Artillery Row

That got real old real fast

At the National Conservatism Conference in Orlando, Florida

In an ancient Bengali grandma’s tale, a dim-witted young ascetic went to join a monastery, where he was asked to describe an elephant. He took a quick glance at the legs of the beast in question and described them as Roman columns, to much applause. But dim-witted as he was, he thought that uttering Roman columns was in itself an act of profundity, and whenever he was asked to describe something, he described it as a Roman column, and eventually embarrassed himself enough and got kicked out. Long story short, thematic repetition remains the ultimate refuge of a clot.

Make of that what you will, but I found myself pondering this folkloric wisdom often when at the Second National Conservative Conference in Orlando, where I happened to be present for just a day, before heading back to DC for work. Fortunately for everyone involved, I was not a speaker, but was there in a private capacity, to meet and encourage some old and new friends.

There was a Thermidorian spirit in the air

What I got to see in Florida was a changing arc of a movement one that I saw birthed in 2019. For the uninitiated, National Conservatism is a branch of conservatism that aims to represent the elusive fourth quadrant of the socially conservative and economically nationalist crowd in both Europe and America, purportedly the overwhelming but silent majority. A crowd so silent that it has no voice, platform or leaders, so to speak. This was the second main American edition of the marketplace of such ideas, the first one being in Washington DC in 2019, where there was a Thermidorian spirit in the air. Being an attempt to provide a brains trust to explain the shocks of 2016 as well as to chart a path forward: a true challenge to Fusionist Thatcher-Reagan establishment conservatism across the Anglosphere. James Orr has, for The Critic, well charted what Yoram Hazony, Rod Dreher, Viktor Orbán et al in Rome in March of 2020 amounted to.

This time, former President of the American Enterprise Institute during the Iraq war era and the editor of The Neoconservative Imagination, Christopher De Muth, thundered that the hour was at hand to bring conservatism to its nationalist roots, just after self-declared “classical liberal” and card-carrying member of the Intellectual Dark Web Dave Rubin seamlessly floated in and gave a short introductory note about why he is a “nationalist-conservative”, before darkly warning about tech dystopia and the cult of science and vaccination. Immediately after that, Peter Thiel took the stage and argued that tech will democratise us even more and unchain us from the elite’s grasp and that “science” was in constant two-pronged battle with extreme scientific dogmatism and extreme science scepticism. There were panels on “cancel culture” in a liberal society, and a panel on Taiwan almost broke into a nerd-fight, with the neoconservative faction (from Hudson Institute) accusing the other side of, you guessed it, being an “appeaser and isolationist”.

Not a single foreign policy realist or restrainer was there to talk about the biggest issue that animated reactionaries for at least the better part of the last half-decade: non-intervention and troop retrenchment from semi-feudal backwaters. To top it all off, Senator Ted Cruz, arch-establishmentarian, with his best low voice register channelled his inner Reagan and spoke about why Israel is America’s greatest ally, and why he hates communist Cuba, to a somewhat dumbfounded crowd that on average was aged twenty-two, just as the editor-in-chief of National Review bravely quoted Churchill verbatim, although without the gravely cigar-phlegmy voice, context or charisma.   

Closet Orbanism is always rhetorically attractive

There were glimpses of the original Nat Con moment of 2019. Senator Joshua Hawley, the darling of the social conservatives across the Euro-Atlantic right, spoke with conviction about bringing back masculine work and single-income families. Closet Orbanism is always rhetorically attractive, but the question that was not addressed was how will comrade Hawley apply that policy in an uncentralised country nearly thirty-two times the size of Hungary. Everything starts with definitions and policies in this business. Nat Cons of any colour have been saying this for the last four years. It has lost its charm. Theory is nothing without policy. Repetition is the refuge of, well, not #winners, to paraphrase a noted seer.  

Mary Harrington of UnHerd followed the illustrious footsteps of sesquipedalian Brits abroad by providing perhaps the clearest outline of why fluid Transhumanism is the greatest threat to humans only this time, the Brit batted for a sexual reaction and not a global sexual revolution oratorically championed by the late Christopher Hitchens, whose six-trillion dollar corpse can be found buried in the sands of Mesopotamia.

Harrington’s ferociously academic circumlocution about a cult of Homo-Futura engaged in a ruthlessly subversive war with Homo-Sapiens (where the Homo-Sapiens are going to go the way of Homo-Neanderthalensis and where the “X-men” are not quite the superheroes they are seen on films to be) was incidentally marred by the same panel, where a Rabbi lost track of time and spoke about the sins of the soul without interruption from a moderator too mortified to halt a revered man of cloth in the middle of a sermon. That was preceded by some professor arguing that we live in a Gynocracy. Which is, of course, outrageous. We live in a Gynarchy. It is an elite movement, not a mass movement. Accurate suffixes are important.  

Perhaps the single most important person with the single most important speech in the history of this movement whom I heard in the entirety of my time there, was Christopher Rufo. The man understands not just theory, but policy. Speaking in a quiet but urgent voice, Rufo argued:

we must focus on the Achilles heel of the cultural revolution: it is a creature of the state, totally subsidized by the public; they cannot create their own value, they are parasitic structurally, wholly dependent on tax revenues; what the public giveth the public can taketh away; conservatives have lost the institutions, but have shown that they can still achieve a majority in the legislatures; three part strategy in the federal government, the universities and the schools; cannot win a direct fight against the bureaucratic powers, we must attack them obliquely, follow principles of subversion, disruption and decentralization.

Republicans won a thunderous election

Laying down his theory of reaction counter-revolution, Rufo’s three-stage strategy argued to defund the bureaucracy that is the vanguard of wokeness in every single institution that we hold dear, to burn most of the universities to the ground (including the risible activist departments) as a necessary market correction, and then rebuild new institutions based purely on hierarchy and merit, while explicitly guarding against any metastasizing infection from within, and to give power back to the parents, to defend faith-flag-family and patrimony. It is not quite my theory of reaction counter-revolution, but it is a start at least.

The day Rufo gave his speech, Republicans hawkishly focused on Critical Race Theory and Parents Rights, and won a thunderous election in a state that hadn’t voted conservative in decades. The liberal thought-leaders of the US melted down and blamed “racism and patriarchy”, almost like the top bureaucrats of Romania under Ceaușescu, oblivious to the mobs outside during an actual counter-revolution. Rufo’s theory was vindicated. The rest of the Anglosphere should take note.

I rushed to DC that evening after my earlier flight was cancelled and had to hurriedly book another one. The cancellation of sixteen hundred flights in one weekend due to pesky labour issues, in the hegemon of our times, is something that a national-conservative conference should have focused on perhaps, but maybe I missed that in my dash to the imperial capital. It is perhaps a testament of sheer aggregate power, that despite the narrative of decline, only in America can such a massive conference be organised. It is also perhaps a perpetual paradox of any nascent reactionary movement, that due to the sheer size and heft, the moment it becomes even remotely successful, the inevitable pressure of a big-tent means a diluted ideological framework and a loss of intellectual coherence. Something interesting and important still needs to be spoken loudly and clearly.

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