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Trump and the dead end of conservative nationalism

A conference on “national conservatism” barely mentioned Trump — but gave voice to Trumpism.

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

President Trump’s vicious attacks on four House Democrats this week — telling four American women of color to “go back” to their own countries — was a testament to the racism at the heart of his brand of nationalism.

Yet at a conference this week in Washington, attended by some of the most important figures on the American right, participants argued for a new, non-racist “conservative nationalism” that could bring together a divided nation. Given the week’s headlines, they certainly had their work cut out for them.

The inaugural National Conservatism conference, hosted by the Edmund Burke Foundation, is an attempt to build a new vision of conservatism less wary of state power and more focused on addressing American social ills like fraying family ties and the hollowing out of small towns. Luminaries ranging from National Security Adviser John Bolton to Sen. Josh Hawley to Fox News host Tucker Carlson showed up to help flesh out what, exactly, “conservative nationalism” or “national conservatism” should stand for.

Speakers took great pains to draw distinctions between the conference’s ideals and those of the alt-right. During an opening night speech, David Brog, one of the conference organizers, pointed out the exit door and told any racists in the audience that they should head out of it. Yet the speakers also overwhelmingly agreed that a central part of “national conservatism” involved opposing allegedly divisive cultural change wrought by mass immigration.

There’s an obvious tension in this project of building a conservatism that is simultaneously skeptical of cultural change caused by immigration and, somehow, inclusive of the largely nonwhite immigrants who are responsible for changing it. At times, it became too much to bear.

In a panel on immigration, University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax claimed that immigrants are too loud and responsible for an increase in “litter.” She explicitly advocated an immigration policy that would favor immigrants from Western countries over non-Western ones; “the position,” as she put it, “that our country will be better off with more whites and fewer nonwhites.” (She claims this is not racist because her problem with nonwhite immigrants is cultural rather than biological.)

This is the problem with any attempt to build conservative nationalism in a nutshell. At a very abstract level, it’s possible to make non-racist arguments for a more restrictive immigration policy and a more broadly nationalist ethos. But when you get to the level of actual policy and politics, these ideas nearly inevitably end up devolving into attacks on minority groups.

Once you understand this, the fact that very few people at the conference wanted to talk about President Trump — despite him being the most prominent self-identified “nationalist” in the country — starts to make a lot of sense. The airy theory of conservative nationalist intellectuals, when applied to real-world politics, always ends up looking like Trump’s assault on “the Squad.”

What is “national conservatism”?

The National Conservatism conference has an unusual premise: that conservatism as traditionally understood in the United States has outlived its usefulness.

In the post-World War II era, American conservatism was defined by a mix of three ideas: laissez-faire economic policies, social conservatism, and a hawkish foreign policy. This three-legged stool, called “fusionism” by conservative intellectuals, combined three Cold War-era constituencies — libertarians, the religious right, and neoconservatives — into a single political movement. Deep disagreements between these tribes were papered over by the fact that each could, roughly speaking, control the area they were most interested in.

But there was no guarantee this bargain would hold in Trump’s Republican Party. His presidency has seen representatives from different factions feuding, at times openly, in an attempt to shift Trump and the GOP in their direction. All the intra-conservative fights in recent months, on issues ranging from Iran to a drag queen reading hour in Sacramento, are examples of these feuds breaking out into the open.

The National Conservatism conference is a furious volley in this civil war. Brog, one of the two lead conveners, is an influential conservative activist and the former executive director of Christians United for Israel. The second, Yoram Hazony, is a leading Israeli right-wing intellectual with longstanding ties to the American right. Hazony’s recent book, The Virtues of Nationalism, was widely praised among leading figures in the American conservative intellectual world. Together, the two represent a particular strain of the social conservative movement that believes deeply in a kind of religious nationalism — and that the other two factions must be destroyed for conservatism to survive in the 21st century.

“Something went terribly wrong with American conservatism after the fall of the Berlin Wall,” Hazony said in his address. “People who are drunk with power lose touch with reality.”

Their vision of social conservatism, however, is not focused on classic issues like abortion and same-sex marriage — two issues little mentioned at the conference (although there were multiple cruel attacks on trans people in major speeches). It aims instead to recenter conservatism on the notion that the role of the state is to promote the health of American communities and rebuild the ties that used to bind Americans together.

That means bucking libertarians to use the power of the state at home to address problems like the opioid crisis, the use of pornography by teenagers, and the overweening influence of Silicon Valley in our economy. It also means going against neoconservatives in limiting the United States’ role abroad — refusing to get dragged in foreign conflicts while prioritizing America’s deeper issues at home.

Sen. Josh Hawley, one of the keynote speakers at the National Conservatism conference, during a June 27 address.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Above all else, it means promoting national social cohesion: overcoming political and social polarization and rebuilding a sense of shared community and national destiny. It’s an essentially communitarian vision, arguing that liberalism (in the political philosophy sense, not the partisan one) is too focused on the “atomized” individual and not focused enough on building social ties that bind citizens together. Mainstream conservatism, they believe, has been guilty of these liberal sins.

Conservative nationalism, Notre Dame political theorist Patrick Deneen said in his speech, should embrace a vision of “the nation that assists people where they are” — the nation as a “community of communities” that works to build up trust and connections between citizens and the communities they live in.

It’s a vision that sounds appealing in the abstract, especially when compared to the standard fusionist fare. Some of the speeches, like Deneen’s address, were thoughtful and intellectually alive. Another by J.D. Vance, the author of Hillbilly Elegy, was one of the sharpest critiques of libertarianism I’ve ever seen from a conservative.

But socially conservative nationalism inescapably elevates a particular religious and conservative vision for the country over philosophically liberal commitments — Deneen, for example, is most famous for writing a book titled Why Liberalism Failed. When one starts chipping away at the separation of church and state and the philosophical framework underpinning liberal rights, you end up justifying excluding groups of individuals from those rights — transgender people, for example.

This new “national conservatism” is no exception. And nowhere is this clearer than its discussion of immigration and race.

Who “national conservatism” casts out

Nationalism, by its nature, excludes people. Raising one’s nation above others begins with defining what that nation is — and who belongs in it.

It’s theoretically possible to have a liberal nationalism, even a socialist nationalism, that welcomes foreigners interested in joining the nation’s ranks. The last president’s rhetoric about what Americans have in common, and how immigration strengthens the country, strikes me as a species of liberal nationalism.

But conservative nationalism by its nature not like that. It holds that community arises from longstanding and deep connections between citizens, connections that come from their shared identity, history, and cultural values. This is what is “conservative” about it, and also what makes it inclined to view the entry of foreigners into the American polity skeptically.

“When we come to look at a policy like immigration, I’m not that interested [in] economic arguments,” Hazony said in his speech. “It doesn’t make a darn bit of difference what the economic arguments are if the country is fraying so badly ... that adding more immigrants will literally tear the country to pieces.”

The implications of this view are even darker than they might seem. If the view is that immigrants divide the country because they do not share deep cultural roots with its majority population, that suggests that not all immigrants are created equal. Those from non-European cultures who have less in common with America’s “Western” heritage are more of a threat to the nation than, say, white Brits and Canadians.

“Countries don’t hang together just because,” Tucker Carlson, the Fox host who has frequently railed against demographic change on his show, said in a Q&A after his keynote. “If I married someone who couldn’t speak English and hates all my views, would that make my marriage stronger?”

Tucker Carlson poses for photographs at the 2019 National Conservatism convention in Washington.
Tucker Carlson poses for photographs at the 2019 National Conservatism convention in Washington.
Zack Beauchamp/Vox

The logical implication of the Carlson view is that US immigration policy should not prioritize family ties, as it does now, or even highly skilled immigrants, as some restrictionist conservatives have long claimed to want. Instead, it should prioritize cultural similarity to the American majority. The national conservative view seems to imply, more bluntly, that we should mostly be letting in people who are from Europe or of European descent rather than those from, as President Trump put it, “shithole countries.”

Wax, the Penn professor, made this subtext the text during her address — even positively citing Trump’s “shithole” comments. She argued for what she called a “cultural distance” approach to immigration, drawing on a 2018 paper, which would give immigrants preference based on their ethnonational background.

“Conservatives need a realistic approach to immigration that ... preserves the United States as a Western and First World nation,” she said on the panel. “We are better off if we are dominated numerically ... by people from the First World, from the West, than by people who are from less advanced countries.”

In her address, she favorably quoted John Derbyshire, a writer who once penned a piece telling his white children to avoid going places where black people hang out in groups and was fired from his job at National Review as a result. In her paper, she cites the alt-right publications VDARE and Taki’s Magazine as examples of advocates of her “cultural distance” approach.

Wax’s view is an outright argument for white supremacy — exactly the sort of thing that Brog claimed to abhor and reject. This is not because Brog is dishonest; it’s because he is trying to do something impossible. An inclusive “national conservatism” in the United States, or perhaps any other Western country, is an oxymoron. The conservative sacralization of Western culture and Christian heritage inevitably results in the denigration and exclusion of those who do not share it.

That is most obvious on immigration, where politicians and intellectuals can speak openly about banning certain types of people from entering the country entirely. But it inevitably rebounds on citizens as well. Just ask Ilhan Omar.

Trump, “the Squad,” and the inevitable failure of national conservatism

It was striking to be at this conference as Trump’s assault on the Squad unfolded. The self-identified nationalist president was telling nonwhite citizens that they do not belong on the basis of their skin color. If there was ever a golden opportunity to distance national conservatism from racism, this was it.

And yet no one took it. There was not, that I heard, a single attempt to tackle Trump’s comments or to distance the conference organizers from the president’s racist assault. When Hazony mentioned Trump’s racist tweets, in the very last speech of the conference, it was only to mock reporters who kept asking him about them.

“What can I tell them? We’ve got other business to do,” he said, and then proceeded to spend the rest of the speech talking about the Book of Genesis.

Those few times Trump was brought up, on the panels I saw, were generally as a positive example. David Azerrad, a fellow at the right-wing Heritage Foundation, risibly claimed that Trump’s rhetoric during the 2016 campaign — in which he labeled Mexicans rapists and proposed a blanket ban on Muslim immigration — was not racist but rather “preaching civic nationalism” and “defending all Americans.”

Trump’s feud with the Squad, or his other myriad racist remarks, could not be discussed seriously because it showed exactly what happens to conservative nationalism when it is put into practice.

There is no non-racist explanation for telling four American congresswomen of color to “go back” to their countries, as if the United States does not truly belong to them. There is no non-racist explanation for making up claims that a black Muslim congresswoman, Omar, is an al-Qaeda sympathizer.

Yet it is this rhetoric that attracts people to Trump’s brand of nationalism. Social scientific research has found that a key facet of Trump’s 2016 primary win was his appeal to Republicans voters with high levels of racial resentment and animus. These voters were vital to his general election victory, the triumph of Brexit, and every victory by far-right parties in Europe.

A Trump rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
A March Trump rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Such people are disproportionately attracted to the nationalist, immigration-restrictionist right, and politicians who appeal to voters on those terms are more likely to define the agenda of any real-world political party dedicated to “national conservatism” than those who remain more high-minded.

No panelist attempted to grapple with this fundamental problem for their agenda. The notion that racism was a major force in American political life was mocked — the word “woke” was a frequent punchline — or sidelined as merely a problem of a tiny alt-right fringe rather than a huge swath of GOP voters.

This practical reality is, more fundamentally than theory, why Brog and Hazony’s project is doomed. All their denunciations of racism in the abstract, however heartfelt, are empty without a full-throated denunciation of Trump — like a fancy of way of saying “I’m not a racist, but.” Yet they cannot denounce Trump and still claim to speak for “national conservatism,” because Trump is seen by most people (correctly) as this set of ideas made flesh.

There is no way to square this circle. The “national conservative” conference attendees may dream of a better conservatism, but they already have what they’re trying to create. And it’s much uglier than they can admit.

Correction: An earlier version of this piece misidentified David Brog’s religion. He is in fact Jewish.

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