Last November in Orlando, dozens of the right's leading intellectuals, writers and think tank staffers gathered for the first meeting of the National Conservatism conference since the COVID pandemic hit, drawing journalists from across the political spectrum seeking to untangle what this high-brow gathering of avowed nationalists was all about. The emergence of the "NatCon" movement several years earlier had alarmed many liberal, centrist and even mainline conservative observers with its efforts to rehabilitate the concept of nationalism. But it energized many on the right who were starting to describe themselves as "post-liberal," meaning they were no longer satisfied with the conservative marriage of convenience that had existed since at least the Reagan era and had drawn together the religious right, anti-communists and free-marketeers in a potent but sometimes uneasy coalition. That consensus, they declared loudly, was dead, and a new conservative fusion must arise to take its place.
After the disruption of the pandemic, the loss of the presidency and the rage of Jan. 6, last fall's NatCon II conference was focused on the goal of building that new coalition along nationalist and post-liberal lines: blending extreme social conservatism with a skeptical approach to some forms of laissez-faire capitalism and a sharp hostility to both global or international authority and what they see as corporate-driven liberal cultural hegemony.
Now, the movement has formalized its ideas in a new manifesto, "National Conservatism: A Statement of Principles," released last week by the Edmund Burke Foundation. This ambitious document calls for the creation of a "world of independent nations" as the sole bulwark against "universalist ideologies" that would impose a "homogenizing, locality-destroying imperium over the entire globe." The credited authors include some leading lights of the NatCon world: Israeli political theorist and Burke Foundation chair Yoram Hazony, former American Enterprise Institute president Christopher DeMuth, First Things editor R.R. Reno and American Conservative columnist Rod Dreher.
But the list of signatories is much longer, and also far broader, ranging from right-wing mega-donor Peter Thiel to former Trump administration staffers Mark Meadows and Ken Cuccinelli, Charlie Kirk of Turning Point USA, anti-critical race theory activist Christopher Rufo, multiple officials from Hillsdale College — a nerve center of contemporary right-wing politics — and numerous other think tank staffers and writers from across the spectrum of conservative media.
The manifesto hasn't gotten much attention so far — which isn't surprising, considering how much else is happening in the political realm. A column by David von Drehle in the Washington Post declared its contents akin to fascism, and a more substantial fisking in The Bulwark by Cathy Young found it "a document steeped in thinly veiled and sometimes distressingly overt authoritarian ideology." That's not wrong. But it's also worth observing that, in the battle to build a new conservative coalition, much of the NatCon platform has already won.
As Young notes, many of the NatCon's 10 priorities read, at first, like banal restatements of conservative ideology in general: national independence, the rule of law, God and public religion, free enterprise, family and children. But in ways both subtle and unsubtle, those familiar terms don't all mean what you'd think.
The NatCons hope to divorce nationalism from its association with the Nazis, who they claim were not "nationalist" at all.
The first two items, national independence and rejecting globalism and imperialism, follow one of the core, if questionable, goals of the NatCon movement, which is to divorce the concept of nationalism from its most powerful associations, such as the fascist regimes of Nazi Germany and Mussolini's Italy, which National Conservatives see as imperialist. Instead, NatCons want to attach the term to smaller, scrappier scrappy countries that resisted the Nazis or Soviet Communism.
While the manifesto holds that "Each nation capable of self-government should chart its own course," in alignment with its own legal, cultural and religious traditions, it warns against their "transferring" authority to any "transnational or supranational bodies" and advocates opposing "imperialism in its various forms." Those forms include modern-day China and Russia, of course, but also "the liberal imperialism of the last generation, which sought to gain power, influence and wealth by dominating other nations and trying to remake them in its own image."
The "liberalism" described here, as in most NatCon contexts, isn't the center-left politics of the Democratic Party, but rather "classical" liberalism, focused on individual rights, free trade and pluralistic cultures, which until recently was embraced by most mainstream conservatives as well. But within the post-liberal and NatCon world, that small-l liberalism contained the seeds of conservatism's undoing, leading inevitably to the big-L liberalism of progressive ideology by creating a culture in which it's too hard to raise children along traditionalist lines. In this view, societies that uphold pluralistic tolerance and diversity are inherently unfair by denying the majority the right to live in a culture that supports their values — in essence, allowing the minority to oppress the majority.
While both Young and von Drehle read the jabs at boomer "imperialism" as allusions to the Iraq War — which is at least partly true — "empire" for NatCons also has a larger meaning. First, they believe that international compacts, accords and governing bodies like the European Union or the UN infringe on national sovereignty, particularly when it comes to social issues. In the movement's conference this March in Brussels, Hazony sought to align the NatCon vision with Ukraine's fight against Russian aggression. Vladimir Putin's disdain for borders and national independence, he suggested, mirrored the attitudes of bureaucrats in Brussels and Washington. The obvious subtext was that Hungary and Poland — two post-liberal, overtly nationalist countries greatly admired within the movement — were facing EU sanctions over a variety of human rights issues, which Hungarian and Polish leaders rejected as an attempt to squash the rights of the nation-state, and sympathetic fellow speakers cast as the workings of a new "evil empire."
"Empire," in the NatCon world, refers to the right's long, losing battle in the cultural sphere, these days largely waged against what American conservatives call "woke corporations."
Secondly, and more broadly, "empire" in the NatCon world also refers to the sense of fighting a long, losing battle on the cultural front, largely against what American conservatives have taken to calling "woke corporations." This can take the form of Twitter bans, corporate Pride celebrations or the Walt Disney Company lobbying against Florida's "Don't Say Gay" law. (That same call to fight back against supposed ideological imperialism also underlies Rufo's recent calls for conservatives to "lay siege" to America's cultural institutions.)
That leads to one of the manifesto's next items, on "public religion," which declares that "No nation can long endure without humility and gratitude before God" and that therefore the Bible must be restored to its place "as the first among the sources of a shared Western civilization in schools and universities, as the rightful inheritance of believers and non-believers alike." The manifesto goes on to say that, "Where a Christian majority exists, public life should be rooted in Christianity and its moral vision, which should be honored by the state and other institutions both public and private."
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At the NatCon convention in Orlando last fall, that idea was the centerpiece of the conference's most significant panel, as Hazony and three other writers from different corners of the right debated whether a new conservative coalition could be founded on the premise that wherever Christians compose the majority of a nation, they should be allowed to set the terms of public life, with "carve-outs" for Jews and other religious minorities, but no pretense of a neutral public square.
Around the same time, several writers in the greater post-liberal orbit — including one of that night's panelists, Sohrab Ahmari — issued a rhyming call for Western countries to adopt the idea of "cultural Christianity." These writers were part of a loose coalition of post-liberals interested in the Catholic right idea of integralism, which argues that governments should "inculcate virtue" in the public, and laws should therefore focus less on individual freedoms than on the common good — as understood by conservative Christians, of course. The shift towards a call for "cultural Christianity" instead, was a pragmatic softening of that idea: rather than unrealistic proposals for a theocratic "confessional state," the writers argued that maintaining the trappings of public religion in "post-Christian cultures" — as seen in Donald Trump's patently insincere Bible-waving — can help create a society more hospitable to the faith.
Ahmari now appears to be on the outs with the NatCons over his opposition to aid for Ukraine, and is not among the manifesto's signatories. But the fact that this idea became one of the top items in the manifesto suggests that Orlando's trial balloon has become a core NatCon principle. But it also illuminates the apparent meaning behind a troubling section on national government, where the manifesto proposes that while federalism is generally a good thing, central governments should be ready to "energetically" intervene in states "in which lawlessness, immorality and dissolution reign." As Young notes, it's hard to read this as anything other than a potential crackdown on "blue states," which might encompass everything from banning Drag Queen Story Hours (one of the founding bugaboos of post-liberalism) and "immoral" books to National Guard raids on cities that allow homeless encampments.
Federalism is generally a good thing, the NatCons agree. But governments should "energetically" intervene where "lawlessness, immorality and dissolution reign" — in other words, a crackdown on Drag Queen Story Hour.
Other sections argue that "unconstrained individualism" and "sexual license" have harmed the traditional family; that free enterprise must be modified to serve the nation's general welfare, probably by banning "vice" industries and companies that "censor" political speech; that if universities are overly "partisan and globalist in orientation," they should be defunded until they "rededicate themselves to the national interest"; and that immigration should be overhauled or perhaps shut down entirely until more controlled and "assimilationist policies" are developed. (Last December, many people in the NatCon orbit were excited by the campaign of far-right French presidential candidate Éric Zemmour, who vowed to take France "back from minorities that oppress the majority.")
So far, Young writes, this all amounts to little more than "flexing" by the terminally online. But if conservatives manage to retake the government in upcoming elections, the manifesto could "become the seed of a plan."
That's true enough. But it's also true that many of these ideas have already spread well beyond the ranks of the NatCon faithful. At CPAC Hungary a few weeks ago in Budapest, speaker after speaker extolled ideas that would have fit in seamlessly in Orlando, starting with the opening speech by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who championed "national conservatism" as part of his 12-point recipe for conservative success.
A drumbeat message throughout the conference, which drew government and political party leaders from numerous European countries alongside many American right intellectuals, was the sacred sovereignty of "the nation-state," under threat from both the "globalist agenda" and "major multinational corporations" who were working together to "undermine faith and nation."
Rick Santorum spoke about the need for societies to maintain a core "national identity"; Nigel Farage hailed sovereign states that stand up "against the globalist establishment"; and Mark Meadows declared that conservatives fighting to maintain family and nation in the face of "the open society" and corporations, should remember that "The empire of Caesar was defeated by the empire of a carpenter."
Anti-immigrant talk was vehement and ubiquitous, with mass migration described as a "weapon of mass destruction" worse than a nuclear bomb and the claim — less than a week after a gunman radicalized by "great replacement theory" killed 10 Black people in Buffalo — that leftists are seeking to eradicate "white Western nations." The most bombastic rhetoric came not from Hungarians defending their effective ban on Muslim immigration, but from Hillsdale College professor David Azerrad — one of the first names listed below the new NatCon manifesto — who said that bringing in "untold millions of people of different colors, creeds and cultures for decades on end" was the sort of thing "tyrants do to conquer a broken people," and that the "ruling class" of Western countries had come "to equate whiteness with evil" and so had decided to make their nations "less white" through "third world immigration."
And it's not just CPAC. Republican-dominated states like Florida and Texas, are doing their utmost to emulate Hungary, the country NatCons view as their primary model. (In April, manifesto signatory Rod Dreher suggested that Florida, in fact, "is becoming our Hungary.") The notion that conservatives are valiantly confronting a progressive cultural empire as powerful as any invading force from history has become the backbone of myriad cultural panics over things like CRT and LGBTQ rights, recasting the squelching of minority rights as a liberation struggle. Public universities in red states are already facing threats to their funding unless they appease conservative leaders. And corporations across the country are facing new campaigns to punish them for supposedly "woke" activism.
The seeds of the NatCon plan are now germinating, and its leaders are planning ahead. Two days after the release of the manifesto, Yoram Hazony tweeted an addendum, saying it was "not time to compromise," but rather to "Consolidate our camp," "Clarify its vision" and "demonstrate our strength."
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