The Nationalists Take Washington

Prominent figures from Tucker Carlson to John Bolton gathered at the Ritz-Carlton to declare war on the conservative establishment and lay the groundwork for a new intellectual movement on the right.

Tucker Carlson was among the speakers at the National Conservatism Conference this week. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty)

It might have been the first-ever nationalist revolt launched from a Ritz-Carlton ballroom. This week, conservative intellectuals and politicos in Washington tucked into plated dinners and sipped from at least four varieties of seltzer at a new gathering, the National Conservatism Conference. In defiance of conservative-movement shibboleths, they applauded new rallying cries: No more worshipping at the altar of free markets at the expense of the middle class. No more endless wars dedicated to slaying perceived monsters overseas. No more shame about saluting the flag, defending borders, and demanding assimilation. “Today,” declared Yoram Hazony, the American-educated Israeli scholar who organized the event, “is our independence day.”

The featured speakers included a fair number of strange bedfellows. Christopher DeMuth, the former longtime head of the American Enterprise Institute, or AEI, who helped establish the think tank’s free-market, small government, anti-regulation bona fides, was the unofficial chairman of their steering committee; Rusty Reno, the editor of the religious journal First Things, was also closely involved. John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser who is known for his hawkishness, shared a stage with Tucker Carlson, the Fox News pundit who has fashioned himself a spokesperson for pro-Trump anti-interventionism, and whose prime-time show has been denigrated by liberal critics as the “white supremacy power hour.”

Carlson mocked what he described as the progressive obsession with supposed racism: “It’s such a boring subject,” he said. “It’s such a dead end. It can’t be fixed; it can’t be changed.” Somewhere in the audience, a man yelled “Hear! Hear!” Racism: This charge, more than any other, loomed awkwardly throughout the conference. The president, whose time in office has produced a long trail of racist remarks, spent the early part of this week tweeting about how four freshmen congresswomen of color should “go back” to “the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” even though they are all American citizens. The House of Representatives passed a resolution condemning his statements as racist.

Hazony took pains to draw the boundary between nationalism and white nationalism, both before and after the conference. He barred the participation of Peter Brimelow, the editor of the white-supremacist website VDARE, and several others in Brimelow’s orbit, inviting a barrage of anti-Semitic criticism. During the conference’s first day, Hazony warned the group not to underestimate the appeal of white nationalism: “If you think it’s just a tiny periphery, you’re looking in the wrong place,” he said. Other speakers went so far as to censure the president. “We have to push back against Donald Trump when he does things to increase that breach between the right and African Americans,” said Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, during one session. “He’s got to avoid unforced and idiotic errors.” And yet the conference was relentlessly focused on immigration and assimilation, with repeated calls to protect the English language and, in at least one case, favor whites over nonwhites.

On its face, the gathering seemed to be an attempt to superimpose an intellectual framework onto the brute force of Trumpism and, to a certain extent, the populist rebellions that have swept countries from Italy to Poland to the United Kingdom. But at a deeper level, this event was about the future of conservatism at a time of deep fracture within the movement. According to those gathered, the conservative establishment in Washington has been revving in neutral ever since Trump was elected president, knowing they have to go with the moment but unwilling to truly question long-held conservative principles. The elite insurgents at the Ritz would like nothing more than to see the old marriage between hard-core libertarians and social conservatives permanently ended, and to build new institutional alliances around a positive, unifying vision of nationalism. “The right has been too economistic in its thinking for a long time, and too libertarian,” Yuval Levin, the policy wonk and author who was recently tapped to lead a new division at the American Enterprise Institute focused on family and civic life, told me. “I think it needs to be more concerned with social and cultural questions—not just two or three that we sort of call the social issues, but the foundations of a free society and family and community and civic life.”

For two days, the besuited and bespectacled conservatives at the Ritz chattered with the giddiness of people making history: In the future, they speculated, scholars would look back at this gathering as the launch of a new era. If indeed that is where history is headed, the road between now and then is long. As America wrestles over what it will become, the would-be architects of the new nationalism must fully face the dark temptations that have traditionally accompanied the nationalist impulse. And they must decide what to do with the many citizens of this nation who feel profoundly alienated and excluded by the popular brand of nationalism that has taken over American politics.

Shortly after the 2016 election, a group of conservative intellectuals met in Glen Cove, New York, to try to make sense of Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party. Hazony and his small group of colleagues, mostly academic political theorists, were encouraged by the mutiny. They saw movement conservatism as incoherent and corrupted, and they saw an opening for a new elite project to complement the popular rebellion. Their first attempt to create a nationalist gathering “did not go well,” says David Brog, the former executive director of Christians United for Israel, who now runs a Sheldon Adelson–funded organization that opposes the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement on college campuses. As the group tried to raise money and rally support, “the conservative establishment just didn’t want to move,” Hazony told me in an interview. “Trump had just been elected, and a lot of them were thinking, Oh, this is just a passing thing. A lot of them were confused. A lot of them were scared.”

In recent decades, the Republican Party has managed to unite various constituencies who don’t always play nicely together: free-market business types and socially conservative religious types; war hawks and America-first isolationists. Hazony and his compatriots read Trump’s election as a damning indictment against these unhappy alliances, but that idea was not necessarily popular in Washington. As this small group of intellectuals tried to build support for a new nationalist coalition among think-tankers and donors, “the feeling was that it would be kind of like a declaration of war on the old conservative intellectual establishment,” Hazony said. “Everybody’s been friends for decades. Why upset people?”

Eventually, however, Hazony published a book on nationalism, after which, he says, he got two separate cold calls from fairly obscure donors who were interested in partnering with him. “Like so many conservatives, especially of the habitually more libertarian, slightly more secular and free-market variety,” one of them, Alex Cranberg, wrote to me in an email, “I asked myself a lot of questions about what Trump’s election meant. My interest in this conference is mostly about asking questions and not to take America for granted.” With these funds, Hazony and his comrades established a new organization with a still-fuzzy raison d’être, the Edmund Burke Foundation, and got to work organizing this year’s conference.

Despite this, the group seemed largely united around certain principles, which won big applause from the 500 or so attendees. Mary Eberstadt, the socially conservative author and erstwhile think-tanker, compared libertarianism to moonshine. Hazony bemoaned America’s godlessness, and its embrace of new gender norms: “You throw out Christianity, you throw out the Torah, you throw out God,” he declared onstage, “and within two generations, people can’t tell the difference between a man and a woman.”

Any concern the nascent nationalists may have for the future of black and Hispanic and other nonwhite Americans was largely discussed in their absence. “There are a lot of white people here, I will grant you that,” Will Chamberlain, a 33-year-old lawyer who runs the conservative publication Human Events and donated to the conference, told me. “I think it’s been an issue with the conservative movement generally, historically, and it’s something conservatives should do better on.”

Chamberlain counts himself among the generation of young conservatives who feel disillusioned by what their forebears built. He came of age during the Iraq War and the financial crisis, and “it became very hard to justify being a Republican where this obvious failure was being papered over by the leaders of the conservative movement,” he said. He has been encouraged by Trump, but doesn’t see the new nationalist movement as essentially Trumpist. He also doesn’t think Trump is racist: Trump’s latest tweets were problematic because they diminished the importance of citizenship, Chamberlain said, not because they had anything to do with race. Still, he believes that conservatives can and will take racism seriously, and that there’s room for critiques of problems such as mass incarceration in the new nationalism. “Failing to account for systemic discrimination against a group of citizens—that would be a problem for a meaningfully nationalist movement,” he told me.

Not everyone who has been recruited to the new nationalist movement is sold on the plausibility of a bunch of big-think types coming up with the future of conservatism at a conference. Levin, the AEI scholar, said the conference “is an attempt to do some intellectual work” about the current political moment. “But I’m not sure this is the way most Americans who understand themselves to be unhappy with politics would think about what they want,” he added. “It’s abstract and intellectual. It has to do some work of translating into public policy and political rhetoric before we can see if it has any legs.” He also acknowledged that Trump, the single figure most associated with contemporary nationalism in the world right now, has the capacity to drag down even the highest-minded aspirations. “To the extent that a good idea becomes associated with him, it’s likely to suffer for it and be discredited by it,” Levin said. “Ultimately, you pay a price for his person, and his personality, and his malevolence. I don’t think he is acting in the service of ideas like this. And so we shouldn’t delude ourselves about that.”

The path forward for the new nationalist movement is still being worked out; Brog told me the organizers would gather the day after the conference to consider what comes next. They already have their eye on a few potential political allies: Brog introduced Josh Hawley, the freshman senator from Missouri who delivered the culminating keynote, as “our champion in the Senate.” Hawley, who spent his early career as a rising star in the conservative legal movement, delivered a broadside against what he described as the “cosmopolitan class,” calling for a renewed conservative focus on the middle class.

Above all, what the new nationalists seem to want is permanence: a new consensus, a new playbook, and a new theoretical framework that can last beyond this destabilized moment in world politics. They are eager to reclaim nationalism from the racists. Yet it is unclear how seriously they take America’s conflicts over race, or whether they’ve grappled with the conservative policies that have reinforced racial disparities.

“The job of people whose business is ideas,” Hazony said, is to be “responsive to the needs of the moment and … draw on responsible traditions that we hope will be able to satisfy these impulses in a way that will end up being stable and decent.” In the world of ideas, Trump’s tweets are but ephemera; the screaming conflicts of day-to-day politics are not their concern. “President Trump is an important figure, but he’s not going to be the only figure, and he’s not going to be the last figure,” he said. “We’re going to be talking about these things many, many years from now.”