How many times do pundits with conventional sensibilities have to be surprised before they twig to their own blindness? They were surprised by Brexit. They were surprised by Donald Trump. And now, while they’re distracted by Donald Trump’s latest tweets, they’re setting themselves up to be surprised by another nationalist miracle — the wholesale replacement of the decrepit conservative movement by a new national conservatism.
The press missed the story of this week’s National Conservatism Conference in Washington, D.C., an event organized by Yoram Hazony and his newly created Edmund Burke Foundation. The media hive mind had decided that Trump’s tweets were the axis around which political news must revolve for about 72 hours. The conference, therefore, could only be a footnote to the latest round of bloviating about what a bad man President Trump is. All that bloviating never stopped Trump from getting the Republican nomination and winning the 2016 general election in the first place, of course. Might the same sermonizing today be equally irrelevant to the next big turn in politics? Place your bets.
Before you do, though, consider a few facts: this conference came together in about six months — I know because I was one of the people who consulted with Hazony about the lineup in its earliest stages. When I heard about some of the top-tier names who were being considered, I assumed that at most one might come through. Instead, the conference got everyone on the wish list: the star of TV’s top-rated cable news show (Tucker Carlson), the Trump administration’s national security adviser (John Bolton), Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, the rapidly rising freshman senator Josh Hawley, and bestselling author J.D. Vance. Those were the marquee names, but the rest of the speakers — and many of the attendees as well—were just as notable, if not as well-known. So on Tuesday, as I watched a panel discussion on economic nationalism featuring Breitbart’s John Carney, the Washington Examiner’s Salena Zito, and American Affairs founding editor Julius Krein, I had Vance sitting to my left in the audience and a former Treasury Department official to my right, with American Mind executive editor James Poulos one seat over. DC confabs bring famous and semi-famous names together all the time. What was different about this, however, was that these were people who specialize in opening new fronts in ideological conflict. And right there in the room, I could have put together an excellent staff of economic nationalists — policy-makers and speech-writers — for Senate office, and in Vance we had someone who’d make a highly plausible candidate, as well.
Speakers attended the sessions as audience members, and attendees didn’t congregate in the hallways to chat in the middle of the panels. Everyone was much more attentive than is the norm for these sorts of events. As I told one reporter, the conference actually took advantage of a naturally arising Gestalt of ideas and people that had simply never before been focused through an institution or a single event like this. The event gave a sense of how nationalist writers and thinkers who have been toiling in parallel fields could work together and augment one another’s efforts. Many Beltway gatherings purport to do that, but this, for once, was the real thing. By comparison, everything else is a graveyard.
The point of the conference was not just publicity, and it was not to concoct a manifesto or some bullshit policy agenda — like the fraudulent balanced-budgets plans that movement conservative wonks habitually generate, and which the media pretend to take seriously when they’re fronted by a person like Paul Ryan, even though everyone knows they have no chance at all of being enacted — and that no voter could care less about. The mystique of policy is a religion in Washington, but real policies are not the result of blueprints or manifestos, they are the product of talent (or lack thereof) applied to circumstance. The achievement of this three-day event was to help the nationalist talent of the future coalesce. It’s only a beginning, but that in itself is remarkable at a time when conventional politics is at an end. And if there are no impossibly precise policy demands coming from these National Conservatives, they have made it quite clear what they are going to do in general: they are going to strike at the laws and cultural assumptions that permit the tech companies to amass excessive wealth and power; they are going to strike at the bastions of liberal ideology in higher education; they are going to support American industry for the sake of workers as well as national security; they are even going to adopt a more restrained foreign policy than the US has seen since the end of the Cold War.
There are nationalist hawks, of course, and John Bolton represented them, but Peter Thiel and Tucker Carlson represent the stronger tendency, the side of national conservatism that eschews forcible regime change abroad. Michael Anton quite brilliantly developed the philosophical critique of such imperial projects in his talk at the conference, which drew upon Aristotle, Xenophon, Thucydides, Machiavelli, and Montesquieu to show that empire is a source of servility within a nation’s character and most often foments hatred among other peoples.
The old, post-Cold War order of weak borders, straitjacketed free-trade ideology, and endless war for utopian ideological objectives is rapidly failing, and what will replace it has already begun to arise. This week’s National Conservatism gathering was both a sign of that and a catalyst for the further transformation of the American right. Pundits who spent the last three days parsing the president’s tweets for racism are living in a bygone age when all the right could beg from the authorities that command our culture was acceptance. National Conservatives are not asking for acceptance, they are marshaling power.