The National Conservatism Conference is not your father’s right-wing intellectual gathering. The three-day event’s lineup, which includes keynote lectures from three sitting U.S. senators, one Senate hopeful, and billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel, features the usual bookish lectures (“The Moral and Political Foundations of the Market Order,” “Pragmatic Empiricism and the American Founding”) and appearances by respectable professors (such as Joshua Mitchell, Carol Swain, Jason D. Hill) from conventional colleges (in their case: Georgetown, Vanderbilt, DePaul) alongside a smattering of in-group Internet references (“The Laptop from Hell and the New Censorship Regime”), obscure Twitter-speak (“Trads, Cads, and Radfems”), and unorthodox figures who would be out of place in the conservative intelligentsia’s traditional institutions. Speakers include the owner of the popular Christian comedy website The Babylon Bee, a Hollywood film director, multiple tech entrepreneurs, and even the president of a major labor union.
Who are the national conservatives? According to them, they’re the future of the conservative movement. If attendance numbers are any indication, their brand of conservatism is on the rise. Since the conference was first held in 2019 — its planned 2020 sequel was skipped because of COVID — the nationalist Right has continued to gain momentum, particularly with young, intellectually oriented conservatives. This year’s conference, held at the Hilton in Orlando, Fla., is buzzing with energy — and an unusually large number of attendees are under the age of 30.
David Brooks, oddly enough, is here. So is National Review’s Rich Lowry, and any number of other name-brand conservative writers, activists, think-tank and foundation presidents, and public intellectuals — not to mention Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz, and J.D. Vance. (Marco Rubio was supposed to speak this morning, but his flight was delayed.) But the Right isn’t alone in taking notice of this intellectual cohort: The woman at the press-pass table tells me that all of the major mainstream-media outlets — the New York Times, Bloomberg, Variety, Vanity Fair, and so on — have sent journalists to cover the conference this year. Many of these reporters, sitting in the press quarters with me, look distinctly uncomfortable — as if, on a casual trip to the zoo, they had suddenly found themselves on the animal’s side of the cage. But they are here because they need to be. The national conservatives are on the rise, and America’s elite institutions have started to notice.
There’s a reason that this year’s National Conservatism Conference is permeated by a sense of special gravity. In the wake of Donald Trump’s exit from the White House, the most consequential debate within the conservative movement is over the degree to which Trumpism — also referred to at varying intervals as nationalism, populism, the “New Right,” and any number of other political labels — is the GOP’s future. What that means, both in theory and in practice, is still somewhat nebulous. As with any fledgling political movement, Trumpism remains a vague and occasionally self-contradictory doctrine. Ironing that out is the central objective of conferences like this one.
That’s why there is such palpable excitement here at the Hilton Orlando. There is a sense that a whole new world of possibilities has opened up. Conference-goers are united by a broad feeling that something has gone horribly wrong in America, and in the West more broadly, over the course of the last few decades — a conviction that is particularly palpable among the mass of my young peers who have flown in from around the country to hear their intellectual heroes speak. But for many of these young right-wingers, national conservatism feels like an opportunity — finally — to do something about it.