When the political philosopher Yoram Hazony took the stage at the inaugural National Conservatism Conference in 2019, he sounded a giddy note. "Today I feel good, because I know that today is our independence day!" he said. "Today we declare independence from neoconservatism, from neoliberalism, from libertarianism, from what they call classical liberalism."
By the time the second National Conservatism Conference rolled around last fall, Hazony, one of the events' leading organizers, had changed his tune. "America's in a tough spot. The democratic world is in a tough spot," he said. "We're not going to make it through if there's no alliance between anti-Marxist liberals and hardcore, serious conservatives."
By going from purging anyone who does not pledge allegiance to the nationalist agenda to welcoming all comers, the "natcons" have abandoned the original defining characteristic of their movement.
No wonder. Three years ago, it was easy for attendees of NatCon I to believe they were the vanguard of a vast army ready to march into a virtuous mercantilist future. On the right, it was a given that the wave of popular support that had swept Donald Trump into the White House was explained by concern about the loss of manufacturing jobs and attendant disgust at free markets and free trade. So the main substantive themes of the conference were opposition to immigration and support for federal largesse in the form of industrial policy.
Today, things look different. Trump's signature accomplishments turned out to be a large tax cut (the priority of "Zombie Reaganists," as natcons love to say) and a program to expedite COVID-19 vaccines (which a large chunk of his own base rejects). Meanwhile, Trump's efforts to manhandle the economy failed spectacularly: Witness the ruinous effects of his tariffs and the empty shell that was supposed to be a $10 billion Foxconn facility in Wisconsin, touted by Trump as a shining example of his "America First" agenda.
In retrospect, cultural concerns—about runaway political correctness, assaults on religious liberty, left-wing bias in the media and academe—are what pushed so many voters into Trump's arms, and NatCon II reflected that realization. The event's top headliner was Dave Rubin, a YouTube personality ideologically closer to the classical liberals Hazony once wished to banish than to Hazony himself.
Not everyone was pleased. "If your main goal is cutting taxes, or dismantling the administrative state, or banning abortion, or opposing wokeness, or opposing vaccine mandates," Julius Krein, editor of the nationalist journal American Affairs, declared during a panel discussion, "you don't really need nationalism for any of that. And in fact, it's probably counterproductive. You might be better off just being libertarian."