The Difference Between French’s and Ahmari’s Visions for the Right
In May 2019, the op-ed editor of the New York Post and recent Catholic convert Sohrab Ahmari published “Against David Frenchism” in the religious magazine First Things. It led to what Ross Douthat called “a full-employment bill for conservative pundits.” The topic, as the title of the antagonists’ first of two in-person debates put it, was which of these “two visions” should guide the conservative movement and its political party, given the nature of the modern left. Ahmari and his troops endorsed and did apologia for Trump’s reorientation of the conservative movement. French and his troops condemned and resisted this reorientation, and the theoretical explorations it inspired, with all their might.
Trump lost, but the Franco-Persian war over which vision should guide the GOP is still very much with us. French and Ahmari published their latest books in 2020 and 2021 respectively. Outwardly, French’s book is only incidentally concerned with his feud with Ahmari; Ahmari’s book doesn’t mention the feud at all. In my two reviews of these books for Human Events, however, I’ve shown how each one elaborates its author’s vision for the right, and how its conceptual shape it determined by the need to distinguish this vision from its rival.
My purpose here, then, is to return to the original debate to clarify Ahmari’s critique and show how it was misinterpreted and mischaracterized by French and his allies in their responses.
an important point of agreement with Ahmari. He says I don’t see “politics as war and enmity,” and he’s right about that much: I do not see politics as war.
Ironically, it’s this one point of agreement on which they’re both wrong. In the sense in which Ahmari meant it, French sees politics as war too. The key differences between them are who they see as friends and who enemies, and what makes friends friends and enemies enemies. The rest of their disagreement can be understood through these differences.
§) French’s Friend/Enemy Cut
In “Against David French-ism,” Ahmari named a “we” ostensibly inclusive of both himself and his opponent: French’s politics is “unsuitable to the depth of the present crisis facing [we] religious conservatives.” Later he lauds French’s legal work through which “he — we — have won discrete victories.” And Ross Douthat’s explainer is required because the controversy “seems impossibly opaque from the outside, since superficially Ahmari and French belong to the same faction on the right — both religious conservatives, both strongly anti-abortion, both deeply engaged in battles over religious liberty (where French is a longtime litigator).”
But Ahmari’s thesis is precisely that it’s French’s “we” that’s unsuitable to this crisis. French’s primary “we” includes everyone — be they Christian, libertine, or other — who defends liberalism’s First Amendment rights of freedom of speech and association. His primary “they” are those — Christians too — who would, to French’s mind, infringe on these rights. The primary good guys aren’t those aligned with Christian ethics, but liberals, in the broad Deneenian sense inclusive of establishment conservatives and liberal progressives that French adopts in Divided We Fall (p.23). The primary bad guys are illiberals. Whether you’re conservative or progressive, friend or enemy of Christians is irrelevant for where you fall in French’s primary friend/enemy cut.
This is manifest in French’s language. He rarely characterizes his primary left-wing opponents as “the woke” or “the social justice left.” His invariably calls them “the illiberal left.” This names what makes them French’s enemies; it isn’t primarily their broader ethical views so thoroughly at odds with Christianity’s.
This is confirmed by his reaction to Ahmari’s charge that he’s failing to take the true measure of the enemy.
It is mystifying to me that my critics seem to believe that I don’t understand the nature and intentions of the enemies of American liberalism [my emphasis]. They think me naïve, as if I wasn’t shouted down at Harvard, as if I don’t know what it’s like to be the only social-conservative faculty member at Cornell Law School, as if I don’t speak at events from coast to coast about the immense threat to Christian liberties and livelihoods. Still, they say, I just don’t understand.
What about these attackers makes them French’s enemies? He doesn’t see them aiming at the substance of his Christian beliefs, but merely at his right to express them. He sees not the full-throated attack on his comprehensive ethical doctrine, but only the lesser attack on his more circumscribed political conception of justice. It’s not primarily French qua Christian that suffers these attacks, but rather French qua friend of — and thus these leftist opponents are enemies merelyof — “American liberalism.” The latter is all he’s prepared to defend.
While the entire Left isn’t illiberal, there are radicals on campus, in Hollywood, and in progressive corporate America who would like to stamp out Christian liberty. But the antidote to this illiberal assault is pluralism buttressed by classical liberalism.
French takes the epigram for Divided from the political philosopher John Rawls. He shares Rawls’s view that we should reason politically from a limited conception of justice to accommodate our society’s pluralism of comprehensive ethical doctrines. Ahmari sees French’s Rawlsian friend/enemy cut fighting the last war. “The arch-liberal political theorist John Rawls seems to reign over the imaginations of many, even supposedly conservative, minds, for strong metaphysical claims to the public square are widely assumed to violate its neutrality.”
French finds confirmation of “classic horseshoe theory” in Ahmari’s critique — the view that the extreme left and right coincide. Ahmari and “the illiberal left” are one and the same on French’s primary level of analysis since both of them are what makes them French’s enemies: illiberals. They together form the enemy against which Divided is directed. He states its thesis: “if we embrace illiberalism we will embrace division in this country.”
French’s great blind spot in this debate is his failure to grasp Ahmari’s critique as of French’s friend/enemy cut. He presents the critique as if Ahmari too was primarily fighting merely left-wing illiberalism, and primarily fighting for liberalism and the Founding. He says,
Their argument is: you confront illiberalism with illiberalism. My argument is not to deny the existence of illiberalism, but to defend America’s principles with America’s principles. … These folks who say the only way through is to in essence become the enemy, to become like the enemy — that’s just completely wrong. It’s totally wrong. Defend the Founding with the principles of the Founding.
Elsewhere French manages a less distorted take, yet in taking Ahmari “to confront left illiberalism,” he again falsely assumes Ahmari’s enemy group is his own.
He’s essentially saying, ‘well, liberalism does not supply us with the tools necessary to confront left illiberalism. So to confront left illiberalism we need to drop the gloves and go with right illiberalism.’
If it isn’t unclarity that elicits these words, French is putting things just so to discredit his opponent. So far from following the golden rule, he’s doing to others what was, he claims, done unto himself: defeating a strawman. Such a failure to model civility would prove our point: French too see politics as war, just with different belligerents.
§) Ahmari’s Friend/Enemy Cut
“To recognize that enmity is real is its own kind of moral duty.” — Sohrab Ahmari
“What do you mean when you make the case for enmity and against civility?” — David French
Ahmari calls us to face the fact that we’re in a full-blown culture war, a war over our shared society’s fundamental values or moral norms. He says the right too should aim for “discrediting their opponents and weakening or destroying their institutions.”
French hears this as a call to “confront illiberalism with illiberalism… to in essence become the enemy.” It is a call to aim for more than just defending our individual rights, and thus to become what makes one French’s enemy — to become, by his lights, illiberal. But we see through French’s rhetoric once we see that, since Ahmari’s enemy isn’t French’s own, there is no “the enemy” here. Once we see that Ahmari’s call to recognize enmity aims to replace French’s friend/enemy cut, we see, crucially, that he’s not calling us to abandon reason-giving, persuasion, or honest appraisals of our opponents’ arguments. Team French takes the moral high ground by falsely claiming he does.
At base, Ahmari is calling us to recognize the essence of what we face as not, pace French, “an illiberal left” taking aim only at Christians’ liberal rights, but rather a comprehensive ethical doctrine targeting every element of ourown — traditional Christianity — that anywhere contradicts it. “The woke sexual revolutionary left has a substantive vision of the highest good, and they seek to systematically impose it at every level,” Ahmari says in their second debate. So far as it was within the right’s power, the cause of our devastating string of cultural defeats since the 1960s, he reasons, is the political strategy French continues to exemplify: we met our opposite number’s comprehensive doctrine with a morally denuded set of our political rights. We brought a knife to a gun fight. French writes, “the Valyrian steel that stops the cultural white walker is pluralism buttressed by classical liberalism.” Only it doesn’t. It didn’t. This steel proved too weak.
Ahmari’s recommendation is to meet fire with fire. When the sexual revolutionary left brings its comprehensive doctrine and its highest good to the public and political spheres, don’t retreat to the impoverished resources of liberalism’s political conception of justice. “French and others fall back on religious liberty,” Ahmari writes, but that won’t “move the heart of an enemy who finds you and your beliefs repulsive.” The current left won’t concede what’s required for Rawls’s “overlapping consensus” to function, so we either fight back or get crushed.
Consider Michelle Goldberg’s take on the Ahmari-French debate. All she hears is Ahmari’s desire to transgress absolute moral principles no one should be permitted to transgress. Religious conservatives are mad, she says,
because they no longer rule. People are trying to say that evangelical businesses don’t have the right to discriminate against gay people; that government funded services run by Catholics have to treat all people equally; that Catholic hospitals should provide a full range of medical services. And so, the argument, as it seems to me, is, ‘Is Catholicism or orthodox Christianity oppressed if they’re not allowed to discriminate?’
Ahmari joins Hadley Arkes in urging us to stop meeting our opponents’ conclusions concerning gay marriage, trans rights, and the just treatment of gender-dysphoric children with Frenchian appeals to merely the “sincerity” of Christians holding contradicting thoughts. As Arkes says, “If we are engaged in a ‘culture war,’ it is being fought forthrightly as a moral battle on only one side.” In his second debate with French, Ahmari urges us “to again go back to this idea of promoting a non-neutral vision. We stand for a vision of the good, and it applies across life’s realm, including at the level of the state. Our state should not be neutral.”
I look at a neutral public square as a moral good. Sohrab and others have accused people like me of a kind of amorality in our approach to the public square. I look at the Bill of Rights as one of the most moral documents ever created in human history. It’s almost like the golden rule codified.
But Ahmari’s accusation is that, moral as French’s rights-based morality is, it’s a restricted moral vision. This is of course by design, but since the left dominates us now with a rival unrestricted vision, our restricted one is inadequate to the fight. “The battleground has shifted, and consensus conservativism hasn’t kept up,” Ahmari says. French’s posture of responding to the sexual revolutionary left’s conclusions with appeals to the tenets of liberalism’s restricted morality has left the claims deriving from their highest good unmet. Ahmari and Arkes urge us to instead respond to those claims by confidently contradicting them, drawing more freely from Christianity’s own doctrines on sex, marriage and gender — to meet their highest good with our own. Crucially, Ahmari urges us to adopt this posture in our use of state power.
This explains what Ahmari means when he writes that “civility and decency are secondary values” because “they regulate compliance with an established order and orthodoxy.” He’s critiquing the way the Frenchist right restricted what it was willing to defend to Christians’ liberal rights. It’s “civility and decency” as Ahmari means it that let the ethical tenets of the sexual revolutionary left wash over the culture insufficiently challenged. They’re what prevented us from opposing the left when it cast opposition to those tenets as “bigotry.” They’re what cost us, and continue to cost us, the culture war.
Critiquing civility and decency in this sense is obviously compatible with robust commitments to reason-giving, persuasion, and honest appraisals of arguments. “Ahmari’s troops” will still hear progressive arguments on abortion, sex, marriage and gender. We’ll still give reasons why we resist those of the conclusions we do. Ahmarism is not misology. It’s a willingness to confront those conclusions on more thoroughgoing moral (Christian) grounds than French has. It’s an unwillingness to join French in letting those conclusions stand unchallenged as part of our “pluralist” society. As Arkes puts it, “The question arising now, I take it, in the argument between Ahmari and French, is whether we are willing to… engage the substance of the moral arguments at the center of the culture war.” Ahmarism is willing to impose its view with the use of state power, but it always gives its reasons for doing so. It confidently states that drag queens teaching four-year-olds how to twerk is impermissible. It has no trouble offering reasons why.
The same goes for Ahmari’s much-ridiculed call “to fight the culture war with the aim of 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.” This is simply a call for the right to get out of the trenches of political liberalism and oppose — by argument and reason-giving — all the ethical doctrines of the sexual revolutionary left that were left unchallenged by a Frenchist right bunkered down there. Ahmari’s view is that the shield of “sincere belief” will continue to get battered until we strike through their highest good with the sword of our own. It’s this belief he expresses with, “the only way is through.” Goldberg’s moral absolute, “thou shalt not discriminate,” permits no exceptions for religious freedom. “Sorry, Pastor French, but your superstition will have to give way,” Ahmari writes, channeling her. We’ll see how it responds to a politically applied moral absolute that contradicts its myriad applications. But we’ll be perfectly pleasant as we state the reasons for holding our absolute and why we take it to trump her own.
French is mistaken, then, when he writes in a piece on Ahmari, “A discussion of only ideas represents exactly the kind of politics the pugilists now abhor.” So is Adam Serwer when he thinks Ahmari has abandoned a commitment to “win arguments.” Cathy Young likewise offers a false either-or when she writes that French “wants to persuade, rather than ‘fight the culture war…’.” She closes suggesting that “Ahmari wants to fight the culture war” on the same terms as those on the left who find “persuasion and dialogue, and decency and civility… unacceptable.” Mutatis mutandis every other pundit from Team French. Ahmarism does not forgo persuasion and dialogue. Its target is the Frenchist form of debate and political activity, ‘the left’s highest good vs. the right’s right to disagree.’ Ahmari seeks to replace what he calls “this substance/procedure mismatch” with dialogue and political agon over the highest good itself.
Ramesh Ponnuru too misses the sense of Ahmari’s remarks when he writes,
About civility, politeness, and so forth: Ahmari portrays French as begging liberals to respect conservatives’ freedom of conscience; French portrays himself as insisting that they do. While I think French’s description better matches his career history, the disagreement itself suggests that there is no necessary connection between classical liberalism and the political timidity Ahmari opposes.
French’s mistake, Ahmari says, is in limiting his aim only to liberals respecting conservatives’ freedom of conscience. Whether French begs or insists is beside the point. Ahmari’s “muscular populism” would challenge progressive notions of marriage, sex and gender with Christian views of the same. So far from “no necessary connection,” Ahmari’s reference for French’s “political timidity” precisely is his classical liberalism.
French himself consistently casts the critique this way (also p.24 of Divided): on the Ahmarian right, “public commitments to decency and civility become optional.” He responds by claiming Christian morality commands “decency and civility” in exactly his sense of submission to the limitations of liberal pluralist norms. We’ll show this “Jesus ergo liberalism” inference begging the question below. But French also steals the moral high ground on the civility question via the false assumption that Ahmari means to abandon argument, persuasion and reason-giving.
The talk of fighting, retreat, courage, cowardice, strength, weakness and so on that so confuses Team French is likewise just metaphor for this difference between French’s and Ahmari’s systems — the Frenchist tendency to restrict our war chest to liberalism’s limited morality rather than Christianity’s more comprehensive morality. Ahmari’s troops don’t want to do what Robby Soave imagines (his ellipsis): “The First Thingsers believe conservatives should take a different approach and…do what exactly? Start punching leftists? Form some sort of theocratic street squad that terrorizes librarians who invite drag queens to read to kids?” Ahmari does not want to bomb the American Left the way Bush and French bombed Iraq, as French implies in the last three paragraphs of his response to Ahmari, on podcasts, and in Divided(p.9f.). Ahmari calls us to have the “courage” to assert propositions and craft policies that strike at the heart of leftism; to have the “strength” to summon the reasons, arguments, and political will for them. He calls it “cowardice” and “weakness” to be willing only to assert our right to disagree. These charges take aim at French’s defensive intellectual posture. They imply no denigration of French’s bravery in volunteering to fight in Iraq. They imply no equation of the bravery of tweeting in an Ahmarian fashion in the culture war and fighting a physical war, as French suggests. We don’t contradict ourselves, as French thinks we do, when we both admire him for fighting a war to protect citizen Goldberg, then urge him to adopt a more aggressive posture when arguing with her. We all reach quite naturally for these metaphors. They do not so much as hint at actual violence. That French frames them so is simply his way of enmity, his way of discrediting his opponent. As Rusty Reno observes, for “French, conservative liberalism is obligatory, and the slightest dissent gets reframed as heresy.”
The real difference between the two rights, then, as Reno puts it in that essay, is that whereas French’s response to Drag Queen Story Hour shows “he will not contest cultural progressivism on substantive grounds,” Ahmarism is “a ‘politics of substance’ rather than one of procedure.”
This, then, is the essence of Ahmari’s critique of French: We must abandon French’s friend/enemy cut of liberals/illiberals. If we’re to avoid getting crushed by the left we face today, we can no longer cut in accordance with whether citizens affirm or deny the limited liberal political conception of justice. We must rather cut at the level of comprehensive ethical doctrine. When Ahmari writes that “talk of politics as war and enmity is thoroughly alien to French,” he’s referring to French’s failure to cut here.
Team Ahmari’s friends, then, are those who broadly adhere to Christian ethics, to the cultural norms raised on them, or are not too distant from this doctrine and way of life. Whether they’re liberals or the “illiberals” of the populist right is irrelevant for this primary cut. Our primary “enemies” are those whose moral source is more in accord with the post-60s left. Whether they are or aren’t liberals is secondary. We use scare quotes to remind the reader that we remain committed to reason-giving, persuasion, having honest arguments, and even, in the way we see fit, loving them.
We see, then, that French has quite failed to penetrate the essence of Ahmari’s argument with his restatement, “to confront left illiberalism we need to drop the gloves and go with right illiberalism.” Ahmari doesn’t aim to “confront illiberalism” on the left. It’s not their illiberalism that makes them his enemy, but rather its cause: their comprehensive anti-Christian ethic. He’s not fighting for liberalism and the Founding. He’s fighting for the comprehensive Christian ethic. French hasn’t learned that his critic’s friend/enemy cut isn’t his own.
Stephanie Slade thinks “the First Thingsian rejection of the liberal order isn’t merely strategically imprudent. It’s morally reprehensible from a Catholic perspective.” But she’s in error when she remarks against Ahmari, “There’s nothing Christian about the idea that we should hope not to convert or persuade but to defeat and destroy our ideological opponents.” Ahmari hopes to convert and will transgress French’s liberal limits to do so. There’s nothing unchristian in Ahmari’s real aim: to defeat and destroy the anti-Christian ethic by persuasion, argument, and the fair use of political power. Achieving this, to a tolerable cultural consensus, is the answer to the much-asked question, “what does victory look like?”
In subsequent work Ahmari has elaborated this vision for a New Right self-consciously swapping out a limited liberalism for a comprehensive doctrine. “Advancing a substantive account of the true ends of man and of the political community should be the first priority of conservatism today,” he writes in “The New American Right.” It’s crucial for the right going forward, he urges, both to recognize the difference we’ve exhibited here between the form of French’s right and his own, and to protect the latter from the former.
Populist and conservative-nationalist movements on both sides of the Atlantic are testing out a new politics of this kind, however inchoately or imperfectly. In the present moment, the new right’s most urgent priority is to resist efforts by liberals, both progressive and conservative, to oppose by underhanded procedural means the desire voters are expressing for a politics of the common good.
In “How to Be Right,” “woke conservatives” are precisely those who recognize that we face a left animated by a comprehensive doctrine and are willing to transgress liberal limits on politics to contest it with their own. “Unwoke conservatives” are those who don’t recognize this and so aren’t willing.
Two broad camps divide American conservatism today: those who get it, and those who don’t. … What’s the itconservatives need to get? It is simply this: that the political left neither loves you nor shares many loves with you, certainly not the love of neutral norms and procedures that have long been the stock-in-trade of the center-right establishment. …
The left has a crystalline moral vision (moral by its own lights, at any rate). To the liberal mind, norms and procedures are worthwhile only insofar as they help advance this vision. If existing norms and procedures fail to do that, well, new ones will have to be found. The point isn’t to uphold some neutral ground that different groups might contest, with winners and losers periodically switching places. The point is to win. Decisively.
Unwoke conservatives still labor under the quaint impression that a golden age of procedural liberalism can be restored, provided the right is winsome enough. They have no vision of the good society to rival the left’s: how could they, if their foremost obsession is how laws get made, rather than what they contain, or whether they promote the common good?
§) Trump Orientation
“The difference between French and Ahmari with respect to Trump is also elusive.” — Ramesh Ponnuru
Trump is mentioned twice in the opening sentence of “Against David French-ism.” The resolute Frenchist Jonathan V. Last is right, in a sense, when he says the debate “is all about Trump.” He’s right it’s no coincidence that all Ahmari’s troops are Trumpers and all French’s anti-Trump. And we can concede, for argument’s sake, both that Ahmari chose French as his target because of French’s visibility as a never-Trumper, and that he arrived at his view via post facto reflection on Trump’s style, his policy agenda, and his 2016 electoral success.
Why did Ahmari decide to focus his attack on David French? …Ahmari’s beef isn’t with David French’s civility or his commitment to pluralism. It’s with his refusal to get on the Trump train. Which, please remember, Ahmari himself didn’t climb aboard until five minutes ago.
But none of these cut any ice in French’s favor. The Ahmari-French debate is an intellectual reflection of the moral question of whether to board the Trump train, but one can’t assume the resolution of the latter, as Last does, to resolve the former. Ahmari’s apologia for the shift on the right deserves a hearing as much as Team French’s claim that those voting for Trump and European populism deserve only moral censure.
French’s and Ahmari’s different orientations on Trump are simply expressions of the difference we’ve found between their systems. French saw only a ludicrous strawman in Ahmari’s claim that,
With a kind of animal instinct, Trump understood what was missing from mainstream (more or less French-ian) conservatism. His instinct has been to shift the cultural and political mix, ever so slightly, away from autonomy-above-all toward order, continuity, and social cohesion.
For two examples of what undergirds Ahmari’s perception, consider Trump’s Executive Order against Critical Race Theory and his Mt. Rushmore speech. The former took aim at “efforts to indoctrinate government employees with divisive and harmful sex- and race-based ideologies.” In the latter, Trump said,
The radical ideology attacking our country advances under the banner of ‘Social Justice,’ but in truth, it would demolish both justice and society. It would transform justice into an instrument of division and vengeance, and it would turn our free and inclusive society into a place of a repression, domination, and exclusion.
These express, if nothing else, a willingness to take the leftist bull by the horns. What Ahmari comes to see, theorize, and endorse is the “shift” in the right’s orientation Trump effects, from submission to the niceties of liberal pluralist norms to a willingness to face up to, and to use the state in the effort to try to stand down, the entire mendacious leftist edifice. It’s hard to imagine statements like the above issuing from the “mainstream (more or less French-ian) conservatism” that a Jeb Bush administration would’ve exemplified. Such an administration, marked by civility and decency, would never have spoken so sharply against our fellow citizens.
There’s a problem for Ahmarism, as Last notes.
Trump’s vision for America was never religiously, or traditionally, orthodox. He didn’t campaign on restoring the public square to order around Christian morality.
While that’s true, “the logical form of Trumpism,” if you will — the form of populism worldwide Ahmari is doing apologia for — is the willingness to use state power to contest comprehensive left-wing ethical doctrines head on, to use that power to promote comprehensive conservative ethical concerns, and to abandon the right-liberal pluralist taboos against doing so. What’s born from the death of “The Dead Consensus” — what was born with Brexit and Trump and refuses to die — is the knowledge that conservative liberalism is not, contra French, obligatory for the right. Western conservativism enjoys a new freedom of form.
On this understanding, Ahmari’s troops can weather French’s criticism that Trump is not the ideal avatar for, say, an anti-pornography crusade. We can also concede to Douthat and others Trump’s inadequacies in articulating a positive Christian vision of the good. But Ahmari’s troops insist that we retain from Trump the form of the wartime conservative. The ideal Ahmarian candidate going forward will be a more resolutely Christian avatar of comprehensive anti-leftism.
Unlike Ahmari, French doesn’t think the left deserves the Trumpist right’s comprehensive confrontation with it. While he recognizes that “anti-white racism is real,” for instance (Divided, 114), he thinks Critical Race Theory helps people “understand the reason for persistent disparities” and “build empathy and motivate action.” From Team Ahmari’s perspective, French’s vision is clouded by his thought that “liberalism is obligatory,” as Reno put it, so he fails to take the measure of the enemy. He limits his opposition to CRT to its transgression of liberal tenets.
The explicit rejection of liberalism in some (but not all) quarters of critical race theory — for example, who is a white man to question a black trans woman about the validity of her experience? — results in the kind of subjective authoritarianism we see in the academy and “woke” corporate America.
French’s vision only extends so far. He only sees CRT’s illiberalism causing its authoritarianism. He doesn’t see in CRT what his rivals on the right see: the anti-conservative culturally Marxist ethos causing its illiberalism.
Ahmari came to see the virtue in Trump’s comprehensive anti-leftism: it was necessary to transgress liberal norms to contend with the modern left. His apologia for it is his new friend/enemy cut at the level of comprehensive doctrine. French fails to see this necessity, so those transgressions only appear to him as malicious and unnecessarily provocative. In Divided French still holds the “quaint impression” Ahmari ridiculed that “a golden age of procedural liberalism can be restored” (see esp. pp.249–50).
“I do not see politics as war, and while enmity exists, I seek to lessen it, not fan the flames,” French writes. “There is no inherent power in cruelty. Do Trump’s insults deter his opponents or motivate Them?” Wartime conservatives see worries we’ll “fan the flames” or “motivate” the left as counselling appeasement. These statements are the epitomes of the “persuasion or sensibility” that is “David French-ism.” It’s this sensibility Hadley Arkes puts his question to, after detailing a legal strategy for fighting the sexual revolutionary left in the courts. He asks
whether the conservatives who enjoin us not to be uncivil would be willing to see their fellow conservatives ignite fires in our national life by making this serious challenge and fighting the culture war “for keeps.”
French laughs at Ahmari’s claim that Trump is a force for “social unity” because the only possible unity he can conceive for this country is one based on his understanding of liberal norms. But if, contra French, the claim in Trump’s Executive Order is true — if the left’s “sex- and race-based ideologies” are indeed “divisive” — then confrontation might be exactly what unity calls for.
§) French’s Dogmatism
For French, Trump’s actions are bad because they’re illiberal. Mutatis mutandis Ahmari’s. But it’s here, in his critique of the intellectual apologia for Trumpism, that the dogmatism with which French cuts good/bad at liberal/illiberal becomes apparent.
French ascribes our polarization to the increasing tendency of each side to “catastrophize.” This includes equating the other side with its worst actors (“nutpicking”), giving the worst possible interpretation of opponents’ words and deeds, and exaggerating the possible consequences of their views.
Ahmari is French’s paradigm for catastrophizing. Catastrophize is exactly what French does to Ahmari in Divided. He introduces their different visions for the right to cast Ahmari’s as “a vision for domination” that puts the country at risk (pp.24–5).
I recognize pluralism as a permanent fact of American life and seek to foster a political culture that protects the autonomy and dignity of competing American ideological and religious communities. Ahmari and many of his allies on the right seek to sweep past pluralism to create (and impose) a new political and moral order, one designed according to their specific moral values — and to the extent that individual liberty conflicts with the “common good” or “Highest Good,” it must be swept away.
That’s a vision for domination, not accommodation. … the quest for moral, cultural, and political domination by either side of our national divide risks splitting the nation into two (or in three or four).
Part I of Divided details how we’re coming apart in ways “most dangerous for continued national unity” (p.25). In closing it, French returns to Ahmari (p.116).
The goal is domination, not discussion, and certainly not coexistence. “The only way is through,” remember? The only way is to “reorder” the public square. It’s time to impose the “common good” or the “Highest Good.” The instrument is power. Resistance is evidence of depravity.
In reality, however, the very act of attempting to use the levers of political and economic power to drive your opponent to the edges of American influence inflames every single flash point of division articulated in this book. It breaks the fundamental compact of citizen and state. And if that political power is brought to bear clumsily or maliciously in a time of national upheaval, then the results could be catastrophic. The nation could fracture.
In suggesting the right should reason journalistically, legally, and politically from its comprehensive ethical doctrine, rather than submitting to the limit of defending only our circumscribed set of liberal rights, Ahmari is destroying the nation. The nation could fracture because Ahmari doesn’t seek “accommodation.” French later writes that the Ahmarian “right is moving in exactly the opposite direction necessary to accommodate American pluralism and foster national reconciliation” (p.237). Pithily defining Frenchism, Ahmari reads this as “a program for negotiating Christian retreat from the public square.”
But it’s a strawman. Ahmari’s alternative for how the right should wield power does not abandoning reason-giving or “discussion.” We see here the friend/enemy dogma controlling French’s thought: ‘You’re a traitor if your vision for the use of state power dissents from liberal limits on politics.’ French’s “argument” for that claim, so far from modeling civility, turns entirely on the assumption that liberal norms define the only possible legitimate political form. Dividedtreats Ahmari’s vision for using state power to counter comprehensive leftism as heresy (aping Reno again).
It is the responsibility of the state… to pursue the common good by protecting individual and associational liberty as defined by the Constitution. It is the responsibility of citizens to exercise that individual and associational liberty in a manner that sustains and builds our constitutional republic.
Arkes wasn’t satisfied. “It is time for [French] to stop treating contradiction as though it supplied the reasoning of an argument.” He likens French’s dogmatism to John Cleese’s character in the Monty Python sketch, “The Department of Arguments.”
French gives his liberal dogmatism a backing, of sorts, with his oft-repeated appeal to “a legal version of the golden rule: I’m going to fight for the rights of others that I’d like to exercise myself.” He’s supported here by Alan Jacobs who, while saying he “largely shares” Ahmari’s view, thinks Ahmari has “set aside divine commandments” in response to the present crisis. But this “Jesus ergo liberalism” inference is a non-sequitur. As with the myriad readings of “decency” and so on, it begs the question. For conservative Christians, the golden rule doesn’t translate into French’s “legal version.” When they imagine themselves lost in what is, for them, a disordered lifestyle, they would not have others let them continue that form of life, but would rather have those others bring them to order. What they’d join Ahmari in doing to Drag Queen Story Hour is required by what they’d have done unto themselves — not, pace French, forbidden.
Finally, whether French is or is not a moral relativist himself, he dogmatically foists relativism onto his Ahmarian opponents. We saw him write in Divided of “their specific moral values” (p.24). He consistently calls whom Ahmari would ban “people you don’t agree with, and people you don’t like.” The tone of these remarks cast Ahmari’s values in emotivist terms: they suggest his value judgments are merely subjective expressions of what he doesn’t like, not the kind of thing that can be true or false.
Ahmari’s view is that the state is justified in legislating against Drag Queen Story Hour because it’s an objective moral offense. Picking up the thread of his battle with French, the first chapter of The Unbroken Thread, which I review here, targets the idea that “truth is limited to… what can be observed with our senses, measured with our instruments, and generally expressed in mathematical language. All other claimants to the name truth, in this view, amount to less-than-trustworthy ‘values,’ opinions, myths, emotions, or superstitions.” Against emotivism — and the shadow it casts on contemporary political debate — it argues for a robust Christian value realism.