Miami, FL. Last year’s National Conservatism meeting was the convention that launched a thousand op-eds. David Brooks called the conference “alarming” and “disconcerting.” Joseph Keegin of The Point responded more ambivalently, “the NatCons may amount to one more eschatological curiosity.”
James Pogue’s Vanity Fair piece laid out the taxonomy of the new right as having an apocalypticism epitomized by an unlikely alliance between the avant garde of the very online like Curtis Yarvin, armies of anonymous twitter trolls, podcasters, intellectuals, and their mainstream counterparts like J.D. Vance and Blake Masters. Pogue’s article documented a kind of burn-it-all-down nihilism, or else a Machiavellian will to power that would have the destruction of the current order as central to its mission, if successful.
This year’s NatCon conference, to me, had the opposite feel: a kind of generativity, a hope, a buzz that felt like a drive toward vitality. The conference laid out a survey of alternatives-in-progress, pilot projects that could chart the course of a new society if scaled in fractal fashion among other places.
I was sitting with Alex Kaschuta of the Subversive podcast right before she was about to give her talk: “In every design project you have a divergent phase and a convergent phase. This conference is still very much in the divergent phase, the part of the process where there are still post-its on every wall. People from different factions but with similar goals can each chime in and contribute their efforts.”
This kind of design-project energy was palpable. There were dozens of micro-niches forming and building something mostly illegible, even when described. The only real theme that held it all together was a growing sense of momentum, and a desire for action.
Matthew Peterson of the Claremont Institute went further: “this conference is all about thinking practically about how we win? We have to band together. We have to forge a path to live a decent way of life together in America today. Who do we band together with? So you can take the black pill, you can become a doomer and say it’s all over, but we can carve out new frontiers here and now. The demand is there, the people want it. We have the demand and we have many allies.”
If last year’s Natcon was some kind of nihilistic death drive—a natural reaction to being in the political minority amid ongoing social chaos and the lingering fog of a pandemic—this year felt like a drive toward life, with a bent toward the practical and actionable. Peterson implored his audience, “I don’t like the -isms and -istics arguing because we have work to do, we have an actual coalition to build. We have a destination to get to to actually build a better life, while we are alive with the kids that we have and the families we have.”
Despite the pearl-clutching that wants to paint NatCon as representative of a nefarious, coherent movement, it’s much more mundane and less organized than that. We tend to project the worst-case scenario into empty voids. In any given session you could have tradcaths and reactionary feminists on panels alongside Teddy Roosevelt conservatives and post-left populists.
For the defected progressives, attending NatCon can be a kind of portal, a chance to throw off the chains of the liberal professional managerial elite language and purity policing. More than one person told me a version of “it’s nice to be able to speak freely here.” Some engage in a kind of tongue-in-cheek dissidence. A common Twitter joke to signal non-conformity would be something like, “It’s messed up how welcoming the racist community is. They really don’t care what race you are as long as you’re racist.”
NatCon has a transgressive excitement that leads to a heady freedom of expression. All the misfits and outcasts set adrift, alienated by uni-party business-as-usual, end up here. An antidote to the stiflingly narrow range of acceptable ideas in liberal intellectualism, the conservatives at this conference seem to be less strict ideological allies as they are, somewhat surprisingly, committed to a culture of tolerance, freedom of expression, and pluralism.
As the affordances of freedom of expression are slipping away, it is almost as if the new right are remaking, through a spontaneous social covenant, the kind of protection afforded in traditional tenured professorship. They are at least attempting to be immune to being canceled. Of all places, there is a potent sense of intellectual freedom among the halls of once buttoned-up, stuffy conservatism. NatCon genuinely feels like the place where experimental and reactionary ideas can be mooted. This conservative conference is where you go for tolerance and pluralism.
Reacting to the rapid stripping away of social norms and the stigmas of modern liberalism, the main font of wisdom at NatCon is a look to the past. Broadly, the ideas presented in the sessions fall into two camps: the Hamiltonians and the Jeffersonians.
The Hamiltonians tend to represent the standard ideology of the Republican party: economic growth, prosperity signaled by consumer choice, drill baby drill, don’t tread on me. In some senses the Hamiltonians represent the uni-party, a class of ruling elite who guard their own interests while the civic fabric continues to unravel. It’s Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney, Pete Buttigieg, or Liz Cheney.
The neoliberal oligarchical establishment will always choose their friends at Raytheon and Goldman Sachs over the American people, and they will always choose business as usual over providing a fundamental alternative to the globalist American juggernaut.
Most of the keynote and plenary speeches at NatCon were fundamentally Hamiltonian—business-as-usual, except the swamp creatures are on our side of the aisle instead of theirs.
Peter Thiel argued for more economic growth in his bits versus atoms speech: we must utilize our unique greatness to grow and innovate in the world of atoms toward a high economic broad based growth alternative. Sen. Josh Hawley, Sen. Rick Scott, and Gov. Ron DeSantis gave boilerplate speeches about American exceptionalism and conservative values like liberty, but peppered with populist nods against global or corporate elites.
The Jeffersonians at the conference, however, represent a radical break. If not a kind of liberal breaking of social norms, then a bringing forth of a strain of thinking in traditional American life that has remained largely fringe following the Civil War.
Jefferson’s vision for America was fundamentally about liberty through agrarian sovereignty. A more modern incarnation of the Jeffersonian small-c conservative is represented in the work of philosopher-poet-farmer Wendell Berry. Berry’s work centers around the productive capacity of the individual, self-reliance, family, community, and faith, but supported by a commitment to place and creation. America as a moral beacon, a shining city on a hill, and not an endless frontier to be conquered and exploited. A land, instead, to be husbanded, both referring to human relationships but also our relationship to our political economy, inherited natural resources, and each other. As the world that Hamilton envisioned falls apart, the elite and everyone else are grasping at straws for a coherent alternative.
The main talking points among the Republican politicians that represented a kind of alternative to Hamiltonianism include: relocalizing manufacturing from a national security position, anti-global homogenization populism railing against institutions like the WEF and the UN, a critique of the elite uni-party, and a warning against the growing power of digital technology. Marco Rubio leaned the hardest into this messaging, sounding in some ways like a cross between a 1999 Battle-in-Seattle leftist and a Wendell Berry traditionalist:
“We are more than just consumers.”
“It is in our nation’s interest to care about where the food we eat is produced.”
“It is corrosive to the human spirit to not have dignified work available.”
“The return of government as close to the people as possible and a return to the notions of common sense and time-tested values.”
In this last statement Rubio takes note of the seemingly growing wariness toward the power of the federal government over people’s lives: “The other thing I think you will see a tremendous energy behind is the concept of Federalism, people wouldn’t call it that, but the notion that to the extent government is going to play a role in setting the rules for your life it should be a government you should access.” He calls for a kind of relocalization, a scaling down of politics toward “local leaders you can scream or vote out of office if they did the wrong thing.”
The strongest statement I heard at the conference against the growing drive toward transhumanism and the insidious tentacles of tech into all aspects of life came from Peter Thiel. He made a case for not escaping into the metaverse: “The California quadrant [argues] we are just going to escape into the internet, the metaverse, artificial reality, virtual reality, and we are not even going to try to compete with China, we are just going to have one escapist fantasy after another.” Ironic that the Silicon Valley CEO is a prominent figure warning about the influence of tech over our brains, bodies, and social institutions.
While it is heartening to hear this kind of rhetoric, there remains a generalized skepticism about the disconnect between rhetoric and action among politicians and billionaires.
If the currently serving politicians and tech titans were giving weak lip service to potential Jeffersonian alternatives, then the Twitter anons and face accounts at NatCon are giving them life. Ironically, these creative critics of global technocracy have formed a vibrant conversation within the twitterverse. This meritocratic avant-garde intelligentsia has exploded into a world of podcasts, publications, and art. Some of the best and brightest of this world were at NatCon giving speeches or quietly shaping the discourse in late night debates at the hotel bar. The based heroes are putting forth grand visions and experimenting in disparate areas from family to political economy, conservation to national security.
The host of the virtual agora of the right-wing twittersphere, Alex Kaschuta, gave a profoundly intellectual speech about the importance of the commons—environmental, attentional (a la Matt Crawford), food, and relationship commons. It’s the latter where she focused her speech, which argued that we are living through a “technological Brazilification of the commons,” and the way to take them back is to refocus our attention on the ties that bind us. She asks us to notice how often we are blinded, seeing our solution space as either small-scale individualism or large-scale societal changes. Kaschuta focuses our attention on the overlooked meso level: the informal and illegible spaces of relating to one another for our mutual flourishing.
Pushing the relocalization of manufacturing much further while making concessions to scale, The American Conservative’s Micah Meadowcroft made the case for conservationism of the small-c Teddy Roosevelt conservative: a more localized, agrarian, and craft economy. Eschewing the uni-party, Meadowcroft says, “The environmental left is as alienated from the environment as the industrialist right.”
He sees an enormous opportunity in the potential to wrest environmental messaging from the left, caught up in the techno-utopian globalist agenda epitomized by Bill Gates and the WEF, to build “a compelling conservative message on conservation and creation. Focus on national greatness, sovereignty, supply chains, national independence that can bridge the language of now and that of the future.”
Both Meadowcroft and Emile Doak, editor of The American Conservative, make the case for localism as a fundamental virtue, with a greater focus on place and community. Doak gave a talk from a Catholic perspective entitled, “There is No Global Common Good” wherein he argues that “the common good has to be rooted in something concrete and local and emerges from there.” He uses the Catholic church parish as an institution that is ready to be breathed full of life right now as the potential spiritual home of young conservatives looking to find community and a wholesome place to raise a family amid the chaotic stories emerging from some of the nation’s cities and public schools.
Former Trump White House National Security Council staffer Joshua Steinman presented specific details in his talk “China and the Case for Promoting a National Industrial Base.” He argues that it is of national strategic concern to have control over the processes of digital, industrial, and mineral production in the United States.
Afterwards, Steinman and I spoke about the potential role of the household economy in national self-reliance: “We ought to be moving back toward these heritage strategies of ‘grow what you can, buy what you must.’ That in and of itself is a huge national security asset. The thing is, if your people can survive some type of supply chain shock because a third of them have eggs in their home production, I just think that’s really important. When big destabilizing things happen, people are quickly confronted with how tenuous things can be. It’s the Jeffersonian solution.”
What is being outlined here is fundamentally a Wendell Berry conservatism: our solutions are not global in nature. They might not even be national in nature. It asks individuals to get involved at the lowest possible scale, in church and on school boards, to be productive in the home and show up in a community as ways to build an emergent virtuous and meaningful life now.
It’s not possible to drown out the parallels with the intellectual Dark Web and Jordan Peterson’s call to “clean your room.” It is a movement growing up from something like the fundamentally inward-looking care of the self toward the interdependent outward importance of family, community, and civic duty in place. It mirrors the natural progression from teenage fantasies of egotistic greatness to adult realities of meaning in obligation to place and people.
Another focus of attention was the absolutely horrifying state of dating, marriage, and family formation. Katy Faust brought us back to basics with her speech “This is a Child.” She drew on a story of the 1961 Green Bay Packers team who had to go back to basics after a blowout loss in the NFL Championship. Their coach took them aside and said, “this is a football.” Faust does the same for us with a child, walking us through all of the various resources that need to be available for a child to flourish, and how badly we have eroded so many of them, harkening back to Kaschuta’s discussion of the commons: “This is a child. She is not an object of rights, she is a subject of rights. Respecting her rights insists that all adults—single, married, gay, straight, fertile, and infertile do hard things on her behalf. Because the only alternative is to insist that she do hard things for them. And that’s an injustice. A just society does not ask the weak to sacrifice for the strong.”
Helen Roy spoke in a Catholic session about the archetype of the mother in the Virgin Mary, “A woman of few words but perpetual prayer, whose faith and constancy meant that she remained by the cross even when so many others could not bear the sight of it.” In a kind of divine archetype of the mother, herself a new mother to two small children, Helen began to weep recounting this story of the Virgin Mary as exemplar of a mother’s devoted love. This was probably the most transcendent moment I experienced at the conference, a kind of Illichian conviviality, the spontaneous divine we can make in communion with others in service to ideals and archetypes greater than ourselves.
Helen went on to argue that “Women are capable of greatness. But a modern woman’s call to greatness has been drowned out by a legacy of toxic feminism, which denigrates pregnancy, domesticity, true friendship, and conformity to God’s will all in favor of a sexually liberated girlboss paradigm that rewards promiscuity, and atomization. A political program that aims for a civilization of love would simply, unapologetically invite women into their natural vocations instead of economically punishing them for pursuing marriage and motherhood, for cultivating conviviality.”
As a counterpoint to this, Delano Squires emphasized the potential in the return of the Prodigal Father. Squires argued that men need to be allowed to come back into positions of responsibility and reclaim manhood. Similarly to Doak’s focus on community, Squires says that as a culture “we should get used to asking: where is his father?” We need to reclaim a world wherein community is responsible for child rearing, and wherein absentee fathers are invited back into the most important role of their lives.
English writer G.K. Chesterton was cited often at NatCon. A darling of the tradcaths and localists, his work is perhaps most famous for his parable “Chesterton’s Fence.” In this story a modern reformer comes upon a fence in a rural area and suggests, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” Chesterton’s reply is that he will only allow for the fence’s destruction once the reformer learns of its use. In other words, reformers are quick to destroy social institutions without first trying to understand why they were installed in the first place.
NatCon represented to me an impulse to reinstall Chesterton’s fence. This loose conversation is an examination of why abandoning these social norms in the name of progress or growth or military power might have been a Faustian bargain.
On the second evening of the conference the millennials and zoomers poured into the hotel bar, rubbing elbows with establishment officials and think tankers. I was talking to Twitter anon Dr. Benjamin Braddock about his vision for the future:
The Jeffersonian approach recognizes that turbocapitalism and communism are just two sides of the same coin, which is industrialism. It seeks to evolve a society that does not sacrifice leisure, tradition, beauty, and truth to the demands of scientific materialism and the false god of Progress. It recognizes that contact with the natural world is essential for spiritual and physical flourishing.
At an individual level, adopting a Jeffersonian approach to one’s own life means resisting the homogenizing influences of modern industrial society and consciously cultivating oneself much in the same way that Jefferson did. He was a man who had a passion for life and lived hugely. He was a statesman, an architect, a farmer, an inventor, and a thinker. The Jeffersonian outlook is ultimately the attitude that life should be art.
In the middle of his soliloquy a somewhat inebriated young man shouted “give me Monsanto!” Later in the evening that same Monsanto stan passed by and said “What you’re arguing is Jeffersonian. The people at this conference are Hamiltonians.” To which Braddock replied “F– Hamilton. F– Hamilton! Nobody gives a s– about Hamilton. Hamilton sucks. Hell yes it’s Jefferson that we’re talking about. Hell yes it is.”
Where does the Jeffersonian perspective go from this inchoate impulse? There are three spheres where these ideas are taking root. First, here in the new right/post left intelligentsia which debates potential policy but also fosters its own culture through articles and podcasts and art. It’s noteworthy that the Passage Prize, likely the most high-profile art contest in the dissident right, just announced their theme for their second year as rewilding. The Jeffersonian project is in many ways a process of reacquainting ourselves with the wild.
The second sphere I see grabbing onto these ideas are those currently in power. I profiled some of the ways in which, for example, Thiel and Rubio were flirting with the ideas of localism, dignified work, and the effect environments have on social and cultural outcomes. What’s unclear, as always, is how much does power use rhetoric to maintain power, and how much of that rhetoric will make its way into the material world and people’s lives via policy and governance?
Finally, I would argue that the Jeffersonian perspective never really left the lives of many ordinary people. There are pockets of America that absolutely still organize their lives around their church parish, who make family the center of all of their striving, who sustain traditional craft production or homesteading. Hints of this come up in books like Dignity or Hillbilly Elegy. This is the world of those outside of the global cities, who have been trying to cling to some kind of heritage despite the rot of neoliberal globalism.
If anything, I left the conference with a feeling that this is the beginning of something. There is a chaotic, disorganized energy as people attempt to build. I think back to Matthew Peterson again: “We have work to do, we have an actual coalition to build. We have a destination to get to to actually build a better life, while we are alive with the kids that we have and the families we have.” The Jeffersonian project is one that can begin right now. Those embarking on it are working on themselves and their families and their vocations at a scale that is meaningful. They are not waiting to be in power, they are making the world they want to see now.