The Will to Power Was Front and Center at NatCon III
What differentiates national conservatives from some other right-wing varietals is the desire to use government to destroy their enemies.
"Wokeism is not a fever that will pass but a cancer that must be eradicated," declared a main-stage speaker at the third National Conservatism Conference ("NatCon III") last week. "In this new reality, the only institution with the power to contend with and conquer the woke-industrial complex is the government of the United States."
In the task to identify what distinguishes national conservatism from other right-wing varietals, you could do worse than to start with that quote from activist Rachel Bovard. It shows that this burgeoning political faction has at its heart a fundamentally favorable orientation toward federal power and not a mere revivification of national pride. It also makes it clear that the natcons' purpose in acquiring government power is not merely to prevent its misuse by opposing ideologues; it's to use it affirmatively to destroy opposing ideologues.
The institutional left does not intend to leave anything of the old republic behind for us to salvage. Constitutionalism, scientific inquiry, individual liberty, civil society, voluntarism, patriotism, parental authority, free expression, free enterprise, religious pluralism, cultural diversity—they are coming for everything. So national conservatism must come for them. We must forge a comprehensive policy agenda for Congress, the presidency, and the states to break apart the left's every source of funding and power. Not as an act of partisan retaliation but one of national survival. [emphasis added]
The Bovard speech was not a one-off. Many of the most popular speakers at the three-day conference in Miami returned to the same theme. "Imagine how quickly the political landscape would change," said Hillsdale College's David Azerrad, "if we had a core contingent of elected Republicans who were committed to using power to defund and humiliate the institutional centers of power of the left."
It was Azerrad who, in 2020, provided an early articulation of what I've called "Will-to-Power Conservatism": "The right must be comfortable wielding the levers of state power," he wrote, and "using them to reward friends and punish enemies (within the confines of the rule of law)."
That language has become a favorite talking point of Newsweek opinion editor (and fellow NatCon III attendee) Josh Hammer, who has repeatedly adopted it in his own tweets and writings—including a column this year that kicked up a storm online. After critics pointed out that using government to "reward friends and punish enemies" is generally considered to run afoul of the rule of law by definition, Newsweek silently altered the sentence to call instead for "the rewarding of good and the punishing of evil." When that was noticed, Newsweek appended an editor's note to the article defending the change on the grounds that Hammer views the two phrases as "substantively…interchangeable."
But even phrases like "using political power…to reward friends and punish enemies" may seem a bit nebulous. What, concretely, do the natcons propose? The answers are illuminating: In her speech, Bovard explicitly urged conservatives to use the government to break up tech companies, tax the endowments of left-wing universities, impose trade barriers, build a border wall, and increase the size of the child tax credit.
In a "primer" on national conservatism released on the heels of the conference, Hammer called for "a temporary full immigration moratorium" to "drastically reduce legal immigration from its current levels"; for "vigorous antitrust enforcement against, and common carrier regulation for," banks and social media companies that discriminate against conservative viewpoints; and for a national industrial policy.
NatCon speakers also voiced support for laws of a religious nature, including conference organizer Yoram Hazony's insistence on getting God back into our schools—or as Hammer put it in his primer, "the American public square should overtly reflect God and the teachings of the Bible and Scripture."
Such calls to embrace government power were front and center at NatCon III. But there were also many blander academic presentations and even some thoughtful admonitions against conservative overreach, such as Fr. Benedict Kiely's comment that "where nationalism can go wrong…is if the good of one's own nation alone is pursued without regard for the rights of others." One question I had throughout the event was the extent to which the most bombastic voices represented the average natcon sympathizer.
The crowd's ebullient response to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, though, at least suggests an answer. DeSantis, arguably the frontrunner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, has been a champion of using the power of the state against individuals and businesses. From his keynote address at the conference:
We were the first state or one of the first to ban so-called vaccine passports, the idea that you have to show proof of a COVID shot to be able to participate in society. And there were some conservatives that said, "Yeah, well, government shouldn't do a vaccine passport, but if a private business wants to do it, what's wrong with that?" Well, I'll tell you what's wrong with that. An individual has a right to participate in society. And we're not just going to sit idly by….
We also were one of the first states to provide protections for all employees in Florida, not just government employees, against employer-imposed COVID shot mandates. Our view is very simple: No Floridian should have to choose between a job that they need and a shot they do not want. And that's the same if you're a police officer at a municipality, if you work for the state government, or if you work for the biggest corporations in the state of Florida.
The idea that the government may stop companies and organizations from setting the terms under which they will do business because other people have "a right to participate in society" is, of course, the same argument that leftists have trotted out to justify crackdowns against Christian wedding vendors that do not wish to participate in gay marriage celebrations and against religious schools that expect job candidates not to openly flout tenets of the faith. Yet conservatives have long argued that private property and free association do, or at the very least should, broadly protect employers' rights.
A free society must respect people's freedoms even when lots of other people dislike how they're used. Fortunately, abiding by that bargain will tend to produce a rich and diverse marketplace where people have the space to experiment with different business practices and consumption decisions.
DeSantis has proven his willingness to wield government power to punish political dissent and pre-empt choices he does not like. Despite that (or perhaps, as I suspect, because of it) NatCon III attendees were in fits of adulation over his speech. The will to power ran deep in Miami.