Because my book is aimed at the climate coalition — and how misunderstanding of regulatory politics by some of its members slows energy transition policymaking — many of my examples of over-the-top online communication come from within that coalition. But I also cite research demonstrating that online hyperbole and misinformation are more common on the ideological right. Goodness knows that much of it comes from right here in Texas.

For example, reasonable people can and do disagree over aspects of gender affirming care for transgender young people, but only an advocacy “news” source — in this case, the “Texas Scorecard” (tag line: “real news for real Texans”) — would report on the Austin City Council’s consideration of this resolution on that issue using this headline: “Austin Councilmembers Consider Making City a Sanctuary for Child Gender Mutilation.”

The toxic mix of misinformation and fear mongering that predominates in online news and social media breeds negative partisanship. On the right, it pushes ambitious Republican politicians like Lindsay Graham, Elise Stefanik, and many others to focus their rhetoric less on traditional conservative principles and more on negative partisanship and culture-war populism.

In a February 2024 cover story, The Economist noted that right populists “sense that they own conservatism now, and they may be right.” They “see the West [not] as a shining city on the hill, but as Rome before the fall—decadent, depraved and about to collapse amid a barbarian invasion….”

More traditional conservatives in the House of Representatives seem frustrated with their loss of control. In the same week that the House declined once again to consider a bill on aid to Ukraine, the House Rules Committee’s published agenda was filled with energy-policy-as-culture-war bills, including the Liberty in Laundry Act, the Hands Off Our Home Appliances Act, the Refigerator Freedom Act, the Affordable Air Conditioning Act, and the Stop Unaffordable Dishwasher Standards Act. (Those hearings were eventually canceled, perhaps out of embarrassment.)

If Democrats want to create a republican moment in Congress for strong climate policy, they will have to appeal to the shrinking segment of voters who are both repulsed by this kind of negative partisanship and do not identify as progressives. This group exists.

For many people the journey toward deeper understanding begins with acknowledging that fact — i.e., that there is a distinction between conservatism and right-populist Trumpism (see, e.g., “never Trump” conservatives).

We can see conservative opinion leaders sometimes struggle openly with the tension between these two political forces. Not long ago, on the same day, my Twitter/X feed showed me two examples of smart, accomplished academics grappling with this distinction: one was former federal judge and Northwestern University law professor Steven Calabrisi, and the other a Duke University economist named Timur Kuran.

Calabresi said this in his March 8 post in the conservative law blog The Volokh Conspiracy:

[T]he Biden Administration is currently criminally prosecuting Donald Trump for offenses that would lead to Trump’s imprisonment where he could easily be murdered by fellow inmates. Trump has thus likened himself, quite reasonably, to Alexei Navalny … who was recently murdered in jail where he was held for the crime of running against Putin …

The online reaction to this remark on Twitter/X reflected the GOP’s internal divisions. On the one hand, right populists and culture warriors celebrated the article, which argued that prosecuting Trump for his criminal behavior “criminalizes politics.” On the other hand, many online conservative thinkers condemned the sentiment, and some suggested the piece harmed the reputation of the blog as an outlet for thoughtful conservative voices. Some even (gently) called Calabresi’s mental state into question.

But thoughtful conservatives whose diagnosis of the nation’s problems is rooted in moral decline are struggling with this dilemma. On the one hand, as perhaps the most morally-flawed person ever to occupy the presidency, Trump cannot be the moral leader they seek. On the other hand, they know that turning against the MAGA-dominated GOP means turning power over to the party that they see as an agent of the very moral decline they are trying to slow.

Conservative writer David Brooks exemplified this dilemma when commenting recently on the Supreme Court’s consideration of Trump’s claim of absolute presidential immunity for crimes committed in office:

Normally you would say, yes, a president’s not above the law. Of course. It’s simple. No one’s above the law. But if you look at democracies in decline, it’s a pattern that people in office use their power to indict and criminalize and throw in jail people that were in office before them of the opposing party. And we are a nation, a democracy, in decline. And so it makes you think … maybe there should be some protections against that.

Brooks focused not on upholding the rule of law so as to stem the decline of American democracy. Instead, he justified the alarming receptivity of the Court’s conservative majority to the notion that maybe in certain circumstances president’s should be above the law.

When intellectuals like Brooks or Calabresi (or Harvard law professor Adrian Vermeule) endorse populist authoritarianism in defense of the cultural or economic traditions, they model the rejection of pluralism and other foundations of U.S. liberal democracy for conservatives. I note in Climate of Contempt how student members of the Federalist Society struggle to reconcile their devotion to liberal democracy and the rule of law, on the one hand, with their aversion to the rise of the cultural left and rule by Democrats, on the other. Calabresi has been a leading figure in the Federalist Society, and his jump to the dark side of his party presumably hurts the efforts of conservatives to wrest back control of their party from authoritarian populists.

Kuran’s Twitter/X contribution was more of a plea for some sort of better choice. In a multi-tweet thread Kuran argued that “progressive lunacies” and “cultural fads” are making right-populist authoritarianism more attractive to economically vulnerable people across the world. “Elites,” said Kuran, can “shield their kids from ‘progressively’ run schools. Members of already fragile communities can’t. They are stuck with public schools, whose ‘progressive’ fads harm them palpably.” [Full disclosure: I served on the board of one progressive school, which my kids attended.]

Putting aside the imprecision (what lunacies?) and lack of academic circumspection (why are they “lunacies”?) in these remarks, Kuran’s thread is about the growing popularity of authoritarian populism among the economic underclass. My review of the social science literature in Chapter 4 of Climate of Contempt offers some support for his claim, but railing against (what Kuran perceives to be) “lunacies” is hardly the kind of intellectual leadership that helps resolve the tensions between moderation or conservatism, on the one hand, and Trumpist populism on the other.

But it accurately reflects the fact that many conservatives seem to feel that they are faced with an impossible, unpalatable choice.  People like Calabresi and Brooks may see Donald Trump for the bundle of vices he is, and his control of their party as a disaster. But it is not clear to them that it is a bigger disaster than the cultural changes that come from ceding power to Democrats.

The Trumpist GOP is an increasingly negatively partisan GOP. They turn sharply against what Democrats want, including the clean energy transition. They turn out to vote in order to stop Democrats from attaining power. And so mobilizing Democrats to vote mobilizes them.

The intellectual journey of people struggling with this dilemma will go a long way toward determining how far and how fast our liberal democracy transitions to authoritarianism. There are still Republican voters who struggle with this choice between nihilistic Trumpism and a more principled conservatism. And for the climate coalition, changing the voting decisions of a few of those people in competitive districts can go a long way. – David Spence