Sohrab Ahmari, who previously wrote a decent takedown of the exemplar of nominative determinism Max Boot, but who I’ve otherwise never heard of before, wrote an article in First Things opposing “David Frenchism,” a “persuasion or a sensibility” that he names after the National Review writer who Bill Kristol named as the ideal #NeverTrump candidate for president.
The “Frenchist” disposition, according to Ahmari, is a nice, liberal one. It sees politics as a matter of procedure, institutions, and ‘decency’; it seeks to defend the conservative cause by appeal to the liberal logic of autonomy, and it inherits from its English nonconformist roots a “great horror … of the public power to advance the common good,” leading it to insist that political challenges be solved by the depoliticized measures of “personal renewal” and somehow-organic cultural change.
In contrast, Ahmari advocates acknowledging hostility, valuing victory above civility, and “defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good,” and blames “Frenchism” for the crushing defeat of conservatism by “the libertine and the pagan,” exemplified by… a ‘drag queen reading hour’ in a California library, for which Ahmari saw an ad in his Facebook feed.
This back-and-forth (French replied the following day) has drawn a surprising amount of attention, but none of the coverage so far has pointed out that both sides are wrong.
‘Frenchist’ proceduralism is wholly unequipped to deal with an environment in which non-governmental entities exercise overt power on a scale previously limited to institutions formally answerable to their subjects and constrained by the Bill of Rights, in which the intentionally byzantine dictates of etiquette and fashion that one would expect from a court at Versailles have metastasized to consume most of the white-collar world, and in which the radical wing of a major American political party has a literal blackshirted paramilitary, whose political violence draws substantial support from the media — and whose logo appears as the header image for the American Interest’s article in response to Ahmari. (Cthulhu swims ever leftward — and at what speed! Somebody call Guinness!)
But the apparent endorsement of far-left political violence by American Interest writers is a manifestation of a broader failure on the right: its agreement to the now-bipartisan rule of pas d’ennemis à gauche, pas d’amis à droit. David French is quite willing to endorse intersectionality in the pages of Vox; but Donald Trump is too far. (As Liel Liebovitz pointed out, David French endorsed the Russiagate conspiracy theory.)
This rule, in fact, is part of what ‘Frenchist’ niceness means in practice. Civility and decency are all well and good in the abstract, but who defines them? To what extent can ‘Frenchists’ extricate themselves from the influence of those who insist that the leftist platform is a simple matter of civility and decency? Furthermore, why should the civility among lawyers that French advocates generalize outside the professional realm? What percentage of truly political victories, rather than the legal-procedural ones that French concerns himself with, were won by politeness alone? Our goal must not be to remain unfailingly polite as our losses pile up; it must be to win. Ahmari is right about this: decency is a tactic, and becoming attached to a tactic is a mistake. This doesn’t mean we ought to follow the left in, say, launching coordinated attacks on random children; what it means is that, at least in David Hines’s account of leftist tactics, perhaps those attacks wouldn’t have happened if the journalists had gotten a little more operant conditioning:
My take on Lefty swarming outrage … is that the tactic is swarming outrage, but the strategy is operant conditioning. If there’s a Halloween party where white people wore sombreros or something, people get uncomfortable before the Lefties even react, not necessarily because they agree with the Lefty opinion but because they’re anticipating the unpleasant Lefty reaction.
This is not the most civil or decent tactic to use — but it works!
Ahmari’s position, however, is equally untenable. Using the state to forcibly reorder the public square toward the (Christian if not specifically Catholic) “Highest Good” would require a higher level of religiosity, and, more importantly, a higher level of willingness to dispense with old American liberal principles, than can be found in America today, where only half of the population is even nominally Catholic or Evangelical, fewer than two fifths claim to go to church every week, and the single largest religious group is ‘none’. The integralist Adrian Vermeule has argued that the election of Trump demonstrates that the American political landscape can change on a dime; but that doesn’t imply it’s likely to change in that direction. It’s true that the Fifth Great Awakening, or the sixth or seventh ones, could produce mass conversions to Catholicism and usher in an integralist America, but it’s equally true that it could produce the revival of the cult of Tengri and the remythologization of the United States as the greatest steppe empire since the Yamnaya expansion. Get ahead of the curve — buy your cowboy hats now!
(Just kidding! Cowboy hats are kitsch. The true American horse runs on gas.)
But what else does the election of Trump represent? Ahmari positioned his article against ‘Frenchism’ as an explication of a manifesto of sorts that he signed after the 2016 election, which he and others took as a sign of the death of the pre-Trump conservative consensus; but this manifesto is less a comprehensive rethinking of American conservatism than a denunciation of free-market ‘fusionism’ by a religious, socially conservative faction of that consensus, which already had inclinations toward economic populism before Trump. Furthermore, Ahmari’s objection to ‘Frenchism’ is entirely concerned with the socon cause — remember what prompted his article!
How can this be said to be the message sent by the election of Donald Trump — who, as French points out, hangs a Playboy cover on the wall of his office? If anything, the case is stronger for the opposite: for a reading of Trump’s election as signifying the complete collapse of the pre-Trump conservative consensus, the bankruptcy of both right-neoliberal Reaganomics and the ‘political Christianity’ of the Moral Majority, and the prospect (albeit a mostly unrealized one) of conservative reorientation toward worker-friendly economic pragmatism combined with social moderation, rejection of the ludicrous and corrosive bipartisan consensus on immigration, and insistence that America was not fundamentally illegitimate before 1968.
The issue of immigration merits particular comment: not only was it Trump’s signature issue, it was one that Trump stumbled backwards into. He didn’t set out to run an anti-immigration campaign — as far as I could tell from watching his campaign speeches, the issue that he seemed to care most about was the state of America’s airports - but he noticed that crowds responded particularly well to his positions on immigration, and pivoted into it.
The manifesto whose principles Ahmari sought to elucidate in his article against ‘Frenchism’ does devote a paragraph to the issue of immigration; but this paragraph is sandwiched between an item decrying the “severing of the link between sex and gender” (a position which, although aligned with the Republican Party apparatus that the election brought into office, Trump opposed on the campaign trail) and a call to rally around the issue of abortion, and Ahmari’s article devotes less time to it than to, of all things, polyamory. If only our country had so few pressing issues that it could afford to care so much about a handful of fundamentalist Mormons and Californian nuts!
The debate between French and Ahmari, as even Vox has pointed out, is a “battle over what conservatism is” — but the range of viewpoints these two writers represent is remarkably narrow compared to the range of viable possibilities for the post-Trump right. It is also remarkably overrepresented among the article-writing class: there are few writers on the right whose conservatism doesn’t amount to ‘political Christianity,’ regardless of their position on fusionism. The strain of conservatism that can best claim to be vindicated by the improbable election of a pro wrestling star, a “holy fool of a d100 that got nominated because sometimes it came up ‘America was legitimate even before the ’60s'” — the strain that can best claim the parts of Trump’s platform that won — has very few exponents.
Establishment conservatism, it seems, is doubling down on its refusal to reckon with the realities of the American political landscape. It’s true that the ascendant left wants to revoke religious liberty, with the goal of subordinating Christianity (specifically Christianity) to the whims of the woke state; but this is only one facet of its platform. It also promotes a view of white Americans reminiscent of the ethnic hatred stoked against market-dominant minorities in certain countries in the 20th century (never mind that white Americans aren’t even the richest demographic!); claims that our country is fundamentally illegitimate; calls for the destruction of our borders; pushes for a credentialist economy in which no one can succeed without first obtaining permission from a committee of progressive priests, who will dispense it based more on loyalty to the cause than on any apolitical notion of merit; advocates for the abolition of the nation-state in favor of a tightly controlled and managed ‘inclusive society’ in which the inevitable ethnic conflict will provide the ruling structure with a bottomless well of opportunities to justify its own expansion; and seeks to subordinate everything, from colleges to corporations to open-source software organizations to knitting groups, to an arbitrary and intentionally byzantine code of conduct, in order to purge infidels from the whole of society. This is not ‘libertine,’ it is totalitarian. And the totality of that agenda must be opposed.
The conservative debate thus far has been premised on the idea that the proper response to Trump, the proper way forward, is to simply revitalize the platform of the Moral Majority. Not only does this fail to address many of the problems facing our country today — it has little, if anything, to say about immigration, which is necessarily the most pressing issue because its effects are permanent and irreversible — it offers little potential for attaining true hegemony. The conflict between moralists and libertines in America predates the United States itself and is unlikely to result in a decisive victory anytime soon (in other words, it’s Lindy), and it’s sufficiently orthogonal to the main dimension of American politics that there are strains of progressivism that have evolved to accommodate both. Many progressives even oppose drag!
But simply banning drag queens from California’s libraries won’t make America great again. The question of what will remains open, but here are some components of a new conservatism that will be necessary: an end to mass unskilled migration, stricter immigration controls, and an uncompromising defense of borders and the nation-state system; the establishment of policies and culture that support marriage, family formation, and homeownership; a serious drive to retake cultural hegemony from the progressives; a willingness to combat the conspiratorial demographic hatred which casts men as sub-rational pigs and whites as the nefarious, scheming villains of history; and the abandonment of the dead consensus of social conservatism and little else, in favor of a new nationalism that protects both Christian and ‘pagan’ Americans and works to preserve the civilization they have built.