National Conservatism Conference puts the best and worst of the GOP on display

Conservatism may have something to say about important issues, but it will need more worthy messengers.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gives the keynote address at the National Conservatism Conference in Aventura, Florida, on Sept. 11, 2022. Photo courtesy of The Edmund Burke Foundation

(RNS) — Seven years after Donald Trump eclipsed every other figure in conservatism, the still-fledgling National Conservatism Conference brought policy advocates, academics, right-wing media activists and politicos to Miami Sept. 11–13 to discuss the future of the movement.

The conference is the brainchild of Israeli philosopher Yoram Hazony, who, with ideological cousins such as Notre Dame political theorist Patrick Deneen, have articulated a conservative brand of nationalism, focused on what conservatives are for, rather than what they are against, that has more internal coherence and philosophical integrity than any Republican campaign or office-holder.

This week in Miami, we heard Emily Jashinsky and Rachel Bovard, both of the right-wing commentary site the Federalist, arguing that the GOP should focus on the deleterious health effects of addiction to junk food and mobile devices (Jashinsky) and that national conservatism needs better movement-building and advocacy (Bovard). 

Among the more thoughtful speakers were two senior conservatives who speak earnestly from their respective perches in American political life. Rod Dreher, a prolific blogger and author who is very concerned about the woke left’s soft totalitarianism, is despised by the left for his anti-trans views and has been mocked for his exuberant fandom of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán as he galavants around Europe lamenting civilizational decline.

But Dreher showed he is no slave to the conservative Christians’ idol ensconced in Mar-a-Lago: After Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ speech at the conference, Dreher said, “This guy will win the presidency in a landslide if GOP primary voters are wise enough to nominate him.”

Likewise, the Rev. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, gave a dinnertime keynote on the conference’s final evening. Mohler spoke measuredly of “the illusion of the secular state” and insisted, “If conservatism has a future, it will be explicitly tied to theological claims and convictions.” 

Whatever you think of these views, these two dons of conservatism at least allow for divergent views on policy, values and strategy. Mohler emphasized what brought these conservatives together in the first place: “What joy is there in life if you can’t enjoy a good argument over those things that matter?”

Even some speakers who have beclowned themselves beyond redemption in service of Trumpism nevertheless managed to contribute ideas worthy of discussion. Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, who was caught on video prancing through the Capitol in fear on Jan. 6, resurrected his delusions of manly heroism to extol a 4th century axe-wielding Christian soldier.

Sean Davis, CEO of the Federalist, told attendees that journalists “should be mocked and scorned and derided as the scum they are. They deserve nothing but your contempt.”

There are real debates about subjects like masculinity and media bias, and conservatism may have something to say about them, but it will need more worthy messengers. Conservatives’ internal discussions about policies and principles are still secondary to a broader competition about who — not what — will drive the movement.

Leaders I have respected over the years have fallen to the irresistible temptation to downplay Trump’s incessant degradations. A wave of younger Republican operatives and public Christians are representing the faith in the absolute worst possible ways. 

Consider Christina Pushaw, DeSantis’ campaign spokeswoman. Pushaw, who is very good at her job, has become a role model for GOP comms staffers, but people who claim their first priority is Christian evangelism should think twice about remaking their online presence in her likeness. She is more interested in scoring points than making serious ones and gracelessly denigrates people assigned to cover her boss with not a drop of human feeling.

Or take William Wolfe, a former Trump bureaucrat who is now a student at Mohler’s seminary and one of the most obnoxious public Christians I have ever observed. One could be forgiven for thinking Mohler was sent to the conference to babysit him. Even the the most Trump-adoring Baptists should consider Wolfe’s damage to the seminary’s reputation and rethink the wisdom of sending out a generation of nationalist preachers and missionaries in his image.

Yet I am left to wonder if Wolfe has influenced Mohler more than Mohler has influenced him. By the end of the week, Mohler had moved from measured arguments to more of what the movement demands. 

In a speech to a gathering of Christian Trump disciples, Mohler said in the most explicit terms yet that it is impossible to be a faithful Christian without voting Republican, presumably without regard to a candidate’s sins and crimes — no matter how heinous the sins and unrepentant the candidate.

Increasingly it feels as if conservatism is a moral race to the bottom, with everyone involved making it explicit that there is nothing — no sins, no obnoxiousness, no lies, no disdain for democracy, no flirtations with racists and antisemites and no backtracking on abortion and same-sex marriage bans — that disqualifies any Republican candidate from their enthusiastic support.

At the first National Conservatism Conference in 2019, First Things editor R.R. Reno said that conservatism should be united by shared loves. But for now, it still very much looks like a movement held together by shared hatreds.

Love of God, family and nation are important. We need virtuous people to advance such high-minded ideals. Instead, Trump’s slavish imitators and enablers in Miami brought to mind C.S. Lewis’ quote from Thucydides: “Simple goodness … was mocked away and clean vanished.”

(Jacob Lupfer is a writer and political strategist in Jacksonville, Florida. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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