What I Saw at NatCon

                    <p style="font-weight: 400;">National Conservatism has been accused by the Left, along with some <a href="https://twitter.com/DavidAFrench/status/1153416429909303298">conservatives</a> and <a href="https://twitter.com/justinamash/status/1572260002240561153?s=20&t=UEpDyD-FjrPKFvv5dKygeg">libertarians</a>, of providing a “<a href="https://www.salon.com/2022/06/24/national-conservative-manifesto-a-plan-for-fascism--but-its-not-hypothetical/">road map for autocracy</a>.” Meanwhile, certain corners of the Right have speculated about the real motive and meaning of the movement. Is this just another iteration of neoconservatism? Sinister insurrectionist plot or stultifying ’90s retread?</p>

I visited the third annual National Conservatism conference this September to assess the state of this much-discussed but hazily defined new movement. Looking over the names of speakers and panels while waiting for things to kick off, I surveyed the conference venue: the palatial JW Marriott Turnberry. The resort’s interior draws inspiration from Miami’s rich art deco history. Coteries of attendees, mostly young men in suits, coalesced and drifted along elegant ivory halls under high ceilings adorned with geometric lights.

So far, so standard for a gathering of conservatives. And indeed the movement’s own statement of principles calls to mind David Brooks’s 1997 manifesto: “A Return to National Greatness.” In the pages of that mercifully defunct neoconservative flagship, The Weekly Standard, Brooks pleaded for a “national greatness conservatism” that entailed “grand American projects,” “global purpose,” and a “common mission that unites us.” He concluded on a vague note: “It almost doesn’t matter what great task government sets for itself, as long as it does some tangible thing with energy and effectiveness.” Ironically, Brooks rejected National Conservatism last year as “disconcerting.”

But regardless of what National Conservatism may or may not actually be, the willingness of the conference to provide dissident ideas and individuals with a platform is commendable. It’s hard to think of any other venue that would bring all these figures together and invite them to speak the unspeakable.

Start with Jason Richwine, a resident scholar at the Center for Immigration Studies, who made his debut in Miami. It wasn’t so long ago that Richwine fell victim to conservative cancel culture. In 2013, a skittish Heritage Foundation sacked Richwine from his post as a researcher over his doctoral dissertation at Harvard University, “IQ and Immigration Policy.” Published in 2009, it noted that recent immigrants are generally less intelligent than the native population, and the difference does not disappear by the second or third generation. Why this should concern policymakers is obvious and reasonable: “the result is a lack of socioeconomic assimilation, and an increase in undesirable outcomes such as underclass behavior and loss of social trust.” There’s nothing compassionate about policies that create a massive class of servants.

Richwine told me he delivered his talk, “The Empirical Evidence for Immigration Restriction,” using just an outline. I was impressed. When I asked him about the conference, he had only good things to say. “It’s a very positive development” and the right kind of “big tent.” There was gratitude in his voice and perhaps a bit of cautious optimism. Richwine said the years since Heritage ousted him were not easy. He joined the Trump Administration late, and he’s since become a rising scholar once again. But his career is not what it would have been had things gone differently. It is worth noting that Heritage is attempting to make constructive changes these days. The new president, Kevin Roberts, was present in Miami.

John O’Sullivan, too, has become a familiar face at the conference. O’Sullivan served as editor of National Review until 1997. He would later recall tiptoeing soon-to-be-editor Peter Brimelow’s 1992 cover story for the magazine—“Time To Rethink Immigration?”—past the skepticism of William F. Buckley. But in 1997, Buckley abruptly removed O’Sullivan as editor. A little while later, the Wall Street Journal, which has long supported open borders, celebrated that “National Review has stopped stridently claiming opposition to immigration as a conservative cause.” If that seems odd, it’s worth remembering that before his magazine embraced immigration as a salient issue in 1992, Buckley reportedly fumed at Chronicles for dedicating an entire issue to the subject in 1989, threatening to “excrete” its paleoconservatives from the conservative movement.

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The era of Donald Trump witnessed a rebirth of paleoconservatism and other strains of rightism more attuned with the exigencies of the moment. To its credit, National Conservatism is now also facilitating this resurgence by giving a platform to people like Darren Beattie, the founder of Revolver News and a former White House speechwriter. Beattie has been on the bleeding edge of the Right for years. His talk seemed one of the most anticipated and well-attended at the conference.

He raised the problem of being a nationalist at a time when virtually every institution in the U.S. is arrayed against and exists to thwart nationalism. Does it make sense to blindly “buy American” from every nominally “American” company, including those that are woke? Is the nationalist, with all his patriotic feeling, to serve in the military of a government that regards him as an extremist? Does U.S. hawkishness toward China—which was present at the conference—help or hurt the American nationalist’s cause if interventionism strengthens the incumbent regime that hates him?

These are difficult questions few are asking or answering. “At the very least, I would encourage would-be American nationalists not to fall into the battered spouse trap of supporting the very institutions that have been repurposed for the destruction of American nationalists,” he said.

Beattie articulated what would emerge as a central theme of the conference: America’s greatest enemies are domestic. Speakers Michael Anton and Julie Kelly used their pulpits in particular to cast domestic military, intelligence, and law enforcement agencies as key enemies of the American polity—because they are. Dissident or not, this has become a concrete point of agreement, despite the presence of China hawks at the conference. Anton himself recently argued that “there is no core American national interest that would compel us to go to war over Taiwan.”

Anton, of course, is correct. And his position in opposition to the contemporary consensus on foreign policy hearkens back to what Paul Gottfried, the editor-in-chief of Chronicles, described in his speech as “foundational for what had once been viewed as American conservatism”—that is, isolationism.

Given his radical Right credentials, Gottfried’s presence at the conference was in and of itself a coup. He delivered a talk about the failure of “fusionism” and its creator, Frank Meyer, in a typically critical but insightful fashion with due respect for his subject. Part history, part philosophy lecture, Gottfried breezed through the basis and purpose of fusionism, Buckley’s purges of isolationists from the conservative movement, and mentions of Edmund Burke, Carl Schmitt, Karl Mannheim, and Joseph de Maistre.

At one point, Gottfried performed a sobriety test on the audience. “I’m not disparaging the importance of trying to persuade a political group that one hopes to influence,” he said. “But such an activity is usually not of the same magnitude as a more life-consuming, let alone life-endangering, mission. Trying to sell a fusionist doctrine is not like staking one’s life for a cause.” He went on:

Although proposing one’s consensus position to a divided political group may be noteworthy, it falls well short of an existentially defining mission. To restate Carl Schmitt’s deservedly famous distinction, we are speaking in this case not about the “political” as a life and death engagement but about a far less consequential activity.

Allow me then to make a further point: Sharing slogans or stating similar views at an annual conference—however exhilarating that experience may be—is not the same as struggling to save an inherited way of life.

That last line drew applause from attendees, which appeared to surprise Gottfried, who presumably intended it as a gut check. He glanced over his glasses at the source of the noise before looking down at his paper and continuing.

Are dissident ideas becoming mere slogans to signal group identification? It’s something to worry about. But not everyone can bring themselves even to mouth the words. During a session on environmental, social, and governance (ESG), one panelist, Andy Puzder, was overheard telling another panelist, Theo Wold, that his ideas on the matter are dangerous.

Puzder took a conventionally conservative approach to ESG: allow the market to self-correct and encourage corporations to “return” to a posture of value neutrality. Wold, on the other hand, took a more populist line, arguing that companies with “neutral values” “have no shame in, for example, selling highly addictive opioids to working class communities. They would feel no regret in trafficking fetal body parts or profiting from abortion. They would feel no compunction in outsourcing our factories, polluting our environment, ripping off workers, unfairly squashing family businesses or swallowing family farms.” And so “‘Neutral values’ is a nifty phrase that grifters use for ‘no values’ or just ‘immoral,’” Wold said. That apparently didn’t sit well with Puzder who is, ironically, a senior fellow at the America First Policy Institute.

There is also the problem of coherence. To be sure, incoherence is expected from nascent political movements as they attempt to define and refine their identity, tactics, and goals. But the wrinkles do need to be ironed out at some point. This occurred to me in particular during a talk by Joseph Rigney, president and associate professor of theology and literature at Bethlehem College & Seminary. It was titled “The Tao in America: The Abolition of Man and the Culture War” and drew heavily upon the thought of C. S. Lewis.

I had just listened to scholar David Azerrad deliver an irreverent speech that may have been the best at the conference. Rigney is also a talented speaker and a thoughtful commentator. But I struggled to reconcile the radicalism I heard from Azerrad and others with Rigney’s insistence that “the Civil Rights Movement was built as an appeal to the Tao,” which Rigney explained was Lewis’ term for “the objective rational and moral order embedded in the cosmos and in human nature.” He followed that line up with praise for Martin Luther King, Jr. as a kind of prophet, who appealed “to the Scriptures, to the Western theological and philosophical tradition, and America’s own heritage, because he knows that America professes to live within the Tao.”

The problem is that the Civil Rights movement spawned the Civil Rights Act that became one of the engines for systematically destroying traditional patterns of American life. It originated and gave teeth to affirmative action and political correctness. Everything from private property and freedom of association to federalism and the Constitution itself came under assault. And setting aside his severe sexual indiscretions and Communist Party ties, King is a central figure in the pantheon of liberalism who justifies that order. He therefore is a sacred cow whose untouchable sanctity must be punctured rather than accepted and endorsed.

Riding the Tiger

Walking back from the lobby, past a turquoise pool over which hung a teal and pink neon “Miami Vice” sign, I wondered what others had seen and thought. I met Aiden Buzzetti, the young president of The Bull Moose Project, for the first time outside one of the conference rooms. The stated aim of his group is “to identify, train, and develop the next generation of America First leaders and policies.”

“I think the conservative movement is going in the right direction, and that National Conservatism is providing a lot of the driving force for that change in the first place,” Buzzetti told me later. He said the National Conservatism conferences have improved since they first began.

“I do believe that the events of the last two have done more to push new strains of conservative thought into prominence than anything else,” Aiden added. “The direction we’re heading to is frankly a state of American realpolitik, which conservatives refused to acknowledge and participate in, to our own detriment.”

I asked Andrew Cuff, the communications director at design firm Beck & Stone, what he made of the conference’s integration of formerly dissident perspectives into the discourse. “It’s simply a crime against reason that some rightist factions were banned by the conservative movement in the past, and NatCon appears poised to correct that.” His overall assessment was pointed but positive. “National Conservatism is essentially a sheepish confession by lifelong movement conservatives that nationalism and populism are the future.”

“The dissident Right is seen as a powerful but chaotic force at NatCon, and it is treated with an interesting mix of respect and caution,” said Alex Kaschuta, a cultural critic come all the way from rural Romania to speak at the conference. Kaschuta, a kind of Cesar Millan figure, has helped bridge the gap between outcast people and ideas on the Right and more conventional conservatives with her podcast. “The fact that the dissident right is one of the main engines of the new energy on the right is acknowledged quite openly,” she added, citing the remarks of the conference organizer, Yoram Hazony.

The most common question Hazony said he gets from young people is, “Why should I be a conservative? Conservatives haven’t succeeded in conserving anything.” He called on attendees to hear that well, “because it’s mostly true.” If people want more than mere decline and “liberalism that collapses into Marxism,” Hazony argued that they would have to reach for more radical and fundamental ideological weapons. Nor are slogans about “freedom” worth much these days, considering that most people understand it to mean “freedom from the past,” which entails a rejection of traditional conceptions of what is normative and decent—families, nations, man and woman dissolve in the acid bath of mere freedom.

When we spoke at dinner, I was surprised that Hazony knew of me. He said that he hoped I had seen that the conference made efforts to reach out to the Right. I replied that I did and was glad to see the likes of Paul Gottfried and Darren Beattie on stage.

As I made my way back to the airport, I tried to wrap my head around it all; the speakers, the contradictions, the unifying themes, Senator Rick Scott’s rambling stump speech that made me feel like I was on psychedelics; Peter Thiel likening woke ideology to Wahhabism using a rudimentary PowerPoint presentation with Winnie-the-Pooh graphics; Governor Ron DeSantis’s improvised dinner address, which had him making references to the “biomedical security state” that emerged during the pandemic—an idea coined and discussed by the dissident Right.

I still don’t quite know what National Conservatism is in practice. But its conferences have become a hub for an increasingly voltaic Right. Even those who may not be true believers are compelled to make their points using themes and rhetoric that were until recently outside the mainstream, lest they risk ridicule. They are, in a word, riding the tiger, and that is a good thing.

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