Dispatches from the present
Day one of the second National Conservatism conference had been about pessimism and defeat; day two was about the fight. Following some remarks by Edmund Burke Foundation representative Anna Wellisz and a blessing by Rabbi Menachem Zupnik—a prayer for clarity in a time of extreme confusion and uncertainty—the conference rolled out its brawlers. For the morning session, Christopher Rufo, Yoram Hazony and Sohrab Ahmari—among the most public and pugilistic speakers on the roster—joined Senators Ted Cruz and (remotely) Marco Rubio to condemn the left’s stranglehold on American culture, and the pernicious nature of—depending upon whom you asked—either Marxism or liberalism.
It’s not hard to see why Chris Rufo has become such a celebrity. Charismatic and confident, Rufo is a fighter by nature. His monomaniacal campaign against “Critical Race Theory”—an only part-accurate but memorable label drawn from academic legal theory and repurposed to describe a wide range of initiatives in education and corporate diversity training—has made him a hero on the right, and a villain among liberals, civil libertarians and progressives alike. His appeal was to the “average American,” portrayed as the bearer of commonsense wisdom on matters such as gender and race, contra the bureaucrats. “The goal,” Rufo says, “is to protect these people—protect middle Americans of all backgrounds: working-class, middle-class… to arm the average American”—with information, one assumes—against “our elite institutions [that] are hammering down this message [of Critical Race Theory] every day.” But contra the goals of the left, which (pace Rufo) follow Antonio Gramsci’s call for a “long march through the institutions,” Rufo does not want to repurpose the existing structure for better ends. Rather, the goal is “laying siege,” to “expose the institutions for their corruption.” To what end? This is ultimately left unclear—especially given the fact that “tearing everything down” is what apparently makes the left so devious.
Following Rufo was Senator Ted Cruz, who entered the room to a standing ovation. Cruz is a powerful orator, but while his stage presence was entrancing, his speech was an utterly unsurprising thirty-or-so minutes of wisecracking, lib-owning and likely empty promises, peppered with calculated vulgarities (“I say that’s bullshit!”), numbered lists (three principles of national conservatism, seven battlefields), and cyclical philosophies of history (the proverbial “swinging pendulum” of cultural change.) Perhaps most marvelous was Cruz’s opening litany, a self-described “radical act” of truth-telling that was essentially a conservative version of those “IN THIS HOUSE WE BELIEVE” lawn signs:
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. Thomas Jefferson was an extraordinary national hero. Abraham Lincoln was an extraordinary national hero. Police officers keep us safe. Israel is our friend. The Wuhan virus came from Wuhan. And there is a difference between boys and girls.
He was followed by the milder-mannered post-liberals Ahmari and Hazony. Ahmari is one of the highest-profile expositors of a theory of united church and state known as “integralism”; his reputation for sparring online and being prickly in debate is belied at the podium by his soft voice and gentle demeanor. His speech was adapted from his recent article at the American Conservative about the “material dimension” of technocracy, inspired by the fictional dystopia Eden-Olympia seen in the late J. G. Ballard novel Super-Cannes. Hazony, chairman of the conference, is known in the pages of center-left newspapers as a “far right” defender of nationalism, but in person he comes off as avuncular and peaceable. He called for an end to the “freedom and tradition” fusionist compromise of the postwar right, in favor of a new alliance between conservatives and “anti-Marxist liberals” that takes as its guiding principle a commitment to the common good. “You can’t have this public liberalism that collapses into Marxism,” Hazony argued. “We’re not going to do that anymore.” Rubio addressed the conference remotely, an unlikely reminder that the Zoom era has not yet ended. Recommending a “common-good capitalism,” he denounced the Democrats for their Marxist plot to fundamentally transform the United States into something that brought back “really painful memories” for his Cuban family and neighbors.
One of the day’s highlights came in a later panel on geopolitics, helmed by defense strategists Nadia Schadlow and Kiron Skinner, the writer Daniel McCarthy and foreign-policy commentator and former U.S. Marine Gil Barndollar. The panel, focused on the limits of globalism and the continuing geopolitical threat of China, was initially suffused with praise for Trump’s break from the status quo on these matters and invective toward the current Democratic regime. But Barndollar used his time to point out a few huge elephants in the room. Other commentators were right that given the threat of China, the U.S. needed to prioritize reshoring jobs and working to cultivate a secure and prosperous future not only for itself but for its neighbors in the Western hemisphere. But on the obstacles to this process, his indictment was clear: “Conservative media—broadcast, digital and print—have been part of the problem, not the solution, in foreign policy … we don’t have to look far to see the people who are serious obstacles to reorientation.” He criticized Rubio, Cruz and Hawley, all by name: the former, for remaining an Iraq War hawk more than a decade after the invasion, when it was clear the war was and would remain a disaster, and for trying to get the U.S. government to invade Venezuela in 2018; the latter, for promulgating the theory of election fraud that undermined legitimacy in our government here at home and projected weakness abroad. “Undermining a legitimate presidential election and the system of government through a transparent lie was utterly shameful,” Barndollar roared. “Anyone credulous or craven enough to propagate an obvious lie does not deserve to move the ship of state one meaningful degree.”
In the afternoon I connected with some of the figures who, like me, floated about the edges of the conference, unclear about their relation to the movement or either of its constituent parts (“nationalist,” “conservative”). Popping briefly into a panel on the Anglo-American tradition of political economy, I caught Rabbi Yehoshua Pfeffer asking the group a question that points to an unsolved problem at the heart of the enterprise: “Many nationalists believe in political renewal, but independent of religion. Can we really be one nation not under God? What future is there for this nationalist vision in an era of secularism?”
Contemplating this, I recalled Rabbi Zupnik’s morning prayer for clarity amid confusion. It was meant, it seems, for a group lost in the confusion of the world. But perhaps he also meant it for a group trying to find a way out of the confusion of itself.