There are a lot of fancy terms being used to describe today’s changing political landscape. There’s Eatwell and Goodwin’s ‘national populism,’ Dueck’s ’conservative nationalism,’ and the ‘populist nationalism’ of Steve Bannon. And then there’s ‘national conservatism’, the banner under which last week’s conference in Rome took place (reported on here by Titus Techera).
To some degree, they’re all talking about the same thing: socio-political developments that people are scrambling to understand. Some of it has to do with an ongoing re-conceptualization of ‘conservatism.’ The best examples of this have appeared in the pages of The American Mind, Claremont Review of Books, and American Affairs. But it’s also related to what Nassim Taleb has called a “global riot against pseudo-experts.” This ferment has already produced Brexit, Trump, and Bolsonaro.
Regardless of the term used, at the heart of recent developments is renewed appreciation for the nation-state and national sovereignty—and growing suspicion of the managerial elites in Washington, London, and Brussels.
The Rome conference—“God, Honor, Country: President Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and the Freedom of Nations”—was a sort of follow-up to the ‘national conservatism’ conference last July in Washington. That event, widely reported on, boasted an exceptionally diverse list of conservative speakers. Similarly, the program in Rome demonstrates that the organizers—Edmund Burke Foundation, Bow Group, Center for European Renewal, Danube Institute, Herzl Institute, Nazione Futura, and the International Reagan Thatcher Society—thought carefully about diversity of thought.
Intellectual and political diversity is critical, for there are no universal political solutions to our challenges. As Stephen Bartulica, president of the Center for the Renewal of Culture in Croatia and professor at the Catholic University in Zagreb, noted, “it’s not possible to propose one policy which resolves each country’s problems.” (Therein lies the EU’s arrogant, fatal flaw.) This was echoed in a keynote speech by French politician Marion Maréchal who said: “conservatism is not a fixed doctrine.” It’s “a disposition of mind.”
The promise of ‘national conservatism’ (or ‘conservative nationalism’) thus lies not in a particular policy outlook but in a vision of freedom and even dignity. In order to nourish such things, however, nations must safeguard their values, traditions, and sovereignty. This has increasingly meant pushing back against the ‘European project’ and motivating people, regardless of citizenship or national origin, to embrace a more disruptive conservatism—one that is willing to take the battle straight to the opposition’s camp.
This unabashedly defiant attitude is a consequence of several factors: First, acknowledgment that conservatives have lost all major policy battles in the past five decades. Second, recognition that despite the occasional electoral triumphs of European center-right parties and Republican presidents in the U.S., things have only gotten worse. Third, realization that corruption, greed, and hedonism are pervasive across international political and private sector elites.
Additionally, a tipping point was reached when ‘political correctness’ and ‘woke’ ideology, both bastard children of the counterculture, became ensconced in the upper echelons of power. (Christopher Caldwell’s latest book, The Age of Entitlement, speaks to some of this.) Giorgia Meloni, president of Fratelli d’Italia, pointed to this on the eve of the conference. Although we are ‘free’, she said, it is only “within a predetermined enclosure.” If you try to climb over it, “you are censured by the new Menlo Park high priests of the only school of thought allowed.”
This was taken up again the next morning by Rod Dreher who warned of “the totalitarian nature of contemporary liberalism.” Increasingly facilitated by modern technology, its latest sinister ‘form’—as a kind of ‘police state’—was famously described, he said, by James Poulos, executive editor of The American Mind. “Like communism,” notes Bartulica, “it does not tolerate dissent.”
Anyone who’s ever been suspended by Facebook or Twitter administrators for violating ‘community standards’ knows exactly what Meloni and Dreher were saying. Garbed in the whorish garments of the ‘woke’ and ‘intersectional’, such blatant censorship is seen as above reproach. Thankfully, organizers of the conference in Rome labored under different norms, embracing diversity of thought and the free exchange of ideas. Common themes still emerged, some of which are listed below.
First, the concept of identity is worth exploring and defending. Identity has long been considered a stalking horse for extremists of the left and right. But in its more complex and nuanced forms, it has become an essential component of today’s struggle over sovereignty. “[T]he protection of identity is central,” says Francesco Giubilei, president of Nazione Futura and a co-sponsor of the conference. And many in the West believe that identity should be “placed at the center of political and cultural action.”
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán echoed this sentiment during his on-stage conversation with Christopher DeMuth of the Hudson Institute. “National identity is a precondition of national conservatism,” Orbán said. And it has informed recent legal reforms and guided the renewal of the Hungarian nation (witness their Easter Constitution).
After years of being ‘politically incorrect,’ identity is now “at the center of political disputes,” Orbán said. The migration crisis brought the entire issue to the fore, he said. “What does it mean to be French? What does it mean to be German? … Italian … Central European or Hungarian? These [questions] are legitimate again.”
Second, the natural law tradition should form the basis of political life. Dedicated in part to Pope John Paul II, the Rome conference was a reminder that our laws—that is, the norms that regulate our private and public lives—have to be based on something that transcends mere power politics. “We thus should rediscover the philosophy of natural law,” says Bartulica. He recalls Pope Benedict XVI’s 2011 speech in the German Bundestag, which also highlighted the central importance of classical legal philosophy.
And yet this is another area where the opposition has triumphed. “Even though communism collapsed,” Bartulica notes, “legal positivism remains the dominant view … in the legal thinking at most law schools in Europe and the U.S.” Awareness of this is spreading. To her credit, Maréchal—who is also director-general of the Institute of Social, Economic, and Political Sciences (ISSEP) in Lyon—spoke of the importance of returning to natural law in Europe. “We refuse the relativism by which each individual would be the creator of his own values,” she said. “We believe in natural law … We think the individual will cannot be the only compass of society.”
Third, religion is essential for any political and social system. Any new conservative politics must necessarily embrace religion, explains Giubilei. To call oneself a ‘conservative’ and yet not recognize Europe’s Christian roots leads to “a partial vision of conservatism.” Similarly, Meloni had said, “a national conservative cannot be content with claiming to be a democrat—because democracy without values becomes demagoguery.”
What are those values? They’re the three sub-themes of the conference, Meloni said: God, freedom, and nation—or, “in the Italian formula to which I am very attached, God, homeland, and family.” Protection of such values is, she said, “the noblest purpose of all political action.”
It’s refreshing to hear such words. In the U.S., the cudgels in defense of religion in politics—of integralism—have been taken up by Adrian Vermeule at Harvard Law School and Gladden Pappin at the University of Dallas. In Europe, the mantle has fallen to Pater Edmund Waldstein of Heiligenkreuz Abbey in Austria (and writer and editor of the well-regarded blogs Sancrucensis and The Josias).
But there is disagreement among integralists over nationalism. Some, Waldstein says, believe in the imperial ideal of “a universal Christendom.” Others, like scholars Alan Fimister and Thomas Crean O.P. have shown “a lot of sympathy for nationalism.” Waldstein cites their forthcoming book (from Editiones Scholasticae) which argues for the ideal of “Christendom as a multitude of independent states, without a universal temporal ruler.” Waldstein’s more pragmatic view is that “integralists and nationalists can cooperate in the short-term since … secular globalism/imperialism is even worse than nationalism.”
Still, some consider Christian doctrine incompatible with any kind of nationalism. This is a misapprehension. Asked about the relationship between Catholicism and nationalism, Austin Ruse, president of C-Fam, a UN-accredited research institute, and author of the forthcoming The Catholic Case for Trump, told me in an email that he disagrees with “the Catholic naysayers of nationalism.” Many see nothing wrong with power being taken away from people—and given to what Meloni called “supranational entities headed by supposedly enlightened elites.” “This is globalism,” says Ruse.
Fourth, there is an emerging global class war. That same globalism usurps power from people and local communities—and thus is the source of the biggest challenge facing the West: the growing desperation of the world’s working and middle classes. In Rome, I heard of stories of desperation from across Europe. And Maréchal spoke poignantly of the plight of French farmers, many laboring under the yoke of an economic and financial “system that drives [them] to suicide—one every two days.”
None of this should be surprising. Charles Murray has been writing for decades about the cognitive elites and an emergent American underclass and overclass, warning of their growing divide. It’s happening elsewhere, too. Michael Lind recently published a book about this “new class war.” And the plight of the French underclass was explained with great empathy in a 2016 book by Christophe Guilluy.
Charity helps one understand their situation. The ‘nothing-to-lose’ attitude of France’s gilet jaunes (yellow vests) protestors thus appears almost excusable. As Maréchal said, “the yellow vests … are the French version of Brexiteers.” Her comment reminded me of French writer Édouard Louis’ moving 2018 non-fiction work, Who Killed My Father, a methodical exposition of how the French class system pushes people to the margins—where they die.
Perhaps Maréchal’s right. Perhaps repudiating supranational entities, re-asserting national interests, and safeguarding the dignity of all citizens is the only way to respond to such despair. Perhaps what is needed is the deconstruction of the administrative state—in France and across Europe.
One final remark about the conference: its religious character, though not advertised or programmed, was palpable. Although a handful of prominent conservative agnostics and atheists were present, kippahs and the occasional rosary were visible. Christianity, however, “came almost only in the form of Roman Catholicism,” says Wolfgang Fenske, director of the Library of Conservatism in Berlin. And when Protestantism was mentioned, he said, “it was Calvinism through Max Weber’s glasses.”
I was thus quite pleased to speak with Misa Djurkovic, head of the Institute of European Studies in Belgrade: “For someone coming from the Orthodox Church, conservative nationalism is a natural position,” he said. “Eastern European countries are very interested in [national conservatism] because of their experiences under communism,” he explained, “and their perception that the EU’s globalist values increasingly resemble communism.” This is in stark contrast to the position of Christian progressives, who have been quick to oppose populist nationalism.
Christian conservatives should embrace these new political actors. We need “new movements … new forces,” Orbán said. It’s the only way to resist the ‘new totalitarianism’ which wants, says Djurkovic, to “transform people [into mere] biomass”—that is, “individuals deprived of any identity, [whose only sense of] belonging or loyalty is to corporations and their brands.”
Marion Maréchal had also inveighed against this “anthropological revolution.” The human body has been reduced to an object of consumption, she said. “Bellies are for rent, gametes can be bought or sold, embryos are guinea pigs.” A dark, dystopian vision, indeed. But in her conclusion, she availed herself of the image of the now-damaged Notre-Dames de Paris. The Rome conference, she said, was “a call—to rebuild this roof that protects us and this spire that connects us to Heaven.”
It’s a shame such lyrical moments weren’t picked up by the mainstream media. But few in the audience missed her meaning: that roof is European civilization comprised of sovereign nations and national identities. And someday, “once the EU has been overcome”—once that roof has been rebuilt—”a [different] understanding of Europe will emerge,” Fenske says, “as outlined in ‘The Paris Statement’—that of a ‘true Europe’ that respects the needs of nations, while reflecting its ancient and biblical roots.”
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