Donald Trump’s rise put on display an identity crisis within the conservative movement. That crisis predated the friction between #NeverTrump and die-hard loyalists. For decades “conservatism” has been a conglomeration of different, conflicting factions. Religionists stood alongside secularists, traditionalists alongside classical liberals, protectionists alongside free marketeers — and still many other elements. With Trump leaving office, the question is which factions will exert the greatest influence on the movement’s future and, by extension, our politics.
Even if — and perhaps especially if — you are unsympathetic to “conservatism,” it’s crucial to understand one emergent faction seeking control: the crusaders for “national conservatism.”
One way to understand this crusade is to see it as an attempt to purge the broader “conservative” movement of elements it deems harmful. Advocates of “national conservatism” claim to march under a banner that will unite a fractured country, secure our freedoms. But what do they stand for? If they gain influence and power, what will their political success mean?
A Time to Purge
Listen to the crusaders for “national conservatism,” and you hear familiar themes about decadence, decline, debauchery. We’re sliding toward Gomorrah not only because of the hated “progressives,” but also, they say, because “something went terribly wrong with American conservatism” after the Cold War. In the view of Yoram Hazony, a scholar rallying the “national conservative” faction, his brethren lost sight of what matters: God, tradition, and the nation. Instead, “all that interested them was economic liberalism and the rights of the free and equal individual.”
In Hazony’s telling, this led to almost every problem he sees in our society: decadence, endless wars, uncontrolled immigration, economic decline. Whatever the actual sources of these issues, for Hazony the solution is to reverse course. It means purging from the movement any vestigial concern with individual liberty. “We declare independence,” he announced, “from neoliberalism, from libertarianism, from what they call 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 central to political thought. And it means embracing, rather than throwing out, the Bible and the Torah.
From such unconvincing starting assumptions, what’s the direction that Hazony and his colleagues are heading in?
An Alternate-Reality Version of “America”
The advocates of this new species of “conservatism” claim to love this country, but it’s impossible to believe that the Founders would recognize their conception of America.
The United States was a child of the Age of Enlightenment. What typified Enlightenment thinking was a questioning, often an outright repudiation, of hidebound tradition and the intrusion of Church upon life and the state. America embodied a revolutionary new idea. It was predicated on the Enlightenment perspective that the value of an individual’s life is sacrosanct; that his rational mind is competent to deal with the world, and that therefore he should be left free politically.
That perspective reverberates loudly in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, but that’s far from what you’d learn from Rich Lowry, the longtime editor of National Review and author of The Case for Nationalism: How It Made Us Powerful, United, and Free. In his book, Lowry insists that the view that America was built on an “idea” is one of our “most honored national clichés.” No one “lives in an abstraction. You don’t ask someone where are you from and get a response, ‘Well, I live in Chapter 5 of Locke’s Second Treatise,” he said, provoking laughter from the audience at a “national conservatism” conference.
Having inflicted grievous bodily harm on a straw man, Lowry describes an America that exists only in some alternate reality. In his book, he piles one anecdote upon another to assure the reader that what’s special about America, what deserves our loyalty, is emphatically not a set of universal, founding principles. It’s not the tradition-flouting independence of the Founders, who created a secular system of government. The Enlightenment is conspicuous by its understated role in Lowry’s account; the word hardly comes up. In the Declaration of Independence he sees the American “people” asserting nationhood — but, oddly, not the document’s most distinctive, profound emphasis on the moral sovereignty of the individual in the pursuit of his life, liberty, and happiness.
Instead, Lowry insists that to see America’s distinctive character we must look to the King James Bible and tradition. We must look not to the political ideals and principles that defined our system of government, but to language, land, the flag, traditions, and ties to England (notably, the area of East Anglia). It’s as if America’s fundamental character was set long before 1776, and the intellectual ferment of the Founding was non-essential.
Lowry pushes a brand of conservatism focused on the nation (“nationalism”), though he claims to repudiate the murderous “nationalism” that devastated the twentieth century. But his attempt to redeem the idea of “nationalism” is unsuccessful. What he advocates is not simply a warranted love of country, an appreciation of the country’s objective virtues (the idea of patriotism); rather, it’s a national loyalty emptied of intellectual substance.
Bowing to Authority
The elevation of the collective is a theme among thinkers aligned with “national conservatism.” David Brog is the executive director of the Edmund Burke Foundation, the organization spearheading “national conservatism.” In welcoming remarks at a conference, Brog called “individual liberty” a major achievement, before proceeding to repudiate its importance: “we just never saw our liberty as the singular objective of centuries of conservative political thought.” We’ve “aspired to something greater than being left alone . . . . We don’t want to be left alone. We want to be connected, connected to one another, to our ancestors, kin, to our descendants.” Christopher DeMuth, a Reagan official and former leader of the American Enterprise Institute, explains that “national conservatism” is set against the idea of “atomized free-floating individual autonomy.”
The frequent railing against the notion of “atomic” individualism is revealing. It relies on a deliberately misrepresented picture of individualism, one calling to mind an impoverished existence without meaningful human contact. By conjuring up this strawman, advocates of “national conservatism” make it seem as if our only choices are a life devoid of human connection, or else embracing the collective.
This campaign against a distorted notion of individualism has definite political significance. It means upending the relationship between the individual and society, according to Patrick Deneen, a professor at Notre Dame. The appropriate political unit, he believes, is not the individual, but the group, the family, the community.
In other words, “national conservatism” seeks to subjugate the “I” to the authority of the “we.”
And above such collectives there is an even higher authority before which we must kneel. Hazony and other advocates of “national conservatism” exhort us to turn not only to the nation but also to faith, if we hope to put America on a firm foundation. But, again, theirs is a conception of “America” the Founders would have struggled to recognize.
Politically, it is religion’s power, which had led to so much bloodshed, that the Founders worked to fence off. A major thrust of the Enlightenment — reflected in the Founding of America — was the appreciation of the power of reason to guide life and gain knowledge. Flowing from that perspective was a rejection of the view that the individual was duty-bound to kneel before any authority.
A major thrust of Hazony’s book, The Virtue of Nationalism, is the rejection of the idea that each of us, using reason, can attain truths about the world. No, Hazony believes: “no human being, and no group of human beings, possesses the necessary powers of reason and the necessary knowledge to dictate the political constitution that is appropriate for all mankind.” If individuals cannot use reason to identify universal political principles by which to live and prosper, how useful is it in a social-political context? And, if we take this view a step further, how much can the individual possibly matter, relative to the collective? For Hazony the tribe, the nation, is paramount.
For Enlightenment thinkers, the embrace of reason meant shrugging off authority. For Hazony, by contrast, the embrace of faith means bowing to authority. What do these contrasting views mean for political thought? It was Jefferson, immersed as he was in Enlightenment thinking, who penned the Declaration of Independence, a reasoned revolt against royal authority. We can glimpse where “national conservatism” leads: embracing authoritarianism.
At a conference on “national conservatism” in Rome, the organizers hosted as guest of honor Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary. Part of his appeal to them can be seen in his stress on Christianity’s necessary role in society and on what American conservatives call “family values.” For example, the BBC reports that in 2019 Orbán announced a plan that would give any Hungarian woman with four or more children a lifetime exemption from paying income tax, while “young couples will be offered interest free loans, . . . to be cancelled once they have children.” But Orbán’s rule should alarm anyone who values freedom. He has pushed Hungary toward authoritarianism.
After his party came back to power in 2010, it changed the constitution to its advantage and “replaced key officials in every politically relevant institution,” observe two scholars, erasing checks and balances, and appointing loyalists to the constitutional court. More recently, the government oversaw the merger of some 400 media outlets — about 85 percent of all Hungarian media outlets — into one conglomerate, which has aligned itself with the ruling party’s agenda. The government directs spending on advertising toward friendly media outlets, thus incentivizing them to become organs of propaganda. “The upshot is a ‘government-organized media’ — some of it state-owned and some private, but all under the control of [Orbán’s Fidesz party] and its allied oligarchs.”
The interview squarely presents Orbán as embodying the ideas of “national conservatism.” The uncomfortable conclusion is that leaders of this faction endorse Orbán’s anti-freedom approach as a path for America to follow.
If they lionize Orbán, how do advocates of “national conservatism” view President Donald Trump, who relies on both conservative and nationalist slogans? Some, like Hazony, viewed his election in 2016 as creating an opportunity for advancing “national conservatism.” Lowry, whose National Review pointedly rejected Trump in 2016, has come to view him in a somewhat favorable light. Lowry’s book portrays him as right to emphasize the importance of the nation. Even if views on Trump may differ among proponents of “national conservatism,” a troubling fact remains. It’s that Trump’s own authoritarian impulses — the bullying of CEOs, the antitrust threats against media organizations, his threat to punish companies that move their operations overseas, his admiration of murderous dictators such as Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin — has been insufficient to put them off. Perhaps instead it is part of the appeal.
The emergence of “national conservatism” is an ominous trend for American political life. Its advocates often stress the themes of patriotism and love of country and even political freedom. But the substance of their views is a betrayal of America’s founding ideals.
Three threads stand out. First, the life and judgment and freedom of the individual must be subordinated to some group: the family, tribe, community, and, ultimately, the nation. Second, reason is overrated. What should steer our own lives? Not our rational judgment, but tradition and faith. Third, despite the rhetoric about providing a foundation for American freedom, there’s an alarming comfort with, and even glamorization of, authoritarianism.
The “conservative” movement in America lacks a defined, coherent set of ideas. This was a pre-existing condition, vividly evident well before Trump’s ascent. The movement has been a collection of disparate factions, with significant inner contradictions. The aim of “national conservatism” is to steer the broader movement toward collectivism, faith, and force. Politically, the more “national conservatism” succeeds in reshaping our society, the more we’ll find ourselves moving further away from truly American ideals.