Gladden Pappin’s last task, before he headed off to an election night party on November 3, was to teach an undergraduate class on Marsilius of Padua, a fourteenth-century Italian critic of the papacy. Pappin ended by hinting at the subject of his next lecture: the Great Schism, the four decades of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries when rival popes battled for control of the Church. It was an era of crumbling institutions, political realignment, and deep anxiety. A resonant topic, in other words, for our times, and good grist for Pappin, a 38-year-old assistant professor of politics at the University of Dallas and a rising star in the American conservative intellectual firmament.
“On Thursday, I came into class after the election,” says Pappin, “and I said to the students, ‘So you’re living with a few days of uncertainty. Imagine living with forty years of not knowing who the pope is, at a time in the Middle Ages when that’s incredibly important.’ ”
In the aftermath of the election, Pappin has been puzzling through what path conservatism might take after Donald Trump’s presidency. The endeavor is part of Pappin’s major project of the past four years, ever since he first came onto the scene as one of the pseudonymous writers of the Journal of American Greatness, a pro-Trump blog that launched in early 2016. He’s been using the tools of political theory and history to parse the meaning of Trump and the deep political and cultural forces that brought him to power and continue to support him. Pappin has been plotting out, and even trying to help write, the next chapter of the conservative movement.
What he sees—in Trump’s 2016 victory, in the results of the 2020 election, and in more subterranean shifts in conservative politics—is the possibility of a new kind of Republican party. It is one that is economically populist, culturally conservative, multiracial, cautious about the use of military power, and, above all, comfortable with the exercise of state power. It’s a big-government conservatism in both the economic and cultural spheres, more generous with social benefits, more prudish about sex, and more Christian in atmospherics if not in explicit doctrine. “The base is already there,” says Pappin, who is working on a book on the future of the American right. “It’s broader even than what the Republicans can appeal to right now.”
Trump’s loss was a disappointment for Pappin, but he sees it as “a best-case loss scenario.” The president did not secure a second term, but there were meaningful signals of discontent with both the Republican and Democratic establishments. Voters in Florida supported Republican candidates—and also a ballot initiative that raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Voters in deep-blue California elected to uphold the state’s ban on affirmative action, barring officials from considering race, ethnicity, and gender in college admissions, hiring, and the awarding of contracts. Nationally, Trump did better with people of color, particularly Black and Latino voters, than he did in 2016.
Trump lost, in other words, but it’s not clear that Trumpism lost. “I think that a lot of working-class voters were attracted to Trump’s championing of them,” says Pappin. “The question is whether Republicans can find someone who seems like a champion who is more effective and less self-destructive than Trump.”
Gladden John Pappin was, in many ways, born to become a conservative intellectual. His father is a citizen of the Osage Nation, a convert to Catholicism, and a professor of philosophy whose scholarly specialty was the eighteenth-century conservative thinker Edmund Burke. His mother was raised as a Southern Baptist and earned a doctorate in music from Louisiana State University. Born in St. Louis, Gladden and his younger sister followed their parents to various college campuses across the South and Southwest. Books, ideas, family, music, and faith were the air the children breathed. “As a ten- or eleven-year-old, I knew my father was seriously reading and studying the philosophy of John Paul II,” says Pappin. “It was a standard Catholic household but a household of professors. I thought academia was the only profession.”
As an undergraduate at Harvard University, Pappin joined the staff of the Harvard Salient, a conservative student newspaper, and cut a distinct figure on campus, playing the role of high Tory dissident from the liberal student mainstream. A 2003 profile of him in the Harvard Crimson features a photo of the then twenty-year-old wearing a three-piece suit and bow tie. During his twelve years at the school—he stayed on to earn a PhD in political theory—he plugged into the network of institutions, funders, and publications that over the past fifty years has developed an effective pipeline for cultivating young conservative thinkers. It was through both Harvard and this national network, including the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, that Pappin connected with many of the thinkers and writers who would form the nucleus of the Journal of American Greatness and its successor publication, American Affairs. “He was incredibly funny,” remembers Mark Henrie, a longtime conservative movement leader who recruited Pappin, then a graduate student, to teach summer seminars for the ISI. In particular, Henrie recalls Pappin doing a twenty-minute “reading” of a raunchy Tupac Shakur album in the style of Leo Strauss, the German American philosopher beloved among certain swaths of the political right. “It was plausible. It even had Straussian numerology.”
What united Pappin with many of his fellow conservative travelers as he went from Harvard to academic jobs at a series of Catholic institutions was a growing dissatisfaction with the GOP establishment. One of his gripes was that Republican candidates would whip up culture war hysteria to get elected and then do little about issues such as abortion, gay rights, and pornography. But Pappin and his confreres were also taking an unusually hard look at the economic, technological, and environmental order that the Republicans, even more than the Democrats, had ushered into being. Was this a society that was structured for the good of its citizens, they asked, or for its corporations, their shareholders, and the “managerial elite” who ran them? And if the latter, then was the answer for conservatives to keep promoting small government, or the opposite—to start imagining a big government that was both conservative in the values it promoted and economically redistributive?
In February of 2016, the same month that Trump began his romp through the Republican primaries, Pappin and a few close friends launched the Journal of American Greatness, adopting ancient Roman pseudonyms to protect their jobs and friendships. “It was acidly humorous about the troubles of Conservatism Incorporated,” says Henrie, who blogged under the pen name Petronius. “The writers were people of the right of center who were discontented with the institutional expression of right-of-center politics in America.”
The tone was both highbrow and high-drama. Trump was deployed as a character in the story—sometimes a hero, sometimes a fool—representing larger historical forces. For his posts, Pappin chose the nom de guerre Manlius Capitolinus, a reference to Marcus Manlius Capitolinus, a fourth-century BC Roman hero who, according to legend, saved Rome from the Gauls, championed the plebes among the Roman elite, and was eventually condemned to death by the Senate for being a giant pain in the ass.
Unexpectedly, the Journal of American Greatness took off, helped in particular by a mention from columnist Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal. It turned out there was an appetite for a frontal assault on the conservative establishment that lent an air of scholarly depth and critical clarity to the chaotic and vulgar Trump candidacy. In often very long, dense posts, Pappin and his fellow bloggers criticized GOP positions on trade, big finance, health care, income inequality, foreign policy, and a host of other issues. More broadly, they told a story of an elite class that was clueless about the struggles of regular Americans and that needed drastic reformation or replacement.
“We expected that Trump would lose the general election and that there would be a big fight in the GOP over what would happen next,” remembers Julius Krein, who blogged as Plautus and, with Pappin, cofounded both the Journal of American Greatness and American Affairs. “The thought at the time was that we would urge resistance to the return of a Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney–style orthodoxy.”
But the most widely read piece by a member of the American Greatness cohort was published elsewhere, in the Claremont Review of Books, another conservative outlet. Written by Michael Anton, a Republican strategist who blogged for the Journal of American Greatness as Publius Decius Mus, “The Flight 93 Election” gave voice to a broad feeling on the right that Trump, for all his flaws, was the one candidate who seemed to grasp the stakes of the election. It also vented an anger simmering in the party’s base at establishment Republicans who didn’t share their view that a Clinton victory could represent an end to the American republic.
As Trump’s campaign fortunes continued to rise, Pappin and his fellow bloggers, including Anton, who went on to serve in the Trump administration, became more convinced that they were on to something: the Trump phenomenon was important. But they also worried that they were becoming too popular to remain anonymous. Some days, traffic would exceed 50,000 hits, and among their readers were many of the biggest players in conservative media. Mainstream conservative publications such as National Review and the Weekly Standard frequently covered Pappin’s crowd. “Most of the people contributing were fairly concerned that they might lose their jobs over it,” says Krein, who at the time was working at a hedge fund in Boston.
In June of 2016 they shut down the blog. Pappin won’t say who made the call, in part to protect the identities of the blog’s contributors, half of whom remain anonymous. Pappin had accepted a tenure-track position at the University of Dallas, a small Catholic college in Irving with long-standing ties to the American conservative movement. He wasn’t worried about losing his job. But he recognized, as did Krein, an opportunity to build something more serious, and less Trumpy, than the Journal of American Greatness. The result, which debuted not long after Trump’s inauguration, was American Affairs, a quarterly print magazine and website that made an instant splash, with profiles in the New Yorker, the Nation, and Politico and a launch party at the Harvard Club that attracted a who’s who of conservative eminences.
The magazine, which has emerged in the years since as the single most vital publication of new conservative (and sometimes liberal) ideas in America, is much more sober in tone and aesthetics than the Journal of American Greatness. It brands itself, instead, as “a forum for people who believe that the conventional partisan platforms are no longer relevant to the most pressing challenges facing our country.” The editors and board of advisers lean heavily right, and the editors have fostered connections to semi-populist right-wing figures and possible Trump heirs such as senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Josh Hawley of Missouri. But the politics of its contributors have become more heterogeneous since it launched. What its writers and editors tend to share is a skepticism about neoliberal economics, an aversion to knee-jerk militarism, a root-and-branch concern over the supposed decadence of American culture, and a willingness to radically rethink the institutions of government.
The magazine has also made deliberate efforts to shed any lingering associations with Trump. Krein voted for Trump in 2016 but very publicly denounced him after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August of 2017, writing an op-ed in the New York Times: “I Voted for Trump. And I Sorely Regret It.” Pappin’s own stance has been more ambivalent. He didn’t publicly endorse the candidate in 2016 or 2020, and he has been careful in his writing to “put a lot of distance between myself and the MAGA world, which does trade in a politics of nostalgia and resentment.” At the same time, he voted for Trump in both elections and doesn’t see him as a sufficient disgrace or threat to merit repudiating. “I do believe politics are either left or right in our world, and so as someone on the right, I want the right to win.”
Pappin’s focus in American Affairs has been to game out a theoretical framework for big-government conservatism and to articulate some of the policy reforms that would follow, including tighter restrictions on access to pornography, an overhaul of the Senate that would assign seats to representatives of business sectors rather than states, and much more aggressive efforts to strategically protect and foster key American industries.
Pappin’s signature proposal, laid out in his American Affairs essay “Affirming the American Family,” is what he and his coauthor call FamilyPay. The program would encourage childbearing, marriage, and stay-at-home parenting by giving every married couple in the country $6,500 a year for one child, $11,500 for two, and $17,000 for three (with additional incentives for couples who adopt). It’s a fascinating glimpse into a vision of a more redistributionist but also more culturally conservative nation that doesn’t fit comfortably into either of the current parties’ platforms, a reshuffling that Trump sometimes seemed to promise when he was campaigning but then failed to advance once in office. Its more obvious analogues are Christian Democratic parties in Western Europe and culturally nationalist parties in Hungary and Poland.
One question for Pappin and his colleagues—perhaps the question—is whether Trump’s failure to deliver on his populist rhetoric was mainly his fault or that of the Republican party. Did Trump’s lack of discipline doom the reforms he campaigned on, or was there simply never going to be room in the party of Mitch McConnell and the Koch brothers for deviations from Republican orthodoxy? And if not, why would that ever change? “It’s not clear to me who they think is going to do this,” says Samuel Goldman, a libertarian-minded conservative who has been sparring with Pappin since they were at Harvard together. “I cannot imagine a future in which the chamber of commerce is not an important part of the Republican party, and as long as that’s the case, it’s hard to imagine the comprehensive shift that they’re talking about. Not to say that there shouldn’t be some rebalancing, but I think this talk of a working-class party is exaggerated, at best.”
Geoffrey Kabaservice, an anti-Trump conservative who is the director of political studies at the Niskanen Center, a right-leaning Washington, D.C.–based think tank, sees the same dilemma. “At this point, the Republican party represents the working class for whom these kinds of proposals would have the greatest appeal and do the most help,” he says, “and yet the party is in the control of the donor class, to whom this is anathema. Where is it going to go? To the relatively few people who pay the bills? Or the many? My bet is on the donor class.”
Kabaservice, who is the author of Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party, is also skeptical that Pappin and his crew have traveled as far from Trump as they allege. “I think,” he says, “they are part of this intellectual sphere which is trying to put a post hoc rationalization for Trumpism upon the Trumpian project.”
Pappin is not naive about the future of his party or movement. If something like his vision succeeds, it will be the work of years or decades and will depend not just on charismatic new political candidates but on the education and training of hundreds or thousands of mid-level functionaries—legislative aides, think tank analysts, committee staffers—who can translate the big ideas into the minutiae of policy. It will depend, above all, on new allegiances of donors and corporate interests. “Economic power wins in this country,” he says, “and until we have some sectors of economic power aligned with the national interest, then you won’t really see the realignment.”
Pappin argues, however, that assuming things will go on as they have before can be as mistaken as assuming they will dramatically change. America’s past is rich with realignments, and thinkers have often played a role in shaping them. The history of the modern right, in particular, demonstrates how powerful ideas can be, along with those who articulate and disseminate them. From postwar anti-communists like Whittaker Chambers and James Burnham to William F. Buckley and National Review to the neoconservatives in the George W. Bush administration who championed the invasion of Iraq after 9/11, intellectuals have played important roles in shaping policy, often in the shadow of, or in concert with, more jingoistic politics. “Politics always changes at the margin,” says Pappin. “The big, hulking institutions, they keep the order, but they don’t make the changes. I think that with the MAGA stuff swept aside at the D.C. level, without Bannon crawling around, we will be able to get more serious.”
Perhaps the best evidence that big government conservatism has a future is our crisis-prone present. It’s COVID-19 and Hurricane Harvey and George Floyd. Big shocks to the system are going to keep coming, and nothing in the recent American past suggests that shrinking the state is likely to be the outcome, whichever party is in power.
The question, Pappin believes, is whether the right will continue to grow the state grudgingly and reactively, as it has in response to COVID-19, or whether it will drop its small-government rhetoric and ideology and instead embrace the bigness.
Daniel Oppenheimer is the author of Far From Respectable: Dave Hickey and His Art, forthcoming from the University of Texas Press in June 2021.
This article originally appeared in the January 2021 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Can Trumpism Transcend Trump?” Subscribe today.