The search for a national conservatism

I’ve long said that the Republican Party rests on three pillars—the neocons, who believe there is a military solution to every problem; the theo-cons, who believe there is a Biblical solution to every problem; and the libertarians, who believe there is a free-market solution to every problem.

This is an exaggeration, but an exaggeration of reality that’s only a little bit unfair. Many conservatives recognize their problem, and that was the theme of the National Conservatism Conference in Washington, D.C., last July.

A German journalist named Thomas Meaney, reported on the conference for Harper’s magazine.  He said His report shows the unifying theme of the new conservatism is patriotism and national unity.  Instead of globalization, the new conservatives want an industrial policy to rebuild American manufacturing strength.

Meaney was moved to ask—

What if Trump had dialed down the white nationalism after taking the White House and, instead of betraying nearly every word of his campaign rhetoric of economic populism, had ruthlessly enacted populist policies, passing gargantuan infrastructure bills, shredding NAFTA instead of remodeling it, giving a tax cut to the lower middle class instead of the rich, and conspiring to raise the wages of American workers?

It doesn’t take much to imagine how that would play against a Democratic challenger with McKinsey or Harvard Law School imprinted on his or her forehead.

There seemed to be two futures for Trumpism as a distinctive strain of populism: one in which the last reserves of white identity politics were mined until the cave collapsed and one in which the coalition was expanded to include working Americans, enlisting blacks and Hispanics and Asians in the cause of conquering the condescending citadels of Wokistan.

Was it predestined that Trump would choose the former?

Source: Harper’s Magazine

My answer is, yes, it was predestined that Trump make the choices he did.  Character is destiny, and Trump has the character of a showman and confidence man.  His business record shows this.

He is smart enough to give the common people the appearance of respect, while serving the interests of Wall Street and the military-industrial complex.

There is nothing in his record to indicate that he has either the interest or sense of purpose to do anything more than that.

Suppose things were different.  Suppose Donald Trump was a sincere economic nationalist, like Ross Perot in 1988.  Suppose he really believed the things that Steve Bannon advocates.

I think such a program would be popular.  I probably would vote for it myself, if it included an America First-type commitment to avoiding foreign wars.

Industrial policy was debated in the 1980s and 1990s, and its advocates lost.  Corporate American decided to compete by relocating to low-wage countries overseas rather than improving competitiveness at home.  The national conservatives do deserve credit for putting it back on the table.

The nation-state is the highest level of organization in which the public has the power to vote the leaders out.   International corporations and international organizations, such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, are not subject to democratic control.  So progressives, to some extent, have to be nationalists.

But it takes more than putting the right person in the White House to change the direction of government.  You would be opposed by the leadership of both political parties, the Washington press corps and most big-money political donors.

You would  have to have a grass-roots movement behind you that can reward and punish Congress. You would have to have a team of experts behind you that have the know-how to put your ideas into practice.  You would have to have a source of funding that doesn’t depend on the usual donors.

None of that can be created overnight.  The only reason Bernie Sanders has traction is that he is the beneficiary of 20 years of grass-roots organizing by labor unions, environmentalists, civil rights organizations and community organizations, and he has been able to create a support system independent of the two parties.  Whether this will be enough remains to be seen.

I can imagine a version of national conservatism that would be better than the conservatism now on offer.  I can even imagine a national conservatism I could vote for.  I find it hard to imagine a national conservatism that could arise from the diverse points of view expressed at the National Conservatism Conference, but stranger things have happened.

On the other hand, Trumpism without Trump is a real possibility.  There will likely be a candidate four years from now who stands for all the things Donald Trump stands for, but without Trump’s erratic behavior and offensive language.  The country might be ripe for such a candidate, whoever he (or she) might be.


Trumpism After Trump: Will the Movement Outlive the Man? by Thomas Meaney for Harper’s magazine.  Interesting for showing the diversity of conservative viewpoints.

The Real Class War by Julius Krein for American Affairs Journal.

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5 Responses to “The search for a national conservatism”

  1. whungerford Says:

    I found Meaney’s article very hard to follow. I can’t find where Meaney said the unifying theme of the new conservatism is patriotism and national unity. Real conservatives favor small, safe, slow change. Few self-styled conservatives are conservative at all.


  2. philebersole Says:

    My language was imprecise. What I should have written was that the unifying theme running through the people Meaney quotes was that a national(ist) conservatism should be based on patriotism and national unity.

    The conference attendees are mostly good-hearted people who sincerely sympathize with the common people and oppose the cosmopolitan corporate and intellectual elites.

    I don’t include John Bolton, Peter Thiel or Curtis Yarvin in the good-hearted category, however. And unless you have a plan to separate the Boltons and Thiels from political and economic power, your good intentions will count for little.


  3. Fred (Au Natural) Says:

    My personal preference would be a kind of heavily modified libertarianism. I have never known a proponent of the philosophy to favor a foreign war. At the same time their faith in unbridled capitalism is naive.


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