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On the Trail With Trumpism Without Trump

J.D. Vance, Jeff Sessions, and others broke bread with youngsters over the weekend, with nary an utterance of the “T” word.

To filch from Christopher Wallace: It was all a dream.

What for many attendees was a first conclave, especially in Washington, since the Before Times, those gathered could be forgiven for wondering whether they’d imagined the last 16 months, if not the last six years entirely. The worst of Covid-19 appeared over, but so did any sincere optimism around the future of Donald J. Trump.

Was it back to square one?

At the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s political economy conference in Alexandria, Virginia, over a twee weekend, a surly, nationalist-inclined speaker accused a Reaganite fellow panelist of a giving “a get-off-my-lawn speech.” That forever, would-be messiah of a better Grand Old Party—Marco Rubio of Florida—was on hand, too, for whatever reason, albeit virtually. A keynote speaker shopped the last president to sleep through his administration as the exemplar of good government, and that Reaganite’s advice to the gathered was simple: machete state spending, and “a thousand flowers will bloom.”

Hearing all this, and after reading that Joe Biden, John Kerry, Susan Rice, Jen Psaki, Jake Sullivan, Janet Yellen, Ron Klain, and Antony Blinken, and on and on, were who controlled the city across the river, one could be forgiven for making the assumption it was the heady days of 2015 again, before, as it’s said, a New York mogul made anime real.

One major distinction: With the important exception of foreign policy, if this was 2014’s “Libertarian moment,” it was only such that speakers so ideologically inclined could have used security to be escorted from the building. “The libertarians are not sending their best,” remarked one attendee. At least this joke was a marker of time’s passing.

There were more.

A year after unprecedented state mandates over personal behavior, the clear mood in the air was of an imperative to seize the commanding heights, not smash them. If nothing else had been achieved by a surprise Republican White House, the riff of its once-chief strategist seemed a little prescient: We are all Leninists now.

A “childless left”-wing, now America’s nerve center, has no “physical commitment to the future of” the United States, alleged another man made famous by the tumult of a half-decade ago—J.D. Vance. Somewhat mischievously, the aspirant senator from Ohio proposed giving children the franchise, with parental control of their vote.

In response, fresh off putting the deep freeze for a summer on all discussion of very real millennial disadvantages by complaining that he somehow can’t afford two bedrooms in Washington on over two hundred grand, a man with a name one might think would cause him to just go ahead and take a pass on all natalism discussions entered the chat. Chasten Buttigieg, husband of the transportation secretary, called Vance “tactless” on Monday.

If Vance’s critics are right, that his strategy is to ape Trump’s panache for provocation for personal advantage, then the Ohioan evidently doesn’t have to try that hard. His pseudo-proposal was swiftly assailed as “white nationalism” by his critics, putting aside the quick glance at U.S. demographics at present it would take to show that Vance’s idea would actually relatively disempower whites, to say nothing of the fact that Vance’s own biracial family is not exactly compliant with the Nuremberg blood and honor laws.

At dinner, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whose own ascent to power was dogged by dubious, plausibly wholly fabricated accusations of prejudice, told me that his most pressing concerns were regret over the U.S. prosecution of the war on terror, and credit card interest rates. He expanded on this at length in comments publicly the following day, affirming Rubio’s sentiment that the old order had totally broken down, and lavishing praise on Vance.

It was this energy that led some attendees to compare the event to “NatCon I,” that is the July 2019 National Conservatism Conference, referred to in Alexandria almost like it was Woodstock I. In his seminal piece in Harper’s magazine on the event, Thomas Meany wrote:

Here were a few people…. of whom it was whispered: “Future president, right there”; It had been said of J. D. Vance, who managed to conjure a world that was almost palatable to liberals. Vance was careful about his gender roles, and even gave evidence that suggested he had experience changing diapers. It had been said of Tucker Carlson that he would be even better than Trump as a White House personality. But it was Josh Hawley over whom the crown most plausibly hovered.

Politics is a fast-moving, contact sport, and things will change. But perhaps Meaney would have been more prescient to emphasize the first name he listed. Carlson has evinced a seeming ironclad commitment to television that has chilled presidential chatter in recent months. And Hawley’s Machiavel misfire on January 6 has cost him, even among conservatives. Judging by the crowd, the “it girl”—if that joke can be made in this era—is now Vance.

Time will tell if he can continue to thread the needle, as one name went basically unmentioned all weekend: Trump’s. If he knew what “national conservatism” was, the former president would surely be displeased.

If Vance is the much-hoped-for avatar of “Trumpism without Trump” than a principal Senate race opponent, Josh Mandel, may as well be Trump without Trump. Mandel is running a campaign almost solely focussed on alleged voter fraud, to exclusion of details on other issues, and apparently proudly so.

Meanwhile, the immigration restrictionist, old-lefty writer Mickey Kaus has affirmed his own presidential hopes for Vance in recents week. At the same time, Kaus’s pal, the foreign policy YouTube host and veteran journalist Robert Wright, has expressed concerns that the voter fraud narrative put out by Trump and his proxies is the crucible, and that Vance has not condemned, but rather subtly propagated it. For much of the country, it remains unseen if Wright is right, morally—and, for those concerned about strict power, politically.

But for the moment, a dream continues, with sold out seats to hear a Hillbilly speak.

about the author

Curt Mills is a contributing editor at The American Conservative, where he previously served as senior reporter. He specializes in foreign policy and campaign coverage and has worked at The National Interest, U.S. News and World Report, Washington Examiner, and the Spectator, and his work has appeared in UnHerd and Newsweek. He was a 2018-2019 Robert Novak Journalism fellow.

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