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.
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.