Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

David Brooks Among The National Conservatives

The pundit and social observer went to Orlando. What he saw is less interesting than what he didn't see
Screen Shot 2021-11-18 at 3.18.18 PM

At the National Conservatism conference in Orlando recently, I ran into my pal David Brooks. I was surprised to see him there. That wasn’t his crowd. He told me that he was writing about it for The Atlantic. Well, the piece is out today, and it’s about what you would expect, given David’s sensibilities and beliefs. The piece has good stuff, but also draws conclusions that I think are wrong. Here’s how the piece begins:

Rachel Bovard is one of the thousands of smart young Americans who flock to Washington each year to make a difference. She’s worked in the House and Senate for Republicans Rand Paul, Pat Toomey, and Mike Lee, was listed among the “Most Influential Women in Washington Under 35” by National Journal, did a stint at the Heritage Foundation, and is now policy director of the Conservative Partnership Institute, whose mission is to train, equip, and unify the conservative movement. She’s bright, cheerful, and funny, and has a side hustle as a sommelier. And, like most young people, she has absorbed the dominant ideas of her peer group.

One of the ideas she’s absorbed is that the conservatives who came before her were insufferably naive. They thought liberals and conservatives both want what’s best for America, disagreeing only on how to get there. But that’s not true, she believes. “Woke elites—increasingly the mainstream left of this country—do not want what we want,” she told the National Conservatism Conference, which was held earlier this month in a bland hotel alongside theme parks in Orlando. “What they want is to destroy us,” she said. “Not only will they use every power at their disposal to achieve their goal,” but they’ve already been doing it for years “by dominating every cultural, intellectual, and political institution.”

As she says this, the dozens of young people in her breakout session begin to vibrate in their seats. Ripples of head nodding are visible from where I sit in the back. These are the rising talents of the right—the Heritage Foundation junior staff, the Ivy League grads, the intellectual Catholics and the Orthodox Jews who have been studying Hobbes and de Tocqueville at the various young conservative fellowship programs that stretch along Acela-land. In the hallway before watching Bovard’s speech, I bumped into one of my former Yale students, who is now at McKinsey.

Bovard has the place rocking, training her sights on the true enemies, the left-wing elite: a “totalitarian cult of billionaires and bureaucrats, of privilege perpetuated by bullying, empowered by the most sophisticated surveillance and communications technologies in history, and limited only by the scruples of people who arrest rape victims’ fathers, declare math to be white supremacist, finance ethnic cleansing in western China, and who partied, a mile high, on Jeffrey Epstein’s Lolita Express.”

The atmosphere is electric. She’s giving the best synopsis of national conservatism I’ve heard at the conference we’re attending—and with flair! Progressives pretend to be the oppressed ones, she tells the crowd, “but in reality, it’s just an old boys’ club, another frat house for entitled rich kids contrived to perpetuate their unearned privilege. It’s Skull and Bones for gender-studies majors!” She finishes to a rousing ovation. People leap to their feet.

I have the sinking sensation that the thunderous sound I’m hearing is the future of the Republican Party.

Well, look, Bovard’s rhetoric here is not necessarily to my taste, but I mostly agree with her take, as David Brooks portrays her. I was a late arrival at NatCon, having been caught in the American Airlines flight cancellation debacle that weekend, so I missed most speeches, including Bovard’s. I’m only going on Brooks’s descriptions of them. If you were there, and heard something different, by all means correct me.

Brooks says there were three kinds of people at NatCon: conservative intellectuals over the age of 50 who have been mugged by wokeness, politicians (Cruz, Hawley, Rubio) who are trying to figure out how to adapt to this new populist era, and:

The third and largest strain is the young. They grew up in the era of Facebook and MSNBC and identity politics. They went to colleges smothered by progressive sermonizing. And they reacted by running in the other direction. I disagreed with two-thirds of what I heard at this conference, but I couldn’t quite suppress the disturbing voice in my head saying, “If you were 22, maybe you’d be here too.”

Brooks goes on:

The information age is transforming the American right. Conservatives have always inveighed against the cultural elite—the media, the universities, Hollywood. But in the Information Age, the purveyors of culture are now corporate titans. In this economy, the dominant means of economic production are cultural production. Corporate behemoths are cultural behemoths. The national conservatives thus describe a world in which the corporate elite, the media elite, the political elite, and the academic elite have all coagulated into one axis of evil, dominating every institution and controlling the channels of thought.

He’s overstating this a bit, but not by much. It’s what I believe — and I believe it because the evidence for it is overwhelming. I can’t for the life of me understand how an observer as acute as David Brooks can miss this. I know that David is more progressive on questions of race and sexuality than most conservatives, so perhaps he is less sensitive to this stuff than many of us. If you don’t see this as a serious problem, naturally the reaction of the NatCon conservatives is going to seem disproportionate.

I am working on a piece now about woke corruption of a major US institution, coming through the radicalization of the institution’s leadership. I have documents and videos. It is jaw-dropping stuff. And this is the sort of thing that happens in many places! Just now, I saw this interview clip from Joe Rogan in which a physician talks about the dean of a medical school asking a urologist — a urologist! — not to use the word “penis” in her lecture. (The video is NSFW because Rogan drops the f-bomb at the end):

Similarly — again, this is just from my Twitter feed in a narrow slice of time this morning — the great Abigail Shrier reports on clandestine indoctrination on gender ideology carried out by woke California schoolteachers. Excerpts:

Last month, the California Teachers Association (CTA) held a conference advising teachers on best practices for subverting parents, conservative communities and school principals on issues of gender identity and sexual orientation. Speakers went so far as to tout their surveillance of students’ Google searches, internet activity, and hallway conversations in order to target sixth graders for personal invitations to LGBTQ clubs, while actively concealing these clubs’ membership rolls from participants’ parents.

Documents and audio files recently sent to me, and authenticated by three conference participants, permitted a rare insight into the CTA’s sold-out event in Palm Springs, held from October 29-31, 2021. The “2021 LGBTQ+ Issues Conference, Beyond the Binary: Identity & Imagining Possibilities,” provided best practices workshops that encouraged teachers to “have the courage to create a safe environment that fosters bravery to explore sexual orientation, gender identity and expression,” according to the precis of a talk given by fifth grade teacher, C. Scott Miller.

Several of the workshops advised teachers on the creation of middle school LGBTQ clubs (commonly known as “Gay-Straight Alliance” clubs or “GSA”). One workshop—“Queering in the Middle”—focused “on what practices have worked for successful middle school GSAs and children at this age developmentally.”


On the audio recording, Baraki and Caldeira explain that they give an anti-bullying school presentation every year. “Let me assure you that the presentation that we gave was 100 percent age appropriate. Literally, definitions: ‘If someone is gay, it is a man who is attracted to another man.’ Right? ‘If somebody is a lesbian, it is a female attracted to another female.’ Literally, gave them definitions. We also covered religious differences, race, cultural backgrounds, family status poverty—everything that is listed in the Parents’ Rights handbook, we covered. That is not what kids went home and told their parents, though,” Caldeira said.

There was parent backlash; Caldeira and Baraki learned from the experience: “Next year, we’re going to do just a little mind-trick on our sixth graders. They were last to go through this presentation and the gender stuff was the last thing we talked about. So next year, they’ll be going first with this presentation and the gender stuff will be the first thing they are about. Hopefully to mitigate, you know, these kind of responses, right?” Baraki can be heard telling the teacher audience. Parents who oppose this material being taught to their sixth graders will find that their objections arrive too late.

A conference attendee told me that Baraki then directed the participants’ attention to a parent email objecting to the presentation. The parent had written that she had not intended to have a conversation with her middle schooler about sexual orientation and gender identity, but the school presentation forced her hand. Baraki mocked the parent to her audience: “I know, so sad, right? Sorry for you, you had to do something hard! Honestly, your twelve-year-old probably knew all that, right?”

One parent objected so strenuously that the principal “invited them to take their child to a private school that more aligns with them,” Caldeira can be heard to say. “So that was a win, right? We count that as a win.” Then, Caldeira added: “Plus, I hate to say this, but thank you CTA—but I have tenure! You can’t fire me for running a GSA. And so, you can be mad, but you can’t fire me for it. CTA has made it very clear that they are devoted to human rights and equity. They provide us with these sources, these resources and tools.”

There’s plenty more, so read it all. Shrier has the documents and audio clips provided by a whistleblower.

The inability or the refusal for mainstream media figures to recognize this stuff is happening everywhere, and to grasp why it infuriates parents and destroys trust in institutions (like schools, and like newspapers and magazines that won’t report it), has a lot to do with the anger Brooks saw at NatCon.

This from Brooks identifies the core ideological conflict at NatCon:

Some of the speakers at the conference were in fact classical liberals, who believe in free speech, intellectual debate, and neutral government. Glenn Loury gave an impassioned speech against cancel culture, the illiberal left, and the hyper-racialized group consciousness that divides people into opposing racial camps. Loury asserted that as a Black man he is the proud inheritor of the great Western tradition: “Tolstoy is mine! Dickens is mine! Milton, Marx, and Einstein are mine!” He declared that his people are Black, but also proudly American. “Our Americanness is much more important than our Blackness,” he said, before adding, “We must strive to transcend racial particularism and stress universality and commonality as Americans.” This is the classical-liberal case against racial separatism and in favor of integration.

But others argued that this sort of liberalism is a luxury we cannot afford. The country is under assault from a Marxist oligarchy that wants to impose its own pseudo-religious doctrine. If you try to repulse that with pallid liberalism, with weak calls for free speech and tolerance, you’ll end up getting run over by those who possess fanatical zeal, economic power, and cultural might.

And, after quoting my talk about Viktor Orban, the democratically elected prime minister of Hungary, and how he has legally used the power of the state to push back against left-liberal power centers, Brooks writes:

This is national conservatism pursued to its logical conclusion: using state power to break up and humble the big corporations and to push back against coastal cultural values. The culture war merges with the economic-class war—and a new right emerges in which an intellectual cadre, the national conservatives, rallies the proletarian masses against the cultural/corporate elites. All your grandparents’ political categories get scrambled along the way.

That’s a pretty good summary of what NatCon is after. Here’s an excerpt of Brooks’s summary critique:

The NatCons are wrong to think there is a unified thing called “the left” that hates America. This is just the apocalyptic menace many of them had to invent in order to justify their decision to vote for Donald Trump.

They are wrong, too, to think there is a wokeist Anschluss taking over all the institutions of American life. For people who spend so much time railing about the evils of social media, they sure seem to spend an awful lot of their lives on Twitter. Ninety percent of their discourse is about the discourse. Anecdotalism was also rampant at the conference—generalizing from three anecdotes about people who got canceled to conclude that all of American life is a woke hellscape. They need to get out more.

Furthermore, if Hazony thinks America is about to return to Christian dominance, he’s living in 1956. Evangelical Christianity has lost many millions of believers across recent decades. Secularism is surging, and white Christianity is shrinking into a rump presence in American life. America is becoming more religiously diverse every day. Christians are in no position to impose their values—regarding same-sex marriage or anything else—on the public square. Self-aware Christians know this.

Finally, there is something extremely off-putting about the NatCon public pose. In person, as I say, I find many of them charming, warm, and friendly. But their public posture is dominated by the psychology of threat and menace. If there was one expression of sympathy, kindness, or grace uttered from the podium in Orlando, I did not hear it. But I did hear callousness, invocations of combat, and whiffs of brutality.

Read the whole piece. 

You know, or should know, that I love and respect David, but I think he is seriously mistaken here (except about the return to Christian dominance thing; unfortunately, that’s true). Again, I simply can’t comprehend the view that the woke Left, especially its stranglehold on elite institutions and networks, is largely a phantom. If David wants more anecdotes, he should read my in-box, as I hear constantly from people within all kinds of institutions who are dealing with this. Maybe he’s like proverbial frog who has been boiled too slowly to notice. I imagine that if you live in the Acela corridor, and socialize with professional elites there, you have already absorbed a lot of the woke ideas that so anger and horrify many of us.

I don’t know. I can’t read my friend’s mind, and I hope to talk to him about it sometime. I think, though, that there is a certain kind of American who genuinely — that is, without trying to be unfair — cannot comprehend what non-elites, or outsider elites like many at NatCon, are seeing. Or to be more precise, they can’t comprehend the alarm over it.

I mean, look, this is a tiny thing:

Tiny, but for this: why the hell should parents have to deal with a consumer brand propagandizing their children to doubt their masculinity and femininity? You could say: “Hey, don’t buy Kraft peanut butter.” Which is one response. But the broader point is that woke ideology is now in the air we breathe, and it attacks families via schools, via woke capitalism, even via woke peanut butter sandwiches. Again, this is a very small thing, but it symbolizes something much larger. To urbanites like David, it might seem like we are being unkind and uncaring about gender dysphoric kids. But to us, we are freaked out that this damn corporation has taken it upon itself to mess with our children’s heads on matters of sex and gender identity.

I do somewhat agree with David on the public posture — something that people have said about me before: that in person, I am charming and friendly, but in my public rhetoric, I am combative and alarmist. In my own case, I am so alarmist because a) I think there really are things worth being alarmed over, and b) because in a world where people are deaf, you have to shout to be heard. I’m guessing David hasn’t read Live Not By Lies, because its very premise no doubt strikes him as wildly overheated. I have mentioned here before that the book has sold very well, despite no mainstream media coverage, because it has had such good word of mouth. I was out in Colorado Springs yesterday taping some interviews at Focus On The Family, and I heard about the book the same thing I hear about it from people all over: that it explained what they have been dealing with in their own families, institutions, churches, social spheres, etc.

There is this really big thing happening in our country, and quite a number of journalists working for the leading news organizations are trying hard not to notice. It is interesting, as Brooks observed, that NatCon is divided between people who still identify in some sense with the classical liberal tradition, but who want to see it reformed, and those who want to trash the whole thing. I identify with the former, uneasily, but only because I can’t (yet) see a potential replacement that would have a chance of succeeding, and that would be so much better that it would be worth surrendering what we have. It would be nice if the two sides could talk to each other, and learn from each other, but that’s not what the burn-it-all-down side seems to want.

A much better piece of analysis about the NatCon world was Tanner Greer’s long essay from April about “the problem of the New Right”.  Excerpt:

There is no New Right catechism. Each man of the New Right has his unique obsessions. Yet there is a broad set of shared attitudes and policy prescriptions that draw New Righters in. The New Right likes to think of itself as a band of class warriors. Of tariffs and industrial policy, they are unequivocally in favor. Government economic intervention is to be lauded, if such intervention revitalizes the heartland and secures the dignity of the working-class man. Both tech companies and high finance are viewed with suspicion. New Right figures are the conservatives most likely to be calling for Section 230 reform and least likely to care about corporate tax rates. The New Right distrusts capital.

This is partly because capital has become woke, but there are deeper concerns: the New Right is a response to the loss of a way of life (or an imagined way of life, for the New Right’s younger legions have never experienced personally what they yearn for), and when they survey the causes of heartland malaise (the horrors of the opioid crisis, the despondency of the deindustrialized boomtown, and so forth) everywhere they find the wicked hand of avarice. They believe that America’s corporate class has subverted American culture and betrayed the American people. The problem with financiers, they say, is that they have no roots. The financier is a flighty being who cares for nothing but lucre. He will follow the gold-laced trail wherever on the globe it might take him.

“Globalist” is the favorite epithet for the New Right’s enemies. They hate meritocratic climbers whose motives and mores mirror those of urban professionals in London or Singapore, not those of “normal” Americans in Chattanooga or Cleveland. The fantastic rise of Chinese power is the most dramatic proof of the greed, hubris, and disloyalty of this globalized class. If the New Right type is hawkish at all, it will be hawkish on China (though for many their hawkishness has less to do with animus towards Chinese communism than in their hope that that economic and technological competition with Beijing will force Washington into the sort of reforms they seek). Otherwise, the New Right is against foreign adventuring. They admit the last thirty years of geopoliticking were a disaster; they want no more wars in the Middle East. They see those wars as an outgrowth of liberal internationalism, itself a bloody bastard-child of the dominant liberal ideology at home. This ideology is just as dangerous to the American people as America’s traitorous elites. The New Right’s first war is against ideas.

All true, I think — and there’s more. Greer has a pretty good handle on the strands of thought that make up the New Right. Where his article is a real contribution to understanding is when he brings culture into it. He bases his analysis on David Hackett Fischer’s great work Albion’s Seed, about how four distinct English folkways made America. You should read the whole Greer essay, but the gist of his critique is that the things that upset the New Rightists (of whom I am one) are not things that were core to the Founding, but aspects of culture that came over to America with the English colonists. They pre-date the Enlightenment, and have been with us since our beginning. For example:

This is the first problem with the New Right’s proposed post-liberal turn. They might, with Deneen, attack liberalism for “liberating all from the constraint of custom.” In Hungary, Poland, or some other country where liberalism is a foreign import, that charge has merit. But in America? In the United States liberalism is the constraining custom. The folkways that comprise America’s liberal regime are centuries older than America’s liberal constitution. It is not clear to me that commercialism, individualism, and so forth can be excised from the American mind. Short of a massive social engineering project, by what means could this be accomplished?

Take a look at this part, in which Greer points out that there was real, substantive diversity even among the English settler peoples:

Fischer does not study the folkway of the American people but the folkways of the American peoples. His central thesis is that America is, and always has been, a pastiche of nations. Four very separate cultures, with distinct and separate folkways, settled in America. To this day, Fischer maintains, these folkways (though somewhat changed by time and circumstance) shape American politics and society.

One of these four founding cultures were the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay. As my editor friend intuited, the “politics of the common good” that the New Right strives for aligns warmly with the Puritan’s communitarian conceptions of ordered liberty. I will return to these Puritan ideas in a moment, but to understand the challenge that faces the New Right we need to turn to one of America’s other founding nations.

The “backcountry” of the British colonies were settled by Scots-Irish immigrants from the borderlands of England and Scotland. The men and women who survived these war-torn marches did so through cultivating a reputation for savagery. The backcountryman put clan over community. Not for him was the New England township or the small groups of farmsteads that dotted the Delaware River Valley. Instead, backcountrymen spread their farms across the mountainsides, careful to build their cabins miles apart from those closest to them. The backcountryman honored strength and charisma, but had no respect for rank or hierarchy. Authority was weak in his world, and that is how he liked it. He rejected outsiders. He rejected the learning of the university men. The backcounty wrapped its patriotism in the imagery of rattlesnakes, hornet nests, and alligators; they did not invent the phrase “Don’t Tread on Me” but nowhere was it more popular than among America’s Scots-Irish migrants.

Patrick Henry was an early backcountry leader. Fischer’s reflections on Henry and his people’s view of liberty are worth excerpting at length:

The traveler Johan Schoepf was much interested in ideas of law and everybody which he found in the back country. “They shun everything which appears to demand of them law and order, and anything that preaches constraint. Altogether natural freedom is what pleases them.”

…[When] Patrick Henry was a member of the first Continental Congress, he startled that body by arguing that as a result of the passage of Parliament’s Intolerable Acts, “government is dissolved.” Henry insisted that “we are in a state of nature, Sir!” Congressmen from Pennsylvania and Massachusetts were as shocked is Virginia Burgesses had been [when they encountered Henry a decade earlier]. One described Patrick Henry as “in religious matters a saint; But the very devil in politics.”

…Patrick Henry’s ideas of natural Liberty were not learned from treaties of political theory. His idea of a “state of nature” was not the philosophical abstractions that it had been for Locke. Thomas Jefferson said of Patrick Henry with only some exaggeration that he “read nothing, and had no books.” Henry’s lawyer-biographer William Wert wrote, “of the science of law he knew almost nothing, of the practical law he was wholly ignorant. He was not only unable to draw declaration or a plea, but incapable, it is said, of the most common or a simple business of his profession, even the mode of ordering a suit, giving a notice, or making a motion in court.” Patrick Henry’s principles of natural Liberty were drawn from the political folkways of the border culture in which he grew up….

The libertarian phrases and thoughts which echoed so strongly in the back country had earlier been heard in the borders of North Britain. When the back country people celebrated the supremacy of private interests they used the same thoughts and words as William Cotesworth, an English borderer who in 1717 declared “you know how natural it is to pursue private interests even against the darling principle of a more general good.”

See these backcountrymen articulate the same liberal platitudes that the New Right detests! At one point in Liberty and Freedom Fischer even describes their conception of freedom with the words “liberty as individual autonomy.” This conception of freedom was developed without any knowledge of Enlightenment texts. Most of these 18th century pleasure-maximizing, autonomy-seeking egoists could not read.

Reading Greer, I immediately recognized the attitudes of the Scots-Irish who make up a big part of my own Deep South culture. (Interestingly, Fischer also writes about the Cavalier culture of the Tidewater and the Carolinas — a culture that contributed the planter elites in my own West Feliciana Parish. It’s why there’s a big Episcopal parish in West Fel, and nothing like it in East Fel, just across the creek.)

I want you to read the whole thing, but the heart of it is Greer’s conclusion that the New Right theorists (people like Patrick Deneen, Gladden Pappin, and Adrian Vermeule) are like the Puritans (not a slur — this is one of Fischer’s four English folk cultures), with their common good culture. The average Trump voters, though, have the consciousness of the Scots-Irish Borderland people. They aren’t liberal, necessarily, but they are naturally libertarian. One more quote from Greer:

In sociological terms, I suppose the best way to understand the New Right is as Puritan heretics. The Puritans were the most communitarian of Fischer’s four founding nations; their cultural descendants (found in places like Boston and Portland) are the Americans most willing to live for the Holy Cause today. Like the New Right, the left’s modern-day Puritans also lionize the Federalists and Whigs.[19] It makes sense, in a way. Most of the New Right’s leaders either come from or immersed themselves in Puritan milieus. The number of Ivy League degrees claimed by New Right thinkers is one proof of this. That Claremont is based in California—instead of, say, Texas—is another example of the phenomena. Yankee thinking seeps into the thought of those who long swim through it.

About a year ago I met with a young post-liberal who expressed a passionate loathing of everything American. American culture was not home to her. And how could it be? New England born, Ivy-educated, committed to the politics of the “common good” — here was a spiritual descendant of the Puritans if there ever was one. But of course all the other Puritans, whose religion now runs woke, would not have her. She has no place at their table. This outcast was instead forced into the other coalition, the coalition led by the raucous individualists of the backcountry tradition. Enemies of one’s enemies are friends they say, but tactical allies make poor bosom-mates. My post-liberal friend has no choice but to work for the living antitheses of her deepest convictions.

That is the problem of the New Right. I doubt most New Righters feel quite so alienated from the Trumpfolk they lead, but her problem is theirs. Pity the Whig who wishes to lead the Jackson masses! Spare a prayer for the post-liberal politico who must herd the backcountry crowd. The pillars of the New Right’s rising moral order are the most licentious and rebellious people in the nation. This is an unstable foundation for a post-liberal body politic if there ever was one.

I hadn’t realized until I read Greer that what I feel intuitively — that it is going to be very hard to convince Americans, even conservative, populist Americans, to abandon classical liberalism, because in some form, it is sedimented into our cultural bones.

Read all of Greer’s piece.

I’ll end with this: as much as I disagree with most of David Brooks’s essay, he makes me realize that we on the broad New Right/National Conservative coalition need to do a better job of talking with conviction about the things we love, as opposed to the things we hate.

UPDATE: I like Richard Hanania’s characterization of Abigail Shrier’s story:

I am so sick of this shit. I just can’t tell you how sick I am…



Want to join the conversation?

Subscribe for as little as $5/mo to start commenting on Rod’s blog.

Join Now