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Letter from Italy: Attending a gathering of ultra conservatives in Rome

The event seemed designed not to explore the intellectual content of conservatism, but to strengthen bridges between new nationalist forces in Europe and the US. 

Exiting from the revolving door of Rome’s Grand Hotel Plaza, I was crushed between bearded giants in three-piece suits, as a heaving scrum of nationalists and cameramen jostled for position on the pavement. The strains of a busker strumming Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito” vibrated through the Roman air, yet could not distract attention from the main act, about to step from his vehicle on to the red carpet. Anticipation soon turned to dismay, as the dark-windowed Maserati produced not Viktor Orbán — the star speaker at this year’s National Conservatism conference — but an unknown guest.  

The organisers of “NatCon,” which took place on 3-4 February, included the Edmund Burke Foundation, a conservative think tank based in the Hague, and an Italian group called Nazione Futura. Although they wanted to make the event feel like a convention, the hotel lobby featured only three small stalls – two for conference passes and one selling books by speakers such as the writer Douglas Murray and the French right’s rising star Marion Maréchal. Both were billed to talk alongside Orbán, as well as the suave Dutch anti-immigration politician Thierry Baudet and the Lega leader Matteo Salvini (who failed to show).

Many of these figures are unwelcome on Europe’s centre right (on 29 January, the European People’s Party voted to continue suspending Orbán’s Fidesz party from its ranks in the European Parliament, over alleged violations of rule-of-law principles and its criticism of the EU.) Yet NatCon was the image of respectability. Sat on soft velvet chairs below glittering chandeliers, a 500-strong crowd in well-tailored suits had as much dark hair as grey and included a smattering of teenage boys with fighter- pilot trims. Many speeches provoked laughter and bursts of applause, but the overall tone was more like a corporate awards ceremony than a rabble-rousing rally.

Proceedings began with Chris DeMuth, who led Ronald Reagan’s task force on slashing government regulation during the 1980s, and headed the American Enterprise Institute think tank between 1986 and 2008. He spoke of another year of growing success for national conservatism, and suggested that nationalists the world over were beginning to converge.  He also said that he had big plans for NatCon itself, and hoped that the annual congregation would one day replace the “globalist” World Economic Forum. “Adios, Davos!” he declared; both words were gleefully mispronounced, but the rhyme worked – and drew a laugh. 

The speakers at NatCon delivered their remarks against a backdrop of dark blue panelling emblazoned with the motto: “God, Honor, Country”. The theme of the event was “national freedom and biblical morality”. During the first panel discussion, the Italian Catholic historian Roberto de Mattei lamented that while Pope John Paul II had united with Reagan against the Soviets during the Cold War, Pope Francis had “given up his spiritual role to become political leader of the international left”, leaving Donald Trump to uphold “morality in politics”.

Also invoking Reagan, Pope John Paul II, as well as Margaret Thatcher, DeMuth argued that the nationalist fight against the left needed reviving: “The Atlantic alliance of the 1980s would not have foreseen today’s woke capitalism, the replacement of liberal pluralism with hegemonic progressivism, and the assault on bourgeois values and even the family itself.” DeMuth said that overcoming these forces would require a global alliance of “national patriots” to resist liberal-left “authoritarianism”.

Following a National Conservative conference in Washington, DC in July 2019, the Rome event seemed designed not to explore the intellectual content of conservatism, but to build and strengthen bridges between new nationalist forces in Europe, the fringe of the Republican Party, and sections of the Conservative Party. One might have expected more moderate British and American conservatives such as  Reagan’s former speechwriter Clark Judge to have been uncomfortable rubbing shoulders with Islamophobic and anti-Semitic speakers from Europe. Yet here they were, drawing inspiration from something their continental brethren possess that they do not: a political identity based on martyrdom and resistance. 

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Comparisons between the post-1945 anti-communist resistance and today’s fight against “cultural Marxism” were frequent. In his speech on the “Pink Police State”, Rod Dreher, a senior editor at the American Conservative, explained that his Czech friends tell him they can feel the left’s resurgent totalitarian spirit “in their bones”. 

This point was reinforced by Orbán, a former liberal activist under the Soviet-backed Hungarian regime during the 1980s. In conversation with DeMuth, he delighted the crowd with anecdotes of encounters with Thatcher and John Paul II, who sent him a medal in 2002 that Orbán called “the highest decoration”. According to Orbán, the Pontiff told him that the award was not “for what you have done up to now but for what you will do”. The Hungarian premier insisted the anti-communist struggle was not over: the “communist way of thinking”, he said, persists in liberal media and academia, by those who “use different words” but say “the same thing as the Marxists”. 

Alongside Latin and central European countries, the English market town of Shrewsbury was represented at the conference. With Anna Maria Anders, the Polish ambassador to Italy, and Mattias Karlsson, of the Sweden Democrats, the Conservative MP Daniel Kawczynski participated in a panel on a “Europe of Sovereign Nations”. Despite his wearisome delivery, Kawczynski’s mere presence as a representative of a party that had dragged its country out of the EU gained him strong applause.

Kawczynski’s ten-minute address focused on Britain’s waning ties to the EU before the 2016 referendum, culminating in David Cameron’s doomed renegotiation. But far from being triumphalist, Kawczynski struck a melancholic note, saying that the challenge to the “Franco-German axis” in Europe had failed and that the “juggernaut towards the creation of supranational state” was unstoppable. Taking questions from the audience, Kawczynski said it was not his place to tell other parties what to do, but commented that in leaving the EU, Britain was “walking through a minefield with a blindfold on, but we’re leaving a trail of breadcrumbs for others to follow”.

Kawczynski’s presence at NatCon was controversial and he faced calls for him to lose the party whip, as well as criticism from fellow Tory MPs. If Kawczynski was bothered by those other conference speakers who compared liberalism to a virus, or Africans and Muslims to an invading army, or by the presence of the Polish philosopher Ryszard  Legutko, who has described homophobia as a “totally fictitious problem”, he didn’t mention it at the time. The Conservative Party later issued a statement saying his  attendance was “not acceptable”, and that he had apologised. 

Co-organised by Yoram Hazony, the Israeli nationalist and author of The Virtue of Nationalism, NatCon included both hard-right Zionists and anti-Semites. The latter group politely limited themselves to attacking “cultural Marxism” and “globalism” – well-known far-right racist tropes.

The Spectator columnist Douglas Murray was one of the few speakers to acknowledge the political forces on the right of national conservatism; those parties compromised by their historic collaboration with fascism and Nazism. He denied that Brexit would be a pan-European phenomenon, and drew on the thinking of the late philosopher Roger Scruton to insist on its roots in the British people’s sense of place and love of democracy. For Murray, “Nationalism can go wrong but so can everything – love caused the Trojan War but no one would call for its cessation.” Later, the French historian Edouard Husson implored his “friends” in the German far-right party Alternative für Deutschland to take a clear stance on any  association with Nazism.

One of the most anticipated speakers was Marion Maréchal, niece of the Rassemblement National leader Marine Le Pen and granddaughter of the party’s founder Jean-Marie Le Pen. Also referencing Scruton’s work, she cited literary and romantic figures in French conservatism, from the 19th-century crowd psychologist Gustave Le Bon, to the historian Alexis de Tocqueville and the writer Chateaubriand. But she also invoked Edmund Burke’s critique of the French Revolution of 1789, claiming the revolution was the source of the “abstract citizen, detached from his land, his parish, his profession”– and today’s metropolitan “citizen of nowhere”. She portrayed conservatives as defenders of the national community – the “new humanism of this century” – who must take “drastic measures” to stop “ethnic Europeans” from being overwhelmed by outsiders from  Africa and the Arab world. 

Maréchal connected her Burkean theme to today’s environmental dramas – a crisis of “resources, food and energy”. She insisted that “global problems rarely have global solutions”, arguing that “environmentalism is a quintessentially conservative theme, for preserving our territories, our biodiversity, our countryside”. Damning both climate change sceptics and those who, she said, “make love to trees”, Maréchal argued that each group had refused to recognise the dangers of “ultra-productivism” – the tailoring of economies and global supply chains to suit consumer demands. Merging conservative theorists with a racialised response to the climate emergency, Maréchal’s address drew enthusiastic applause. 

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NatCon showed that national conservatives are not just blowhards obsessed with the past; they are responding to the most urgent challenges of our time with a political persuasiveness the left must match. The conference also highlighted the ways in which national conservatism seeks to work alongside far-right parties associated with Nazi-style fascism, such as Fratelli d’Italia in Italy, Rassemblement National in France and Vox in Spain, while also transforming the centre right. When Edouard Husson said that “the conservative torch has passed from Merkel to Johnson”, this did not sound like a call for a French or Italian version of Brexit. It was, rather, frank recognition that culture and national identity have become the battlegrounds on which politics will be contested – these issues will dominate the parties of the centre right and not just their “populist” or far-right challengers.

It was fitting, therefore, that NatCon took place in Rome. This is a country where a half-century of Christian-Democratic rule after 1945 was followed by a total reinvention of the centre right, first by Silvio Berlusconi and most recently by Salvini. With party allegiances volatile and the international left in retreat, the political initiative is with the nationalists. NatCon promised to spread this offensive elsewhere – making the fight against “globalism” global. 

This article appears in the 28 February 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The death of privacy