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Sohrab Ahmari and the Futile Rage of the Illiberal Conservatives

June 3, 2019
Sohrab Ahmari and the Futile Rage of the Illiberal Conservatives

The right-of-center Internet has been lit up for the last few days because of an assault by Sohrab Ahmari on David French and something Ahmari improbably calls “David French-ism.”

Supposedly, this is about how French, a lawyer and senior writer at National Review, is too weak-kneed and polite because he is interested in using persuasion to try to promote his political views. Ahmari, on the other hand, has taken up the Trumpian “But He Fights” credo and declares that “there is no polite, David French-ian third way around the cultural civil war.”

There is actually a much deeper rift here, and it isn’t about politeness or civility. What looks like a debate over how we fight for our political goals is actually a fight over what our political goals should be. Ahmari is advocating the purging of advocates of freedom from the right, in favor of a conservatism that consists of—well, what it consists of is not entirely clear, but it seems to be a new program for vaguely collectivist coercion in the name of religious values.

In the first sentence of his missive against supposed “David French-ism”—is there anything more Trumpian that reducing big ideological questions to a personal grudge?—Ahmari links to a manifesto published in First Things last March which denounced the “Dead Consensus” of the right. It is by way of explaining this attack on standard, 20th century conservatism that Ahmari has launched his weird personal fixation on French.

So what was that manifesto all about? It was about purging from the right defenders of civil liberties and the free market, who are, as Ahmari considers them, merely “conservative liberals.” Instead, Ahmari and First Things favor what can only be called illiberal conservatism.

A note about that term, “liberal.” The biggest mistake the right ever made was to accept the left’s attempt to fashion themselves as “liberals”—a term that means “pro-freedom”—when they are the advocates of thoroughgoing, totalitarian control of individual human choices. It’s a decision that only makes sense if you want to aid in the left’s debasement of the very concept of freedom so that you can offer your own anti-freedom alternative.

Which is precisely what we find in the First Things manifesto.

It accepts—absurdly and uncritically—that the essence of the “Progressive” left is a passion for “individual autonomy.” This can be refuted by spending five minutes on Social Justice Twitter getting yelled at for violating the minute and inscrutable network of rules imposed by the cult of “wokeness.” But this absurdity accomplishes its purpose. Having identified the individual’s ability to make free choices as the problem, the illiberal conservatives go on to identify freedom and its advocates as the true enemy.

The manifesto is nominally about the need to stand behind Trumpism, but it is really an attempt to create the signers’ own definition of what the post-Trump conservative “consensus” should be. In his attack against French, Ahmari spells out this complaint in more detail.

Though culturally conservative, French is a political liberal, which means that individual autonomy is his lodestar: He sees “protecting individual liberty” as the main, if not sole, purpose of government. Here is the problem: The movement we are up against prizes autonomy above all, too; indeed, its ultimate aim is to secure for the individual will the widest possible berth to define what is true and good and beautiful, against the authority of tradition.

Ahmari denounces French for his “horror of the state, of traditional authority and the use of the public power to advance the common good, including in the realm of public morality.”

So we can assume—though he never quite tells us the exact mechanisms—that Ahmari is in favor of the state and the use of its power to promote religious authority on morals. He speaks of “fight[ing] 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,” a new system that would “enforce our order and our orthodoxy.”

But this is not just limited to the culture war. The First Things manifesto begins with sneering references to “individual autonomy” but then moves on to denouncing “the cult of competitiveness,” “free trade,” “economic libertarianism,” “the demands of capital,” “investors and ‘job creators’ “—note the gratuitous scare quotes—and “warmed-over Reaganism.”

I predicted a few days ago that we were only weeks away from conservatives trashing Ronald Reagan in order to bolster Trump. It turns out I was behind the curve. It was already happening.

The signatories of that manifesto don’t just want to eject the free-marketers. They want to welcome in the nationalists: “We embrace the new nationalism insofar as it stands against the utopian ideal of a borderless world.” They talk about “communal solidarity” and “the human need for a common life.” And who are the bad guys? Here we get a lot of familiar alt-light rhetoric about supposed “jet-setters,” “citizens of the world” who can “go anywhere” and “work anywhere” in a “borderless world.” I’m surprised they didn’t just go straight to “rootless cosmopolitans.”

And here’s what they have to say on immigration: “some have argued for immigration by saying that working-class Americans are less hard-working, less fertile, in some sense less worthy than potential immigrants. We oppose attempts to displace American citizens.” I’m trying to figure out what the difference is between this supposed “displacement” and the “Great Replacement” theory of the “white genocide” crowd.

Ahmari, as a Persian immigrant, certainly doesn’t think that any of this applies to him. But you can see the same zero-sum view of immigration, in which anything newcomers gain from coming here is assumed to be won at the expense of us natives born right-wise. We cannot welcome immigrants to come here and prosper together but must ward them off as enemies and “invaders.”

This is the old paleoconservative Pat Buchanan wing of the right, with all its unpleasant undertones, using Trump as a figurehead in an attempt to assert dominance over the movement and kick out us “soulless” free-marketers who believe in individual autonomy.

Many of us have wondered what effect Trump would ultimately have on the conservative movement, and now we are really beginning to see it. Trump himself, of course, is not a remotely ideological person. But he has certain tendencies and prejudices. He combines a sporadic interest in the culture war with his own personal coarseness of style and a contemptuous indifference to free-market principles. He naturally emboldens the faction that is trying to turn this combination into a cohesive ideology.

As an appeal to “continuity” and American tradition, all of this is an absurdity. The actual American tradition is a combination of religious belief and Enlightenment ideals of individual liberty. In fact, as I recently pointed out, a key precursor to the American Revolution was the First Bishop Controversy, an attempt by Americans to prevent Parliament from establishing religious authority in the colonies and interfering with “the right of private judgment” in religion. Blocking a religious establishment from using political power to “re-order the public square” is as American as apple pie.

The attempt to overturn this tradition fundamentally undermines contemporary conservatism’s case for its own ideals. For decades, under the aegis of “fusionism,” we were assured that it was necessary to have a religious foundation for morality in order to provide a solid defense for individual liberty. If we are now told that a religious foundation is hostile to liberty, that undermines the case for religion rather than bolstering it. It certainly tells those of us who champion a secular basis for liberty that we are on our own when it comes to defending freedom—something we have long suspected might eventually happen.

In practical terms, an electoral coalition on the right that rejects prosperity and free markets in favor of imposing religious values is a significantly smaller coalition. This is not a plan for conservative triumph over the public square. It is a plan for fewer but better Republicans—and more socialist Democrats in power.

The deeper contradiction is that this is a bunch of conservative intellectuals rejecting the case for reason and persuasion. But where, then, does that leave them?

Throwing in his lot with Ahmari and the First Things crowd, the Federalist’s Ben Domenech declares that “we have reached a point in America where politeness and decency is no longer the best approach to politics.” He then sneers at the futility of television talking heads: “Domesticated animals are always more welcome at the garden party atmosphere of the plexiglass roundtables shot through the airwaves, where people say ‘I think’ about the news.”

People who say they “think” are the worst, right?

But what is Domenech’s job? He’s the founder of an online magazine and a television talking head. He is one of the “domesticated animals,” and if we really took him and Ahmari seriously, with all their chest-thumping rhetoric about a “war” against “enemies,” then they would be the last people we would need. Ahmari sneers at the impotence of French’s calls to “reverse cultural messages” through advocacy and persuasion. But how are Ahmari and company ever going to get the power to resurrect religious authority and re-order the public square as conquering victors if they think it is useless to try to appeal to ideas and change the culture?

This is not a serious political program but merely an outburst of rage at their own powerlessness. Ahmari warns that the left is “much better at winning in the realm of culture than David French will ever be.” Yet French isn’t the one throwing in the towel in the culture war and trying to dream up some sort of end-run around it.

Ahmari summarizes the argument of Archbishop Charles Chaput: “If traditional moral precepts are ‘purely religious beliefs,’ he wrote, then ‘they can’t be rationally defended. And because they’re rationally indefensible, they should be treated as a form of prejudice. Thus two thousand years of moral truth and religious principle become, by sleight of hand, a species of bias.'” He describes this as a dilemma for French, but it is actually his own dilemma. It is Ahmari who feels unable to offer a rational defense of his beliefs that would be sufficient to convince others.

And so he fantasizes about wielding power and “authority” so that he might bypass persuasion.

This is, fortunately, only a fantasy of power, not a plan for actually obtaining and wielding it.

That is not to say that it is harmless. Ahmari and company are not going to restore the ancient dominion of the church, but they can hasten the fracturing of their own political coalition. As they try to promote Donald Trump as a force for “order, continuity, and social cohesion”—try to keep a straight face as you read that—they are gleefully breaking up whatever order and cohesion actually remains within the political right.

Robert Tracinski

Robert Tracinski is editor of Symposium, a journal of liberalism, and writes additional commentary at The Tracinski Letter.