‘Dreams feel real when we’re in them,” says Cobb, the main character in Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster Inception, which turned ten this past July. “It’s only when we wake up that we realize something was strange.” Fortunately, Sohrab Ahmari, op-ed editor of the New York Post, is here to rouse complacent conservatives from slumber. In an essay for the September issue of the Spectator USA, Ahmari archly adopts left-wing terminology to divide conservatism, as it stands today in terms of comprehending the challenge the Left poses and how to countermand it, into two camps: “those who get it, and those who don’t — the woke and unwoke.” Unsurprisingly, this stark framing proves a drastic simplification, short on some details, misleading on others, and overall suggestive that he is caught in a dream world of his own. Dreams are often a mix of things that are drawn more straightforwardly from reality and others that seem completely fabricated. Thus Ahmari can draw real-world figures into a vision that nonetheless fails to add up entirely. In his view, President Trump, Tucker Carlson, Bill Barr, and Missouri senator Josh Hawley are four “woke” figures, people who recognize 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.” What, specifically, these four figures do to make them fit Ahmari’s vision is a bit less clear, just as certain details about them are a bit confounding. Does Barr’s methodical and pugnacious commitment to the rule of law, for example, make the case that what conservatism needs is more George H. W. Bush administration figures in positions of power?
At least concerning his paragons, Ahmari invokes real figures. His opposites in the conservative camp remain unnamed, concoctions of his ideological subconscious. These unwoke conservatives of his appellation “still labor under the quaint impression that a golden age of procedural liberalism can be restored,” “have no vision of the good society to rival the left’s,” reject “their natural constituency: the working classes of all races,” and, of course, invoke “the personal friendship between Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill.” Since Ahmari does not identify any such conservative by name, it is hard to make much of his caricature. One is rather more inclined to think that he has dreamed up the internecine opponents he would like to have, rather than the ones he does. There are many conservatives who are, to appropriate the term Ahmari himself appropriated, “woke” to the challenges of the contemporary Left. Instead of resorting to his own preferred yet amorphous platform, however, they ground their appeals and tactics in the tradition of the American founding, the underpinnings of our regime. This is hardly a “neutral” platform; simply operating through it both requires and fosters a unique set of political principles. (Ahmari and others are on more solid ground in arguing that our moral receptivity to such principles has eroded with the decline of its buttresses that derived from external sources.) That even through the fog Ahmari and his ideological allies seem to generate around their beliefs and preferences one can discern a lack of concern (or worse) for this foundation speaks well neither of their movement nor of its potential for success.
Much of the rest of Ahmari’s imagined trajectory for the future of conservatism is held together by a kind of dream logic, by which favored things are placed together in a mishmash of happenstance and preference, not intellectual coherence. His favorite four figures are supposedly distinguished by, among other things, a recognition of the threat posed by the Chinese Communist Party. This conveniently elides that, for example, the presumably unwoke Mitt Romney has been on this beat since 2012, and that even today skepticism of the CCP is nearly approaching consensus status.
He accuses his opponents of valuing “the freedom of private economic actors” in every possible circumstance. This ignores the consistent growth of government over the past several decades, and the fact that — despite an ideological struggle I’ll admit is often masked by flighty rhetoric — many modern disputes concerning the use of state power in fact revolve around its proper use, not whether to use it all. State power, much less the desire for more of it, is not a magic wand. (He is aided in this deception by the rhetoric of the likes of Gladden Pappin, who speaks of the apparent reality that conservatives “have no alternative but to use the state for the furtherance of their ends,” as though they have been previously dominated by anarcho-capitalists.)
He makes the familiar complaint about Big Tech, for which I hold no brief, without considering the possibility that the current policy regime works out better for conservatives than any feasible alternative. (It is worth considering, in this regard, that a President Biden would get rid of Section 230, the target of many supposedly “woke” conservatives.) And he imagines that an agenda combining all of these things — such as they are — can alone bolster conservatism’s appeal among the middle and working classes, as though even the pretense of a commitment to the Constitution has been the primary obstacle to conservatism’s electoral success. All of this would be nice for Ahmari if it were true, but it cannot simply be willed so — not this side of a lucid dream, anyway.
This is indeed the primary defect of Ahmari’s approach. His political program is one of wish fulfillment; relatedly, he casts his ideological opponents as trapped by a kind of false consciousness — or subconsciousness. Unlike them, he and his preferred dream warriors supposedly “deal with the balance of American social forces as it really is, rather than as they might wish it to be.” At the risk of seeming too Freudian with so much talk of dreams, this seems, at the moment, to be a case of projection. Whatever legitimate grievances of which Ahmari speaks, actually doing something about them cannot merely be a matter of wish-casting and fan service. It must be a patient, persistent matter of mind-changing, coalition-building, and policy-enacting — in other words, politics, in which the prospect of winning “decisively” is elusive at best. That he attempts to start such an endeavor by accepting so little common cause with people who in fact overlap considerably with him, in certain ways; that he belittles them so reflexively; that he refuses to consider the legitimacy of different tactics, different approaches, or different focuses that do not, for example, see the political world as a final, Manichean struggle between activist Right and activist Left — none of this speaks well of his confidence in his efforts. One is rather inclined to think that Ahmari is the one dreaming, and that, upon contact with reality, it might instead be his dream that collapses.