One story has dominated American politics over the last week: Donald Trump’s race-baiting and his supporters’ chants of “send her back” at a rally in North Carolina on Wednesday. But to step into the ballroom of the Ritz-Carlton in Washington, DC, this week was to step into a room eerily sealed off from the row leading the news outside.
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At the inaugural National Conservatism conference, the latest high-profile attempt to add intellectual heft to Trump shaped conservatism, not a single mention was made of the row over the President’s tweets. For two and a half days, pro-Trump thinkers and politicos – including Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, Fox News provocateur Tucker Carlson and White House National Security Adviser John Bolton – went about trying to build a new conservative coalition. For two-and-a-half days, they ignored the headlines.
In one sense, this was unsurprising. The event’s organisers want to resuscitate nationalism as a mainstream political force and, in doing so, redefine modern conservatism. Attendees didn’t want to talk about a Twitter storm, they wanted to talk big ideas and the sweep of history. Trump’s outburst was an inconvenient intrusion on that. But the silence was nonetheless revealing.
The conference’s organisers were at pains to make clear what the nationalist awakening is, and what it is not. It is not white nationalism. It is not ‘blood and soil’. Several alt-Right figures had been denied accreditation for the conference. On the opening night, co-convener David Brog pointed to the door and asked that anyone who defined what it means to be American in racial terms leave. “Your views are not welcome here,” he said.
This was a far-cry from the rough and tumble of a Trump rally; it was a bookish crowd of bespectacled and besuited conservative thinkers quoting Burke and Xenophon. And, unsurprisingly, everyone except for bow-tied waiters going about their business, remained in their seats after Brog’s request. But not mentioning the news undermined the hosts’ objectives.
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Those objectives were set out unapologetically by Yoram Hazony, another organiser and a prominent Israeli intellectual whose influential 2018 book The Virtue of Nationalism helped set the backdrop for the conference.
“Today is our independence day,” he declared:
“Today we declare independence from neoconservatism. We declare independence from neoliberalism. From libertarianism. From what they term classical liberalism. You can give it any name you want but that set of ideas that sees the atomic individual, the free and equal individual as the only thing that an educated person needs to know about politics and if he or she knows the free and equal individual then he or she has the ability to set out and rule the world. That worldview we are declaring independence from today.”
Hazony’s call to arms was typical of the conference generally, which was as much about owning the libertarians as it was “owning the libs”. The event was another reminder – not that one were needed – that the coalition that constituted the conservative movement from the 1960s to the early 2000s lies in tatters.
For decades, the majority of that movement accepted the logic of fusionism: the libertarian and traditionalist wings knew they needed each other and made peace, albeit an uneasy one, with one another. That has changed – largely thanks to Trump.
Emboldened traditionalists, including the national conservatives, are reconsidering their answers to the biggest questions in politics. And, like an enthusiastic recent divorcee, they are playing the field in the marketplace of ideas. The breadth of mainstream Right-wing American politics is wider than it has been for generations. Proceedings at the conference were astonishingly nonconformist, a reflection of the fact that all bets are off on the American Right in 2019. Sometimes that open-endedness was thrilling. Other times it was unnerving.
An elegy for the American Dream
Almost none of the economics in Tucker Carlson’s speech, titled “Big business hates your family”, would have been taken seriously in Right-wing Washington circles before 2016. According to Carlson, the main threat to Americans living the lives they want to live comes from business, not government. He praised Democratic Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren’s The Two-Income Trap, which she co-authored with her daughter, as “one of the best books on economics” he has read and more important than anything social conservatives have written recently. Echoing the Left’s critique of so-called woke capitalism, he described identity politics as a distraction obscuring who the winners are in today’s economy.
The new anti-business consensus is striking and if there is a grand realignment happening in American politics (it certainly felt like that was what was happening among the national conservatives this week) it is far from clear who, if anyone, will be left to stick up for the market.
Elsewhere, on the rise of China, technology, the opioid crisis and the consequences of deindustrialisation in America’s heartland, the new nationalists seemed determined to break with the past, but unsure on exactly which path to take instead.
The outlines of a concrete agenda were discernible. Attendees voted in favour of a motion in favour of a new American industrial policy, securing the border was almost universally settled on as an urgent priority. The West’s welcoming into the fold of China, including its admission into the World Trade Organisation, was overwhelmingly spoken about with regret, and attendees were gearing up for a new cold war. John Bolton described this East-West showdown as having “elements of Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations. In his speech on Sunday night, Peter Thiel called for an FBI and CIA investigation into Google for “seemingly treasonous” cooperation with the Chinese. On Tuesday, the President promised to look into his supporter’s accusations.
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At the crescendo of his speech, Thiel delivered a broadside against American Exceptionalism. “That exceptionalism obscured everything,” he said:
“The doctrine of exceptionalism has lead to a country that is exceptionally overweight, that is exceptionally addicted to opioids, that has exceptionally dysfunctional public infrastructure where it costs ten times as much to build a mile of subway as it does in socialist western Europe, that is in short exceptionally un-self-aware, exceptionally un-self-critical… Nationalism has nothing to do with this sort of exceptional un-selfawareness… Nationalism is going to ask hard questions.”
That might the start of the search for a new conservatism, but two and a half years into the Presidency of a self-described nationalist, the movement should arguably have fewer questions and more answers. Ultimately there was a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde quality to the new nationalists gathered in the Ritz-Carlton ballroom.
Sometimes the brand of nationalism being expounded on stage sounded entirely innocuous. “To oppose nations is to oppose a force of nature,” argued Chris DeMuth. One minute Brog sounds like Oprah, or an actor delivering a banal ‘political’ Oscar acceptance speech: “We need to love our fellow citizens. We must feel connected to each other. A connection is deep enough to overcome our superficial differences.” Who could disagree with that?
But then fellow organiser Hazony declared nothing less than Judeo-Christian jihad on liberals and fellow conservatives alike for trying to “privatise religion”:
“We thought we could just stay reasonable having gotten rid of God’s scripture. And guess what, there’s no shred of truth to this at all. We tried it. We did. It turns out it was God and scripture that were holding the entire set of structures together. Not reason, tradition. You throw out Christianity and the Jewish contribution too with it, you throw out God and within two generations people can’t tell the difference between a man and a woman. They can’t tell the difference between a foreigner and a citizen. They can’t tell the difference between this side of the border and the other side of the border. They can’t tell the difference between paying back your debts and simply borrowing forever. The only way to save this country, to bring it back to cohesion, the only way to bring it back to independence and health, the only way to do it is going to be to restore those traditions.”
What is it that Hazony wants? Is he hoping for some kind of spontaneous culture-wide religious revival? If so, he could be waiting a long time. Or does he want to nationalise God as part of an overtly political programme? That is not a solution that strikes me as being in keeping with America’s republican traditions, nor is it one that the country is likely to unite around. This was the problem with a lot of what I heard at the conference. Either conservative nationalism is a series of civic bromides that only the wokest of the woke would object to, or it is something spikier, something millions of reasonable Americans from both parties will take issue with, and with good reason.
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America’s new nationalists never miss an opportunity to emphasise just how divided the country is: ‘The times are dire’; ‘What can bind up our wounds? What can bring us together?’; ‘These are frayed times’.
Yet they are unstinting in their refusal to build any bridges or acknowledge any share of the blame for that disunity. They appear oblivious to the risks of what happens when their theory becomes real-world politics, risks that chants of “send her back” in North Carolina on Wednesday made abundantly clear. In the eyes of many, the President and some of his more zealous supporters are a real source of conflict and division. Until they face up to that tension – perhaps by calling out, or at least acknowledging the existence of, Donald Trump’s racist tweets – their solemn sounding calls for national unity will ring hollow.