Late last week, conservatives from around the world descended upon the United States to endure the sticky September air of Miami, Florida. Mercifully for those of us used to more temperate climates, the managers of the JW Marriott Miami Turnberry Resort & Spa—the opulent setting for this year’s NatCon get-together—turned the air conditioning to full blast. The tropical scenery could therefore be marvelled at from the comfort of 23°C. More importantly, the maddening humidity was kept at bay and prevented from conspiring against the promise of intellectual nourishment.
The result was a great triumph. We met and conversed with curious men and women of all backgrounds. Many had travelled from as far as Israel, Norway, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. There were even one or two refugees from the socialist republic of California, delighted to discover that while their conservatism might make them social pariahs in San Francisco, they have plenty of like-minded friends elsewhere. Here was a place they could congregate to discuss, say, the compatibility of national conservatism with Catholic social teaching, the proper place of free markets within a conservative worldview, and the future direction of the Republican Party post-Trump (whether indeed we should embrace a post-Trump era at all). The fruits born of these vital questions are freely available on the NatCon YouTube page. It may interest readers to know that, after DeSantis’s electric post-dinner address, even the more Trumpian attendees could be heard admitting that the future of American conservatism is probably better served by a more polished, younger model like Florida’s governor.
In sharp contrast with the modern Left, which is known for its ideological, stylistic, and substantive uniformity, the Right—especially today’s non-conformist, anti-establishment Right—tends to be more colourful and diverse in its form. This was very much in evidence at CPAC Dallas in August. And the same applies to the National Conservatism event in Miami, Florida. Having attended and covered both conferences, I can say with confidence that at each gathering, through their respective representatives, there were clear expressions of the two dominant currents of right-wing populism presently influencing the Republican Party.
The distinct ethos of each conference is perhaps most clearly elucidated by the speakers who attended. While those featured at the CPAC Dallas podium were almost exclusively Republican politicians, former White House officials, political pundits, and celebrity activists, NatCon Miami saw figures like billionaire tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, editors of philosophical and cultural magazines, and the heads of right-wing think tanks, given keynote speaking slots.
Furthermore, whereas CPAC Dallas took on a distinctly Trumpian aesthetic, with its massive
exhibition hall filled with merchant booths, ‘yuge’ television screens advertising the MAGA dating app and Patriot Mobile, eighties pop music, and boisterous speakers, the atmosphere at NatCon Miami, by contrast, was less commercial and far more intellectual, restrained, and serious.
In spite of clear differences in their aesthetic grooves, one cannot deny that the ‘Ultra MAGA’ Trumpist Republicans of CPAC and the more DeSantis-leaning National Conservatives have plenty in common with one another. Both blocs reject the permanent political class and oppose globalism, neo-conservatism, left-liberalism, woke capitalism, the big tech oligarchy, critical race theory in schools, and the Left’s depraved orientation toward children. Additionally, both have increasingly embraced European right-wing populism and the use of state power to oppose leftist overreach. Not only are these populist currents united by what they oppose but also by what they would prefer to see supplant the current order.
There were also encouraging signs of a possible rapprochement between traditionalist conservatives and free-marketers. The relationship between these two factions within the Republican Party has been strained in recent years, splintering especially over Trump’s nationalistic rejection of the theory that ‘free trade’ is always and everywhere an unalloyed good. But might this breach be mended through increased dialogue? The new Heritage Foundation President, Kevin Roberts, showed signs that he and his economic neo-liberal friends have listened: “Milton Friedman was right,” said Roberts. “People should be free to choose; but truly free people choose to put their culture, their families, and their national survival ahead of the GDP.” So long as an obsession with money does not crowd out the common good and America’s cultural foundations stay intact against the more corrosive, globalised kinds of capital formation, tax cuts and deregulation can remain a part of the conservative script. Dynamic, competitive markets are inevitable by-products of a free, flourishing society; but they are not the cause, still less the foundation, of an enduring social order.
Undoubtedly the central theme of the conference was how to restore America’s Judeo-Christian public culture after decades of mandated secularism. The post-war consensus that religion belongs alone to the private sphere is being challenged. So are the Supreme Court decisions which underpinned the liberal commitment to secularise American public life following the catastrophe wrought by illiberal dogmatism in the Second World War. Just recently, America’s highest judges set an important precedent by siding with a high school football coach who, against the more aggressive liberal readings of the First Amendment’s ‘establishment clause,’ had refused orders that he stop praying on the 50-yard line of the school’s pitch. In Yoram Hazony’s Conservatism: A Rediscovery, the man behind the new National Conservative outfit calls explicitly on the Supreme Court to throw out Everson v. Board of Education. This landmark judgement from 1947 set in motion an entire process whereby God was banished from the shared public life of American communities. All of a sudden, it was decided that the First Amendment clause against “respecting an establishment of religion” should apply as much to state as to federal institutions. Never mind that the founding fathers could hardly have been clearer in restricting the religious activity of ‘congress’ as a nationwide legislature. It was inconceivable that this limit should also be extended to local laws or state legislatures, many of which had long observed certain denominational privileges (of course varying from place to place) both before and after the Constitution was written.
Hazony takes the view that restoring religion to a privileged place in the public sphere is a worthy goal in itself. But he further believes, as did many of the speakers at the NatCon conference, that only strong, shared, positive claims on our loyalty of the kind that religion provides can serve as a bulwark against destructive forms of political ideology. It is an idea perhaps best expressed by Benjamin Disraeli, who once proclaimed: “Man is made to adore and obey; but if you give him nothing to worship, he will fashion his own divinities and find a chieftain in his own passions.” The religious impulse in the human heart runs deep, such that pretending we can sustain ourselves without it and then rid the public community of its traditional faith will mean only two things. First, a whole generation of individuals, despite benefitting from unparalleled material privileges, will exist in a culture that makes no collective effort to plug the God-shaped hole in their hearts. Second, this generational disenchantment will not fade over time, but persist until their restless hearts are claimed by some rival religious system, particularly if it markets itself well and pretends to a kind of messianic knowledge, however secular, about the fallen condition of man and his heavenly destiny.
Identity politics; the ‘great awokening;’ neo-Marxism—whatever we want to call it—is recruiting a good number of lost souls and making a powerful bid to become the new public religion. To revive some pre-woke era of liberal ‘neutrality’ would mean returning to the conditions of profound spiritual starvation which made the ‘woke’ conquest of liberalism possible in the first place.
Thus, we find Yoram Hazony in his speech making the following announcement: “The day that you stop being afraid of being a Christian, the day that you stand up and say that America is a Christian nation, that is the day that woke neo-Marxism has met its match!” So, too, we have the Protestant pastor Albert Mohler pronouncing in grave tones that “a conservative movement that does not acknowledge the theological roots of our political life as a nation is by no means conservative and never can be.” Even the politicians laid an unusual emphasis on scripture, none more so than Senator Josh Hawley: “There is no idea that is more central to American life than the dignity of the common person. And that’s an idea given to us by the Bible.”
Predictably, the left-wing press opted to attack a cartoonish representation of this frequent appeal to scripture. Lamenting the possibility that “Republican politics may be about to get a lot more churchy than they already are,” Salon painted Hazony as some kind of stubborn theocrat committed to cramming Judeo-Christian doctrine down the throats of unwilling secularists: “Hazony envisions something on a broader societal level: the restoration of Christianity as the ‘public culture’ of America, meaning that Christian values and observances are assumed to reflect the will of the majority.” This is untrue. Hazony has made it clear on countless occasions that it would be foolish and counter-productive to force post-modern Californians to live like Bible-loving Texans. Hazony’s point is that Bible-loving Texans should be allowed to live like Bible-loving Texans: free to organise their public life around shared religious traditions not because it is the ‘assumed’ will of the majority, but their real will. What business is it of zealous, secular judges from Washington, D.C. to tell them otherwise?
Finally, we have the by-now well-established accusation of Republican authoritarianism. Yahoo News described NatCon as “a broad array of old conservative battlers and new, authoritarian-tinged activists” committed “to apply[ing] an intellectual structure to the sprawling brand of Trumpist populism that swept the right seven years ago.” The cry of authoritarianism, even if only in its ‘tinged’ variety (whatever that means), was not substantiated. The Daily Beast, moreover, argued that American conservatives increasingly rely more on “coercion than persuasion,” citing Rusty Reno’s call for mandatory military service for anyone earning more than $250,000 as evidence. The Daily Beast columnist neglected to inform readers that, while Reno’s income-adjusted proposal is new, military service in some form or another is required in authoritarian hellholes as various as Greece, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, Lithuania, Estonia, Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan.
Most of the critical energy, however, was spent attacking Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
The Daily Beast complained at the way in which, under Trump’s potential successor, the commanding heights of the Floridian government have been abused “to pick winners and losers” within the culture and economy:
DeSantis said tech companies ‘cannot be viewed as private entities’ because ‘we know without a shadow of a doubt they are doing the regime’s bidding when it comes to censorship.’ This, of course, comes on the heels of DeSantis going after Disney—when the company opposed Florida’s controversial “Parental Rights in Education” bill, dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” by its critics.
What, the journalist complains, ever happened to the conservative obsession with “limited government”? First, Disney’s former tax exemption privileges—recently abolished by DeSantis after the corporation kicked up a stink over parents being granted rights to a transparent school system—were not born of “limited government.” On the contrary, the company negotiated its special status with the Florida government on account of its world-beating touristic power. Privileges enjoyed at the largesse of the state can be reasonably withdrawn if those who benefit condemn not only the leadership itself, but the majority of parents in whose name DeSantis acts and speaks. Second, “limited government” is a guiding slogan, not an iron-cast dogma. Anyone who desires a flourishing civil society should resist not only the growth of busy-bodying state functionaries but also powerful oligarchs in the private sector, be they Twitter censors or YouTube content moderators, who act on behalf of left-wing activists to shrink the range of permissible views in America’s increasingly digitised public square. It is the very opposite of ‘authoritarianism’ to foster a democratic culture in which, no longer under the control either of government or its oligarchic friends, more voices are free to be heard. Until DeSantis encourages Big Tech giants to silence dissenting opinion, as the Biden White House has done, the learned scribblers at the Daily Beast will remain where they are now: hopelessly wide of the mark.
When it comes to covering the intellectual world of conservatism, the left-liberal press invariably disappoints. It is rather impressive that these reporters manage to sing in perfect harmony with one another. But then, harmony is not melody—and for now, the grand echo chamber of legacy media is certain to sound screechy and discordant to any person whose thoughts and feelings are still shaped by reality.