What if Donald Trump has unleashed more powerful forces than we realize? More extreme than January 6, more dangerous than stolen classified documents or the MAGA cult?
To delve into the existential threat posed by the reactionary movement known as national conservatism, I’m joined on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast by William Galston. Galston holds an endowed chair at the Brookings Institutions’s Governance Studies Program. A participant in six presidential campaigns, he served as deputy assistant for domestic policy to President Bill Clinton.
Galston explains how very different the tenets of national conservatism are from the beliefs of traditional conservatives. He describes this new and extreme movement as an organized counter-revolutionary force that wants to harness the full power of government to defend against what it sees as the inroads of immigation, cultural liberalism, globalization, and the activities of transnational corporations. In their drive to establish Christianitiy’s primacy as a state religion, they look to Hungary’s authoritarian leader Viktor Orbán as a hero of their cause.
At the third annual National Conservatism Conference in Miami last week — attended by three US senators, a couple of governors, and assorted billionaires — featured speakers assailed progressivism “not as a fever that will pass, but a cancer to be eradicated.” They warned: “If woke progressives prevail, Western civilization ends.”
Their agenda, Galston argues, is nothing less than an all-out attack on individual rights and on the ideas of equality and liberty that flow from the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution.
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(As a service to our readers, we provide transcripts with our podcasts. We try to ensure that these transcripts do not include errors. However, due to a constraint of resources, we are not always able to proofread them as closely as we would like and hope that you will excuse any errors that slipped through.)
Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. We are finding out that politics and the law are sometimes about separate ways of looking at the world. The law is often about the past. It’s about adjudicating events that have happened, laws that have been broken, and punishments that should be meted out in the public sphere, particularly with respect to Donald Trump. We see it playing out with January 6th, past tax violations, stolen documents, and the results of past elections.
Politics on the other hand is about what’s ahead. It’s about how imagining, defining, and enacting policy and laws will shape our individual and collective future. While we’ve all been focused on the law of late, many have missed the political discussions taking place on the far right under the moniker of national conservatism, a set of ideas and potential policies that pull together all the forces that Trump has unleashed. This is more than just traditional populism. It’s a set of ideas that bear little resemblance to traditional conservatism. It’s an intellectual framework that does nothing short of turn back every idea from the enlightenment to the evolution of America since the 1950s.
Not to take anything away from the legal proceedings that are currently underway with respect to Trump, the forces that he has unleashed as voiced in the gathering of national conservatives last week, which included over 100 speakers, 23 panels, and three US senators, governors, and billionaires, are where our eyes should be focused. We’re going to talk about that today with my guest William Galston.
William Galston holds a chair in the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies Program, where he serves as a senior fellow. He was the Saul Stern professor and acting dean at the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, and director of the Institute of Philosophy and Public Policy, as well as founding chair of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.
He’s been a participant in six presidential campaigns, and served as deputy assistant to President Clinton for Domestic Policy. He’s the author of nine books and more than 100 articles. One of his most recent articles deals with the issue of national conservatism and appeared recently in the Persuasion substack. It is my pleasure to welcome Professor William Galston here to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. Bill, thanks so much for joining us.
William A. Galston: Sure. My pleasure.
Jeff: Well, it’s great to have you here. How long has this idea of national conservatism as something we can define and name, how long has it been around?
William: National conservatism is between three- and four-years-old. It was founded, at least as a formal organization, principally by an Israeli political philosopher born in America but who went to Israel many years ago with the name of Yoram Hazony. He made a splash a few years ago with his book, The Virtue of Nationalism, and he has now bookended that with an even weightier tome entitled, if memory serves, Conservatism: A Rediscovery. And you put those together, you have the national conservative creed, which has been reduced to a statement of principles that many hundreds of people have signed.
The basic idea is that we have gone fundamentally wrong as a society and as a civilization, because we have tried to build on the foundation of enlightenment ideas, the kinds of abstract principles that we encounter, for example, in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence.
Hazony is fundamentally critical of all such principles, and he’s particularly critical of what he calls liberal principles, liberal in the political and philosophical sense, not the political sense, on the grounds that they lead to an atomization of society, a destruction of tradition, and a fundamental forgetting of what makes us human as a species, which is our communal life framed by a single religion which will shape our public as well as our private lives.
Jeff: How much of this emerged as a way to take advantage of the forces that Trump has unleashed? The idea of the populism that started to rise up, and taking advantage of that with respect to the culture war issues that we have seen percolating for so long, and this became a kind of ideological framework to incorporate all of that?
William: It’s that and more. Hazony and other leaders of the movement such as political theorists, Patrick Deneen from Notre Dame, have taken advantage of a fraught moment, and I don’t fault them for this, to put forward an interpretation of what they regard as a crisis, a moment of crisis requires, in order to repair our country, and even more grandly the world. And this is a traditional function of intellectuals, indeed of political philosophy, to seize moments of crisis as Thomas Hobbes did, for example, while the rubble of the English Civil War was still bouncing, and turn it into a novel doctrine or outlook which can then be used to reshape practical life.
Jeff: In many ways, this bears little resemblance to traditional Burkean conservatism. Talk about that.
William: I think that many of them regard themselves as disciples of Burke. There’s a raging debate as to how faithful they are to Burke’s deepest intentions, whether Burke rejected principles to the same extent as they do. There’s no question about the fact that Burke’s opposition to the French Revolution was animated by what he regarded as dangerous abstract principles that were being used to establish every vestige of the old order, and Burke didn’t believe that you could practice that Etch a Sketch politics, where you just erased the old order and replaced it with something different.
There is a certain irony here because you could well argue that the principles of the Declaration of Independence are not just words on paper, but they are at the heart of our national tradition, and so I think you can make a compelling Burkean argument that for that reason, if no other, one ought to be respectful of that tradition. But the national conservatives, I think, have larger ambitions. They want to replace those founding principles with a different interpretation of the US tradition, which they argue is a direct descendant of a strand of English conservatism that does not rely on natural rights or the Enlightenment way of thinking about the world.
So, I don’t think strictly speaking their approach is Burkean. They appeal to Burke, but I think a sound appeal to Burke would lead them to great different conclusions.
Jeff: Certainly it is far afield from any conservative instinct for moderation that we might have seen in the past. It’s almost revolutionary in its fervor.
William: Yes. Well, I think they believe that moderation in the pursuit of virtue is no virtue, that this is a moment of crisis, and moments of crisis require strong responses, not timid incrementalism. And I would say the spirit of national conservatism is not conservative, it’s revolutionary, or to put it more accurately, counterrevolutionary. They believe that there has been a revolution in American society, that it has fundamentally transformed our order, and that a counterrevolution is needed in order to get the society back on course, and in effect to put it on new foundations.
Jeff: One of the ideas that was put forth by so many of the speakers at this conference last week, and that we hear over and over again, and seems to run counter to what we think of as conservatism, is a huge role for the federal government, and even state governments particularly, in pushing back and using its power to institute some of these ideas.
William: That is correct. You could describe national conservatism as libertarianism with a minus sign. Libertarians claim to be, and to some extent are, in favor of very limited government in both the economic and cultural spheres. National conservatives are in favor of strong government in both the economic and cultural spheres. They want strong government in the economy to protect and build up national industries.
They are anti-globalist both as an economic strategy and as a way of thinking. And in the realm of culture, they believe that the dominant cultural institutions have fallen so completely under the sway of people they refer to as woke progressives that only in application of political power will suffice to purify our culture and restore it to a more conservative and moral and religious condition.
Jeff: Talk about how far they want to push government power in these areas.
William: There is a very interesting conversation going on among nationalists who are thinking about the economy. Some appeal to Alexander Hamilton’s report on manufacturers, as the urtext for the idea that the federal government, and to some extent the state government, should be actively involved in promoting certain industries and in protecting them against foreign competitions, certainly until they’re strong enough to stand on their own, and indefinitely if foreign countries are in the steady business of subsidizing their own industries and trying to wipe out ours.
And that is not only a live argument, I think it’s a necessary argument. I note with interest that both political parties are moving back from the kind of unfettered global thinking that characterized the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century up until the financial crisis. It’s in the sphere of culture, I think, that the shift is both more dramatic and more dangerous.
The founding principles of the national conservative movement, this statement signed by hundreds of people, declares flatly that where there is a majority religion in the country, that that religion ought to be the public religion of the country, which is a roundabout way of saying that they reject the establishment clause of the US constitution. They believe that there ought to be an established religion, and that minorities should enjoy some carved out space for their own practices, but that the public mores of the society ought to be dictated by the religious majority, if there is one. That is revolutionary.
Jeff: How do they frame that with respect to things like individual rights, which they seem to be opposed to? It’s more than just the cultural side. I mean, as you’ve alluded to before, their opposition seems to be to the very liberal tradition upon which much of our society has grown around.
William: That is correct. And Hazony and his colleagues and followers say very frankly that the entire tradition based on liberal thought is a mistake, so they do not accept as a philosophical matter, or as a practical matter, the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, “All men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.” They stumble at that threshold.
The rights that we have, they say, are embedded in traditions, and can differ from time to time and country to country, and so the entire way of thinking about abstract rights as ways of not only judging a society but improving it, that entire way of thought, they believe, is a philosophical mistake that leads to dangerous consequences when used as a tool of political practice.
Jeff: Talk about this gathering last week which attracted, not only the true believers with respect to national conservatism, but attracted political leaders from around the country.
William: Well, as I said in the article to which you referred, it attracted a number of US senators, including both senators from Florida and the omnipresent Josh Hawley from Missouri. It also attracted the governor of Florida, who at all probability will be the Republican presidential nominee if Donald Trump decides not to run, and there’s a chance that he will be the Republican nominee even if Donald Trump decides to run. So, he’s a pretty big deal.
And he not only came to the conference, but he delivered what was by conference standards, a stem-winding speech that went on for about 50 minutes. So, this movement is being taken seriously not just by other intellectuals but by serious politicians.
Jeff: What are the things, with respect to government power that we talked about before, is this push within this framework for anti-trust enforcement, and common carrier regulation, and more regulation of banks? How does that, and why does that fit into this framework? Explain that.
William: It fits into the framework because their argument is— and it’s based on this idea of a strong nation, that to have a strong nation, you need a strong economy. And in today’s world where other governments are backing their industries, and where we’re trying to create and nurture new ones that you simply can’t thrive as a country unless you’re prepared to make aggressive use of national power.
Now, this is one area, I would say, where national conservatism has points of overlap with other movements, including people who are very much on the other side of the aisle. And there are thinkers that I regard as sort of switch hitters who are prepared to take their ideas either to the populist nationalist wing of the Republican Party, or for what might be called the industrial policy wing of the Democratic Party.
And that is not the aspect of national conservatism that troubles me the most. I think those ideas are discussable. And not only that, they can be detached from the anti-liberal framework, in which they’re now embedded, because the idea of a government that acts strongly, when necessary, to protect industry and to foster economic growth is not the property of any one political party at this point.
It used to be the property of a faction within the Democratic Party, but as the threat from China — economic as well as military and diplomatic — has deepened, I think more and more people are willing to think in this manner, which is why, for example, on a bipartisan basis, a bill was passed just a few weeks ago to support and nurture a national semiconductor production capacity in the United States, and $50 billion was allocated for that purpose.
Jeff: One of the things that also seems to fall into this, and maybe it’s a clearer understanding of what we saw transpire during the pandemic, and particularly with regard to vaccines, but even scientific inquiry itself has come under siege from the national conservatives. Talk about that.
William: I think the ruckus over the right response to the pandemic has produced a moment of opportunity for people who are opposed to the status quo. I don’t think all members of the national conservative movement are anti-scientific, but they are skeptical about the role of expertise in public policy as opposed to what they would call common sense, prudence, the wisdom of ordinary people. That is a live argument and there are two sides to that argument.
I’m the son of a scientist; I deeply believe in the integrity and importance of the scientific enterprise but, as a public policy analyst, I have to acknowledge that the phrase, “Follow the science,” which was much in the air during the pandemic, is a little bit misleading because science by itself does not tell you what to do. It provides facts and causal understandings that can influence what you do, but at the end of the day, science, scientific findings, are embedded in a broader network of considerations that shape public policy.
There are trade-offs almost always when large matters of policy are at stake, and science doesn’t tell you how to make those trade-offs. Political argument and discussion is what ultimately determines what we do. I think it’s fair to say that public policy shouldn’t violate what we know to be scientifically true, but at the same time, there are many different policies that are consistent with scientific truths, and they can lead in very different directions.
Because the question, for example, of how you balance claims of individual liberty, or for that matter individual security, against public health are, in practice, very difficult ones.
Jeff: Where does their philosophy come down with respect to dissenters, with respect to political dissent?
William: They are, as their name suggests, strong believers in national unity. I have no reason to believe that that thinking would necessarily lead them to crack down on dissenters. But the argument from national unity has been used in other countries, and from time to time in this country, to suppress dissent. That was certainly the case during the First World War, where President Woodrow Wilson made very aggressive use of national power in order to quell the voices that he thought were in danger of undermining national morale, or even giving intellectual and political aid and comfort to the Germans.
So, it’s a perennial danger. I don’t want to keep accusing national conservatives of favoring things that they haven’t explicitly said.
Jeff: Yes, I bring it up because there are elements of it that we see in their kind of hero worship of Orbán in Hungary.
William: Well, that is true. Yes, that is true. They, of course, have an entirely different view of what’s going on in Hungary. They argue that Orbán came to power democratically and has remained in power democratically. That dissent is not suppressed in Hungary, which to some extent is true. But what Orbán has done is to achieve near complete government control over the press, which means, for example, political campaigns that his opponents have a hard time getting a hearing on national television. It is not a level playing field.
I don’t think a lot of individual dissenters are being thrown into Hungarian jails. Orbán is using the power of government to tilt the argument in his favor by capturing the institutions that are the major vehicles for public argument. So, it’s subtler than Vladimir Putin throwing dissenters in jail, what he’s done by the tens of thousands. But is it consistent with the norms of liberal democracy? No.
And not only has there been an attack on the press, there’s been an attack on educational institutions, forcing one major institution, Central European University, to shut down altogether and to move out of the country. He has captured what used to be an independent judiciary, which was. in Hungary as in many other places, a defender of individual rights and the rule of law.
Orbán is, I think, what he calls himself, a proponent of illiberal democracy. That means the unfettered power of majorities to override what in this country we would consider to be the inalienable rights of individuals. And it is, to steal a phrase from Tocqueville, it’s a form of soft despotism.
Jeff: Finally, there is this sense that so much of the rhetoric that comes out of this national conservative movement is Manichaean, that if they don’t succeed in what they’re trying to do, that it’s the end of civilization from their perspective.
William: That’s true, Jeff. They genuinely believe that we have reached a moment of civilizational crisis. They believe that liberalism, as traditionally understood, has led to progressivism as it’s now being practiced, that this progressivism recognizes no limits to individual freedom and autonomy. It denies all natural limits. It denies all moral limits in the name of unlimited liberation. They do not believe that a decent and moral society can exist on such foundations, or that a society that’s penetrated and shaped by these beliefs can long endure.
They are engaged in what I think they would acknowledge is a counter-cultural revolution. They do not believe in halfway measures. If you believe as they do, that liberalism leads to progressivism, and progressivism undermines all of the limits required for a decent society and for social order, then what choice do you have but to announce a crisis and to proceed on that basis?
Jeff: Professor William Galston, I thank you so much for spending time with us today.
William: My pleasure.
Jeff: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast, I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.