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NatCon v. FreeCon
No easy task, this sorting of terms.
I’ve often commented on the Freudian slip we often see in activists who say our country faces an “existential crisis” when they mean to say they think we face “existential threats.” (An existential threat is a threat to existence, while an existential crisis is a crisis of self-understanding. Think mid-life-crisis).
Nowhere is this irony more obvious than in the right-wing of American politics, which currently is facing both a political and intellectual schism. But, for how obvious it is, there has been some difficulty in understanding the nature of the schism and determining who is on which side of that schism.
Recently, Isaac Willour in the Daily Saucer weighed in on this point of inquiry by discussing a dust-up between David French and Carl Trueman, with French accusing Trueman of “broadly find[ing] himself on the New Right.”
David French has made a name for himself as a pundit who is unafraid of sniffing out and shining the light of day on conservative heresies in America’s right-wing. I have enjoyed and, for the most part, personally endorsed much of French’s commentary in the last decade.
But David French, at times admittedly, has become more of a civic libertarian than a movement conservative in recent years, hostile even to certain well-established factions of the “Old Right” that he sees as having established the genesis of Trumpism (rather than viewing Trumpism an anomaly). So, when French turned his gaze on Trueman, he saw something there that smelled like the kind of activism his instincts pushed against. And this made Trueman part of the New Right, even though Trueman himself had never considered himself aligned with that faction.
This leads us to Isaac Willour’s observation last week that we don't "have a meaningful definition of who actually counts as ‘New Right.’" This is an intriguing and difficult topic, all the more so because, for how much the NatCons and FreeCons represent a serious rift in the history of modern conservatism, there is, in fact, some crossover between their two statements of principle.
Most pointedly, both sides seek to conserve unique and important aspects of Western Society, Western Culture, and Western forms of government. But there is disagreement on emphasis, a different understanding of the Western tradition, and a serious conflict in vision over the means necessary for conserving that which is threatened by the encroachments of the modern world.
This is where, I think, David French went wrong in his critique. Carl Trueman, as a theologist, is a thinker who leans into his traditionalism. He’s a strong advocate for virtue, a Christian thinker who believes America needs a commitment to Christian values to maintain its soul and its freedoms. David French, a civil libertarian, has similar Christian beliefs but is a hardliner for keeping most moral considerations out of government policy. Because French felt Trueman went too far in advocating such moral considerations, French sorted him into the New Right.
But in this instance, French played the game by his opponent’s rules.
The schism conservatism faces is the unraveling of the fusionist core of modern conservatism. The New Right and the National Conservatives represent right-wing thinkers and writers who have grown hostile to certain tenets of liberty which, as they see it, have unleashed licence and enabled libertine living. They view liberty as hostile to virtue. There’s is a traditionalism unmoored from the necessary tension with individualism that allows for the balance between virtue and liberty to exist (and without which neither can survive for long).
National Conservatives paint Freedom Conservatives as morally bankrupt by our commitment to classically liberal principles, and unwilling to do what’s necessary to allow virtue to flourish. They place the decadence of modern America at our feet.
But Freedom Conservatism is not simply an inverse image of National Conservatism. FreeCons are not merely civic libertarians committed to liberty at the expense of virtue. We are not individualists unmoored from traditionalism. The project of Freedom Conservatism is a fusionist one.
This is why Isaac Willour stepped up to defend Carl Trueman. This is why his defense of Carl Trueman has been liked and shared by signatories of Freedom Conservatism’s Statement of Principles. Trueman might be a traditionalist and leans into the virtue side of the equation more than the liberty side. But he is not hostile to liberty in the way the New Right is. He is broadly fusionist and, thus, broadly Freedom Conservative.
What defines the New Right and the National Conservatives isn’t their traditionalism. It’s their belief, their assertion, that traditionalism dictates a fundamental dismantling and dismissal of classical liberalism. It’s their pointed critique of and hostility to liberty, not their traditionalism, that defines them.
Justin Stapley received his Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science from Utah Valley University, with emphases in Political Philosophy and Public Law, American History, and Constitutional Studies. He is the Founding and Executive Director of the Freemen Foundation as well as Editor in Chief of the Freemen News-Letter. @JustinWStapley