There has been an unspoken assumption among establishment Republicans that all they have to do is wait out Hurricane Trump and then return to “normal” conservatism. Former House speaker John Boehner said last year, “The Republican Party is kind of taking a nap somewhere,” implying it will wake up one day and see the light. But what if it’s not a nap but the Big Sleep? I doubt that Republican hordes chanting “Send her back” will ever again root for “compassionate conservatism.” I fear that President Trump may not be an aberration but a prelude to something even uglier under a demagogue who really is a “stable genius.” (Trump is neither.)
A who’s who of Trumpian intellectuals (an oxymoron?) gathered at the Ritz-Carlton in Washington last week to propound an ominous ideology: “national conservatism.” As Reason reported, the conferees want to ditch the old conservative aversion to having the government micromanage the economy. Many speakers argued for an industrial policy based on tariffs and tax credits to reverse what “Hillbilly Elegy” author J.D. Vance described as “family decline, childhood trauma, opioid abuse, community decline, decline of the manufacturing sector.” In response, Rep. Justin Amash (I-Mich.) tweeted: “ ‘National conservatism’ is just collectivism rebranded for the right. It’s a form of socialism built upon fear of the new and different.” (Maybe it should be called “national socialism” instead? If only that term weren’t already taken.)
Bernie Sanders-esque hostility to free markets is actually the least problematic aspect of “national conservatism,” which, in practice, becomes but a rationalization for Trump’s racism and authoritarianism. The speakers had little to say about the president’s demand that congresspeople of color should “go back” to where they came from. One suspects that many secretly, or not so secretly, sympathized with Trump’s xenophobia. According to Vox and the New Yorker, University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax told attendees that “our country will be better off with more whites and fewer nonwhites.”
One of the conference organizers, the Israeli think tanker Yarom Hazony, has written an entire book (“The Virtue of Nationalism”) to rehabilitate a doctrine that has been in bad odor since the 1940s. Like a Marxist true believer claiming that the Soviet Union did not represent “true” communism, Hazony writes that the Nazis weren’t actually nationalists but, rather, “imperialists.” This merely makes his book silly. What makes it sinister is that he embraces tribalism (“By a nation, I mean a number of tribes with a shared heritage”), disdains minority rights (he advocates “the overwhelming dominance of a single, cohesive nationality … whose cultural dominance is plain and unquestioned”) and rejects the “individual freedom” that lies at the heart of the American project. Trump accuses his political foes of being “anti-American”; the appellation more nearly fits his more fervent followers.
Another right-wing writer who explicitly rejects our founding ideals is Sohrab Ahmari of the New York Post. In May, he launched a nasty attack on David French, a social conservative who is critical of Trump. Ahmari, a zealous Catholic convert, rejects “autonomy-maximizing liberalism,” and even “civility and decency.” He advocates fighting “the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.” I’m not sure exactly what that means, but it sounds an awful lot like Spain in the days when Francisco Franco blended fascism and Catholicism to justify his dictatorship.
It’s not just a few Trumpian intellectuals who are eager to embrace theocracy. So are some Trumpian politicians. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) doesn’t just reject abortion rights; he rejects the entire conception of individual liberty that underlies the Supreme Court’s abortion decisions. In May, he gave a commencement address in which he mocked the notion that individuals should have “the right to choose your own meaning, define your own values, emancipate yourself from God by creating your own self.” The well-educated evangelical Christian (Stanford University, Yale Law) condemned this as the “Pelagian heresy” (after a fifth-century Christian who taught that people could attain goodness through individual effort). It is more accurately described as the founders’ vision for a country where all are free to pursue happiness in their own way. At the Ritz-Carlton, Hawley employed a term that has often been used as a euphemism for “Jews” by excoriating “the cosmopolitan elite” that he claims secretly controls America.
But the real star of the “national conservatism” conference, reports Jacob Heilbrunn in the New York Review of Books, was Fox host Tucker Carlson. An isolationist and nativist, he has called Iraqis “semiliterate primitive monkeys” and said immigrants make “our own country poor and dirtier and more divided.” At the Ritz-Carlton, which is a subsidiary of the largest hotel company in the world, Carlson’s theme was, “Big Business Hates Your Family.” (Maybe not Carlson’s family: His stepmother is an heir to the Swanson frozen-food fortune.)
There has already been talk of Carlson running for president, and, Heilbrunn wrote, “Carlson’s own coy disavowal on the podium was hardly a denial.” Tucker in ’24? Don’t laugh. Weep. The Fox host is more intelligent and disciplined than Trump. He could well be the new leader of authoritarianism in America. If that were to happen, we may look back nostalgically on our present craziness as the calm before the storm.