A conference titled National Conservatism will conclude on Tuesday in Washington. Its stated aim is to affirm nationalism — defined as a commitment to “a world of independent nations” — as the core of American conservatism, in contrast to the vision of America as the leader of an international rules-based liberal order embraced by mainstream conservatives after the end of the Cold War. But in more practical terms, one could say the purpose of the conference is to provide an intellectual foundation for Trumpism.
I hesitate to criticize a conference I haven’t attended. Many of the speakers are people I respect, and at least three are people I personally know and like. Nonetheless, it serves as a vehicle for some troubling political trends.
To be sure, post-Cold War “globalist” conservatism, with its commitment to exporting democracy, has stumbled badly, most notably with the war in Iraq. But the nationalist turn seems to back away from the far more basic belief in the role of America as the leader of the free world, which also was central to the conservative movement in the Reagan era. The idea of the “rules-based liberal order” did not begin with the end of the Cold War; it was the foundation of Western policy after World War II.
Very few people believe that national sovereignty is obsolete; in that sense, “globalism” is a red herring. However, sovereignty also can serve as a convenient cover for authoritarianism. It’s no coincidence that at one point, Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin regime tried to promote something called “sovereign democracy” as its brand.
The conservative nationalism championed by the Washington conference is not Putinist, of course. But some of its proponents — including Israeli political scientist Yoram Hazony, one of the conference organizers and author of “The Virtue of Nationalism” — are strongly critical of the individual rights-based model of liberal society that goes back to the Enlightenment.
And what of the historical linkage between nationalism and xenophobia? The conference makes an effort to repudiate racism; its website mentions “stark opposition to political theories grounded in race.” Yet several of the speakers, notably former Trump administration adviser Michael Anton, have made no secret of their view that the “importation” of Third World foreigners into Western nations is a mortal threat to European and American culture. Fox News host Tucker Carlson, a conference speaker, has peddled rhetoric associating immigrants (particularly nonwhite immigrants) with filth.
On the eve of the conference, Donald Trump tweeted a blatantly racist attack on “‘Progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen” who, he wrote, “originally came from countries” with corrupt and inept governments but were “loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States . . . how our government is to be run.” He added, “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how it is done.”
In fact, only one woman in the group he attacked — Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar — was born outside the United States, in Somalia. The others — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (New York), Rashida Tlaib (Michigan) and Ayanna Pressley (Massachusetts) — are all U.S. born. The clear implication is that not only immigrants but children of immigrants, Americans of Puerto Rican background, and even black Americans, are not really American but interlopers from nasty places.
If “national conservatism” wants to shed the xenophobic image, it can start by repudiating Trump, for whom this kind of vile rhetoric is normal. I won’t hold my breath.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.