Nationalists Claim They Want to Redefine Conservatism, but They’re Not Sure What It Is

A February gathering in Rome outlined a muddled vision for the future, claiming the mantle of Ronald Reagan and St. John Paul II while indulging the far-right.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban delivers his annual state of the nation speech in front of Fidesz party members.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban delivers his annual state of the nation speech in front of Fidesz party members in Budapest, Hungary, on Feb. 16. Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images

“Let’s go back to 1989,” said Christopher DeMuth, a former official in the Reagan administration, as he introduced Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the guest of honor at the National Conservatism conference held in Rome on Feb. 3-4 before the coronavirus ravaged Italy. It was a way to invite Orban to recount his remarkable political career, but it could have been the subtitle of the whole conference, underlining the official title: “God, Honor, Country: President Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and the Freedom of Nations.” Never mind that the guest of honor has been rolling back the freedom of Hungarians in recent years—and since the conference has secured the authority to rule by decree.

The two-day summit—which gathered some of the most prominent conservative intellectuals and political leaders of the nationalist persuasion—was replete with nostalgia. Heartfelt appeals for the restoration of a supposedly golden age before the end of the Cold War rang out in the baroquely frescoed hotel hall, where speakers alternated on stage to articulate their slightly diverging brands of conservatism.

The era they were evoking predated the most aggressive phase of globalization: George H.W. Bush’s new world order, the European Union’s Maastricht Treaty, NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe, the introduction of the euro, and other elements of a 30-year process of rapid globalization that the nationalists loathe.

Social conservatives and traditionalists were represented by speakers like Rod Dreher, a writer for the American Conservative, and the Italian historian Roberto de Mattei, a traditionalist Catholic. De Mattei spoke about the “dictatorship of relativism,” a phrase made famous by Pope Benedict XVI before being elected to the papacy that is described as a system that doesn’t recognize anything as definitive and “whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.”The era they were evoking predated the most aggressive phase of globalization.

National conservatives gravitate around these types of moral absolutes. Even the French politician Marion Maréchal could be included in that loosely defined category. The 30-year-old distanced herself at the conference from her aunt Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French far-right party National Rally, striving to represent a smarter, more intellectually inclined branch of conservatism, one that chastises transhumanism while hailing “integral ecology” as a quintessentially conservative cause. The notion of integral ecology claims that climate change and unfair economic and social practices—societal problems more often associated with the left—are seen not as distinct problems but as a dimension of a single crisis affecting our age.

DeMuth, the former Reagan speechwriter Clarke Judge, the former U.S. diplomat G. Philip Hughes, and John O’Sullivan, currently the head of the Danube Institute in Budapest—a think tank with ties to Orban’s government—were the Cold War warriors representing the old Reagan consensus. Leaders of far-right parties from across Europe such as Spain’s Vox, Alternative for Germany, the Netherlands’s Forum for Democracy, Poland’s Law and Justice, the Sweden Democrats, and Brothers of Italy expressed the European right-wing element.

The presence of younger speakers of the generation, such as Maréchal, the Dutch politician Thierry Baudet, and the British author Douglas Murray, could hardly overcome the sense that the leaders convened were mostly envisioning the future by looking in the rearview mirror.

The United Kingdom’s formal departure from the European Union in January was widely hailed as the latest step toward the resurrection of a pre-1990s world order organized around the principle of national sovereignty and rooted in the loyalty of local communities. The first step was the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president, and although some of the speakers would be uncomfortable wearing Make America Great Again hats in public, the implicit belief they share is that Trump is the long-awaited dismantler of the liberal internationalist orthodoxy and embodies the resurgence of what they call national conservatism.

The national conservative crowd gathered for the first time in the summer of 2019 in Washington, D.C., in a conference organized by the Israeli philosopher and political theorist Yoram Hazony, whose widely criticized book The Virtue of Nationalism became the manifesto of the national conservative movement. Fox News host Tucker Carlson and then-U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton were among the main speakers at that event.The movement aims to redefine an older brand of conservatism that was ostensibly corrupted by the rules-based liberal order in the 1970s.

The Rome conference was the second step in Hazony’s effort to mobilize the “somewheres” against the “anywheres,” to use the British journalist David Goodhart’s terminology, referring to the perception that nationalists are rooted in a single homeland (somewhere), whereas the elite are more cosmopolitan with no spatial allegiances (anywhere). This is indicative of the movement’s wider effort to shift conservatism away from its internationalist tilt and to recentralize the importance of the nation-state.

To accomplish this, the movement aims to redefine an older brand of conservatism that was ostensibly corrupted by the rules-based liberal order in the 1970s and steered away from its original purpose of preserving a traditional version of national sovereignty. That change in direction produced, among other things, a U.S. expansionist foreign policy, increasing reliance on international organizations, cultural homogeneity, misplaced faith in the free market ideology, and an aggressively individualistic outlook captured in Margaret Thatcher’s famous adage “There is no such thing as society.” National conservatives, in contrast, want to return to a world order in which nation-states are the primary actors and based on the belief that human beings are mutually dependent on national communities that are ultimately bound by shared values, culture, and history.

But this broad set of objectives makes it difficult to understand why the Rome conference was themed around former U.S. President Ronald Reagan and St. John Paul II, two late Cold War-era leaders who generally articulated the kinds of universalistic, global visions that nationalists wish to break from.

Indeed, Reagan spoke throughout his entire political life of the United States as the “shining city upon a hill,” a beacon of freedom for all mankind whose values could and should be exported globally. He reinvigorated the tradition of American exceptionalism, described the struggle against the Soviet Union in moralistic terms, praised international institutions like the United Nations as forces for good, and emphasized individualism and free market capitalism. No one doubts that Reagan was a nationalist, but his version of nationalism was colored with a decidedly internationalist outlook.

John Paul is a source of pride in Polish nationalist circles due in part to the close association between Catholicism and Polish national identity but also because of the lead role he played in helping the country regain a more genuine form of independence in the 1980s. But the institution John Paul led was defined by its international scope and universal values—the Catholic Church’s institutions disregard national borders, and the values it champions are thought to apply to every community, nation, society, and culture. After all, the kingdom of God has no national borders, and historically the Catholic Church mostly expressed its earthly power politically in the form of empire. The relatively few attempts to marry Catholicism and nationalism often resulted in heresies, violence, or some combination of the two.

The democratic government in Poland that John Paul’s activities helped establish spent little time in nationalist isolation at the end of the Cold War, and it moved almost immediately into the U.S.-dominated liberal internationalist order. It began pushing to join the European Union as early as February 1991, and it expressed interest in joining NATO shortly thereafter.

This nostalgic impulse hardly fits in with the nationalist vision, though Hazony tries to justify the behavior of the 1980s generation of nationalists by arguing that their forays into internationalism were always brief and undertaken purely for practical reasons. “The only military operation Reagan ordered during his presidency was the invasion of Grenada, which lasted for less than a week,” Hazony told Foreign Policy, adding that he considered Reagan “the last U.S. president for whom a world organized around nation-states was the default setting.” In his view, it was Bush’s new world order that changed the game for nationalists.

But Hazony conceded that Reagan’s vision contained “a lot of Aynrandism,” a nod to the philosophy of Ayn Rand, who argued that individuals were heroic beings solely preoccupied with their own happiness and with reason as the only absolute. That claim got harsh treatment on a stage filled with critics of free market excesses and neoliberal atomization. On John Paul, Hazony brushed it off, conceding that he’s “not an expert on popes.”Reagan and his generation of nationalists serve only as a base for national conservatives.

The political alliance that Reagan cobbled together consisted of a fusion of social conservative, traditionalist, and a variety of libertarian inclinations. Of course, Reagan and his generation of nationalists serve only as a base for national conservatives. Hazony’s goal is to develop a more modern fusionism that would remove the “excesses of purist libertarianism” while retaining the elements of the Reagan alliance that promote national sovereignty; at the same time, it would build alliances with populist European forces specialized in lambasting the EU and demonizing immigrants from Muslim-majority countries while standing “in stark opposition to political theories grounded in race.” Thus, in addition to formulating their political theses around ideas of nationality and values, the national conservatives also include ideas about race, culture, and religion to define their outlooks.

During last year’s conference in Washington, nods to white supremacism sparked furious reactions. Notably, the University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax said the United States is “better off if we are dominated numerically … by people from the First World, from the West, than by people who are from less advanced countries.” Among Europeans, the connections of at least some of the political partners with the darker chapters of far-right history have generated heavy criticism.

“Certainly some of those who were present are from parties which have far-Right pasts and other new parties who may well be a cause for concern in the present,” Murray, the British author, wrote after speaking at the most recent conference.

Murray singled out some outright neo-fascist groups like Jobbik in Hungary, Golden Dawn in Greece, and CasaPound in Italy, which are not necessarily part of the national conservatism network but whose presence still poses a larger question: Where is the threshold between acceptable nationalist parties and post-fascist groups?

Brothers of Italy, for instance, is the heir of the post-fascist party Italian Social Movement, which emerged after World War II. Although today’s party is the result of several waves of reform and rebranding—and is now a significant challenge to Matteo Salvini’s control of the populist voting base—some of its darker features sometimes become public. Last year, the party circulated a poster criticizing George Soros, who made a donation to a liberal, pro-EU party in Italy. It said, “Keep the money of the usurers,” a reference to an old anti-Semitic trope.

“I am very glad this initiative is led by an Orthodox Jew, as I hope this would preserve its focus and keep away the unsavory people who may be attracted to it,” one of the speakers at the Rome conference told Foreign Policy, referring to Hazony and asking not to be named to speak freely.Although national conservatism isn’t inherently xenophobic, it offers a useful paradigm for far-right groups.

Although national conservatism isn’t inherently xenophobic, it offers a useful paradigm for far-right groups who define their conception of the nation-state based on race, religion, and identity. As conservatives begin to reincorporate a strong nationalist element into their own political philosophies, this gives space to far-right groups to project their identitarian tendencies to a broader and more receptive audience. Because those groups tend to be more rigid and uncompromising, an authoritarian tendency seeps into the broader national conservative framework.

Critics, however, see no difference between the far-right and national conservatism, considering the latter to be a thin scholarly veneer of respectability to a fundamentally xenophobic, bigoted, and fascist reactionary movement—an “intellectual facade” that claims Reagan and John Paul but appeals to leaders like Orban and Trump. According to this line of critique, national conservatism is not just disingenuous; it’s little more than an attempt to connect and organize right-wing populists across the West, similar to what former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon tried to do with his populist group, the Movement, in Europe.

Liberals and nationalists believe they are trapped in mirroring dystopias. For liberals, this new generation of nationalists is working toward a closed, authoritarian society akin to that which exists in George Orwell’s 1984; nationalists are convinced that liberals have already created Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. But for national conservatives, gaining legitimacy is the next crucial step in their quest to reshape contemporary conservatism.

In theory, national conservatism could offer a framework that appeals to the disparate network of right-wing elements that are disenchanted with the liberal world order that has come into being since the 1960s. As has happened in many parts of the world, the resulting groupings could eventually form well-organized political units that threaten liberal democracy from the inside. But if all this new vision has to offer is what was displayed in Rome—a vague sense of nostalgia, dubious affiliations, ideological confusion, Corinthian columns—then its future prospects are poor.

Mattia Ferraresi is the managing editor of the Italian newspaper Domani. Twitter: @mattiaferraresi

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