“All Things in Moderation” is an ongoing series of essays exploring what moderation means in the present political context. You can access the full collection here, or subscribe to allthingsinmoderation.substack.com to get them straight to your inbox. 

The conservative intellectual movement, like certain brands of ketchup, has come in a number of varieties over the years. The dominant variety at the moment, in the view of most observers, is what’s called National Conservatism, or NatCon for short. It coalesced out of a recognition among many on the right that William F. Buckley Jr.’s conservative synthesis of unfettered free-market economics, religious traditionalism, and military interventionism had lost much of its intellectual, emotional, and electoral appeal. In its place, the NatCons proposed a new form of conservatism founded on nationalism — and the organizers have always been careful to emphasize that this does not mean white nationalism — along with opposition to globalism and progressivism (and in some cases liberalism as well). In the American context, National Conservatism has largely taken the form of attempts by right-wing thinkers at places like the Claremont Institute and the Heritage Foundation, and in publications like Tablet and American Greatness, to put a coherent intellectual and political framework around Trump-style MAGA populism.

Some of the more serious NatCon thinkers have grappled with the Republican Party’s transformation into a multiracial, multiethnic working-class party and concluded that this change requires parting ways with many of the beliefs that once defined conservatism, including Reaganite commitments to unfettered individualism, small government, free trade, and the U.S.-led global order. Instead the movement exalts a conservatism more favorable toward state action, dedicated to the common good, and tied “to the idea of the nation, to the principle of national independence, and to the revival of the unique national traditions that alone have the power to bind a people together and bring about their flourishing.”

It’s a defensible position, although I happen to disagree with much of it. Despite the best intentions of the movement’s leaders, however, National Conservatism is in fact helping to revive the darker forces associated with nationalism that the modern conservative movement once forcefully repudiated, including nativism, isolationism, and authoritarianism.

The NatCon movement has been defined largely through the public conferences organized by the Edmund Burke Foundation, a public affairs institute founded in 2019, according to its website, “with the aim of strengthening the principles of national conservatism in Western and other democratic countries.” There have been seven NatCon conferences so far, three in the U.S. and four in the United Kingdom and Europe. I’ve attended two of the U.S. conferences as well as last year’s conference in Brussels and the most recent conference in London in May.

The last U.S. conference, which took place in Miami last year, was a disheartening affair, which showcased the intellectual and even moral deterioration of the U.S. conservative movement under Trump. But the London conference was fascinating and at times instructive, largely because the British Conservative Party has not (yet) gone over to the Trump-style radicalism that has overtaken the Republican Party. Some elements at the conference devoutly desired such an outcome, of course, but the fact that most of them left frustrated emphasized the enduring moderation of the British political system. As a center-right American moderate, I found it rather inspiring.

I’ll describe the London conference in my next post. In order to explain why I found the British interpretation of National Conservatism to be such a stark contrast with the American version, however, I need to say something more about the Miami conference, which took place in September 2022. It featured around 120 speakers and drew close to a thousand attendees, which in both cases was double the numbers of the initial conference in Washington. The audience skewed young and male, and there was that palpable buzz in the hotel corridors that comes when people feel like they’re in a place where something significant is happening.

The mood of the conference, if such a thing can be summed up, was a paradoxical blend of triumph and despair. The triumphalism stemmed largely from the fact that the principal keynote speaker was Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who was then approaching the zenith of his popularity and is arguably the American politician who best represents National Conservatism in action. He hadn’t yet announced his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination but clearly was the favorite of most of the audience. I should add that quite a few speakers praised Trump and none made any outright criticism of him that I heard. But many more proclaimed that Florida was where the Republican future was taking shape — and in fact DeSantis soon after would be reelected by a resounding 19-point margin in what just a few years earlier had been a swing state. And several speakers at least implied that DeSantis represented National Conservatism in practice where Trump represented only the theory.

DeSantis came across as a better speaker than his reputation would suggest, although his habit of decrying all things “woke” in nearly every sentence might not play as well outside of audiences of extremely online right-wing political obsessives. It’s unclear to what extent DeSantis has studied the tenets of National Conservatism, but he thrilled the Miami crowd with his recounting of all the ways he has used state power against the movement’s enemies, including the media, immigrants, experts, educators, librarians, race and gender radicals, left-wing activists and protesters, independent-minded prosecutors, Big Tech, and Disney and other large corporations. He also touted Florida’s growth and prosperity, as well as its relative openness during the pandemic, as a model for other states to emulate.

But the mood of the conference also struck me as despairing because so many of the participants seemed to have given up on the possibility of conservatives regaining a dominant influence in American society through rational persuasion and democratic means. Most took it for granted that every major institution in the country, including the military, has been conquered by virulent leftism and cannot be cleansed of it other than with fire and blood.

Some speakers seemed to have given up on America altogether. Darren Beattie, the former Trump speechwriter turned conspiracy-monger at Revolver News, concluded that it was hardly possible to be an American nationalist since America has become an authoritarian society like Russia or China. He advised one audience member against joining the U.S. military since doing so would be to help the American empire spread “woke poison” throughout the rest of the world. 

The writer Rod Dreher, who was then still at The American Conservative magazine, took considerable glee in his speech in predicting the imminent economic downfall of decadent modern civilization. Relying on “authoritative sources,” Dreher declared that the coming winter’s hyperinflation and widespread energy shortages would be followed by the toppling of democratic governments around the world. But he also warned the audience that this hoped-for development would be preceded by widespread liberal persecution of Christians and that they should all prepare for imprisonment, torture, and martyrdom. 

Given this self-pitying mindset, it wasn’t surprising that so many of the participants at the conference saw their only salvation to be the use of state power to crush the left. Many praised Victor Orbán’s illiberal and undemocratic regime in Hungary, which exercises authoritarian control over the media, the universities, religious groups, and the judiciary, while also subordinating the free market through a clientelist system that rewards the ruling party’s cronies and bankrupts dissenters. And although some of DeSantis’ advocates claim that left-wing critics are libeling him by labeling him an American Orbán, no one here objected when conference speaker Balázs Orbán, a political advisory to the Hungarian prime minister, pointed to DeSantis as a practitioner of Orbán-style government. DeSantis’ sometime spokesperson Christina Pushaw cited Orbán as the inspiration for the Governor’s refusal to talk to mainstream reporters, on the grounds that they are not journalists but professional left-wing activists.

There was considerable irony in Dreher’s most recent bestseller being titled Live Not by Lies, given that a miasma of conspiracy, distortion, unsourced assertions from unnamed authoritative sources, and rank falsehood hung over many of the conference’s sessions and at times seemed almost visible, like a cloud of mephitic vapors. Perhaps this was due to the continuing influence of Trump’s Big Lie of the stolen 2020 election, or to Twitter-conditioned right-wing audiences’ demand for redder meat and stronger wine.

It was notable that this conference featured fewer emissaries from the ranks of sober conservatives — figures like Yuval Levin and Oren Cass, who have been broadly sympathetic with the movement but made clear their disagreements — than there had been in the past. Instead, the speakers’ roster was stocked with forked-tongue fabricators and propagandists like Pushaw, David Reaboi, and Molly Hemingway. And where the first conference cultivated the mainstream press — I remember several Claremont figures giving courteous interviews with reporters including the New York Times’ Jenny Schuessler and the New Yorker’s Osita Nwanevu — in Miami a number of speakers venomously denounced New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait, who was cursed and nearly attacked by several conference-goers.

The near absence of serious policy consideration at the Miami conference also provided a stark contrast to some of the thoughtful discussions at the first NatCon conference of how the Republican Party might craft policies in service to an increasingly working-class, multiracial, and multiethnic base. Consider the National Conservative agenda that Johnny Burtka published in the Washington Post in the wake of the 2019 conference in Washington. He called for a program that would aim to strengthen the middle class, reduce income inequality, and develop an industrial policy for the national economy. The policy proposals he enumerated included increased federal spending on infrastructure, the promotion of vocational education and skilled trades, antitrust enforcement to break up inefficient monopolies, incentives for business investment in capital equipment as well as research and development, and an end to tax advantages for shareholder buyback programs. In the realm of social policy, he called for the institution of paid family leave, an increase in the child tax credit, federally funded prenatal and maternal care, and the reduction or elimination of income tax on families with three or more children.

There were elements of this program that were pie-in-the-sky at best, including Burtka’s vague summons to return to an America in which a mother or father could support a family on a single income. Reaganite conservatives also would have difficulty in swallowing his assertion that “big business is a greater threat to liberty than big government,” or his call for tariffs to be raised across the board. But there was much in his policy agenda that governing-minded Republicans could support, and even some grounds for cooperation with Democrats. And even many of the libertarians whom National Conservatives disdain would agree that free markets are less important for their own sake than for their role in supporting “strong families, resilient faith communities, and a thriving middle class.”

In the aftermath of the Miami conference, by contrast, speaker Josh Hammer published a NatCon agenda in the Epoch Times that called first of all for the United States, in the name of national sovereignty, to curtail its involvement with or exit outright from the United Nations, NATO, the WTO, the WHO, and every other postwar liberal institution associated with what once was called the American Century, along with “wind[ing] down our bloated support to Kiev.” On immigration, Hammer declared that National Conservatives should not be content with building a border wall, mandating universal E-Verify, and declaring war on the Mexican drug cartels. They should stand for “drastically reduc[ing] legal immigration from its current levels,” perhaps even imposing a temporary moratorium on all immigration. For good measure, he also called for state action against “industries whose largest corporations [exercise] power in a gatekeeping and censorious manner to benefit the ruling class,” as well the imposition of an American public square that “should overtly reflect God and the teachings of the Bible and Scripture.” 

Hammer’s policy prescriptions, such as they are, were echoed at the conference by right-wing think-tanker Rachel Bovard, who declared that “The institutional left does not intend to leave anything of the old republic behind for us to salvage. Constitutionalism, scientific inquiry, individual liberty, civil society, voluntarism, patriotism, parental authority, free expression, free enterprise, religious pluralism, cultural diversity — they are coming for everything. So national conservatism must come for them. We must forge a comprehensive policy agenda for Congress, the presidency, and the states to break apart the left’s every source of funding and power.” Hillsdale professor David Azerrad echoed that line, urging Republicans in government “to defund and humiliate the institutional power sectors of the left,” as did just about every other speaker I heard.

It’s true that Bovard also called for expanding and streamlining the child tax credit for working families, a proposal with which the Niskanen Center has been deeply involved. But there are limited possibilities for policy cooperation with people who want the state to confiscate Harvard’s endowment and profess to believe that the nonpartisan civil service is really made up of “two million woke jihadists with a Biden-directed mission to target, harass, and discriminate against unwoke heretics,” as Bovard put it.

National Conservatism — of the American variety at any rate — has only become more popular and influential within the conservative movement as it has leaned away from realistic policy consideration and into an apocalyptic vision of culture war along with a growing appetite for authoritarianism. But the initial promises and possibilities of the movement have been eclipsed as it has rejected most of its former intellectual seriousness, much of the Republican Party’s heritage, and many of the principles that have defined this country since its inception.