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National Conservatism: Retrofitting Trump’s GOP with a Veneer of Ideas

Jacob Heilbrunn
Usually, intellectual movements precede the rise of political ones, but in this case, Trump’s camp followers are reverse-engineering an intellectual doctrine to match Trump’s basic instincts.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Fox News host Tucker Carlson discusses “Populism and the Right” at a National Review Institute conference, Washington, D.C., March 29, 2019

From the outset of his campaign for the presidency, Donald Trump has sought to reinvent the Republican Party in his own image by sounding nationalist themes, including his initial pledge in his foreign policy speech in April 2016 at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., to put “America First.” As president, he has steadily intensified his embrace of nationalism.

During his July 2017 speech in Warsaw, for example, he denounced everything from secularism to Islamic terrorism by hailing the importance of the nation-state: “Americans, Poles, and the nations of Europe value individual freedom and sovereignty. We must work together to counter forces, whether they come from inside or out, from the south or the east, that threaten over time to undermine these values and to erase the bonds of culture, faith, and tradition that make us who we are.” Next, at a Houston political rally in October 2018 for his erstwhile presidential rival Senator Ted Cruz, Trump explicitly endorsed the term, saying, “You know, they have a word, it sort of became old-fashioned. It’s called a nationalist. And I say, ‘Really? We’re not supposed to use that word?’” Trump added, “You know what I am? I’m a nationalist. OK? I’m a nationalist.”

This past week has brought the most graphic reminder of just what Trump thinks is A–OK. In a series of incendiary statements, he questioned the patriotism of four Democratic representatives, all congresswomen of color, whom he urged to “leave” and “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came” if they were disenchanted with the state of American affairs. Far from harming Trump’s position in the GOP, however, the brouhaha over his remarks appears to have further consolidated it. A mere four Republicans and one newly turned independent representative, Justin Amash, voted to back a House measure condemning Trump’s tweets. Representative Dan Meuser captured widespread congressional Republican sentiment when he suggested that the true victim was Trump himself: “What has really happened here is that the president and his supporters have been forced to endure months of allegations of racism.”

Indeed, Trump’s position in the Republican Party appears to be impregnable. He has raised a record $108 million for his re-election campaign and the Republican National Committee in the second quarter of 2019, largely thanks to the largesse of big Republican donors who shunned him in 2016. At the same time, The Washington Post recently reported that a coterie of Republican foreign policy grandees, many of whom signed “Never Trump” letters in 2016, gathered this past weekend at a meeting convened by the Reagan Institute at Beaver Creek, Colorado, to champion Reagan’s “conservative internationalist” approach to foreign affairs.

Today, though, along with leading neoconservatives such as William Kristol, the former editor of the Weekly Standard, which has been shuttered, this GOP elite resembles the exiled Russian nobility in Paris after World War I, pining for a vanished ancien régime. The emergence a few weeks ago of the new Quincy Institute, which, funded by George Soros and Charles Koch, seeks to push Trump to follow a more restrained foreign policy, is the sort of institution that the neocons used to establish to push for crusades abroad. Nor is the Never Trump faction holding its ground well on the home front. Writing in National Review, for example, Mona Charen excoriated the California-based Claremont Institute’s decision to award Lincoln fellowships to a “Trump-justifying toady” named Jack Posobiec, who was associated with disseminating the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, as well as to Mytheos Holt, who lauded Trump’s “great personal virtues” in The Federalist in March 2016. But another condemnation from a neocon is no more than a voice in the wilderness for the Trumpified GOP.

Perhaps the most evocative and conclusive sign of Trump’s sway over the conservative movement came this week, however, when the recently established Edmund Burke Foundation in Washington held a meeting titled “National Conservatism” at the Ritz-Carlton. The conference aroused a good deal of controversy before it took place, but attracted a formidable array of conservative figureheads, including Peter Thiel, Tucker Carlson, John Bolton, and Senator Josh Hawley. The panelists included Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, Chris Buskirk, the publisher and editor of American Greatness, J.D. Vance, the author of Hillbilly Elegy, Michael Anton, a former Trump administration National Security Council official who has inveighed against “birthright citizenship,” and Chris DeMuth, a former president of the American Enterprise Institute and now a distinguished fellow at the Trump-friendly Hudson Institute. The latter has recently extolled Trumpian nationalism in a lengthy essay in the Claremont Review of Books. “Harnessing today’s nationalist impulses,” DeMuth wrote, “is a task for conservatives and libertarians, who stand in the shoes of the liberal reformers of the middle and late nineteenth century.”


The event tried to do that. A July 14 invitation letter signed by David Brog, the president of the Burke Foundation and the former executive director of Christians United for Israel, noted that the conference was intended to help bring about the “revival of the unique national traditions that alone have the power to bind a people together and bring about their flourishing.” It was supposed to provide, Brog went on, “an intellectually serious alternative to the excesses of purist libertarianism, and in stark opposition to political theories grounded in race.” If nothing else, a consanguinity of thought quickly emerged.

This was a Trump-inspired counter-revolution, a conservative colloquy that aimed at creating a catechism purged of the verities of the Reagan era: a crusading foreign policy and an idolatry of free-market economics. Usually, intellectual movements precede the rise of political ones, but in this case, Trump’s camp followers are reverse-engineering an intellectual doctrine to match Trump’s basic instincts. The new national-conservatives want to form what Burke called “little platoons” to ground conservatism in what they referred to as Anglo-American traditions.

In 1955, the historian Louis Hartz in The Liberal Tradition in America asserted that the absence of feudalism meant that liberalism in America was “natural,” that it led directly to the abolition of slavery, and that “we have never had a real conservative tradition.” So now, in turning to Burke and other British thinkers, these conservative nationalists are creating an imagined community: they want to convert British feudal traditions into a seamless part of the American continuum. There was, in effect, no radical break from England in 1776. Instead, these neo-Burkeans end up fortifying a view held, ironically enough, by some on the political left that the Founding Fathers were not idealists who had set in motion a new experiment in liberty, equality, and justice for all, but oppressors—racist white men out to consolidate their power and influence. Abandoning the long-established originalist tradition of American conservatism, they deprecate the Declaration of Independence, viewing America as based not on abstract ideals or a common creed but on a common Anglo-Saxon heritage.

A variety of speakers suggested that the moment had arrived to reclaim a prelapsarian golden age when the right was troubled by state and corporate power at home, wary of imperial ambitions abroad, and concerned about the public weal and private virtue. At bottom, it was a Marie Kondo moment: a call to declutter the conservative movement of liberal detritus—the old big-government Republicanism allied to wars of conquest—that it had collected over the decades, the lamentable result of its efforts to win friends and influence people with the same sunny optimism once exemplified by the Gipper.

The Burke speakers sedulously avoided discussing the maelstrom of nationalist and racial bigotry stirred up by Trump, but it was hard to avoid the sense that something of a shell game was taking place. In a remarkably complacent column in The New York Times, Ross Douthat claimed that “the nationalist turn in conservative politics seems to me eminently justifiable, a response to a series of elite blunders that should inspire anger and revolt.” Although Douthat ritually drubbed Trump himself, the “nationalist in the Oval Office,” as an “exceptional disgrace,” can nationalism be so neatly detached from its most prominent promoter? Is it “eminently justifiable,” or simply a new shibboleth that is supposed to camouflage a yearning for hierarchy and retrograde social views?

In fact, the speakers I heard routinely hailed Trump’s percipience even if they lamented his methods, which might at times, they conceded, be somewhat coarse or ungainly. There was nary a peep of dissent about his assault on truth or, for that matter, the public virtue that was spoken of so often and so piously. When the Israeli scholar Yoram Hazony took the floor to criticize Josh Hawley’s contention that American nationhood can be traced to the Roman republic, he declared that, in effect, we are all Israelites, citing the Book of Genesis as constituting the true origin of the nation. He saw no contradiction, apparently, in claiming this Biblical authority for the Trump presidency, and complained that all reporters wanted to ask him about were Trump’s tweets.

The institute and conference are both very much Hazony’s brainchild. A Princeton graduate who was favorably impressed by the ultranationalist militant Meir Kahane and founded the Shalem Center in 1994, a Zionist research institute based in Jerusalem, before becoming president of the Herzl Institute, Hazony has recently published a book called The Virtue of Nationalism. Named the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s Conservative Book of the Year for 2019, it seeks to rehabilitate, or at least defend, nationalism as far as possible, in part by writing Hitler and Nazism out of the movement—“Hitler was no advocate of nationalism,” Hazony proclaims, but rather an imperialist who sought to “revive and perfect longstanding German aspirations to universal empire.” Such casuistry was not to be found at the conference.


In an impassioned address, Hazony made it clear that his focus was on reforming a conservative movement that had become “drunk with power” after the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1989. Conservatives, he suggested, had been seduced by utopian dreams in foreign affairs, substituting such chimeras as the Oslo Accords and the European Union for the hard realities of international politics. “Anglo-American traditions,” he said, demanded a housecleaning. “Today,” Hazony shouted, “is our independence day!”

It was hard to find much evidence of a new day’s dawning. Instead, a variety of speakers made use of the elasticity of the term “nationalism” to smuggle in any number of traditional conservative hobbyhorses about the perfidious sway of cultural Marxism, political correctness, and identity politics. Facebook board member Peter Thiel made waves with his accusations of treasonous collaboration by Google with Red China; Trump subsequently tweeted about his accusation and stated that he was asking Attorney General William Barr to investigate the matter. Thiel also took potshots at what he claimed was the moribund nature of American universities, saying that Harvard and Stanford did not deserve their tax-exempt status.

Another inveterate conservative theme centered on the American founding and the Constitution. To demonstrate the perils that have emerged from a society that insists on inventing new rights for its citizens, the Israeli academic Ofir Haivry, the author of a recent study of the political thought of the seventeenth-century British jurist and Christian Hebraist John Selden, contends that figures such as Selden and Burke, not John Locke, are the true progenitors of 1787. Failing to appreciate Burke’s past contributions could have serious repercussions for the present, he warned, giving free rein to the dangerous doctrines that had ushered in the French Revolution, which Burke, of course, had deplored. Unless corrected, he concluded, Americans might all too easily “succumb to abstract theories of the rights of man.” More persuasive was the presentation of Yuval Levin, the editor of the journal National Affairs. In contrast to most of the panelists, Levin pointed out that America’s tradition is liberal and that the task of conservatives, properly understood, is to try to conserve it, rather than permit radical schemes of renewal.

It was left to Chris Buskirk to enunciate another standard-issue conservative theme: the denunciation of globalism and elites. By way of demonstrating his intellectual bona fides, perhaps, his publication American Greatness had run a poem that very day titled “Cuck Elegy,” which mocked liberals and immigrants. Like not a few attendees, Buskirk described Western civilization as—where else?—at “a crossroads.” Fortunately, “we now have a president who is a nationalist” and who “believes in his own people.” The rise of leaders such as Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro and Italian deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini, though, was a sign that the dire situation facing the West could be turned around. In conclusion, Buskirk argued, “we’re sold a myth [that] women getting into the workforce was great,” pointing to Elizabeth Warren’s 2003 book The Two-Income Trap. It was time for America’s middle-class families to be able to afford to have five to six children. How this would actually occur he did not explain. Higher taxes? Income redistribution? Instead, he contented himself with denouncing the United Nations and World Trade Organization.

The closest to delineating an actual program of action for national-conservatism was Fox’s Tucker Carlson, who declared that the biggest threat to Americans “comes not from the government but from the private sector.” Like other panelists, he targeted tech companies for their ability to traduce America’s youth: “If I were someone who was running for president, I would say make that the centerpiece of your campaign. Vote for me and you can raise your own kids.”

Carlson was by far the most dynamic of the speakers, a genuine showman with the audience-appeal that could mark him as this new movement’s William F. Buckley, Jr.—though that is a prospect that would no doubt horrify those in the Never Trump camp who see themselves as Buckley’s apostolic heirs. But Carlson provided the clearest evidence that the conference’s organizers may be onto something, at least in redefining what passes as modern conservative thought: it’s Carlsonism. The idea of Carlson 2024 is already picking up steam on the right. Carlson’s own coy disavowal on the podium was hardly a denial. As one young attendee who admires Carlson told me, “he definitely wants to run.” But has anyone told Donald Trump?

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