Corporate America, Meet the NatCons
Corporate America’s relationship with the Republican Party is undergoing the most significant change in four decades. The right-of-center protagonists in this unfolding story – the faction known as national conservatives, or “NatCons” – shun large business interests in favor of working-class voters as a matter of political principle and electoral strategy. If current trends persist, the long-reigning policy agenda of free trade, low corporate taxes, and light antitrust enforcement will crumble as the GOP – transformed by NatCons – replaces the goals of price competition and tech innovation with restoring the nation’s working class through higher wages, greater domestic manufacturing, and limits on corporate mergers and acquisitions.
NatCons do not simply oppose America’s biggest companies on policy, but allege direct responsibility for many of the nation’s most serious afflictions. According to a June 2022 “Statement of Principles” signed by more than 70 NatCon leaders: “Trans-national corporations showing little loyalty to any nation damage public life by censoring political speech, flooding the country with dangerous and addictive substances and pornography, and promoting obsessive, destructive personal habits.”1 Although the movement remains in an early phase, a GOP heavily influenced by NatCons will not be the reliably pro-business Republican Party of Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and former House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI).
What is National Conservatism?
National conservatism fuses two instincts that, to greater and lesser degrees during recent decades, have shaped the American Right: strong commitment to culturally distinct nation states as the indispensable organizing units of the international system, and disdain for experts intent on imposing unfamiliar values and habits on average citizens (the late Angelo M. Codevilla’s “ruling class” and “country party,” respectively).2 In his 2022 book The Right tracing the history of American conservatism, journalist and intellectual historian Matthew Continetti succinctly describes the policy implications at the dawn of the Trump era, which marked the reemergence of this “national populism” after decades of being bested by libertarian rivals: “[NatCons] thought that national sovereignty and independence were more important than global flows of capital, labor, and commodities.”3
Provoked by the Iraq War, the global financial crisis, and the failed promises of the trade relationship with China, NatCons strongly reflect the influence of James Burnham (1905-1987), whose The Managerial Revolution (1941) forecast the tendency of the bureaucratic state toward political and sociological insularity at the expense of the public: “In the new form of society, sovereignty is localized in administrative bureaus. They proclaim the rules, make the laws, issue the decrees.”4 Burnham adds, “The social position of the managers is buttressed in the bureaus both against the claims of the capitalists and also against the pressure of the masses, neither of which groups can function effectively through the bureaus.”5
Burnham’s insight that the arrogance of the elite bureaucratic state would lead to diminished popular legitimacy today applies, NatCons argue, to corporate America. C-suite indulgence in “woke” ideology has transformed big business from an ally of conservatives against government to yet another enemy to be fought alongside the liberal-bureaucratic state.
This understanding of major American corporations as agents of the woke Left infuses NatCon attacks on business with unusual intensity. NatCon Talk podcast co-host Rachel Bovard, who currently serves as Senior Director of Policy at the anti-establishment Conservative Partnership Institute and has addressed all three National Conservatism Conferences organized by The Edmund Burke Foundation, recently fired the following rhetorical fusillade: “The woke ideologies, the universities who teach it, and the cultural and corporate elites who enforce it, are fundamentally anti-American, totalitarian, and absolutely convicted about the justice of punishing dissent and destroying any check on their own power.”6
NatCons seek – in contrast to their free market rivals within the Right – to leverage government power to advance a distinctly American “common good” of “the interests of workers, their families and communities, and the nation.”7
Who are the NatCons?
Yoram Hazony: The Philosopher
Born in Israel in 1964, Hazony graduated from Princeton and Rutgers, where he completed a Ph.D. in Political Theory. Hazony currently chairs The Edmund Burke Foundation, which has emerged as the flagship organization of the NatCon movement globally. In 2018, Hazony authored The Virtue of Nationalism, which provides a historical and ideological foundation for the new nationalism championed by the NatCons. Most fundamentally, Hazony rejects contemporary conservatism’s core premise that the rights of individuals, not the prerogatives of a people’s culture, form the essence of a nation’s worldview. As summarized by Hazony in his 2022 book, Conservatism: A Rediscovery: “[U]nder the present conditions of permanent revolution and cultural devastation, the most important thing to remember about individual liberties is that, in and of themselves, they have no power to make anything stable or permanent.”8 Hazony’s national conservatism evinces his life experience at a deeply personal level as recounted in Conservatism: A Rediscovery; he embraced Orthodox Judaism while a student at Princeton, married young, and with his wife has raised a religiously traditional family in Jerusalem with nine children.9
Julius Krein: The Policy Wonk
Krein, who spent his early career in finance, exerts broad influence as editor of American Affairs, a quarterly publication he founded in 2017 to advance the political realignment that produced the Trump presidency.10 Krein assails establishment conservatism for eschewing government power as an essential instrument of change: “The organization of the modern Right around anti-statism has been particularly damaging. Not only do many of the most pressing problems require more state intervention, but the entire free market framework, in which business is imagined to be in diametric opposition to central planning, misses the reality of today’s economy.”11 Krein reserves his sharpest attacks for the conservative movement’s self-induced paralysis: “[I]t seems that the conservative corpus is simply no longer capable of anything but reflexive spasms.”12 American Affairs offers an intensely practical policy agenda that serves as an actionable handbook for NatCon and other realignment-oriented policymakers in Washington, D.C. and state capitals. Proposals in recent editions of the publication include detailed outlines on reshoring American manufacturing, renewing domestic nuclear energy production, and strengthening critical supply chains.13
U.S. Senator J.D. Vance (R-OH): The Elected Leader
Born and raised in Middletown, Ohio, Vance rose to national prominence with his best-selling 2016 memoir Hillbilly Elegy, which viscerally portrays the economic and social decline of rural working-class America. A former Marine, Yale law graduate, and venture capitalist at Peter Thiel-funded Mithril Capital, Vance believes that his hometown and countless others like it have been the victim not just of a policy betrayal, but a moral miscalculation. As he put it in a 2022 interview with The Washington Post Magazine, “What social progressives have accomplished over the last couple of decades is to deprive our country of any real shared — any real shared anything.”14
Prior to and throughout his 2022 Ohio Senate campaign, Vance also attacked establishment conservatives for what he described as indifference to the nation and its flourishing: “…[W]hen people hear the phrase ‘the American Dream,’ their eyes sort of glaze over. Because the way that it’s been taught to by so many establishment Republican politicians is that the American Dream is the dream of Mitt Romney.”15 Among all GOP candidates in the Midterm Elections, candidate Vance’s campaign agenda arguably was the most purely NatCon, combining a complete and distinctly nationalist vision for American renewal supercharged with an eagerness to use state power. Vance’s journey from a disadvantaged Midwestern family destabilized by addiction, to the military and, then, to legal and investment elite equips him to serve as a leading national voice for the NatCon agenda. Vance will occupy the seat formerly held by fellow Republican Rob Portman (R-OH), who during his long career of public service established himself as the consummate policy expert and legislator attuned to the concerns of the corporate sector. If the NatCons do succeed in redefining the Republican Party, historians likely will identify the transition from Portman to Vance as the reference case that illustrates what would be a profound ideological shift.
The growing influence of the NatCon movement sets the Right on a collision course with corporate America. Just as Progressives have moved the Democratic Party to the populist Left, the NatCons intend to move the Republican Party to the populist Right on several key issues:
Bolstering national manufacturing capacity and skepticism of unfettered free trade are key policy goals of the NatCon movement. Unlike many Republicans, NatCons do not emphasize a political economy dominated by neutrality and the open and free exchange of capital, goods, and services. Instead, they believe that the role of government decision-making is to set the economic conditions for national prosperity, including through industrial policy and targeted trade protectionism. In a 2019 report on U.S.-China industrial competition, then-Senate Small Business Committee Chairman Marco Rubio (R-FL) argued, “The relevant policy consideration, then, is not whether states should organize their economies, but how they should be organized. Total neutrality among interacting economic systems is impossible. . ..”16 Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) echoed this sentiment in a speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library: “Some of our orthodox libertarian friends may say that all this violates the principles of free trade. And perhaps it does. But whereas libertarian ideas have helpfully influenced domestic tax and regulatory policy, these ideas often falter in a world of borders.”17
While Republicans for decades have championed the late Judge Robert H. Bork’s consumer welfare standard, NatCons are more concerned with the health of America’s workers and producers. This aligns with the NatCon worldview that emphasizes production over consumption. It is also a key area of cooperation between NatCons and the Left. Reacting to news that Amazon was petitioning for progressive Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chair Lina Khan to recuse herself from investigations into the company, Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) tweeted, “Precisely why she [Khan] was a good choice for the FTC.”18 NatCons view antitrust as a useful policy tool that can be deployed against Big Tech and other culturally hostile corporate actors, as well as in support of American workers.19
Tax Cuts and Financial Services
To NatCons, the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act represents a missed opportunity and a sign that, despite Trump’s victory, the Republican Party continues to misunderstand – or disregard – the policy priorities of its voters. Senator Rubio, who voted in favor of the legislation, took to one-time conservative standard-bearer National Review in 2018 to air his grievances, writing, “On the whole, the tax cut bill helps workers. It’s just not massive tax cuts to multinational corporations that do it.”20 Oren Cass of the NatCon-aligned think tank American Compass has relentlessly criticized policies that incentivize financialization of the economy at the expense of genuinely productive investment: “American finance has metastasized, claiming a disproportionate share of the nation’s top business talent and the economy’s profits, even as actual investment has declined. Businesses, rather than invest their own profits in growth and innovation, increasingly disgorge capital back into the market, where it flows into speculative frenzies that drive the prices of existing assets higher rather than creating new ones.”21 Speaking to a gathering in Washington, D.C. in May 2019, J.D. Vance proclaimed, “It is very common to hear from folks on the Right that all we need to solve the problem of Middle America and the declining American dream is maybe a supply side tax cut and a little bit of a lecture about personal responsibility.”22
NatCons must navigate several serious obstacles, some intellectual and others more practical. First, national conservatism as conceived by Hazony relies heavily on the thinking of Edmund Burke, the eighteenth-century Anglo-Irish statesman and philosopher. Burke’s deference to long-standing habits and institutions conflicts heavily with passionate American support for eliminating prejudice and other unfairness. Second, NatCons presume an unfolding civilizational catastrophe, coloring the movement with a deep pessimism about the individual freedom and material abundance that most Americans consider their birthright. Third and finally, NatCons enjoy few institutional allies while enemies abound: whereas 1970s-era libertarians found a natural ally in the business community during a period of burdensome tax rates and regulation, the new nationalists do not benefit from obvious sources of support from entrenched interests.
Although confronted by formidable challenges, NatCons display considerable energy and confidence as conventional Republicans appear fatigued and uncertain. Events of the past two decades have destroyed the modus vivendi that proved so successful under the Reagan and both Bush Administrations in reconciling business-backed Republican leaders in Washington, D.C. and GOP primary voters. If anti-wokeness, domestic manufacturing, and opposing China’s rise continue to dominate the priorities of the conservative movement, then the NatCons will have the advantage in defining the approach of the Republican Party to the business community.
1 “National Conservatism: A Statement of Principles,” Edmund Burke Foundation, https://nationalconservatism.org/national-conservatism-a-statement-of-principles.
2 Angelo Codevilla, The Ruling Class: How They Corrupted America and What We Can Do About It, New York: Beaufort Books, 2010.
3 Matthew Continetti, The Right, New York, NY: Basic Books, 2022, 376.
4 James Burnham, The Managerial Revolution: What is Happening in the World, London, United Kingdom: John Day Company, 1941, 141.
5 Ibid., 143.
6 Rachel Bovard, “The Fierce Urgency of How: A NatCon Agenda for 2022 and Beyond,” Address at NatCon 3, September 12, 2022, retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=iKW4P1sz2pk.
7 New Direction: Conservative Principles & Policies for the 118th Congress, American Compass, https://americancompass.org/new-direction.
8 Yoram Hazony, Conservatism: A Rediscovery, Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, 2022, xviii.
9 “About Me,” Yoram Hazony, https://www.yoramhazony.org/about.
10 “Why a New Policy Journal?,” American Affairs, http://americanaffairsjournal.org/2017/02/new-policy-journal.
11 Julius Krein, “The Three Fusions,” American Affairs, Volume II, Number 3 (2018): https:// americanaffairsjournal.org/2018/08/the-three-fusions.
12 Julius Krein, “Conservatism is a Collection of Losers. It Doesn’t Have To Be.,” The American Conservative, August 7, 2020, https://www.theamericanconservative.com/conservatism-is-a-collection-of-losers-it-doesnt-have-to-be.
13 See: “Archives,” American Affairs, https://americanaffairsjournal.org/archives.
14 Simon van Zuylen-Wood, “The Radicalization of J.D. Vance,” The Washington Post Magazine, June 4, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/magazine/2022/01/04/jd-vance-hillbilly-elegy-radicalization.
15 J.D. Vance, “A Civilizational Crisis,” The American Conservative, July 27, 2021, https://www. theamericanconservative.com/a-civilizational-crisis.
16 Sen. Marco Rubio, “Made in China 2025 and the Future of American Industry,” February 12, 2019, https://www.rubio.senate.gov/public/_cache/files/0acec42a-d4a8-43bd-8608-a3482371f494/262B39A37119D9DCFE023B907F54BF03.02.12.19-final-sbc-project-mic-2025-report.pdf.
17 Sen. Tom Cotton, “Onstage At The Reagan Library With Senator Tom Cotton,” Address at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, March 7, 2022, retrieved from https://www.cotton.senate.gov/ news/speeches/cotton-delivers-speech-at-the-ronald-reagan-presidential-library.
18 Sen. Josh Hawley, Twitter, June 30, 2021, https://twitter.com/HawleyMO/status/1410265732429066243.
19 For further reading on the latest trends in American antitrust policy and their implications for business, see: “Vengeance: America’s Antitrust Reform Movement,” Baron Public Affairs, Fall 2021,https://www.baronpa.com/library/vengeance-americas-antitrust-reform-movement.
20 Sen. Marco Rubio, “Two Cheers for Corporate Tax Cuts,” National Review, May 2, 2018, https://www.nationalreview.com/2018/05/corporate-tax-cuts-must-help-working-families-marco-rubio.
21 “Financialization,” American Compass, https://americancompass.org/financialization.
22 J.D. Vance, “Towards a Pro-Worker, Pro-Family Conservatism,” The American Conservative, May 29. 2019, https://www.theamericanconservative.com/towards-a-pro-worker-pro-family-conservatism.