Which Way, Western Man?

The Russian invasion of Ukraine exposes the real meaning of “national conservatism”

Trusting in strongmen can be dangerous. A street in Mariupol, Ukraine in March, 2022. Image Credit: Sergey Bobek/AFP

The worst curse to impose on an intellectual is: May someone actually put your ideas into practice. This is the dilemma faced right now by the “national conservative” wing of the right. They had been busy cobbling together a fantasy version of nationalism in which a strongman leader would use the power of the state to promote traditional values, particularly religious values, and suppress the cultural influence of today’s “woke” elites, while also managing the economy to provide well-paying blue-collar manufacturing jobs for all.

What this is supposed to look like is a hazily recollected version of “Leave It to Beaver.” But what does it actually look like? When taken all the way to its full logical conclusion—beyond the carefully balanced and relatively tame vision initially offered by its advocates—it leads to Bucha and Mariupol, and the many other scenes of mass killing, brutality and destruction that are emerging from the wreckage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It would not be the first time that the desire for a strongman as a protector has simply unleashed a power-hungry killer.

The sales pitch for the natcons is probably best summed up in a meme borrowed from the title of a book by a white supremacist: “Which Way, Western Man?” The idea is to present two images that represent opposing lifestyles and political systems.

On the one side is usually a pathetic specimen of “woke” lifestyle fashion, some particularly ugly piece of contemporary architecture or a garish bit of crass commercialism. (The usual favorite is a mile-long stretch of road that, through a quirk in highway planning, links I-70 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which has become an oasis thick with gas stations and fast-food joints.) Then on the other side is what appears to be a healthy traditional family or a lovingly renovated, achingly quaint bit of traditional architecture that makes you want to take up permanent residence in a Jane Austen novel.

Then the question is posed: “Which Way, Western Man?” And the answer seems obvious, doesn’t it? But of course these examples are carefully cherry-picked, and the portrayal of a “traditionalist” society is often absurdly idealized, which has inspired many ironic uses of the meme. It tells us what the traditionalist conservatives hope their ideal society would look like—but then again, you could do the same for a futuristic communist utopia. Either way, the reality doesn’t remotely match the brochure.

If we want to see what this new creed really looks like, we can look to Ukraine, before and after Russia showed up to save it from the supposed decadence of the liberal West.

“An Anglo-Americanization of Hungarian Conservatism”

If you ask the natcons, many will tell you that Viktor Orbán’s Hungary is the model for what they want to achieve here. Orbán apologist Rod Dreher goes so far as to endorse the idea that “what we now call ‘national conservatism’ is an Anglo-Americanization of Hungarian conservatism.”

Orbán’s rule is a kind of populist authoritarianism. He remains popular—popular enough to win reelection—but with the support of a media largely controlled by his government, consolidated a few years ago under a centralized organization run by Orbán’s cronies. Orbán has also consolidated his party’s control over education, particularly higher education. He used punitive laws to chase out the Central European University founded by left-wing Hungarian-born billionaire George Soros, then restructured the country’s public universities under foundations to which only political loyalists with “national thinking” are appointed. He diverted billions in public funds to support an elite conservative college and other cultural foundations run by his political supporters.

According to a recent editorial in The Guardian newspaper, the result is predictable.

Welcome to the media in Hungary, where NGOs are blacklisted, critical stories are binned, and senior editors instruct journalists to disregard the facts before their eyes. “We have reached a situation where our position is now much, much worse than it was back in the 1980s when Hungary was a communist country,” said one person with decades of experience of Hungarian state media….

In short, Hungary is a place where the conservatives are in charge of “cancel culture.” It’s all a Potemkin village, of course—a country that panders to rhetoric about conservative values even as Budapest is known as the Bangkok of Europe, where poor young women are drawn into prostitution. And even as Orbán rails against the European Union, his country is one of the biggest net beneficiaries of EU funds, with an economy kept afloat by European subsidies.

But it’s not about results, it’s about the lure of power. The American right is so enamored with this that they chose to host an event in Hungary under the aegis of CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, which has become an important platform for Republican politicians to appeal to their base. The CPAC event was originally scheduled for March but was pushed back to May. Why? Because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, of course.

This has changed the implications of American conservatives’ support for Hungary. Orbán has long cultivated a close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and supported Russian interests, and he closed his recent reelection campaign by vowing to stand back and leave Ukraine to its fate at Putin’s hands.

Recalling World War II atrocities in Hungary, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy challenged Orbán, “There is no time to hesitate. It’s time to decide.” In his election victory speech, Orbán responded by describing Zelenskyy as an “opponent,” so it looks like he has decided.

This shows us that from Orbán as a model of nationalist conservatism, it’s not as far as one might think to Putin as the model. The hallmark of nationalist conservative reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine is the consistency with which they have served as apologists for the Putin regime—again and again and again. Notice the repeated theme in their case for Putin.

A pre-war speech by The Claremont Institute’s Christopher Caldwell at Hillsdale College—Claremont and Hillsdale are the closest thing nationalist conservatives have to intellectual citadels—summed up the case for Putin: “Vladimir Vladimirovich is not the president of a feminist NGO. He is not a transgender-rights activist. He is not an ombudsman appointed by the United Nations to make and deliver slide shows about green energy.” Similarly, The Federalist’s Christopher Bedford declares that “the truth is that a lot of us hate our elites far more than we hate some foreign dictator.”

Antonio García Martínez sums it up as conservative oikophobia, hatred for one’s own country. He writes:

The term oikophobia was coined by cultural conservative Roger Scruton to skewer the British left. Nowadays, the right is just as infected with a withering opinion of the U.S. influence on the world as those with fading Che posters on their walls.

What drives a surprising amount of this is a religiously motivated hostility toward homosexuals. It was Putin’s law targeting so-called “gay propaganda” that caused him to be hailed as a Christian hero by nationalist conservatives like Pat Buchanan—as well as inspiring similar laws in Hungary and now in Florida. This is also providing Russia with a religious justification for its war on Ukraine. Patriarch Kirill, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, celebrated Russia’s designs for domination of Ukraine as “a principled rejection of the so-called values that are now being offered by those who lay claim to global domination.”

Today, there is a certain test for loyalty to that power, a certain pass into that “happy” world, the world of excessive consumption, the world of illusory freedom. Do you know what that test is? It’s very simple but also horrific: It’s a gay parade. The demand to hold a gay parade is in fact a test for loyalty to that powerful world, and we know that if people or countries resist this demand, they are excluded from that world and treated as alien.

It’s no surprise that this is being echoed in the U.S., where the California College Republicans asked, “Do you really want gay pride parades in Kieve [sic] so badly that you’ll get into a nuclear confrontation with Russia?” All the nationalist conservative themes are there: the complaint about domination from “global” powers, the galled obsession with tolerance of homosexuality, and above all, the dismissal of “illusory freedom.” Nationalist theorist Patrick Deneen calls this “imperial liberalism,” while Sohrab Ahmari calls it “the liberal imperium.” It’s a fancy way of saying that Freedom Is Slavery.

The War of the Brutal and Stupid

But the actual conduct of Putin’s war gives the lie to nationalist claims about putting moral values above shallow Western materialism. It is not merely the unprovoked initiation of an aggressive war, but the manner in which Russia has carried it out: systematic mass killings in Bucha; the ruthless leveling of Mariupol, including the deliberate bombing of shelters for women and children; widespread rape, including the most horrific stories. They are the hallmarks of a war that is being prosecuted, not for the goal of Russian security, but to destroy Ukrainian society.

Consider the latest massacre, a Russian rocket attack on a train station in Kramatorsk that was known to be crowded with thousands of civilians attempting to evacuate. The Russians can’t even be bothered to reclaim the bodies of their own soldiers, who have been sent heedlessly into war as cannon fodder. And did I mention materialism? Another signature of the Russian invasion has been the widespread and brazen looting.

Meanwhile, Russian control of Ukraine would almost certainly mean the extension of Russia’s persecution of non-Orthodox believers and also intensify the low-level religious war within the Orthodox Church that has been simmering between the Patriarch of Moscow and the Patriarch of Constantinople. So much for the claim of nationalist strongmen to be protecting religion from the big, bad secularists.

Perhaps more devastating, the invasion of Ukraine contradicts the nationalists’ delusion that they are the ones offering a philosophy of strength. Christopher Caldwell’s praise of Putin included the claim that “He restored [Russia’s] military strength.” The debacle of the last six weeks reveals the hollowness behind Putin’s bluster, and more: It demonstrates that it is precisely his authoritarianism that makes him weak. Putin’s penchant for surrounding himself with yes-men and ruling by fear has led to “a clear breakdown in the flow of accurate information to the Russian president.” The result was a poorly planned Russian invasion fought by an unmotivated and uncoordinated army of conscripts.

Meanwhile, it is liberal Europe that has rallied behind Ukraine and helped them defeat the first stage of the Russian attack. The dilemma of the nationalists is best summed up by David Frum: “Everything they wanted to perceive as decadent and weak has proven strong and brave; everything they wanted to represent as fearsome and powerful has revealed itself as brutal and stupid.”

What Is “Nationalism,” Anyway?

There is one last way in which the war in Ukraine has exposed the creed of the national conservatives: It shows us that they are not even nationalists, not in any ordinary sense.

Claremont’s Caldwell had hailed Putin’s Russia as “a symbol of national self-determination.” But surely, if there is a country that now serves as such a symbol, it is Ukraine. Historically, Russia is not a nationalist power but an imperial one, which has grown over the centuries by absorbing other nations under the rule of a dominant caste of ethnic Russians. Russia’s vague threats against countries like Poland and Kazakhstan show that it still clings to these imperialist ambitions. Ukraine is bravely resisting absorption into this Russian empire. Any genuine “nationalist” should be rallying to its side.

Yet “nationalism” has always been an equivocal term. It can mean dedication to the nation-state as a political organization, or to one nation-state in particular. But it can also refer to a philosophy in which the political, economic and personal freedom of the individual has to be sacrificed to the larger collective interests of the nation—as represented by the state, in the person of a ruler.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the nationalist conservatives’ reaction to it, reveal their indifference to every meaning of nationalism except that last one. The real meaning of their philosophy is power-worship, and nationalism is just a polite placeholder for authoritarianism. It is good to have that clarified in such a definitive way.

If this is power-worship, it is misplaced power-worship. Putin and his natcon fanboys made the same mistake as many before them. They assumed that a liberal society is weak and decadent, that our freedoms and our pursuit of happiness make us foolish and undisciplined. They imagined a quick blow—a blitz of London or a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor or a rapid capture of Kyiv—would cow us into submission. They have generally discovered their error only when it is too late.

They are discovering it again, and the blow is fatal to their philosophy. To exalt brutality in the name of strength is contemptible. But how much more contemptible is it to exalt brutality, to sell out your supposed principles, and then achieve only failure?

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