When news broke in late February that Rod Dreher’s blog was leaving the American Conservative after 12 years, it was his ideological enemies who seemed to mourn him the most. The right-wing Eastern Orthodox writer’s inimitable combination of untreated graphomania, harrowing emotional vulnerability, narrow but real erudition, and—lest we forget—moral awfulness has turned him into a figure of fascination for many readers who didn’t share his politics—or who even stand to lose by their realization.
It’s characteristic of Dreher’s readership that one of the most emotional public farewells to his blog (he claimed a million readers a month, at one point) came from the hosts of the leftist podcast Chapo Trap House. (They’ve been on the Rod beat for a while.) “Here’s a pitch: fourth mic,” said host Matt Christman [no relation to the author]. “Come on the pod,” agreed Will Menaker. “We’ll promo the Substack and hopefully convince you to stop doing all the evil that you’ve helped put into the world!”
The note Menaker strikes here—an almost friendly rancor, as if he has to force himself to remember that Dreher once defended the murder of George Floyd—is one I recognize. Dreher does, or did, have a readership that stretched well into the center—witness this empathetic, if insufficiently critical, New Yorker profile from 2017 by Joshua Rothman, or the bending-over-backwards-to-be-respectful reception he enjoyed from Ezra Klein on Klein’s podcast, back when Klein was with Vox. Further left, Dreher’s viewed with more contempt—but he’s viewed.
Dreher started out in the 1990s, covering film for the South Florida Sun Sentinel and the New York Post (a tenure about which there isn’t much good to say). I first became aware of him in the early 2000s, when his enthusiasm for small-is-beautiful, vaguely Wendell Berry-ish conservatism briefly gave me hope that some faction of Republicans would become serious about reducing CO2 emissions. (Some of us are really naïve in our 20s.) He wrote a book on this theme in 2006, Crunchy Cons, and launched a blog by that name at Beliefnet. (During this period, he also covered the Catholic clergy molestation scandal—work that led him to leave that body and embrace Eastern Orthodoxy.)
His enthusiasm for the CrunchyCon ideals of localism and smallness, at least, were sincere. (Dreher is a terrifyingly sincere writer, at his best and at his worst.) In the early 2010s, by which time he’d jumped to the American Conservative, he wrote a series of wrenching posts about the death of his sister from cancer. He admired her rooted way of life, and wrote a book, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, extolling her contributions to the community that he had left behind for college. He decided to move his family back to the very town from which, as a bookish teenager, he had (like so many bookish teenagers) been virtually driven, not least by his own family, who were in the habit of doing things like calling him a sissy because he didn’t like to hunt baby squirrels. Here we see the note of operatic excess that makes Dreher something more admirable, and also more ridiculous, than a pundit. He disrupted the lives of two families—his own wife and children; his family of origin—because he was silly enough to actually believe the conservative propaganda to the effect that small-town dwellers are automatically more virtuous and more fully human than the rest of us. You’re supposed to say that stuff on CNN, in between limousine rides from Chevy Chase to D.C., on behalf of a politician who wants to pull every copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves out of the public library system; you’re not supposed to act on it.
In any event, the move worked out terribly. His family of origin rejected him a second time, and, though it took some years for this story to emerge from his blog posts, the move seems to have wrecked his health and his own marriage, as well. With the aid of a beloved minister and the poetry of Dante Alighieri, he managed to forgive, and then reconcile with, his father (a man who, much later, turned out to have been a member of the Ku Klux Klan, though this seems to have only somewhat dented Rod’s self-abnegating admiration for him). He wrote a book about that, too. Then he wrote The Benedict Option, an argument for Christian self-withdrawal from secular Western politics. Nominalism, you see, has disenchanted the world—we understand our bodies, our minds, and our world through the lens of technology, and instrumentalize them, rather than treating them as the mystical realities they are. This is a somewhat common argument in Christian circles, both left and right, though it has always struck me as questionable. But the truly discrediting thing about the Benedict Option—Rod’s name for his program of strategic withdrawal, a reference to St. Benedict—is that Dreher seems to have been inspired more by the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision than by any of the numerous murderous ways that this society instrumentalizes people. Nope—for Rod Dreher, it is two men marrying that marks the point when the West truly turns its back on God. (That there are actively gay observant Christians, whose universes are presumably as enchanted as any other religious person’s, never seems to sink in for him.)
Reading his column from the outside, people who don’t agree with Rod followed along, laughing about his wackier fixations and tracking the evolution of conservatism through his shifting enthusiasms. It all ended in a way both hilarious and anticlimactic. According to a March report in Vanity Fair—a report which, it should be noted, has since been disputed by both Dreher and Ahmanson—Dreher’s entire blog was being financed by a grant from conservative donor Howard Ahmanson Jr. The two men seem well matched, at least on paper, sharing enthusiasms such as blogging, theology, and homophobia. Ahmanson, the heir to a savings-and-loan fortune, whose father once described himself as an “undertaker at a plague” because he made so much money from Depression-era farm foreclosures, was reportedly weirded out by some of Dreher’s more unsettlingly lurid posts and cut off the donation to TAC that was, in this version of events, funding Dreher’s blog. Rod connoisseurs on the left gleefully circulated the link on Twitter, comparing him to Tobias Fünke from Arrested Development and making “primitive root wiener is my band name” jokes.
Dreher and Ahmanson, for their part, insist that Ahmanson was simply forced to cut expenses after a move to Texas and that he felt, at most, a little weary of Dreher’s obsession with the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. (Even in a post about the director’s 1966 masterpiece Andrei Rublev, it’s characteristic that Dreher can’t refrain from retelling a lurid, hard-to-believe, and suspiciously secondhand story about how excessive porn use is causing erectile dysfunction among teenage fundamentalists. This is what is known as style!) Though Dreher is already hard at work on Substack, one still feels, as the saying goes, his much-needed absence, as when a memorably awful bar that one inexplicably kept returning to finally closes its doors. Some of Rod’s entertainment value came from the fact that his least hinged ruminations were appearing under the aegis of a serious journal of opinion; they won’t have the same pop on Substack. And, with all due respect, Howard Ahmanson Jr.’s own blog lacks that Dreherian zest for oversharing.
What did Dreher have that so many political writers don’t? Yes, he was a window into conservative thinking, but if a liberal or left reader is in want of such a window, you have several frankly more appealing options. Matthew Walther, whose conclusions I nearly always find repugnant, is an excellent prose stylist. So is Alan Jacobs, who in addition is a far nimbler, more interesting, and more compassionate thinker (than Dreher, and than a lot of other writers, including some famous leftists and liberals I could name). Daniel Larison is one of the most principled writers on U.S. foreign policy. Eve Tushnet is winningly unpredictable. I could go on, perhaps not indefinitely.
Maybe left readers of Rod just wanted a laugh. But another aspect of Rod’s appeal is that he was, to a rare degree, incredibly well suited to the medium of the blog. Blogs must be habit-forming in their own right—the individual writer cannot rely on the habit-forming qualities of the infinite scroll itself. Thus blogging rewards prolixity as well as prolificacy, long posts as well as frequent ones. If you take the trouble of leaving the silo of a single social media feed for the free-range web, you want to be rewarded with more words, more commentary. For that reason, bloggers tend toward sincerity, even if that sincerity expresses itself as anguished sarcasm. Bloggers, needing to give us heaping portions of something, give us their hearts, obsessively reiterated.
Rod’s heart is a mess, and with that daily quota of words to write, he had no time to conceal that fact. He combined a Dostoevskyan obsessive introspection with a seemingly total inability to understand how he sounded. You would expect that constant, anguished attention to one’s own sins, one’s narratives about one’s life, would lead to a certain reflexivity—the ability to anticipate others’ judgments—but these are actually not the same. At least not in Dreher’s case. The man could write the phrase “primitive root wiener” in reference to a Black person’s penis; he could ask, in response to a fellow conservative’s remark that he wouldn’t “piss on” a never-Trumper if that person was on fire, “Would you piss on me, old friend?” He could roam about the world making what anyone familiar with the contemporary right and its crank notions about masculinity recognizes as blatant soyface. He could do all this, and then position himself as a lonely sentry beating back the LGBTQ threat. As the Nazis kept statistics on Jewish crime and Breitbart once devoted a section to Black crime, Rod turned many installments of his blog into the Trans Crime Blotter, and yet if anyone made any suggestion that perhaps his obsessive attention to these issues of sexuality and gender—in one case so invasive that a teenage girl’s parents had to sue him for defamation and invasion of privacy—might have its origins somewhere besides his strict concern with moral rectitude, he would start to inveigh about soft totalitarianism and woke tyranny. Only a man who wrote as much as Rod Dreher could furnish so much rope that he then failed to realize he’d hung himself with it.
As I researched this piece, I read “Goodbye, Louisiana. I Tried,” possibly the best thing Dreher has ever written, a searing, if often incomprehensible, post from October 2022 in which Dreher seems to give an account of his last 12 years. This is impossible to do. (Certainly I have only sketched out the barest outlines—I haven’t even mentioned his long sojourn in authoritarian Hungary, or the international incident he caused for his hosts.) But as Dreher writes of his growing realization that his divorce—a thing on which his church has a less hard-line stance than do the Catholics, but which is still very much frowned upon—is the right thing for him and for his ex-wife Julie, I felt my heart opening to him. I felt that this man, my political enemy, whose ideas are bad and need to be defeated, was also someone sincerely searching after God, truth, beauty.
At the same time, I thought of the many queer Christians I know who have stories so like the story Dreher tells in this post—stories in which, after immense pain and terrible struggle, the very authority they worry they are disobeying seems to reassure them of his unvarying nearness, his faithful presence. It is a biblical story: God draws a line seemingly only so that God can chase after the people on the supposed “wrong” side of it. Rod cannot know the ways he is like these people because his heart is closed to them. This is yet another sad irony in a career that has produced so many. And as with so many of those ironies, Rod told us all about it, in detail, without ever noticing it was there.