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Dispatches from the present

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Up From Despair

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After two days of bemoaning their losses and rallying the troops, the National Conservatives are ready to think about where to go next. On the final day of the conference, between obligatory bouts of lib-owning, they were ready to consider what kind of world their motley alliance of post-liberal conservatives and right-wing libertarians would actually like to build.

The highlight of the morning session was Rod Dreher, whose long-awaited report-back on his recent travels in Hungary, a real-world post-liberal democracy, provided a vision of what National Conservatism might look like in practice. “Hungary,” he contended, “was not a neo-fascist state, as the smear-doctors in Western media insist,” and there are “plenty of lessons that American conservatives can and should learn about how Prime Minister Orban and the Fidesz Party govern their country.” His sympathy for Orban’s Hungary rested mostly upon two initiatives: the willingness to fight against “the totalitarian nature of wokeness” and opposition to immigration contra the demands of Brussels. Conservative American politicians, Dreher insists, should follow suit. They needed to get over their skepticism of government and “embrace unapologetically an aggressive use of state power” to defend and rebuild our civilization.

As it had throughout my three days here, though, the real intellectual energy lay in the breakout panels. For a conference so fixated on the question of how to aid the average Americans suffering beneath the twin tyranny of progressive governance and neoliberal economics, the question of what National Conservative labor policy might look like had gotten little attention in the first two days. But a day three panel on “Worker Power” featuring American Compass’s Oren Cass, labor analyst and Cardus vice president Brian Dijkema and president of North America’s Building Trades Unions Sean McGarvey made up for lost time, raising the question of what conservatives could do to make possible a workers’ movement friendly to their cause. (Unfortunately, attendance was notably sparse.)

For Cass, workers qua workers are a natural constituency for the goals and values of the NatCons. While capital, goods and services are mobile, labor is much less so—“people care about place,” no matter how modest or unimportant. Not to mention that “workers aren’t woke.” Elevating the power of workers against that of management would “elevate commonsense American values against radical attempts at change”—which is to say, building labor power would be “potentially one of the best checks on wokeness.” A win-win scenario for workers and conservatives alike.

Brian Dijkema was less concerned with the relevance of labor to “conservatism” than to Christianity, and how the labor tradition of the Christian intellectual tradition—contra, say, Marx—can suggest ways of building a just society. “The most articulate, productive and long-lasting organizing principles of labor organization comes from Jews, Protestants, Catholics,” Dijkema observed, “not necessarily Marxists.” “Rather than appreciating the uniquely American form of organizing praised by Tocqueville,” however, “conservatives have always opposed labor”—in the Cold War conservative imagination, all organized labor slouches toward the Comintern. This, said Dijkema, needs to change.

The third panelist, Sean McGarvey, detailed the structure of his trade union—representing more than three million members in the United States and Canada—and the kinds of initiatives they engage in. After two days largely filled with media personalities and politicians, it was refreshing to hear a person convey their firsthand knowledge of a subject, and McGarvey made a strong case for the importance of a union like his in an economy built for human flourishing. When an audience member asked whether unions weren’t actually full of communists—especially in the National Labor Relations Board—McGarvey shot back. “One of the major factors of the fall of the Soviet Union was the United States’s labor movement,” he said. “It supported fledgling labor movements behind the Iron Curtain and helped them build a bulwark against totalitarianism.” Labor movements are as American as apple pie; for Dijkema, as Christian as a Friday fast; and for Cass, as conservative as a local town hall.

The middle of the day represented a U-turn back to the red meat of Bad Things—“CRT,” “BLM,” Drag Queen Story Hour, “Wokeness,” and so forth that had characterized much of the first two days. Podcaster and right-wing media figure Michael Knowles was perhaps the conference’s slickest and most well-spoken expositor of the movement’s new version of post-liberal conservatism. He and political science professor Carol Swain both made impassioned pleas to purge the conservative movement of the libertarianism that was brought in during the Buckley years. “There is no such thing as a perfectly neutral public square,” per Knowles. “Tuck that away with the Easter bunny and tooth fairy—it does not exist.” And Swain: “The problem with the conservative movement, the reason why they don’t know what they believe, is that there are so many libertarians—it’s a cop-out position that allows you to believe anything and everything.”

But if Knowles and Swain recommended a turn against the libertarians, the latter half of the day belied this excommunication. Over dinner, the conference’s highest-profile libertarian of sorts, Dave Rubin, interviewed NBA basketball star Jonathan Isaac, who achieved public infamy twice over, first by refusing to kneel for the national anthem and then for refusing the COVID vaccine. The discussion began in overwhelming surreality, a 24-year-old black anti-vax athlete sitting onstage with a gay libertarian podcast host for a conference filled with invective against racethink, homosexuality and libertarianism. But as the conversation progressed, it proved to be one of the most delightful hours of the weekend, both interlocutors evidencing a curiosity and lack of ideological fervor that contrasted sharply with the zealotry of much of the rest of the conference. Isaac spoke movingly about how his rekindled faith led him to think more deeply about his position in the world and the decisions a person should make. His libertarianism is markedly American (contra the European longings of Dreher and the integralists), a deep skepticism toward state coercion and a valorization of common sense bred into the bones of Americans.

J. D. Vance, whose keynote speech “The Universities Are the Enemy” served as the conference send-off, maintained some of this frontier spirit, delivering his remarks with a boyish, almost joyous charisma. Still, his assault on the “fundamentally corrupt” American professoriate was followed by no positive proposals for where to go next, or for how to build institutions—that watchword from day one—that might supersede the current crop of universities. Does Vance have an alternative? The most compelling thinking at the conference has been concrete, analytical and concerned with a good higher than victory over the enemy: the breakouts on geopolitics, religion, labor. One gets the impression, however, that the politicians and celebrities—Dreher, Cruz, Rubio, Knowles—are largely unconcerned with the hard and often thankless work of building. Vance, too, doesn’t have much to offer. Instead, he quotes Nixon: “Professors are the enemy. Write that on a blackboard one hundred times and never forget it.”

The conference closed, Vance walked off stage to Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family,” attendees left or lingered. Glenn Youngkin’s victory in Virginia had been announced midway through Vance’s sermon, and the crowd—some of it, at least—hooted in delight. Here was, it seemed to me, the inconsistency of the enterprise: a conference dedicated to shattering the old consensus and laying the groundwork for a new post-liberal conservatism, nonetheless hollering in support of a former McKinsey consultant and private equity CEO winning an election. Was all of this about finding new justifications for the same old power? Or do conservatives really want something different? What are they willing to let go of in order to move forward? The answers, for now, remain unclear.