Zero to One Out of Many

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Among the free peoples who govern themselves there is but a small field of usefulness open for the men of cloistered life who shrink from contact with their fellows. Still less room is there for those who deride or slight what is done by those who actually bear the brunt of the day; nor yet for those others who always profess that they would like to take action, if only the conditions of life were not exactly what they actually are. The man who does nothing cuts the same sordid figure in the pages of history, whether he be cynic, or fop, or voluptuary. There is little use for the being whose tepid soul knows nothing of the great and generous emotion, of the high pride, the stern belief, the lofty enthusiasm, of the men who quell the storm and ride the thunder. —Theodore Roosevelt, the Sorbonne, April 23, 1910

The primary value of a conference is not found in its addresses or panel discussions, but in the not so simple act of getting the right people in a room together. Much of the good work is done over dinner, or in buying someone a drink at the hotel bar. Those are the real opportunities to confer, and the stuff of schedules is an assistant and springboard to these conversations. 

The second National Conservatism Conference, held in Orlando this time—Florida being a free state in the Covid empire, while the District of Columbia is neither free nor, thankfully still, a state—was a highly successful conference. Yoram Hazony and his Edmund Burke Foundation brought a big tent of people together, and let them talk. In doing so, he reminded everyone that they do not labor alone, wherever they labor; that in the work to restore sanity to an increasingly deranged Western public life, to protect this country’s sovereignty and history from its own establishment, they have allies and co-belligerents. 

I say co-belligerents because it is not clear yet what it would mean for everyone present to actually be a national conservative. They all appeared to wish to conserve the possibility of an American nation, and agreed that this at least meant rejecting a woke political theology that appears intent on dividing citizens from citizens, reducing us to demographic and sociological categories, felt cartoon characters on a Sunday school flannelgraph made up of historical sins that cannot be expiated or forgiven. But the camp is being built; it is not yet built. It has leaders, but not yet a leader.

Peter Thiel is one of national conservatism’s leaders, and opened the conference. His remarks successfully set the tone of the rest of the week for me, and set up the quandary at the heart of the endeavor. The core of Thiel’s comments was the problem of the individual and a consensus theory of truth. The crowd can be mad, not wise. The individual who stands alone against the mob, even and perhaps especially when they speak the truth, is likely to be squashed, flogged—Glaucon and Girard might suggest crucified. In a line I think I’ve heard from the futurist before, Thiel remarked, “When you get to 99.9 percent, maybe that’s totally right or maybe that’s North Korea.”

The triumph of a certain version of liberal democracy in America and around the world has produced in the Davos class what Thiel described as the worst sort of mob. Globalism and globalization (which find nations undesirable and unnecessary in all their messy particularity of history and culture), a homogenizing, braindead, one-world state—that is the enemy. It is a world in which individuals as persons do not exist, no longer needed; they have been replaced by representative managerial units. It will necessarily fail, and is failing, as the last two years have shown, for in its epistemic closure it will bring about its own collapse, having ignored all those prophets who might have saved what parts of this construction were ever worth saving. “The hour is late for all these institutions,” Thiel said.

To stave off further decline, Peter Thiel hopes for a return of a more confident America, “a country in which we have ticker tape parades for single individuals.” E pluribus unum. If we invite them to, great persons can step forward from we the people, to lead, to teach, to give us wonders again. 

The institutions are failing. We need supremely able individuals. This is the bind national conservatism finds itself in, in the year 2021. It is not a presidential election year, or even a midterm year. It is a time for building and waiting. That means it is a time for institutions, for ideas, for policies and for plans. But in the end, all this must rest on persons, for it is individuals who can exercise power with prudence and take responsibility for the power they exercise. 

It is hard to build a team without a team captain, and for now, those sympathetic to national conservatism will have to wait for a worthy captain to present himself. In the meantime, they must do their best to become worthy to advise and assist him, and to help those leaders that are already at bat. To counter the homogenizing, networked power of an entrenched establishment, though, requires personalities who can operate levers, not just further machination. The danger is that in constructing some edifice of institutions new and old, white papers and policy briefs both innovative and time-tested, the Brahmins of national conservatism will leave too small a man-shaped hole for the parade-worthy individuals Thiel spoke about. Then when magnanimity steps forward to the call of the hour anyway, and bends their carefully laid plans to make a way large enough to enter the arena, these theorists of renewal will find themselves filled more with distaste and displeasure than energy and hope. 

If the first NatCon in the Beltway of 2019 had a more confident spirit than post-Covid Orlando, that was in large part because Donald Trump stood—strikingly light on his feet, chest protruding, arms extended wide—ready to have the robes and armor of national conservatism laid upon his shoulders and girded at his waist, fitted to him as he strode forth into a second term. Now, cast out of the White House, conservatives must look where they should have been looking already, to the states and local politics for victories and change to the status quo. 

Fortunately, there are individuals who have already answered the call, men like Chris Rufo, who has taken on the burden of providing focus and language for the revolution against critical race theory in schools and workplaces. Rufo is playing hardball, for keeps, at every level of society, and has won in corporate boardrooms as well as the Virginia governor’s mansion and public school parents meetings. He and persons like him are the future of national conservatism. It is on the institutions and wonks to ask how they can help.

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