When i came down to Florida for the National Conservatism Conference, I was a little concerned I’d get heckled in the hallways, or be subjected to the verbal abuse I occasionally get from Trump supporters. Judging by their rhetoric, after all, these are the fire-breathers, the hard-liners, the intellectual sharp edge of the American right.
But everyone was charming! I hung around the bar watching football each night, saw old conservative friends, and met lots of new ones, and I enjoyed them all. This is the intellectual wing of the emerging right. Many of them have spent their lives at progressive places like Princeton, New York, Hollywood, and D.C. Their bodies and careers are in the Republican coastal megalopolis—but their minds and mouths are in Trumpland. As one young man told me late one night, “We’d like to dislike Bill Kristol, but he got us all jobs.”
Finally, there is something extremely off-putting about the NatCon public pose. In person, as I say, I find many of them charming, warm, and friendly. But their public posture is dominated by the psychology of threat and menace. If there was one expression of sympathy, kindness, or grace uttered from the podium in Orlando, I did not hear it. But I did hear callousness, invocations of combat, and whiffs of brutality.
One big thing the NatCons are right about is that in the Information Age, the cultural and corporate elites have merged. Right-wing parties around the world are gradually becoming working-class parties that stand against the economic interests and cultural preferences of the highly educated. Left-wing parties are now rooted in the rich metro areas and are more and more becoming an unsteady alliance between young AOC left-populists and Google.
Sitting in that Orlando hotel, I found myself thinking of what I was seeing as some kind of new theme park: NatCon World, a hermetically sealed dystopian universe with its own confected thrills and chills, its own illiberal rides. I tried to console myself by noting that this NatCon theme park is the brainchild of a few isolated intellectuals with a screwy view of American politics and history. But the disconcerting reality is that America’s rarified NatCon World is just one piece of a larger illiberal populist revolt that is strong and rising.