Earlier this week, a pair of right-libertarian journalists announced the launch of their new site, BASEDPolitics. All hell promptly broke loose on right-wing Twitter.
In the first editorial for their new site, co-founders Brad Polumbo and Hannah Cox define “based” as “upfront, on point, or rooted in true principles.” That fits pretty well with my understanding of the term, but it leaves something out.
That “something” accounts for the pushback they received from the post-liberal, national conservative crowd. According to them, libertarians like Polumbo and Cox are nothing more than Koch-funded shills who fight for tax cuts and weaker antitrust laws while drag queens read to our children. They are not “based” and have no right to refer to themselves as such.
“Our culture is not your costume,” one popular right-wing Twitter personality quipped. Sohrab Ahmari, an American Conservative editor who advocates for “political Catholicism,” tweeted “I’m never using ‘based’ again, now that these corporate schmucks have appropriated it.”
Ahmari also threw in some disparaging comments about Polumbo’s “gigantic” head and Cox’s “tackily overspilling décolletage” as they appeared in the announcement graphic.
I asked Polumbo (full disclosure: he and I are both affiliated with Young Voices) whether he expected this kind of reaction. Here’s what he had to say:
Oh yeah, we anticipated pushback from the very-online nationalist crowd. I’m not particularly bothered by it, although some of it has been ad-hominem and juvenile, and that’s pretty pathetic, fan behavior. We won’t stoop to that. But the pushback is kind of the point. The nationalists want to redefine what it means to be conservative so that it resembles big government, socially conservative Elizabeth Warren economics more than Ronald Reagan. We still believe the future of the Right should be rooted in free markets, individual liberty, the Constitution, [and] limited government.
The term “based” originated in the black community as slang for being high on crack. Perhaps there’s some connection with “freebasing,” or smoking cocaine. From there, the term’s definition expanded to cover all the strange and erratic behaviors typically associated with “crackheads.” A modern equivalent might be to say someone is “trippin’” or “tweakin’.” These don’t necessarily mean the person is under the influence of psychedelics or meth, only that they’re acting like it. “You’re crazy,” spoken either with total dismissiveness or with a hint of admiration, would convey the same meaning.
“Based” began to take on its current connotation with rapper Lil B the Based God, who released his first album, Based Boys, in 2007. According to Lil B, “Based means being yourself. Not being scared of what people think about you. Not being afraid to do what you wanna do.”
According to one online dictionary, the term, now a “signal of power and swagger,” became associated with the online right in the 2010s as a synonym for “politically incorrect.” Donald Trump was “based” because he was willing to say things that pissed off the libs and then laugh at their outrage.
“Can you believe OrangeMan said X?!” the outraged soycuck shrieks. “Lol, based,” the gigachad responds.
It seems to me that at this point, an earlier definition of “based” unrelated to West Coast drug culture began to influence the term’s use by the new right. “Based” retained its sense of the manic, un-self-conscious energy of Trump’s Twitter, but it also took on the the sense of being “based on” or “based in” something older and sturdier than the endless flux of liquid modernity. Éric Zemmour is based. So is Viktor Orbán. Jailing pornographers, seizing the assets of the Ford Foundation, and going to Latin Mass with your nine kids and tradwife are all based. On the darker corners of right-wing Twitter, Rhodesia, Mussolini and overt expressions of sexism are also “based.”
The prevailing definition of “based” sits somewhere near the intersection of troll and trad.
Polumbo told me he’s fully aware that he’s going against the usual meaning of the term: “While not our only mission, a crucial part of our project is to explicitly combat the nationalist conservative movement in a substantive and ideas-based way. We are redefining what it means to be ‘based,’ whether they like it or not. Freedom is based. Catholic integralism and other forms of lite-theocracy are authoritarian and un-American.”
The post-liberal response, of course, would be that right-libertarianism, like progressivism, is a dominant ideology masquerading as a scrappy resistance. They are two faces of the same beast called liberalism. They divide the world between them: freedom in the boardroom and freedom in the bedroom.
I’m not nearly the libertarian Polumbo is, but I’m not a fully convinced post-liberal yet either. I think wokeness is a far greater threat than socialism. At the same time, I worry that any sort of post-liberal political project could lead to tyranny. The levels of social conservatism and, frankly, religiosity it demands simply don’t have enough buy-in to win national elections.
Imagine the average Joe Rogan listener. Not the alt-right white nationalist monster sketched out in thinkpiece after thinkpiece, but the representative of the American median, the “barstool conservative.” He’s economically agnostic, an admirer of entrepreneurship who distrusts large corporations. Socially, he’s slightly to the left of center. The idea of giving puberty blockers to kids freaks him out, but he has no interest in outlawing gay marriage or no-fault divorce. He’d be more likely than Polumbo to support trade protectionism and breaking up big tech, but Ahmari would have a hard time selling him on porn bans and blue laws.
Polumbo and Cox are betting that this voting bloc will be more open to Friedrich Hayek than to Thomas Aquinas. Their plan seems to be to stan capitalism while casting wokeness as a collectivist distortion of individual liberty rather than its natural outgrowth. It’s possible, they promise, to combat the excesses of progressivism — to be “based” — without throwing out many of the fundamental assumptions of American politics and culture.
It might work. If their attempt to reclaim “based” succeeds, we’ll know it has.