I didn’t know that, alongside his gig as a columnist at the New York Times, David Brooks is a contributing writer to The Atlantic. And five days ago he wrote a long column about his visit to the National Conservative Conference in Orlando, Florida (NCC; click on screenshot below). As a centrist-rightist who hates Trump, Brooks feared he’d be expelled or ostracized from the meeting. Instead, he was treated politely. What happened was that the meeting scared the bejeezus out of him as he realized how the right is coalescing around a central narrative—one that could propel Trump back to the White House.
According to Brooks, the new Republicanism fuses hatred of the “elites” (which means all Democrats, centrists, and the media), who are said to control everything, with espousal of a working-class populism that sees the average Joe and Jill as victims. Into that toxic mess they toss a large dollop of religion, for this movement sees religion not only as important for their goals and the “salvation” of America, but essential. Finally, the conservatives at this meeting feel that they must regain power by starting at the state level.
Here are the three themes of this gemisch and their adherents. I note to my dismay that Glenn Loury is calling himself a conservative again. My emphasis:
The movement has three distinctive strains. First, the people over 50 who have been hanging around conservative circles for decades but who have recently been radicalized by the current left. Chris Demuth, 75, was for many years president of the American Enterprise Institute, which used to be the Church of England of American conservatism, but now he’s gone populist. “NatCons are conservatives who have been mugged by reality,” he told the conference. Seventy-three-year-old Glenn Loury, a Brown University economist, was a conservative, then a progressive, and now he’s back on the right: “What has happened to public discourse about race has radicalized me.”
The second strain is made up of mid-career politicians and operatives who are learning to adapt to the age of populist rage: people like Ted Cruz (Princeton, Harvard), J. D. Vance (Yale Law), and Josh Hawley (Stanford and Yale).
The third and largest strain is the young. They grew up in the era of Facebook and MSNBC and identity politics. They went to colleges smothered by progressive sermonizing. And they reacted by running in the other direction. I disagreed with two-thirds of what I heard at this conference, but I couldn’t quite suppress the disturbing voice in my head saying, “If you were 22, maybe you’d be here too.”
What has driven Loury back to the Right along with the young? Wokeness. Still, Loury quacked like a liberal at the NCC:
Some of the speakers at the conference were in fact classical liberals, who believe in free speech, intellectual debate, and neutral government. Glenn Loury gave an impassioned speech against cancel culture, the illiberal left, and the hyper-racialized group consciousness that divides people into opposing racial camps. Loury asserted that as a Black man he is the proud inheritor of the great Western tradition: “Tolstoy is mine! Dickens is mine! Milton, Marx, and Einstein are mine!” He declared that his people are Black, but also proudly American. “Our Americanness is much more important than our Blackness,” he said, before adding, “We must strive to transcend racial particularism and stress universality and commonality as Americans.” This is the classical-liberal case against racial separatism and in favor of integration.
And then the characterization of the Left as elitists who must be overthrown at the state level:
The idea that the left controls absolutely everything—from your smartphone to the money supply to your third grader’s curriculum—explains the apocalyptic tone that was the dominating emotional register of this conference. The politicians’ speeches were like entries in the catastrophism Olympics:
“The left’s ambition is to create a world beyond belonging,” said [Josh[ Hawley. “Their grand ambition is to deconstruct the United States of America.”
. . .Conservatives have got the culture-war act down. Trump was a culture-war president with almost no policy arm attached. The question conservatives at the conference were asking was how to move beyond owning the libs to effecting actual change.
Christopher Rufo, the architect of this year’s school-board-meeting protests against critical race theory, argued that conservatives had erred when they tried to slowly gain power in elite cultural institutions. Conservatives were never going to make headway in the Ivy League or the corporate media. Instead, Rufo argued, they should rally the masses to get state legislatures to pass laws embracing their values. That’s essentially what’s now happening across red America.
My old friend Rod Dreher of The American Conservative argued that because the left controls the commanding heights of the culture and the economy, the only institution the right has a shot at influencing is the state. In these circumstances the right has to use state power to promote its values. “We need to quit being satisfied with owning the libs, and save our country,” Dreher said. “We need to unapologetically embrace the use of state power.”
The importance of religion:
Yoram Hazony, the chief intellectual architect of national conservatism, is an Orthodox Jew who went to Princeton before moving to Israel. He argues that you can’t have a society that embraces government neutrality and tries to relegate values to the private sphere. The public realm eventually eviscerates private values, especially when public communication is controlled by a small oligarchic elite. If conservatives want to stand up to the pseudo-religion of wokeism, they have to put traditional religion at the center of their political project.
Another Israeli political philosopher at the conference, Ofir Haivry, argued that Americans shouldn’t delude themselves into thinking that a nation is built out of high-minded liberal abstractions, like the Bill of Rights. A nation is, instead, a cultural tradition, a common language, a set of rituals and beliefs, and a religious order—a collective cultural identity.
But is that collective identity going to be Jewish or Christian? For make no mistake about it, conservatives see America as a Christian nation, not an Abrahamic or Judeo-Christian one. They’ll come for the Jews after they take care of the Left.
For his part, Hazony argued that the American cultural identity is Christian—and has to be if it is not going to succumb to the woke onslaught. If 80 percent of Americans are Christian, Hazony reasoned, then Christian values should dominate. “Majority cultures have the right to establish the ruling culture, and minority cultures have the right to be decently treated,” he said. “To take the minority view and say the minority has the ability to stamp out the views of the majority—that seems to me to be completely crazy.”
I’m not a sophisticated enough thinker to parse the Right this way, and I didn’t go to that conference. But to Brooks, this neo-populism is not only growing, but a severe danger to America:
Over the past few decades there have been various efforts to replace the Reagan Paradigm: the national-greatness conservatism of John McCain; the compassionate conservatism of George W. Bush; the Reformicon conservatism of the D.C. think tanks in the 21st century. But the Trumpian onslaught succeeded where these movements have so far fizzled because Trump understood better than they did the coalescence of the new American cultural/corporate elite and the potency of populist anger against it. Thus the display of Ivy League populism I witnessed in Orlando might well represent the alarming future of the American right: the fusing of the culture war and the class war into one epic Marxist Götterdämmerung.
It’s a long piece, but we should all be sussing out the Right to better anticipate and combat their inevitable striking out in the 2022 and 2024 elections. Brooks’s piece is free, so go read it.