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National Conservatives on the Front Lines of Ideological Battle

In Rome, Marion Maréchal and Viktor Orbán delivered both the intellectual and practical firepower behind shifting politics on the Right.
Marion Marechal

On the opening night of last week’s National Conservatism Conference in Rome, a crowd of civil servants, journalists, and public intellectuals burst into applause as a quotation from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers was invoked in the opening address: “I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.” For the attendees in the room, the stakes were evident: they stood on the front lines of an ideological, and perhaps spiritual, battle that would define the future of their respective nations and Western civilization as a whole.

What do those uniting under the banner of “national conservatism” care about defending? While any coalition has some degree of diversity among its constituents, something of a consensus can be found in in the book The Virtue of Nationalism, which was recently published by the conference’s organizer, Yoram Hazony. For Hazony, national conservatives categorically reject all forms of imperialism and totalitarianism in favor of something much more vulnerable: the rights of nations to defend faith, family, tradition, language, history, mutual loyalty, and shared memory—in a word, home—against the centralizing, utopian schemes of bureaucrats and technocrats, whether they be in Brussels, Washington, D.C., or Silicon Valley. For it’s only by defending the unique and foundational components of nation-states that national conservatives can hope for a world where peace, tolerance, productive competition, and free institutions can flourish.

While certain core concerns about protecting national sovereignty and identity were cited in most presentations, the practical applications proposed varied greatly depending on the vocation and nationality of the speakers. The two keynotes that best crystallized this dynamic were given by French politician Marion Maréchal and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

Maréchal spoke in aspirational terms about how a revival of a “new humanism” that seeks to preserve both nature and human dignity would serve as the best foundation for conservative thought in the 21st century. For Maréchal, this vision of conservatism is universal because it reflects the fundamental needs of the human soul as outlined by French philosopher Simone Weil: order, liberty, obedience, responsibility, hierarchy, honor, and security. While shared by all humanity, these virtues take shape in particular political communities with their own unique circumstances and customs.

In France, Maréchal has the challenge of pushing back against the vestiges of the radical enlightenment philosophy of the French Revolution that prioritized abstract reasoning and individual autonomy. At the same time, what France lacks in terms of a “conservative movement,” it makes up for in “conservative moments” throughout its past, chief among them its historically recognized place as the “eldest daughter of the Church.” These deep spiritual roots, even if they’ve been weakened over the past three centuries, allow her to draw from a rich tradition of Catholic social thought that has clearly influenced her vision of conservatism. The principles of solidarity and subsidiarity that are the hallmark of this tradition were evident when Maréchal called for a politics of “social engagement that resists socialism and government intervention without centralization.”

Her willingness to use political power to address certain ecological and social concerns, such as stewardship of the environment, declining birthrates, and protecting domestic agriculture, best encapsulates how she might use the state to implement these principles. By stressing the subservience of markets to certain ends such as the common good and national interest, Maréchal distinguished French conservatism from its laissez-faire counterparts in other Western countries. Yet she also set herself apart from the socialist left by noting that global problems rarely have global solutions and are best solved at the local level.

If Maréchal’s speech situated her as an intellectual leader of the new right (and as a viable political alternative to French President Emmanuel Macron), Prime Minister Orbán wanted nothing of the sort. Orbán’s disposition is realist in orientation. His aim in politics is not to lead a multinational movement but to promote Hungarian interests—specifically to resist the worst excesses of the centralizing and homogenizing efforts of the European Union. To the extent that this requires cultivating allies in other Western countries, he appeared willing to play the part, but emphasized that it was born of necessity and not vanity.

Orbán is unapologetic about his vision for Hungary. He believes that liberalism has failed, as evidenced by the fall of communism and the dystopian progressivism of EU technocrats, and that Hungarian politics is fundamentally post-liberal in nature. Given his country’s culture and religious heritage, Christian democracy and Christian freedom are the operating principles. He is unabashedly “pro-family,” and spends close to 5 percent of GDP promoting pro-natalist policies. Immigration levels are at net-zero due to concerns about the potential long-term effects of mass immigration on Hungary’s culture and economy. And Orbán’s economic platform—a combination of lowering taxes, reducing debt, and industrial policy—have resulted in GDP growth of 4 to 5 percent annually and 3 percent unemployment.

Orbán candidly admitted that he picks and chooses his political battles out of necessity and survival. He does not try to tell other European countries how to govern themselves, and he recognizes that every leader, especially those sympathetic to national conservatism, must deal with constraints based on unique circumstances. While he has a mandate to implement his agenda domestically (for now), the foreign policy challenges—both in terms of security and standing up to pressure from the European Union—are very exacting on a country of his size, geographic location, and economic output.

Sensing admiration from audience members during his interview, Orbán warned not to “forget that politics here probably looks like an intellectual activity. Don’t misunderstand, this is not the case. We are doers—you are thinkers but we are doers. Politics is about making decisions, gaining and keeping the trust of the nation, and getting the power and keeping the power.” While he has continued to win elections, he stressed that his entire platform would be repudiated by voters without strong economic growth. While free markets have certainly played a pivotal role in increasing Hungary’s prosperity, Orbán has also embraced economic nationalism as a means of reducing Hungary’s reliance on foreign debtors and promoting national champions in certain vital sectors to ensure economic independence, specifically for technological innovation.

While there are significant differences in style and substance between Marion Maréchal and Viktor Orbán, they both share an understanding of politics that is integral, which is to say that they aim to bring a certain degree of harmony between the economic, cultural, and religious interests of their respective societies. In short, individual freedom is important to both leaders, but their primary concern is the stability, cohesion, and security of the whole society on which liberty depends.

There is a natural tension between the programs of these two politicians, embraced by a younger generation of conservatives, and the programs of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, which were eulogized by an older generation of conservatives at the conference. For the latter, the threat of Soviet communism abroad and high taxes at home presented the great political challenges of their era. Today, however, the challenges are different and in some cases new: Chinese mercantilism, endless war in the Middle East, woke capitalism, identity politics, tech monopolies, mass migration, declining fertility rates, stagnant wages, rising costs of living, the hollowing out of the middle class, environmental degradation, and so on.

New challenges and circumstances require new ideas and new statesman. Many of the aforementioned problems cannot be fixed with the old fusionist playbook. Some of the solutions needed will likely push against the grain, if not explicitly contradict, the Reaganite and Thatcherite policies that ossified into dogmas in the post-Cold War era, especially at conservative think tanks in Washington.

To the extent that Reagan and Thatcher can be used as models to build a new fusionism that cuts across generational lines, it will not come to fruition by rebooting the old programs and slogans verbatim and ad nauseum, but rather by imitating the statecraft and moral imagination that empowered them to make prudential policy decisions in light of concrete threats and opportunities.

More urgently, if the existential challenges of our day are ignored by conservatives or go unaddressed by right-leaning institutions either afraid or unwilling to think anew, then they will cede our unique political moment to the left, and self-described socialists like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will continue to pick up steam. Despite a growing GDP, the “American carnage” that President Trump rightly identified in his inaugural address has barely been ameliorated—it will take a generation to do so. And so the need for a movement like National Conservatism, both in American and Europe, is more vital than ever.

While the policies of European conservatives, and the unique circumstances that enable them, cannot and should not be replicated wholesale in the United States, to the extent that it’s prudent and constitutional, leaders of our own political realignment should imitate their rhetoric and ideas in order to better defend American interests and institutions.

The future of National Conservatism and the West may be uncertain, but one thing is clear: the globalists have been mugged by reality, as one speaker at the conference put it. That’s something conservatives of all stripes should celebrate.

John A. Burtka IV is executive director of The American Conservative. You can follow him on Twitter @johnnyburtka.