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Dispatches from the present

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Marching Through the Institutions

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After four years of excitement and the exuberance of winning, conservatives are back to feeling threatened. At the second National Conservatism conference in Orlando, where a collection of right-wing intellectuals, academics, media figures and politicians are meeting this weekend to chart the course of American conservatism, the reigning mood is pessimism. The conference, launched in 2019 amid the thrill of Trump’s electoral triumph, certainly had its share of lib-owning pugilism the first time around. But it was largely conducted in a solutions-oriented mode, focused on one burning question: What next? The conference was meant to respond to an awakening, a cracking open of the old order to make room for something new. And National Conservatism, whatever exactly that meant, would be America’s way forward.

But times are different now. The Trump Train now a burning wreckage, the halls of American government now occupied by the ranks of the enemy, the movers, shakers and policymakers at the intellectual edge of the American right are confused about what to do. Christopher DeMuth, the chairman at the Edmund Burke Foundation responsible for planning and launching the event, captured the feeling in his opening remarks: “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.”

Peter Thiel—understood by many here as one of the key funders of the conference—was no less sanguine. Every major project of the current American ruling class—domestic policy, foreign policy, military strategy, economics, academic research and science—is proving a disaster. “The problem,” says Thiel, “whether it’s the Fed, Afghanistan, COVID—we have these machines that are 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.”

“Institutions” might be the central obsession of right intellectuals today, and the word drifts in the air at nearly every discussion at the conference. “National Conservatism” is a big tent—but all corners agree that the problem, whatever it is, has something to do with institutions. Government institutions, academic institutions, the institution of marriage, perhaps most proximately public health institutions: all have become corrupted and corrupting. And one convenience of an institutional critique is the implication that the one making it might be the leader needed to fix things.

The afternoon’s breakout groups addressed a number of these institutional deficiencies. Claremont Institute fellow and Federalist contributor Ben Weingarten chaired a panel on the geopolitical threat posed by the Chinese regime, and what our foreign policy and defense institutions are doing—or not doing—to meet this threat. Michael Pillsbury, foreign policy strategist, defense consultant and adviser to at least four presidents, opened the session with a refreshing dose of self-criticism, detailing how the strategy regarding China has been carefully crafted over several decades and several presidencies—including, of course, Republicans. Conservatives’ hands, in other words, are not clean. Curt Mills, Novak Fellow and conservative journalist, followed with some remarks on the salience of China policy for the next presidential election, and noted that however much conservatives want to claim to be the ones hard on China, Biden’s administration might be the most China-hostile presidency since Nixon. David P. Goldman (perhaps better known by the pen name “Spengler”), longtime analyst of U.S.-Asian geopolitics, made an impassioned case for “a positive program, a set of solutions, to galvanize the imagination,” something akin to Kennedy’s space program or Reagan’s missile defense initiative, to inspire Americans toward innovation such that the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” happens here at home, rather than in the hands of the Beijing regime. Lastly, Michael Anton, former national security adviser to Trump and George W. Bush and current lecturer at Hillsdale College’s D.C.-based Kirby Center, argued (quite ramblingly) for a noninterventionist policy toward Taiwan.

I left before the Q&A session—which I learned later involved a shouting match between Anton and Pillsbury over the question of nuclear weapons in China strategy, with Anton siding against them—and slipped into a session on “Marriage, Family, and Nation,” just in time to hear Rabbi Menachem Zupnik make a stirring plea to the room that without the right foundation—genuine religious belief, living one’s life for God—all attempts at solving problems politically will prove fruitless. “Do you think a God who created this entire universe,” he charged, “would be impressed if we could land on Mars? Our achievements in the physical world are great achievements, no doubt—but for the creator of the universe?” This was, I could only imagine, a position contrary to the perspectives of the previous panelists—which included Austin Ruse of the Center for Family and Human Rights, a policy-focused advocacy organization that aggressively opposes gay marriage and the liberalization of sex and the family.

The final keynotes of the evening were delivered by Glenn Loury, Brown University professor of economics and host of the popular podcast “The Glenn Show,” and Republican Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri. Loury’s speech was a case for “an unabashed Black patriotism.” He criticized both the denunciation of America by leftists as fundamentally and inexorably racist, and constitutional fundamentalism on the part of conservatives as myopic, ignoring the harsh living conditions faced by Black Americans. “It is easy to overstate the racial problems facing our country and easy to overlook what we have achieved,” Loury charged. “Our birthright citizenship in this great republic is an inheritance of immense value; our Americanness is much more important than our Blackness.” Loury’s plea for national unity, heartfelt though it was, was cut through with stinging, defensive rhetoric (“I say this in defiance of cancel culture”) that was dialed up to ten in Hawley’s closing speech. Hawley gave an exhortation on “the future of the American man,” full of fire and brimstone about the left’s “deconstruction of men” and, ultimately, of America. “The left,” Hawley insisted, “controls the commanding heights of American society … their voices predominate in the news media, in Hollywood, arguably sports and—of course—in our universities. This is their hour, and they’re determined to use it.” To fight this process—and to ensure the survival of American liberty—Hawley called for a restoration of “the manly virtues” of “courage, and independence, and assertiveness,” tax incentives for marriage, and for the reshoring of American manufacturing jobs to inspire American men out of idleness and help them become productive, contributing members of society.

Following the senator’s speech, the first day came to a close. The young attendees drifted to the hotel bar, some to a party off-site. But most retired to their rooms to recover from a day full of invective and fatalistic resolve, and to prepare for yet another to come.