A certain breed of conservative—over-read, much too sedentary, prone to debilitating nostalgia for gone-away worlds which might never have existed, dyspeptic, and given to morbid fantasies about our decadent culture’s fast-approaching totalitarian terminus—thinks of America as a patient suffering from an incurable illness and inures himself against empathy in order to watch the ordeal without flinching. I confess I have been such a doomer. On my better days I believe our predicament is like that of a patient with Type-II diabetes who won’t be persuaded to put down the Cheetos bag until he starts losing toes.
The consensus at the National Conservatism Conference held last week in Aventura, Florida, was more hopeful, sometimes ostentatiously so. Imagine a diverse team of surgeons consulting before a complex operation, without which the patient will die, each bringing their specialty to bear and each utterly confident that the patient’s life can be saved.
Previous National Conservative discourse has been overly cerebral, astute in its diagnoses but wanting in concrete solutions. This year’s conference was refreshingly focused on action. I suppose nothing gets one’s head out of the clouds like the anticipation of a governing majority. That anticipation also attracted new allies—most notably, social conservative mainstay the Heritage Foundation—who are eager to make intelligent use of federal power. There were even a few chastened libertarians present who have recently discovered that the invisible hand of the market is not dextrous enough to hold a scalpel.
Josh Hammer has provided a useful summary of the policy proposals floated at the conference. I’ll add a few observations. A principal grievance the conservative establishment has with National Conservatism is its polemics against foreign adventurism, so I was surprised to hear speakers urging America to respond to China’s aggression with a robust show of force. Elbridge Colby said that we must prepare for war so that war might be averted. There was no consensus on a plan of action, of course. But the NatCon view is that our response to China must reflect America’s concrete national interests—the security, freedom, and prosperity of her people—rather than idealistic fantasies about the “rules-based” international order.
Also surprising was the singular emphasis on faith. Religion in general, and Christianity in particular, was foregrounded throughout the conference. Protestants were much more visible than in previous years. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, delivered the closing keynote address. Yoram Hazony and other organizers were wise to shift the movement in this direction. National Conservatism must appeal to American evangelicals, the largest voting bloc in the Republican Party, if it is to succeed. But this appeal is more than just strategic. National Conservatives genuinely believe that the American system of self-governance is sustainable only when wedded to a Christian moral order.
A recent claims that the NatCon Statement of Principles “is neither conservative nor Christian.” This is unpersuasive. Even a cursory reading of the statement demonstrates a concern to restore conditions for family flourishing and communal life. Had the signers of the letter attended the conference, they would have discovered that charity is an essential animating force. One might even argue that love of neighbor is the movement’s raison d’être. That love is ordered in a particular way, though, with our duties owed most immediately to those nearest us, beginning with family and community and moving outward from there. (To be fair, the signers of the open letter might order their affections differently, beginning with the European Union.) The implications of this were elaborated concretely in the many talks I attended. Michael Brendan Dougherty exhorted us to make affordable housing beautiful and ennobling. The theme of renewing “felt citizen efficacy,” although not expressed in political science jargon, formed a through-line for much of the conference.
A fairer criticism might be that the conference’s emphasis on the perfidy of the ruling class cuts against the emphasis on charity and risks promoting a merely negative solidarity, one based on scapegoating. This risk shouldn’t be underestimated, and it threatens the long-term viability of the coalition. To the extent that animus motivates action, it must be directed at injustice itself, and not overly identified with individual bad actors; otherwise righteous indignation hemorrhages its righteousness.
What did not surprise me about the conference was the lack of enthusiasm for Donald Trump. I encountered plenty of people who were incensed by the FBI’s raid of Mar-a-Lago, and who were grateful for certain victories Trump achieved in office, especially the appointment of justices willing to overturn Roe. But the same people often rued the prospect of Trump running in 2024. The favorite at the conference was Ron DeSantis, who spoke one evening and brought the listeners to their feet in applause multiple times. But this doesn’t explain what seemed to me to be pervasive Trump fatigue. Certain critics of National Conservatism believe the movement is merely an attempt to offer an intellectual veneer to what they see as Trump’s demagoguery; as a result, they refuse to take seriously the movement’s ideas, especially its critique of the conservative establishment’s complicity with neoliberalism and milquetoast response to woke revolutionaries. NatCon critics are too often obsessed with Trump. It blinds them to the emergence of a counter-elite sympathetic to, but not coextensive with, populism. National Conservatism is the party of this counter-elite.
N. S. Lyons explains the importance of this development:
The countercultural Right is distinct from the riptide of Trumpian political populism, though voters and influencers may overlap. MAGA populism as an overt political movement has largely been limited to mobilizing those already beyond the fortress walls of the reigning elite class—and it has only consolidated and strengthened the elites' defensive class consciousness. By contrast, a dissident counterculture is capable of resonating across classes, including within the elite class itself.
This, I believe, is why Democrats and establishment conservatives alike are so alarmed by the enthusiasm NatCon generates. Even if they haven’t articulated to themselves precisely what’s happening, they sense the potential for significant change in the political priorities of American conservatism. The counter-elites at NatCon sense the same thing, which is why hope was so palpable at the conference.
Justin Lee is associate editor at First Things.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.