Not The National Conservatism We’ve Been Looking For
The “National Conservatism Conference” is now over, and the immediate question for the postliberal right should be, “What next?” While so many remain eager to capitalize on our political moment, and intuit a great institutional gap on the right, I counsel patience.
We Americans on the right are privileged to live at a great time in our history. The old alliances are dead, the neoconservatives discredited and discarded, the discourse blown wide open. Our enemies at home and abroad are more obvious than ever: the masks have fallen. We are eager for an ideal that will unite us.
So we leap to rally around the first flag presented to us, to foster unity and a shared mission. This is natural and good. But if Yoram Hazony’s conference is any indication, we should be cautious about casting our pearls before swine. As Michael Schindler ably lays out in Jacobite, Hazony’s nationalism is an empty vessel.
As a result, he is able to, unironically, showcase a “nationalist” foreign policy panel without a single “America First” or realist foreign policy expert. The event, convened by the cleverly named Edmund Burke Foundation and headed by ur-neoconservative David Brog (who spoke more than anyone at the conference), featured a keynote address by National Security Advisor John Bolton.
Neoconservatism Is the What the New Right Rejects
Both the panel (moderated by an American Enterprise Institute fellow, no less) and the keynote represented clear attempts to rehash the same foreign policy hawkishness rejected by huge majorities of Americans on both sides of the aisle, asserted as serving the “national interest.” To call oneself a “realist” or a “nationalist” when promoting regime change in Venezuela, for example, is ludicrous. Americans are not at risk in Venezuela, nor is there treasure or territory for our people to win there.
It is not as if honest America First foreign policy experts were unavailable—Scott McConnell served on a panel on immigration, for example—but they were cabined to speaking on other issues. This was, I think, no accident. And the immigration panel? Did it include a single representative of the Center for Immigration Studies?
Bolton’s speech was so replete with “I think” and “my opinion is” that one came away with the impression that he forgets he has a boss. Worse, Bolton is openly the least “America First” of the senior administration officials serving Trump’s signature three areas—trade, immigration, and foreign policy. Was Ambassador Robert Lighthizer invited? Steven Miller? Peter Navarro?
No, none of these individuals were likely invited, because they diverge from the failed fusionist project. Instead, the conference showcased a few serious postliberal thinkers, a few token social conservatives, alongside a surfeit of “good conservatives,” with the cordon sanitaire on full display.
Hazony’s underlying funding will not be made public until the 990s are available next year, but the organizing entity offers some clues. Probably there is Bradley Foundation money, and probably there is money from Hazony’s Herzl Institute or the various Israeli groups the board members are affiliated with.
Whether foreign money or American, Edmund Burke Foundation and Hazony are surely flush with cash—the first event of the conference was a “VIP Reception” after all (ooh lala!). So let them operate with that funding, but let us not flock to that organization as the standard-bearer for our people.
We’re Not Going Down the Same Movement Road Again
Many good Americans, myself included, now realize that we were swindled by Conservative, Inc. during the Bush years. But promoting the same failed policies, and rehabilitating the same failed “experts,” simply because they have rebranded as “national conservatives,” will not advance the American cause. No, Hazony is not the leader we are looking for, and his repackaged neoconservatism is not the unifying principle for a New America. We want neither Athens, nor Jerusalem, but America.
So let us be patient. There is no risk to holding off a bit longer. But there is great risk in conservative donors providing new sinecures, new salaries, new cruises to the same hucksters. Let us be patient—what’s the rush? Each day brings new challenges, and with the 2020 election incoming, a national dialogue will once again take place.
I have seen the intellectual foment across the nation—nationalists and postnationalists, traditionalists, localists, Silicon Valley accelerationists—patriotic Americans of every stripe. New alliances are being formed, and the times are exciting. Trump’s new populist fusionism—the “three-legged stool” of an America First trade policy, immigration policy, and foreign policy—provides a road map for a supermajoritarian politics in 2020 and beyond. The rising generation of thinkers on the right are still making sense of all of this.
And how far we have come! Just a few short years ago we were being told that nationalism is socialism and socialism is nationalism, an essentially party-line view at the ironically named National Review at the time. Now these same folks scramble over one another to claim the mantle of “nationalism.” It’s the same contempt that the Beltway has for middle America that leads a man to throw his arm over a donor’s shoulder while picking his pocket. I’m a nationalist, you see—you and I are in this together, if you’ll only buy my lunch.
Now That the Zeitgeist Has Changed, You’re Interested
Remember when ideas like “English only” and “lowering immigration to reasonable levels” were uninteresting to the mainstream Right. Remember when words like “nationalist” and “populist” were verboten. We do not have Hazony to thank for these changes: we have Trump. The phrase “America First” has not yet been widely adopted, but the president has used that phrase as well, and we can thank Trump that men like Bolton have to be careful about their words, and always seek to explain their hawkishness in terms of the national interest, however ridiculous it sounds.
The more clear-headed participants in the National Conservatism conference will undoubtedly continue their good work: Patrick Deneen, R.R. Reno, Sen. Josh Hawley, Tucker Carlson, Peter Thiel. Certainly the conference was interesting when viewed as a snapshot of 2019: a smorgasbord of relatively unrelated issues and speakers, largely focusing on economics.
The most proud moment appears to be when the assembly agreed to adopt “an industrial policy” on a 99-51 vote. Which industrial policy? To bring back manufacturing jobs to Cleveland, Ohio? No—to adopt “an” industrial policy. This is abstract universalism couched in nationalist terms—a step forward surely (just as requiring Bolton to dissemble is a step forward), but a small step forward. (And who were the 51 that believe a nation, any nation, can exist without an industrial policy?)
Nationalism Isn’t an Abstraction
Overall the entire event fails to cohere, precisely because abstract nationalism and abstract traditionalism fail in the same way liberalism fails: they purport neutrality and ecumenism while surreptitiously importing thick conceptions of the good. Who, precisely, constitutes our nation? Who are Americans? What is America? Hazony never quite says. In this sense, “national conservatism” is ambiguous—is it national, meaning Anglo-American? Or is it national, meaning nation-wide, federal?
Rather than lauding the particular nation of the Founding—church on Sundays; boisterous Baptism, fastidious Methodism; New Testament mercy; barn raisings; agrarianism; state sovereignty; drifters and vagrants; local fiefs; free movement (but not that free); private militias; states with usury bans, those that allow it; periodic rebellion; trial by jury (and jury nullification); free, incendiary speech—we get an abstract thing. Never concrete. It does no good to praise abstract Americanism, abstract nationalism.
It does no good to praise abstract Americanism, abstract nationalism.
So let me be concrete: does anyone believe Tucker Carlson and John Bolton agree on what “America First” means? No. So does the Edmund Burke Foundation stand with Bolton, or with Carlson? Probably it is fundraising off of both, and this is precisely the danger.
For decades we have had major D.C. think tanks whose operating principle is to ride the wave of the grassroots while never deviating from the party line of the big money. Bring in the rubes from Texas, from Florida, the evangelicals, and ask them for money to defend life, but then turn around and spend that money on fighting against the Export-Import Bank, or explaining why we need to pass laws against criticizing certain countries.
Any donor should ask Hazony: With whom do you stand? With Bolton, or with Tucker? With other nations, or with America? Cast one of them off, or I’ll know you’re lying to me. The right is a big tent, but the Bill Kristols and David Brogs have left—presenting them alongside Carlson is not “promoting debate.” It is rehabilitating losers.
So yet again, let us not be hasty in believing this latest gathering represents the birth of a new movement—I have been at too many discussions and dinners in the last decade to believe that this one event could capture the energy of the rising generation, or of America.
As Hamlet said to Horatio, “There are more things on heaven and on earth than are dreamt in your philosophy.” And there are more currents in postliberal conservatism than many can dream of, at the moment. Let us watch 2020, let us bide our time, and when the moment is right, we will know what to do.
Andrew Kloster is deputy director at the C. Boyden Gray Center for the Administrative State at Scalia Law School.