Sohrab Amari (Trumpist) picked a stupid fight with David French (Never Trumpist).
The gist of [Sohrab] Ahmari’s argument is this: [David] French is a classical liberal, who argues in terms suited to 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.
The Ahmari vs. French standoff is a version of what Patrick Deneen, in a 2014 TAC article, identified as “a Catholic showdown worth watching.” Deneen identifies the antagonists not as left vs. right, but a dispute between two kinds of conservatives within US Catholicism. On one side are classical liberals — the Neuhaus/Novak/Weigel folks — who believe that Christianity can be reconciled with liberalism, and enrich it. On the other are those — Alasdair MacIntyre, David Schindler — who believe that they are fundamentally incompatible.
Though Ahmari is Catholic and French is Evangelical, this is near the core of their argument …
Dreher is correct that this is the sort of show-down Deneen predicted. Oddly, my visceral sympathies are with MacIntyre, Schindler and, yes, Patrick “Why Liberalism Failed” Deneen, but my reasoning throws me into the uncomfortable neo-conservative company of Neuhaus/Novak/Weigel.
It’s also a fight between the primacy of politics and the primacy of culture. Dreher is, correctly I think, on the primacy of culture side, pretty much because we have no realistic alternative. His full analysis, too, is worth reading, not just my excerpt.
The 2014 Deneen article is worth your reading or re-reading especially now. I clipped it at the time and have revisited it repeatedly.
The Amari/French fight has gone several rounds now, but I think French won on a technical knock-out yesterday:
[M]eet [Sohrab Ahmari’s] fictional Donald Trump. See if you recognize this person as the 45th President of the United States:
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. He believes it can help protect the citizen from transnational forces beyond his control.
Donald Trump wouldn’t even fully grasp what this paragraph means, much less recognize it as a governing philosophy. He is a man of prodigious personal appetites. A man who proudly hangs a Playboy cover on the wall of his office. A man who marries and then marries again and again, yet still feels compelled to find porn stars to bed. In his essay, Ahmari condemns the man who craves autonomy above all else. He is, without knowing it, condemning Trump.
So, there you have it. To Ahmari, the alignment of forces looks like this: In one corner is the nice milquetoast libertarian, David French. In the other corner is the strong instrument of social cohesion, Donald Trump.
If this were a real binary conflict and I had to choose, I’d go with Trump, too …
I firmly believe that the defense of … political and cultural values must be conducted in accordance with scriptural admonitions to love your enemies, to bless those who persecute you, with full knowledge that the “Lord’s servant” must be “kind to everyone, able to teach, and patiently endure evil.”
I’m a deeply flawed person in daily (or even hourly) need of God’s grace, so I don’t always live up to those ideals. But I see them for what they are: commands to God’s people, not tactics to try until they fail. Ahmari does not wrestle with these dictates in his essay. He should have.
Ben Domenech at The Federalist supported Amari.
Amari and Domenech are raising adolescent hell, as befits their publications, while French is soberly assessing reality, which sometimes makes him odd man out at NRO, but look at the last two paragraphs I quoted and I think you’ll see why he plays it that way.
Maybe Christians will need to make a strategic alliance with alt-right barbarians some day, but for now I think the alt-right ways are to be shunned as deathworks, while “David French-ism” is a lifework.
UPDATE: I couldn’t imagine what more remained to be said about Amari’s folly, but Bret Stephens finds something to say that isn’t just bouncing the rubble:
There’s something to the point that the bullying moral spirit of modern progressivism isn’t going to be mollified by David French’s niceness alone. More likely, it will be deflated over time (and only partially) by South Park-style mockery and a natural impatience with the moral scolds of any political persuasion.
But [Sohrab] Ahmari is after something else. What’s needed, he writes, is “to fight the culture war with the aim of 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.” That’s the voice of a would-be theocrat speaking, even if he hasn’t yet mustered the courage to acknowledge the conviction.
I wish Ahmari were speaking for himself alone. He isn’t. He’s just the latest conservative writer I know who has found his own way to Trumpism — proving, if nothing else, that the only things intellectuals find hard to see are the facts that stare them in the face.
Here’s what stares me in the face: Ahmari’s life story — a Muslim immigrant who wound up becoming a Trumpian moralist by way of Marxism and then free-market conservatism — is a tribute to the value-neutral liberalism he now claims to despise. Whatever hopes remain of a decent conservative movement rest in rejecting the illiberalism he now embraces — the one that would close the door to some future Ahmari, embarking on an experiment in living all his own.
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