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The National Conservatives Are Winning the Right’s Battle of Ideas

A recent gathering of right-wing politicians and intellectuals underscores conservatism’s increasing illiberalism — and suggests the GOP might move even further toward authoritarianism and phony economic populism.

Senator Ted Cruz, who gave a keynote address at the 2021 National Conservatism Conference, pictured here speaking at the 2019 Teen Student Action Summit hosted by Turning Point USA in Washington, DC. (Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

Interview by
Luke Savage

In late October and early November, prominent members of America’s political right descended on Orlando for the second-ever conference on “national conservatism.” From elected officials to right-wing intellectuals, the gathering and its various events offered crucial insights into the state of the conservative movement and its direction of travel in a post-Trumpified world.

So, what exactly is “national conservatism” and to what extent does it represent a break from the post-Reaganite consensus as we’ve known it? The question, it turns out, is not exactly an easy one to answer; the conference offered a complicated mixture of continuity and change, even from its immediate predecessor in 2019.

As longtime observers of American conservatism, Matthew Sitman and Sam Adler-Bell — cohosts of the Know Your Enemy podcast — were following events in Orlando closely. Earlier this month, they sat down with Jacobin’s Luke Savage for a broad-ranging discussion of the National Conservative Conference (NatCon), the so-called national conservatives, and where the Right may be headed in the coming years.


LS

I guess a good place to begin might be, very basically, with the phrase “national conservatism.” This was a term associated with the inaugural version of the conference that just happened, and before we get into a deeper discussion of anything here, I think it might be worth laying out a bit what exactly it refers to. So, for a moment putting aside the question of what the two of you think national conservatism is, how might the median speaker or attendee at one of these conferences characterize it? What would the elevator pitch be?

MS

If you’re talking about the participants — meaning people who are pretty engaged and are following these debates — they would probably say that national conservatism is a rejection of the same old, fusionist, Reaganite conservatism consisting of free markets and traditional values. There’s also a foreign policy critique, namely of a more neocon-ish, aggressive, internationalist foreign policy. So, they would define it in one sense, I think, against what had been the prevailing consensus among conservative intellectuals about what conservatism was, and it’s meant to distinguish itself from that. And you can see a forerunner of that tendency in Sohrab Amari’s piece “Against David Frenchism”: the orientation against something, I think, is an important part of national conservatism. They’re saying, “This approach has failed,” and they’re trying to chart a different path. What it means positively, I think, is still being worked out. But I would say, in some ways, it’s an intellectual version of Trumpism. On trade, foreign policy, immigration, and so on, they’re hitting Trumpy themes, even if they don’t express themselves the same way. They’re kind of filling that populist space cleared by Donald Trump when he burst through the primaries in 2016.

SAB

Most of them also have a lot more comfort with state power, as such. They’re skeptical of the libertarian first instinct to fetter the state in every instance, so they argue that conservatives ought to use the state, both to enforce a moral orthodoxy in the cultural realm — they’re much more comfortable with the state advocating for traditional values and imposing them on the public — and to regulate markets. Some even support things like an industrial policy for the heartland, which is to say they have a nostalgia for postwar political economy in the United States; they would want to bring back a manufacturing base; they are more protectionist; and they believe cultural decay has been exacerbated by neoliberalism, which undermined traditional blue-collar factory work in large parts of the country.

LS

Let’s get into the conference that took place in late October and early November in deep Ron DeSantis country. Who were the key speakers? What were the key themes? And how did it compare to the 2019 National Conservatism Conference?

MS

Well, to start with, it was, I think, a much bigger gathering with more speakers, more panels, and more breakout sessions. There’s a lot of videos to watch on the National Conservatism YouTube site, which is to their credit. You can go and watch pretty much all the panels, all the talks, all the roundtables, all the sessions. So, I think it was a bigger gathering with more people, which — as we’ve said in our episode on the conference — I think is a sign that they’re succeeding. In terms of who was there, it was most of the people I think you would associate with the illiberal right, people like Patrick Deneen, Yoram Hazony, Scott Yenor — these are the academic political theorists who were at the conference. Among politicians, you had Josh Hawley. Ted Cruz was also there, which as we’ve noted could be an indicator of their success, given that Cruz is so craven and he’s going to go where he thinks the action is at. Peter Thiel was there. Sam, who else would you say was there among the notables?

SAB

Yoram Hazony, the American-born Israeli academic was the convener of the conference, both this one and the last one. He’s one of the key figures in the revival of nationalism on the Right and author of a book called The Virtue of Nationalism. His speech was specifically about the thing Matt described. It was called “De-Fusionism” and advocated renegotiating the fusionist consensus, mainly to give more power to the traditional side of that alliance. There’s also Josh Hammer, who’s an editor at Newsweek and a kind of fellow traveler of the new right.

MS

Rich Lowry, editor of National Review.

SAB

Right. The presence of other figures in the vein of Lowry like Chris DeMuth, who used to be the head of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), is an indicator of the degree to which the center of gravity in conservatism has moved in the direction of nationalism. That someone like DeMuth, who once embodied the Reaganite consensus, is now speaking at NatCon and giving somewhat of a mea-culpa speech — acknowledging that the nationalists were right — is striking. Dan McCarthy, one of the more thoughtful if still somewhat scary and erratic figures of the paleocon right, was also there.

In addition to nationalists and fusionists who are moving in a nationalist direction, the national conservatives attract what Hazony would call anti-Marxist liberals, that is, people who are basically liberal but have become so upset about so-called “wokeness” that they come and speak at this kind of conference. So, Glenn Loury, the somewhat contrarian labor economist — who has switched allegiances from Right to Left and back to Right — was there.

Peter Thiel too, who’s important because he’s kind of the Mr Moneybags of this crowd. He’s funding J.D. Vance’s campaign — Vance gave the final speech at the conference. Thiel is also funding Blake Masters in Arizona. Marco Rubio gave a speech, but I think his plane got canceled, so it was over Zoom or whatever.

MS

The conference was pretty representative in terms of people previously from different quarters of the conservative movement, different institutions, different magazines, different publications. And again, I think that’s what the Right is good at: bringing people together at a conference like this to establish a sort of bare minimum or a working minimum consensus among people. And it’s actually very useful in that sense, because I think they actually do hash out disagreements, or at least put their cards on the table, and because it’s contained within this friendly gathering, I think it does make the debates and disagreements a little more constructive than just sniping on Twitter or having dueling YouTube shows or whatever. There’s something about being together in a room and hashing stuff out that matters.

In terms of the issues, there was a lot of talk of China — breakout sessions and panels and remarks specifically dedicated to China — and to breaking up Big Tech. Those at least are the slogans you heard: China, Big Tech, surveillance; obviously the concern with wokeness and woke-ism, Critical Race Theory (CRT), and so on was ubiquitous as well. In that sense, I thought there was a little more red meat than at the first conference. I really thought the first conference had more of a theoretical sophistication to it, in that they were kind of laying down some first principles. And I’m not saying that didn’t happen at all in the more recent conference, but I think because there were more panels and more people there, and it was building off of the first conference, there was more of an emphasis on who their enemies were — like Rachel Bovard’s talk that went off about Jeffrey Epstein and “totalitarian cults” and how they’re coming for you and your kids, they hate you, they hate us, and so on.

LS

I wanted to ask you guys specifically about that. Because something that seemed quite emblematic of the conference was this speech given by Rachel Bovard (whom, I confess, I had never heard of). Bovard said:

Woke elites — increasingly the mainstream left of this country — do not want what we want. . . . What they want is to destroy us. . . . Not only will they use every power at their disposal to achieve their goal . . . by dominating every cultural, intellectual, and political institution . . .

She spoke of an enemy that she characterized as a

totalitarian cult of billionaires and bureaucrats, of privilege perpetuated by bullying, empowered by the most sophisticated surveillance and communications technologies in history, and limited only by the scruples of people who arrest rape victims’ fathers, declare math to be white supremacist, finance ethnic cleansing in Western China, and who partied, a mile high, on Jeffrey Epstein’s Lolita Express.

So, who is Rachel Bovard? And just what the hell is going on here?

MS

I mean, every one of those things is connected to a story that if you were really plugged into right-wing media, you would know about. This conference happened right as the Virginia election was happening, so some of this stuff, especially around education and CRT, was really percolating because of the race for governor in Virginia. But all those things are in the right-wing mythos or cinematic universe that the conference participants exist in — the people there listening would know what they were. But it’s a great example of how such rhetoric works. . . . It’s not that any of those things aren’t true, in a sense! We know that Bill Clinton was on Jeffrey Epstein’s planes. But it’s odd that a Trumpist would go all in on the Epstein stuff, given that Joe Biden is president, and as far as I know, he hasn’t been photographed with Ghislaine [Maxwell] or with the man himself.

Anyway, all those things are a part of their universe. But it’s a commentary on how, in the internet age, you can find five examples of true things, string them all together, and then that’s your case against someone. And it’s not factually incorrect, in that she mentioned things that did happen. But I thought it was a very online kind of comment, in a sense. And notice that she said they want to destroy “us,” not even destroy America. She might have said, instead, “We have profoundly divergent views about the meaning and nature of America and what we think the future of this country should be, and they are on the wrong side of those.” But instead, it’s, “They want to destroy us.” It was personalized in a way. One of the burdens of Know Your Enemy over the past couple of years has been to raise the question, “What are they giving themselves permission to do?” Why do you use that personalized language? And I think it’s because it’s the language of war and enmity, and victory at all costs, and subordinating means to ends.

SAB

I think Matt’s exactly right about that Bovard passage. It’s full of hypnotic trigger words for the Right. But if you haven’t already been hypnotized by the nationalist program, then you can’t parse it; it makes no sense. This is something I’ve found again and again in talking to people on the new right. One of the things that authorizes the whole political and emotional project here is the idea that America has already been taken over by people who hate them, who hate their values, and who want to destroy the country: that is, the idea that progressives and liberals want to “destroy America.” That was the theme that came up over and over again at NatCon. In terms of the question of what they’re giving themselves permission to do, if your enemies want to destroy America — not beat you in an election, not pass particular laws — if they want to destroy the country that you love, you’re justified in doing pretty much anything to oppose them. So, they say to themselves, “Should the things that we do be constrained by the Constitution? By statute? Well, no, not if our enemies want to destroy America, if they hate us.” I think that’s completely crucial to the whole affective appeal of the nationalist right.

LS

Continuing a bit more on the theme of what they’re giving themselves permission to do: something particularly sinister that was a little harder to laugh at was Rod Dreher’s speech where he talked about Viktor Orbán and remarked, “Our team talks incessantly about how horrible wokeness is. Orbán actually does something about it.” The authoritarian implications of that seem pretty clear. Someone else, I’m forgetting who, talked about “rewarding our friends and punishing our enemies.”

MS

I think that was Hammer.

LS

Right. I mean, there are all kinds of things I could ask here, but can we talk about Hungary a bit? What is it about Hungary specifically that these guys like so much?

MS

There’s a lot that might be said about that. There’s one thing in particular: I want to make the connection between our question (“What are they giving themselves permission to do?”) and that quote from Rod to the effect that “Orbán is doing something about it.” The most sinister interpretation of that is stealing elections, storming the capital, acting in an extralegal way, trying to secure power by force and fraud; that’s the worst version. But Orbán has also been doing things like getting rid of gender studies programs: that is, things that don’t look good and won’t make for great PR among educated elites, but he does them anyway. And I don’t know what legal justification he gave for it, but the Supreme Court can legally overturn something like Roe v. Wade. That’s not an extralegal or extrajudicial kind of move.

So, I feel like part of that question — “What are they giving themselves permission to do?” — implies going for the things they actually can do rather than just the worst-case scenario, which involves subverting elections and overturning American democracy. It’s doing the things that, in polite company, a certain kind of establishment conservative would’ve traditionally been embarrassed by or blanched at a bit. Things like the bounty hunter law in Texas are a real mask-off moment, where there’s so little regard for the rule of law and the rights of their fellow citizens, if they’re literally willing to engage in writing a bounty hunter law to enforce [anti-abortion laws]. Again, that’s legal. It may not ultimately be found to be constitutional. But it was a law that was passed, and it’s working its way through the court system. So, these are the kinds of things they can do that they might not have in the past that I think they’re chomping at the bit to do now.

And I think Orbán in that sense is an inspiration. He does the things that will draw the criticisms of the woke and even not-so-woke educated elite, even if that means it doesn’t look good and gets blowback from certain quarters. The Right is now saying:

We’ve got to stop caring about that if we really want to win. We have to not worry about what certain people’s impressions are going to be or what kind of press we’re gonna get, because that’s what the old conservatives, the establishment conservatives, were: too worried about what people thought and a little too embarrassed by actually wielding power.

SAB

We did a whole episode on the Right’s fixation on Orbán with John Ganz and Lauren Stokes, which people can listen to. I do think that one thing to note is that the Right — especially the fringier, more ambitious, and less liberal parts of the Right — has always looked out on the world or through history and found ideal types of authoritarian leaders to develop little crushes on. Recently, they went through an António Salazar phase, where you could read a lot of paeans to the Portuguese dictator. And many on the Right will say nice things about Francisco Franco. As leftists, we might look to Latin America for examples of “really existing socialism”; for them, Orbán represents an example of “really existing illiberalism.” So, they point to Hungary as a model. It’s all a little fantastical, because the conditions are just so incomparable. The history of Hungary and its present moment, its relationship to the European Union . . . it’s all just so incomparable to the position of America, the global capitalist hegemon. So, it operates in the realm of propaganda and fantasy more than in a “we’re really gonna do exactly what Orbán has done” sense.

LS

I gather Josh Hawley also delivered a sermon on masculinity?

MS

Well, there’s a lot going on there. If you remember, in the 2019 NatCon gathering he used the “cosmopolitan elite” language, and there were a number of flashpoints at that first conference where people said things that were quite controversial or that were, in Hawley’s case, unfortunate tropes. So, that’s why he gained notoriety last time. This time it was all about “manliness,” and honestly, I couldn’t quite get through the whole speech.

LS

He’s been reading his Harvey Mansfield, clearly.

SAB

Matt, would it be fair to say that for you, Hawley is an ill-fitting medium for that message?

MS

I just find Hawley being the messenger for this utterly ridiculous. Partly because it’s so strained. It’s just like . . . real men don’t go around talking about “manliness” all the time. You know? He doth protest too much, or something. It’s unhealthy, in a way, to fixate on things like the current levels of “manliness” in yourself and in society more broadly.

SAB

Yeah, he should really go up there having done a test on his testosterone levels and read them aloud so that we can know exactly how much of a man he is. But yes, the manliness theme came up over and over again. Josh Hammer talked about how “Conservatism, Inc.” has shown itself to be “effete, limp, and unmasculine.” I’m sure your readers are keen enough to understand all the dimensions of this. I mean, getting people’s castration anxiety up is always an effective strategy for right-wing speakers and propagandists.

But to steel man a little bit here, it’s related to this nostalgia for America as a blue-collar lunch-pail economy where men can be men and work with their hands and have a good union job and be providers for women who don’t have to work, so they can stay home with children — the many, many children they will have to propagate a particular . . . people in this country.

That’s the meaning of the masculinity stuff (if you want to take it more seriously than it perhaps deserves). It’s related to industrial policy and reshoring manufacturing. But it’s all toward the preservation of a very particular kind of patriarchal family, the revival of a Fordist family wage, and it’s not really about helping everybody regardless of how they want to live. It’s helping certain kinds of families, promoting certain kinds of family formation, and reasserting patriarchal control in the home.

MS

I think it’s two-pronged. It does two things, and what Sam said is one of them. It’s related to political economy in an important and interesting way. But I also think it’s an important part of the whole “what are they giving themselves permission to do?” equation. I think you see with Kyle Rittenhouse, there’s a sense on the right that men will be men and boys will be boys: that means something particular, and you have to give them outlets for it, like working in factories all day or the pride that comes with being a breadwinner for a family. There’s a sense men need that kind of physical work and that kind of responsibility to be decent dads and fathers and husbands and brothers and such. And if you don’t give it to them . . .

SAB

They’ll go shoot people in the street.

MS

Right. There’s an idea that men need these heroic quests for themselves, and you can kind of channel that a certain way with families or not. But I think you can see with the manliness thing, it’s like, “Yeah, we’re sick of being put upon, we’re sick of being victims.” So, when they say they’re gonna try to destroy us, who’s gonna lead the charge? It’s gonna be manly men; virile, manly men standing up for truth and goodness and beauty. So, I think the psychology of fighting back is deeply wrapped up with manliness too. And that’s a part of the illiberality of it all. It’s getting this close to saying, “We’re going to settle this by force rather than politics.” It’s walking up to the edge of how extralegal or extrajudicial their politics are.

SAB

I think Matt’s completely right. And there’s an elision often with right-wing rhetoric, especially right-wing rhetoric that is fascist adjacent: you’re simultaneously saying, “If we don’t let men be men, then they will become the brownshirts,” and at the same time, “Let men be men so they can be the brownshirts.” There’s this slippage between those two appeals. It’s the same thing that confuses and upsets — but also excites — people about Jordan Peterson: he’s simultaneously saying:

I am the solution to the problem of the alt-right, to the problem of these boys stuck in their basements who don’t feel like they have a heroic quest to go on. I’m telling them, just be responsible, be a man, clean your room.

But at the same time, his message is exciting, libidinally satisfying, enacting exactly the same masculine fantasies that produce the brownshirts. And so, they present themselves as both the solution to the problem and something that exacerbates it. I think that’s always key to these plausibly nonfascist, but in many ways actually fascist, emotional appeals.

LS

I want to talk a bit more about the question of political economy. To me, this is, in a big way, the central question about the whole national conservatism phenomenon. Because it seems to me that its greatest claim to novelty has to do with things like industrial policy and a willingness to use the state — or at least a professed willingness to discuss using the state — in a way we would not associate with the Right as it’s been constituted since the 1970s or 1980s.

But when the two of you were talking about Hawley just now, it certainly sounds like much of this stuff about industrial policy and planning is ultimately animated by much more familiar and traditional concerns. When they’re hearkening back to postwar American capitalism, it sounds like they’re harkening back to an ambient cultural aura they associate with that time and also to a particular division of labor in the household.

Meanwhile, there are other parts of it that they probably don’t care for at all. I mean, they certainly don’t want the New Deal consensus that actually enabled at least some of what they do want, just as they don’t want the trade union density of the 1950s. So, is there a sense in which the political economy stuff is just window dressing for these much more traditional and familiar right-wing concerns? How seriously should we take the novelty of the new right’s professed embrace of statism?

MS

Sam, what was your line about Jonah Goldberg’s book . . . “Beetlejuice”? Like, “Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice . . . if we just say we’re a working-class party now, three times fast . . . ”. You do get that sense sometimes that it’s window dressing. But to be fair, some people at this conference have actually been pretty consistent. If you ask them what policies they want or to flesh out their vision of political economy, they would give you some things which, from the left, you might not agree with, but some things you might agree with partially, and some that you might think are right. It would be a mixed bag.

SAB

Oren Cass was there, the head of American Compass — which is a relatively serious conservative, pro-industrial policy, and tentatively pro-union organization.

MS

But pro-union in odd ways. You do often just find there’s a wrinkle sometimes even when they say something you’re agreeing with — like maybe a nod toward unions being good and important in a certain way. I find that among intellectuals, you would again come across some people who are talking about these things in good faith. I think when it comes to elected officials, people like Hawley and Rubio, they’ve kind of charted different paths. Rubio is someone who gave a speech at the Catholic University of America a couple years ago that was all about having lived through 2016 as a candidate and getting run over by Trump, the subtext being, “I get it now, Republicans need an economic vision that’s friendlier to working families . . .” and so on and so forth.

But he doesn’t come out and back unions, full stop. He won’t say the minimum wage should be at least $15. You do find a stopping short. And even with Hawley, whose main schtick seems to be breaking up Big Tech — and I’m sure there are some particular proposals he’s put on the table that you could identify . . . but my sense is that there’s still not as much policy bandied about at conferences like this as you might hope for. It’s a real mix, so I think it’s much easier to speak of who they’re against, who their enemies are, than to craft a policy agenda that everyone there would agree with. It’s the bare minimum consensus we talked about earlier: kind of a working consensus where, as you get closer and closer to particular policy areas, that might be where there are still differences. And again, it’s hard to know what some of them actually want at all in some cases.

SAB

One way I’ve talked about this in the past is that the slogan of the internationalist left has been “No war but the class war.” And I would say that the slogan of the new right is something like “No war but the culture war, which itself is a class war.” But all of the class war implications of the culture war are secondary, they’re downstream of the culture war. And so, for them, there’s a certain segment of this coalition that has decided that being rhetorically, and in some cases actually policywise, pro–working class (a certain kind of working class, really a white male breadwinner working class) is a necessary means to achieve the culture war ends they want. But the ends are the important part, not the means. These more class-conscious policy agenda items are all in service of the culture war.

So, that’s why sometimes — it’s kind of schizophrenic — it seems like they’re serious about the labor stuff, and sometimes it seems like they’re not. It explains why there can be this shared platform with former neoliberals and former presidents of AEI, people who have dedicated their whole careers to being anti-union, to supporting a balance of class forces in which bosses have absolute power. Their ends can be similar, even as their means differ.

MS

Yeah, and think about what we said at the very start, right? The critique of the old consensus, the dead consensus, the old fusionism, is that it didn’t work. So, there’s not a first principle that they’re dealing with in many of these cases. Maybe there’s a different world where things shake out differently the past few decades in the United States, and the moral traditionalists are happier with them. Let’s say you don’t have certain Supreme Court cases come down a certain way, and you don’t have gay marriage nationwide, and the traditionalists maybe just feel differently about their place in the conservative movement. But the message is that something was tried and it failed and that it’s time to try something new, which gives people who were a part of the old Conservative, Inc., people who were things like presidents of AEI, permission to say they did those things in good faith but that over forty years they’ve learned it didn’t work. So, it gives them an out. But I think this just proves Sam’s point that all these things are subordinated to the end of the culture war. Because again, it’s just to say, “Well, things change and we’re gonna try something different.” It’s proof that they’re not really operating from axiomatic first principles about what workers deserve. It’s kind of an observation about how things have played out in recent decades and an adaptation to that.

SAB

And I would say that one crucial point on the “labor-curious right” is that they have no concept of how labor’s back was actually broken in this country. They seem to think some libertarian economists came up with the neoclassical consensus, put it out into the world, and then suddenly all the unions were destroyed — as opposed to what actually happened: there was a deliberate class project of the ruling elite to destroy the unions in the 1970s, because that was their solution to stagflation — which itself expressed a moment at which the balance of class forces had shifted to a dangerous degree toward workers (from the perspective of the capitalist class).

And the mechanisms by which neoliberalism was imposed in this country were not just the Volcker shock, but as part of the Volcker shock, the rise of the prison-industrial complex, much more punitive policing in cities, the imposition of punitive welfare policy, replacing universalist programs with means-tested programs — for example, dismantling Aid to Families with Dependent Children and replacing it with welfare programs that were designed to coerce people into having certain kinds of families, while leaving other workers in a position where they had nowhere to go but informal economies or out of the workplace into criminalized unemployment. The things that the populist right still cheerleads, like the police, the prison, and a certain kind of family where a single mother can’t get by in this country . . . those are precisely the mechanisms by which neoliberalism was coercively imposed on the American public. And because they are completely ignorant and have refused to acknowledge that history, they also have a completely diluted concept of what the working class consists of — because one of the effects of that way of imposing neoliberalism on this country is that the kinds of work that couldn’t be offshored, the kinds of work that predominate among working-class jobs now, are care work jobs in which women and immigrants and people of color are overrepresented.

So, you never hear Sohrab Amari or Josh Hawley or any of these people talking about how we need to reinvest a sense of honor and nobility into the labor of home health care work or people who work as nurses or teachers or janitors. That’s significantly what constitutes the American working class. The idea of reconstituting an American working class that is white and manufacturing-based is a complete fantasy, as an economic and historical proposition. The way you know that it’s all kind of hot air, and it’s all about culture war and not about material reality, is that they don’t actually confront what working-class politics looks like in this country. Which is to say it’s way more feminine, it’s way more immigrant-based. It’s way more about care work. It’s interpersonal work, in that it’s more about people’s mutual vulnerability than it is about, say, building a car.

MS

One quick point to follow up on that. It is the ignorance of material realities and the actual history that’s relevant to everything we’ve been discussing. The idealized nature of it is really striking. But I think this is one way you’re dealing with people who actually aren’t trying to deal with concrete problems of political economy, but really with ideologies and propagandists — because the language is always so abstract, and it always goes back to people who held the wrong ideas. In Patrick Deenen’s mind, the liberalism that’s destroying the United States sprung from the head of John Locke sometime in the seventeenth century! And just as Sam’s saying, for some of these people, the problems facing the working class in the United States have more to do with conservative think tanks adopting the wrong economic theories than the actual brutal history of busting unions and cracking down on working people in all kinds of different ways. It’s just a mark of their rhetoric, and I think that’s one reason you just know it’s bullshit. You’re just dealing with abstractions. Look at the number of times in these speeches when they say, “Liberals believe X,” or, “The woke believe in X.” They deal in abstractions because you can treat abstractions as ciphers that you fill with everything you hate about the world.

LS

In trying to interpret a phenomenon like national conservatism, one of the things I struggle with is the extent to which it can really be differentiated from conservatism as we’ve known it. David Brooks had a very alarmed piece on the recent conference in the Atlantic called “The Terrifying Future of the American Right” in which he offered the following observation:

Conservatives have always inveighed against the cultural elite — the media, the universities, Hollywood. But in the Information Age, the purveyors of culture are now corporate titans. In this economy, the dominant means of economic production are cultural production. Corporate behemoths are cultural behemoths. The national conservatives thus describe a world in which the corporate elite, the media elite, the political elite, and the academic elite have all coagulated into one axis of evil, dominating every institution and controlling the channels of thought.

Now, there might be something to this — and of course this is just a single passage from a quite lengthy piece. But what he’s describing sounds awfully familiar to me, and not particularly novel as far as the recent history of American conservatism goes. To what extent should we differentiate it from other strains on the Right and to what extent is it simply a rebranding effort that’s more about continuity?

SAB

I have a short answer to begin with. The question of whether it’s merely a branding exercise depends in part on whether the people who are serious about a change in GOP economic policy get their way. And I think it’s very unlikely that they will. If they do, it will always be in ways that continue to privilege bosses. There were a couple of moments during the conference where they invited somebody who was actually a pretty sophisticated critic of what they were trying to do, one of whom was Julius Krein — who gave a speech where he basically said that “none of this is going to work. Conservatism is not going to become a working-class movement,” and he’s someone who would like it to. But it’s implausible, and he went through reasons why that’s the case. So, I would say that, for the most part, it’s a branding exercise. It’s a retooling of a very old propaganda message; it’s unlikely to fundamentally change the policy agenda of the GOP. I agree with you, Luke. But I think, and maybe Matt can speak to this, that the ways in which that propaganda message has been retooled does create some leeway for some things to be normalized in the GOP mainstream.

MS

One of the things we’ve said on Know Your Enemy, reaching back to the first few episodes, was that what we see now on the Right represents both continuity and discontinuity with what came before it. I think a lot of what you see historians arguing about now is trying to parse how much continuity there is versus how much discontinuity there is. There was such an emphasis when Trump first emerged on him being not really American, right? “This isn’t who we are. He’s something different, even George W. Bush after 9/11 said it’s not all Muslims’ fault . . .” and that kind of thing. I think there’s been almost an overcorrection, saying we now see the roots of Trump shot through the entirety of the Right for the last sixty years — almost as if his rise was inevitable.

How would I parse the continuities and discontinuities? I’m not sure. You should try to be alive to the historical continuities, while also being alive to some of the things that feel novel or at least rhetorically fresh. On Know Your Enemy, we consume a lot of history and do a lot of research, but we also track in real time what we’re seeing on the Right without imposing too heavy of a theoretical framework on it. We almost try to encounter phenomenologically what conservatives are talking about, the arguments they’re making, what they seem to be responding to. And in some ways, it makes a lot of sense that they would be rebranding now. A lot has changed in American life and culture in the past two decades.

And so, the emphasis on Big Tech makes a fair amount of sense. Sometimes I wish the Left — or I should say, more broadly, the liberal left of center in the United States, including the Democratic Party — would be more alive to changes and more open to creative thinking about how to talk to people about what they want to do for them. And the Right, I think, is actually pretty good at that kind of adaptation. For all the criticisms I have of the National Conservatism Conference, if you try to find a direct parallel to it on the Left, you might be hard-pressed to come up with one. You could certainly give some names, and there are conferences and gatherings you could point to, but I feel like the mix of serious conservative intellectuals with roots in the institutions of the Right, plus actual political actors — Hawley, Rubio, candidates like J.D. Vance, and funders, like Peter Thiel, all being in the same room, hashing these things out . . . it’s ominous in some ways, but you can see why it’s effective.

SAB

This is another pervasive Know Your Enemy theme, but one of the things to keep in mind is that all of this exists in relation to a sense among conservatives that conservatism is no longer a majoritarian proposition in American life. It’s clearly true from recent elections: conservatives, whether they’re Trump or not Trump, don’t win a majority of the population. And as Matt has pointed out on the podcast, they no longer talk about themselves as a Silent Majority or a Moral Majority. They’re more like a moralizing minority, and that means that there will be more morbid symptoms of their anxiety about their dwindling status — which includes more willingness to embrace anti-democratic measures, whether by redistricting, by legislation, or something worse. The frenetic despair emanating from NatCon is due, in large part, to this feeling of being besieged and on the decline.

MS

So to not have the charge leveled at us that we’re being too abstract, I want to add to that I do feel like our analysis of the Right proceeds along two tracks at least: one of which involves observing and commenting on the actual words they say, the actual message they have at a conference like this, who was on the panels and what they said, and so on. But that’s running alongside an analysis of the way the United States’ constitutional system privileges a minority’s ability to thwart majority will and rule and more recent trends like urban- rural polarization and geographic sorting. Our system itself right now offers the temptation of minority rule.

So, there are actual, real systematic factors — not just the ideas in the heads of national conservatives, but political material realities — that I think are driving us toward crisis. It’s not just the bad ideas these people have, though they are bad. I think it’s also a function of the way the dynamics of our political system and the incentives of our constitutional system are interacting with long-standing ideas and tendencies on the Right. It’s not just one, and it’s not just the other. It’s both of them combined interacting in a way that I find deeply troubling. So, again, when we ask, “What do they give themselves permission to do?” that’s not just an abstract ideological question. It’s going to get dicey over the next few years.