November 6, 2021   8 mins

“We can’t stop here, this is bat country.”

I didn’t expect excitable millennials to quote Hunter S. Thompson at me, at a conservative event. But at the National Conservatism II conference in Orlando last week, Fear And Loathging In Las Vegas was everywhere: the mood the night before kickoff had that exact sense of giddy incipient lunacy.

For my adult life, being both young and a conservative has been deeply, irretrievably cringe. Not so here, where the modal attendee was a bearded, trim, often tattooed male Hunter S. Thompson fan, under the age of 25. NatCon II was where Conservatism Inc. met Conservatism Ink.

The Conservatism Ink guys sported blue blazers and Richard Spencer haircuts. They made the bar noisy and excitable, added youth and buzz to events — and were notably absent from the centrepiece panel, in which the event’s organisers attempted to craft a ‘new fusionism’.

Here, conference organiser and Burke Foundation chairman Yoram Hazony took to the stage alongside the Catholic integralist writer Sohrab Ahmari, whose 2019 article ‘Against David French-Ism’ saw the first full-scale battle within the American Right, between the liberals and the then still emerging ‘post-liberal’ strand.

For Ahmari, David French epitomised a Right-liberal thinking that conceded too much territory. By accepting the liberal idea that moral values should be kept out of the public square, the argument goes, conservatism merely becomes a strategy for losing more slowly. Instead, Ahmari states that the Right should aim for “defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good”.

It’s hard to see, though, how this stance can easily be made to square particularly with Ahmari’s co-panellists Dave Rubin, a noted libertarian, and Douglas Murray, the ne plus ultra of anti-woke right-liberalism.

For me, this event encapsulated the NatCon’s quandary: what kind of alliance, if any, is possible between liberals and post-liberals? And, crucially, ordered to which values? Everyone on the panel was unenthusiastic about wokeness, at pains to stress that they weren’t rabid authoritarians, and seemingly unsure about how to resolve the question of how state power could align with moral values, without treading on at least some of their friends’ toes.

Hazony argued that America could and should re-Christianise its public square, and simply manage some kind of ‘carve-out’ for groups such as gay people and orthodox Jews. Murray, meanwhile, argued that the Church only had itself to blame for mass secularisation. (He didn’t quite say they were all nonces but it was heavily implied.) Ahmari, perhaps the lone post-liberal on the stage, was surprisingly conciliatory.

Afterwards, Conservatism Inc. raved about the discussion. At the bar, though, where they were ignoring the whole event, the Conservatism Ink bros were less sure. They drank bourbon and muttered that with anti-woke liberals such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali on-board, nothing would ever change. Too big a tent means a lack of focus. 

It wasn’t just the Gen-Z raw-eggs-and-dank-memes boys. “I was into this before it was cool” is the abiding cry of hipsters the world over, and it was (more or less explicitly) everywhere over the three days of conference. But if the the purists of NatCon I were complaining about liberal entryism, this isn’t just about new money coming into the movement. It’s also an effect of how radically the political backdrop has changed since 2019.

Between Brexit/Trump in 2016 and the pandemic in 2020, there was a widespread feeling that something new was needed to replace the technocratic ‘double liberal’ consensus. And indeed, since then something new has emerged, in the wake of Covid-19. It’s just not what was envisaged.

Back in 2019, people were dreaming about ordering Western state power to a more substantive moral programme than that of empty individual freedom and consumerism; a new, human-scale politics of meaning and necessary limits.

And behold, the pandemic state of emergency did indeed shatter the consensus about individual freedom. Across the developed world, the liberal privileging of individual freedom has been replaced by a de facto acceptance that state power absolutely must be ordered to the common good, up to and including coercive measures where necessary. In other words: all politics is now post-liberal. 

But inasmuch as we have achieved consensus on what ‘the common good’ means, it doesn’t extend much beyond ‘public health’, understood in bare terms as the preservation of physical life: lockdowns, masks, vaccinations and so on. The new Western normal is one of authoritarian regimes now visibly reluctant to relinquish their grip on a state of emergency.

But these regimes are more, not less, technocratic — and there’s been no new politics of meaning. Instead, the last year and a half have felt like a relentless assault on everything that makes us human: interpersonal bonds, organic social organisations, in-person contact.

This situation has confused the hell out of the loosely post-liberal caucus who made up the intellectual backbone of NatCon I in 2019. It aimed to revive a more substantial nationalism capable of incorporating realist foreign policy; industrial policy; patriotism beyond divisive racial politics. There was a Republican in the White House; I’m told policy debates were detailed and impassioned. You never knew what might trickle up to actual centres of power. 

And the liberal mainstream was sincerely shocked by their suggestion that maybe state power and moral values should be aligned. Now, though, there’s no longer any need to make that case: in response to the pandemic, states across the West have enthusiastically seized power.

The pre-pandemic post-lib pipe-dream was of a revived human-scale politics of meaning, to challenge the bloodless grip of technocracy and its mantra of never-ending progress. Post-liberals were happy to talk about limits and state power as means of pursuing such a politics of meaning. Now, plot twist: existing post-liberalism has ordered state power to a set of moral values that 2019’s national conservatives really don’t like.

So the ‘state power’ bit is settled in principle. (Though for conservatives under Biden, the question of how to obtain it for themselves is both open and, they’d argue, urgent.) The ‘moral values’ bit is a bitter battlefield — even within the national conservative caucus.

With that in mind, it was perhaps inevitable that the programme trended negative: toward focusing on what we can all agree we don’t want. Along with Hazony’s sincere but inconclusive panel effort at shaping a ‘new fusionism’, this meant plenty of speakers whose primary argument was not for anything particular so much as against wokeness. Playing conference bingo with a friend, we were obliged to delete ‘cultural Marxism’ from our cards a few hours in because it came up too often. 

To my eye the most interesting attendees were those who sought to address the how of power, or the what of values — without simply relapsing into complaints about wokeness. Informally, perhaps the neo-reactionary Curtis Yarvin (also known as Mencius Moldbug) qualifies here. He ran a kind of three-day mobile conference plenary, in which (seemingly without ever needing to draw breath) he addressed a little flock of the Conservatism Ink bros who followed him like ducklings.

Elsewhere, New Founding’s Matt Peterson outlined a plan for a commercial and cultural startup, aimed at propagating a positive lifestyle vision for the American Right. It was a for-profit entrepreneurial approach to moral renewal that felt both very American and somewhat baffling to a Bongland ex-Lefty.

More intelligible from my perspective was the session on ‘Worker Power’. Here, Oren Cass of American Compass joined Brian Dijkema of Cardus and Sean McGarvey of NABTU to discuss the sometimes vexed relationship between conservatism and trade unions. There’s been a lot of noise from the American Right about how the Republicans are now a multi-ethnic, working-class party, and Marco Rubio did endorse Amazon unionisation efforts in Alabama back in March. 

Even so, the souvenir conference mugs were, somewhat ironically, made in China; and attendance at the ‘Worker Power’ session was sparse. This spoke to one of the conference’s real tensions: what relation does this would-be counter-elite actually have to the masses? One approach to this question came from Hungary’s soft-power outreach team, who were present in force at NatCon. Balázs Orbán, Minister of State to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s office (no relation), gave a presentation that positioned Hungary as a successful model for actually existing national conservatism.

Orbán boasted of Hungarian growth, lack of anti-semitic violence, church and synagogue renovation and improving birth rates. These, he argued, demonstrate that national conservatism with Hungarian characteristics is not, as Western liberals like to claim, a totalitarian dictatorship but in fact a popular regime that’s delivering what the Hungarian people want and need.

Whether you nod along with this framing of Fidesz probably depends on your political commitments. But from this perspective, an elite whose values are aligned with those of the masses can use authority to implement those values responsibly throughout the regime. What’s unclear, though, even among sympathetic conservatives, is how applicable the Orbánist model might be in the West — and particularly in America. 

It’s relatively easy for a reigning elite to align values to state power in a homogeneous nation of 10 million people. It’s far from obvious how this might be achieved in a deliberately decentralised, pluralistic nation of 300 million people, with a highly individualistic founding ideology that’s constitutionally allergic to state-mandated values.

Chris Rufo’s Leninist strategy for ‘counterrevolution’, which I’ve discussed here, offered part of the answer, in the playbook he proposed for getting American conservatives to win the culture wars. In Rufo’s view, the aim of such a counter-elite should be galvanising and providing language and representation for a mass that Rufo sees as subjected to the top-down imposition of alien values by a narcissistic, nihilistic Left-authoritarian state. 

Meanwhile, the writer Mary Eberstadt looked straight past Conservatism Inc., instead making a heartfelt address to Conservatism Ink in the name of shared values as such. She argued that the young have been robbed by ‘zero-sum progressivism’ of everything that gives life a ‘higher purpose’: family connections, faith, belonging, a cultural patrimony.

Taken together, Rufo’s right-Leninism and Eberstadt’s empathetic politics of meaningful relationships felt like the public and private facets of this movement’s better part. Eberstadt brought a deeply matriarchal quality to proceedings. 

She’s emerging as a compassionate figure in a sometimes dour or combative 21st-century American conservatism, and I hope her voice continues to be heard — especially by the Conservatism Inkers her talk addressed. After all, Rufo’s Right-Leninist vanguardism in the name of shared conservative values will make little sense if it’s pursued in the name of a people who don’t actually have any shared values.

But if Rufo and Eberstadt together comprise top-down and bottom-up facets of something approaching a workable, effective and ethically-grounded conservatism, there are plenty of other visions for where this version of the right goes next: Thielite space fascism, Bitcoin exitism, libertarian anti-wokeism, hard-edged nationalism, doctrinaire Catholic integralism or simply reabsorption by the neocon blob. 

It’s a heady and at many points self-contradictory brew, in which the central question — whose values? — remains undecided, a dilemma that will either prove the movement’s greatest strength or weakness.

After three days in bat country, I stumbled to bed on the last night past a swarm of Conservatism Ink chanting ‘Let’s Go, Brandon’ in the hotel bar. I left with an abiding sense that national conservatism has money behind it, but also plenty of punk energy and belligerence.

As ever, money will play a huge part in what happens next. And there are plenty of boomercons with fat chequebooks, who would like to see room on the ark for at least ‘our’ kind of liberal. In particular, as far as the neocons are concerned, it’s noteworthy that there’s been some debate over whether foreign-policy realists were well enough represented on the roster — especially given how central debates over US military obligations have been to shifts on the Right since Trump.

There are probably plenty as well who would like to see the more punk end of this movement defanged, and Conservatism Ink toned right down. Meanwhile, the Gen-Z right-wingers now flocking to this corner of politics have altogether wilder and stranger ideas, that often owe more to the fringes of the Weird Online Right than the Founding Fathers. And they’re the ones with the energy: they still got up at 6am to lift. Even after all that bourbon. 

Who will win? My best guess is that in the short term we’ll see this movement re-absorbed by the DC blob. Then there’ll be full-scale revolt by Conservatism Ink when they are, in aggregate, old enough to wield power. And then we really will be in bat country.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.