Last week, Sohrab Ahmari, op-ed editor at the New York Post, wrote an article in First Things entitled “Against David French-ism.” This launched a firestorm on the right, with more attacks coming this week. David Marcus, a correspondent for The Federalist, suggested David French would not oppose euthanasia for teenagers, and the senior managing editor at RedState accused French of being a “Vichy Republican,” a reference to the Nazi government in France during World War II. Kurt Schlichter attacked French for supposedly abetting the left by noting the corruption of Paul Manafort. Will Chamberlain, publisher of Human Events, called for French to be fired.
What is going on? To a large extent, this debate is a proxy for disagreements on whether or not to support President Donald Trump. In 2016, National Review ran an issue entitled “Against Trump.” For a short period of time, it looked like National Review writer, conservative lawyer, and Iraq veteran David French would mount a “Never Trump” campaign for president. French did not, but he remains an outspoken critic of the president — though not always negative toward Trump. Meanwhile, Ahmari claimed that fervently supporting Trump can bring a conservative restoration to American culture.
There is an ideological dimension to the debate as well. Ahmari engages in personal vitriol against French, but as Rod Dreher (bestselling author of The Benedict Option) pointed out at the American Conservative, the gist of Ahmari’s argument against French traces to French’s belief in classical liberalism. “But classical liberalism is a dead end for Christians, and is nothing more than a way of negotiating our complete surrender to those who hate us and what we stand for. Better to fight with all we’ve got, with the expectation of winning and re-establishing Christian standards in the public square, than to keep ceding ground to those who have no intention at all of tolerating us,” Dreher wrote, summarizing Ahmari’s argument.
Indeed, Ahmari claims that “conservative Christians can’t afford” what he called the “luxuries” of “procedural liberalism, supporting pluralism, etc.,” because “progressives understand that culture war means discrediting their opponents and weakening or destroying their institutions. Conservatives should approach the culture war with similar realism. Civility and decency are secondary values.”
Ahmari warns that there is no return to the “pre-Trump conservative consensus.” Instead, “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.”
In short, Ahmari’s beef against French can be summed up on three fronts: French is a committed classical liberal and classical liberalism won’t save conservatives from the hatred of the radical left; French represents a kind of niceness and respect toward enemies that conservatives cannot afford; and French opposes Trump, who should be trusted as the new force to bring about a Christian conservative moral consensus to replace classical liberalism.
There is a hint of truth to the first claim, but Ahmari’s attack on civility and his weird faith in Trump are misplaced. (I say this as a pro-Trump conservative who thinks that French is too negative on the president.)
The left does indeed hate conservatives, and to some degree accepting classical liberalism may seem a naive defense. Organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center prove that a powerful segment of the left is dedicated to destroying conservative institutions, and much of their activism seems terrifyingly successful in that effort.
However, as Rod Dreher pointed out, “moral and religious conservatives — especially Christians — are a minority in this post-Christian country. … I can’t see any meaningful protection for us and our institutions outside of liberalism’s structures. Arguments for religious liberty are inherently liberal arguments. … The idea that people should tolerate things that they dislike out of respect for pluralism is a liberal idea — and it’s just about the only thing we Christians have left to stand behind in post-Christian America.”
This ties in to Ahmari’s hope that Trump represents a new force toward “order, continuity, and social cohesion.” Trump has achieved key goals of the pro-life, religious freedom, and social conservative movements, but that does not make him a force for community. It also does not make him a champion of social order or cohesion.
Donald Trump has had three wives and he has bragged about marital infidelity. He has not lived a particularly religious life. While there are signs he may be becoming more Christian, Christians should not put their hope in Trump’s personal life. During his presidency, he has been a key ally for social conservatives and Catholics, but that does not make him the symbol of a new social cohesion. After all, Trump is a very divisive political figure. In fact, French has claimed that the president represents the very “autonomy” Ahmari opposes.
In his response to Ahmari’s attacks, French eviscerates “the fictional version of me.” To some degree, Amari does create a false picture of the lawyer and National Review writer. “How do we counter ideological mono-thought in universities, workplaces, and other institutions? Try promoting better work-life balance, says French,” Ahmari writes.
“This is complete nonsense. Just months before I joined National Review full-time after many years as a contributor, I won what I believe is the first-ever jury verdict on behalf of a conservative Christian professor who was denied promotion because of his faith. The litigation took seven years, involved a trip to the Fourth Circuit — where we established a leading precedent in support of professors’ free-speech rights — and ended in a week-long jury trial and a judgment that granted the professor his promotion and back pay and my firm almost $700,000 in legal fees,” French wrote.
Indeed, when David Marcus suggested that French would not oppose euthanasia, Ricochet editor Bethany Mandel shot back, tweeting, “There is nobody more pro-life across the board than David French. This French as stand in for conservative squish analogy needs a reality check.”
There is nobody more pro-life across the board than David French. This French as stand in for conservative squish analogy needs a reality check.
— Bethany S. Mandel (@bethanyshondark) June 5, 2019
Conservatives worth the name should recognize that French has been fighting for conservative principles for decades, as president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, as a lawyer with the American Center for Law and Justice and Alliance Defending Freedom, and even by joining the military and fighting in Iraq. French is not a traitor to conservatism, he’s a bona fide hero for the cause.
French powerfully writes, “I literally can’t count the number of cases I’ve filed to preserve and protect conservative Christian voices on campus. I’ve also written, spoken, and advocated for significant federal reforms designed to deter and punish university illiberalism, and while Ahmari says I have an ‘airy above-it-all mentality,’ I didn’t feel ‘above’ anything on that night at Tufts University when I literally placed my body between a small group of Christian students and a collection of roughly 100 protesters who were trying to intimidate them in a darkened hallway.”
French does not apologize for his strong criticisms of Trump, especially on Russia, and that seems to be the real heart of the issue.
Yet the attack on civility is also quite noteworthy. This debate began when Ahmari complained that French does not fight against “Drag Queen Story Time.” For some reason, French seems oblivious to the key connections between these drag queen events and the targeting of young children for LGBT ideology — “grooming” in the words of one drag queen. Indeed, registered sex offenders have been reading specifically to children at these events. This is not to claim that drag queens sexually assault children at these events, but they are rightly controversial.
French decided to defend these people’s right to assemble, and they do have that right. The problem is, these events happen at public libraries. The drag queens are seeking the approval not just of society but of the state for their “grooming” of children. Ahmari attacked “libertarian conservatism” as saying, “We beg you, grant us a private space in which our kids can be shielded from the drag reading hour,” and suggested instead a “common-good conservatism” which says, “To hell with this grotesque assault on the innocence of children! We will reorient society to the moral law.”
“If you can’t see why children belong nowhere near drag, with its currents of transvestic fetishism, we have nothing to say to each other. We are irreconcilably opposed. There’s no polite, David French-ian third way around the cultural civil war. The only way is through,” Ahmari tweeted.
But there is a “third way.” The proper response is for conservatives to oppose Drag Queen Story Time in taxpayer-funded public libraries, but to allow it in private arenas (while still condemning it there). Under classical liberalism, these kinds of events — so long as they do not actually involve abuse — can occur in private settings, but conservatives should complain that these events are taking place on public property and therefore with the implied support of the government. Ahmari is correct to complain about them taking place at a “taxpayer-funded library.” French need not betray classical liberalism to acknowledge that.
Yet French is right to note that this is a pre-textual argument, and he is right to respond to Ahmari’s attacks on civility. In an article entitled, “Decency Is No Barrier to Justice or the Common Good,” French recalls learning the hard lesson of being a happy warrior. When working with his role model, French was surprised to see the lawyer jump on the phone and congratulate the opposing legal team after a legal defeat.
“It’s a lesson I never forgot — even when the Kentucky Supreme Court granted our request for review, reversed the Court of Appeals, and handed us victory in the case. He fought for our client. He fought for ideas. Yet he never forgot the humanity and dignity of our opponents, even when the stakes were high,” French writes.
This civility is key, and not just in politics. The Apostle Peter gave this advice about evangelism: “But in your hearts, honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you, yet do so with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that when you are slandered, those who revile your good name in Christ may be put to shame” (1 Peter 3:15-17).
Graciousness is not incompatible with fighting, and fighting hard. In fact, treating opponents well may help win arguments, especially if the opponents start acting out against you.
David French may come off a bit pompous, and he certainly spares no criticism of Donald Trump. But he is a principled conservative and the principles he supports are the right ones. Conservatives should have debates about Trump, and if you ask me, we should firmly support him against a far left that seems bent on destroying us. But the president does have a checkered moral past and many of his tweets make his supporters cringe. Conservatives should be able to admit the man’s faults as well as his successes.
French is spot on about civility, and some of his detractors should be ashamed of their attacks against him. He is no “Vichy Republican,” even if he should defend Trump more than he does.
I spend a great deal of time reporting on how the Left demonizes dissent from its increasingly radical orthodoxy. The SPLC brands its political opponents “hate groups” and lists them along with the KKK. This has inspired a terrorist attack, and I think the SPLC is vulnerable to defamation lawsuits. Conservatives should set the example by not doing anything like this. Instead, many people have ganged up against David French, falsely calling him a squish or a fake conservative. This is nonsense, and my fellow Trump supporters should know better.
Follow Tyler O’Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.