Religion & Liberty Online

Why not to be a “polite” conservative in the age of French/Ahmari debate

The debate surrounding David French-ism started by New York Post’s Sohrab Ahmari in First Things is, in my view, less about content — or political proposals, to use another term — than about the future and, to a large extent, the recent past of the American Conservative movement. This debate is not about the benefits of the free market or whether a religiously-based moral philosophy should guide government, but about how mainstream “conservatism” lost its way and what the future of the post-Donald Trump American Right looks like.

One of the most outspoken instigators of conspiratorial theories about the collusion between Vladimir Putin and Trump, David French — taken by Ahmari as mainstream conservatism’s archetype — always make it clear just how good a person he is. Reading his articles, Julie Kelly shows as we can hear the sermons of a true disciple of Christ and find out just how heroic his performance was in Iraq or that he has an adoptive daughter. A real contrast to the sinner Trump and his followers.

However, Ahmari correctly understood what David French stands for. He is that kind of person who sees his self-righteousness as a virtue, a sort of Cato without the black tunic. French, who sells himself as pro-life conservative, sees no problem in going to left-leaning pro-abortion media outlets to bash Trump and point out the president’s alleged lack of morality.

Therefore, I think there is nothing strange about Ahmari calling French “pastor” because he doubtless sees himself as one. And in the Church in which French is the clergy, Anti-Trumpism is the catechism. According to this strange theology, to quote the Parti Communiste Français, “there are no enemies on the Left.”

That said, I need to make clear, regardless of the many disagreements toward the political opinions of both contenders, at least at one point I need to fully agree with French: Using the government to advance the conservative agenda will backfire in the face of conservatives.

In 2016 the National Review — the home of French — published a special edition announcing that Trump needed to be stopped no matter what; at different times, this act would have represented Trump’s excommunication from the conservative movement; however, as everyone knows, voters saw otherwise.

Excommunications, nevertheless, are nothing new in the universe of National Review. In the 1970s, William Buckley began to purge all those who disagreed with an ideological line increasingly similar to what would be known as neoconservatism years later. And I need to give it to them: no one can burn someone on a stake like the National Review’s neoconservative crew – they are Trotskyist after all. Utterly powerless in preventing America from sliding toward socialism — if that was their goal – they were indeed able to purge former collaborators and destroying their reputations like no one else.

In successive accusatory waves of anti-Semitism, anti-patriotism, and other forms of heresy, Buckley expelled the John Birch Society for opposing the Vietnam War, and shortly thereafter Murray Rothbard met the same fate because he opposed America’s militarism. Following the general trend on the American Right In the 1980s, all adherents of conservative heterodoxy were slowly replaced by neoconservative warmongers. “Pope” Buckley excommunicated Pat Buchanan in 1992, and then John O’Sullivan and Peter Brimelow would lose their jobs for not following the new catechism that “immigration is good.” In 2003, lastly, David Frum decided that all those who did not support the disastrous wars promoted by the Bush administration — for which he worked — should go away.

In many ways, Trump became the antagonist of the three main dogmas of the Church of National Review and mainstream Conservatism: uncontrolled immigration, politically correct ideology, and interventionism abroad.

The National Review and its allies failed to understand the Trump phenomenon because, in truth, they are not conservatives but a modern version of the Pietism of the twentieth century. As long as anyone aligns with the three dogmas that they profess, they will enthusiastically support him. Therefore, it should come as no surprise to see the support given by them to the warmonger and late Sen. John McCain, and to abortion champion and Obamacare pioneer Mitt Romney. Trump was the only sinner, the heretic, to be anathematized for good.

After Trump’s victory, National Review saw itself in hot water and slightly shifted the editorial line, giving room to some Trump supporters and skeptics regarding Robert Mueller’s attempted coup – in fact, many in the National Review backed Attorney-General Bill Barr. Even so, the thesis that “the walls were closing in,” to use Max Boot‘s words, on Trump is still popular in the Church of Anti-Trumpism.  But this is a tactical retreat, not an ideological change.

The Old American Right had a shared goal: to roll back the government’s frontiers. They were essentially anti-statist and anti-interventionist — and unlike the progressive Wasps, many of them were Anglophobic. Conservatism, in the European meaning of the term, had no roots in the American political tradition until Russell Kirk wrote The Conservative Mind in 1953. It was Kirk who linked some prevailing political views within the American Right to the venerable conservative English tradition.

Although this was not Kirk’s intention, many self-promoters who did not share the goals of putting the power of the government under control began to be called conservatives in the 1970s. The dynamics of postwar American politics gave the idea that to belong to the Right or being conservative was the same as being anti-communist. This was an obvious mistake; many cold warriors were as revolutionary as the Bolsheviks they fought — revolutionaries of another breed, but revolutionaries nonetheless.

The anti-communism cleavage prevented right-wingers from noticing that the major agent of the social revolution in the United States is the federal government which, under the excuse of advancing anti-prejudice policies, seeks to re-educate the American people following politically correct ideology. Unfortunately, the cleavage of American politics was defined by how hawkish someone is in foreign policy and not concerning the power of government. Conservatism, therefore, became a synonym for global war to promote anything from capitalism to gay rights, and from the interests of the military–industrial Complex to the need to re-educate backward peoples on the advantages of feminism. And this is the conservatism championed by many in the National Review.

What Ahmari has been able to grasp is that beneath all this debate over politeness is the desire of mainstream conservatism to silence all dissidents in much the same way the Puritans did. For David French-ist “polite” conservatives, civil debate is the one they have with leftists that agree with their dogmas — war, migration, politically correct re-education — if you are a real conservative or even a leftist that does not buy their creed, they have three words for you: Burn baby burn!

Moreover, Ahmari’s debate has foreseen at least one thing more. Once Trump is out of the White House, David French-ism will work to make sure things go back to the way they were: a GOP controlled by McCains, Romneys, and Bushes that guarantees open borders, global wars and political correctness, which is synonymous with being polite. If I can guess, the night of the long knives to be promoted by the “polite” conservatives is just around the next corner.

Homepage picture: Wikimedia Commons

Silvio Simonetti

Silvio Simonetti is a Brazilian lawyer, graduated in international affairs from the Bush School at Texas A & M University. He is currently a Research Fellow at the Acton Institute. Silvio loves history and the Catholic Church.