I’m an institutionalist, and NR is my institution these days. We try to be ecumenical across the American conservative tradition. I’m a conservative nationalist, a restrictionist, and a practicing Catholic (not that I’ve gotten any good at it). I was hired by an immigrant atheist libertarian, shortly after a Texas anarchist ran a cover story here in which the opening line was “Michael Brendan Dougherty is bitter.” I tend to think NR is at its best when we debate each other passionately and still practice fellowship. I think that way about the broader American Right, too; it’s an ecosystem of intellectuals, journalists, chancers, and a few cranks (some of us get a chance to play all those roles). This ecosystem tends to be at its worst when any one faction starts to dominate the others and threaten expulsion. Maintaining a healthy balance is not always easy, because we’re human, and because real prizes of status and influence and other things denounced as worthless in Ecclesiastes are at stake. I also think we need to practice the friendship bit more, because we may face greater dangers and threats sooner than we think. One of the ironies of the present moment is that so many people feel burdened by NR’s legacy of “fusionism” between traditionalism and libertarianism, a marriage of convenience to oppose socialism. And we feel this precisely the moment when socialism is newly undead.
My friend Sohrab Ahmari of the New York Post and the Catholic Herald has written a short essay at First Things assailing a tendency of liberal conservatism, i.e., cultural conservatism married to political liberalism. I recognize the tendency, and oppose it as Ahmari does. Ahmari has given the tendency the name of my colleague and friend David French, and I think that identification is based on a mistake, which I’ll come to later.
There is something familiar about Ahmari’s general thrust. L. Brent Bozell aimed much the same criticism at William F. Buckley from Triumph, his Catholic traditionalist magazine: “Liberalism has won all its battles with you,” he taunted. And a certain kind of nationalist has always despised people in the conservative movement. One of them named neoconservatism the “harmless persuasion” because it would “retreat into elegant reprimands of the establishment rather than advance to a principled confrontation with it.”
“What has conservatism conserved?” That question rang out during the primaries. In truth, actually quite a bit if you’re old enough to remember the 1960s and 1970s. And I’m not sure that in a time when there is a renaissance of pro-life legislation across the states we should say that we have only “won discrete victories” while “the overall balance of forces has tilted inexorably away from us” because of Drag Queen Storytime at a library in Sacramento.
As a historical note, it was Roe v. Wade that pushed Bozell back toward American conservative groups, particularly those that were formed to oppose it. And according to the exalted standards of Triumph and its timelines, liberalism won all its battles with Bozell too. If today we are closer to the end of abortion, it is not just “because of Trump” and his appointment of Brett Kavanaugh as some have said (we don’t yet know how that turns out, in fact) but because of long-term institution-building on the right combined with political courage, some of it demonstrated by Trump himself.
Ahmari’s essay was strongest and most provocative in tracing the problem with liberal conservatism to its theological roots in English non-conformists and the broader tendency to de-politicize political questions by referring to culture or procedure. There are lots of political issues that can’t be solved by reference to our Constitution: Should public funding go to faux-academic “studies” majors that begin with their propagandistic conclusions? Conservatives should be able to say “No.” Conservatives have to argue for the substantive good their institutions do, and seek the social and legal approbation that allows them to flourish, not just a parsimonious procedural freedom that protects our families, our charities, our schools, and our churches as custodians of a bare “viewpoint” otherwise indistinguishable from mere prejudices.
Ahmari’s essay has been subject to jejune criticism that it was “against civility” itself. The atheist libertarian who hired me felt its militant invocation of the common good smacked of “Leninism.” That’s far too strong. Ahmari’s invocation of ordering the public square to the Highest Good is perfectly consonant with the founder of First Things, Father Richard Neuhaus, and his desire to see the public square clothed by ideas borne of true religion.
Everyone knows that some big debates about liberty versus substantive good are happening on the right, and that these debates implicate questions about the scope of the free market in our thought. Tucker Carlson’s famous monologue generated a ton of debate on the right — much of it clean fighting, precisely because he deftly avoided mentioning the man in the White House. I think Ahmari’s essay has occasioned these rancorous responses because it tied its ideas to people who generate strong passions. David French doesn’t fit the caricature of the small-l liberal who finds it impossible to make public distinctions between good and bad. And Donald Trump can’t possibly live up to the politics that Ahmari would have him symbolize.
Let’s start with French. I’ve joked that if all men were David French, not only would I endorse David French’s politics, but I might endorse Kevin Williamson’s. In fact, French doesn’t de-politicize all moral and cultural questions. He supported Alabama’s law against most abortions. In fact, he sees the legislative effort against abortion as part and parcel of cultural renewal, not separated from it. His actions in the courtroom have accomplished more victories for religious liberty and the academic freedom of conservatives than most of our scribbling has. French’s adherence to traditional liberal and procedural protections for religious liberty grows out of his experience as a lawyer and advocate, where they have proven effective. That is where his expertise lies. He is doing the good he in particular is capable of doing. I also know from many, many conversations with him that he does understand the need to defend the substantive good of the Church in our society, and that procedural protections cannot save us from a horrible public reputation.
French has not defended the “collusion hoax”; he defended the Mueller investigation. I know many people see these as indistinguishable, but I don’t. I happen to agree more with Charlie Cooke that the executive branch investigating itself was bound to produce a kind of crisis. Congress can’t take up its responsibility of oversight of the executive by hoping an employee of the executive branch will take all the responsibility for making a call on impeaching the chief executive from them. But that’s a debate worth having.
Near the top of the essay, Ahmari writes in full Bozellian passion about how conservatives need to fight to win, defeat our enemies, and build “a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.”
At the bottom of his essay, he writes:
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. He believes that the political community — and not just the church, family, and individual — has its own legitimate scope for action.
I totally agree with Ahmari that the rise of Trump — and the failures during the Obama and Bush years before him — smashed an old consensus. I personally have welcomed the nationalist moment in our politics. I want this presidency to do some good; I want this moment not to be wasted. I have tried to show in my own way that the nation and the family itself are connected, and their breakdown as a nexus of loyalty is mutually reinforcing. But Trump cannot be given unqualified credit for shifting us toward “order, continuity, and social cohesion.”
We must remember that a small cohort of people experienced Trump’s rise during the primaries as a complete loosening of constraints, and threw away a decency this country has always sorely needed; they ventilated their hatred of racial and religious minorities in Trump’s name. Some of them aimed this poison directly into the family life of David French. Trump winked at these extremists, and far from promoting cohesion, he promoted physical assault at his rallies. With the “Highest Good” Trump disclaims all personal relationship, whether mediated by the non-conformist altar call in his own heart, or the grand public liturgy. “I never ask God for forgiveness,” he boasted.
Trump is a product of the culture’s obsession with personal autonomy that Ahmari decries. The good things about his politics either are given to him by the Right or are part of a sentimental attachment to the country he loved as a young man. Trump has a good eye for “the main chance” and an admirable ignorance of Washington’s stupid conventional wisdom. But he hasn’t shown the energetic realism Ahmari wants. For example: Trump is dead right that a nation needs borders. His administration has bungled, miscalculated, and squandered its way toward a border crisis.
Some months ago an older and wiser conservative sent out a letter to friends worried not so much about the “divisions of opinion” Trump has caused on the right but the broken friendships and personal bitterness it all occasioned. Divisions of opinion on the right are common and always have been. Read through the Nixon years of National Review to find some tasty examples. We understand that political conflict and the battle of ideas have casualties, that defeating ideas sometimes requires defeating the people espousing them in argument. But my guess is that while there are engaged audiences of people who do want to see either French or Ahmari totally vindicated in this back-and-forth Ahmari has started, the great silent majority of us would regard choosing one or the other as tragic. Especially those who know each of them. I agree with Ahmari about the necessity of building a conservatism focused on the common good and in moving beyond liberal conservatism. My intention is to bring good men such as David French into that fight even if I have to drag him there.