What the Hell Is ‘National Conservatism’ Anyway?

Tucker Carlson, Peter Thiel, and Josh Hawley are three of the faces of national conservatism — and all spoke at a conference this week intended to flesh out what exactly being a national conservative means. Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photos: Getty Images

Earlier this week, the Washington, D.C., Ritz-Carlton hosted the National Conservatism Conference. Organized by Yoram Hazony, the Israeli conservative and author of The Virtue of Nationalism, the three-day gathering was intended to bring together leading right-wingers — Peter Thiel, Tucker Carlson, and Senator Josh Hawley, among others — around the proposition that, in the words of the conference’s website, “the past and future of conservatism are inextricably tied to the idea of the nation.” It was, in other words, an attempt to synthesize some of the disparate strands of Trump-era populism and nationalism into something resembling a coherent — and intellectually respectable — part of the conservative movement.

That goal has, to some extent, been overtaken by other events. On Sunday morning, just a few hours before Peter Thiel called for the government to investigate Google over Chinese espionage in his conference keynote, Trump issued his now-infamous tweets wondering why four nonwhite Democratic congresswomen — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Ayanna Pressley — didn’t “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” As a few liberal writers have already pointed out, while Hazony and the other conference organizers did their best to argue that a more culturally traditionalist and nationalistic conservatism is not equivalent to racism, Trump’s behavior has undermined them, and in part overshadowed their attempts to articulate a respectable American nationalism.

Some wounds were more self-inflicted. As a need for greater national cohesion and cultural unity was a major theme of the conference, it was no surprise that a number of speakers advocated immigration restriction, some on cultural grounds. Amy Wax, a Penn Law professor who was briefly the subject of a campus controversy in 2017, took it a step further, advocating a “cultural distance” immigration policy to ensure that the United States is “dominated culturally, demographically, numerically, [and] politically” by “people from the West.” In comments that have already circulated widely on Twitter, Wax clarified that this meant “embracing the position that our country would be better off with more whites and fewer nonwhites.” (She also favorably cited the “dissident right.”) There are some who would consider any anti-immigration argument racist, but Wax’s co-panelist, American Conservative co-founder Scott McConnell, was able to offer a culturally informed case for restriction that somehow avoided gratuitous potshots at “shithole countries” and shout-outs to the racist right. Wax couldn’t. She shouldn’t have been invited.

Beyond these flash points, however, there were a few interesting discussions. “National conservatism” was never really defined, but broadly speaking, what unified the participants was a rejection of the small-government, free-market orthodoxy of the Obama-era Republican Party. Many took rhetorical swipes at “globalism” or “cosmopolitanism” or “libertarianism”; most spoke of rebuilding families and promoting a common American culture; a few, including Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance, attacked pornography and spoke of the need for the government to do more to promote the common good. For the most part, these calls for a more activist vision of conservative government were vague; in some cases — as with former American Enterprise Institute president Chris DeMuth’s fulminations against costly regulations and government spending — they seemed like little more than attempts to rebrand small-government fusionism as “nationalist” by making a few token references to the importance of sovereignty. But the rhetorical shift is noteworthy in and of itself, and the energy was with those attempting to tear up the old GOP consensus, not trying to gently modify it.

The main exception to the prevailing vagueness was on the subject of “industrial policy,” or the idea that the U.S. government should take steps to promote (and in some cases subsidize) American firms in strategic industries. The most prominent name calling for an industrial policy was Oren Cass, Mitt Romney’s former policy adviser, who managed to convince a room full of Republicans that the government should, in fact, be taking steps to boost American industry. Yet Cass’s version of industrial policy is fairly tame, and not overly offensive to traditional GOP sensibilities — his big ideas are wage subsidies and a repeal of 1970s-era environmental regulations. The Apollo program, it is not.

The most compelling ideas on industrial policy came instead from a couple of relative outsiders, David Goldman and Julius Krein, both affiliated with American Affairs, which Krein founded and edits. Focusing mainly on the threat posed by China, Goldman and Krein both painted a dire portrait of an America falling well behind its principal geopolitical rival in major strategic industries such as 5G and high-tech manufacturing. In Krein’s telling at least, this is the result of 30 years of a flawed free-market consensus, which has benefited bankers and corporations able to take advantage of tax-and-labor arbitrage while leaving the country’s industrial core to rot.

The threat is so severe — Krein worries that we will soon be unable to build submarines or airplanes without sourcing key components to the Chinese — that we need, in Goldman’s words, “a grand national effort comparable to the Eisenhower administration’s response to Sputnik.” And the proposals offered by Krein genuinely are grand: increasing federal research spending; upgrading small-business programs to provide capital for manufacturing scale-ups; creating German-style translational research institutes to spread technology through the domestic supply chain; using federal procurement to promote native companies in strategic areas like 5G; and even stealing technology from foreign competitors like Huawei.

From my own conversations with attendees, more than a few of the conservatives at the conference found Cass plausible and Krein a bit pie in the sky. But the “national developmentalism” articulated by Goldman and Krein was the closest thing at the conference to a plausible, positive vision of what national conservatism might look like beyond immigration restriction and an expanded child tax credit. Already, something of the sort is beginning to take shape in the Republican Party. Josh Hawley has made headlines with his attacks on Silicon Valley, and Marco Rubio wants to use the upcoming reauthorization of the Small Business Administration as an opportunity to provide more investment capital to American businesses, particularly in manufacturing.

Whether these trends stick or go the way of the Paul Ryan budget remains to be seen. But for now, at least, a faction of the GOP has a real appetite for economic heterodoxy. As Krein put it at the end of his speech, sounding like he could’ve been in Zuccotti Park: “Markets are not some jealous god that we have to make sacrifices to, and it’s time that we acknowledged that.”

What the Hell Is ‘National Conservatism’ Anyway?