Have the National Conservatives Missed Their Moment?
There is no nationalism faction on the Hill, and the movement has not overturned much of the right-wing economic dogma it opposes.
It’s where the energy is, where the smart conservative thinking is, where a route out of our current morass is being plotted. These are the kind of claims made about—and by —the national conservatism movement, a ragtag band of self-appointed torchbearers for Trumpism who thrust themselves into the spotlight to explain, capitalize on, and flesh out policies for the “populist” moment after the 2016 election.
Two years ago, this group announced itself with a conference in Washington, D.C. Last week, the “NatCons” convened at the Orlando Hilton for what Christopher DeMuth, one of the organizers, described as the movement’s “second coming out party.”
NatCon2, as someone decided to call it, arrived with almost as much hype as the prequel. “Can you feel the energy in the room?” asked one enthusiastic convener on the first day.
Energy is one thing. Can the national conservatives channel that enthusiasm into action? How much closer are they to a more focused policy agenda??
The chief counselor at Camp NatCon is the Israeli-American author Yoram Hazony, a former adviser to Benjamin Netanyahu and biblical scholar whose 2018 book The Virtue of Nationalism restated the case for the nation-state and found its way onto reading lists for anyone looking to make sense of post-2016 politics.
The group pitched a deliberately big tent down in Orlando. The NatCons’ boisterous subspecies were out in force: Catholic integralists and “common good” conservatives, paleocons and China hawks, fanboys of Peter Thiel and Hungarian President Viktor Orbán.
But less obviously NatCon-ish types were invited to speak too. Among them: Glenn Loury, a Brown University economics professor and prominent black conservative critic of the left’s anti-racist dogma; anti-woke culture warrior Douglas Murray (don’t tell them about his 2006 work NeoConservatism: Why We Need It); “classical liberal” YouTuber Dave Rubin; the Somali-born champion (and, indeed, embodiment) of Enlightenment values Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Speeches from Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Josh Hawley confirmed national conservatives as a crowd to be courted by pretenders to post-Trump leadership of the right.
Away from these headline acts, the sort of mainstream conservative thinking once lambasted by national conservatives as crusty dogma received a surprisingly warm welcome. I heard speeches about the moral case for capitalism, musings on the Anglo-American roots of conservatism and standard-issue defense hawkishness—all things that NatCons would have run a mile from not so long ago.
If the intent was to assert the primacy of national conservatism as the dominant strand of thinking on the right, the breadth of ideas aired in Orlando also presented a problem: Would their offering still be distinctive enough? Could any consensus emerge from this wide-ranging powwow on what the NatCons’ priorities should be, and how they might achieve them? Could there at least be some agreement on a basic definition of national conservatism?
In its short life, the movement’s most energetic quarrel has been with the conservative establishment. Arguments with other right-wingers, or their ghosts, really get pulses racing in these circles. “Fusionism”—the alliance brokered between social conservatives, economic libertarians, and anti-Communists on which the modern American conservative movement was built—is a dirty word here. “Conservatism, Inc.,” a reference to the collection of think tanks and publications seen to represent that movement, is uttered with disdain.
And the wide-ranging guest list in Orlando did not stop the true believers from boastfully asserting the superiority of their ideas over alternative iterations of conservatism.
Edmund Burke Foundation fellow and Newsweek opinion editor Josh Hammer felt the need to describe movement conservatism as “effete, limp and unmasculine” because it “removes from the political arena, and consigns to the ‘private’ sphere, the very value judgments and critical questions that most affect our humanity and our civilization.” NatCons like Hammer want you to know that they are more serious and more muscular (at least metaphorically speaking) than the old guard. After all, Hammer argued, apparently seriously, all the old right really achieved was the defeat of Communism and decades of economic growth.
Sohrab Ahmari, a recent convert to both Catholicism and Trumpism (who initiated an “Against David French-ism” campaign in 2019) has distinguished the new right from the old right by its desire “fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square reordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.” (The Constitution be damned.)
“People with eyes wide open must be able to see new challenges when they arise,” said Rachel Bovard of the Conservative Partnership Institute in her attempt to define national conservatism in a speech in Orlando. She argued that the movement “has arisen in part out of that foresight in direct contrast to an institutional conservative movement that is clinging to old assumptions about left and right politics, which is following solutions that once worked, but are now woefully inadequate to address our present peril. I’m talking about the Reagan coalition. .... National conservatives understand what many of DC’s institutions do not, and that is that the Reagan coalition is dead.”
The time for the NatCons to follow these pugnacious boasts to actual concrete proposals is long overdue. How does Ahmari reconcile his theocratic posturing with the demographic fact that just 1 in 5 Americans is Catholic? What about the pesky constitutional obstacles to the sort of “common good” approach favored by Hammer? And if the old fusionist settlement lambasted by Bovard will no longer suffice, what alternative alliance do national conservatives want to build? Answers to these questions were not readily available in Orlando.
Perhaps Hazony’s own keynote address might offer some details. As the ringmaster of NatCon2, he had the authority to propose a few organizing principles and substantive policies that the group might agree on. His speech’s title, “De-Fusionism,” teased an explicit discussion of a NatCon alternative to the old conservative coalition. Finally, I thought, as I awaited Hazony’s remarks, something concrete.
Hazony’s bookish appearance belies his uncompromising and assertive brand of conservatism. He has the dizzying habit of swerving from the platitudinously obvious to the outlandish. One moment he says something obvious like “borders matter.” The next he is proposing some far-out policy like banning pornography.
Hazony at least had the good grace to describe the first fusionism as “immensely successful” for winning the Cold War and rolling back socialism in America. But, he argued, in striking a deal that settled for public liberalism in exchange for private conservatism, the conservatives settled for too little. Today, he argued, a new deal must be struck.
Facing threats from China abroad and “Neo-Marxism” at home, Hazony argues that “we’re not going to make it through without an alliance between anti-Marxist liberals and serious conservatives.” But, in Hazony’s view, there also needs to be a clear distinction between liberal and conservative and a correction of the mistaken view that “everything can be equal to everything else.” Public norms should reflect the norms of the majority, i.e. they should be explicitly and unapologetically Christian.
“There is going to be a new deal between national conservatives and traditionalists on the one hand, and anti-Marxist liberals on the other,” said Hazony, still clutching for the definitive statement of an alternative to fusionism that he promised. “What we say to anti-Marxist liberals is where there is a large Christian majority in a county … the public life of the country has to be Christian.”
Insofar as Hazony laid out the terms of a new deal, it hardly seemed like a radical break from the old fusionism that is the subject of such scorn from national conservatives. Under the previous fusionism, social conservatives like Hazony were free to fight for more religion in public life, and indeed did so passionately. The new right, then, is starting to look an awful lot like the old right.
Almost all of the ideas aired in Orlando could be put into one of two baskets. The first would contain relatively standard conservative fare in 2021: opposition to vaccine mandates, complaints about woke illiberalism and Big Tech censorship, for example, or chants of “Let’s go, Brandon!” The second would be a receptacle for the highly theoretical, the outlandish and the flatly unworkable: entertaining and provocative ideas that are identifiably NatCon but a long way from a workable plan for political action.
The kind of economic heterodoxy once central to the NatCon’s break from the past was largely absent. Meetings were light on the industrial and trade policy discussions. Perhaps the most tangible economic proposal would be antitrust action against Big Tech. But I suspect political frustration fuels that crusade more than any economic concern. And beyond that, economics had been overshadowed by cultural issues.
One attendee who saw through much of the bluster was Julius Krein, editor of American Affairs. Krein founded his quarterly at the dawn of the Trump administration to eschew the “ossified orthodoxies of the past,” pull together strands of thinking from the right and the left, and cut a new, less libertarian path for economic thinking in the populist era. (He dropped his support for Trump after the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally.)
In a downbeat address that he jokingly described as an act of Maoist self-criticism, Krein poured cold water on many of the NatCons’ claims of agenda-setting influence and usefulness. There was, he pointed out, no identifiably national conservative faction on the Hill when it came to economic policymaking. Nor had the national conservatives actually overturned much of the right-wing economic dogma that he opposed.
“It’s not clear to me what American conservatism really needs nationalism for,” he said. “If your main goal is things like cutting taxes, or dismantling the administrative state, or banning abortion, or opposing wokeness, or opposing vaccine mandates, you don’t really need nationalism for any of that. It may or may not be good, but you don’t need nationalism, and in fact it’s probably counter-productive. You might be better off just being libertarian.”
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s appearance at NatCon2, little more than a stand-up routine of partisan one-liners, more or less proved Krein’s point.
There’s still an awful lot that feels new and weird about the NatCons. Vendors hawked tracts about Victor Orban rather than the red, white, and blue paraphernalia you might find at, say, CPAC. Eccentric characters stalk the corridors. The “neo-reactionary” blogger Curtis Yarvin, aka “Mencius Moldbug” was there. Chris Arnade, a thoughtful documenter of the problems of what he calls “back-row America” with an unpredictable set of political views, showed up out of curiosity. Jack Murphy, a mountain of a man with a geometric beard who runs something called the Liminal Order, “an exclusive men’s organization whose mission is to change our culture by changing ourselves,” came along. (“Ronald Reagan, Martin Luther King, communism is bad, and now we are falling asleep. National Conzzzzzzzervtive conference,” tweeted Murphy.)
NatCon2 also attracted an interestingly Gen Z-heavy crowd that is both earnestly trad and very online. They were more interested in the movement’s leading intellectual lights, like Patrick Deneen and Rod Dreher, than any of the better known politicians who made an appearance. They brought with them a great deal of energy, and most of it was expended in late-night scheming at the bar rather than in any of NatCon2’s official proceedings.
If there was a single unifying idea around which NatCon2’s attendees could unite, it was the urgent need to fight back against wokeness. But here I suspect it is liberal apostates, not trad zoomers or hardline conservatives like Hazony, who are best placed to take the fight to the illiberal left.
I left Orlando struck by a mismatch. On the one hand, the national conservatives ooze self-confidence. They feel they are setting the pace on the right and are contemptuous of what came before them. And yet, years after the movement’s birth and half a decade after the election that set much of this in motion, they don’t seem any closer to knowing exactly what they want. Or how they plan to get it.
Could they have missed their moment? The window for a distinctly Trumpist program of government has closed, with Trumpism today an amorphous cultural urge rather than a policy platform. And now that Joe Biden is in the White House, Republicans have reverted to familiar attacks on inflation, big government, and the unintended consequences of welfare spending.
As the conference came to a close, attendees gathered in the bar to celebrate Glenn Youngkin’s unlikely win in the Virginia governor’s race. It was a triumph for the American right—but arguably an ominous sign for national conservatives. Youngkin is the man of the moment, but he has more than a whiff of the old right about him. Reports of Conservatism, Inc.’s death had, perhaps, been greatly exaggerated.