Conservative Nationalism Is Trumpism for Intellectuals
On the final night of this past week’s National Conservatism Conference, Senator Josh Hawley—a graduate of Stanford and Yale and a former instructor at an English private school—warned the attendees gathered in the ballroom of the Ritz-Carlton in downtown Washington, D.C., about the threat of élite cosmopolitanism. “The politics of those left and right have been informed by a political consensus that reflects the interests not of the American middle but of a powerful upper class and their cosmopolitan priorities,” he intoned. “This class lives in the United States, but they identify as citizens of the world. They run businesses or oversee universities here, but their primary loyalty is to the global community, and they subscribe to a set of values held by similar élites in other places.” He went on to name those values: “The importance of global integration and the danger of national loyalties; the priority of social change over tradition, career over community and achievement and merit and progress. Call it the cosmopolitan consensus.”
The conference, convened by the Edmund Burke Foundation, a new conservative think tank, drew speakers including the National Review editor-in-chief Rich Lowry, an esteemed voice of the conservative establishment, and Fox’s Tucker Carlson, who is perhaps the right’s leading populist after Donald Trump. It also drew curious guests from across the spectrum of conservative thought, from the Times’ David Brooks to the neo-reactionary blogger Curtis Yarvin. All gathered to explore the right’s answer to the world that Hawley sketched out. The national conservatism that a particular cadre of conservative writers and intellectuals has arrived at combines a chest-beating sense of national pride and hostility to immigration with a deep skepticism toward the laissez-faire economic rhetoric that conservatives have embraced for generations.
That skepticism was voiced most prominently by Carlson, in a speech titled “Big Business Hates Your Family.” In it, he referred to Oreo’s limited, local release of special edition “Pronoun Pack” cookies for New York’s WorldPride parade, in June, claiming, falsely, that all new Oreos available for sale in the United States would be printed with trans-inclusive language. “I would need reading glasses to read it, but apparently all new Oreos have the question, you know, ‘What’s your pronoun?’ ” he said. “Take three steps back—what’s actually happening? A large American company is committing a pretty brazen act of propaganda aimed at your kids. And the message is that the binary-gender scheme, which we were taught in biology class in seventh grade, is no longer operative.”
Outrages like these, imaginary as they may be, have forced Carlson to a conclusion that conservatives would have laughed off just a few years ago. “The main threat to your ability to live your life as you choose does not come from the government anymore,” he argued, “but comes from the private sector.” In other words, the old conservative consensus, forged by Cold War politics—markets and moralism—has been broken.
“The vote for Donald Trump, it seemed to me, represented a kind of breaking point,” Patrick Deneen, a professor of political science at Notre Dame and a speaker at the conference, told me. “There was this segment of the population that regarded what we, the élites, thought was the settlement as fundamentally broken on both the left and the right. And, of course, that’s being hashed out now on both sides. The Cold War kept it together, but it seems something happened out there in the electorate.”
The more we learn about the preferences of the electorate that brought Donald Trump to the White House, the more of a wonder it is that the old conservative consensus held for as long as it did. After the 2016 election, the Democracy Fund’s Voter Study Group found that around twenty-nine per cent of the electorate could be characterized as “populist,” with mostly liberal stances on economic issues but conservative stances on identity issues such as immigration. According to the Democracy Fund, only about twenty-three per cent of the electorate might be considered traditionally conservative, with rightward stances on both economic and social policy. In short, a substantial share of right-leaning voters in this country were willing to embrace, or at least countenance, a brand of conservative politics with fewer free-market nostrums and more appeals to potent sociocultural anxieties.
Trump offered up that mix, although he has since governed like a conventional Republican in all but a few areas—in trade policy, for instance, he’s followed through on his protectionist campaign rhetoric with a trade war. National conservatives are rooting for him to go further. Throughout the conference, speakers identified structural diagnoses of the ailments of the working-class economy that sounded strikingly similar to those offered by figures on the left side of the political spectrum. “The truth is that the cosmopolitan economy has made the cosmopolitan class an aristocracy,” Hawley said during his speech. “At the same time, it has encouraged multinational corporations to move jobs and assets overseas to pay the cheapest wages and the lowest taxes. And it has rewarded those same corporations for then turning around and investing those profits not in American workers, not in American development, but in financial instruments that benefit the cosmopolitan élite.”
At a rally in Greenville, North Carolina, on Wednesday, Trump spoke the name of Ilhan Omar, a Democrat from Minnesota and one of the first Muslim women in Congress. “She looks down with contempt at the hardworking Americans,” Trump said, prompting a chant: “Send her back!” Trump later told reporters that he “was not happy” with the chant, but at the rally he continued, “Tonight, I have a suggestion for the hate-filled extremists who are constantly trying to tear our country down—they never have anything good to say! That’s why I say, hey, if they don’t like it, let them leave, let them leave, let them leave.”
There were next to no references to Trump’s remarks at the conference. But there was an open embrace of Trump’s immigration rhetoric and policies. Monday saw a panel on immigration featuring Amy Wax, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who has been the subject of academic controversy in recent years for remarks over the “superiority” of white Anglo-Saxon norms. In her talk at the panel, Wax stated that “many, indeed most, inhabitants of the third world don’t necessarily share our ideas and beliefs. Others pay lip service but don’t really comprehend them. There are exceptions, of course, but most people are not exceptional.”
“These are toxic topics,” she continued, “that lie outside the Overton window in polite society, as evidenced by outraged reaction to Trump’s profane and grating question, ‘Why are we having all these people from shithole countries coming here?’ ”
The audience laughed.
“That needs to be regarded as a serious question and not just a rhetorical one.”
Wax offered an answer to it. There are two nationalist schools of thought on immigration and assimilation, she said. The first is an inclusive nationalism, which posits that immigrants from any background can assimilate into American culture and take on an American identity, provided that they are willing to declare, in her words, “fealty to abstract ideas, concepts, and principles such as human rights, property rights, the rule of law, honest government, capitalism, et cetera.” This was derisively called the nationalism of “magic dirt”—a put-down of the implication that immigrants can transform themselves simply by living on American soil. The more sensible school of thought, she argued, was “cultural-distance nationalism,” which presumes the unsuitability of certain immigrants “based on the insight and understanding that people’s background culture can affect their ability to fit into a modern advanced society.” To Wax, this means “being honest about the homegrown conditions and failures that hold countries back: kleptocracy, corruption, lawlessness, weak institutions, and the inability or unwillingness of leaders to provide for their citizens’ basic needs.”
“Let us be candid,” she concluded. “Europe and the first world, to which the United States belongs, remain mostly white for now, and the third world, although mixed, contains a lot of nonwhite people. Embracing cultural-distance nationalism means, in effect, taking the position that our country will be better off with more whites and fewer nonwhites. Well, that is the result, anyway. So, even if our immigration philosophy is grounded firmly in cultural concerns, it doesn’t rely on race at all. And, no matter how many times we repeat the mantra that correlation is not causation, these racial dimensions are enough to spook conservatives.”
Donald Trump, for all the invective he’s levelled at nonwhite immigrants these past few years and this past week, and for all his comments on shithole countries, has never made this case quite so straightforwardly.
“I feel like there’s a lot of incoherence in this conference,” Will Wilkinson, the vice-president for research at the Niskanen Center, a center-right think tank, later told me. “I don’t know how many times we’ve heard that this nationalism has nothing to do with white nationalism or race or an exclusive model of national identity. But then there’s still lots of railing about identity politics, and that’s just a kind of denial. That’s one of the things that’s definitive of what makes somebody right of center—just not really processing ideas of structural disadvantage, stuff like that.” He went on, “And I think I used to be like this—the fact that you have no personal racial animus means that you’re puzzled that anyone has accused you of supporting things that have really deeply negative structural consequences for specific groups of people.”
Another, more subtle point of incoherence: throughout the conference, alongside talk about the need to strengthen American national identity, there was rhetoric about the need to deepen religious faith and strengthen ties within our particular communities and families. “The nation, as conceived certainly by progressives, has too often in American history been embraced from a stance of hostility to the local and the communal and the particular and, yes, even the family,” Deneen said, during his remarks to the conference. “But the irony is that the destruction that has been wrought by an earlier nationalism today needs to be corrected by the embracing of a new kind of understanding of the nation—the nation that assists the parts, the nation that supports people where they are in their neighborhoods and communities and families.” Hawley similarly told his audience that citizenship “requires the power to participate in your community, to provide for your family, to make your own decisions.” In a panel session, the best-selling author J. D. Vance specifically urged conservatives to put the nurturing of families at the center of their agenda. “There are a lot of ways to measure a healthy society,” he said. “But the way that I measure a healthy society—the most important way to measure a healthy society—is whether the American nation is having enough children to replace itself.”
Of course, the easiest way for America to boost its birth rate and create more tight-knit families of deep religious faith would be to increase immigration. In 2014, Pew’s Religious Landscape Study found that forty per cent of immigrants attend religious services at least once a week, compared to thirty-six per cent of the general population. In a 2016 report, Pew noted a birth rate among immigrant mothers of 84.2 per thousand, compared to a native birth rate of 58.3 per thousand. They found, too, that only thirty-three per cent of children born to immigrant parents are born to single mothers, compared to forty-two per cent of children born to Americans. Ironically, these are precisely the aspects of immigrant culture that conservatives often find most threatening—Muslim immigrants, we are told, are too dedicated to their particular religion. Though raising more native-born children might be desirable, we’re warned that children born to immigrants from Latin America could overwhelm and destabilize the country. And, as tightly knit as families and local communities of Somali or Syrian refugees may be, conservatives don’t seem terribly eager to suggest the rest of us could learn from their example.
This is because the tension between desiring a strong common national identity and respecting the integrity and independence of particular communities and families is resolved, in national conservatism, by the belief that the American nation ought to be uniformly composed of the same kinds of people—the conservative nation desired by national conservatives will assist the parts so long as those parts are majority white, Christian, and, naturally, conservative. This will be a hard country to bring about, despite the best efforts of the Trump Administration. It’s now commonplace to say that his policies and rhetoric do not reflect who we are as a country. This is true not just in a creedal or spiritual sense but in a sheer demographic sense. The United States is irreversibly diverse. Nonwhite American citizens will not be spirited out of the country by tweet or by incantation. The right may lash out at them in rhetoric, or policy, or violence, but nothing will create for conservatives a country of people mostly like themselves. The best they can hope for is that they might continue to govern a country filled with people they despise. Only time will tell whether national conservatism is a politically viable vehicle for doing so.