Billionaire Peter Thiel had a question.
"How do we do better than California?" he asked, looking around the packed hall.
The crowd was listening. It was, after all, the first talk on the first day of Miami's National Conservatism Conference (NatCon III), and tech mogul Thiel was among the event's largest funders.
They'd arrived hours or just minutes beforehand, negotiating the tropical, maze-like grounds of the resort hotel like figures in a daytime de Chirico: politicians, journalists, think tankers, and the donor class.
Zooming in closer, we can see the shifting, shimmering outlines of the newest New Right, as assembled by Yoram Hazony, an Israeli political theorist and NatCon's intellectual lodestar.
Young veterans of the Trump administration crossed paths with politicos out of Viktor Orbán's Hungary.
Insiders ducked, dodged, or derided the occasional legacy media reporter or liberal-friendly moderate "conservative" sent down to Gov. Ron DeSantis's Florida to file the obligatory horror stories. (DeSantis, along with virtually every other top Florida Republican politician, eventually made his way to the same stage where Thiel first spoke.)
NatCon co-organizer Anna Wellisz told me she wanted to build a "nationalist internationale"—a worldwide network of patriots, capable of fighting back against globalists, communists, and other forces waging war on the nation-state.
The concept, though reactive, is a definite and forward-looking one. That might explain its appeal to Thiel.
While Thiel made his fortune in Silicon Valley, no one would mistake him for a fan of California's politics. With Miami emerging as a new tech hub, the Republican mega-donor bought a pair of Miami Beach mansions in 2021.
Thiel's commitment to Florida made his California question all the more urgent. He had just argued that rising real estate prices in the state (driven in part by purchases like his own) pose a problem.
If DeSantis's Florida is to be a meaningful alternative to Gov. Gavin Newsom's Golden State, it can't fall victim to the same parasitic wasting disease.
The problems, Thiel continued, don't end there.
He warned that Republicans have grown too dependent on "pure nihilistic negation," an especially acute concern as the GOP's anticipated "red wave" threatens to subside before the midterms.
It isn't enough to point out what doesn't work about a place like California—things such as falling test scores, rising homelessness, rampant drug use, and unrelenting "wokeness."
"How can we do better? How can we really offer a vision for the 21st century?" Thiel asked.
Thiel's questions set the tone for the three-day conference.
Depending on who you asked, NatCon III may have delivered answers.
"It was much more practical than previous National Conservatism conferences," Saurabh Sharma, president of the organization American Moment, said in an interview on the last day of the conference.
As an example, he cited a panel on China, during which experts Elbridge Colby, David Goldman, and retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Robert Spalding debated how the United States should engage with its primary economic and geopolitical competitor.
What if Republicans win big in the midterms? Can they learn anything from the conference?
Sharma didn't hesitate.
"Be ruthlessly efficient in attacking the forces of power arrayed against us, whether it's culture, capital, or government, whether it's big Hollywood, whether it's giant corporations or the administrative state, just put a dagger in their heart."
Conservative theorist Paul Gottfried, not one to pull his punches, also sounded upbeat when asked about the conference during a panel discussion. He contrasted it with the 1960s-era conservatism of William F. Buckley Jr.'s "National Review."
That movement, he said, was a cloistered affair, dominated by a small group of intellectuals.
National conservatism now, however, is "building on a strong populist base."
"I also don't think we had any leaders comparable to someone like Ron DeSantis," he added.
Yet, the event wasn't without its critics, including a few young conservatives who declined to be identified.
"My view is that this is a movement in search of a constituency," one said.
"There is broad agreement on what we are against and what we should be about, but when it comes time for strategy and implementation, it's much quieter."
He questioned the choice of hosting an event aligned with global populism at an upscale, South Florida resort hotel, rather than a working-class city in the Midwest. If the NatCons want to get out front, they need to get their hands a little dirtier, he added.
"It feels a bit too D.C. professional, want to work in the swamp and change the swamp. Why isn't this populist movement out in the states?" he said, gesturing to the golf course visible through a nearby window.
Another young conservative said he'd heard many of the same ideas before, at last year's NatCon. Speeches from politicians, he said, were more enlightening than those from academics—particularly when the politicians presented some actionable perspective on the future, rather than endless, repetitive visions of collapse.
He speculated that Republicans' messaging ahead of the midterms suggested the party may have a weak platform.
"What I want to know is, how does everything mesh together in a way that's acceptable to America as a whole?"
Darren Beattie, founder of Revolver News and a panelist at the event, issued a deeper critique of NatCon III from the heart of its sun-baked battlements.
He spoke to me on Sept. 12, minutes after delivering a provocative talk, titled “Can One Be an American Nationalist?” (His answer lingered somewhere between "maybe" and "no.")
Beattie contends that "wokeness" is one twisted manifestation of a fundamentally broken state system, identifying its origins with what he calls the Globalist American Empire.
He chided the Hungarians for imagining they could evade wokeness while under the influence of this empire.
"It's only a matter of time before the disease gets to them," he said.
Some of the conflicts over NatCon reflect a generation gap. Both in and out of NatCon, older conservatives recall a very different America from their younger counterparts.
Baby boomers and Generation X can remember the fall of the USSR, the first Gulf War, and other events that largely vindicated the United States' buildup and projection of military strength.
Many millennials and those of Generation Z (zoomers) only have memories of costly nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with other misadventures in Libya and elsewhere.
The benefits to the American people? Unclear at best.
While boomers rode a wave of resurgent American religiosity, millennials and zoomers came of age in the shadow of new atheism.
Boomers could still expect to meet their spouses at church, in the workplace, or among friends, within a larger culture that still took marriage somewhat seriously.
In the age of dating apps, ubiquitous internet pornography, and radical gender ideology, their children and grandchildren face a very different sexual marketplace—and it is a marketplace.
Panelist and podcaster Alex Kaschuta spoke about the pollution of traditional relationships, arguing that sexual liberation in the age of Tinder had led to "technological Brazilification"—that is, the creation and justification of extreme and destabilizing inequality.
The generational divide doesn't end there.
The words of Martin Luther King Jr. still resonate among many older conservatives, including, perhaps, those who once looked askance at the creation of "MLK Day" for a man so ably assisted by communist Stanley Levison. Some might even recall the last gasps of Jim Crow.
America, some earnestly imagine, is well nigh approaching that great and glorious day when children aren't "judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." Only extremists stand in the way of a color-blind future.
The young are more cynical.
Any post-racial promise that came with the election of President Barack Obama quickly turned to ashes in their mouths.
Race relations have noticeably worsened since 2008—and institutionally sanctioned discrimination only flows in one direction, visibly undermining any pretense of meritocracy in American life.
Overt hostility to "whiteness" has only intensified during the same period, with many of the most vocal being self-flagellating white liberals. While the very rich are somewhat insulated, albeit still susceptible to anti-white propaganda, young middle- or working-class white conservatives can be forgiven for wondering if every major institution sees them as the root of all evil, worthy of replacement.
An honest "national conversation" about race, one beyond pseudonymous whispers of crime statistics online, is drifting further out of reach.
Older conservatives, schooled by Reagan and the experience of 1970s stagflation, often see big government as domestic enemy No. 1.
That outlook squared with the traditional Republican friendliness to corporate America and, more concretely, the influence of business lobbies such as the Chamber of Commerce.
Young conservatives, on the other hand, came of age as parts of the nation were being stripped for parts—after the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the admission of China into the World Trade Organization, and the 2008 financial collapse. They tend to be warier of "Woke Capital," though with the caveat that the government forces at least some of that woke behavior from the private sector.
In this view, big business has made suckers of conservatives.
It happily gluts itself in the American market, in large part because of pro-business policies that American conservatives have advocated for decades, before turning around and attacking conservative values whenever and wherever possible (except when selling widgets in the Muslim world, where U.S. firms gleefully submit to local customs by, for example, omitting the rainbow flag from Middle Eastern social media accounts during Gay Pride Month).
Corporate America, the argument goes, has pushed for everything from open borders and offshoring to lower scrutiny of China and the proliferation of fentanyl. How, then, can young conservatives make a common cause with it, especially now that they're blackballed from many big companies if they voice their opinions?
For many, the growing distrust of big business has brought with it greater openness to the use of government power.
At one extreme, this friendliness to big government solutions can shade into "red Toryism"—in other words, social conservatism paired with support for an expansive welfare state and other quasi-socialist policies.
How Bad Is It Out There?For older conservatives, America might still look like the country that declared independence in 1776, at least if you squint a little.
For some, though not all, young conservatives, Benjamin Franklin's famous quip outside the Constitutional Convention has been answered:
"It's not a republic. We couldn't keep it," podcaster Auron MacIntyre wrote on Twitter.
It calls to mind a well-known stick figure meme. A father walks in on his boy, who's playing a video game. He asks, "Are ya winning, Son?"
So "Are the National Conservatives winning, son?" Well, at this late hour, what constitutes a real win?
Of course, at an event such as NatCon III, ambitious young conservatives can't answer Thiel's vision question with a Spenglerian shrug of the shoulders.
While Hazony's movement may not succeed in moderating the views of the young, it does force participants to reckon with what can be done in the here and now.
American Moment's Sharma provided what amounts to a capsule summary of the forward-looking response from those under the age of 35.
"We need to reward our friends," he told me, before reciting a laundry list of policy changes he thinks would make life easier for the "friends" he evidently had in mind—the American family:
"Getting less stupid on trade and economics, and realizing that the market serves us, we don't serve the market as a god. Immigration is a choice, and it's one we've been a little bit too loose with for the past half-century. We need to ratchet that down," he said.
"Realizing that America is a country, it's not an empire, and our foreign engagements need to be heavily scaled back, with maybe the one exception of a posture toward China that is concerned, but not overly militaristic."
The generation gap widened into a chasm during a panel discussion on the environmental, social, and governance (ESG) movement.
Andy Puzder, a former fast food CEO and former President Donald Trump's nominee for secretary of labor, pitched market-based solutions to the threat of ESG. He added that concerned citizens could always elect politicians who will change things.
That perspective on tackling ESG was rebuffed by a famous audience member, conservative filmmaker Amanda Milius.
"Do any of you guys consider the United States to be anything but a vehicle for making money?" the director of "The Plot Against the President" asked, herself a NatCon insider.
"They're so ancient in their thinking," Milius told me later in between drags of an American Spirit.
Offering a version of Andrew Breitbart's famous dictum, "Politics is downstream from culture," she mocked the idea of responding to the left through the ballot box and checkbook alone.
"I'm in no way saying companies should be under the thumb of the government, but to act like they're not already is hilarious. You can't have a company—for example, a law firm—that's just all men. You can't say that this particular company is just going to hire men. Why not?"
Theo Wold, another ESG panelist and Milius's former colleague in the Trump White House, also pushed back against a market-focused response to the problem.
Documents such as the United Nations' Agenda 21, said Wold, are "ostensibly about wealth," but really "about power, and how to take it."
Sitting on a stage beside Strive Asset Management's Justin Danhof, he questioned comments by Danhof's Strive colleague, the ESG skeptic Vivek Ramaswamy.
In his book, "Woke, Inc.," Ramaswamy wrote that it would be "perfectly legitimate" for the U.S.-based company Airbnb to air its disagreements with fundamental American values. He seeks a return to the more neutral investing climate that prevailed before ESG.
Wold rejects neutrality.
"When companies seek only profits and remain value neutral, a corporate elite with no obligation but the pursuit of profit uses the living, breathing American worker merely as a raw labor input," he said. "Immigration then is a means to take labor from whatever source is cheapest."
Those firms, he added, can then pocket the profits from low-wage labor while socializing the costs of mass immigration—everything from food stamps and welfare to the loss of cultural cohesion in a country that feels less and less like home.
Companies that grow fat and happy thanks to American rights and institutions "should expect to incur obligations to the American people as well."
He decried the establishment's status quo.
"The rising generation of conservatives, the millennials and zoomers, were born into a conservative movement that recites a tired litany of slogans, like free markets and lower taxes. And in some ways, the success of the American corporate economy blinded conservatives to our nation's cultural decay, and our increasing social degeneracy," he said.
In the halls of NatCon, the younger generation seems to be winning.
The high-level Republicans who followed Thiel on the main stage sounded more like Wold than Puzder, at least in comparison to how that class would have sounded before Trump revolutionized U.S. politics.
"I hate socialism," said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), before adding that pure free enterprise doesn't always yield results in line with the national interest.
"We are more than just consumers," he added.
Age is just one of the demographic gaps at NatCon.
As Gottfried and others observed, the mainstream conservatism that took shape after World War II in magazines such as the National Review was a rarefied affair. Its architects were a small but noisy counter-elite, reacting to what they saw as the leftward drift of America's power centers.
Some likely sensed the downward gravitational pull on the country's incumbent elite, still largely made up of wealthy white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants, or WASPs, from the Northeast.
That establishment, along with their middle-class cousins in rural New England and the Midwest, mounted some of the strongest opposition to the revolutionary changes enacted by President Franklin Roosevelt.
In the aftermath of World War II, a newcomer to the Ivy League could fairly ask how that old elite's leading institutions had veered so sharply to the left—a question core to Buckley's 1951 classic, "God and Man at Yale."
"Yale University was thought of (and still is, though to a lesser extent) as a 'citadel of conservatism' (Time magazine's phrase)," Buckley wrote in the foreword to the 1967 reprint of that book.
Yet Buckley, the Catholic son of a Texas oilman, may not have been the image of a "Yale man," even during a more conservative epoch.
His background reflected the reality of postwar conservatism, a clique small enough that, as Gottfried joked, it could almost fit into a broom closet: a huge share of the movement's intellectual heavyweights were tradition-minded Catholics and disaffected, formerly left-leaning Jews.
(The observation isn't exactly a new one. In his 1991 book, "The Way of the WASP," conservative historian Richard Brookhiser described Buckley's "National Review," somewhat cheekily, as solidly "Catholic.")
In 70-plus years, and with the old WASP establishment a faded memory, that gap hasn't really closed. Now, however, rank-and-file Republicans are evangelicals rather than Episcopalians. The Tucker Carlsons are the exception, not the rule.
Can the NatCons form the vanguard of a heavily Protestant conservative base, or is there a real disconnect? If there is a disconnect, does it even need to be bridged?
Aaron Renn, a scholar who has closely tracked the decline of Christianity in American life, tackled these issues while speaking on the panel titled "Protestantism and National Conservatism."
He noted that another NatCon III speaker, Michael Lind, once characterized modern mainstream conservatism as "a Catholic-Jewish project."
Renn does work to offer answers; his project, American Reformer, equips evangelical Christians with intellectual tools for the culture wars.
This particular NatCon was notable for the absence of one influential non-Protestant faction—specifically, the Catholic Integralists, who seek to reorder America under a post-liberal, post-constitutional common good, one presumably compatible with the pronouncements of Pope Francis.
They were, however, conspicuously namechecked, including in a talk by the Heritage Foundation's firebrand president, Kevin Roberts.
Roberts, a cradle Catholic, suggested that the Integralists have been overtaken by the zeal of the convert (many of them are newcomers to Catholicism).
Roberts argued that their vision of Integralism would effectively crowd out another core tenet of the faith—namely, free will.
A Marx-curious, pseudo-ultramontanist theocracy might sway a few dozen online intellectuals, but it doesn't best the California model.
The NatCons' turn toward Alexander Hamilton and away from Thomas Jefferson may also drive a wedge between this counter-elite and its natural base—at least without negotiating some new settlement between the two great American thinkers.
In "Conservatism: A Rediscovery," Hazony placed Jefferson in a liberal tradition in Anglo-American thought, unfavorably contrasting him with Hamilton and the conservative nationalist tradition he is said to represent.
At its best and most useful, the NatCon critique of Jefferson, John Locke, and their predecessors corrects the distorted historical record, drawing attention to some of the conservative, Christian roots of America's founding.
During one panel, for example, conservative writer Daniel McCarthy declared that the frequent identification of America's origins with Locke and classical liberalism was a lie.
"And not a noble lie," he added. "It's a myth, and it has a hold in our minds only because it has been lodged there by propaganda."
In reality, McCarthy said, the American people that grew from colonists to a nation thought of themselves as "a virtuous people deliberating under God."
By the same token, some of Jefferson's specific stances—for example, his support for lax immigration laws when that was politically expedient—may warrant more scrutiny in a country facing different challenges from those of the 1790s.
Yet, if a new Hamiltonianism amounts to more and bigger government, particularly at the federal level, a mass constituency of conservatives won't materialize any time soon.
There's a reason for that. No, not the Chamber of Commerce or the Kochs.
Everyday conservatives' "folk libertarianism," the cause for an occasional NatCon sneer, doesn't necessarily equate to free-market fundamentalism or fairy-tale voluntarism, especially in the post-2016 coalition that has consolidated on the American Right. There's too much Jackson (expansionist), Coolidge (protectionist), and Reagan (pragmatist) in it for that.
It does, however, combine distrust of government with a distaste for the careless blending of public and private power.
Opposition to COVID-19 mandates, to gender ideology in public schools, to the Federal Reserve, and to the abrogation of free speech, religious liberty, and the right to keep and bear arms—these stances and many more trace back to Americans' embrace of the Jeffersonian tradition, now questioned by a liberal establishment that identifies more with Hamilton than with the sage of Monticello.
Jeffersonian localism also seems likelier to deliver victories than Hamiltonian appeals to centralization.
At any rate, a move toward some Hamiltonian policies—for example, tariffs to support the onshoring of critical industries—can't be carried out in isolation from Jeffersonian warnings—in this case, about the potential concentration of unaccountable public-private power around a new counter-elite, the nationalists' equivalent to the World Economic Forum.
(Thiel, for his part, has come up against criticism for his connections to globalist organizations like the Bilderberg Group.)
The speakers who came closest to answering Thiel's opening questions—those who modeled real alternatives to California—chose the most American path: they bridged the gap between Jefferson and Hamilton, serving the common good of a people wont to jealously guarding the public liberty.
Austin Ruse described how his organization, the Center for Family and Human Rights, works with small nations to resist "the imposition of radical social policy on the world" by the United Nations—in effect, a defense of religious liberty indissolubly linked to national sovereignty.
Riley Moore, state treasurer of West Virginia, explained how he and officials from other U.S. states have fought back against ESG in the financial sector by shielding state funds from firms that allegedly boycott the fossil fuel industry.
"I prefer my conservatism concrete, not hypothetical," he said.
Moore argued that both parties had contributed to the globalization that devastated his state.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis presented the clearest, and certainly the most ambitious, alternative to California.
In his speech, he stressed how he'd bucked the Washington consensus on COVID-19, saying that Florida decided to "choose freedom over Faucism."
While that sometimes meant government intervention to protect individuals from private actors—for example, by outlawing employers' COVID-19 vaccine mandates—most of DeSantis's examples amounted to getting government out of the way.
On the more Hamiltonian side, DeSantis touted his state's cheap in-state college tuition and his skepticism of mass immigration, both legal and illegal.
If the NatCons fail, it won't be for lack of a historic opportunity. Much against the wishes of certain governments, nationalist conservatives continue to press their advantage in elections across the West.
As NatCon III drew to a close, the Sweden Democrats were making historic gains in Sweden's parliamentary election. They're now the second-largest party in that nation's Parliament and the largest party from the country's right-wing bloc.
Just days later, the Brothers of Italy emerged as that country's most powerful party following a rancorous general election.
The results certainly appear to be victories for national conservatism in general, and for NatCon in particular. Brothers of Italy's Giorgia Meloni, Italy's incoming prime minister, and Sweden Democrat Charlie Weimers, a member of the European Parliament, have both spoken at NatCon events.
The movement could even do well in the U.S. midterms. Arizona U.S. Senate candidate Blake Masters, a Thiel protégé with a Lincoln-esque build, made the rounds at the Miami event.
The biggest questions about national conservatism will ultimately be answered not through theory, or even well-laid plans, but through action—first of the voters, and then of the men and women they select.
Winning, in the end, is only the start. Every electoral victory is an obligation incurred.
To us and our posterity go the spoils, or the rot.