals broadly aligned with the structural interests of managerial elites against those of the declining bourgeoisie. What connected the welfare state, feminism, employment protections, school reform, and liberal internationalism? Francis answered that they all served managerial power through a process of “homogenization.” They ensured that consumers had identical tastes, businesses operated in identical markets, students received identical training, and citizens held identical values.
But Francis alleged more—and here his thinking took the radical turn that marks his later writings. On its surface, liberalism promoted a fairer social contract and equal protection for all. But beneath its egalitarian aspect, Francis claimed, hid its vindictive purpose: to subvert traditional ways of life. “It is imperative,” he wrote, “for the emerging elites to challenge, discredit, and erode the moral, intellectual, and institutional fabric of traditional society.” Liberalism, on this account, was a coordinated project of cultural dispossession. Its long march through American life, Francis warned, would eventually target every symbol and institution of the older social order. National loyalty, traditional moral codes, the heroes and founders of American culture—in time, all would be subject to an accelerating campaign of ideological revision waged through legislation and the media. And liberalism gained more through this campaign than moral legitimacy. It secured a self-replenishing base of support comprising those it had emancipated from social norms.
As it atomized individuals in mass society by discrediting the social order founded in family ties, patriotic duties, and religious obligations, liberalism created a society that needed ever more technocratic management. Drug legalization leads to problems that require hiring social workers and therapists. Liberalized divorce laws and sexual liberation are paired with the burgeoning field of family law as the managerial state intervenes to impose an order once provided by the now-discredited norms. The same is true for economic liberalization, which is attended by steep increases in regulatory law, which substitute for the moral limits that used to characterize bourgeois-dominated commercial life.
Conservatives are therefore right to feel forever on the defensive, always resisting the next wave of liberalism, never advancing a positive vision of their own. Yet they are wrong to believe that their ideology can offer serious resistance. Francis’s real target in Leviathan was not liberalism or the cultural institutions it controlled, but a conservatism that obtusely thought it could turn the managerial regime to its own purposes. Francis’s message, buried under a mountain of policy data, was that American conservatism is the obsolete ideology of a vanquished class, an anachronism whose only function is to provide a veneer of ideological diversity to American public life. Yet this does not mean that the managerial regime is invulnerable to challenge. In the book’s closing chapter, Francis hinted that its values were working to weaken and destroy it from within. And just as the bourgeoisie had unwittingly given birth to an elite that displaced it, so too were the managers of leviathan midwifing their own enemies, who lacked only an ideology and a president to guide them.
How could a political movement rise up to challenge ruling elites? Francis believed it required capturing the anger and resentment of a class of Americans whose interests the managerial revolution had not advanced. He called them “Middle American Radicals” (MARs) and suggested they would soon form a revolutionary class. He drew on the work of sociologist Donald Warren, whose voter surveys in the 1970s had produced a profile of a group of voters, then making up about a quarter of the electorate, who had not been closely studied before. These voters were white and earned incomes in the middle and lower-middle income brackets. They had not attended college, and they held jobs in skilled and semi-skilled professions. Warren found that their political views, though consistent across elections, did not correspond to the platforms of either major party. On the one hand, these voters defended entitlements and union membership and were skeptical of large corporations and free trade. On the other hand, they opposed welfare and school busing and held conservative views on social issues, especially those involving race.
Francis had begun writing on “Middle American Radicals” in the early 1980s, and he incorporated them into his analysis of American politics. He claimed not only that they represented the ignored base of the Republican party, but that they formed the core of a fractured American nation. According to Francis, they had periodically coalesced to become a disruptive force in postwar politics, rising up in support of dissident populists such as Joseph McCarthy, George Wallace, and Richard Nixon. But their electoral influence was sometimes less controversial and more successful. Francis credited Reagan’s victories to his ability to cast himself, however misleadingly, as a defender of MAR interests. What were those interests? Francis updated Warren’s work by arguing that MARs were neither a distinct economic class nor a political movement committed to abstract principles. He claimed that MARs were united by a common “attitude” or “temperament” concerning their place in American society.
MARs feel they are members of an exploited class—excluded from real political representation, harmed by conventional tax and trade policies, victimized by crime and social deviance, and denigrated by popular culture and elite institutions. Their sense of grievance points both upward and downward. They believe they are neglected, even preyed upon, by a leadership class that favors simultaneously the rich and the poor over the middle class. “If there is one single summation of the MAR perspective,” Francis wrote, “it is reflected in a statement . . . The rich give in to the demands of the poor, and the middle income people have to pay the bill.” Francis seized on the idea that a major American demographic, so decisive to Republican success, was motivated not chiefly by an ideology, but by a feeling of being “disinherited” by its own nation. This corroborated his argument that a structural collusion existed between the powerful and the poor, who form a coalition against middle-class values and interests.
While Republicans were searching for ways to reach minority voters, Francis was demanding closer attention to working-class whites. He granted that they were not typically conservative, at least when measured by the orthodoxies of conservative think tanks and the Republican donor class. It was a feature of MARs, not a flaw, that they could force a reassessment of GOP policies, especially economic policies, that many voters found repugnant. To his credit, Francis did not idealize the MARs’ lifestyles or romanticize their struggles. He referred to them as “postbourgeois” and conceded that though they identified emotionally with traditional American ways of life, they were not a living reservoir of the older bourgeois virtues. Their grasp of American political history, to say nothing of their knowledge of Western culture, reflected the appalling state of general literacy. Francis frequently referred to the MARs as a cultural “proletariat,” and noted that many relied on government help in the form of benefits or loans.
Francis cautioned that a movement built around MAR interests might appear ideologically eclectic or incoherent. MARs tend not to think about politics in terms of the size of government, and they defend neither the minimal state nor the welfare state as a matter of strict principle. What makes them “radical,” Francis maintained, is their instinctive defense of communal roots and opposition to cosmopolitan values. MARs hold a particular view of political life, if not a systematic ideology. Francis called that view a “domestic ethic” and claimed it as the basis of a viable future conservatism. It reflected a traditional impulse, suppressed by liberal individualism, that persisted in seeing political life in terms of interlocking loyalties that link the family to the nation. It assessed policies not by an impersonal standard of justice, but by whether they protected and enhanced group well-being. Francis believed he had found his vanguard, who lacked only an awareness of their shared interests. It was a social movement, about to be born, which would unapologetically place citizens over foreigners, majorities over minorities, the native-born over recent immigrants, the normal over the transgressive, and fidelity to a homeland over cosmopolitan ideals.
After more than a decade of writing about politics, Francis attempted to put his ideas into action. He served as an adviser to Patrick Buchanan’s campaigns for the Republican presidential nomination in 1992 and 1996. The two were close friends and had often helped each other on writing projects. Buchanan called Francis “perhaps the brightest and best thinker on the right,” and Francis hailed his friend’s guerilla candidacy as the start of a “Middle American Revolution.” He saw in Buchanan a credible hope for a new ideological synthesis of economic nationalism and cultural populism. His advice, chronicled in his lengthy monthly essays, would be heard on airwaves decades later. He counseled the former Nixon aid to disavow the label “conservative” entirely and to run as “a patriot, a nationalist, an America Firster.” He encouraged Buchanan to lay at the feet of the bipartisan ruling class a devastating report of national carnage: the breakdown of the family, the coarsening of popular culture, the disappearance of manufacturing jobs, the financialization of the economy, and the lack of a sensible immigration policy. Buchanan gave voice to Francis’s ideas in his notorious 1992 “cultural war” speech at the GOP convention in Houston, where he warned that the nation was in a war for its very survival.
Although Buchanan won a few million votes and severely damaged George H. W. Bush’s hope for reelection, he never succeeded in attracting broad support. Yet it was not Buchanan’s defeat that persuaded Francis of the need for an even more radical form of politics. It was the prospect, in the words of newly elected Bill Clinton, of “a new America of minorities,” a nation “without a dominant European culture.” Francis began to contemplate, with mounting terror, what Clinton called “the third great revolution in America,” in which whites were projected to become a minority by 2050. Francis’s racism was an open secret and had long stained his professional reputation. It surprised few critics that after years of vehement opposition to affirmative action and a holiday for Martin Luther King Jr., Francis finally published, with feigned piety, a biblical defense of slavery, a column that completed his banishment from movement conservatism. Francis spent the last decade of his life in intellectual exile, moving toward an open embrace of racial nationalism. He turned to promoting what he called “white racial consciousness,” which entailed denouncing the Christian beliefs that he believed prevented its emergence.
Francis considered it his purpose to awaken a slumbering white majority to a demographic crisis and to warn them what would happen if they failed to respond. As his focus shifted from class to race, his mood turned from confidence to unease. The class he had once assumed was instinctively aware of its group interests, and combative in their defense, now appeared oblivious to its looming displacement. “We are witnessing the more or less peaceful transfer of power from one civilization and the race that created and bore that civilization, to a different race,” he warned a meeting of activists in 1994. Francis pored over polling data and demographic forecasts, arriving at the conclusion, only later to become conventional wisdom, that the GOP was facing possible extinction as a national party. Its attempts to reach minority voters, through a strategy of voter outreach and policy reforms, had been shown to be worse than fruitless; they had neglected its natural political base in middle-class whites. “Trying to win non-whites, especially by abandoning issues important to white voters,” he concluded, “is the road to political suicide.”
A more rational strategy, he advised, would enshrine the GOP as the party of white voters and maximize their turnout through appeals to racial solidarity. Francis sometimes insisted that these appeals should be explicit, and at other times cautioned greater tact, but his consistent goal was to trigger in whites a sense of shared identity and threatened social standing. He identified immigration as the key issue, predicting that it would define American politics in the decades to come. For Francis, the use of mass immigration by managerial elites was sociologically obvious, though ideologically concealed. It broke down the cultural and linguistic unity of the nation, creating a deracinated citizenry who were easily manipulated by the techniques of liberal governance. Still more important, Francis alleged, by permitting the importation of a new underclass, mass immigration provided the regime with fresh opportunities to engineer solutions to social problems and ethnic conflicts. In this way, immigration strengthened and perpetuated liberalism’s moral legitimacy, which depended on the ability to dismantle the privileges of an older America.
Francis denied that he was a white nationalist and offered a predictable defense: He was merely following, out of political necessity, the same strategy employed by ethnic and sexual minorities. As all politics became identity politics, Francis reasoned, whites would have every reason to assert, and minorities would have no grounds to dispute, their common identity and interests as whites. He cautioned that he did not believe race was the primary feature of personal identity, nor did he wish to disenfranchise minorities. But his nods to pluralism sat uneasily with his vision of America as a nation inextricably bound up with white supremacy. Francis was zealous in arguing that America’s past achievements arose from its white ethnic majority and that its future required maintaining that majority. To those who believed Americans were united by a political creed, not by blood and soil, he responded indignantly. The credal nation was a myth, pure “propaganda,” that obscured the nation’s roots in the peoples and cultures of Europe. For his part, Francis was happy to obscure the historical reality of African Americans. He liked to cite John Jay’s definition of Americans as “a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs.”
Francis saw himself as a truth-teller, a man in touch with reality rather than a conservative lost in a dreamland of ideals. This self-image, along with his hostility to the role of Christianity in American public life, gave his thinking a strongly materialist cast. When he sought to explain why American culture and traditions could not survive the loss of a white majority, Francis turned to history and science. There was no evidence in the human past, he asserted, that dominant cultures could continue to flourish after the decline of their dominant racial class. He dismissed all evidence to the contrary, and claimed that American culture, at least in its most distinctively Western expressions, could not be fully transmitted to nonwhites. Francis reached nervously for scientific supports, whose dubious intellectual merit he seemed to sense. Race alone could not explain the character of American institutions, he conceded—for if race were sufficient to sustain a way of life, the crisis would never have arisen. And the scientific basis of race was a matter of dispute. But race, he insisted, was nonetheless essential to America’s preservation. It was an ironic turnabout. After decades of spurning speculative explanations for human behavior, Francis was peddling a few of his own, in the form of theories of racial biology. “The civilization that we as whites created in Europe and America could not have developed apart from the genetic endowments of the creating people,” he claimed, “nor is there any reason to believe that the civilization can be successfully transmitted to a different people.”
Francis’s interest in racial differences consumed him in his remaining years. He turned to examining what he regarded as the unique character traits of whites—out of despair as much as chauvinism, having concluded that no policies, however radical, could arrest American decline. For Francis, the greatest danger to whites did not come from outside forces or groups. It was an enemy within: the mentality of whites themselves. Francis’s guiding assumption was that races understood their identities in reflexively different ways. He believed, seemingly as a self-evident truth, that nonwhites saw their identities in primarily racial terms and sought to defend and advance their ethnic groups against others. Whites, however, were different. “Whites exist objectively,” he claimed, “but do not exist subjectively.” Francis took it as a fact that whites comparatively lacked racial consciousness and racial loyalty. Whites discouraged ethnocentrism among themselves, he charged, while tolerating and even encouraging it among others.
This account might seem absurd on its face. Nigerian leaders, for instance, deal with religious, regional, and tribal tensions that make a mockery of Francis’s claim that nonwhites see themselves primarily in racial terms. And it seems obvious that hymns to pluralism are liberal tropes, not “white” ones. Yet Francis was sincere in his racial anxieties. Such paranoia is the fate of any political thinker who relies exclusively on “counter-modernist” thinking, which sees always power and interests, never traditions and ideals. Francis could not allow himself to believe that the American nation, however marred by the interests of competing elites, is animated by a sense of shared history and united by genuine civic friendship. In consequence, he required a pseudo-biological foundation for America, something as “real” as the perennial human lust for power.
Francis believed that the fate of American culture, indeed of Western civilization, depended on discovering and preserving white identity. In a pseudonymous article published in 1996, he drew selectively from literature, art, and philosophy in an attempt to demonstrate that whites placed a high value on individualism and objectivity, and that this emphasis accounted for their past strengths and present vulnerabilities. The argument echoed Oswald Spengler’s dire prophecies of Western decline. Relative to other races, Francis claimed, whites encouraged greater individual autonomy, a value central to the cultures they had built and largely absent elsewhere. They celebrated those who challenged settled ways, and they held up the hero, the rebel, the explorer, the inventor, and the dissident as icons of human excellence. Francis argued that the West’s respect for the “Faustian” individual had gone hand in hand with a respect for objectivity. From antiquity through the Enlightenment, in its philosophies and sciences, the West had been inspired by a metaphysical vision: that an objective order of reality existed and operated according to universal rational laws. According to Francis, this idea had encouraged whites to seek ethical ideals universal in their authority and to build political orders impartial in their justice.
Francis later admitted to doubts about the soundness of his claims, but his intellectual scruples were beside the point. His purpose was to exacerbate the fears of his racialist readers, and in this he surely succeeded. His message, a seductive mixture of flattery and censure, was that the values of Western culture were today being used against it. The West’s concern for individual dignity and fairness had been “exaggerated” and “contorted” to the point of becoming a racial liability. The white-led managerial revolution offered equality to those who wished to rule, tolerance to those who sought to dominate, and refuge to those who meant to exploit. Francis argued that this self-destructive mentality was perversely assisted by popular Christianity, which turned cultural displacement into a mark of moral virtue. Though raised in a Protestant family, Francis was not a believer, and he wrote critically of conservatives who thought Christianity could provide philosophical and institutional resistance to liberalism. They failed to see that Christianity had been the most transgressive force in history, and that its values of peace, equality, and justice must erode every traditional hierarchy. The “religious wrong,” as he called conservative Christians, operated under a “false consciousness.” Its theology diverted interest from real cultural problems and reconciled believers to their own dissolution. Modern Christianity was no friend of white Americans, Francis concluded. “Christianity today is the enemy of the West and the race that created it.”
Francis was the first to admit how unorthodox his conservatism was. It called for deposing elites, not defending existing hierarchies; for redistributing social power, not preserving its present division; and for undermining norms, not enforcing them. “When I call for the overthrow of the dominant authorities,” he explained, “I am not advocating illegal or undemocratic processes, but the war for the culture is nonetheless a radical or even a revolutionary conflict because it involves an almost total redistribution of power in American society.” Francis’s advice to conservatives was that any hope for victory required first coming to terms with their defeat. He did not lament that a social revolution had swept away many American folkways. Human history was the story of falling and rising elites. But he was merciless toward conservatives who refused to see reality for what it was. Conservative fantasies about restoring a past way of life were just that. “No one seriously contemplates restoring the republic,” he wrote, “because no one has any material interest in it.”
But the contest for power is unending, and Francis foresaw the rise of a new political class, born of the grievances and frustrated pride of middle America. Despite his archaic views on race, Francis was looking to the future, hoping to guide the populist coup that would topple the ossified leadership of the American right. At the time of his death, he believed this revolt was still “a body without a head,” lacking the theorists and politicians who could translate the MARs’ sense of victimhood into a governing ideology. But the day of its emergence was near, and Francis sketched its rough appearance. The new right would have “less use for the rhetorical trope and the extended syllogism than for the mass rally.” It would drop the nostalgic language of the “Boy Scout Jamboree” and speak frankly about rewarding friends and punishing enemies. Francis urged conservatives to build a movement around a president who could channel the passions of forgotten Americans. He again drew from Spengler, encouraging conservatives “to make use of Caesarism and the mass loyalties that a charismatic leader inspires.”
Francis’s writing earned him many critics, few sympathizers, and no influence. His death went largely unnoticed. But he turns out to have been farseeing. His hope for a conservatism rooted in economic nationalism and cultural populism is no longer difficult to imagine. It describes the new right-wing parties coming into view across the Western world. In his own nation, Francis anticipated a time when white Americans would confront the swelling demand that their nation, founded on a crime, must atone for its past by opening itself to mass immigration. He believed he had only begun the work of forging the ideological weapons needed in the culture war this confrontation portended. Against the “colored world revolution” that both Spengler and Clinton had glimpsed, Francis summoned a revolution of his own, calling on white Americans to set aside their self-destroying pieties and begin the cultural reconquest of their own nation. Francis never pretended that this was a matter of moral right or justice. It was a matter of power meeting power. “The issue,” as he candidly put it, is “Who, in the wrecked vessel of the American Republic, is to be master?”
Francis prided himself on telling hard truths. But it was he who was deceived. He believed that he was an enemy of leviathan and a friend to his culture, when in fact he was neither. Francis could not see how thoroughly he shared the philosophical assumptions of managerial liberalism. Its denial of transcendence, its rejection of natural law, its anthropological materialism, its skepticism about reason, and its reductive psychology—Francis accepted every one of these doctrines. In his mind, Francis was engaged in a struggle to save civilization. But in opposing the materialism of the left with a racial biopolitics of the right, he discarded one of the central beliefs of the civilization he claimed to defend: that man is a rational being, capable of knowledge and love, who bears the image of God.
Francis was right about many things. He was right that elites seek to subvert the institutions and ideas that resist their power. He was right that their promise to deliver us from the unfreedoms of the past creates a tyranny of its own. He was right that no society is purely liberal, especially the one that aspires to become so. But he was wrong to imagine that the racial identities that divide us are more important than our common filiation as children of God. He denied the transcendent horizon that is the greatest enemy of the managerial ideology. It inspires rather than satiates, and evokes loyalties that bind us together rather than condemning us to be “individuals” manipulated by marketers and bureaucrats. Francis accused religious traditionalists of playing by house rules, seeking dialogue rather than conflict, preferring to be “beautiful losers” rather than ugly winners, and surely his criticism had some merit. But he failed to see that they offer a more fundamental challenge to liberalism than he ever did, by seeking to unite people in a shared love, a common covenant ordered to the highest good. The nationalist and populist movements that Francis anticipated will succeed in challenging liberalism only to the extent that they abjure Francis’s racial resentments and assert the common goods and transcendent horizon his materialist thinking denies.
Francis claimed that he sought only to defend Western culture. It is impossible to believe him. He displayed no feeling for literature, art, music, philosophy, or theology. He did not see, because his ideology prevented him from seeing, that our culture’s greatest achievements have come in pursuit of ideas that transcend human differences. Francis’s failure of gratitude and wonder made him more than incompetent about power. It made him an outsider to his civilization.
Matthew Rose is director and senior fellow at the Berkeley Institute.
Image © Jenny Warburg.