Since the end World War II, the Republican Party and the American right has been defined by a mix of classical liberalism and traditional conservatism — an ideology largely codified by the likes of William F. Buckley Jr., Milton Friedman and Ronald Reagan.
That approach to domestic and foreign policy, which valued above all protecting individual liberty and the free market while opposing authoritarianism, is now being challenged by a new type of neo-nationalism. It is spurred on by U.S. President Donald Trump and a new movement positioning itself to dominate the American right once Trump’s tenure ends.
To this end, dozens of intellectual conservatism’s biggest names met in Washington’s Ritz-Carlton hotel this week at the first-ever National Conservatism Conference, organized by the newly founded Edmund Burke Foundation.
Awkwardly, the conference kicked off the same day as Trump’s xenophobic attack on four Democratic congresswomen on Twitter, when he taunted them to “go back” to where they came from. Trump’s tweet highlighted one of the central criticisms of nationalism: Exclusion of the other, while valuing one group’s culture or identity as superior or contradictory to other groups.
Trump himself “came out” as a nationalist last October, acknowledging the historic controversy around the term. “We’re not supposed to use that word,” Trump said at a rally in Texas. “You know what I am? I’m a nationalist, OK? I’m a nationalist.” Trump went on to blast “power-hungry globalists,” explaining that “a globalist is a person who wants the globe to do well, frankly not caring about our country so much. And you know what? We can’t have that.”
The organizers — many of whom are well-respected conservatives, like National Affairs founding editor Yuval Levin — billed the event as the “kick off for a protracted effort to recover and reconsolidate the rich tradition of national conservative thought as an intellectually serious alternative to the excesses of purist libertarianism, and in stark opposition to political theories grounded in race.”
The conference organizers, who also included former Christians United for Israel Executive Director David Brog, are hoping this is a first step in building a “much-needed institutional base” and “an extensive support network across the country” for national conservatism.
The keynote addresses were given by Fox News host Tucker Carlson, Sen. Josh Hawley (Republican of Missouri), entrepreneur Peter Thiel and National Security Adviser John Bolton, who was representing the Trump White House.
Carlson and Bolton highlighted the foreign policy divisions within American conservatism. They were key figures in Trump’s non-bombing of Iran, with Carlson’s reported advice — not to risk reelection next year by attacking Iran — winning out.
Bolton walked a fine line between supporting Trump’s “America First” doctrine and his long-held interventionist beliefs. The national security adviser boasted of NATO’s stepped-up spending, noting that “over the past two years, $100 billion more [is] being spent by our European allies on defense.” Citing Trump’s pressure on the organization, Bolton continued, “This is an unequaled triumph ... it makes NATO stronger, and that’s exactly what we should be doing.”
The Fox host, who has made headlines in recent months for saying immigrants make America “dirtier” and that leading a country “means killing people,” focused his speech — titled “Big Business Hates Your Family” — around what he sees as the threat of big tech in the lives of everyday Americans.
Carlson, a one-time staunch conservative, declared he no longer had a defined ideology and has begun advocating for greater regulations on the free market, including government controls on big tech. His speech broke with traditional conservatism in suggesting that the government should police the public square and enforce what he sees as family-oriented societal norms.
Carlson also weighed in on the culture war. “If you’re making a play for nontraditional Republican votes, maybe you should take a nontraditionally Republican position on something,” he said, adding, “And why wouldn’t it be a pro-family position in favor of raising your own children?” Carlson was responding to whether the “national conservative” movement can use the government to beat back the “progressive” influences of Hollywood, Silicon Valley and the Fortune 500.
Also speaking at the conference was Israeli philosopher Yoram Hazony, author of the influential 2018 book “The Virtue of Nationalism.” In his book Hazony argues that states should not give up any sovereignty to international organizations, arguing that a collection of independent nation-states all pursuing their own interests is his ideal ordering of the world — a complete reversal of Republican postwar foreign policy.
While arguing for a type of “blood and soil” nationalism, he argues that Nazism’s great fault and its inherent evil was a desire to build an empire, which he equates with the European Union today.
“God gives Israel borders. He doesn’t say, ‘Go out and conquer all the nations of the world,’” said Hazony, emphasizing the need for national independence. “We want others to leave us alone and we’ll leave them alone. Not because we don’t care, but because that’s the best way to care.”
Hazony also lamented how “utopian thinking swept the political right” in the 1990s, and “it ruined everything it touched” — a clear dig at the neoconservatism and neoliberalism that followed the end of the Cold War.
“A generation later, much of the Middle East has been set [alight] by America’s own hand, yet with nothing to show for it but humiliation,” he said.
When asked whether he was a realist, an interventionist or some other label, Bolton — an architect of post-Cold War U.S. foreign policy — rejected all such labels. When pressed on his foreign policy and view of the internationalist system, he responded: “I’m not building a world order; I’m building a world safe for America,” adding that the “isolationist” strain within conservatism doesn’t fit today’s world.
‘Dominating the public sphere’
This week’s conference also took place in the aftermath of the so-called Sohrab Ahmari vs. David French battle that has rocked the conservative world. That conflict goes right to the heart of the debate surrounding rising neo-nationalism: Just how far should the right go to maintain national identity and conservative values? And in pursuit of its goals, is it OK to limit individual liberty — once one of its cardinal values?
In March, the conservative journal First Things published an open letter, “Against the Dead Consensus,” signed by a number of prominent conservatives — including New York Post op-ed editor Ahmari. The letter attacked the marriage between conservatism and classical liberalism, with the authors insisting “there is no returning to the pre-Trump conservative consensus that collapsed in 2016,” and making a call to arms against “tyrannical liberalism.”
Ahmari then published his own piece in First Things, titled “Against David French-ism.” French is a Trump-skeptical conservative columnist for National Review.
Inspired in part by seeing a Facebook ad for a children’s “Drag Queen Story Hour” at a public library in Sacramento, Ahmari argued that modern conservatism was too politically correct: “Real” conservatives should not tolerate progressive diversity in America’s public sphere.
“To say the First Things essay has been controversial would be to miss its significance as a watershed for the American right, where an internecine conflict has been brewing for some time,” stated Stephanie Slade, writing in the libertarian monthly magazine Reason.
Ahmari, an Iranian-American Catholic convert, is in effect arguing for something that was once considered deeply antithetical to conservatism and Republican politics: illiberal conservatism, steeped in conservative Christian religious morality.
Many observers saw Ahmari’s work as producing a justification for Trump and Trumpism. Writing in The Bulwark, Robert Tracinski noted: “The manifesto is nominally about the need to stand behind Trumpism.” But its message, subversive of normative conservatism, went much further: “Ahmari is in favor of the state and the use of its power to promote religious authority on morals,” Tracinski added.
The National Conservative Conference and the recent First Things controversy herald a larger debate looming on the American right, about what conservatism is and how nationalism fits into American politics. When proponents of intellectual conservatism on the right argue that the old Republican mantra of “freedom” has been hijacked by the left, the question becomes: Will the right embrace illiberal policies and break from individualism to “Make America Great Again”?
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