In Defense of the National Conservative Agenda and Its So-Called 'Authoritarian' Impulse

The reviews are in on the third American meeting of the National Conservatism conference (colloquially referred to as NatCon 3), and many aren’t good. Like so many other things that offend the sensibilities of the Left, it seems national conservatives pose a Threat to Our Democracy®. Apparently, the speedy rise of national conservatism is fueled by a growing cadre of right-wing intellectuals who want to impose an “authoritarian” regime upon the United States.

All the smart people are sounding the alarm. Reporting on the conference, a headline at The Daily Beast wryly explained that “Trump’s MAGA Heirs Want a Kinder, Gentler Authoritarianism.” Never too far out of step with establishment progressives, the “conservative” website The Bulwark echoed this idea. Responding to the recent Statement of Principles by prominent national conservatives, the RINOs at The Bulwark warned that the ideas therein could “provide justification for some pretty troubling authoritarianism.” Salon, a once respectable site for leftist political commentary, took a break from publishing trivia to underscore the threat posed by national conservatives. They called the NatCon political agenda “a roadmap to autocracy.” A journalist for Yahoo! News (who I very much enjoyed talking with over drinks at the conference) characterized the meeting as “a broad array of old conservative battlers and new, authoritarian-tinged activists.” Last week, in a hysterical field report on NatCon for New York Magazine, Jonathan Chait reported on “the hostile, paranoid, and increasingly authoritarian path ahead for American conservatism.”

It seems, then, that the question is settled. The national conservative movement consists of aspiring authoritarians who coopt the language of America’s democratic tradition to disguise their true motives. But as with every media-manufactured “consensus” these days, we have to ask: Is it true?

We can’t answer this question without defining authoritarianism – an important task that most reporters who oppose NatCon curiously overlook. They know authoritarianism when they see it, we are asked to believe. But all too often, “authoritarianism” is used as an epithet to smear any exercise of state power that would be disagreeable to the Left. How do we know their dire warnings and predictions are political theater? Well, it’s because the Cassandras who are announcing this “threat” remained silent in the face of over a decade of Leftist realpolitik, which partakes of the very same tactics that they now cite as evidence of the authoritarian impulse in their opponents.

On the rare occasions that NatCon critics cite actual evidence of the supposed autocratic aims of the movement, they reference statements from conference speakers and representatives who merely call for the political right to avail themselves of the draconian uses of power that our leftist regime has perfected. But because conservatives are… well, conservative…these aggressive styles of governance are largely foreign to them. National Conservatives not only recognize this fact – they recognize that the Left has routinely exploited the instinctive restraint of conservatives. Progressives know they can rely on traditionalists’ preference for moderation and compromise – a tendency that habitually hamstrings the Right in challenging the incessant overreach by leftist politicians and unelected bureaucrats. National Conservatives are simply imploring the right-wing to stop playing by Queensberry rules and adapt to the no-holds-barred approach that has been standard operating procedure for Democrats since the 2000 election.

Thus, as evidence of this rising “semi-fascism” on the Right, Chait quotes Rachel Bovard’s conference talk (she serves as the Conservative Partnership Institute’s senior director of policy): “Wokeism is not a fever that will pass but a cancer that must be eradicated. And the ‘free market’ won’t do it. […] In this new reality, the only institution with the power to contend with the Woke Industrial Complex is the government of the United States.” He notes a passage from Will Chamberlain’s speech where he called for an increased “willingness to use government power to achieve conservative ends.” Similarly, Reason magazine cites Hillsdale professor David Azerrad, who invited conference attendees to “Imagine how quickly the political landscape would change if we had a core contingent of elected Republicans who were committed to using power to defund and humiliate the institutional centers of power on the Left.”

There was no shortage of similar statements at the meeting – everyone agreed that if the right should reclaim congressional power in the impending midterms (or, God willing, the White House in 2024), conservatives should be much more aggressive in utilizing the full range of the powers afforded them by their offices. It is this willingness – no, eagerness – to play political hardball that the “goblinesque” “reporters” of the legacy media are calling “authoritarian,” “autocratic,” and “semi-fascist.” And yet, those same voices remain totally silent about a comparable impulse on the Left – an impulse that doesn’t exist merely as a partisan daydream of what Leftists will do when “their side” is in charge, but as the real, documented modus operandi of elected Democrats.

Consider the Machiavellian process used to pass Obamacare, rammed through by achieving the barest majority in the Senate through quid pro quo – all at a time when roughly 85% of Americans reported satisfaction with their health care. Only a few years later, after insisting dozens of times that he couldn’t address the status of illegal immigrants without congressional approval, Obama decided to legislate by autocratic fiat (and without Congress) and announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) – a policy that brazenly circumvented existing federal laws regarding deportation. In 2013, the Senate’s Democratic majority (led by Harry Reid) decided to eliminate the filibuster for the approval of executive and judicial nominees. The filibuster was a long-standing American procedural tradition which (during the Bush years) Democrats had held sacred. But once there was a Democrat in the Oval Office, and it became a hindrance to enacting their political will, it was eliminated in short order.

The autocratic, authoritarian impulses of the Left continued in the last years of the Obama administration and beyond. In blatant disregard for rules governing secrecy and the maintenance of public records, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton decided to use an illegal, private, personal email server for her government business – an unprecedented choice for such a high-level official, which can only be explained by a desire to ensure that some of her communication would not be a matter of public record. After this was discovered, the contents of her servers were subpoenaed. Clinton promptly deleted around 30,000 emails that should have been turned over by court order. This was a felony. The lack of any penalty indicates that Clinton is above the law – an autocrat who both makes the rules and decides when they won’t be observed.

The 2020 election was a case study in authoritarian realpolitik. Look no further than Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. In both states, election procedures were changed, supposedly due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The problem is that such changes require the approval of the state congress. Such approval was neither sought nor granted, but the rules for mail-in ballots were changed by fiat (in Pennsylvania, Democratic autocrats seem prepared to run the scheme again for the midterms). The illegality of these changes was indisputable, and they likely flipped the outcome of the election in some states. Nevertheless, the courts decided to look the other way.

More recently, consider Biden’s unilateral student loan cancellation. Once again, Congress had no say in this matter. The President simply decided to eliminate $10,000 of student loan debt per individual borrower – authoritarian fiat. Why only $10,000? No one knows. How will it be paid for? No one knows. Such a cancellation is virtually unprecedented, and the administration claims this power from an obscure rule created in the aftermath of 9/11, implicitly equating the Covid-19 pandemic with a terrorist attack. Novel interpretations of unknown policies to justify unilateral, autocratic decision-making is a mark of authoritarian regimes.

In short, the last 20 years have seen a litany of autocratic, authoritarian, unilateral governance – by Leftists. There are innumerable examples that space did not permit me to mention. Not only has this behavior been condoned by the agencies and institutions that are tasked with enforcement and government oversight – this authoritarian impulse is the driving force of the rapid cultural changes that have unfolded in America (for which “wokeness” is the shorthand term).

Does the political Right do the same things? Sometimes they try. Trump, branded as the classic “authoritarian” by our biased media and commentariat, sometimes attempted to enact unilateral decisions this way. Recall when he tried to shut down travel from eight nations associated with global terrorism – a gambit that was promptly shut down by the courts. Similar injunctions were issued when Trump tried to assert an authority to dictate the procedures for detaining illegal immigrants at the border. Even when President Trump did have legitimate authority to modify policy, leftist bureaucrats worked to grind the implementation of new initiatives to a halt.

All this illustrates a troubling truth. Conservatives, long attacked by legacy media as “authoritarian,” are routinely stymied even from wielding the basic powers of their office, while the Leftists who are celebrated as the defenders of Our Democracy® make up the rules as they go along with impunity. The people who are smearing National Conservatives as “authoritarians” and “semi-fascists” haven’t simply looked away from two decades of leftist autocracy – they have celebrated it. Only now, when conservatives have been awakened to the futility of demanding accountability (and thus have shifted to considering tactics that have been the sole methods of Democrats, do activists like Jonathan Chait sound the alarm about the threat of “American autocracy.”

For years, then, the Left has played by one set of rules while conservatives have consigned themselves to loss after loss out of a hallowed respect for the separation of powers and the procedural limits of authority. The NatCons are hip to the Left’s game – and are newly committed to playing it, broadly interpreting and revising rules in a commitment to pulling America back from the brink. It is this prospect that has the “journalists” of the liberal media in a frenzy. As the Left has shown for years, the ethical status of a particular use of power is determined by the ends it serves. Call it “authoritarian” if you must – but the ends pursued by the New Right (the restoration of what remains of the American cultural tradition) just might save our democratic system of governance. With such an urgent cause, conservatives can rest easy that the means are justified.

Image: Title: natcon