Last fall I was speaking with a high school classmate of mine about politics when he, after some prodding, admitted he voted for Trump. It isn’t surprising for a high school peer of mine to vote for Trump — I’m from a very “Trumpy” part of Florida — but I was still a little surprised. This guy didn’t seem like the archetypal Trump supporter, of which I knew many in high school. He had no ridiculous Trump merch (when Trump first won in 2016 I remember someone walking around school all day with a Trump cape), no strange sympathy for conspiracy theorists and no fervent faith in Trump as a messianic figure. In fact I had often heard him mock Trump — “Trumpy Dumpy” in his parlance — and dismiss all politicians as foolish and indistinguishable. But as I thought about it more, maybe it did make sense that he was a Trump voter. There were many others like him from my high school who weren’t traditional conservatives, but instead adopted a strange and juvenile sort of conservatism. To be blunt, their conservatism felt to me based more on entitlement and the thrill of transgression than on any firm principles.
For the most part, I had assumed that this was just the mindset of an entitled teen, not a true political force. I didn’t consider the political implications until I read a piece by Matthew Walther in The Week terming these people “Barstool conservatives,” after the “sports/smut” site. I don’t entirely buy Walther’s arguments. Unlike him, I do not think Barstool conservatives will ever fully take over the Republican Party. Still, it is a catchy name for an ascendant political movement.
The typical Barstool conservative is young, white and male. More often than not, they’re fairly affluent, as well. They possess a level of entitlement. They also tend to pride themselves on a level of “anti-wokeness” that can easily veer into prejudice and intolerance. When I imagine the textbook example of a Barstool conservative I often think of the site TotalFratMove, which, among other, primarily non-political content, casually disses preferred pronouns or whines about Columbia’s Multicultural Graduation Ceremonies.
However, Barstool conservatives are not just high school teens: They’re members of the House of Representatives. For example, Representatives Matt Gaetz of Florida’s 1st district and Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina’s 11th district, for example, are Barstool conservatism embodied in both personality and policy. Gaetz was arrested in 2008 for a DUI on the way back from a nightclub prophetically named the Swamp and got into politics with the help of his wealthy, well-connected father. As for Cawthorn, 176 of his former classmates wrote an open letter describing his “reputation for predatory behavior” during his one semester of college, where he rolled with a group of friends called, I kid you not, “the douche crew.” It’s incredible how closely these representatives hew to the worst cliches of Barstool conservatives. Reputations and stereotypes, however, only matter so much, and the Barstool conservatism of these congressmen does, in fact, extend to real policy.
So what policies come of Barstool conservatism? In terms of their economic agenda, Barstool conservatives are a bit muddled. In his article Walther describes their views as “a curious and at times incoherent mixture of standard libertarian talking points and pseudo-populism,” and I’m inclined to agree. I imagine that a large determinant of the economic views of Barstool conservatives is their current economic standing. The ones I knew from high school happened to be rather well-off, and therefore they unsurprisingly disliked basically any redistributive government intervention, but I’m not sure that’s an indispensable tenet of Barstool conservatism. A populist stance is certainly important to Barstool conservatism, but it can range from populist austerity like that of the Tea Party movement to the populist spending seemingly preferred by former President Donald Trump, who advocated for $2,000, not $600, COVID-19 stimulus checks.
Barstool conservatives distinguish themselves with their stance on social issues. The growth of Barstool conservatism has in large part been enabled by the weakening of a different group of conservatives: the religious right that carried former President George W. Bush to victory in 2000 and 2004. The religious right is losing most of its culture wars, with the possible exception of abortion; same-sex marriage was settled by Obergefell v. Hodges, and politicians hardly ever talk about stem-cell research anymore. These issues just don’t animate the more secular Barstool conservatives. In fact, they’re patently on the other side of many of these issues from the old-style moralists who railed against sex, drugs and rock and roll. Perhaps it is simply due to its adherents’ relative youth, but Barstool conservatism is far from puritannical. Rep. Gaetz has introduced bills to loosen restrictions on marijuana use and, while he was in the Florida legislature, successfully pushed to allow same-sex couples to adopt. In fact, Gaetz is an exemplar of Barstool conservatives’ differences from traditional religious conservatives. As he told the New York Times, he believes that “marijuana can help people live better lives as medicine, the earth is warming and nobody chooses to be gay.” For all these positions I have to commend him and other Barstool conservatives who agree.
Consequently there’s a temptation to call Barstool conservatives socially liberal, or maybe socially libertarian. That wouldn’t quite be correct, though. Barstool conservatives have plenty of their own cultural grievances. They just aren’t based on religious convictions. In fact, many of the Barstool conservatives I knew back in high school were avowed atheists. The connective tissue between the social causes that they champion doesn’t seem to be a coherent set of religiously driven principles, but rather one key principle: “I can do whatever I want to do, and whatever you want doesn’t factor into the equation.”
All the Barstool conservatives I’ve known will get up in arms about political correctness that they perceive as oppressive, even if minor tweaks to their language would make others feel more comfortable. They stridently question the legitimacy of gender dysphoria and preferred pronouns, even if it in no way affects them. Recently their cause celebre has been COVID-19 lockdowns that they feel are overly restrictive, or in Walther’s words, “schoolmarmish.” While there are certainly some genuine economic considerations to such arguments, it just doesn’t feel like those are motivating the protest. They seem so committed to their own pleasure and comfort that they are unwilling to sacrifice anything for other members of society, whether it’s the small effort of using someone’s preferred pronouns or the more significant sacrifice of adhering to COVID-19 lockdowns that protect at-risk groups.
Perhaps other people occasionally do enter their calculus, if only out of spite: It is ever-important to “own the libs.” That’s why Rep. Cawthorn’s first tweet after winning his congressional race was simply, “Cry more, lib.” While this attribute feels particularly juvenile, it remains an important aspect of Barstool conservatism. In fact, it is present in one of Barstool conservatism’s most important texts: Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy’s pseudo-endorsement of Trump from 2015, which noted that Portnoy would be voting for Trump because Portnoy loves “the fact that he is making other politicians squirm.”
In Congress we see a similar attitude in Gaetz’s penchant for attention-grabbing provocation, like wearing a gas mask to the House floor in apparent mockery of mask mandates or his recent claim that Mr. Potato Head was “America’s first transgender doll.” Much less funny are his race-baiting tweets that encourage hunting down antifa protestors and seemingly praise Kyle Rittenhouse after he shot three protestors in Kenosha, Wisconsin, killing two. The thrill of transgression, clearly so appealing to Gaetz, is the same thing that drives owning the libs. Moreover, as Gaetz shows, it drives the worst excesses of Barstool conservatism: their performative prejudice and callously tasteless insults.
I’m sure that it’s readily apparent that I am not sympathetic to Barstool conservatism. And yes, some of my criticism stems less from specific policies and more from general attitudes I find distasteful, although Barstool conservatives do have plenty of abhorrent policy positions as well. But attitudes matter. Their egocentrism leads them to act like they owe others nothing. Their obsession with triggering “snowflakes” is juvenile and, frankly, a little pathetic. What I consider most odious, however, is their palpable disdain for politics. I could feel it in countless conversations with my high school classmates, and every time it left me incensed.
In the Barstool conservative base, the evasive “both-sides-are-bad-who-cares” attitude is cranked up to eleven. Consider Portnoy’s claim in his aforementioned endorsement of Trump that “My day to day life isn’t gonna (sic) change that much no matter who gets elected,” a claim repeated almost verbatim by my high school classmates. This sentiment is perhaps understandable, as the impact of policies actually don’t matter that much for typical Barstool conservatives insulated in their wealthiness and whiteness and maleness. Portnoy comes tantalizingly close to a moment of clarity about this when he writes of Trump, “I don’t care if he’s racist. I don’t care if he’s sexist.” But for many, what happens in politics really does matter. For one obvious example, a Republican Senate would have issued smaller direct checks, and that would have legitimately affected many people’s lives.
Besides, even with all their posturing, I would argue that deep down, Barstool conservatives don’t actually think politics are irrelevant. Otherwise they wouldn’t get so upset about cancel culture, transgender rights or lockdowns. That’s what is so existentially frustrating about them. Their ambivalence is just an act to avoid accountability for the harmful effects of their politics. If Barstool conservatives refuse to justify or even seriously discuss their beliefs, they will never have to critically examine them, and the prejudice and callousness of many of their positions will be permitted to fester. This attitude contravenes that crucial principle of idealized democracy: Good faith debate will lead to progress. It’s an ideal that reality consistently falls short of, but it’s an aspiration that’s not worth giving up on altogether. I wish Barstool conservatives felt the same way.
Augustus Bayard ’24 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.