NatCon 2 and the Plan To Save America.

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  • 03/02/2023

It was the last day of the second National Conservatism conference (informally called NatCon2) at the Hilton Orlando. My flight back to Texas was leaving in five hours, so I ducked out of the proceedings to get some lunchtime beers and enjoy the first real taste of autumn. The sun was shining, and it was 75 degrees. I sat at the pool bar, recounting my conversations over the previous three days in my head, and remarking on the oddity of a little pink rotary phone that sat ringing behind the bar. As I finished my third beer, Jack Murphy sauntered up to the bar and asked for a Stella Artois. We got talking after I introduced myself, and I asked if he would answer the same questions I had posed to the other attendees I had interviewed. He graciously obliged, and as the server brought his beer, I inquired: “Over the last 40 years, what has the conservative movement succeeded most in conserving?”

He shrugged. He scratched his trademark beard and thought for a split-second before saying, “Nothing much comes to mind.” I ordered another beer, and we chatted for a bit, both agreeing that “conservatism”—as an organizing political ideal—was more or less spent in the America of 2021. At a conference called “National Conservatism,” this view might seem to be a minority perspective. It wasn’t.

There is still much to be ironed out regarding the policy commitments of the New Right. But one thing is clear: the particular formulation of right-wing politics that secured the victories of the conservative movement in the late twentieth century will be inadequate for addressing the challenges we face today. If conservatives awakened in 1984 to “morning in America,” we now find ourselves at twilight—with precious few minutes to act before the sun sets on the Republic.

[caption id="attachment_199828" align="aligncenter" width="1280"]Sens. Cruz, Rubio, and Hawley. Sens. Cruz, Rubio, and Hawley.[/caption]


Two days before the conference, I flew into Tampa. I was taking my mother to see the Rolling Stones for her 71st birthday. From there, I would drive north to Orlando to cover the conference. As Human Events readers know, Democracy Dies in Darkness, so the magazine was good enough to allow me (a professor moonlighting as one of Our Nation’s Embattled Journalists) to apply for a press pass in their name. Thus, I went to Florida to try to catalyze the themes discussed at NatCon 2, where anti-Marxist liberals and national conservatives attempted to forge a new alliance to fight the onslaught of leftist authoritarianism which now looms as a grave threat to the American project writ large.

Educated right-wingers who appreciated Trump’s nationalist agenda, but want an alternative in 2024.

Friday night, as Mick Jagger tarted it up during “Tumbling Dice,” I gazed across the thousands in the stands at Raymond James Stadium, marveling at the number of Baby Boomers. This generation is still alive and—apparently—well. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” is perhaps my favorite Stones tune, and as they played it, it occurred to me that the cultural-political valence of the song was permanently recalibrated by its extensive use by Donald Trump. My father once asked why Trump always ends his speeches with that tune. “It’s obvious,” I explained. “Trump knows that the establishment GOP [to say nothing of the left] didn’t want him. But you can’t always get what you want. Sometimes though, you get what you need.”

It took an hour to get back to the hotel after the show. When I woke up, my mom was already awake. “How’s your head?” she asked. I was feeling last night’s beer, but there was no time to lose. I showered, bid my parents farewell, hopped in my rented blue Nissan (which smelled of old cigarettes), and headed northeast.

As I drove, I remembered why I avoid Florida. The place is like one giant TGIFridays. It seems like everything there is a chain. It’s almost like the state made a conscious decision to cater exclusively to the appetites and aesthetic sensibilities of the Typical American: the type of person who gets $68,000 to work in a cubicle for 50 weeks a year. Nevertheless, Florida is also one of a handful of states that offer a blueprint for a different kind of governance than what is on offer in my native state of New York (and roughly half of the other 48). This, I suppose, is why FLA was chosen to host NatCon 2. Masks are not required in Florida, which currently boasts one of the lowest infection rates in the nation. Only a few days before the conference, Governor Ron DeSantis gave a rousing speech at a dinner that the Claremont Institute had in his honor. There is palpable hope that DeSantis will run for president—especially among the types who would be at NatCon: educated right-wingers who appreciated Trump’s nationalist agenda, but want an alternative in 2024.

[caption id="attachment_199831" align="aligncenter" width="1280"]U.S. Supreme Court. U.S. Supreme Court.[/caption]

The first night of the conference, I met up for dinner with Charles Negy, a canceled (former) professor of psychology at the University of Central Florida. Negy—who had tenure—was fired for making posts on social media that were critical of Black Lives Matter during the George Floyd riots. His comments sparked demands from students that he be terminated. Rather than affirm the integral role that free speech plays in intellectual inquiry, UCF actively solicited complaints against Negy, openly stating that the administration was building a case to “justify” his firing. After the firing, the university maintained that Negy was fired for other reasons, but as FIRE and other outlets have clearly demonstrated, this wasn’t the case.

The NatCon2 crowd was the activist-intellectual class.

Today, Negy is in the process of appealing UCF’s actions. His case is monumentally important: if arbitrators or the courts do not reinstate him and punish the university for violating the protections of tenure, there will almost certainly be more cancellations like his. It is already open-season on any university employees who deviate from the official doctrine of institutional wokeness. If Negy’s firing stands, it will signal that even tenured faculty are not protected from the consequences of ideological dissent. A purging of the few remaining academic dissidents will surely follow.

As we dined, Negy outlined the battle plan for fighting back, and made it clear that he will use every mechanism available to him to ensure that he receives redress. This made me happy. As a campus dissident and survivor of a fraudulent Title IX complaint at my own university, I have a personal stake in his case. I finished my scotch and walked back to the hotel. The conference began in the morning.

When registration began the next day, I went to the mezzanine to retrieve my press credentials. There was palpable energy as people filed into the conference area. There were probably around 600 people at the conference, and this was a different crowd than the one I encountered at CPAC this summer. The populist movement on the right is, by definition, a popular one—it is primarily composed of everyday Americans. They don’t have any particular status or intellectual pedigree. They are the people who make America work; the same ones who have borne the brunt of the elites’ chronic mismanagement of this nation over the last half-century. These were not the people who gathered at NatCon2.

The NatCon2 crowd was the activist-intellectual class. Renowned professors (Patrick Deneen, Glenn Loury, Scott Yenor, etc.), Think-tank leaders (Ryan Williams, Chris DeMuth, Rachel Bovard), right-wing new media personalities (Dave Rubin, Michael Knowles, etc.), sitting and aspiring Senators (J.D. Vance and Sens. Hawley, Cruz, and Rubio), and prominent journalists and editors of high-profile publications (Chris Rufo, Rod Dreher, Rich Lowry, Emily Jashinsky, Josh Hammer, and others). These are the architects of the new paradigm, the thinkers who are collaboratively redesigning conservatism to respond to the unique challenges of our moment.

Despite many speakers’ membership in the elite castes of America, their first priority was reestablishing an America that works for the typical American. This America, they hope, will be a place where lucrative work is available for people at all levels of society and where unskilled jobs bring remuneration that might sustain a family on a single income. But the conference also conveyed deep concern with rebuilding an America that works in a spiritual sense—creating the conditions where citizens can locate meaning in the traditional arenas of life that make life worth living: family, faith, labor, sacrifice, and community.

The prospects for spiritual fulfillment (necessary prerequisites for a life of meaning) have been both intentionally and inadvertently undermined over the course of decades of rule under a liberalism that denies any claim that there are universal truths, transcendent values, or inherent moral goods. Sohrab Ahmari commented on the importance of meaning for the vitality of the national spirit: “People who have historical memory have heroes, they have romantic ideals, they have authorities that guide their consciences, they have national pride. Family and community form the warp and weft of their characters.” Rebuilding a shared memory and its meaning are a central task in rebuilding the nation.

[caption id="attachment_199829" align="aligncenter" width="1280"]Peter Thiel. Peter Thiel.[/caption]


In his keynote address on the first night, Peter Thiel noted the intellectual diversity of those in attendance. He continued: “I hope they will not agree with one another.” Prior to coming to Florida, this was exactly what I had hoped to observe: how much agreement was there among the major voices at the conference, and on what did they agree?

Consensus is a slippery thing. — Yoram Hazony

The week before the event began, I had interviewed Yoram Hazony, scholar and Chairman of the Edmund Burke Foundation and organizer of NatCon. When I told him that I was interviewing many speakers to assess whether there was consensus among them on key issues, he bristled: “Consensus is a slippery thing,” he said. “I wouldn’t expect there to be too much consensus among national conservatives at this early stage.” The conference, he suggested, was a means to begin the process of forging a consensus and establishing new alliances between different political tribes with mutual interests.

This implicit admission that consensus is needed, however “slippery,” is an important one. Politics is ultimately a practical art—a discipline that eventually demands that philosophy be put into practice. Although intellectual heterodoxy is key in generating ideas, a movement can only gain traction via some shared understanding of the world. The ability of a national conservative movement to bring a new political reality into being will depend in large part on the degree of intellectual consistency and unity of vision among the most influential players in this game. When I asked Hazony which single thing the conservative movement had been most devoted to conserving over the last 40 years, he gave me a one-word answer: “Liberalism.”

By this, Hazony meant that both the left and right, for over a generation, have been most committed to maintaining a radical vision of personal autonomy, wherein the individual is loosed from any non-consensual obligations (e.g., family, religion, societal expectations). All this in an effort to maximize freedom of choice, whether that be in the marketplace, the political sphere, or consumption of culture. This cynicism regarding the performance of Conservatism, Inc. and skepticism about liberalism’s ability to chart a viable path forward were not uncommon at NatCon2.

Asked the same question, Claremont Institute President Ryan P. Williams conceded that conservatism has succeeded in “establishing gun rights as an individual right.” But outside of protecting the Second Amendment (which Benjamin Weingarten also cited as a success), Williams remarked that “the conservative legal movement is a tale of woe and gnashing of teeth.” Thinking for a moment, he spoke to himself quietly: “What else has [conservatism] conserved? Not much.” “Talking and writing,” he joked.

The Reagan Coalition is dead. — Rachel Bovard

Newsweek opinion editor Josh Hammer pointed out conservatives’ maintenance of the “post-war neoliberal order,” which includes such “successes” as “economic and cultural deregulation, globalism, and the concentration of sovereignty toward unaccountable transnational bodies.” Seth Root of the James Wilson Institute also noted that lower taxes and deregulation could also be considered successes, but acknowledged that, on the cultural front, very little had been conserved. Weingarten agreed, but noted that “nominally lower tax rates” were offset by “the piling on of debt and money-printing.”

On the last day of the conference, CPI President Rachel Bovard (whose impassioned, vivacious speech received a standing ovation) finally named the necessary implication of these failures: “The Reagan Coalition is dead.” While the old fusionist consensus may have slowed the advance of institutional leftism for a brief period and achieved some minor wins for the American people, its indifference to cultural concerns ultimately ensured the collapse of that consensus. Hammer reckoned that this self-sabotage happened because having “outsourced” policy-making to the economic libertarian wing of the fusionist alliance, conservatives “failed to engage the culture” and retreated both from the “fight for influence within [existing] institutions” and from the effort to “build our own institutions.”

Weingarten concurred, noting that as the left consolidated more and more institutional power, conservatives remained “focused on issues that became more and more immaterial as “the fabric on which our country is based” was frayed. Williams credits the last few decades of conservative impotence to a “proceduralism on the right” that does not even attempt to check left advances in politics and culture outside the halls of Congress. “We neglected politics,” he says.

To sum up, our current dire situation was caused by two primary factors: an unwillingness to revise the conservatism of an older era during a time of rapid change, and complacency in the face of an organized, sustained, and aggressive campaign by the left to capture and remake every American institution. Happily, this is one view everyone at the conference seemed to share: that the old assumptions of the political right were outmoded and obsolete.

The collapse of the old consensus may seem like a loss, but it was a necessary one: faced with the incontrovertible evidence of failure, there is agreement that we must build something new. And finally, there seems to be the energy to do so.

[caption id="attachment_199830" align="aligncenter" width="1280"]The Lincoln Memorial. The Lincoln Memorial.[/caption]


Throughout much of the conference, I sat in the press pool a few seats down from David Brooks, New York Times columnist and alleged conservative. When I saw him, he was always alone. One time I passed him on the street as he was shuffling past the Denny’s, blinking and seemingly disoriented, as though he had never seen intense sun of the sort in Orlando. But as I watched him watching the speakers, he looked monumentally bored. Little did I know the tumult that was raging within him. A couple of weeks later, The Atlantic published his harrowing account of NatCon under the title “The Terrifying Future of the American Right.”

NatCon showed that the intellectual class of the American right understands the urgency of this moment.

There, Brooks recounts the “sinking sensation” that he felt during the applause for Bovard’s rousing speech. He noted that he expected some harassment at the conference, given that those of us in attendance were “the fire-breathers, the hard-liners, the intellectual sharp edge of the American right.” It turns out, we disappointed him: we were “charming.” Still, Brooks was deeply disturbed—especially by the widely shared perception that “the left controls absolutely everything,” which was puzzling because it should be obvious to any serious observer of politics that the left does, in fact, control everything.

Brooks consoles himself that the organizers of the conference are merely “isolated intellectuals with a screwy view of politics and history.” Sure, National Conservatives may be “extremely off-putting.” But on some visceral level, he understands what he saw at NatCon 2. The “callousness, invocations of combat, and whiffs of brutality” that Brooks sensed weren’t hallucinations. But this is good news for anyone on the right who thinks that the “conservatism” of the New York Times only serves to grant legitimacy to authoritarian leftism, which is now on the brink of unraveling the nation.

NatCon showed that the intellectual class of the American right understands the urgency of this moment. They understand the aims of their political enemies. They’ve learned the lessons of the Republican failures of the past. They are making new alliances, and they are far along in charting a new way forward. They are raging against the dying of the light. In short—for the first time in a long time—they are ready to fight.

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