From left, New York Post opinion editor Sohrab Ahmari, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, and National Review writer David French at the Catholic University of America’s Institute for Human Ecology on Thursday night.
Photo: YouTube Screencap/ Institute for Human Ecology
In May, Sohrab Ahmari, the opinion editor of the New York Post and a recent convert to Catholicism, published a polemic in First Things, an intellectual journal of the religious right, called “Against David French–ism.” His blindsided target — the National Review writer and onetime almost–presidential candidate David French — became the avatar for a strain of conservative thought that Ahmari accused of being naïve, defeatist, and attached to a “dead consensus.”
French and his supporters quickly hit back. The debate engulfed the conservative intellectual world and sparked a heated, and occasionally ridiculous, internecine knife fight on right-wing Twitter. (At one point, a Catholic journalist attacked French — a Game of Thrones fan — for liking “dragon porn.”)
Anyone watching from the outside was probably confused, in part because of how much Ahmari and French have in common. Both are conservative Christians opposed to gay marriage and abortion. Both view social conservatives as outnumbered and besieged by a hostile secular culture.
In Ahmari’s telling, however, French — a Never Trumper, Evangelical Protestant, and First Amendment lawyer — is a “classical liberal” whose cultural conservatism disguises the fact that he shares liberals’ assumption that social choice is the greatest good. Conservatives like French, he charged, accept secularism and licentiousness as the inevitable outcome of liberal democracy; they’re resigned to the modern order and content to carve out a separate, rapidly shrinking, sphere.
On Thursday, several hundred people packed into the Catholic University of America’s cryptically named Institute for Human Ecology to watch Ahmari and French debate in person. Several hundred more watched by live-stream. Ross Douthat moderated. Wits dubbed it “The Mêlée at CUA.”
Those hoping for an intellectual Rumble in the Jungle were disappointed. The debate was messy, mismatched — French, it quickly became apparent, is a far better debater — and ultimately deteriorated into an ugly, ad hominem spat that was frankly uncomfortable to watch. But it was an illuminating look at tensions within the conservative movement and perhaps a microcosm of things to come.
Ahmari is part of a faction of “youngish, mostly Roman Catholic” conservatives who want to aggressively prosecute the culture war and defend the nuclear family. They’re about as far from libertarian as you can get: They’re skeptical of capitalism, which they see as corrosive to families and community, and they’re happy to embrace the powers of the state if it can help their cause.
Ahmari opened the debate by arguing that conservatives should do more to fight phenomena like “Drag Queen Story Hour” — including, if necessary, by law. He sounded myopic and a little autocratic. It was a bad opening gambit.
“We have a nation of 320 million,” French said; events like “Drag Queen Story Hour” are “choices people make in a free nation.” He called Ahmari’s attitude “free speech for me but not for thee,” and said he would set a precedent that could easily be used to shut down conservative viewpoints.
The real crisis, French argued, is larger and cultural and cannot be solved by political means. Millions of Americans “do not have a relationship with Jesus Christ,” he said. “Tens of millions of Christian American men” are “addicted to porn.”
On this point they agreed — sort of. “Too much of the intellectual firepower of the right has been focused on lawyers and litigation,” Ahmari said. But “as much as it is valuable to fight things in the courtroom, there are cultural battles.” Christianity “cannot be just a religion for an elite elect” in a “degenerate society” that “throws every possible obstacle” in the way of religious morality.
“Hold on,” French interrupted. “In your assault on ‘David French–ism,’ you said I make too many cultural arguments.”
After an interminable amount of time spent on “Drag Queen Story Hour,” the debate finally got to the real elephant in the room: whether Christians can support Trump. “This has been the most pro-life administration since Roe,” Ahmari said, and Trump controls judicial appointments. Yet “you’re on the record saying we need to defeat Trump at the ballot box.”
We “catastrophize” presidential elections, French responded. Trump causes conservatives to “defend conduct you never would have before” and “wreck your public witness with people outside the faith.” He disparaged the idea of the Flight 93 election. He argued that the better analogy is not a hijacked plane but “turbulence”: People charge the cockpit, “choke out” the pilot, then realize the error too late.
“When mainstream Democratic senators speak of the Knights of Columbus as an extremist organization akin to the KKK,” Ahmari said, “that tells you something about the mind-set of the kind of secular liberalism we’re facing.”
“We’re to love our enemies,” French said. “We’re to bless those who persecute us.”
“You should also recognize them as enemies,” Ahmari said, “even as you love them.”
French refused to condone an ethic of ends-justify-means. At Harvard Law School, he noted, there was a group of liberal, feminist professors that he assumed “hated my guts.” But when it came down to it, they stood up for due process in Title IX cases.
Then things really went off the rails. Ahmari suggested that if French were president, Justice Brett Kavanaugh wouldn’t have gotten onto the Supreme Court. He clearly touched a nerve; French freaked out and angrily invoked his service in Iraq.
“You were a JAG, right?” Ahmari said.
“I wasn’t SEAL Team Six,” French replied. But “at 37 years old, I was morally convicted that I could not support a war unless I was willing to fight in it myself.” It is a defining moment in one’s life, he said, when you don’t have to get in a Humvee but do it anyway. Ahmari’s attack on him, he added, was “disgusting.”
The morning after the debate, the reviews started rolling out, and the winner was French.
“Ahmari’s primary beef against political liberalism,” Andrew Egger wrote in the Bulwark, is simple: “Rights-based liberal democracy has failed to stamp out practices that Ahmari finds abhorrent.”
Peter Suderman made a similar argument in Reason. “Ahmari is upset about things that are happening in the culture, and he wants them to go away — or at least to be castigated publicly by someone in a position of power. He doesn’t really have a plan to make anyone’s life better.”
I’m not a religious conservative of either the French or Ahmari persuasion. If I had to choose, I’d rather a right-wing intelligentsia guided by good faith and shared norms, not a Manichean, zero-sum vision of politics. For that reason, I’m glad French won the debate handily.
But I have to wonder: For all the conservative pundits declaring him the winner, do actual conservative voters think like French? I’m not sure they do.