Ever since Donald Trump came down that gold-plated escalator in 2015, the American right has relied more on coercion than persuasion. This month’s National Conservatism Conference (its third edition), held in Miami, signaled an increasing commitment to this heavy-handed approach.
One breakout session included a call for mandatory military service for anyone making over $250,000 a year. And a speech by Blake Masters, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Arizona, led a prominent conservative to unironically tweet: “Sounds like [Masters] is absorbing the Viktor Orban lesson.”
But perhaps the most newsworthy example came when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said tech companies “cannot be viewed as private entities” because “we know without a shadow of a doubt they are doing the regime’s bidding when it comes to censorship.” This, of course, comes on the heels of DeSantis going after Disney—when the company opposed Florida’s controversial “Parental Rights in Education” bill, dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” by its critics.
What happened to “limited government” conservatives opposing intervention in the private sector, and opposing the state picking winners and losers?
The new right waves away such concerns, instead advocating for the government to use its awesome powers to do “good” (as defined by the new right), just as it selectively embraces the good tech elites. Take, for example, PayPal founder Peter Thiel, an erstwhile libertarian, who during NatCon 3 praised DeSantis.
Thiel, of course, famously funded successful GOP primary victories for Ohio Senate candidate JD Vance and Arizona Senate candidate Blake Masters.
During his own NatCon 3 speech, Masters said, “Libertarianism doesn’t work. Totalitarian leftism doesn’t work either,” a line that conservative writer Rod Dreher paraphrased as: “we on the Right have got to get comfortable using state power to achieve conservative ends.”
Perhaps you’re picking up on a theme? This sounds an awful lot like what DeSantis was advocating.
It’s no coincidence. DeSantis and Masters represent a dangerous worldview that could define the post-Trump American right. Whereas Trump lacked a coherent and consistent philosophy (he flirted with populism, but Trump’s main agenda was always advancing Trump), these national conservatives are more competent—and they have an ethos.
Trump can at least be laughed at, because he is essentially an out-of-touch old guy who says crazy shit. Likewise, ridiculous Republican lawmakers like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert spout absurd, deliberately offensive things and are constantly committing malapropisms. These Trumpers get clicks, but they are not part of the new right’s “brain trust,” like the NatCons.
This raises the (now-trite) question of whether DeSantis would be more dangerous than Trump.
Those of us desperate to move on from Trump have rationalized that DeSantis is probably the only candidate who gives the GOP a chance to move on from Trump. What is more, DeSantis, who was a fairly normal Republican congressman and governor before COVID-19, might be merely playing up his authoritarian persona to appease the Trumpy Republican base.
I do not take solace in any of these rationalizations, and DeSantis’ remarks about private companies and “the regime” at NatCon 3 do little to quell my anxiety.
The obvious question is: What happens when, having established that might makes right, the left has control of government (as is inevitable, at some point, in a two-party system)?
Absent even the pretense of a commitment to timeless principles like the rule of law, we are left with the will to power. The ends justify the means.
But even if conservatives are able to remain in power, what good is winning if you have abandoned your core philosophical and moral principles to obtain it?
This goes deeper than abandoning free markets. Just as national conservatism is willing to cast aside limited government to vanquish its enemies, national conservatism may also have to destroy the Christian village to save it. That’s because national conservatism seeks to combine Christianity with a disdain for global institutions. The only problem is that these two beliefs are mutually exclusive.
“Christians are in solidarity as members of one multinational body, joined by one baptism and one Spirit, eating and drinking at the table of the one Lord,” writes Peter J. Leithart. “However deeply the church, her teaching and her rituals may become embedded in a national culture, she remains essentially an outpost of an alien civilization, a heavenly one, and she exists to point the nation to ends beyond the end of the national interest.”
Devout believers in limited government have reason to fear national conservatism, and so do devout believers in Christianity.
But national conservatism isn’t about philosophical ideas or spiritual transcendence. It’s about earthly power—and who wields it.