On “National Conservatism”

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Since the holding of the National Conservative Conference in Washington, DC the other week, the flood of commentary related to what is now being called “national conservatism” has been unceasing, possibly rivaling the chatter over neoconservatism in its peak in the 2000s. Such an abundance of takes may, at first, invalidate further comment. A case can be made for that, to be sure, but it can also be said that the commentary confuses the matter, and requires some attempt at clarification from a less invested but somehow still knowledgeable observer. In fact, that is what I’m saying.

The critiques of national conservatism are more various than the defenses. National conservatism is a euphemism for fascism, goes the most common critique. It puts a fur coat, top hat, and pinkie ring over Donald Trump’s brutality. Another critique contends that National conservatism is vague and confused. There is no unity among its intellectual proponents, no single leading voice, no clear long-term prospects. And there is the critique that National conservatism isn’t all that new, not all that national, and maybe not all that conservative. I intend to address some of these, if somewhat indirectly. Otherwise I’m going to follow a different path.

There are two ways of looking at the national conservative moment: the cynical way and the idealistic way. With my method of illustration, however, they become the emo way and the pop punk way respectively. Political movements and pop culture trends have considerable overlap in how organically they come together, how influential they can become among adherents, and how easily they can be exploited by good and bad actors alike; so this is not as outlandish as it first seems. It is a matter of determining which one it will most resemble.

Emo is the less desirable of the two. Emo has existed since the mid-1980s, it has evolved in notable but not significantly radical ways from its origins — oddly enough in Washington, DC. The term was imposed on the bands, and indeed few of the best-known bands associated with emo accept or uphold it. Even so, bands are called “emo” because they share influences, styles, and concert bills. The explosion of emo in the early-2000s was rather unexpected, at least for the bands and the labels trying desperately to sign them. Rock at that time was a chaotic mess of different trends. If college kids were listening to Modest Mouse, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Darkness, or Interpol, their high school siblings were listening to Taking Back Sunday, Brand New, Death Cab for Cutie, or My Chemical Romance. The combined lack of centrality and denial of its existence from artists caused emo as a mainstream trend to fizzle out before the end of the decade into an afterthought.

Ideally national conservatism would aspire to pop punk. Pop punk united a wider array of bands across a longer span of time and to a broader audience. Its sound was easily connected back to The Ramones and The Buzzcocks, but was still distinct. You knew what it was when you heard it. While emo just kind of happened, pop punk was responding to a crisis. Grunge had overplayed its hand and had been rejected. Pop punk emerged as a lighter, more listener-friendly alternative to the competing “alternatives.” National conservatism is both connected to and distinguished from previous modes of conservatism and could be said to be the best response to the disaster of neoconservatism, which waged two disastrous wars, crashed the economy, and practically laid the red carpet for the Obama presidency.

The pop punk case
Let us address the idealistic case first. Let us take national conservatism’s proponents at their word that what they are forging is reflective of the political situation rather than disruptive to it, as they might argue “democratic socialism” to be. Let us accept that national conservatism is the most appropriate intellectual synthesis of most of the American public, who are (a) socially communitarian and traditionalist, (b) middle- or working-class in status, and (c) exhausted by and therefore less amenable to free-market capitalism.

This is being treated either as disingenuous outside the right-wing or heretical within it, but it is not without precedent. In the 1960s, George Grant helped popularize “Red Toryism” in Canada: a nationalist, socially conservative, and anti-free market political philosophy that Grant thought would hit back against what he saw (not wrongly) as the Liberal Party’s Americanization of Canada. Likely the most significant godfather of national conservatism is Christopher Lasch. Though not a professed conservative himself, his later work, especially The True and Only Heaven and The Revolt of the Elites, echoes national conservatism’s preoccupations. Lasch was a clear-eyed, forceful, and dour social critic who saw a liberalized, global-minded elite retreating from the concerns of average people in favor of an abstracted utopia rooted in meritocracy, individualism, diversity, secularism, and therapeutic self-esteem. Lasch envisioned an ideal reaction to this trend to be local, communitarian, and populist. It would not be hostile to religion, skeptical of progress (morally, technically, or otherwise), and, again, anti-capitalist. This is to say nothing of the original movement conservatives, like Russell Kirk and Willmoore Kendall, who were hardly fire-breathing free-marketers.

Though this economic view is not novel to the right, it is a significant point of appeal. “In order to adapt to a more diverse America,” Helen Andrews writes, “the Republican party may need to move away from that unique Anglo-American hothouse flower, small-government conservatism, and closer to the conservatism that exists everywhere else in the world. These global varieties of conservatism are, importantly, strongly anti-socialist.” Here we get a clearer glimpse of what national conservatism broadly seeks to do. It does not wish to cling to “zombie Reaganism” of Paul Ryan or to the “woke capitalism” that pervades American popular culture. National conservatism wants to do for socialism what neoconservatism did for liberalism in the 1970s: create a disillusioned, more practical alternative.

That neoconservatism eventually failed is why we’re even talking about national conservatism at all. It is, then, fair to set aside the clear thinking and sound intentions of its proponents to speculate on its vulnerabilities.

The emo case
It is fair to say that national conservatism has what could be called a compelling “pitch” against competing ideologies. It is more compelling than the overly optimistic libertarianism of Justin Amash, the vague and largely spite-fueled “classical liberalism” of Dave Rubin, the outlet mall liberalism that so dominated the suburbs for much of the Cold War and a little bit after, and certainly more compelling than the white nationalism from which the conference took great pains to distance itself. But compelling to whom?

National conservatism can boast a popular groundswell with J.D. Vance’s bestselling memoir Hillbilly Elegy, the Jacob Riisian rustbelt photojournalism of Chris Arnade, and, to an ambiguous extent, the election of Donald Trump. On these events, national conservatism could attempt to build a coalescing — as opposed to fusing — movement. Yet I find this is not the case.

The abundant commentary on national conservatism that I mentioned above is somewhat misleading. For while it is rather copious, to the point of monotony, there is little to suggest that it is far-reaching. The commentary is written by intellectuals, which in turn gets read by intellectuals. Indeed, while I read the situation like popular music, the wider intellectual world reads it like sports — or sports films, anyway. There is a new team in town, a bit ragtag but formidable, the one ultimately to beat in the championship showdown. Noah Smith tweeted that the national conservatives scared him far more than the crowds at Trump rallies. Jeet Heer, too, tweeted (a few times) that Trump is the American equivalent of Gabriele D’Annunzio and that national conservatism will provide the Mussolini.

Here we can apply some skepticism. For all of J.D. Vance’s silent majority advocacy, the Horatio Alger proportions of his own story has magnetized the suburban liberal milieu he ostensibly criticizes as the culmination of their beloved meritocratic dystopia. Arnade’s work is more outwardly focused and visually arresting; and while much of his glum Twitter activity is dedicated to refuting attacks on his work and the rural United States it covers from the left, he is nonetheless a man of the Warrenian wing of the Democratic Party; that is, national conservatism with a human face — and a socialist heart. Trump may, moreover, be a showman on par with fascism’s Iggy Pop, but D’Annunzio never held any real power, let alone over a global superpower.

Ultimately the intellectual championship showdown will lack for a crowd. Seldom do such movements ever enter the cognizance of the non-bookish (or bookish-lite) masses. And it is far from certain that they are needed. A point of contention with national conservatism is how it relates to Trumpism. The conference included Michael Anton, who made an intellectual case for Trump in 2016 and who worked in the administration for a little under two years. Yet Trump is at best indifferent to intellectuals. He prefers to govern, as Richard Hofstadter said of Jackson, “by force of personality, not intellect.” National conservatives prefer to see themselves as taking America beyond Trump, to build upon his foundation. But it seems to me that the only builder the right-leaning American public has any interest in is the one who actually builds things. I don’t see much appeal in holding up lawyerly sophisticates like Vance and Josh Hawley as successors to Trump. If right-leaning American voters wanted that, Ted Cruz would be in the White House right now.

American voters are a notoriously flexible lot. That is why American political parties are often a mess of (sometimes acrimoniously) conflicting factions. And Trump’s own instinctual style lends itself to wild but still accessible fluidity. “The combination of strong partisan identification and ideological malleability,” Joshua Tait writes, “goes a long way towards explaining Trump’s election and continued Republican (and conservative) support for him.” National conservatism is itself far from solid; it must, for one thing, clarify its foreign policy vision — Josh Hawley, for all his intellectual rigor and dynamic thinking on the right, is still too hawkish by half. But as it solidifies ideologically it must self-preserve, as all ideologies do, before addressing anything else. National conservatism is predicated on, above all things, an attitude towards American life that echoes Jimmy Carter’s “crisis of confidence” rhetoric: the situation is grim, “the true problems of our nation are much deeper” than economic scarcity, we must rally as one, and we must sacrifice. A lasting national conservatism is ever vigilant not just of the encroachments of socialism, progressivism, or the rise of China and Google’s complicity in it, but also of liberalism and the suburban ideal, which never fails to come screaming back into our lives at the slightest hint of economic uplift. That vigilance requires some manner of centralizing force over our economic life that stretches far beyond the practical interests of the public.

National conservatism can boast a connection to the needs of its constituency that is more than tenuous. But its solution to build an egghead panopticon around it and to call that panopticon “conservative” is one I don’t fully accept.

The obviously correct prescription
In the recent past, from about 2010 to 2015 and maybe a little further back, there was a window of opportunity for the leveling of the institutional approach to intellectual discourse. With the enabling of the internet, the ideological planes could become less compartmentalized, and the ideas they engendered less restricted. An experimental and eclectic atmosphere would incubate fresher arrangements less welded to liberal or conservative pointers and more toward life as it is lived, in its constant economic, cultural, technological, and environmental flux.

That window has since closed; and institutionalism remains. I was naïve to think that the previous anarchy would last, let alone be desired, and I was foolish to say so out loud. I blame myself also for not being proactive in cohering my own ideas, being always a bit distracted by the storm of weirdness around me. There is, I think, some part of national conservatism that is just as aware of the weirdness of this time, for all the good and bad attributes, and better at addressing it. I’m thinking primarily of James Poulos, a versatile and endlessly curious thinker whose work is less interested in purely partisan programs and more interested in trying to assess what our situation is and what our next steps could be.

This is not a callback to some kind of fusionism, which even it is prime had all the power of a Band-Aid on decapitated neck. It is rather a call to separate the marketing impulse from the democratic intellectual class on which it has become dependent.

“What? Who cares?” –Me

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