The following is adapted from remarks delivered at the third National Conservatism Conference in Miami, Florida, on September 11, 2022.
I want to thank Dr. Hazony, Mr. DeMuth, and the other organizers of this conference for inviting me to speak. I have the unusual honor of having very recently been someone who felt incredible admiration for the people who speak from these stages and couldn’t imagine the terms under which I’d be invited to join them.
Circumstance is funny though, and for the past two years, my colleagues at American Moment and I have been given the opportunity to work tirelessly to take the ideas delivered from these stages and implement them in the halls of power.
We are to this day animated by fear and desire. A fear that these conversations could become an insular parlor game for intellectuals to entertain themselves—and a serious desire to make sure they are mainlined into the process by which the Republican Party, the conservative movement, the political right, and the great mass of millions of decent people in this country implement their will in public life.
We need to implement what is said here. And that’s what I’d like to talk to you about today.
Let’s take a step back and assess where the right stands in the three core centers of power in contemporary society.
In culture, the situation has been so dire for so long that it’s almost passe. Once, ordinary Christian families could make Hollywood submit to their censure when it tried to propagate some novel form of degeneracy. Cultural tastemakers felt the need to at least pretend to like the country, and their profit motive relied on a broad-based appeal to a domestic audience of normal people. Today, Hollywood regularly denigrates the country it relies on to exist, it panders to minority constituencies to stoke social division, it gives veto power to the communist Chinese, and its become so captured by parochial interests that it can’t even make decent movies anymore—reducing the attractive power of the American Way of Life.
In capital, we see the biggest own-goal of any political movement in recent world history. The Republican Party became the willing and eager handmaiden of corporate power over the last 30 years and barely got paid minimum wage for it. I’m not sure if an article precisely titled "The Social Conservative Case for Capital-Gains-Tax Cuts" was ever published somewhere, but even if it wasn’t intentionally written, one could be forgiven for worrying it might just spontaneously take form from the ether. By not only being willing corporate clients but developing elaborate intellectual justifications for the inherent, pre-political morality of Goldman Sachs, we completely lost any bargaining power we otherwise may have had with the largest companies the world has ever seen.
The way it works, you see, is that even if you’re a benign, conservative CEO, the only place in American life you see real risk is ire from the left. If they get angry at you, they will hurt you, you must take them seriously. If someone on the right is angry at you—fear not, they’re just going watch their elected officials preen on Fox News, fundraise a bit off of it, then dutifully pass your next tax cut, amnesty, or free trade agreement. As a result of the imbalance, Fortune 500 companies have hired millions of risk managers for the existential threat the left poses them. Most call these risk managers DEI employees, but make no mistake, they’re an insurance policy merited by the systematic failure of the right. The spigot of campaign contributions is drying up, corporations now wage virtue-signaling wars against red America, and the right has lost yet another organ of power in American life.
And finally, in government, the right faces its final test if it wants to avoid oblivion. We can win elections—especially if we actually run on something other than slashing Social Security and sending our base to die in foreign wars. But we don’t have a particularly good track record of doing much with power even if we get it. We’ve demonized civil service, so the administrative state and the career bureaucracy are the exclusive patronage outlet of the left. Even becoming a senator or member of Congress means prostrating oneself and claiming how terrible the job is and how quickly you intend on leaving the job after taking it. President Trump got elected on a platform of American greatness anew, but was unable to implement it because we didn’t have the people he needed to staff the political bureaucracy and get things done. That will never happen again: my friends and allies will spend every last moment of our energy ensuring that.
These problems have been diagnosed by many of you. The question is what comes next for people who want to right this imbalance of power.
First, I have no interest in conserving this status quo and neither should you. There is no place in this American moment for polite and orderly caretakers of American decline. I treasure the great tradition of the ancients as much as any of you, but there is little that a temperamental comfort with the status quo has to offer a movement fit to the task ahead.
Second, there is no unwinding this state of affairs cleanly to the status quo ante. Restorationist politics is essentially live-action role play. Personally, there is little that will change in the world around us by mustering the superhuman will to pantomime the lifestyle of an early 1900s sweet-potato farm. Politically, the consensus of generations past—which was often healthier than what we have today—relied on core assets we no longer have: broad religiosity, a smaller state, a less developed corporate superstructure, and most importantly a level of technological development that is more determinative of the course of human events than any idea cooked up in grad-school seminars. There is no going back, there is no returning, with a v or otherwise.
There is only what we can create. With the few tools, many people, and political vision we have, we need a posture of American creation implemented as quickly as possible or risk losing a truly great country and consigning millions of decent people to illegitimate rule.
Creating new vectors of power that can actually implement change is messy. It requires a kind of realism about how politics and power work—a realism that many in right-leaning intellectual circles simply do not have. Part of the reason for this is simple—many of the leading lights on the right of center are people who either are academics or would be if the academy wasn’t so closed off to talented conservative thinkers. The academic temperament prioritizes constant argumentation about dogma, an obsession with theory, and above all a consistency that is alien to real politics. Even the disciplines we pull these academics from skew us toward error. We have many political theorists and philosophers where sociologists and historians—people who study the practical realities of regimes and what they do to polities—would serve us better.
I guess what I’m saying is that if there’s another essay that needs to be written it’s: "The Conservative Case Against Writing Essays at Each Other Until We All Die."
Rather than lay out theoretical constructs for what a strategy of implementing creation would look like, I think there’s one crystal-clear example where the right has taken a practical and serious approach—the oil and gas industry.
For the past half-century, the oil and gas industry has been one of the few places patronage on the right is actually acceptable. All of the principled think-tanks are happy to turn the other cheek on federal protectionism for the industry, they valorize the on-shoring of supply, they make virtuous its employment of blue-collar employees, and in turn, many in that industry are willing to be serious and engaged patrons of building the other infrastructure the right needs. It’s suited everyone quite well, even if it occasionally involved a little bit of unprincipled politicking.
We reward friends in that one case. Others on this stage are much more qualified to tell how we can punish to complement that. But here are some other places we can create new nodes of influence, like with oil and gas, under the growing governing power we are likely to achieve in the coming years.
On trade, we can easily port the strategy we have employed on energy production to almost every single other core manufactured good. We are not some tiny, inland plot of land consigned to the whims of greater powers. We are a transcontinental empire with massive oceans on either side of us, immense natural resources other countries couldn’t imagine, and a talented and capable workforce that can take advantage of it. So in the coming years, close the spigot of unlimited free trade, and let us develop a serious policy agenda focused on creating anew and building up key industries that any power needs if it is to be taken seriously in the world.
Steel, silicon, food, medicine, these are all things that at various points in American history we made to great success and we can and will again. This would be moral not only because it’s malpractice for a nation to have this core productive capacity, not only because it employs the members of our base that deliver us political power, but also because creating client interests committed to the right’s political success can bolster the tools available to us in terms of corporate power and financial resources to make change. So next year and in the years to come as we acquire new political power, let’s be a little less principled and build an interconnected web of interests committed to our political success, rather than expecting to constantly fight the tide of power allayed against us. This will take time. We need to start now, or we will find ourselves hopelessly outgunned.
In foreign policy, we can see the consequences of the American right’s failure to think in terms of practical power. The impulse to reward friends and engage in the political doesn’t go away, and in fact, we deploy all of it on the right in our foreign policy. We regularly market military service as a way to join the middle class and we use our military-industrial complex to create financial clients of the right. After all, I believe there is a part of the F-35 made in almost every single state and congressional district in America. I promise you, that is not the organic free market at work. The only problem is that using your military as the primary vector to reward friends is the dumbest possible way to do it. We’ve sent thousands of middle-class young men driven by nationalistic pride to die in foreign wars so that the pride flag flies from Pyongyang to Tehran to London.
We must pare back our military engagement abroad and recommit those resources to our allies domestically, because if we don’t, it doesn’t matter what we do on domestic policy, the beast we’ve fed will seek to destroy any nationalist movement that seeks power. And for the threats we do face, breaking the dominance of the defense primes and reallocating those contracts to the young right-wing men leading new defense companies in Silicon Valley might make our military actually capable of deterring Chinese technological and military supremacy this century.
On immigration, this border crisis is ultimately a war on normal people. There’s little consequence for people in the sheltered dens of the Hamptons, Bel Air, Palm Beach, or the Palisades. They get cheap labor and moral comfort, but middle-class people suffer as their wages depreciate, the quality of their communities deteriorates, and their political power is diluted. The correct amount of illegal immigration is zero, but we cannot stop there. At every wage level, our legal immigration regime is a spigot used by our political enemies for their benefit, and to the detriment of our people. This is obvious at the low end where the lion's share of migration happens because of our border crisis. But I would submit to you that even the high-end immigration system we have today is largely a lie perpetrated against the American people to steal rungs of the economic ladder away from them. Our guest-worker programs, our high-skill visa programs, and other schemes of corporate welfare prey on the idea in most people’s minds that we are inviting Einsteins into our country. Well, the problem is that either there are millions of Einsteins in the world and that’s why we’ve blown these programs way out of proportion, or that it's a situation not unlike the Afghanistan refugees from last year. Apparently, every single Afghani was a translator and, apparently, every single 45k-a-year tech-support worker brought in from Nepal is going to invent the next iPhone. Seal the border, and enough with mass immigration for the next decade, so we can give the American people back their culture, their economy, and their safety. There’s probably no issue more critical for rewarding the people who constitute our base.
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The people in Silicon Valley who fancy themselves builders will hate what I just said. They’ll ask how it creates anything. But the truth is that our ruling class in this country has had a series of cop-outs available to it for decades that prevent it from having to do anything novel or innovative. Why innovate when you can arbitrage across borders? Why innovate when you can graft dollars from the defense sector? And why innovate when you can boost the bottom line by importing a foreign indentured-service class that will do everything you ask and rarely demand higher standards?
Build a constellation of economic interests that will support and bolster our agenda, starve the military-industrial complex that atrophies our instincts and hurts our base, and seal the leaky faucets in our immigration regime that allow our ruling class to create nothing.
If we do that in the coming years we will see a tectonic shift in the systems of power in this country and maybe, just maybe, we can actually build an American society where the forces of capital, culture, and government aren’t conspiring to dispossess the right of its moral claim to govern this country.