Estragon: We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist?

Vladimir: Yes, yes, we’re magicians.

In Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, there is a much promised advent that dominates the lives of the hapless Vladimir and Estragon. Similarly, after what seemed like an epistemic break in 2016, there has been a seemingly never ending discussion of a new “national conservatism” that will upend the old political coalitions with their stale, Boomer ideologies.

For the young, politically frustrated Christian this seems promising. A conservatism that takes the common good seriously, is skeptical of the Market and isn’t driven by a burning need to remake the world in the image of Davos Man feels appealing. Unlike Godot there is something concrete arriving in our political moment that aims for all three of these. But for the American Christian, this project is, while promising, too disparate in its efforts and bogged down with troubling elements to be viable. However it does mean that American politics are far more flexible than previously thought, which should give Christians hope when engaging in the civil sphere.

Like Godot, this national conservative moment’s arrival has been promised before. And, like Godot, its arrival was put off for the next day. A more nationalist conservatism was driven out of polite society by Buckley and his allies in the conservatism, largely due to its connections with antisemitism. There were still occasional attempts to challenge the fusion between social traditionalism and free market economics but these were largely failures. Throughout the Obama years, this fusionism was predominant. But once the 2016 election dawned, this consensus began to be undermined. Trump’s victory challenged this consensus, breaking old Reaganite pieties about what conservatism meant to the Republican Party. In the wake of this political earthquake, the national conservative project has begun.

Strengths of National Conservatism

For the Christian there’s much to this project that is promising. For starters national conservatism has little time for the radical individualism of the liberal project. At its heart, national conservatism rejects the liberal concept that the state cannot enforce a particular vision of the common good but rather can only act as some neutral arbiter between competing visions. Instead, borrowing from Macintyre, it posits that any such “neutral” state will utilize its ostensible impartiality as a thinly-veiled excuse to impose its own idea of the good life. As such, these conservatives are far less likely to cite Ayn Rand and more likely to cite Pope Leo XIII and invoke the common good.

This emphasis is far closer to the Christian vision of the common good than the free marketeerism of Milton Friedman, whether one interprets that vision through the lens of Roman Catholic integralism, neo-Calvinism or some other tradition. This vision can accommodate the notion of an ordained, created order, that our life here has a telos and that this telos includes part of a communal life, as envisioned throughout the Scriptures. In this vision, the market is not some inviolable sanctuary but rather a sphere that is part of the ordained order but can be regulated in order to ensure the common good. Pointedly, one National Conservatism attendee remarked, “Markets are not some jealous god that we have to make sacrifices to, and it’s time that we acknowledged that.”

As such, national conservatives do not shrink from using state action in order to defend tenants, promote unions, and ensure more evenly portioned economic growth. In these proposals we can see echoes of Latimer’s condemnation of cruel landlords, Leo XIII’s defense of labor unions and Kuyper’s state interventionism. Young Christian voters, disillusioned with increasingly hackneyed and absurd defenses of every potential market outcome, can find an alternative in many of the premises and policies of national conservatives.

Similarly, national conservatism has zero time for America’s “endless wars” abroad, in particular in the Middle East. Far from the days of Bush’s Freedom Agenda, national conservatives’ skepticism of America’s warfare state is far more in line with the average American – and the Scriptures’ call for peace and plea for concord among the nations – than post 9/11 conservative foreign policy consensus.

Given our current times of economic uncertainty and pandemic, national conservative-friendly policies are suddenly in vogue in the GOP. Ideas that would’ve been condemned as “socialism” even a few months ago – like major increases in government assistance and functional UBI – have all been adopted by several prominent GOP senators. It seems that a time of national emergency have reminded conservatives that the state exists for a reason, and that those reasons expand beyond simply “defending natural rights.”

The Problems in the National Conservative Project So Far

However, while there is quite a lot appealing in the national conservative project, there remains quite a lot to be desired. The heterogeneity of various figures attaching themselves to the label makes it difficult to pretend there is anything approaching a cohesive national conservative project. There is probably very little, if anything, that John Bolton, Daniel McCarthy, Clifford May and Tucker Carlson agree on.

If all four, along with countless others, can be equally labeled a “national conservative” then it’s clear that, like Godot, it has yet to arrive. National conservatives have yet to determine how much of the pre-Trump GOP they want to preserve. This is probably why there has yet to transform itself into actual policy successes. As of this moment, Senate Republicans could not conjure a national COVID19 assistance policy out of this new zeitgeist.

While some national conservatives promise us that there is more to their economic project than simply tariffs, this is the only concrete economic policy this new administration has passed, except for a massive tax cut for the wealthy. So far this incoherence has ensured that no new policy program has been seriously proposed, or at least none that are worth getting excited about.

Lastly, and most troubling, is the fact that national conservatism has a race problem. Despite its admirable efforts to condemn explicit white nationalism, white nationalism and racialist policy have nevertheless crept in. Despite refusing to invite various white nationalists like Peter Brimelow and Jared Taylor, the conference still invited law professor Amy Wax, who summed up her immigration policy as “embracing the position that our country would be better off with more whites and fewer nonwhites.” (Though to be fair to Wax, she attempted to carve out a slightly more nuanced position but ended up largely where she began.)

This explicit rejection of white supremacy isn’t apparently enough to stop 20th century era racial politics from hiding within more respectable institutions. This confused approach is only made more dangerous given the times we live in, when the majority of Americans say that racial tension has become worse and when racist terror attacks have been repeatedly perpetrated. While speeches were full of statements of concern for the poor and the marginalized, this somewhat newfound sympathy rarely gets extended to anyone beyond white Americans.

This comparative silence on the issues facing Hispanic and Black Americans, such as economic disparity and racialized law enforcement, should be troubling for any Christian conservative. Discussions of the American nation rarely extend to Hispanic or Black America and any Biblical concern for the stranger and the foreigner, remains virtually nonexistent. This isn’t to say Christians of good will and faith cannot disagree on the exact contours of their country’s immigration policy. However any Christian interested in a conservative alternative who is concerned about racial justice will, for now, have to look elsewhere.

Conservative Futures

Looming and worrying difficulties aside, I am somewhat sanguine about the prospects for a conservative alternative to the status quo. Conservatives increasingly do not feel like they must defend old orthodoxies left over from the Reagan era. They look out at America’s current predicament and see the necessity for a well ordered polis that includes a robust understanding of the economic common good, one arguably well within the bounds of historic Christian teaching, not to mention historic conservatism. This isn’t to say that there are not flaws but these flaws, if anything, justify a friendlier and more serious engagement with the movement. Sympathetic Christians should hold national conservatives’ feet to the fire on issues like racial justice and a more coherent commitment to serious economic reform.

The collapse of previously rock solid political orthodoxies should be followed up by a vigorous examination of Christian political theology. The current political climate we live in is one in which the Overton window can be radically shifted in a matter of a few months. There are major issues, both structural and ideological, with national conservatism as currently proposed. But unlike Estragon and Vladimir’s wait for Godot, this process is not useless nor does it have to be absent and tantalizingly out of reach.

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Posted by Joseph Laughon

Joseph S. Laughon is a political thought graduate of Concordia University, Irvine and a specialist in the logistics industry. He lives in Los Angeles, where he writes on culture, religion, politics and national security. His own writings can be found at Musings On The Right. You can follow him on Twitter.

  • J_A

    While some national conservatives promise us that there is more to their economic project than simply tariffs, this is the only concrete economic policy this new administration has passed, except for a massive tax cut for the wealthy. So far this incoherence has ensured that no new policy program has been seriously proposed, or at least none that are worth getting excited about.

    In the author’s desire for looking at silver linings to prove that there is indeed a national conservative program of some sort that the Trump administration and the post 2016-GOP is pushing for, Mr. Laughon seems to forget the almost two year effort to repeal Obamacare and replace it with *no one really knew what*.

    That the national conservatives from the Trump Administration and Congress eventually failed to pass this program legislatively should not mean that their efforts should be ignored. having failed in one route they are now, tirelessly, trying to eliminate health insurance and Medicaid access for millions of families via the courts.

    I’m afraid Mr. Laughon is allowing himself to be duped by the words he wants to hear, and is therefore willing to ignore actions that contradict those words, less he loses hope.

  • Greg Herr

    A thoughtful aspirational piece. If there’s merit to the proposal(s), we’re looking at a 20 year horizon, starting today. 10 to clear out the dross of the current narrative and reality(ies), and 10 to construct the new (assuming precedent and implementation along the way). If some version of a ‘conservative movement’ can Venn Diagram its prospectus to carve out the territory-plus-accomplishments, then we might begin to see whispers or hints of renewal if not redemption. Looking forward to 2040.

    • Kiyoshi01

      You make an excellent point. I think we’re at a similar place as to where we were in the mid-1950s. At the time, conservatives were a disorganized, and the predominant tone of the movement was populist and nativist, if not outright racist.

      Buckley’s emergent movement was successful because he prioritized intellectual activity over political activity. So, when Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, folks had a blueprint for what they wanted to do. And they had that blueprint because they weren’t obsessed with winning the next news cycle on Fox.

      The writer seems to criticize Buckley’s decision to exclude anti-Semites. In my opinion, excluding anti-Semites was a key to his success. In the mid-1950s, this move cut him off from a large chunk of those who called themselves conservatives. But the strategy ultimately proved to be successful. If National Conservatism is to offer some cogent alternative to neoliberalism, it’s going to have to unburden itself of the nativist cranks. Also, it’s going to have to develop a more nuanced and realistic appraisal of the liberal order. Recreating the world before Duns Scotus isn’t really an option, and Dreher and Deneen both seem to acknowledge that when pressed. And latching onto self-serving political grifters (Trump) and kleptocrats (Orban) isn’t really a solution. Stoking populist resentment against so-called elites is an easy way to sell books and win elections. But such achievements amount to nothing if there’s no game plan in place. After all, for all of Trump’s bluster, the targets of his jabs have all become stronger under his Presidency. The recent bailout will only strengthen the economic power of elites.

  • Kiyoshi01

    I agree with the other commenters. There’s a lot here that makes for good aspiration. But there are real issues that one must address.

    First, as you note, the race question looms large here. I don’t believe that most national conservatives are racists. Even so, many national conservatives seem to be deeply uncomfortable with social and cultural pluralism. It has to be more than a vision of what America would look like without the Civil Rights Act and the Immigration Act, which were passed a year apart from each other in the mid-1960s.

    Second, the criticism of individualism needs to be toned down a bit. I would commend Jamie Smith’s keynote address at a conference 2018 conference at Calvin College, where he offers a cogent response to Deneen’s all-out rejection of liberalism. In fact, it’s curious to hear Protestants complain about liberalism, as there would be no Protestantism without it. The chief problem that we have right now is that there is no cohesive vision of solidarity that is broadly appealing to a large swath of Americans. So, we tend to draft towards greater atomism. I don’t see where liberalism is inherently defective. Our problem is that our visions of solidarity are too narrow, and exclude too many people. The cultural vision of the 1950s was largely a white, middle-class vision. But, at the time, whites made up 87% of the population, and very few of them had meaningful exposure to cultures besides their own. Today, whites are only 62% of the population, and about about 1/6th of them have meaningful exposure to other cultures. We can’t have solidarity in any meaningful sense if that vision excludes half the population. We’re simply too diverse a country to go back to 1955.

    Third, national conservatism needs a coherent economic vision. Trump was elected, in some measure, because too many middle-class people see themselves falling behind in terms of real income in a world in which maximizing shareholder value is paramount. Starting in the late 1980s, American companies gradually shipped low-margin manufacturing operations to places like China. Doing this raised profits and, concomitantly, stock prices. But stock ownership is disproportionately skewed towards the top 5%, if not the top 1%. Addressing these issues is going to require something that looks a bit more socialist.

    Fourth, we cannot take competence for granted. Of the 20-or-so countries that make up the developed world, only the Italians and the Spanish are handling the COVID19 crisis as badly or worse than the US. Perhaps it’s because I grew up overseas. But American cultural chauvinism has always annoyed me. We would do well to cut the chauvinism, and come to see our cultural features as more idiosyncratic. Yes, they define who we are, but they don’t make us better than others. It’s this kind of mindless chauvinism that’s caused us to be woefully unprepared for tackling the present challenges. In fact, our own President is refusing to wear a mask, despite the fact that wearing a mask has played a significant role in checking exposure and minimizing the viral load encountered upon exposure. We think that we’re too tough for masks; we’d rather have tens of thousands of additional deaths and prolong this crisis. It’s stupid. We need to be more willing to learn from other counties and accept that places like Japan and South Korea may often have better ideas than we do.

    Fifth, national conservatism needs to lose its resentment towards cosmopolitan elites, especially cosmopolitan whites. Sure, these folks have done well economically over the past 30 years. But the factors that drive globalization aren’t going away. We live in a much more complex world, and being smart is worth a lot more than it once was. Charles Murray has several excellent talks on this topic. Any renewed sense of national solidarity will require buy-in from the best and brightest. After all, we’ll need such people to execute on the vision. Populist resentment fails because competence actually does matter. And it matters more than ever today. If national conservatism makes smart people the enemy, it’s going to fail.

    Sixth, national conservatism needs to articulate a cogent vision of national interest. It’s a complete joke that someone like John Bolton–who fired the pandemic response team and pushed for invading Iran–was invited to the summer’s conference. We need to have a renewed vision of national defense that doesn’t require us to be the world’s policeman. We have too many problems at home.

    Lastly, national conservatism needs to put forth a renewed vision of family life that doesn’t rely so heavily on the half-baked neo-Freudian garbage that came to prominence in the 1950s. In particular, it needs to articulate a broader vision of manhood and masculinity than the John Wayne stereotypes that prevail among social conservatives. That means disposing of outdated stereotypes concerning gay and lesbian people, and recognize that national conservatism cannot adopt the old game plan of trying to stuff gay people back into the closet. National conservatism has to accept that, in a pluralistic society, conservatism may look a bit different for people of different races, religions, and sexual orientations. It cannot simply be a de facto sectarian Christian project. National conservatism must focus on promoting a vision of the common good that cuts across religious creed. I fear that many of its proponents, like Rod Dreher, are simply looking for a back door by which they can reassert traditionalist Christian principles in the culture, especially on the issue of homosexuality. If there is an issue that is most similar to the issue of anti-Semitism that Buckley faced, this is it. If national conservatism is going to go anywhere, it has to disabuse itself of those, like Dreher, who cling to an irrational animus towards gay people. Someone like Yuval Levin sets forth a much better vision than those of Dreher’s ilk.

    I hope that this conversation continues, as it is necessary.

  • 9by19

    On July 26, 2019, the Federalist blog published a transcript of the remarks Professor Wax made at the National Conservatism Conference. The transcript has been a matter of public record for over eight months. Did you you read the transcript before you posted your disparaging comments about her?

    Your comments about Professor Wax suggest you have become comfortable with “cancel culture” and the spirit of authoritarianism that animates it. Just how comfortable? You say the conference’s organizers should have refrained from inviting Professor Wax to speak, but what about her job? If you had the power to do so, would you fire her?

    Accusing someone of racism is a serious matter. As a Christian, you have two options: prove the charge or withdraw the allegation. Proving a charge of racism is a daunting task. You must provide (1) a valid definition of the term “racism,” (2) powerful evidence in support of the charge, and (3) a compelling argument Professor Wax is, in fact, a racist. To date, you have done none of these things, which means your comments about her are unjustified and unchristian.

    • Kiyoshi01

      Perhaps you should provide: (0) your authority to establish a test for what constitutes a credible charge of racism. As long as the writer didn’t commit libel, there is no issue here. You’re the bully who’s engaging in cancel culture.

      • 9by19

        Would it be ethical for Mr. Laughon to levy a charge of racism without first reading a transcript of Professor Wax’s remarks at the convention?

        Does Mr. Laughon have an ethical duty, especially considering he is a Christian, to provide a description of Professor Wax’s views she would agree is accurate?

        Would it be ethical for Mr. Laughon to provide a superficial description of Professor Wax’s views that, because of its superficiality, exposes her to a false charge of racism?

        I assume you are a fair-minded person and, thus, you will agree the correct answers to the preceding questions are, respectively, “No,” “Yes,” and “No.”

        • Kiyoshi01

          First, I see no evidence to suggest that the writer didn’t consider the whole of Wax’s comments.

          Second, I don’t believe that the writer factually misrepresented what Wax said. Wax may disagree with what inferences may reasonably be drawn from those facts. But, as long as those inferences have a rational nexus to the underlying facts, there is no ethical issue. Based on my review of the transcript, I believe that it’s reasonable that someone could infer that Wax is a racist. I can see why someone else may infer otherwise.

          Third, you’re confusing facts with inferences. Inferences may be reasonable or unreasonable based on the extant facts. I don’t see where the writer misrepresented the underlying facts, and I believe that one could reasonably conclude that Wax is a racist based on those facts. So, I cannot see where the writer has violated any tenets of Christian ethics.

          • 9by19

            Mr. Laughon does not cite the transcript in his article. To the contrary, he relies exclusively upon secondary sources for his description of Professor Wax’s views. Had Mr. Laughon read the transcript before he published his article, he would have said so by now.

            As near as I can tell, you do not believe Mr. Laughon had an ethical duty to describe the complexity of Professor Wax’s views before condemning her as a racist. There, we must part company. In my opinion, a conscientious writer — especially one who admires Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville — will strive to enable his readers to make a fully informed decision. His readers can do so only if they have some means of determining for themselves what the target of his criticism actually thinks. In a situation such as this, there are essentially two ways a writer could enable his readers to become fully informed. He could cite the transcript and invite his readers to examine it for themselves, or he could provide a description of his target’s views that fairly discloses their complexity. Mr. Laughon did neither. He was content to build up and knock down a straw man.

            I’m pleased you read the transcript. However, remember this: you got to decide for yourself whether Mr. Laughon treated Professor Wax fairly because I advised you of the transcript’s existence and you, to your credit, took time to read it. Mr. Laughon did not extend that courtesy to his readers.

            I do not question Mr. Laughon’s character. In all probability, he is a fine human being. However, his treatment of Professor Wax is unworthy of a person who admires Burke and Tocqueville.

          • Kiyoshi01

            This is getting to be pedantic.

            There is nothing in the piece that suggests that the writer failed to consider the whole of Wax’s comments. I don’t know why you’re assuming otherwise. Further, I see no evidence that he misrepresented the underlying facts. In short, you simply disagree with the inferences that the writer has drawn from those facts. So what? None of us is under an ethical duty to draw particular inferences from a set of facts, especially where, as here, the facts could reasonably lead to a range of different inferences. Obviously, the writer is under no obligation to accept Wax’s own self-serving opinions on the matter, even if he appreciates Burke and de Tocqueville.

            And, by the way, you are questioning the writer’s character. In fact, you made a number of unsubstantiated factual allegations against the writer without any supporting evidence. In short, you committed the very sin of which you falsely accused him of committing.

            And, for the record, after having read Wax’s full remarks, I would conclude that, based on our current social understanding of what constitutes racism, Wax is a racist.