Hazony's The Virtue of Nationalism helps build a realist conception of political order that goes beyond theory to understand history.
On November 1, 2021, the second National Conservatism Conference, NatCon 2, was in full swing, and that evening saw the most memorable event at the plenary session, a free-wheeling panel titled “Is Alliance Possible?” The panel featured four prominent conservative figures of very different backgrounds, all drinking alcohol. Of course, familiar to anyone interested in national conservatism was Yoram Hazony, a religious Jew and Israeli who formed the Edmund Burke Society and launched the National Conservative conference in 2019. Also on the stage was Sohrab Ahmari, who also had his own speech at the conference. Ahmari represented the Catholic integralists with an urbane sophistication and humor that made him a hit. Douglas Murray’s inclusion in the panel gave neoconservatives a voice. Finally, there was Dave Rubin, a prominent classical liberal podcaster. This panel provided the best line of the whole conference, in which Rubin said, “There is a bit of an elephant in the room: two of the panelists are gay, and I’ll let you figure out which two.” The room erupted with laughter. For those unaware, the two were Murray and Rubin.
This past October, at NatCon 3, Rev. Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and one of the most prominent evangelical Protestant voices in the conservative world, gave evening remarks condemning wokeness as an idol of our age. In keeping with Baptist teachings, he drank no alcohol. His views on LGBT issues are well known. At one of the breakout sessions, Katy Faust, the head of the children’s rights group Them Before Us, directly condemned Rubin for having surrogate children with his husband, referring to the practice as sacrificing a child’s right to a mother and a father “on the altar of the modern family.” Her condemnation earned her applause. Many speakers dismissed Catholic integralism, including, Fr. Benedict Kiely and Daniel Burns. The most direct attack, however, came from Kevin Roberts, president of the Heritage Foundation, who devoted considerable time in his plenary speech to condemning integralism, at one point pronouncing, “Integralists: heal thyselves.”
Murray, Rubin, and Ahmari were not at NatCon 3. Ahmari and Hazony had a rather dramatic falling out earlier this year, and Gladden Pappin’s defense of Ahmari earned a scathing response from Hazony. Pappin, who had spoken at the NatCon Brussels conference back in March, refrained from attending NatCon 3, but he did join Ahmari at the integralists’ own “Restoring a Nation” conference at Franciscan University of Steubenville.
What changed over the past year? To answer this question, we must go back to the one posed in 2021: “Is Alliance Possible?” And the answer depends entirely on the parties agreeing to such an alliance. The purpose behind NatCon was always to find a new conservatism to replace the “dead consensus” from the Reagan years. Originally, those willing to join NatCon were Trump enthusiasts, “Claremonsters,” Catholic integralists, Bronze Age Pervert devotees, isolationists, immigration hawks, and economic protectionists. These groups had overlapping membership in some cases, and there existed the kind of internal disagreements that are inherent to any coalition. All the same, they hoped to mount a take-over of the Republican Party and sort out an ideological platform that NatCon would facilitate. At NatCon 3, many of these groups were still present, particularly the Claremonsters, isolationists, immigration hawks, and economic protectionists. Trump enthusiasts were few, as were the Bronze Age Pervert types. And of course, the integralists were gone. The latest conference was mostly made up of DeSantis enthusiasts, Protestants, and Catholic Americanists. NatCon appears to be reconciling with fusionism.
The first and most important change was in conservative electoral circumstances. NatCon 1 took place during the summer of 2019 and provided the intellectual architecture for a second term for then-president Donald J. Trump. Given that the Republicans controlled the presidency and taking back Congress was not entirely out of the question, national conservatives wanted to replace dead-consensus conservatives with true believers, which explains why the fire at the conference was trained as much on the “liberalism” of movement conservatism as it was on progressives and Democrats.
There was no conference in 2020 thanks to COVID-19, but the 2021 conference took place during the first year of a Biden administration with a profoundly weak Democratic majority in Congress. Now the out-party, Republicans had to find a way of consolidating different factions into a coherent, workable alliance. Hence the question of 2021 really was, “is alliance possible?” The proposed coalition of 2021 gave significant emphasis to creating space for conservative gay men. In addition to Rubin and Murray, the conference also featured Peter Thiel, the billionaire PayPal founder and early Facebook investor. Thiel was outed by the gossip website Gawker in 2007, and has since been quite open about his sexuality, even speaking on the subject at the 2016 Republican National Convention.
NatCon 2 wasn’t all rainbows, though. Also present was Curtis Yarvin, once known as “Mencius Moldbug,” a reactionary monarchist with a longtime following, including Thiel himself. Another notable guest was Jack Murphy, a big player in the “Manosphere,” the internet-based community of men seeking to affirm masculinity through various forms of self-help and sexual conquest. Murphy was in the process of taming his image in an effort to direct his following into the NatCon circle—even at one point interviewing Ahmari for one of his programs—until online activists unearthed graphic sexual footage of Murphy engaged in, well, less-than-traditional masculinity. While Yarvin and Murphy did not speak on any panels, their presence indicated that NatCon was in part going to be an alliance of manly men seeking masculine manliness.
This union was extremely volatile and depended heavily on its leaders finding a modus vivendi. That was the subject of the evening panel with Hazony, Ahmari, Murray, and Rubin.
The volatility led to Ahmari, Murray, and Rubin forgoing NatCon this year, and in their place was the old social conservative alliance of religious Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. The best monarchists like Yarvin could hope for was John O’Sullivan’s remarks about the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, who distinguished herself as the dismantler of the British Empire and by her studied effort to rule her kingdom as little as possible.
In other words, the Judeo-Christian consensus was back, and this time its leader was a Jew, Hazony himself. As it happens, I wrote a book on the Judeo-Christian consensus, and one of the issues I had to contend with was that, despite the name, no Jews ever led it. Rabbi Joshua Loth Liebman died young, and Rabbi Abraham Heschel sought only to lead Jews within the Civil Rights Movement. The rest he left to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Incredibly, Hazony emerged at NatCon 3 with the answer to “is alliance possible?”: Essentially, “Yes, but not with the guys from 2021.” A Jewish-led Judeo-Christian consensus affords Republicans something with a broad base, an existing activist network, and decades of working together across denominational lines. It is a base highly mobilized on issues like trans rights, wokeness in public education, and religious freedom. National conservatives want to win, and to win requires a capable alliance. The appeal to the Judeo-Christian consensus also draws in bigger Washington institutions long committed to these issues—including NatCon 3’s biggest supporter, the Heritage Foundation—instead of the subscribers of Murphy’s Liminal Order or the integralists’ Postliberal Order.
Even so, NatCon 3 began on an unsteady note, perhaps because this new alliance was so dramatically different from the previous year. Thiel, one of the few gay men speaking at NatCon 3, opened his speech on “The Tech Curse” by ruminating on what NatCon had become, saying, “It’s always a little bit hard to know exactly how to define our movement. I think it is strikingly heterogeneous…we’re not even some ‘happy clappy church.’”
He then gave an extended metaphor in which progressives were the Empire in Star Wars and the NatCons the Rebel Alliance, with Thiel hoping to be Han Solo and perhaps Trump as Obi-Wan Kenobi. His rejection of the happy clappy church was not echoed in the two breakout panels on Protestantism, two breakout panels on Catholicism, the aforementioned speech by Mohler, Senator Joshua Hawley’s talk on “The Biblical Revolution,” Rod Dreher’s “Shadrach in American Babylon,” Michael Knowles’ “One Nation under God,” and the closing remarks Hazony gave on the Bible.
One wonders how much Thiel truly was fretting when he said “the diversity is extreme. Maybe it’s too much. Maybe it’s just right.” Indeed, the general tone of NatCon 3 was that of a high-minded Protestant revival.
The Resurrection of the Dead Consensus
The second reason for shifting alliances was the change in issue sets from 2019, especially with respect to judicial decisions and the use of administrative power during the COVID lockdowns. The 2021-2022 Supreme Court decisions, especially in Dobbs and Kennedy, shifted the ideological ground. Prior to these cases, NatCons had every reason to doubt liberalism and even the feasibility of the American project because of the unending march toward democratic decadence that would lead to a crisis in which NatCons could seize power and reconstitute the American regime. As John Yoo illustrated in his defense of originalism, SCOTUS proved there was still some life in the dead consensus, though Josh Hammer and Hadley Arkes registered their complaints that the Court had not gone far enough in Dobbs.
In the same year, after decades of litigation and institution building, Roe and Lemon were dead, meaning the dead consensus may yet still live. The force behind both decisions was the Judeo-Christian consensus, and at the time of the conference, the orthodox Jews at Yeshiva University were fighting a religious liberty case in the Supreme Court. There was little taste for the administrative state among the attendees at NatCon 3 after years of COVID lockdown and onerous regulations on religious worship. Of course, one could make a decent bet that any given speaker would say something like “liberal institutions are not neutral,” almost as a nod to the NatCons of old, but the speakers had resumed their talk against state power, most astonishingly when Michael Anton (one of the few national conservatives to speak at all three conferences) offered an apology to libertarians. Anton said they had been right all along about the Patriot Act creating a de facto surveillance state.
Even the economic protectionists curtailed their positions. Saurabh Sharma, Johnny Burtka, Alan Tonelson, and Michael Lind argued for encouraging the GOP to adopt tariffs and industrial subsidies to high-tech manufacturing firms. These, they argued, would help confront China, but they would also build up the skills and livelihoods of American workers who would reward the GOP with their votes. Sharma compared these industries to the oil and gas industry and its close relationship with the GOP and conservatism. No longer was the administrative state the key to success; now the goal, seemingly was to use government to sponsor new market actors as clients to the Republican Party similar to what universities and tech companies are to the left. In other words, the move is away from direct seizure of state power, and toward good old-fashioned patronage. Your average classical liberal would balk at the idea itself but might appreciate the movement away from the use of raw state power, as Julius Krein recommended at NatCon 1. Now, national conservatism was no longer an insurgent counter-consensus seeking to displace fusionism, but part of a coalition within the broader conservative movement seeking to influence GOP policy agendas.
National Conservatism After Trump
The third reason for the change in the alliance is the decline of Trump’s political fortunes and the rise of DeSantis’s. Astonishingly few speakers praised Trump by name. Only one, Tom Klingenstein, spent much time talking about him. For most speakers, Trump was a historical figure, a distant founder of a movement retired to let others fight the fight he started. When Thiel called Trump the “Obi-Wan Kenobi” of NatCon, he perhaps inadvertently diminished his importance. After all, “Old Ben” dies in the middle of the first movie and only watches as a force ghost as others complete his task.
DeSantis, Rubio, and Scott—Floridians all—spoke of their state as a model for the country. A rising star, West Virginia Treasurer Riley Moore, detailed how he managed to purge Environmental, Social, and Governance, or ESG, standards from financial services holding contracts with the state of West Virginia. Notably, he did this by using his role as an elected executive officer to work out policy changes with members of the West Virginia legislature. His message was not to invest all one’s hopes in a single person or even in the federal government but to apply his experience to other states hoping to fight back against the imposition of progressive social values by financial services on unwilling and unwitting state populations. The last thing I expected to see at NatCon, a conference built on nationalism, was an appeal to federalism. Even for NatCon, the states are back.
NatCon-fusionism or Nat-Confusionism
The future of National Conservatism is a choice between fusionism or confusion. The old fusionist project of Frank Meyer has an irresistible logic: no single ideological faction on the right has sufficient force to command the others. All must, therefore, find a workable consensus to influence elected officials and persuade the broader electorate. To do so, national conservatives needed to get serious, and this was the message of my favorite speech, “On Being a Serious Country” by Bill McClay. The alternative is for national conservatives to remain confused about who they are and what they stand for, continuing to identify themselves by what they are not (Reaganites) and what they oppose (the dead consensus). Thiel summed up this choice and powerfully illustrated, in just a few moments at the beginning of his speech, how difficult it will be to make. In some cases, former allies have already made the decision for them. But ultimately, NatCons will have to decide for themselves what the core of this counter-consensus will be.
The need for a kind of fusionism is hardly news to Hazony, but the alternative he hoped to commence in 2019 has proved to be unserious. To get serious, it would seem, he has to bring the dead consensus back to life.