There’s A New Movement Trying To Create An Intellectual Strain Of Trumpism. It Just Doesn’t Know What Exactly That Means.
The National Conservatism Conference sought to define a nationalism apart from President Trump, but it didn't lay out a specific agenda.
WASHINGTON — Amy Wax, a law professor whose hard-right pronouncements have made her an object of outrage among students and led to censure at the University of Pennsylvania, came to the National Conservatism Conference and implied that immigration makes American communities dirtier.
“I think we are going to sink back significantly into third-worldism,” Wax said during a panel discussion. “We are going to go Venezuela. You can just see it happening. One of my pet peeves, one of my obsessions, is litter. If you go up to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, or Yankee territory, versus other places that are quote-unquote more diverse, you are going to see an enormous difference, I’m sorry to report. Generalizations are not very pleasant. But little things like that aren’t little. They really affect our environment.”
The conference hosting Wax was meant to launch a new, Trumpist branch of intellectual conservative thought at the Ritz-Carlton in Washington, DC — an ongoing concern for Trump supporters who haven't turned Trump into a coherent movement beyond the man. And notably, while some there argued that race and Trump shouldn't have anything to do with this new brand of conservatism, two non-intellectual, racist moments from the president bookended the conference. On Sunday, hours before the event began, President Donald Trump said four members of Congress who are women of color should “go back home.” And on Wednesday, after the conference had come to an end in Washington, Trump was at a political rally in North Carolina, listing off allegations about one of those congresswomen and then standing by as his crowd chanted “send her back.”
But though the conference sought to exist in a sealed vacuum away from whatever Trump was doing, the movement it heralded is clearly tied up in the same kind of worldview as Trump’s.
In her opening remarks at the panel, Wax said race was the “bête noire” of the immigration debate and that conservatives were too afraid of being called racist to embrace what would be in effect policies keeping out non-white people. “Europe and the first world to which the United States belongs remain mostly white for now, and the third world, although mixed, contains a lot of nonwhite people,” Wax said. “Embracing cultural distance, cultural distance nationalism means in effect taking the position that our country will be better off with more whites and fewer nonwhites. Well, that is the result, anyway. So even if our immigration philosophy is grounded firmly in cultural concerns doesn't rely on race at all, and no matter how many times we repeat the mantra that correlation is not causation, these racial dimensions are enough to spook conservatives. As a result today we have an immigration policy driven by fear.”
Wax’s comments stood out in a conference that was straining to define a positive nationalism that wouldn’t spark associations with racism. This project comes as nationalism has made a comeback around the world, turning establishment politics on its head.
It’s an odd feature of American politics today that while the Republican party as an institution has never been more unified, the right has never been more ideologically fluid. Intellectual subgroups have had their moments in the sun: neoconservatives, libertarians. But they, and the Reaganites who have decided conservative dogma since the 1980s, have all diminished as Donald Trump has occupied all of the available breathing room on the right.
So the “national conservatives” are trying to take over, seeing an opportunity in the anything-goes era ushered in by Trump. “I think that what happened is that our views encountered the spirit of the times,” said Ofir Haivry, an Israeli historian who was a speaker at the conference.
There have been consistent attempts to apply an ideological framework to President Donald Trump since his campaign — the "Flight 93 Election" essay, the attempts of places like the Claremont Institute to perform scholarly analysis on the meaning of Trump, Trump-sympathetic journals like American Greatness and American Affairs. A cottage industry of intellectuals has sprung up around possibly the least intellectual president in American history. But Trump won’t be president forever, and the new guard of the American right seeks to chart a way forward that isn’t tethered to him.
The latest attempt made its grand debut in this week’s National Conservatism Conference, launched by Israeli writer Yoram Hazony and former Christians United for Israel director David Brog. The event and the movement it celebrated, though, were more about channeling the emotional nationalist upswing spearheaded by Trump into an ideological worldview than about setting out policy or political specifics.
Hazony and Brog are centering the movement in a new foundation named after the Anglo-Irish philosopher Edmund Burke. The conference was meant to kick off this new group, and was meant to respond to what organizers saw as a growing conversation about nationalist ideas. Hazony’s book The Virtue of Nationalism, which sought to defend nationalism as a positive defense against overreaching international organizations, was an influential work among conservatives this year.
The conference kicked off in earnest with a speech from PayPal founder Peter Thiel, who called for the FBI and CIA to investigate Google, which he alleged had been penetrated by Chinese intelligence at the highest levels. Thiel’s attack on Big Tech — despite his status as a tech baron — elucidated one of the key themes of the ideology being expressed by the national conservatives, which is that the greatest threat to Americans doesn’t come from the government, that old bogeyman of the conservative movement. Instead, it comes from unaccountable, monopolistic Silicon Valley overlords who have unprecedented access into American lives.
Thiel’s comments generated headlines, notable for a nascent conference that only invited a few boldfaced names, in contrast with more established conferences like the Conservative Political Action Conference. CPAC, a much bigger and older conference, attracts a who’s who of Republican politicians and right-wing celebrities every year. The only elected official who spoke (and who was invited) to this week’s conference was Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, who has made a name for himself as an anti–Big Tech crusader and railed against the “cosmopolitan consensus,” and the Trump administration was represented by national security adviser John Bolton, who participated in a Q&A on Tuesday. The vibe of the conference was self-consciously reserved and high-minded — I only spotted one Make America Great Again hat among the whole group of attendees (who, for what it’s worth, were overwhelmingly white). One of the big names who did come was Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, who gave a speech titled “How Big Business Hurts Your Family” and who was mobbed for pictures afterward.
More than anyone, Carlson has emerged as the voice of this strain of conservatism, which prides itself on its willingness to buck conservative orthodoxy. During an audience Q&A, Carlson praised leftists like the writers of Jacobin magazine, who he said were “actually kind of honest” though he disagreed with them on a lot. Carlson was asked whether Elizabeth Warren could be an ally of these “national conservatives,” and responded that while she was a “living tragedy,” he found her book The Two-Income Trap one of the best books he’d ever read on economics and more salient than anything produced by social conservatives in the past decade.
Warren was also name-checked during a panel on economic nationalism, this time by Julius Krein, the founder of American Affairs, who was among the “Trumpist intellectuals” who received a lot of media attention at the beginning of the Trump administration. Krein praised her idea to form a federal pharmaceutical research and manufacturing group. In October 2017, Krein wrote that he “sorely regretted” voting for Trump. Being cast as a “Trumpist intellectual,” Krein told me in a brief interview, had been a “media creation. It was good to get us publicity. We’ve never been animated by Trump himself.”
The conference organizers kept repeating how unwelcome white nationalists were at the event, as well as in the movement they’re trying to launch. In a speech on the opening night, Brog told anyone in the room who might have racist sympathies to leave, telling them, “There is the door.” Hazony made similar points in his remarks, and encouraged attendees to take the threat of white nationalism seriously and not just dismiss it as a “tiny periphery.” Several well-known white nationalists, including VDare founder Peter Brimelow, American Renaissance founder Jared Taylor, and Identity Evropa leader Patrick Casey, had applied to come to the conference and been rejected (Brimelow and Hazony fought on Twitter over the rejection). The organizers seemed cognizant of the imperative of keeping them away in order for their movement to be taken seriously, more so than the organizers of CPAC, who over the years have allowed white nationalists like Brimelow into the event. But the fact that they even had to address this issue shows the uncomfortable proximity of their ideas in many people’s minds with an openly virulent form of nationalism.
Among the crowd was Curtis Yarvin, better known as Mencius Moldbug, the godfather of the “neoreaction” movement whose now-defunct blog for years advocated a turn away from democracy and toward a kind of feudalist society. Yarvin’s blog, Unqualified Reservations, was a founding text for the “Dark Enlightenment” school of thought also championed by writers like the English academic Nick Land. Yarvin’s ideas have been influential in alt-right and alt-right adjacent spaces, though he’s written that he’s not a white nationalist, writing in 2007: “It should be obvious that, although I am not a white nationalist, I am not exactly allergic to the stuff. Maybe this doesn’t need defending. But I feel the urge to defend it anyway.” In the early days of the Trump administration he was reported to have had contact with former top Trump official Steve Bannon, though Yarvin denied it to a Vox reporter. Despite his participation at an explicitly nationalist conference, Yarvin was a skeptic of the concept, writing in that same essay quoted above that “the worst thing about white nationalism, in my opinion, is just that it’s nationalism. Nationalism is really another word for democracy — the concept of democracy makes no sense except as an algorithm for determining the General Will of the People, that is, the Nation.”
Yarvin declined to answer questions when I approached him. But he wasn’t trying to keep a low profile in general, and at one point stood up and asked a question of the panelists during a breakout session. (Yarvin’s company Urbit was reportedly funded by Peter Thiel’s venture capital fund.) His presence implied that the fringe and very online ideologies of the right were not unwelcome.
The conference’s organizers weren’t eager to discuss the biggest story in national politics this week, Trump’s racist tweets; there was an effort to keep the event apart from daily politics.
“We’re conservatives, we take a longer civilizational view of things,” said Brog in an interview. “And so we wanted to build something that stood outside that debate and outside an embrace of any one politician.” Brog said they had debated whether to even invite Hawley.
“While obviously there's certain things about President Trump that national conservatives might like and appreciate, not everyone does,” said Brog in an interview. “Not everyone appreciates the way he does it.”
Hazony was dismissive of the idea that he should offer any comment about Trump’s racist tweets, saying during a speech on the closing night that “hundreds” of reporters had asked him about the tweets.
“What can I tell them? We’ve got other business to do,” Hazony said, to applause.
What didn’t emerge during the conference was evidence of a real political or policy program. After three days of panels and speeches, it was still difficult to figure out what these nationalists actually wanted to do. There were the broad strokes of an ideology: an embrace of social conservatism and rejection of economic libertarianism — in other words the splitting-up of the two pillars of the modern conservative movement — a deep mistrust of libertarianism in general, and of liberalism, and a call for a return to traditionalism in the family and in the religious life of the nation. You weren’t going to hear paeans to unfettered capitalism and small government here. The conference voted on whether the US should have an industrial policy, and voted in favor — the conservative Catholic scholar Patrick Deneen, one of the conference’s speakers, tweeted, "This is not your father’s, but your grandfather’s, conservatism.”
But this was more about articulating a certain ethos that recently came crashing into the political conversation during the bitter feud between the conservative writer Sohrab Ahmari and his allies and the Never Trump conservative writer David French and his. Ahmari used his disgust at a drag queen story hour at a public library in Sacramento as a jumping-off point for a diatribe against French and everything that, to Ahmari, French represents: squishiness in the face of moral threats facing the nation, an overly solicitous position vis-à-vis ideological foes. Ahmari called for society to be forcibly reordered to the “Highest Good.” The magazine in which he wrote the piece, First Things, is a key voice for this religious traditionalism, and was available for free in stacks outside the ballroom on the first night of the conference
But what Ahmari didn’t articulate was how he planned to get there. And this — the “how” aspect of the plan — was broadly lacking from the National Conservatism Conference, despite numerous cris de coeur about what libertarianism and secularism were doing to American society.
“You throw out Christianity, you throw out the Torah, you throw out God, and within two generations people can’t tell the difference between a man and a woman,” Hazony said in one of his speeches. I asked Hazony how atheists, or Muslims, or Buddhists might fit into this movement. Hazony said it wasn’t about people’s personal practice, but about whether they were willing to “honor” what he sees as the Christian roots of American society.
An atheist who is willing to “honor the theistic traditions of his or her nation, even though they don't believe but they're willing to say, ‘yes, it's important that people learn that that's what built this country’ — then they have a place in conservatism,” Hazony said. “They don't have to personally accept everything that’s in the national tradition.”
Speakers railed against the increasing atomization of American society, against the great emphasis placed on the individual instead of the group on both the left and right, and against the reduction of individuals to cogs in a globalist economic machine. The vision is a reordering of society around tradition and community. But what if they aren’t your traditions? Who gets to be a part of the community? There were many things that the national conservatives were against, many things they were not. What didn’t become clear was what exactly they are.
Hazony and Brog are hoping to fill out the new “national conservatism” with an infrastructure similar to movement conservatism, and maybe with time the outlines of policy orthodoxy will come into view.
They’ve attracted some funders, though nothing big league yet; the two top donors to the conference gave $50,000-plus each. One of them, a Texas investor named Alex Cranberg, described in his address to the conference getting “woke” on the issue of nationalism after reading Hazony’s writing. “I am now woke to the virtue of the world having always been organized as nations, especially when those nations have avoided imperial ambitions,” Cranberg told me in an email, saying he used to consider himself a libertarian.
But what they’re really trying to do, Brog said, was replicate what previous right-wing ideological movements had done: influence the direction of the right. “I think some of the models we’re going to be looking at is the way that the neoconservatives influenced the conservative movement, the way the libertarians have influenced the conservative movement,” Brog said in an interview. “They didn't build that entire independent infrastructure so much as create some institutions that influence the movement.”
It’s a useful comparison, but maybe doesn’t bode as well for these national conservatives as Brog might hope. Those movements have been basically consumed by Trump.