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By Michelle Goldberg
Leonard Leo, a leader of the right-wing Federalist Society, an extraordinarily effective legal organization, is broadening his ambitions. Leo is hoping to transform American culture the way he transformed the judiciary. In the words of an investigative report produced by ProPublica and Documented, he aims to build a sort of “Federalist Society for everything,” devoted to helping reactionaries consolidate power in realms like Wall Street, Silicon Valley, journalism, Hollywood and academia.
“I spent close to 30 years, if not more, helping to build the conservative legal movement,” Leo said in a video for the organization at the heart of his strategy, the Teneo Network. “And at some point or another, I just said to myself, ‘If this can work for law, why can’t it work for lots of other areas of American culture and American life where things are really messed up right now?’” That includes “wokeism in the corporate environment, in the educational environment,” biased media and “entertainment that is really corrupting our youth.”
Given Leo’s past success, he should be taken seriously. As Donald Trump’s adviser on judicial nominations, he helped put Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, all of whom have close Federalist Society ties, on the Supreme Court, making him central to the demise of Roe v. Wade. Leo has access to enormous resources; last year a conservative financier donated around $1.6 billion to a dark-money group that he controls. And since many elites resent the congeries of behavioral norms and linguistic innovations denigrated as wokeness, the Teneo Network will start from a place of strength, pushing on an open door.
But while Leo’s grandiose project could pose a danger to liberalism, it can also be seen as a sign of existential crisis on the right. It demonstrates how conservatives are relying on fantastical ideas about wokeness to tie together a movement that has otherwise lost much of its raison d’être.
After all, the nearly 50-year project of ending Roe is complete. Stirring crusades against Communism and then against radical Islam have subsided. The cult of personality around Trump has splintered. Many on the right would still like to obliterate the welfare state, but they’re deeply defensive about it. Hatred of wokeness is a brittle foundation for political identity, but it’s almost all that’s left.
Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, a favorite for the Republican presidential nomination, declared during his January inaugural address that “Florida is where woke goes to die.” Mike Pompeo, a former secretary of state and a possible presidential candidate, recently tweeted, “Our internal threats — especially those trying to corrupt our kids with toxic wokeness — are more serious than our external threats.” Last week at the Conservative Political Action Conference, the Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley said, “Wokeness is a virus more dangerous than any pandemic.”
Given that the Covid pandemic has already killed over a million Americans, this is transparently insane, even if you find much of what falls under the rubric of wokeness annoying. Such threat inflation is best explained by the right’s desperation for a unifying enemy. But to support the weight they’re putting on wokeness, conservatives have had to create a hallucinatory conspiracy theory about how progressive social change works.
Take, for example, a 2020 video that ProPublica and Documented surfaced, in which the Teneo Network’s co-founder Evan Baehr described how he believed the left operates. He asked his audience to imagine a luncheon at the Harvard Club featuring a billionaire hedge funder, a movie producer, a Harvard professor and a writer for The New York Times.
“The billionaire says, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if middle school kids had free access to sex-change therapy paid for by the federal government?’” Baehr said. “Well, the filmmaker says, ‘I’d love to do a documentary on that; it will be a major motion film.’ The Harvard professor says, ‘We can do studies on that to say that’s absolutely biologically sound and safe.’ And the New York Times person says, ‘I’ll profile people who feel trapped in the wrong gender.’”
This may be how the organs of the right-wing counterestablishment function, but it’s not how mainstream institutions work. (I was once seated next to a hedge fund billionaire at a dinner; he wanted to talk about how the Democratic Party had moved too far left.) Baehr seems to believe that cultural edicts can be handed down as imperiously as judicial opinions, so a handful of well-placed apparatchiks can redirect the zeitgeist. The Federalist Society project was fairly straightforward: Replace one set of judges with another. Trying to turn back social change across American life is a far trickier thing, especially when you don’t understand where that change is coming from.
None of this is to say that the war on wokeness can’t do enormous damage. Laws are being passed all over the country targeting trans people, particularly trans kids, and the right’s language has turned openly eliminationist. (One speaker at CPAC said, “Transgenderism must be eradicated.”) America is enduring a wave of hysterical censorship. In Oklahoma the State Senate just passed a bill banning material with “a predominant tendency to appeal to prurient interest in sex” from all public libraries, not just those in schools.
But I’m skeptical that anti-wokeness can be the basis for a durable mass movement. That’s not just because a recent USA Today poll found that a majority of Americans see the term “woke” positively but because wokeness is too niche a concern. The Federalist Society trained many young meritocrats who were willing to devote their lives to fighting legalized abortion. It’s hard to imagine the battle against neopronouns and the 1619 Project inspiring the same sort of single-minded intensity. Ronald Reagan used to describe conservatism as a three-legged stool, comprising social conservatives, fiscal conservatives and defense hawks. These days it looks a lot more like a pogo stick.
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