Supremacy, Liberty and the Right

Why liberals don't understand the right

The US right often appeals to liberty – freedom from the state –  as a justification for its policies. But it also seems to oppose liberty in many key political issues, particularly when it comes to the private domain of sexual relations. This seeming contradiction flummoxes liberals – how can the right both defend and attack individual liberty? But there is no contradiction. The right simply has a different conception of liberty, one that, contrary to that of liberals, isn’t universal but applies only to a select few, the “real citizens”, argues Toby Buckle.


Liberals imagine that the US far-right is incoherent on the question of freedom. Nothing could be further from the truth; it has at its heart a vision of freedom that is ancient, coherent, and compelling.

From the perspective of mainstream American liberalism, conservative invocations of freedom seem caught in a mad confusion between its libertarian and authoritarian impulses: The right identifies itself with individual freedom, particularly freedom from the state, and yet will reliably cheer on the worst excesses of state violence from police. The family, it proclaims, is a private domain, yet a central part of its rhetoric is the demonization of those in non-heterosexual relationships. These demonised groups are claimed to be a sexual threat to children, one that requires state intervention to address, yet the right also pushes to make (heterosexual) child marriages more legally permissible. Mandatory masking was rejected as a disgraceful violation of bodily autonomy by the same people who are currently rejoicing that states can now force women to carry pregnancies under pain of criminal sanction. The contradictions seem obvious.

While morally grotesque, the values underlying these positions are not incoherent, rather they are simply not coherent with liberal values. Specifically, they are not compatible with the liberal value of universality – the requirement laws and norms apply equally to all persons. Because this value is so ingrained in liberalism, the assertion of other, older, values appears to us as a contradiction, but it’s not. For the most part, the American right does not believe in liberal universality and, to be fair, it has never really pretended to.

There’s no discrepancy to be resolved in demanding libertarian protections for yourself and defending police violence against Black men if you think that law enforcement should enforce different standards on different groups. This view, while still obfuscated to some degree, is more or less explicit in much of what the right says: when the government enforced lockdown laws it was said that it was wrong to treat small business owners like criminals. The same protest was made by, and on behalf on, those arrested after the Capitol riots on January 6 – that they were being treated like criminals.


Supremacist liberty can be defined as follows: freedom consists in the group or groups within a state who constitute the “true” citizenry being unconstrained both in their own lives, and in their domination of the groups who are not.


To the liberal it may seem puzzling to say we should not treat as criminals people who are, objectively, criminals. To the right however (as with freedom) the word simply means something different: criminal is not a person who commits a crime, but a category of person that’s defined by other features. The purpose of the law is to protect the (innately good) true citizens and repress (innately bad) ‘criminals’.

These terms are heavily racialized, especially in the US. Criminal is coded as Back, ‘small business owner’ as white. They also convey a much more visceral fear than is commonly understood. In his account of dehumanisation the philosopher David Livingstone Smith argues that it renders the ‘other’ not just inferior, or even dangerous, but monstrous. Dehumanised persons are seen as representing both a physical and a metaphysical threat, an affront to both our safety and the natural order of things. Past ages might have used terms like ‘demonic’ to express this, today ‘criminal’ has a similar function.

At this point we run into challenges in naming the core values that animate this ideology. To call them ‘far-right’ adds little and understates their spread and acceptance. To use – which I have previously – the ideological label of ‘fascist’ risks derailing the conversation into extended historical comparisons. Taking an intersectional approach, and labelling it by vectors of oppression, results in inelegant formulations like ‘cishetro racist capitalist patriarchy’. ‘Authoritarian’ can be misleading – we conventionally place it at the other end of an ideological to freedom, and US conservatism is centrally (and sincerely) about freedom. Finally, ‘hierarchy’ is better, but is possibly too general.

One of the core values animating the seemingly contradictory policy preferences of the right is a specific conception of freedom. One that can be defined, and distinguished from other conceptions, such as a republican conception, or a “true” libertarian conception. At the risk of adding one more piece of jargon to the conversation I propose that we can usefully term this ‘supremacist liberty’.


Whereas a republican freedom demands that there is never someone with arbitrary power above you, supremacist freedom asks that there is always someone (and not just anyone) below you, subject to your power.


Supremacist liberty can be defined as follows: freedom consists in the group or groups within a state who constitute the “true” citizenry being unconstrained both in their own lives, and in their domination of the groups who are not.

From this perspective, the right’s claims that anti-racism, or feminism, are existential threats to its adherents ‘way of life’ are not hyperbole or hysteria, but an obvious statement of social fact. The domination that social justice opposes is ineliminable from its vision of a free society. Whereas a republican freedom demands that there is never someone with arbitrary power above you, supremacist freedom asks that there is always someone (and not just anyone) below you, subject to your power.

It is this conception of freedom that Obama’s election was seen to be taking from people. It was an example of “the wrong kind of person” ending up with power over “true citizens”, an inversion of the natural order of things. This is what was behind Trump’s questioning of Obama’s citizenship – he was not, as they clearly saw, a “true citizen”. When he eventually became president, there was a spate of his supporters hurling racist abuse at service workers and declaring “Trump is president now”. It is this vision of freedom they were reclaiming.

Those advocating for supremacist freedom will often employ libertarian language – claiming that what they’re against is state intervention.  This is contingently adjacent to the concept’s core, but isn’t contradictory as such – it’s a useful rhetoric for asserting the appropriate norms that should govern the superior group. Unlike liberalism however, or a “true” libertarianism, these norms are either implicitly or explicitly bounded (we should get the government off the back of hardworking citizens, or real Americans).

One might wonder how such a conception of freedom is to be achieved in a legal system premised on universality (equal treatment under the law, and so on). A little reflection however shows just how easily it already is actualised under nominal universality.  For example, the Supreme Court recently ruled in favour of the right of citizens to ‘conceal carry’ handguns. Nothing in the ruling limited it to certain groups. However America is also a country in which the Police Officer who killed Philando Castile, a 32 year old black man, after being told he (legally) had a concealed weapon, was acquitted of all charges. As political theorist Jacob T. Levy recently tweeted, this “obviously isn’t” a universal right to concealed carry:

“Instead, it’s a recipe for asymmetrically adding a lot more armed white people in public places, including some who will feel that much more emboldened to harass and confront people they consider ‘suspicious’.”

Hence, while the law is nominally universal, the social reality is one of supremacist freedom. It is expected, indeed demanded, that law enforcement, and other instruments of state power, will distinguish between groups in this way.


While the pro-life movement is certainly steeped in misogyny, the contours between the superior and inferior groups here are best understood not as man vs woman, but Christian vs non-Christian.


With this conceptual sketch in mind it should be reasonably straightforward to disentangle the seeming contradictions of the right’s account of bodily autonomy. Mandatory face mask policies applied to true citizens, a clear violation of supremacist freedom. To add insult to injury, they were usually applied universally. Hence “real Americans” were being treated “like criminals” (the reader should by now be able to do the appropriate decoding). More generally, COVID restrictions were at their most burdensome for a group that is at the centre of the true citizen ideal – small business owners. To the supremacist this was a gross violation of a just natural order. It was hardly surprising then, that their resistance was so fierce.

The end of a constitutional right to bodily autonomy (in the form of abortion access) that occurred last week, conversely, is seen as the true citizens asserting themselves against the illegitimate, dangerous parts of society. While the pro-life movement is certainly steeped in misogyny, the contours between the superior and inferior groups here are best understood not as man vs woman, but Christian vs non-Christian. White evangelical Christianity is thoroughly fused with the Trump-right at this moment, and it openly desires supremacy over the political realm and all other section of society.

Compelling pregnancy and childbirth through state violence is a mechanism for maintaining domination over those who fall outside of the true Christian citizenry. The Christian right has long set itself against a society it sees as promiscuous, debauched, and sexually immoral. Forced pregnancy, as they keep telling us, creates earthy consequences for sexual sin.

As with the necessity of repressing “criminals”, there is both a satisfaction in the domination (people love putting women “in their place”), and a need for protection against a perceived threat. In this case an overtly supernatural one. Remember that conservative Christians do not see the US as a pluralist society of many groups; but as islands of believers who will go to heaven, surrounded by a sea of sinners who will go to hell. Given the belief in eternal torment, not as metaphor but concreate fact, it becomes quite rational to seek and use state power to save people from it.

While implicit and explicit appeals to supremacist liberty are becoming more mainstream, the conception itself is nothing new. The contours defining the superior group have changed over time, but something like it has existed as long as the concept of freedom has. It was, after all, invented in the slave societies of ancient Greece and Rome and championed by slaveholders. In the modern world its most famous and consequential evocations – the American constitution and Declaration of Independence – where likewise the work of men who owned slaves (and in the latter’s case, a man who enslaved his own children).

This seems like a contradiction to many, but, again, it is only a contradiction when viewed from within liberalism. A classic definition of a free person is someone who is not a slave. There is nothing about this that implies that a free person may not own slaves – or rules out a view that his freedom will be enhanced by his doing so. After all, freedom is about choice, being self-directed, having control over things - your body, your mind, your property. Hence, having control of other human beings (according to this conception) makes you more free.

Far from being a relic of the dark but remote past, something like this idea is alive and well today. Supremacist freedom is attractive and compelling for reasons that the modern mind struggles to articulate, but the ancients and early moderns understood perfectly well on their own terms: We like the idea of getting special treatment. We enjoy punishing others, or seeing them punished. Our sense of self-worth is enhanced by knowing others are inferior to us.

And once you add in the belief that there are real demons out there, supremacist freedom doesn’t just feel good, it becomes necessary.  We – the small business owners, the Christians, the hardworking, the straight, the White, the sexually pure, the real Americans – require the freedom to deal with them – the lazy, the gay, the trans, the criminals, the promiscuous, the sexually immoral, the immigrants, the illegals, the aliens, the traitors – before they destroy us all.

There is much more to say on this topic – having coined a term to describe a conception of freedom I should trace a history of it, anticipate and answer objections, consider it’s relation to other political concepts, give my own moral evaluation of it, and so on.

For now though, let me just close with this:

I have tried to give an account of supremacist liberty more or less on its own terms, not because I think it is a worthwhile conception, but because I think it’s worth understanding, given that it’s animating a large part of the American right. It is not, of course, the only conception of liberty. Liberty will always have competing conceptions, and it is worth our time and energy to ensure the better ones become ascendant. A great deal depends on it.

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