After attending NatCon, the recent National Conservatism conference featuring academics, wonks, theologians, and politicians like Marco Rubio, Rick Scott, Josh Hawley, and Ron DeSantis, I realized there are two factions within American conservatism: Team Frodo and Team Boromir.
Readers of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring remember Frodo as the hobbit tasked with destroying the Ring of Power lest it fall into the hands of the evil Sauron. Boromir was the traveling companion who urged Frodo to let him use the Ring’s power against their enemies. “Why should we not think that the Great Ring has come into our hands to serve us in the very hour of need?” he asked. “Wielding it the Free Lords of the Free may surely defeat the Enemy.”
Judging by which statements garnered enthusiastic applause, most NatCons identify as sons of Boromir, seeking to turn the massive power of the administrative state against a legion of enemies that include Big Tech, the Chinese Communist Party, and “woke Marxists” who now infest, it appears, public and private institutions alike, from universities to newspapers to Fortune 500 companies. According to NatCon speaker Yoram Hazony, “This country is on the brink; it’s at the very end of what decadence can sustain.”
Hazony claimed that woke neo-Marxism can’t be defeated by a classical liberalism that allowed it to take root in the first place. Survival requires aggressive use of state power to destroy the Left and restore Christian morality. Boromir made a similar argument about the Ring: “It is mad not to use it, to use the power of the Enemy against him. The fearless, the ruthless, these alone will achieve victory.”
Several NatCon speakers echoed Boromir’s call for realpolitik. Hillsdale professor David Azerrad, for example, called on Republicans to wield federal power to “defund and humiliate” the institutions of the left. Whereas Frodo and his fellow hobbits longed to finish their mission and return to the bucolic Shire, Saurabh Sharma, president of American Moment, declared that there is no going back to the small and local. Instead, NatCons “must create new vectors of power” via industrial policy and intentional cronyism designed to secure corporate and labor loyalty.
Frodoists weren’t entirely absent from NatCon. Jason Jewell of Faulkner University reminded listeners that most of the reforms in Russell Kirk’s A Program for Conservatives did not aim to wield national power. Eugene Meyer of the Federalist Society cautioned that government coercion of virtue usually backfires. Heritage Foundation president Kevin Roberts denounced integralism and evoked Edmund Burke’s little platoons.
The Boromir instinct, however, is to fight fire with fire. We in the Frodo faction don’t disagree about the threats posed by unaccountable federal agencies, unlimited wars, critical race theory in our schools, and other NatCon targets. It’s just that where NatCons would replace federal agency personnel with loyalists to reward friends and punish enemies, we Frodoists would fire the lot of them, remand their authority to states and communities, and go back to our gardening. While NatCons would ban CRT, Frodoists would break up big school districts, with confidence that local citizens can best decide how their children should be educated. Where NatCons would tax or even seize university endowments, Frodoists would route all federal subsidies through state legislatures, forcing greater accountability for universities to the publics they claim to serve.
The sons of Boromir believe in redirecting federal power, but we Frodoists say disperse it. Where NatCons admire Hungarian strongmen, Frodoists trust We the People, if only because we remember Lord Acton’s warning: “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Many NatCons would do well to remember, further, the admonition of Elrond, Lord of Rivendell regarding the Ring: “The very desire of it corrupts the heart.”