David French vs. Sohrab Ahmari and the battle dividing conservatives, explained

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A large American flag, part of the decoration, is lowered by campaign aids after a MAGA rally with US President Donald J. Trump at the Williamsport Regional Airport, in Montoursville, PA, on May 20, 2019.

The fight isn’t about a National Review columnist. It’s about what conservatism is, and should be.

Over the past month or so, the world of intellectual conservatism — and movement conservatism more broadly — has been rocked by two separate and apparently distinct arguments that have churned in Twitter feeds and conservative opinion magazines.

On the surface, the debates appear unrelated. One is centered on National Review writer David French, a conservative who became the subject of a column published in the conservative journal First Things that argued his civility was holding back the cause of social conservatism. Despite openly supporting, for example, Alabama’s abortion ban, French is nonetheless being pilloried on Twitter and elsewhere by others on the right for being inadequately “realistic” about the culture war and contributing to the “surrender of the public square … to the pagans and the perverts” (for liking Game of Thrones, for example).

The other is centered on Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, whose public opining on impeaching President Donald Trump has earned him denunciations from the conservative House caucus he helped found.

But in reality, these two arguments, and the flurry of think pieces and takes they’ve prompted, are actually one argument. And that one argument is not over a Michigan Republican or a National Review columnist who briefly considered a presidential run in 2016. It’s (sort of) about Donald Trump, but it’s even bigger than that. The argument is over “classical liberalism” and libertarianism. It’s about what conservatism is, what conservatism is supposed to be, and moreover, what the goal of conservatism is.

Clearly, these arguments are not necessarily ideas of daily importance to, as the Week’s Matthew Walther put it, Americans outside of the “300 living persons with a column at a conservative magazine or a sinecure from one of the big D.C. or New York-based right-wing think tanks or maybe a chaired professorship at one of a handful of small liberal arts colleges” who have already been paying attention to this debate. But they are important.

Because conservative thinkers are debating foundational questions with one another, at times vociferously: What is the point of government? Is conservatism supposed to “win”? If so, win what? And do so how? And who gets to call themselves “conservative,” anyway?

The fight over David French

In March, First Things published “Against the Dead Consensus,” an open letter signed by a number of prominent conservatives that served as a broadside against “fusionism,” which brought together libertarians, social conservatives, paleoconservatives, and “conservatarians” in a big tent of sorts united by opposing liberalism and the left. In the letter, the authors decry that union for both “severing of the link between sex and gender” and the GOP’s history of holding “investors and ‘job creators’ above workers and citizens,” writing:

Yes, the old conservative consensus paid lip service to traditional values. But it failed to retard, much less reverse, the eclipse of permanent truths, family stability, communal solidarity, and much else. It surrendered to the pornographization of daily life, to the culture of death, to the cult of competitiveness. It too often bowed to a poisonous and censorious multiculturalism.

Among the signatories on the open letter was New York Post op-ed editor Sohrab Ahmari. And it was Ahmari who published his own piece in First Things, titled “Against David French-ism.”

David French is a conservative columnist for National Review who opposed Donald Trump’s nomination in 2016, and someone I’ve talked to about the right for Vox in the past. But Ahmari’s piece, inspired in part by seeing a Facebook ad for a children’s drag queen reading hour at a public library in Sacramento, is more aimed at libertarian influence on conservatism than at French himself. In fact, Charles C.W. Cooke, National Review’s online editor and a colleague of French’s, told me that he himself would be a more accurate target of Ahmari’s piece, since “mostly his objections are aimed at libertarians, or those who call themselves classical liberals.”

Ahmari, like a number of other conservatives, has said that he “snapped” and changed his views because of the nomination hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and how he thought the left treated Kavanaugh amid accusations of sexual misconduct. And perhaps it’s because of that experience that Ahmari makes the argument that politics is “war and enmity,” a battle for the very souls of our nation’s inhabitants, and French, who is a very nice person, is too nice to win that battle.

In the piece, Ahmari writes that if the aim of the “culture war” is “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,” French’s focus on individual liberty and autonomy, and seemingly his niceness, is a problem for social conservatives who have watched their religious viewpoints on marriage equality, for example, go from being the law of the land to markedly unpopular. After arguing that Trump also saw the weaknesses of “Frenchian conservatism,” Ahmari concludes:

Progressives understand that culture war means discrediting their opponents and weakening or destroying their institutions. Conservatives should approach the culture war with a similar realism. … To recognize that enmity is real is its own kind of moral duty.”

I reached out to Ahmari, who declined a full interview but said that his goal wasn’t to decry civility or politeness writ large, but to argue that “decency and civility” don’t work in a country without a “shared moral consensus” and should be used primarily to advance the goals of social conservatives.

But again, Ahmari’s piece was not really directed at David French the person, but at the idea of David French and libertarian-minded conservatives Ahmari uses French to represent.

Ahmari’s piece left many questions unanswered — what the “spoils” of a culture war victory would be, or even who would get to decide what the highest good by which Americans should live is — but the “problems” he perceives are at least clear.

On Tuesday morning, Ross Douthat, a columnist for the New York Times, told me that Ahmari and other social conservatives were responding to existing trends: namely, the decline of religious affiliation for Americans broadly, and a corresponding rise in how positively Americans view LGBTQ people or premarital sex, for example.

“All of those things have happened. They’re real and significant,” Douthat told me. “It may not be permanent. It may be that the millennials will all end up getting married a little later and having kids a little later. But right now, it looks like a big substrate of cultural conservatism is eroding in a significant way.”

In the view of social conservatives like Ahmari and the American Conservative’s Rod Dreher, that erosion — and perhaps even the concept of economic and personal freedom itself — has meant the trampling of their most closely held beliefs under the feet of not just liberals but libertarian conservatives and business leaders.

They argue that the very idea of a neutral public square, where evangelical Christians and LGBTQ people, for example, could coexist peacefully, may be impossible in 2019, and that perhaps there is no form of liberalism in a post-religion American that could not help but benefit the left. In a piece published this week focused on a trans woman in Wisconsin and a flag in California, Dreher references the Ahmari-French debate and writes, “This is the new normal that progressives want for us. If you don’t go along with it, you are deemed a hater and a bigot. Serious question: where is the space for rational dialogue with these revolutionaries?”

I reached out to French, who told me, “There are those who look at our culture, genuinely fear the left, and believe that the church is in some sort of left-induced death spiral. It’s hard to describe the sense of fear and panic you’ll hear in some quarters of the religious conservatism.” (The conversations being had about faith communities during this debate have largely been focused on white communities of believers, a point Douthat made in a recent piece on the debate.)

French added, “I think the far more proper view is that many cultural trends are cyclical, that there have been considerable conservative victories in our cultural conflicts, that tens of millions of people still attend strong, healthy churches, and we should never, ever lack confidence in the power to persuade.”

The fight over, well, everything

The war of words among conservatives over the French-Ahmari debate, while somewhat baffling on its face, is evidence of a larger fight that’s taking place among conservatives — one that’s seemingly about myriad different policy areas, from social media companies and government regulation to economic policy.

But it’s really about something much more fundamental: the end of “fusionism” within the conservative movement. After decades of cordial friendship among different right-leaning factions, started in opposition to what the Heritage Foundation termed “hegemonic liberalism,” libertarians like national Libertarian Party Chair Nicholas Sarwark think the “conservative-libertarian fusion is pretty much dead,” as Sarwark told me in an interview.

As Ben Sixsmith argued in First Things this month, the fusionism evident during the Cold War “united the American right around free-market principles and against communism.” But in Sixsmith’s view, “fusionism” was wrongheaded, prioritizing the rights of individuals to make their own decisions over the needs of society in a way that did a disservice to the goals of social conservatives and helped liberals “win” the culture war:

In truth, virtue is necessary for freedom, not freedom for virtue. In the twenty-first-century West, we are afflicted with a mediocre libertinism, which is as unstable as it is unsatisfactory. We need a new conservative fusion, one that prioritizes social connection instead of atomization.

To be clear, the battle over libertarianism and its role in conservatism and conservative thought is hardly a new one, particularly as the left-leaning wing of libertarian thinkers (as opposed to right-libertarians, like the late Murray Rothbard) have argued for so-called “liberal” social policies using libertarian arguments — for example, decrying the war on drugs as an example of government overreach.

Social conservatives have argued that because, in their view, libertarians see social issues in market terms (as in, letting the free market decide what’s good and what’s bad), they elude questions of morality and what’s best for society.

This is an increasingly big point of contention among conservatives, particularly social conservatives opposed to the “business wing” of the GOP and conservatives who are beginning to warm to the idea that in the absence of powerful religious institutions whose influence has waned as America has secularized, government has — or should have — a role in promoting the public good: happy families and towns with jobs and social structures that benefit their residents not just economically, but morally. When I asked Ahmari what his ideal “order” would look like, he said, as an example, “Working mothers wouldn’t be expected to return to work a mere eight weeks after giving birth.” He added, “It’s possible, within our regime, to tip the balance toward the common good, beginning with the good of families.”

In a speech given at an annual gala for the American Conservative in May, J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy, said:

What I worry about is that we have outsourced, in the conservative movement, our economic and our domestic policy thinking to the libertarians … if we’re worried about the fact that in this country today, for maybe the first extended period in our country’s history, we’re not even having enough children in this country to replace ourselves. If we’re worried about those problems, then we have to be willing to pursue a politics that actually wants to accomplish something besides just making government smaller. Sometimes government needs to be smaller, but sometimes it actually needs to work better and it needs to work for goals that conservatives actually care about.

And the divide is hardly limited to social issues. Right-leaning public figures, with Fox News host Tucker Carlson as the most prominent example, are increasingly embracing populist economic rhetoric, arguing that the government can reshape culture to help nuclear families, and eschewing libertarian economic concepts and libertarianism itself. In fact, when I spoke with Carlson back in January, he told me that his previous libertarian stance on economics and government was wrong: “I was so blinded by this libertarian economic propaganda that I couldn’t get past my own assumptions about economics.”

In the fewest possible words, Carlson and others are arguing that “conservatarian” economic policies, like low taxes and free trade, may have made America wealthy but didn’t necessarily make Americans happy, or more moral. In their view, quite the contrary.

And yes, this fight involves Donald Trump, a Republican presidential candidate who promised “insurance for everyone” and whose personal conservatism is largely debatable — which, for some of his supporters, is just fine. Trump’s win in 2016 has caused many conservatives to rethink their political priorities entirely, and left those who haven’t behind.

The fight over the one Republican lawmaker calling for impeachment

The real-world impact of the conservative-libertarian crack-up is evident in the House of Representatives.

In May, the House Freedom Caucus unanimously voted to condemn one of the caucus’s founding members, Michigan Republican Rep. Justin Amash. His crime: repeatedly tweeting about the report prepared by special counsel Robert Mueller regarding Trump’s alleged ties with Russian officials and arguing it “reveals that President Trump engaged in specific actions and a pattern of behavior that meet the threshold for impeachment.”

I reached out to Amash, but have not yet heard back.

As my colleague Tara Golshan has detailed, the incident between Amash and the caucus he helped create back in 2015 is telling for what it says about the relationship that’s formed between the HFC and the Trump administration:

The Freedom Caucus was once a group designed to fight against a certain Republican Party groupthink, to promote small-government and constitutionally conservative ideals, but it is increasingly indistinguishable from Trump.

But the crackup between Amash and the HFC is indicative of a larger and growing divide between Republicans and libertarians, one with real-world implications for Congress and our politics.

The growing conservative populist movement (of sorts) that stands directly athwart libertarian values of “free minds and free markets” is being felt in Republican politics. Rising stars in conservative circles, like Sen. Josh Hawley, are arguing against so-called “free market orthodoxy” on trade and calling for the regulation of social media companies, arguing that “holding big companies accountable who have amassed significant market power and are using it among other things to squelch conservative voices” is a conservative cause.

As Sarwark told me during our conversation, “Just looking at issues that we think are going to be determinative in 2020, you’ve got a consensus in the Republican Party in support of tariffs and opposed to free trade. That’s just mind-boggling.”

Into that complex morass enters Justin Amash, who, it should be noted, is fairly used to standing alone even among his Republican colleagues.

In 2014, he was nearly primaried by another Republican who described Amash as “Al-Qaeda’s best friend in Congress” (a descriptor originally coined by Rep. Devin Nunes) for his opposition to the reauthorization of the Patriot Act, making this tweet from Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale decrying Amash for his insufficient libertarianism all the more inexplicable. And in 2016, he was the lone Michigan Congress member to oppose federal intervention and assistance for the city of Flint as it reeled from a lead poisoning water crisis. At the time, he argued, “the U.S. Constitution does not authorize the federal government to intervene in an intrastate matter like this one,” adding that the state of Michigan should take the lead.

But because of his tweets on impeachment, Amash is now facing a primary challenger and the ire of the Trumpian right, and perhaps the end of his career in Congress. Sarwark told me, “There’s no more path for him to stay in Congress as a Republican in his district in Michigan because they’re going to be redistricting it away, and I think that that combined with a lot of his colleagues either changing their views to fit the times or just leaving Congress entirely because it’s not a comfortable place, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s feeling a little weary at it.“

He added, “Amash is finding himself by himself.”

Amash might be finding himself alone because of his willingness to stick by his principles. But libertarians are finding themselves increasingly alone as well, for reasons, as I’ve described, that extend far beyond who currently occupies the White House.

What this great war is over

As I said at the top of this piece, the debates over libertarians and conservatives, Sohrab Ahmari and David French, are really about a very important question: What is conservatism, and what are its goals?

During the Cold War, conservatism defined itself in its opposition to communism, and in the era of Trump, many conservatives appear to have defined themselves by their opposition to “the left” or liberalism more broadly, a phenomenon I’ve termed “reflexible anti-leftism.” But right now, many conservatives are talking and debating among themselves about what conservatism should be promoting, not just opposing, or, in the words of National Review founder William F. Buckley in 1955, “standing athwart, yelling stop.”

Should conservatism support a limited government, even if that puts nuclear families at risk? Should conservatism support free markets, even if that means people can readily buy pornography that saps their moral virtue? What would conservative victory, real, true victory, look like? Who would lose if Ahmarian conservatism or Carlsonian conservatism or any of the conservatisms won? What kind of moral compromises should conservatives make to win a cultural or political battle? Should conservatism aim to persuade liberals or inoculate conservatives against liberalism? Should conservatism care what private citizens do in their bedrooms or boardrooms or places of worship?

The debate over libertarianism and conservatism, and over Ahmari and French, isn’t just about what conservatives believe. It’s about what conservatism is.

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