MIAMI, Florida — Hundreds of conservative activists, politicians and intellectuals flocked to Florida’s most populous metro area for a three-day conference. But this week’s event isn’t your usual conservative confab — attendees and speakers at the National Conservatism conference came to promote a new brand of conservatism that rejects establishment norms and aims to respond to the new challenges facing the country.
The National Conservatism conference represents what some are calling the new right: a movement that focuses less on free-market economics and more on social and cultural issues, particularly the family. National conservatives are more critical of corporations and take a more skeptical view of U.S. intervention in foreign conflicts, and they’re more vocal about crime and immigration.
“A national conservative is someone who’s actually serious about the challenges facing the country right now, someone who’s not epistemically closed off because they’ve been in the conservative movement for 50 years and think the same things that solved some real problems in the Reagan era are going to solve the problems we have today,” Saurabh Sharma, conference committee member and president of American Moment, told the DCNF. “They’re people who look with fresh eyes at the problems we’re facing instead of repeating the same old tired dogma.”
The three-day conference featured a range of speakers, including Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Republican Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, the heads of conservative think tanks including the Heritage Foundation and the Claremont Institute, tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel and dozens of others who discussed a changing vision of conservatism in response to a changing country and political landscape.
Chris DeMuth, a conference organizer and distinguished fellow at the Hudson Institute, said the event is an intellectual project that’s incorporating a newer populist streak into an older, early twentieth century conservatism. This was the sixth National Conservative event put on by the Edmund Burke Foundation and the third in the U.S. (three took place in Europe), but this year’s gathering had more energy and a deeper sense of urgency, DeMuth told the DCNF.
National conservatives generally align themselves with former President Donald Trump and credit him with sparking the sea change in conservative thought beginning around 2016: he broke with Republicans on foreign policy and trade and he was a vocal critic of former President Bush, particularly when it came to the war in Iraq. He also brought a different disposition to the table, and his willingness to cut against Republican orthodoxy seems to have opened the door for a more open conversation about what conservatism should look like in the present day.
National conservatism isn’t about Trump, DeMuth said, since it’s an intellectual rather than a political movement, but he does credit Trump with bringing certain concepts into popularity among conservatives: populism, renewed nationalism and a movement away from free trade absolutism, for example.
“Trump pushed conservatives to reconsider their priorities, and you can see that at NatCon,” DeMuth told the DCNF. “National conservatism isn’t so heavily focused on economics; we’re talking about populism and about localism, about building a culture that supports marriage and families and allows people to build good and fulfilling lives.”
Trump’s rise and fall prompted a reckoning among conservatives about which pieces of his legacy to hold on to, and even some of the most established, prominent conservative organizations have distanced themselves from free market fundamentalism and interventionist foreign policy positions since 2016.
The Heritage Foundation has become less interventionist on foreign policy and more critical of big tech under the leadership of its new president, Kevin Roberts, who said the changes in policy positions are a response to the changing of the times.
“National conservatism is one of the most promising subsets of conservatism. It’s a reawakening of the eternal principles that all conservatives, however we describe ourselves, believe in,” Roberts told the DCNF. “What’s happening on the right is a recognition that, A) we have a limited amount of time to devolve power from D.C. and put it back in the hands of the American people and B), that we’ve gone through too many years, I would argue that it’s upwards of two generations, of conservative elected officials not wielding the power that they possess.”
National conservatives are less timid than establishment Republicans about using state power to go after big business and protect national interests: they’re sharply critical of corporations, especially large tech companies they view as having an outsize role in controlling public speech and opinion and large corporations that promote left-wing ideology through employment practices, politically charged employee training and Environmental and Social Governance initiatives (ESG). DeSantis drew a line between free enterprise and “corporatism” in his keynote address, and the topic was discussed in numerous other speeches and panels.
“Corporatism is not the same as free enterprise, and I think too many Republicans have viewed limited government to basically mean whatever is best for corporate America is how we want to do the economy,” DeSantis said. “My view is, obviously free enterprise is the best economic system, but that is a means to an end. It’s a means to having a good and fulfilling life and a prosperous society. It’s not an end in and of itself.”
“The United States is a nation that has an economy, not the other way around, and our economy should be geared for helping our own people,” he said.
When it came to foreign policy, conference speakers echoed a growing concern over international interventionism that’s still championed by many in the Republican establishment.
Republican Arizona Senate candidate Blake Masters, who gave a private address to conference VIPs, criticized congressional Republicans who voted to send $40 billion to Ukraine in comments to the DCNF, and former National Security official Michael Anton questioned American involvement in the conflict between Ukraine and Russia as potentially dangerous and escalatory. Anton and other speakers also criticized America’s post-9/11 involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, conflicts previously championed by Republicans.
“We spent 20 years in the Middle East essentially and we have nothing to show for it. We lost trillions of dollars and something like 7,000 American lives. Nobody can count the number of lives lost by Iraqi civilians, Afghan civilians and so on. The national security state wanted this,” Anton said. “When pressured on this, they will try to explain to you that this is all very important … the entire world is a vital national interest; we have to be involved everywhere, and if we aren’t the world will collapse and the United States will collapse with it.”
Conference speakers also railed against rogue federal agencies, namely the FBI and Justice Department, in light of the recent raid on Mar-a-Lago and other decisions they view as a weaponization of law enforcement. Anton called for the breakup of the CIA and the possible abolition of the FBI in a fiery Tuesday speech about the security state, and commentator Mollie Hemingway contrasted the FBI’s intense crackdown on those present around the Capitol during the Jan. 6, 2021 riots with its lax response to widespread violence and destruction during the summer 2020 riots.
Other speeches and panels discussed immigration, gender ideology, racial tensions, ESG and religion, with multiple breakout sessions covering Catholicism and Protestantism and a priest, rabbi and pastor offering prayers and benedictions.
National conservatives are more closely aligned with European conservatives like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, according to Tom Klingenstein, chairman of the conservative Claremont Institute. Klingenstein signed the National Conservatism statement of principles and said Claremont is generally aligned with the group, but that the two have some philosophical differences.
“They see a regime, a way of life, grounded in tradition and religion and a certain morality that they would be a little more inclined to impose or at least influence,” he said. “They would be more inclined to involve the government in trying to create an environment for morality. They’d be more inclined to support religion, I think, than we would.”
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