The course of true nationalism never did run smooth.
The city was not beautiful; no one made that claim for it. At the height of summer, people in suits, shellacked by the sun, moved like harassed insects to avoid the concentrated light. There was a civil war–like fracture in America—the president had said so—but little of it showed in the capital. Everyone was polite and smooth in their exchanges. The corridor between Dupont Circle and Georgetown was like the dream of Yugoslav planners: long blocks of uniform earth-toned buildings that made the classical edifices of the Hill seem the residue of ancestors straining for pedigree. Bunting, starched and perfectly ruffled in red-white-and-blue fans, hung everywhere—from air conditioners, from gutters, from statues of dead revolutionaries. Coming from Berlin, where the manual laborers are white, I felt as though I was entering the heart of a caste civilization. Untouchables in hard hats drilled into sidewalks, carried pylons, and ate lunch from metal boxes, while waiters in restaurants complimented old respectable bobbing heads on how well they were progressing with their rib eyes and iceberg wedges.
I had come to Washington to witness either the birth of an ideology or what may turn out to be the passing of a kidney stone through the Republican Party. There was a new movement afoot: National Conservatives, they called themselves, and they were gathering here, at the Ritz-Carlton, at 22nd Street and M. Disparate tribes had posted up for the potlatch: reformacons, blood-and-soilers, curious liberal nationalists, “Austrians,” repentant neocons, evangelical Christians, corporate raiders, cattle ranchers, Silicon Valley dissidents, Buckleyites, Straussians, Orthodox Jews, Catholics, Mormons, Tories, dark-web spiders, tradcons, Lone Conservatives, Fed-Socs, Young Republicans, Reaganites in amber. Most straddled more than one category.
They were here because of one undeniable fact: Donald Trump was going to die. Trump might be ejected from office or lose the election or win the election—but he was, also, definitely going to die. And Trumpism needed to survive. It was just getting started. If Trumpism were snuffed out with Trump, Republicans would fall back into march with the party lemmings in hock to their donors (hardly any Republican voters agreed with the donors about anything, as Trump had intuited), who would connive with liberals to contaminate the country with more immigration, more Big Tech treason, more “free” trade, more endless wars, more slouching toward nihilism. The ancien régime was threatening to reconstitute itself.
Someone had to stand up for Trumpism in the noble abstract. Someone philosophical, who knew how to extract timelessness from the tawdriness. Trump the Man might be crude and venal, but Trump the Spirit had opened a trapdoor in history. Some political-theological exegesis would be required to unspool the nature of the accomplishment. The old world of the Cold War and the American Empire was over; an older world of nations—a community of nations! A brotherhood!—was struggling to be reborn. Orbán, Bolsanaro, Bibi, Boris—all were wise to it, while liberal professors sat on panels about “Hungary’s Wrong Turn” or “Israel’s Self-Implosion” or “The Brexit Backwash,” as if History were a hedgerow only they were privileged to prune. Had they no eyes? China was about to decide whether it preferred curtailing its exports or eating grass. Germany was primed to be pastoralized at last, once Detroit patented the right car battery. It was house-hunting season in the West Bank—did you know a good broker? American industry was at a halftime pause, waiting for Clint Eastwood’s voice-over to resume. Was there room at Guantánamo for the executive board of Google? The drugs needed to flow back out—a new Opium War!—and the jobs needed to flow back in—full employment! A few good NatCons could keep the Republican zombie-archy at bay. Fox News might well fall into conniptions at the notion, but what was needed was “class warfare”—or perhaps more precisely, a war within the elites—to ensure that the future remained Trumpian and did not revert to the globalist highway to nowhere.
“I’m from the lesbian armpit of Australia!” said a buoyant young blond man, fresh off the plane from his woke-infected hometown of Melbourne. We were thick in the melee of the hotel’s bowels. People were collecting their National Conservatism folders and pens, adjusting their name tags. Lounging in plush chairs and couches were all manner of professional and amateur right-wingers—lawyers, radio hosts, professors, and journalists, all thrilled to find themselves in public so unspurned. In the faux-silk-lined hallway leading into the main ballroom, I watched a Texan’s cowboy hat get within kissing range of a rabbi’s Borsalino.
The Australian was named Jack. He was there with the blessing of his MP boss to make contact with allies and convey the warmest greetings. “It’s exciting to be among so many intelligent people!” Jack was addressing a dour undergraduate from the University of Texas, who was scanning the crowd for luminaries and idly fielding Jack’s questions. “How did you get here?” “I was sort of sick of the libertarian choke hold on campus. I’ve read Carlyle and Evola. And Hazony, obviously. But the College Republicans are still pretty captured by libertarian dogma. Like, no interest in political economy, or a national industrial policy, or anything. I found these folks online. These guys, these are the guys I like.”
The high degree of bonhomie in the ballroom was hard to deny. Conservatives in their comfort zones can establish an instant rapport. Aloofness is rapidly abandoned as a hindrance to the assembly of a highly charged emotional grid. The speed of social fusion exceeds its own object, so that everyone already seems prepared to bleed for they know not yet what.
We ambled toward the dinner tables just as the Russia jokes began. “I’d call this stage the presidium, but I don’t want to be accused of collusion with Russia,” announced the stony moderator Christopher DeMuth, Reagan’s first-term “deregulation czar.” He handed over the reins to David Brog, a more treacly specimen. Brog had worked for the end-times televangelist John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel before heading up Sheldon Adelson’s Maccabee Task Force to fight the BDS movement. He was one of about a half a dozen organizers of the National Conservatism Conference. “We are not alone anymore,” Brog bleated. “We want to be connected, connected to one another, connected to our descendants. . . . Our American brothers and sisters are crying out.”
His voice floated higher in register until it was full eighteenth-century oracular, the Great Awakening returned. “We’ve read Burke and our Bibles.” It was very heaven to be alive now, Brog observed. Brexit was a sign. “The British people literally stood astride history and yelled ‘stop!’ They refused to sell the birthright of their sovereignty for the shiny coins of higher GDP.” And then came a line that seemed lobbed over the assembled guests directly at Jennifer Schuessler, cultural correspondent for the New York Times, who was sitting in the far back of the ballroom. “We are nationalists, not white nationalists! But no screening system is perfect, so if there’s anyone here tonight who believes being an American has anything whatsoever to do with the color of someone’s skin, there is the door.” No one stood up to leave; therefore let it be known that there were no racists breaking bread among us.
Brog next lanced various simulacra of common sense. “We give no aid to our immigrants when we promote the erosion of the reason they moved here in the first place.” Only by denying immigrants’ dreams could those dreams be fulfilled.?.?.?. He ended with pure singsong sweetness, chirping out some Whitman to the congregants: “Camerado, I give you my hand! I give you love more precious than money!”
But money could not altogether be expelled from the temple. One of the conference’s backers was Colin Moran, a New York hedge funder, who got up and told the audience that he liked every damn thing about National Conservatism. He didn’t think it was antimarket at all—hell it would probably be better for the market, or at least his market. “It’s sometimes said that the new National Conservatism is hostile to capitalism,” DeMuth added. He smiled. “To rebut these scurrilous allegations, we will now hear from one of the titans of American finance. Ladies and gentlemen, Peter Thiel!”
Thiel was a possible prototype of the new elite the NatCons wanted to propagate. He came equipped with a blowtorch to illuminate the meritocratic conspiracy among corporations and government and media. Yes, Thiel was a destroyer-entrepreneur straight out of the pages of Schumpeter. In the fairy-tale world of Silicon Valley startups—most of which were coquettishly waiting for a Wall Street manager to take them public or for Facebook to acquire them—Thiel was a swashbuckling privateer. He could take a machete to the hedgerow view of history. Like the most effective reactionaries, he was all-in on technology—but on his own terms. He had cofounded PayPal, a venture that might at first seem too prosaic, even beneath him, until you remember that PayPal’s original mission was to become a global currency. Thiel was going to make great stuff again, not just new iterations of phones. He was going to reconnect technological advancement with political revolution. He was going to colonize the moon. He was going to extinguish enemies with vengeance. Any American journalist of my generation had to treat that last ambition with a touch of respect: after a gratuitous violation of his privacy, Thiel had, in an act of twenty-first-century lèse-majesté, singlehandedly eviscerated one of the breeding grounds of New York journalism—Gawker. There were more habitats out there he could scorch to the ground.
Thiel was a seasoned speaker. He’d stumped at the Republican National Convention; he’d given Trump a million dollars and counseled him to become disrupter-in-chief. Thiel claimed to have received little grief from Trump-endorsing evangelicals for being gay, nor, it seemed, would he get much from NatCons, who mostly held fast to the Walt Whitman position on homosexuality and nationalism. Though Thiel’s delivery was constipated and robotic, he came across as someone who could beam himself somewhere else at any given moment, and so his sheer presence and attention flattered the audience. He announced his intention to stick to “the spirit of what I think we’re trying to accomplish, which is widening the Overton window of discourse.” Then his mouth dropped open like a torpedo bay, and out propelled a series of questions:
Is Big Tech good for the United States of America?
Is free trade good for the U.S. of A.?
Is college good for the U.S.?
Is war good for us?
Thiel was going to “drill down into some of the particulars” of these matters. Google? It had lost any attachment to the American nation, and it was in bed with Chinese intelligence.1
Its executives should be interrogated “in a not excessively gentle way.” Then came an interesting twist: China was dirtying up the whole globe, Thiel said. He suggested that the 25 percent tariff on Chinese goods be “reframed” as a carbon tax, “and maybe the twenty-five percent is a floor and not a ceiling.” The audience loved the way he was co-opting a left-wing cause (climate change) for NatCon ends (American greatness). It was even perhaps more subtle than that: co-opting a left-wing policy program (carbon-taxing a country in order to encourage it to green its economy) and just insisting that its content was populist protectionist. The Trump team, according to Thiel, already had the correct instincts on trade: “You don’t want people negotiating trade treaties who dogmatically believe in free trade, because the worse they are at negotiating, the better job they think they do.”
But where Thiel really hit his stride—where he began to kill—was on the composition of the American elite. The factories that produce this elite were the universities, and that was the place to train the bomb sights. The thousands of third-rate colleges should be destroyed with criminal investigations while the Ivies and other elite universities were taxed into oblivion. For there was nothing so big as the self-flattering lies told in America about education: that there were so many good schools and that these institutions were the best place for selecting and training elites rather than just confirming and credentialing them. He quoted Michelle Obama talking about her daughters’ applications to college:
The one thing I’ve been telling my daughters is that I don’t want them to choose a name. I don’t want them to think, “Oh, I should go to these top schools.” We live in a country where there are thousands of amazing universities. So the question is: What’s going to work for you?2
“In their defense, they don’t actually believe it,” Thiel said. “And I would worry about them even more if they actually did.” Shortly after Obama’s remarks, her elder daughter went off to Harvard. Thiel would have been “very disturbed” if they’d sent her to the one-thousandth ranked school instead. This was genuinely funny. Rolling the Obamas over the coals of their own utterances never got old. But Thiel had done more than his duty to National Conservatism by intimating that a new elite could still come into being. It would be a techy elite, and a very small one, but one that served the homeland, whose normal citizens would graze among the infinite pleasures provided them. The coming elite would recognize the con of mass education and spare millions the dunce hat of the community college or the online university. Thiel himself had already tried to buy out promising young coders from going to college in the first place: the Thiel Fellowship accepted applications on a rolling basis and paid grantees six figures not to go to school. A picture of the Thielian version of the NatCon future was coming into focus: rooms of talented fifteen-year-olds finding new ways to drill into the earth’s core and lower temperatures through sublime acts of geologic engineering. Children were our future, if they could avoid college. Our savior was not the tech-abstinence-preaching Greta Thunberg, but some as yet unknown prodigy, funded by Thiel, who would figure out how to recode the physical processes of the planet.
Thiel’s private effort to siphon off a natural aristocracy of talent from the doomed universities by plying them with cash and lab time was part of the larger field of NatCon thought. Trump had won the election by feeding the insatiable anti-elitist hunger in the nation. The Clintons had cooperated perfectly. But nationalists and populists have as much need for elites as anyone else. In the first flush of European nationalism, members of the Napoleonic generation found themselves promoted from cannoneers to princes of freshly conquered states. The Third World nationalists who came to power in decolonizing nations in the 1960s had only recently formed a stratum of colonial rule: lawyers, doctors, poets, and soldiers. The trouble now in the United States was that the would-have-been regional ruling class had been sucked out of every corner of the heartland to join the ranks of the global meritocracy, leaving the ranks of the local elite nearly empty. Anyone visiting an Ivy League classroom could encounter twenty bright teenagers from all over the world—a few of them vacuumed out of obscure corners of the U.S.A.—who all spoke the same gradient of English, streamed the same TV series, and believed that they represented diversity. The clever sell of the Pete Buttigiegs and Rory Stewarts of the moment was to at least simulate the return-to-Ithaca drama of a globalist come home to pay regional amends. But what if meritocratic elites in general were the problem? Edmund Burke himself had been notoriously skeptical of them, especially those like himself: better to be governed by half-demented aristocrats with long-standing claims to land and title than by intellectual hustlers who misconstrue their own rocketing social ascent with the lift-off of humanity in general.