How Corey Stewart and Other GOP Opportunists Embraced the Dark Side to Win Primaries

This is a systematic problem. The incentives (for attention, for buzz, for winning elections) are all perverse now.


Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

When something works, there are always imitators. I think this is where Corey Stewart—whom CNN appropriately describes as, “the bombastic conservative who built his public image on championing Confederate symbols”—fits in.

Yes, he has always had a huge ego and that machismo image that so many Trump fans exhibit, but he wasn’t always an alt-righter. I know this because, well, I used to know Corey. A little. I haven’t talked to him in years, but I once spent an afternoon with him―and my wife even did some consulting for him when he was just a lowly Prince William County politician.

To be sure, he was always an immigration hawk and a hard-core Second Amendment activist, but this is all within the spectrum of mainstream conservative philosophy. (As far as I know, this Minnesota native and Georgetown University grad wasn’t in the habit of posing with rebel flags. Until, that is, everything changed.)

The fact that Stewart is now running (and winning) as a alt-righter shows that this isn’t a case of a few bad apples—this is a systemic problem. The incentives (for attention, for buzz, for winning elections) are all perverse now. What this means is that ambitious opportunists have realized that the way to win a Republican primary is to go to the dark side.

My guess is that if today’s political climate were where it was in, say, 1998, Stewart would be selling himself as a compassionate conservative. Likewise, this version of Corey Stewart couldn’t have gotten elected dogcatcher in 1998, much less have been the GOP’s nominee for the U.S. Senate.

In his extremely influential book The Road to Serfdom, classical liberal economist F.A. Hayek observes that, in a perverse incentive structure (such as a statist regime), “the worst get on top.” Stewart’s primary election victory demonstrates that this is the state of today’s conservative movement.

It wasn’t always this way. In fact, when I started working at a conservative non-profit in the winter of 1999, I was astonished to find a proliferation of decent (and also good looking, smart, and well-rounded) young Reaganites working in the movement.

Sure, a few gadflies, derisively called “closet cases” or “black helicopter-types” were around. They were the weird right-wingers who embraced bad conspiracy theories and bad fashion. These were the people who seamlessly transitioned from Dungeons & Dragons to Ayn Rand. Instead of being viewed as potentially dangerous, these people were generally harmless and mostly ostracized.

Years later, I witnessed a similar dynamic at the surprisingly diverse Daily Caller. A good chunk of the people there—they were the high school equivalent of jocks and cheerleaders—were center-right journalists who went on to work at mainstream media outlets. Another contingent—definitely not labeled as cool kids—gravitated to Breitbart (or worse). In some ways, the Caller was a Petri dish—a microcosm of the split that would later become apparent inside the GOP.

Trump’s victory was something akin to the revenge of the nerds.

Now, I don’t want to conflate conservatism with the alt-right, or minimize the extreme alt-right and their racism by comparing some of them to harmless computer nerds. But as someone who has witnessed the transformation, what I am trying to do is explain how a once- ostracized minority gained control of a movement—and (arguably, more concerning) how otherwise “normal” conservatives are now trying to ape them, in order to seize the zeitgeist.

I’ve been thinking about how this happened, and someone could write a book (I did write a book!) about all the factors. But here’s one that hasn’t been discussed much.

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The small conservative movement of the ’70s had to be persuasive because there weren't as many of them; today they know they have 49 percent of the country, the liberals have 49 percent, and whoever excites enough of their people probably drags that extra 2 percent to their side.

The conservative movement of the late ’90s—the era when I first got involved—existed within the mainstream paradigm. The dominant culture defined what was cool. Today, conservatives simply create parallel institutions and redefine reality.

When William F. Buckley founded National Review, conservative thought was treated like a fringe ideology by a much more dominant mainstream media. The movement that spawned groups like Heritage, AEI, etc. was a movement trying to push acceptable policies into the arena of the acceptable to enough Americans that would make a difference in policy and elections. They were trying to expand the Overton window.

Now, people like Corey Stewart no longer need to do that. Freed from the pressure of having to persuade, they’re free to offend. And how rebellious it is!

Who needs to be persuasive? There’s nothing cooler than “owning the libs.”