Last month’s third annual National Conservative Conference—the now yearly convention of the academics and public intellectuals trying to build an ideological structure inside the MAGA movement—was notable, at first blush, for two things. First, its relocation from Orlando to Miami, the New Right mecca for crypto-friendly, vax-skeptical, post-Trump futurists. And second, its bewildering fusion of isolationists and neocons, evangelicals, homosexuals, and, yes, a few monarchists, all united against a common enemy: the libs.
The future of Trumpism, after all, begins with coalition-building to articulate an agenda that can survive Trump, himself. So far, it’s more dark vibes than uplifting policy. A video promo for the NatCon event, which opened with footage of cars on fire and protesters tearing down Confederate statues, declared “woke neo-Marxism is destroying the values and principles America, Britain, and other Western nations have held dear for centuries.” Not exactly “Morning in America.”
But the most important, and least-covered, element behind NatCon 3 may have been its sponsorship list. While mainstream headlines zeroed in on the high-profile keynotes from Peter Thiel, Josh Hawley, and Ron DeSantis (“Florida is a Model for America”), the attendees I spoke to afterward couldn’t help but notice that the event’s patrons included not just the far-right Claremont Institute and American Conservative, but also Washington’s most old-school and patrician conservative think tank: the Heritage Foundation, the historically buttoned-up, Reagan-era sinecure. “There might have been a time that the people in the movement would have been inclined to fight Heritage,” explained Will Chamberlain, the editor-in-chief of Human Events and a panelist at this year’s NatCon, rather than to fight alongside them.
These days, of course, the 50-year-old think tank is as likely to take its cues from Tucker Carlson as from Reagan’s legacy. Such is the nature of cold-hearted realpolitik survivalism in the modern G.O.P. No one rolls their eyes anymore in public. Indeed, any skepticism surrounding Heritage’s presence at NatCon was put to rest when the group’s new chairman, Kevin Roberts, delivered a thundering, Biblical diatribe laying out Heritage’s political commitment to fighting Big Tech, the Chinese Communist Party, and the “Stalinist agenda” of woke culture. “I come not to invite national conservatives to join our conservative movement, but to acknowledge the plain truth: that Heritage is already part of yours,” he said to enthusiastic applause.
Beholding the future of the G.O.P increasingly requires probing the minds of the national conservatives, or “natcons,” as they call themselves. It’s a group of outsider thinkers that is “more intellectual and ideological than MAGA,” as Chamberlain described them to me. A good shorthand would be the school of thought backed by Thiel, embodied by his protégés J.D. Vance and Blake Masters, now running for Senate in Ohio and Arizona, respectively, both of whom have made appearances at NatCon. For the past six years, this group has been trying to articulate a vision of what Trumpism—in all of its isolationist, Big Tech-fighting, pro-Christian, anti-woke, and anti-establishment glory—might look like without its figurehead, though they were quick to point out that they still supported Trump himself. (For an in-depth primer of the movement’s policy goals, I point you towards this article from attendee Josh Hammer.)
In past years, the multi-day NatCon forum attracted an eclectic group of speakers like Carlson, John Bolton, and a then-lesser-known Vance, who notably stayed for the entire conference, rather than bouncing immediately after giving his keynote address in 2021. Giorgia Meloni, the new hyper-nationalist (some would say post-fascist) prime minister of Italy, gave an address, entitled “God, Homeland and Family,” at NatCon 2020 in Rome, the European iteration of the American NatCon.
This year, there was a palpable sense among the NatCons that they had finally achieved a critical mass of political forces to successfully put their ideas—articulated this summer in their Statement of Principles, a right-wing Port Huron Statement of sorts for the survival of “Western” values—into action. Heritage’s footprint was certainly one factor. But they were also heartened by the presence of multiple staffers for governors and members of Congress, ex-Trump aides, and other rising stars of the Republican professional class—attending breakout panels, milling about with wealthy donors and online MAGA personalities with millions of followers—a notable break from more stratified events like CPAC and the Faith and Freedom Conference. The one V.I.P. event was, notably, a donors-only fundraiser for Masters, now within striking distance of the U.S. Senate.
For a party that struggles to speak with one voice, these were positive data points that the Bethesda Brooks Brothers chinstrokers have given up the fight to reclaim the party and are merely just looking for their lane in the new world. “This really was the breakthrough conference for us,” Yoram Hazony, the chairman of the Edmund Burke Foundation, which hosts NatCon, told me, delighted that Heritage had made their mark. “I mean, I think at this point, people can understand that this set of ideas, and policies that flow from them—this is going to be the future of conservatism in America, the United Kingdom, and other democratic countries.”
The Party of DeSantis
Naturally, this being the Republican party of 2022, not everyone is entirely sold on this new direction, or the natcons’ potential to coalesce all the factitious splinter groups around their core ideological framework. Darren Beattie, a former Trump speechwriter and speaker at NatCon, said he was concerned that the natcons, for all their intellectual posturing and desire to write policy white papers, were still missing the point of Trumpism. “I think the cult of personality is far more important to the Trump phenomenon than the fixed ideological agenda,” he told me, echoing the observation of many who have wondered if this all evaporates after Trump. “Within reasonable parameters, you tell people Trump said ‘X,’ and Trump supporters will support that. The support is a function of Trump being for it and not the other way around.”
Post-Trump Trumpism is, obviously, the long term goal—and one that was clearly embodied in the presence of DeSantis, the natcons’ favorite culture war tactician. In his speech, which ran an hour long, DeSantis laid out his putative MAGA-friendly accomplishments—fighting “wokeism” in the culture, dismantling LGBT-friendly policies in Florida schools, keeping the state open during Covid, among others—and railed against the “woke mind virus” infecting every level of society, from governments to business to the elites at Davos.
Hazony told me that NatCon would never endorse a political candidate, but those I spoke to indicated that the conference’s wonkish attendees seemed more inclined to DeSantis as a vehicle for their ideas than a wild card like Trump. “Unlike Trump, who might not have stronger ideological limits, or surround himself with people who disagree with them, I’m not worried about that at all with DeSantis,” said Chamberlain. “If the speech he gave at NatCon is any indication, he just agrees with us, flat out.”
Trump, everyone I spoke to predicted, could one day speak at NatCon, but if there was a contested primary between him and DeSantis in 2024, the group would likely be evenly split down the middle. The camp leaning toward Trump argues that he’s more instinctually nationalist (though crass and norm-shattering) and can survive, as Beattie described it, the “pain box” of being attacked by the global establishment on a minute-by-minute basis. Meanwhile, the camp championing DeSantis emphasizes his ability to shapeshift within the rightward boundaries of movement conservatism, and perhaps to redraw those boundaries altogether. “I think people will want to set it up as like, oh, DeSantis is like the more establishment friendly version of Trump and it’s not really that,” said Chamberlain, negating the now age-old conventional argument. “DeSantis would be the more ideological of the two.”
Not to say that the natcons wouldn’t support Trump if he were the ‘24 presidential nominee. On the contrary, they would surely throw their entire weight behind Trump in a general election, even if they’re unsure about his ideological purity, and work to place multiple allies within his administration—once again proving that even the most vehement Trumpism-after-Trumpers are still very satisfied with the Real McCoy, himself. But either way, the natcons hope to set themselves up for success under either future Republican administration, enabling them to steer policy, set the agenda, and, with their Heritage alliance, to become the new establishment in Washington.
At the heart of this project, of course, is the question of whether MAGA can be tamed. Beattie, for one, has his doubts. The project of building a Trumpism after Trump, he told me, is “appealing to people’s intellectual pretensions, and appealing to their fears [of irrelevance]. The combination of that is very powerful. And that’s a combination that, I think, accounts for how attractive Trumpism after Trump is for a lot of people.”