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.”
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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.