Jane Coaston: The debate that Hugh Hefner won and William Buckley lost

There is no true way to bridge the divide between enforcing ideas and rejecting all enforcing.

(Mark Makela for The New York Times) A Donald Trump supporter holds a copy of Playboy to be autographed after a 2016 campaign rally in West Chester, Ohio.

In 1966, William F. Buckley Jr., the founder of National Review, hosted Hugh Hefner, the founder of the wildly successful Playboy magazine, on Mr. Buckley’s weekly public affairs show, “Firing Line,” for a discussion of sexual ethics.

On the show, Mr. Buckley quoted Mr. Hefner as having argued that “man’s morality, like his religion, is a personal affair best left to his own conscience.” With Mr. Hefner dressed in a suit and Mr. Buckley sounding, as usual, like a parody of himself, Mr. Hefner described his view as “anti-puritanism, a response really to the puritan part of our culture.” Mr. Buckley did not like Mr. Hefner. Or, more accurately, he did not like his philosophy.

Mr. Buckley believed that “anti-puritanism” wasn’t just misinformed — he argued, both on the show and in print, that Mr. Hefner’s aim was to shatter the sexual values that he believed were conducive to what Mr. Buckley called a “viable existence.” On “Firing Line,” he sarcastically asked Mr. Hefner if he had “rewritten the ancient theological tablets.” If he had, “Oughtn’t you claim some sort of moral authority to do so, and if so, what is that moral authority?”

Hugh Hefner was a proud Democrat, but his brand of libertinism has jumped parties since that television interview. Sixty years later, in many ways, his view has won over the conservative movement that Mr. Buckley was so essential to. Trying to find a path that includes both defiant hedonism and the moralistic foundations of traditional, Buckleyesque conservatism has emerged as a central challenge of the movement.

Some conservatives seem to have decided that winning over a new constituency — one that hates rules and ordinances and loves hot people and cool ideas and sex, sex and ideally more sex — is worth changing what it means to be a conservative in the first place. Pursuing these voters is a perilous shift for conservatism, because the ethos relies not on a political ideology but on the lack of one: simply doing whatever one wants. A hornier conservative movement might be more electorally successful, but it will run headfirst into a wall of longstanding conservative policy commitments — to end abortion, eliminate pornography and reinforce the “nuclear family.” Goals that are, at the very least, not very horny.

Playboy magazine was marketed to men, and so is this particular brand of politics. Being a horny bro is not terribly unusual, or even bad. In fact, I’d argue that many men fall in this category — heterosexual men who think that liking sex and sexiness are generally good, uncomplicated things, and think that people who tell them that sex or sexiness is bad or sinful or problematic should be mocked or ignored. Some seemed to gravitate toward the ethos of Barstool Sports, the popular sports and betting media conglomerate.

The “Barstool conservative,” as Matthew Walther has argued, isn’t opposed to abortion; he’s opposed to political correctness. Mr. Walther wrote that Barstool conservatives are “people who, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, accept pornography, homosexuality, drug use, legalized gambling, and whatever Gamergate was about.” But what they do not accept, ever, is being told what to do, whether by “hectoring, schoolmarmish” politicians and media or by the federal government. This kind of conservative might not vote, or at least not vote on a consistent basis. But he does adhere to this specific, attitudinal type of politics. As my colleague Ross Douthat wrote in 2014, “This attitude is ‘liberal’ in that it regards sexual license as an unalloyed good, and treats any kind of social or religious conservatism as a dead letter. But at the same time it wants to rebel and lash out against the strictures it feels that feminism and political correctness have placed on male liberty, male rights.”

When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year, Barstool’s founder, Dave Portnoy, jumped on an “emergency press conference” on Twitter, saying: “It makes no sense how anybody thinks it’s their right to tell a woman what to do with her body. I just don’t get it. To take away the ability to make informed decisions on how they wanna live their lives is bananas.” Under the philosophical construct of horny bro-dom, the idea is that abortion isn’t good or bad, but it is an act that a woman wishes to commit, and nobody should tell anybody else what to do, or what not to do. In fact, in 1992, then-Gov. Bill Clinton (a noted horny bro) said something very much the same in a National Abortion Rights Action League survey: “The government simply has no right to interfere with decisions that must be made by women of America to make the right choice.”

Many conservatives disagreed with Mr. Portnoy on abortion (Mr. Portnoy declined my request for an interview). But they seemed to channel the “horny bro” perspective on a raft of other issues. While some conservatives want to ban pornography, others would welcome porn-film stars at right-wing conferences. In this, there’s been a subtle warping of the conservative movement as it sounds increasingly less like itself and more like its horny, libertine opposition, in the pursuit of electoral gains and cultural relevance.

The debate that Mr. Hefner and Mr. Buckley had about politics in the 1960s has become a defining question for the conservative movement: whether conservatism is a project intended to get people to do something (even things they do not wish to do) or to protect people from being told what to do.

There is a conservatism of ideology and the “three-legged stool” and there is a conservatism of “feels,” so to speak, a conservatism that doesn’t really care about tax credits or ethanol policy but has a distinct sense that there used to be something better than there is now and that what is to come is likely to be worse. But what if what used to be was something more libertine? What if some conservatives aren’t longing for Ronald Reagan’s heyday but for the time when women were hotter, you could put up a topless calendar in your cubicle at the office without fear of reprisal from some mean H.R. lady, and nobody told you what to do?

This has created peril for traditional Republicans. Attempting to come across as the “cool mom” of political persuasions — do whatever you want, just do it at home, and ideally, do it in a way that owns the teetotaling libs — is not the natural affect of movement conservatives.

And so some conservatives, unable or unwilling to adopt the type of horny-bro aesthetic that embraces sports, sex and generally letting “you do you” (provided you avoid making him do pretty much anything), have resorted to a paint-by-numbers anti-feminism. Conservative women are hot, The Federalist says! Single women are pathetic cat ladies, too ugly to love, say two actual members of Congress! It’s a strange interpretation of masculinity, as if learned from old issues of Maxim and a particularly bitter next-door neighbor. (Magdalene Taylor, who writes about sex and culture, told me she was reminded of a 2003 article in Maxim magazine titled “How to Cure a Feminist,” showing a step-by-step guide to make a masculine-presenting woman into a femme sex goddess, willing to wear tight tank tops and perform fellatio with abandon. This is how a swath of right-wing internet sounds pretty much all the time.)

Some conservatives have always attempted to hedge their bets: The same year that Mr. Buckley noted the availability of Penthouse magazine as a general indicator of increased “sexual permissiveness” that had caused a “rise in disease or death,” he also wrote a story for the publication (the piece was about Rev. Jesse Jackson’s presidential candidacy, and headlined “Jesse Jackson’s Jive”). But there is no true way to bridge the divide between enforcing ideas and rejecting all enforcing.

I was thinking about this when I saw that the right-wing commentator Candace Owens had issued an awkwardly lukewarm defense of Andrew Tate, the kickboxer turned men’s-rights guru, who was recently accused of human trafficking offenses and rape in Romania. She argued that perhaps he was being railroaded by the media for his anti-feminist views. Perhaps he isn’t a rapist, she said, because “that is what people like to accuse men of when they’re trying to take them down, right?” She went onto say he was “up front” about his outlook on life and women, like a “modern Hugh Hefner.” It was a fascinating attempt at needle threading for a right-wing audience more disposed to an anti-feminist “horny bro” aesthetic than a defense of social conservatism: Sure, Mr. Tate might be bad if the allegations of human trafficking are true, but he’s not nearly as bad as the media for saying that doing so is wrong.

The life span of horny-bro conservatism is inherently limited by the very nature of what it means to be either a horny bro or a conservative — at a certain point, one viewpoint may overpower the other. But it seems as if attracting the horny bro to the Republican Party is increasingly more important than sating the conservative, particularly when it comes to getting voters. When the Bang Girls (of Bang Energy drinks) threw cash at conservative teenagers at a Turning Point USA youth conference in 2020, some elders argued that it was embarrassing and deplorable, far removed from “conservatism.” But one Twitter user responded to the Republican political strategist Alec Sears’s denunciation of the event, saying that perhaps the message was actually incredibly effective: “hot women and money. Being conservative will help you achieve those things. that’s what it has to do with it, that is the implication. Join us and get those things.”

William F. Buckley would be horrified. Hugh Hefner would be proud.

Jane Coaston is a staff writer in the Opinion section of The New York Times.