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David French DESTROYS Sohrab Ahmari (and the idea of ‘illiberal conservatism’)

The "debate" at Catholic University wasn't close.
September 6, 2019
David French DESTROYS Sohrab Ahmari (and the idea of ‘illiberal conservatism’)

Here are a few things that the New York Post’s Sohrab Ahmari, noted public Catholic intellectual, apparently believes:

  • American Christianity is intolerably beset by tyrannical leftists, and its only hope for salvation lies in Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley holding a furrowed-brow Senate hearing about the evils of local libraries allowing drag queens to teach children how to twerk.
  • Rights-based, ostensibly value-neutral liberalism has failed American Christianity, which is why it is now critically important that America’s remaining Christians actively work to undermine the legal precept that citizens have the right to assemble and discuss their beliefs in public spaces.
  • For the first time in a long time, regular, everyday salt-of-the-earth Christians have been given shelter from the terrors of rights-based, ostensibly value-neutral liberalism by President Donald Trump, who has done this by appointing a thousand Federalist Society judges to the federal judiciary.

Ahmari took each of these positions during a Thursday night debate at Catholic University with National Review’s David French, at an event sponsored by CUA’s Institute for Human Ecology.

The ostensible topic of the evening’s fun was “Cultural Conservatives: Two Visions Responding to the Post-Liberal Left.” But of course French and Ahmari weren’t pitted against one another here because they are towering philosophers of competing visions of Christian liberalism. French is a long-time first-amendment lawyer and National Review writer best known, these days, for his continued opposition to President Donald Trump. Ahmari is an author who caromed from communism to Wall Street Journal-style free-market Republicanism (and from Islam to atheism to Evangelicalism to Catholicism while he was at it) before settling into his current role as a populist-cum-integralist rabble-rouser. It was less a debate than a conservative dork pay-per-view: the face-to-face culmination of a grudge kicked off months ago when Ahmari tossed off a tweet, and later a full, goofy essay, fingering French as the mascot of milquetoast conservative retreat in the face of leftist aggression.

It was more Mayweather-McGregor than Lincoln-Douglas: An event not so much about ideas, or even the question of who would “win”—anyone who pays attention to public life knows that Ahmari has no business being in the ring with a serious intellectual like French—so much as a chance to see a Twitter fight come to life. You would think that Catholic University would be ashamed to be playing the part of Don King. But you would be wrong. The introductory speaker happily pronounced that the evening was the Institute’s most heavily-attended event yet.

The crowd who showed up for drama and dunks got what they came for. Ahmari rehearsed all his prior attacks on French, while uncorking a few new ones: he alleged that a “President French” would not have had the courage to stand by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. (Which is an . . . interesting contention.) He also attacked French’s military service in Iraq, implying that French hadn’t really served because he was only a JAG. (The closest Ahmari has come to serving was his stint at a newspaper run by the Communist Worker’s Alliance. He was a warrior for the class struggle.)

The takeaway from the night was what everyone already knew going in: Sohrab Ahmari’s “ideological proposition” is little more than punching up for outrage clicks.

Ahmari’s primary beef against political liberalism, of which he has made French a totem, is simple: Rights-based liberal democracy has failed to stamp out practices that Ahmari finds abhorrent. His favorite bugbear is the Drag Queen Story Hour—men in drag hosting events at public libraries for children. This, according to Ahmari, is a national scourge occurring at literally dozens of libraries a year across our land. That David French is insufficiently concerned about the Drag Queen Story Hour was the basis of Ahmari’s quarrel with him in the first place and the source of his entire post-facto intellectual rationalizing.

On Thursday, French again laid out the position that, on balance, a robust view of freedom of speech and assembly benefits Christianity in America:

The spread of the gospel is facilitated in an immense way by viewpoint-neutral access to public facilities. This is an unquestionable, absolute fact, and it is one that we have fought for.

I don’t like that 1,500 people in a year go to Drag Queen Story Hour, or 2,000 people, or whatever—it’s less than the weekly attendance at my church in one week. I don’t like that. I would like to see every drag queen in the United States of America come to a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. I am not in any way willing to upset the constitutional order and to provide governments the ability to engage in viewpoint discrimination against disfavored organizations for the sake of dealing with that menace.

Ahmari then launched into an abstract declamation on why this position is inadequate—“I think the typical Frenchian move is to say, XYZ is already under assault, things are already terrible, and therefore we can’t use the public power to at least prevent—” but here French cut him off. “What public power would you use, and how would it be constitutional?” French demanded. “I would love for somebody to answer that question one time. What public power, how is it constitutional, and if it’s not, do you believe it’s worth changing the Constitution?”

Given that this is the central challenge against the worldview Ahmari advances, you’d think he would have had a satisfying response prepped. But no: “Well, I could see, for example, a hearing held on what’s happening in our libraries, in which, you know, Senators Cruz, Hawley, and Cotton make the head of the modern library association, or whatever, sweat, as they know they can,” Ahmari bloviated. “And what does that do? It sends a cultural message that we’re up against this, we’re going to fight this, because it’s obscene. I don’t know, you can pass, at the local level, ordinances . . . and cultural pressure.”

When French observed that local ordinances have to follow the Constitution just as much as federal laws, Ahmari responded . . . by critiquing an op-ed about gay marriage that French wrote in 2006.

Creating a new Christian order by scheduling a Senate hearing and ignoring any questions about how we’re going to pass a bunch of unconstitutional laws banning immoral content: This, then, is the full scope of the project of the new illiberal cons. Behold its majesty.

Incredibly, things only got dumber once the interlocutors broached the real subject of their disagreement: Donald Trump. Minutes after asserting, as a dig at French, that the real problem with the conservative movement is that it’s too obsessed with the law, Ahmari argued that American Christians view Trump as their solid buttress against the left because he has fearlessly appointed piles and piles of conservative judges from the Federalist Society to the federal courts.

What this means is that, for Sohrab Ahmari, the biggest cancer on conservatism is that it’s too obsessed with legal liberalism and that President Trump’s greatest act as conservatism’s savior had been to pack the courts with legal liberals, each more or less the spitting image of David French.

If there’s anything good to come from the spectacle put on by Catholic University, perhaps it will be the realization that there is no there at the heart of “illiberal conservatism.” It’s not an ideological proposition. It’s a pose.

And its proponents are not intellectuals so much as trolls. Take them away from their keyboards and the results aren’t pretty.

Andrew Egger

Andrew Egger was a senior writer at The Bulwark.