On the third day, God said, “Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so, except in Florida, where God had a different plan. The elements of land and sea would be resolved not by divine decree, but through the interminable efforts of civil engineering: “Cursed is the ground,” the swamp reminds us, lest we forget—“through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life.” And it was so. And the marshes teemed with life—alligator, manatee, cypress, human—and saw war and peace in turn, but the wreckage fell into the swamp and the ruins were buried. Then men who build cities marched in and covered the graves of the conquered with concrete and asphalt, and they saw all they had made—the skyscrapers, the theme parks, the highways and strip malls—and declared it good.
In the middle of the fens and bogs stands an experiment in civilization to rival Babel. There is no public world to speak of in Orlando: the city is an archipelago of private, heavily guarded “experience commodities” of near-infinite variety—sea experience, speed experience, utopian-global-cooperation experience, magic and wonder experiences—interrupted now and then by storage facilities and monolithic hotels in the industrial, neoclassical, Cheesecake Factory style. It feels less a “place” than a habitat, a Skinner box on a grand scale, engineered to extract maximum profit from maximum pleasure. And at its center a cluster of glittering skyscrapers give perpetual salutes to the glory of banking, temples to the lesser angels of Mammon: SunTrust, Citigroup, Bank of America, Regions, Chase. Everything carved from ibis-stalked, hurricane-battered swampland, a fragile dwelling held tenuously in place by human effort and the fickle favor of fortune.
An apt metaphor, then, for our country. A species of eschatological heave has always roiled the American organism. We are a nation held together, paradoxically, by the agonism of conflicting millenarian projections: communists, race mythologists, space-alien cults, hippie utopians, biblical numerologists and an uncountable number of Great Awakenings all the way down to our supposedly disenchanted present. The eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency began with a longing for a post-racial future that eventually collapsed into a far more fatalistic, but no less ambitious, vision of racial justice; Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret convinced millions that their most beautiful dreams were just a thought away; the Zeitgeist documentary tour taught packed auditoriums around the country that Jesus, 9/11 and the Federal Reserve were all fake; Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party both dreamed of a flourishing America freed from each movement’s chosen enemy (the billionaires and the bureaucrats, respectively).
But something changed in 2016, and everybody felt it. The election of Donald Trump to the presidency was more than the usual dyspepsia of the American gut. Trump himself, showing up some fifteen minutes late to his election-night victory speech bearing a look of bewildered consternation, seemed shocked by the revelation. The ooze of cosmic suspicion seeping through America’s underbelly had burst through to the surface: a man who promoted theories that Obama was ineligible for the presidency and that childhood vaccination causes autism—“many such cases!”—had become the symbolic arche of the American federal republic and its global representative. The turn-of-the-century paradigm of political competence—the Sorkinite dreamworld of fresh-faced, Ivy-educated, bespoke-tailored junior staffers bustling about a charismatic, sympathetic Chief Executive with an admirable SAT score—had been exposed as a fantasy. The edifice of the previous age had cracked.
With crisis, however, comes opportunity: trees grow where the asphalt cracks. Among those exploring the uncertainty and possibility of this new situation were the speakers and guests at the first National Conservatism conference in 2019, held in Washington, D.C., less than a mile from the White House. Convened by the Edmund Burke Foundation, headed by Israeli biblical scholar and political theorist Yoram Hazony, NatCon (as they called it) brought together a collection of writers, thinkers, journalists and academics to declare the death of “the old consensus” and reset the goals and trajectory of the American conservative movement. Trump, for them, heralded the end of the postwar “fusionist” compromise—the strategic alliance of social conservatives and economic libertarians that buoyed three consecutive landslide elections and clawed the party out of its Clinton-era grave for one last hurrah with George W. Bush—and cleared the way for a conservative movement free from the influence of neoliberal economics and neoconservative foreign policy. Vulgar clown he may be, Trump nonetheless occasioned a reconsideration of policy and philosophy unthinkable for the last four decades. Sometimes the lemons life gives are a bit lumpy and bitter; they nonetheless must be squeezed.
Which brings us back to Orlando, in the fall of 2021. The national conservatives convened once again on the first weekend of November, a year after Trump lost reelection—this time far from the White House, in the COVID-contrary free state of Florida. The inaugural summit was in a Ritz-Carlton near the throbbing heart of power, the entire affair suffused with the thrill of victory: this year, it was at a Hilton near SeaWorld. Even so, the lineup of round two was almost twice as large, and with two more sitting senators: to 2019’s Josh Hawley, returning for an encore, were added Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. And though the conference marketed itself as a vehicle for promoting the ideals of national conservatism, the inclusion of high-profile figures on the libertarian right—like Brown University economics professor Glenn Loury, media personality Dave Rubin, British journalist and popinjay Douglas Murray—along with left-wing apostates like “reactionary feminist” Mary Harrington and Newsweek deputy opinion editor Batya Ungar-Sargon, showed that the tent had been inflated since 2019.
I’ve been a drifter at the edge of the right for several years, a sometimes-sympathetic, sometimes-oppositional political vagrant looking for good things wherever I can find them. I had become an anarchist in my late teens, revolted by Bush-era jingoistic conformism and the obviously fraudulent pretext for raining cruise missiles on Iraq. I took to hitchhiking, squatting and protest—against free-trade agreements, environmental degradation, a biotech facility in Boston. But in my early twenties I’d watched an aggressive, solidarity-destroying form of identity politics creep into the milieu I moved in and make a wreckage of every single project it touched: infoshops, campaigns, collective houses, bands and friendships were all torn apart; nearly overnight, friends turned into enemies, lovers into strangers. Those frustrated at the collapse of their efforts became embittered, depressive—some coped by escalating their militancy, a few escaped into work or college, others turned to drugs. When I tried my hand at more mundane political engagement—environmental activism, institutional feminism, simply trying to be excited about the Democratic Party—I found that many of the same problems had already crept in. The left that had attracted me with promises of fraternité, egalité and liberté had become a theater for the same conformism I fled in my youth: I could no longer believe it had exclusive purchase on either the theory or praxis of making a good society.
I had also grown up in central Florida, a half-hour drive from the conference, in the cow-pastured, orange-groved and trailer-parked provinces to the east of the city. NatCon brought me back to Orlando for the first time in fifteen years in the spirit of skeptical curiosity, a potentially persuadable outsider interested in what was happening on the intellectual fringe of the right. In rhetoric, the national conservatives rejected both parties’ indifference to or hatred of the American working class: they sought to restore the ancient ideal of the summum bonum—the common good—against both Marxist revolutionism and free-market dogmatism, to describe and promote a world hospitable not just to the ambitious and talented but also to the least of us. In rhetoric, they addressed political and social problems that most party politicians had deemed untouchably radioactive, but that I had seen wreck the lives of loved ones: the disintegration of marriage; the ubiquity of pornography and drugs; the bipartisan destruction of the labor movement, and the outsourcing of working-class American jobs to countries with working conditions close to slavery; America’s last several decades of disastrous military campaigns, which have destroyed numerous countries and made our own weaker in the process.
At the same time, since Trump’s defeat, many seemed to have abandoned right-wing soul-searching and recommitted themselves to tribal conflict with Team Blue. Riots and property destruction, pandemic protocols, “Stop the Steal” and the hubbub at the Capitol monopolized their attention. Where energy had once been devoted to theoretical and practical differences with the conservative establishment, there was now mainly the zeal of enmity, the forging of a foxhole brotherhood in a struggle against the libs. From a distance, it was unclear whether this amounted to an abandonment of a previously earnest project of thinking beyond the superficiality of party politics, or whether the criticism of the GOP establishment had always been little more than a branding exercise. Perhaps all political belonging in America really is subject to the power of agonism, a relentless sorting mechanism that ensures everyone ends up positioned alongside comrades in a battle against a common enemy. Political homelessness, then, would be a kind of anti-politics, which might be just fine. As Hannah Arendt knew, thought and action are mutually exclusive activities, and if all opportunities for political engagement are fundamentally thoughtless, then you might be doomed to the loneliness of philosophy.
I contemplated these things while dropping my bags off at my hotel and traversing the mile and a half to the Hilton conference center. My path led across a sprawling six-lane surface highway, under an interstate overpass, by engineered ponds with broken fountains and a dilapidated shopping plaza advertising “MASSAGE,” “INDIAN CUISINE,” “LIQUOR.” The Hilton loomed monolithic over the deconstructed Florida non-urbanism, its enormous, white, lifeless tower looking more a theater for telemarketing and insurance sales than for speculation about what might emerge from the ruins of America’s crumbling liberal order. I stood dazed for a moment in the cavernous lobby, searching for sign of the NatCons. Two bearded men in blue sharkskin blazers and patent leather shoes appeared from my left—as good a sign as any. I sought their origin. At the end of a long hallway, down a tall skylit staircase and through an enormous, yawning foyer, stood a lonely blue placard on an easel: “NATIONAL CONSERVATISM GUEST CHECK-IN.” I had arrived.
The convention was a five-room affair: a large hall for plenary sessions and keynotes, three smaller rooms for breakout sessions and the main convention lobby, lined with information tables for friendly organizations and portable media booths bearing a strange similarity to something at a county fair or carnival sideshow. It was early yet, and sparsely attended. Coffee and water were plentiful, thank goodness—besides being delirious from the early flight, given the stress and strangeness I was glad to have a venue for benign compulsive activity. I filled up a cup and immediately caught sight of Micah Meadowcroft, editor at the American Conservative. I was glad to see him, both because he’s a good friend and because I knew he would prove a reliable guide through the menagerie in which I found myself. We hiked to the bar on the other side of the hotel to catch up, and ran into some associates of his along the way: the founders of American Moment, a right-wing think tank and media project with ties to a handful of NatCon speakers, and a young man who had recently been elected to state office in West Virginia. All were pleasant; none of them could have been much older than 25.
The afternoon’s events were soon beginning, so we drifted back toward the conference hall. For a supposed uprising against the old consensus, the crowd that assembled for Christopher DeMuth’s opening remarks was surprisingly unsurprising: think-tank and institute operatives, former Capitol Hill staffers, sympathetic academics, right-wing media personalities, and gaggles of blue-blazered students milled about, shaking hands and smiling. For many it was a reunion, a kind of swamp-denizen destination mixer in the land of the everglades; for the younger crowd—largely hailing from Florida’s many state universities—it was an initiation into the institutional conservative lifeworld, the foot’s first dip in the bog. From the din of voices one detected a chirpy, fricative-heavy European tone, the chorus of the Hungarian contingent. A few scowling, tattoo-covered strongmen stood at the edges of the rooms—security, surely, but they gave the genial air a hint of the sinister. An announcement was made, the crowd took their seats and DeMuth, the conference’s chairman, ascended the dais.
His tone was reflective and pessimistic. “At the time of the first conference, many of our ideas were being established within the federal government, and many of us had friends who were working on the inside. … We don’t have that problem this year.” The word “problem” hung heavy in the air: a joke, or a brief earnest reflection upon the perils of power? No clarification came. But DeMuth was clear that the NatCons currently faced a different challenge: “Every day brings new cause for consternation and outrage. It is right for us to feel dispirited. If we feel that we are surrounded by a hostile environment, that is a realistic feeling.” Their enemies on the left, now in control of the White House in addition to all of the country’s cultural institutions, had backed them into a corner, and it was time to hit back. Luckily, they had on their side a collection of “serious intellectuals”—men like Peter Thiel and J. D. Vance—to lead their counterattack.
Thiel—“the major intellectual force behind many scholarly and political activities in the United States,” according to DeMuth, and understood by many to be one of the major funders of the event—was the real first act of the conference. He ascended the dais to roaring applause and rock music. But dispositionally he was sheepish, almost meek, and he stood sweaty in the spotlight as he gripped and hunched over the podium. Where his speech from 2019 had emphasized how national conservatism might help the country “grapple with some of the very real challenges the United States is going to face in the decade ahead,” two years later his gaze was no longer on the future. The problem was now largely in the present. “The theme I want to start with is some reflections on the incredible derangement of”—here, his characteristic stutter—“of various forms of thought, political life, scientific life, the sensemaking machinery generally in this country over the last few years and what we can perhaps do to, you know, to counteract this derangement—what, you know, what can be done, what must be done.”
What proceeded was a rambling account of all the various present-day Bad Things, from the suffocatingly narrow parameters of politico-cultural discourse to the widespread decline and failure of nearly every major project of the American ruling class: domestic policy, foreign policy, military strategy, economics, academic research and science. “The problem,” says Thiel, “whether it’s the Fed, Afghanistan, COVID—is that we have these machines for generating consensus, uniformity and not asking dissident questions, even though they’re super urgent. And as far as I can tell, the hour is late for all of these institutions.” The institutions were crumbling, not only because they weren’t working correctly but also because nobody could say so. NatCon was an opportunity to “course-correct in this country.” Thiel then proposed a “fantasy of what victory would look like, and I don’t think this will happen, or it’s a long ways off”: returning to a country where ticker-tape parades are thrown for local heroes. “And my candidate for the first such person we should do a ticker-tape parade for… is Satoshi Nakamoto.” Having cast his vote for the inventor of Bitcoin, Thiel walked off stage to “Don’t Stop Believin’.”
Thiel’s keynote was a kind of Big Bang of the paradoxes and questions that would be debated over the next three days. Is the movement for a classical liberalism built around the rights of the individual, or for a form of collectivist conservatism in which the demands of the community are paramount? Is the solution to the problems facing the country the slow work of turning the political and cultural tide back toward conservatism, or is it the deus ex machina of blockchain technology and Bitcoin? If our political culture is, as Thiel says, something like rearranging furniture on the Titanic, is the goal to “have dissident voices,” or to turn the ship around by whatever means possible? Whither, in all of this, religion?
These questions and others were taken up most substantively in breakout sessions, where various experts and specialists debated economics, technology, foreign and domestic policy and religion. In the two panels I attended on geopolitics, former defense strategists, national security advisers, military men and observers of international affairs sparred over the Republican Party’s dismal foreign-policy track record in China, Iraq and elsewhere, and made substantive proposals for how the NatCon movement might break away from the dreadful status quo. At one panel on “Protestantism, Nationalism, and Political Culture” representatives of the Davenant Institute, a Protestant think tank and educational initiative based in South Carolina, discussed the distinctive brand of tolerant, liberal nationalism that arises out of Protestant political theology. The breakout on “Worker Power”—featuring American Compass executive director Oren Cass, Brian Dijkema of the Cardus Institute and president of the North America’s Building Trades Unions Sean McGarvey—explored how unionism and working-class self-governance might contribute to broadly conservative goals and was undoubtedly the most politically promising conversation of the conference.
But these excellent breakouts were, for the most part, poorly attended. Instead, the crowds flocked to culture-war red meat: the panels on “Woke Capitalism” and “Popular Culture and the Nation,” the various keynotes and plenary sessions where “critical race theory,” “wokeness,” “cultural Marxism” and the name of German social theorist Herbert Marcuse were repeated like incantations. In these moments, national conservatism seemed mostly about saying things: about being a dissident voice, asserting uncomfortable facts, speaking truth to power. Ted Cruz—one of the few speakers who arrived on stage to a standing ovation—seemed to perfect the form. “I’m going to commit a radical act,” he began: “I’m going to speak the truth. America is great. The Taliban are terrorists. The Chinese communists are evil bastards. Christopher Columbus discovering America was a good thing. George Washington was an extraordinary national hero”—and so on. (One could imagine the sentiments—and many others like it at the conference—rendered colorfully on a lawn sign: “In this house we believe…”)
Midway through day two, listening to National Review editor-in-chief Rich Lowry long for jingoistic Cold War mythology as an answer to the 1619 Project, I needed a break. If this was the pitch for a new kind of “conservatism,” I thought, it sounded an awful lot like the old one. I packed up my laptop and walked out into the convention lobby, where Curtis Yarvin—writer, theorist, computer programmer and, according to the New York Times, “a noxious avatar of the alt-right”—was removing a tiny Pellegrino from a bucket of ice. “You hear any of that shit?” I asked him, pointing toward the door. He shook his head. “It was awful. Felt like hitting myself in the head with a hammer.” He laughed and introduced himself, then we spent some time talking about the deficiencies of what we’d heard so far—at one point interrupted by a pack of blue-blazered youths with student badges, one of whom informed Yarvin, “Your appearance on Tucker redpilled my uncle,” which was met with a characteristic bout of friendly, self-conscious laughter—and the strangeness of these kinds of events.
Yarvin, who has managed to preserve his intellectual independence from both red and blue America—while winning some fans from each—wasn’t the only unaffiliated media figure I ran into while prowling about the edges of things. Heterodox journalist Michael Tracey sat in a few of the breakouts I attended; author, photographer and professional peripatetic Chris Arnade flitted about from session to session; a leather-booted, backpack-toting David Brooks was a quiet observer of the weekend’s happenings, and a fixture at the hotel bar. Even beyond the better-known names, I was hardly the only margin walker who came to the conference out of curiosity rather than commitment, open to the possibilities of NatCon but sensitive to its shortcomings. I spoke with one young man from New Jersey, a fellow political vagrant unsure how he relates to institutional conservatism, who made the trip solo to “have good conversations and meet interesting people”: he indicated his quest had been a success.
The cordiality and generosity of our hosts was palpable, even to those of us who were relative nobodies. In between speeches, to a looping soundtrack of jaunty jazz-piano Rodgers and Hammerstein renditions, everyone was all smiles and grace. But whether this hospitality went more than skin-deep was unclear. On the surface, the conference seemed to offer safe-enough harbor for refugees from the left who’d been cut adrift amid the past few years of identitarian tumult. At the same time, it was hard to shake the knowledge that many of our hosts had partaken in the triumphalist glory days of Bush-era neoconservatism—against which we had defined ourselves politically—and had grown no more sympathetic to any of our ideas or concerns in the meantime. Meanwhile, when the piano stopped and the big-ticket keynotes commenced, it was all Cruz-style fire and brimstone: war has come, the time for diplomacy is over, fair-weather allies must be purged from the ranks, No More Mr. Nice Guy!
On day three, as Daily Wire and PragerU podcaster Michael Knowles—perhaps the fourth soigné media personality to take the stage that day—delivered yet another diatribe on how all the bad things are bad and conservatives shouldn’t be afraid to say so, I texted a friend.
“If I hear ‘critical race theory’ one more time I’m going to throw up.”
“That is fair.”
“Want to go for a walk or something? I could use a break from this stuff.”
“Meet in the lobby?”
It was nice to step out of the Hilton’s drab sterility into the warm Florida sunlight, nice to be with a friend. Having no destination in mind, we meandered along a palm-lined divided highway bearing the unmemorable name International Drive. We agreed about the incoherence of the conference and the strangeness of its triumphalist tone at a time when the American right was in defeat. This movement meant to force a serious reconsideration of conservative priorities and fundamentally reorient right-wing politics in America, yet the lion’s share of their annual summit was spent complaining about what they weren’t allowed to say. I wanted to be charitable, but it all seemed so petty and misguided. We passed a McDonald’s, a Red Lobster, a convention center advertising free walk-in COVID-19 vaccines. The road wound aimlessly around drained swampland, the sidewalk—largely an afterthought—twisted around walls and tree lawns, at times disappearing. A cop car was parked in front of a bus stop, the officer standing serious-faced on the sidewalk while a middle-aged black woman yelled angrily—desperately, perhaps—on her cell phone. Beyond the walls of the conference the weight of the world we’ve made continued to bear down on the people in it. And like the ocean, the pressure was heaviest at the bottom.
What did national conservatism really have to offer those out here? I reflected upon the world of my childhood less than thirty miles east, a land forgotten by senators and podcast hosts, and thought about the members of my extended family who still inhabited it. My single mother raised my sister and me on a receptionist’s minimum wage, trading her precious time for hardly enough money to keep the fridge stocked and the bills paid. Not a single person in my family, immediate or extended, had a college degree: my grandfather and grandmother were veterans of the Marines and Air Force respectively, and everyone else lived off blue-collar gig work, precarious service labor or semi-fraudulent disability. None voted in elections or participated in any legible form of religion. Both major political parties in America had long ago given up on people like my family and friends back home: the NAFTA neoconservatives in George W. Bush’s administration made countless empty promises to America’s rural white poor while passing more tax cuts for billionaires and megacorporations; the bourgeois Daily Show liberals who rose to power with Obama treated them with open hatred and enmity. Complaints about family or friends getting laid off, automated out of a job or becoming addicted to pain medication after an injury were met with one of two answers: “They probably deserve it” or “get over it.” Nobody in power had a plan because nobody cared.
My family and those like them share many of the cultural predispositions that animate the NatCons. They hate cancel culture, resent being accused of ancestral racial guilt, had their lives upended by lockdown protocols and feel belittled by the eggheads at the New York Times. They live in a country they find increasingly unrecognizable and feel ever more powerless to fix. The republican citizenship they’d been promised—Lincoln’s “government of the people, by the people, for the people”—seems more and more just the stuff of speeches or history books: government in the real world is an agreement between cops and people in offices to fine you, penalize you, take your trailer or your kids away. They are, therefore, instinctive libertarians, distrustful of government and proud of their art of vernacular problem-solving, working out the issues for themselves where others would turn to bureaucracies or experts. But despite their pessimism and disappointment they nonetheless maintain a gut-level, unreflective patriotism, one that’s half idealism and half cowardice: following their frustration all the way down and breaking up with the only land they’ve ever known—and, unless toting a rifle and a rucksack, the only one they’ll ever see—would occasion too much misery. Better instead to live in a dream.
In the Hilton Orlando, this patriotic dream was as well maintained as the central air, invoked like a chorus to suggest a heavy solidarity with the hinterlands. We’re natural allies, the NatCons kept broadcasting: Can’t you tell by the size of our flags? But if the only thing the conference attendees could agree upon—and thus the only thing they can promise to these Americans and others like them—was the usual slate of Republican culture politics but angrier, I struggled to see how this would constitute any substantial change. This had been the Trump strategy, redeployed by the new wave of “populist” Republicans like Lauren Boebert, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Florida’s own Matt Gaetz, all of whom represent an unthinking recapitulation of the same corporate-tax-cuts-and-American-flags “fusionism”—with even less prudence and even more hysteria—opposed by Hazony and friends. If the NatCons really wanted to extinguish their party’s Randian hostility to public welfare and meet the grievances of average Americans with government action, they would need not only sound policy but also the willingness to actually leave behind the old consensus, break up the existing constituencies (including, perhaps, the Republican Party) and forge new alliances through the hard work of persuasion and coalition-building. Of this I saw little promise at the conference.
We made our way back to the hotel in time for the final dinner and keynotes. I found a place at a table with Yarvin, Meadowcroft and a few young men I’d met on Twitter. The meal was old-school fare—salad, steak, some kind of delicious potato gratin, a bread pudding to finish it all off—and the table talk convivial and boisterous. (Was politics “downstream from culture,” or vice versa?) After an extended break that suggested some kind of backstage mishap, Dave Rubin again ascended the stage, joined this time by Orlando Magic power forward Jonathan Isaac. Isaac had twice become a conservative cause célèbre, first by breaking ranks with his teammates and refusing to kneel during the national anthem and then by becoming a conscientious objector to COVID vaccination. A gay libertarian YouTuber and media mogul sitting opposite a black anti-vax NBA star in front of a bright blue backdrop reading “national conservatism”: it was yet another bewildering scene at a conference purportedly seeking to define the boundaries of a movement.
Their conversation, however, proved a refreshing break from the rage and ideology that characterized much of the action on the keynote stage. Isaac was a rare conference speaker who made his bread and butter doing something other than writing about politics, and his calm and lightness reflected this. “What has gotten me on this stage,” he explained to Rubin, “is both my love for philosophy and thought and conversations, and being able to talk to people from completely different backgrounds.” Having tired of the culture war he’d been dragged into, he advocated “common sense”—an idea foundational to the Anglo-American political tradition yet practically unspoken at the conference—and encouraged approaching problems “not from a right/left perspective or a conservative/liberal perspective, but from a strictly philosophical perspective about how we as people go about living together.” He was the best representative of the politically homeless to take the stage—“it’s clear that I’m really not supposed to be here,” he worried, “but I’m glad to be able to talk to everybody.” He was in the conference, but he was not of it.
As Rubin and Isaac vacated the stage, the crowd prepared for a final act promising a return to more familiar themes. J. D. Vance—Hillbilly Elegy author turned Trump enthusiast, political firebrand and Ohio Senate candidate—would deliver a keynote entitled “The Universities Are the Enemy.”
Bringing back the tribal “we” to gird his audience for battle against a “set of very hostile institutions,” Vance ended a surprisingly un-Trumpian right-wing symposium on a conspicuously Trumpian note. As dozens of Republican political hopefuls have before him, he copied some of Trump’s strange hand gestures, while also approximating his humor and jolly irreverence. But perhaps most Trump-like was the way Vance’s speech seemed motivated almost entirely by a crude instinct to enact revenge for wrongs learned about on Twitter—“the worst website in the entire world,” he complained, despite using it constantly and pulling out his phone to read directly from it several times. Standing before a rapt—and, of course, universally college-educated—audience at a conference dedicated to articulating new ideas, Vance made like a drunken cover band and lazily played the hits. He explained “the concept of redpilling” while across my table Yarvin, the man responsible for the popularity of the term, burst into delighted and embarrassed laughter. He recited a litany of high-profile and sometimes genuinely concerning controversies involving university professors punished for political correctness infractions, while showing no concern for the real conditions—administrative bloat and the skyrocketing tuition fees required to feed it, an increasingly precarious adjunct underclass, the hegemony of the sciences and the demand for publishable research—that promote academic conformity and threaten the ability of universities to “disseminate truth and knowledge.” Instead, he closed his speech (and the conference) by invoking the “wisdom” of Richard Milhous Nixon: “The professors are the enemy. Write that on a blackboard a hundred times and never forget it.”
In the weeks since the conference, I’ve watched as a gentle stream of articles attempting to explain National Conservatism has dribbled out of the country’s media faucet. The fruit of the right-wing opinion machine has been roughly uniform: here’s an exciting thing with a lot of promise, we’ve surely waited long enough. Less truculent outlets still committed to the old fusionist compromise, such as the Wall Street Journal and National Review, and other writers concerned more with coherent ideas and policy than for the identification of an enemy, have been more tentative. Drift just an inch beyond the boundary of institutional conservatism, however, and the mood quickly becomes apocalyptic: Peter Thiel’s “disturbing” keynote “gave the chills” to a writer at Mother Jones; the left-wing podcast Know Your Enemy found the conference footage “menacing,” “ominous”; even the conservative and generally restrained David Brooks found the event “terrifying,” “alarming” and “disconcerting.”
Hardly any of these assessments, whether for or against, resemble much of what I found in Orlando. Distant interpreters condemned to YouTube videos and the tea leaves of press releases can be forgiven for missing some of the facts on the ground: a camera focused on a speaker shows you nothing of the room around him. The real event felt sparsely attended: every keynote left dozens of unoccupied chairs, there was little action among the vendor booths, numerous tables were empty at both conference dinners. The three rows of press tables were mostly empty for nearly the entire event: at times I felt silly using them, on the assumption that the other reporters were elsewhere. (They weren’t.) The focus on what is said in speeches, moreover, tends to distract from the just as important matter of what is not said, or said in hushed tones in the empty time spent in lobbies and hotel bars. Someone I spoke with between sessions lamented—furtively, nervous of being overheard—the deep insincerity of Hawley’s encomium to American manhood, given his devotion to the flagrantly unmanly Donald Trump: “What better example of manly virtue could he have given than admitting he’d been wrong?” Chris Arnade, after the panel on unions, raised an obvious question that was nonetheless left unanswered: “Why would anyone who cares about this stuff vote for the Republican Party?”
A carefully cultivated silence about Trump was as central to the events of the conference as belligerent opposition to “wokeness.” Douglas Murray pointed this out during a panel with Hazony, Rubin and American Conservative columnist Sohrab Ahmari: “Whenever you get conservatives on a stage,” he noted, “they pretend to know less than they know about Donald Trump. … I think there is a perfectly good, reasonable defense of Donald Trump—I don’t hear it very often, but I hear the avoidance of unavoidable issues all the time.” Only one person (Gil Barndollar) dared mention ongoing Republican efforts to “Stop the Steal”; only one (Julius Krein) dared note that the current donor base of the Republican Party likely prevents any national-conservative innovations from ever entering the party platform. NatCon could have been an opportunity for thinkers and policy-makers to break these deliberate silences and address these unavoidable issues. Instead, swept up in the latest of our Great Awakenings, with its rituals of vilification and propensity for fantasy, the conference-goers found it far easier to agree that the main obstacles to their plan were those devils on the left.
“Critical race theory,” Vance had noted midway through his malediction, “may very well elect Glenn Youngkin governor of Virginia tonight.” Youngkin, a milquetoast and decidedly un-NatCon-esque Republican with a background on Wall Street, had been leading the Democrat and fellow finance millionaire Terry McAuliffe, and the race had hinged to a non-negligible degree upon the question of “CRT” (Youngkin against, McAuliffe denying the problem even exists). A voice cried out from the crowd—“He won!”—and the room burst into applause. “I certainly hope that Glenn Youngkin wins,” Vance continued, “and frankly, if we lived in an actual first-world country we’d know by eleven o’clock tonight, and I’d be toasting Glenn Youngkin’s victory this evening.” In this little exchange lay, I believe, the whole sad paradox of national conservatism.
The people I grew up around are hardly alone in their distrust for supposed experts with fake-sounding credentials teaching complicated, voguish theories about the world to kids as nature carved at the joints. Americans from all classes and backgrounds, too, worry that universities have become factories for producing ruling-class consensus while at the same time taking on many responsibilities better served by other organs of civil society. The national conservatives are right to raise these concerns, and to question more generally the supposed wisdom of social engineers whose insatiable urge for ideological novelty has agitated—and annoyed—the American public for decades. Yet in the process these same heralds of the people overlook the fact that most Americans are in favor of education, whether that means learning economically relevant practical knowledge or becoming adept at the epistolary arts of liberal learning. As Vance’s own experience at Yale might have prepared him to understand, higher education remains the most reliable source of social mobility for poor and working-class Americans, who regularly take on enormous hardships to allow their children a chance to receive it. There is an opening for national conservatives to make a sensible argument for reforming the university such that it serves the challenging yet egalitarian task of discovering and ennobling one’s soul. Instead, speakers like Vance choose to caricature their opponents and weaponize the anxieties and resentments of their audience, inspiring directionless anger against a largely faceless enemy.
It’s this instinct that can sometimes make national conservatism feel like a mirror image of the social-justice progressivism it opposes. Both claim their authority rests on having refined the folk wisdom of the populace, and yet both have been crafted largely in editorial offices, bureaucratic boardrooms and the halls of academia. Both enjoy only marginal popularity among the low-status, unprestigious Americans they claim to represent and take as the object of their political attention. And both describe a coalition of competing and often contradictory partners who nonetheless find themselves in loose alliance for the sake of waging social war against people they like even less—people pictured alternately as invading barbarians and totalitarian masterminds. Unlike with progressivism, however, there is little evidence that national conservatism has organic appeal among the younger generation, and it boasts few standard-bearers in the ranks of Congress (aside from Hawley, a first-term senator). Much of its future as a political movement, therefore, rests on a few political hopefuls like Vance, whose viability as a candidate in 2022 is by no means guaranteed. Indeed, for a movement that has declared the professoriate its enemy, there remains something airlessly theoretical about the whole endeavor. The conference marked the development of a newly energized political tribe, to be sure, but unless the think tankers and political commentators who lead it can forge real connections with a broader base, it’s hard to imagine it surviving as anything but a vehicle for stoking intra-elite hostility while occasionally marshaling electoral support for status quo millionaires like Youngkin and Cruz.
Stepping off my flight back from the conference, into Chicago’s Midway airport, I was greeted by a steely, robotic voice from the intercom: “Federal regulation requires all individuals to wear a mask over their nose and mouth at all times while in the airport.” A stern reminder of the tenor of things away from the political Disneyland of National Conservatism, and of the kind of polity I’d flown back to. I walked through the terminal toward the Orange Line station, past a crowded and rambunctious 9 a.m. airport bar, past clustered families waiting for flights, past people talking and twiddling on their phones. It was a universal condition of half-compliance, with pulled-down masks exposing noses and chins, many entirely removed. I walked for a few minutes alongside a stocky, maskless man in a Mexican-flag hoodie whistling a tune and was grateful for the human sound. The bus back to Hyde Park was another zone of pandemic indifference: riders sat in silence beneath bulletins from the health bureaucracy, staring listlessly at the floor or out the window.
That the NatCons may amount to one more eschatological curiosity, another entry in the encyclopedia of American doomsayers, does not guarantee they will be irrelevant to the politics of our time. Fanatics have a way of making themselves relevant, and the ongoing war between the remaining devotees of Trump and the progressive resistance he aroused promises lasting change to our political culture. Yet the thoughtlessness of much of what I had witnessed at the conference had me reaching once again for the solitude of philosophy—or at least, like many others on the bus, for my headphones. The problem was that such solitude could only ever be fleeting. The world outside the bus window was fiercely, irresistibly real, and it constantly beckoned us out of the realm of theories and ideas. As we passed neighborhood after neighborhood of abandoned houses, boarded-up businesses and urban disintegration, I felt a pang of recognition: the hardships and dashed hopes of my current home mirrored those of my old one; the city was, in the last analysis, not that different from the swamp. And then, following this recognition, the perennial dismay that makes millenarian political fantasies as unavoidable, in the most plentiful nation on earth, as our conspiracy theories, our spiritual revivals and our dreams of perfect justice. “Yeah,” I thought, “I hate this too.”
Art credits: Chris Camargo, Clouds over Orlando, Florida, 2017, courtesy of the artist; Alec Soth, USA. Magic Castle Inns and Suites, Kissimmee, Florida, 2012. © Alec Soth / Magnum Photos.