Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Next Conservatism

J.D. Vance's great speech last night raises difficult questions about the way forward on the Right

So, I’m on the way back home from the TAC gala in DC, which we held last night at the Mayflower. J.D. Vance was the guest speaker, and boy, did he give a hell of a speech. He talked about pro-natalist, pro-family, economic nationalism, and foreign-policy non-interventionism. That sounds maybe a bit boring, but I assure you it was anything but. He told a story about watching a black single mother on a train, struggling with her child. He admired how tender she was, and having grown up poor, the son of a single mother himself, he thought about how hard her life must be. Vance said that Republicans ought to be on her side, even if she is not (or not yet) on the side of Republicans. Vance spoke with real heart, and, given his personal story, with real credibility on this issue.

TAC is going to post the video of the speech as soon as the video is edited. You’ll see why a woman in the audience yelled out, “Run for president!”

After the event, I went to a closed-door strategy session with some conservatives who more or less agree with the Vance line on these issues, and who were trying to lay the groundwork for Congressional coalitions to advance a united front in the face of worn-out but still entrenched mainstream conservatism. After over one hour of intense discussion, it became clear to me that this wasn’t going to get anywhere, at least not now. Our politics are far too fragmented. It is not obvious why the foreign-policy realists and non-interventionists should ally with economic nationalists and social/religious conservatives. When you hear J.D. Vance talk about it, it makes a lot of sense, and would, I think, attract a lot of support in the post-Trump era.

However. I’m not a politics guy, so maybe I’m missing something, but my sense is that the forces arrayed against the emergence of this ideological array will prevent it from forming. The system, including the GOP, is too in thrall to vested interests. Trump showed what is possible, but he also has demonstrated the hard limits of what can be done. There is no substitute for knowing how the system works, and knowing how to make it work in service of a political vision.

My sense is that if this is going to happen, it’s going to happen via a breakout politician who can capture the media interest (“media” in the sense of social media too), and gain followers on the power of his message and his personality. J.D. Vance is the sort of figure who could pull this off, but it doesn’t have to be him. It might be somebody we don’t know about yet. It’s got to be somebody like Trump, who can leapfrog over the established party interests, including the donor class, which has no interest in this kind of conservatism. (Vance told a story about being present when a corporate CEO type asked rhetorically why he, as an international business executive, should care more about the interests of American families than, say, Chinese families. Vance said he told the man that his own financial success and stability depends on the US military policing the trade lanes, and on various contributions made by the American people, in the form of taxes and other means. That man owes something to his fellow Americans, Vance told him. He’s right about that, don’t you think?)

This morning, I was having breakfast at the hotel with someone I’d spoken with the night before at the gala. This man said that it seems to him that the US is on the verge of losing its ability to govern itself as a republic, and that we might be transitioning into an actual Roman Empire-style form of governance, simply because the fragmentation of our society and the paralysis of our politics has rendered republican government administratively ineffective. My interlocutor was definitely not happy about this; he was merely musing on how unclear things look, and how dark the prospects for effective governing seem to be in the foreseeable future. Listening to him, I thought about how when the day comes (even post-Trump) when the Senate is in the hands of one party, and the White House is held by the opposite party, we may never see federal judges, including Supreme Court judges, confirmed.