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Sohrab Ahmari’s ‘Culture War’ Is Really Just About Donald Trump

June 5, 2019
Sohrab Ahmari’s ‘Culture War’ Is Really Just About Donald Trump
Photo illustration by Hannah Yoest. (Photo by Getty Images.)

We’ve now moved through several stages of the Frenchism debate: From low-simmering Twitter feud to essay-length broadside, from conservative-crack-up tragedy to booby-counting farce. And we have finally arrived at a place where people have moved past pointing out how dishonest Sohrab Ahmari’s characterizations of David French were and how un-Christian his worldview is and tried to drill down to see whether, if you remove Ahmari and French from the equation entirely, there’s an actual serious discussion to be had.

The current consensus seems to be: Yes. If you take out Ahmari’s ad hominem attacks and intellectual sloppiness and squint hard enough, there is a serious argument about how Christian conservatives should approach politics in the modern world.

Maybe this consensus is correct.

But I would argue that there’s actually less here than meets the eye.

There’s just Trump. It’s all about Trump.

Why did Ahmari decide to focus his attack on David French? French is a very nice fellow and a man of great accomplishment, but if you were ticking off the top three things he’s associated with they would be: free-speech litigation, pro-life activism, and opposition to Donald Trump.

“Frenchism” as Ahmari constructs it—that is, a worldview in which liberalism and individualism are the great goods and we must convert our fellow citizens in order to effect change—isn’t really at the top of French’s Wikipedia page.

There are plenty of people who would have been much better avatars of this view than French. For instance, Ross Douthat. Or Ryan Anderson. Or Harvey Mansfield. Or Ramesh Ponnuru. Or Ben Shapiro. Or Robby George. Probably the single most important proponent of “Frenchism” in conservative intellectual life is Yuval Levin, who wrote an entire book on the subject. (Which is wonderful, by the way.)

So why didn’t Ahmari go after “Levin-ism”?

Because Levin is not known principally for opposition to Donald Trump. And neither are Douthat, Anderson, Mansfield, Ponnuru, Shapiro, or George, for that matter.

Ahmari’s real beef isn’t with David French’s civility or his commitment to pluralism. It’s with his refusal to get on the Trump train. Which, please remember, Ahmari himself didn’t climb aboard until five minutes ago.

Did you notice anything interesting about the battle lines that formed up after Ahmari took aim at French?

There were a number of Trump-skeptical conservatives who went out of their way to allow that maybe, deep down, Ahmari had a point—even if at the end of the day they believed that civility and pluralism were still first-order virtues.

But did you see any Trump supporters taking French’s side?

The internet is a big place. You’d think that, just by random chance, you’d have at least a handful of Trump supporters believing that Ahmari’s view of the world is not what they signed up for.

For one thing: Trump’s vision for America was never religiously, or traditionally, orthodox. He didn’t campaign on restoring the public square to order around Christian morality. He campaigned on making the best deals and building The Wall and making everyone in America sick of winning because the economy would be so strong you wouldn’t believe it.

For another thing: The entire argument for Trump was that he was the guy who would break the partisan deadlock, create a political realignment, and build a new majority that would turn the 2020 election into a rerun of 1984. In other words: He would persuade tens of millions of Americans to come over to his side.

Both of these facts are incompatible with the Ahmari Option.

Does Chris Christie want the kind of religious public square Ahmari demands? How about Judge Jeanine? (She’s pro-choice!) Larry Kudlow? Charlie Kirk? Michael Anton? Byron York? Tomi Lahren? (Also pro-choice!) Bueller? Bueller?

You’d think that, given all of that, Trump supporters would have been more or less evenly distributed between the Ahmari and French sides of the argument.

But the only pro-Trump writer I found taking French’s side unequivocally was Jim Geraghty, who is French’s colleague at National Review.

This was not random chance any more than it was “random chance” that led Ahmari to target David French rather than Yuval Levin.

Watching the Ahmari-French fight I was reminded of Gettysburg.

The most significant battle of the Civil War was never intended to be a battle at all. A small group of Confederate soldiers went into town to get shoes. They encountered a small group of Union soldiers. Eventually both sides began pouring forces into the engagement, convinced that they had the advantage. Gettysburg itself was never an important strategic objective. It only became important once both sides committed to it.

Go back and read the initial Ahmari essay and that’s pretty much what you see: An exercise in emoting with no ideas or policy suggestions or political agenda other than demonstrating that however mad you might be at the state of the world, Sohrab Ahmari is madder.

No one would have paid any attention to it on the merits. But both sides of the Trump divide starting pouring in forces until this chance engagement became a major battle.

And because there was no actual there there, people began imputing a seriousness to the argument that didn’t really exist. Suddenly we had a debate over whether Christians ought to abandon the liberal project, full-stop.

Let me spoil it for you: This isn’t a real debate.

There will be no Catholic sharia. The percentage of Christians in America who believe that they have a religious duty to wage “war”—Ahmari’s word—against their neighbors is vanishingly small. To the extent that contemporary Christians are catechized, it’s to believe that the actual teachings of Christ take precedence over theories about integralism. And the single best-known and most-cherished of these teachings is Matthew 22:39: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.

Truth be told, I don’t even think Ahmari believes his own argument. After all, he’s friends with a number of people who are just as kind and committed to liberalism as David French is. Is Ahmari going to stop being friends with them? I hope not.

Ahmari works at the New York Post, whose staff seems to have somewhat different sensibilities than the rad-trads at First Things. Is he going to insist that the Post—sample headline from April: “ ‘Bonding’ Creator Dishes on Life of Sex and Dungeons”—start ordering the tabloid around the “Highest Good”? Is he going to stop being polite to people in his workplace who don’t share his desire for a public square littered with the spoils of culture war victory and arranged around Catholic teachings? I doubt it.

Again: The internet is a very large place. I’m sure there is someone, somewhere, who genuinely believes that Christians have a positive duty to start playing dirty pool. But, as First Things founder Father Richard John Neuhaus might have put it, those sorts of people have been with us ever since that unfortunate incident in the Garden.

Just as every generation thinks that they’ve discovered sex, every generation of conservatives seems to think that they’ve discovered a brand-new, never-before-seen, existential threat to society emanating from liberalism. That’s because there are tensions in our political life that can never be entirely eliminated or resolved.

And so every 20 years or so, some young conservative looks up, notices these tensions, and thinks that they have discovered something new and dire. That liberalism has finally reached its breaking point. And Something. Must. Be. Done. Nowadays that’s what’s happening with the kids at First Things who’ve had their minds blown by Pat Deneen. But they have had many predecessors. At which point it falls to thoughtful conservatives—like, say, Irving Kristol—to help explain how, in the American context, both conservative and liberal things can and must go together, no matter how uneasily they mesh, and no matter how much we might long for the purity and consistency of just one or the other.

That’s what’s going on in Alcove 1, anyway.

But for everyone else, this isn’t a real debate. It’s just another front in the Trump wars. And once he is gone, this line of argument will disappear with him.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.