Discerning the existence of an “intellectual Trumpism” has been a preoccupation of the chattering classes for the past couple of years. At a conference in Washington, D.C. this week, that movement began to take clearer shape under the banner of National Conservatism.
What is National Conservatism? For three days, starting on Sunday and continuing through Tuesday, an impressive group of academics, journalists, and political figures from across the American Right gathered in the ballrooms of a D.C. Ritz-Carlton to ponder that question. They aim to establish institutions guided by the sentiments that led to Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory in 2016. Yoram Hazony, a political philosopher who published a book called The Virtue of Nationalism last year and organized the conference, described the three-day event as “the coming together of diverse bands of conservatives.” Talks that toggled between anti-libertarians and Calvin Coolidge scholars, isolationists and defense hawks, Silicon Valley venture capitalists and long-time social conservatives put that diversity on full display.
Despite this plurality of views, or maybe because of it, a common understanding of conservative nationalism took shape at the conference: The nation is the most logical vessel for political organization known to man, and supranational entities threaten the social attachments that allow for human flourishing. Those attachments have been frayed by decades of unfettered capitalism and inattention to traditional social structures, like the family and organized religion.
Speaker after speaker called for stronger government intervention in the economy, almost uniformly rejecting libertarian principles. Tucker Carlson, one of the keynote presenters, received a warm reception for his theory of the case, evidently shared by the conference hall. “The main threat to your ability to live your life as you choose does not come from the government anymore, but it comes from the private sector,” the Fox News host said. Senator Josh Hawley (R., Mo.) entranced the crowd with bromides against a “cosmopolitan consensus” boosted by woke progressives and conservatives with too much faith in markets.
But this departure from the key tenets that used to animate American conservatism doesn’t mean that National Conservatism rejects establishment-oriented institutions of right-wing D.C. If the National Conservative Conference’s ability to draw in high-profile speakers and attract support from conservative Washington’s traditional power centers is any indication, it’s here to stay. Hazony promised the development of a nationalist infrastructure that will encompass more conferences, educational programs, research, and support for international movements. In short, the Edmund Burke Foundation, his group, is the center of an intellectually serious nationalist movement with global aspirations, grounded in conservative political philosophy. It also understands the importance of the trappings of power in Washington. Hazony thanked a strategic-communications group and a PR firm for their assistance at the end. David Brog, a conference co-organizer, implored audience members to consider whether their conduct at the conference passed the “friends back home test.” He said this in the ballroom of the Washington Ritz, just after a delectable steak dinner on the opening night of the event.
In another sense, too, the NatCons are positioned exactly where they want to be. Criticism of the conference came from the Niskanen Center and the Bulwark, on the one hand, and the racist fringes of the Internet on the other. The former condemned the gathering as likely to lend “respectability to nationalism’s poisonous side,” while the members of the latter considered it not poisonous enough. Indeed, Brog and many other speakers were adamant that ethnonationalists be excluded. “We are nationalists, not white nationalists,” he declared to rousing applause. If you believe in national attachments based on race, “There’s the door.”
Yet there was also deafening silence about the president’s controversial weekend attacks on four progressive members of Congress until Hazony’s closing remarks on the third day: “What can I tell [reporters who ask about Trump’s tweetstorm]? We’ve got other business to do.”
That lackluster response won’t stymie the project. At least, it didn’t this week. While the gatekeepers of a more responsible conservative nationalism might have distanced themselves from the president’s remarks, the conference mainly preoccupied itself with the first things, not day-to-day quarrels. The NatCons have tapped into intellectual currents that will outlast this president’s tenure. They lose nothing by their nonchalant response to his antics, and probably serve to gain from it.
What might actually pose a road block is the schizophrenia that characterized the conference’s treatment of some key issues. Policy disagreements suggest the health of debate within a broad intellectual movement. A lineup that put proponents of a restrained foreign policy such as Carlson and Michael Anton next to national-security adviser John Bolton and Hudson Institute fellow Michael Doran, both hawks, hinted at a sorting and schism that might play out at future conferences. On a panel about foreign policy, another Hudson fellow endorsed Trump’s decision to launch strikes against the Assad regime in response to its use of chemical weapons. (Carlson has previously questioned the intelligence assessments that placed blame on the Syrian government for chemical attacks.)
The Carlson–Bolton split best embodies the National Conservative crack-up that potentially awaits. It was widely reported that while Carlson accompanied Trump to his DMZ meeting with Kim Jong-un, Bolton was sent to Mongolia. Asked how he felt about sharing the same stage as Carlson, he deadpanned, “Well, I’m delighted to be here after him,” calling that the “diplomatic” response. Does this nationalist movement have room for both a wing that expresses a strong aversion to the use of force abroad and one with a more expansive view of the national interest?
But the most revealing split was given voice by the University of Notre Dame’s Patrick Deneen, the iconoclastic anti-liberal author, who critiqued the logo that loomed over the podium (in thick, orange letters, a “National” contrasted with a frail, white “Conservatism”). He noted the praise of Theodore Roosevelt’s nationalism declared by previous speakers at the conference, and warned that Roosevelt was a progressive who sought national unity at the expense of local attachments. “We should always be wary of simply occupying the ground recently vacated by progressives as the natural place for conservatives to rest,” Deneen said. He proposed setting the “Conservatism” in bold, colorful typeface as well.
Deneen shares Carlson’s view that corporations pose a more significant threat to the freedom of conscience than the state, but his wariness of Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism” can also apply to the realm of government intervention in the economy. The National Conservatives almost reflexively view government as an instrument through which to beat back proponents of identity politics who run corporations and universities. Old orthodoxies about the role of the markets are peeling away. While on more than one occasion speakers paid lip service to the old enthusiasms of American conservatism — political liberty and capitalism — lip service was usually all it was. Their ultimate destination was a rejection of the individual as the basis for political life. Instead, they would provide government a wider margin of error to solve problems such as the opioid crisis and the influence of technology companies. Drastic overcorrections to our country’s problems would become an acceptable and commonplace aspect of conservative politics. And the old impulses would be shed for a worldview hostile to free enterprise.
The open questions are how this new movement will endure its fundamental factional differences, and what the new nationalist political infrastructure will look like. But it’s clear that NatCon opposition to ethnicity-based identity politics rejects obvious white nationalism while tacitly endorsing some instances of divisive nativist rhetoric, and that the movement seeks to displace, as Hazony said, neoconservatism, neoliberalism, libertarianism, and classical liberalism.
This might be a frighteningly effective path to success.