A specter is haunting the very-online paleocon right — the specter of toxic traditionalism.
We saw it late in March, when Groyper leader, traditional Catholic and all-round scumbag Nick Fuentes defended Rep. Matt Gaetz’s alleged affair with an underage girl as ‘very traditional’. There are plenty of reasons to object to sex between a 38 year-old man and a 17-year-old girl, but it was commonplace in the Middle Ages. To a troll like Fuentes, that automatically makes it #based.
We also see it in the parish wars that are forcing Catholics to choose between milquetoast rainbow-flag-wavers like Fr James Martin and some iteration of a stock character Catholic meme lords call ‘Fr Chad Young trad’. Earlier this year, the National Catholic Reporter ran a story on how these conflicts had torn apart a North Carolina parish. The woe-is-me tone of the article is, admittedly, almost hilarious — you’d think the liberal boomers who left the parish were fleeing Nero’s persecution, not a new priest who would rather speak Latin toward the altar than English toward the people. And of course, the NCR had nothing but sympathy for the parishioners who decamped to local Episcopal churches rather than drive 45 minutes to receive the body and blood of Christ at the next-closest Catholic parish.
As someone who considers himself pretty trad, I generally find the new crop of Fr Chads admirable. They certainly don’t give a damn about getting head-pats from the secular elite, and they offend the right people. But some of these priests, egged on by hacks like Michael Voris and John Zmirak, are also drifting into the orbit of the alt-right. They disgraced themselves at the Jericho March, harangued their parishioners about their moral duty to vote for Trump, and have turned the Tridentine Latin Mass into some kind of fetish. The priests from the NCR piece even burned books by Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen. Such shameless LARPing indicates both a disturbing lack of maturity and a presumptuous willingness to condemn where the Magisterium has not.
But at least priests have to put skin in the game and have actual face-to-face interactions. Toxic traditionalism flourishes most fully online. Many conservative Catholic Facebook groups provide excellent memes, insightful cultural commentary and real spiritual edification, but the medium works against the message. It’s hard to practice anything like JP2’s personalism when the ‘person’ you’re arguing with is a blob of pixels who can’t cry or slug you when you call him a retard. I remember one comment thread of emotionally stunted 20-somethings insisting they would immediately break up with any girl who revealed she wasn’t a virgin, no matter how much she’d repented. None of them, of course, ever doubted that a virginal bride was his divine birth right.
Even in the best trad groups, moderators are frequently forced to ban twisted basement-dwellers who use traditionalist Catholicism as a pretext for their hatred of women, gays and non-Europeans. They like G.K. Chesterton because of, not despite, his occasional anti-Semitism. They stan Francis-co Franco. Other aspects of the faith — such as mastering one’s passions and encouraging fellow Christians — are of less interest to them. They’d rather gate keep and bully. In their eyes, even the orthodox, erudite, winsome Bishop Robert Barron is a cucked heretic because he believes it permissible to ‘hope that all people will be saved’. One page I follow was forced to rebuke a cadre of TLM enthusiasts who, in their zeal, had convinced some group members to stop going to Mass altogether rather than attend a cringe Novus Ordo.
Toxic traditionalists don’t love tradition because it preserves the true, the good and the beautiful. Instead, they begin with hatred of the modern world, then seize upon traditionalism as a tool that empowers them to condemn society as degenerate, turning their own inability to function in society into a virtue. I’m willing to admit that the modern world is degenerate. Unfortunately for the toxic trads, though, Jesus said, ‘Blessed are you when people hate you… on account of the Son of Man.’ He did not say, ‘Blessed are you when people hate you because you’re an unpleasant little bigot with poor social skills.’
As I prepared to travel to New Orleans in March, Rod Dreher advised me to read John Kennedy Toole’s 1968 novel A Confederacy of Dunces. Its protagonist is the forerunner of all toxic trads. Ignatius J. Reilly is 30 years old, overweight, overeducated, undisciplined, unemployed, unemployable and generally unbearable. Within a few pages, this mama’s-boy medievalist tells us that his days consist of eating cheese dip and ‘writing a lengthy indictment against our century’. Judging by his girth, he gets deeper into the cheese dip than the book.
Ignatius also enjoys going to the movies, but quality cinema doesn’t interest him. He’d rather hate-watch erotic films and disturb other theater goers by yelling out things like ‘How dare she pretend to be a virgin. Look at her degenerate face. Rape her!’ Despite the high standard of sexual morality he would impose on women, Ignatius remains— like many of his present-day brethren —a chronic masturbator. He’s fired from four different jobs, always because his employers take issue with his ‘worldview’ and never as a result of his own incompetence or histrionics. Ignatius mentions that he’s a fan of Batman, but today he’d be more likely to identify with the Joker. ‘We live in a society’ indeed. Back in January, the critic Tom Bissell wrote about Confederacy’s ‘uneasy after life’ in the New Yorker. He concluded that Ignatius — the ‘red-pilled malcontent calling for a theofascist revival’, the ‘godfather of the internet troll, the Abraham of neck beards, the 4chan edge lord to rule them all — was no anachronism’. He was a ‘prediction’.
No argument there. Ignatius is a text-book toxic trad well ahead of his time, and he certainly checks both boxes for ‘theofascist’. Ignatius stops attending Mass because, like so many Church Militant devotees today, he feels an unearned sense of superiority over the entire Church hierarchy. Early in the novel, he gaslights his mother into going to Confession and, when she reports having received only a light penance, grumbles that she ‘should have been lashed right there in the confessional’. He also expresses his longing for both a ‘good, authoritarian Pope’ and a ‘good, strong monarchy’. He’d be in good company in 2021. A Facebook page called Catholic Monarchist League currently has over 8,500 likes. It’s pretty ‘based’ (though only if you confine your throne-and-altar panegyrics to nostalgic flights of fancy; taken without irony, it’s actually pretty cringe).Toole intends readers to spend most of the novel laughing at Ignatius’s expense, but he retains a modicum of sympathy for his protagonist. Toward the end of the book, Ignatius’s long-suffering mother threatens to institutionalize him. His response is revelatory:
‘They would try to make me into a moron who liked television and new cars and frozen food… Do you think that I have a problem?… The only problem that those people have is that they don’t like new cars and hair sprays. That’s why they are put away. They make the other members of the society fearful. Every asylum is filled with poor souls who simply cannot stand lanolin, cellophane, plastic, television, and subdivisions.’
It’s a question straight out of Walker Percy: Which is worse — to go insane, or to function perfectly in an insane society? There’s merit to that question, and it’s why I can’t bring myself to be quite as hard on Ignatius and his toxic-trad progeny as Bissell is.
In a time when ‘basic decency’ means parroting the latest left-liberal talking points, a certain degree of contrarianism and willingness to be despised become essential. Some truly valuable things really have been lost, and I’m glad someone is mourning them. Some truly disgusting things have been substituted for what’s been lost, and I’m glad someone is recoiling from them.
The problem with toxic trads is not so much that they’re red pilled as that they’re black pilled. Even if civilization really were crumbling due to some Masonic-Jewish-Lib-Cath conspiracy, the proper response would not be to sit disincarnated in front of a computer screen feeling superior to everyone while wasting away physically, socially and spiritually. One of the aforementioned meme-page admins recognized this temptation. In a lengthy post, he urged his followers to volunteer at their parishes, exercise, eat better and cut back on video games. Toxic trads won’t be happy when they live under an integralist monarchy; they’ll be happy after they’ve taken a strong dose of Jordan Peterson.
Nobody is saved by a ‘worldview’. Traditional Christianity is more than checking a series of boxes that add up to ‘based’. It’s also necessary to battle your temptations, love your neighbors and grow in holiness.You’re not going to restore the Bourbons to the French throne but you might be able to find a godly spouse and build a sanctifying marriage that scatters blessings across your entire community — if, that is, you pick up your damn cross. You might even find joy along the way.
In Love in the Ruins, Walker Percy stares degeneracy and malaise square in the face. He still ends the novel with protagonist Tom More drinking bourbon, grabbing his wife’s ass, and dancing around his yard ‘singing old Sinatra songs and the Salve Regina, cutting the fool like David before the Ark’ while society crumbles around him. To be ‘not of the world’ is insufficient. We also have to be ‘in the world’ in the right way. Life looks much brighter when we are.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s May 2021 World edition.