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David French and the Revolutionary Style in Conservative Journalism

June 3rd, 2019 | 6 min read

By Jake Meador

In his sharp response to Sohrab Ahmari’s attack on his approach to politics, National Review writer David French noted that Ahmari’s attack hinged on two bizarre fictions:

First, the fiction that French himself is a timid milquetoast classical liberal who lacks the will to fight liberalism in a sufficiently comprehensive way.

Second, the even more ludicrous fiction that Donald Trump represents a sufficiently radical critique of liberalism to fully address the crisis of the moment.

The fact that Ahmari’s piece is concerned with image and rhetorical positioning is suggestive of an excessive concern amongst some dissident conservatives with striking the right rhetorical pose, positioning oneself as a strongman who is sufficiently radical to answer the challenge before us.

Do note that the argument which follows concerning Ahmari’s alarming rhetorical style should be kept separate from the question of the reconcilability of classical liberalism with Christian faith.

So far as it goes, I still think French mistaken when he writes:

“Frenchism” (is that a thing now?) contains two main components: zealous defense of the classical-liberal order (with a special emphasis on civil liberties) and zealous advocacy of fundamentally Christian and Burkean conservative principles. It’s not one or the other. It’s both. It’s the formulation that renders the government primarily responsible for safeguarding liberty, and the people primarily responsible for exercising that liberty for virtuous purposes. As John Adams said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

It’s all well and good to quote Adams. But unless you have an explanation for how the classical liberal order can reliably produce moral and religious people then you haven’t actually established anything. It also doesn’t work to simply say that liberalism has always needed something else to round it out and save it from itself. The whole question is whether or not liberalism can reliably produce whatever that “something else” is. If it cannot, then all you have is a parasitic social order that will collapse as soon as these necessary citizens, which come from some other set of norms and values, run out.

That being said, the bizarre and increasingly aggressive line that some on the right are taking against French seems to have far less to do with his substantive politics and more to do with a certain rhetorical posture they are increasingly adopting.

The mistake Ahmari makes is to begin his argument by framing it in essentially pragmatic terms. Rather than focusing on whether or not liberalism is a true account of social order, Ahmari focuses on the inadequacy of social conservative responses to a particular event that came across his news feed. This pragmatic framing puts him on an unstable rhetorical platform built around instigating panic amongst his fellow conservatives and incentivizing them toward a revolutionary posture which, as always happens with revolutions, recognizes that the enemy is not simply the ideological opponent, but those who do not adequately take up the cause of revolution. This is why French in particular becomes the focal point of such angst and ire—he is, in many ways, the embodiment of the anti-revolutionary instinct in conservative media today.

There is something particularly perverse and, I suspect, not coincidental, about singling out French as the object of attack. If the focal point is “social conservative Christians who still like liberalism,” there is no shortage of public figures one could attack. Indeed, there is no shortage of magazines one could attack. So why French?

French himself (along with his family) has already faced horrific attacks from the alt-right because they have adopted a black daughter. Similarly, American Greatness editor Julie Kelly has publicly blamed French’s wife, Nancy, a victim of clerical sexual abuse, for her own abuse:

This is, then, simply another act in the ongoing attempt amongst the so-called radicals of the right to win the fight over liberalism not through principled argumentation and persuasion, but through dishonest rhetorical tricks and shameful personal attacks.

This is what makes the attack on French from a reputable outlet like First Things so disappointing but also, in a sense, so fitting: a strand of the contemporary right is beset with a revolutionary posture that eagerly purges those members of the movement who are insufficiently radical. It is an odd mirroring of the second-level separatism that my fundamentalist forebears have spent the past century practicing. If you swapped Ahmari for a fundamentalist preacher and French for Billy Graham this is an attack you could have heard in a fundamentalist pulpit 50 years ago.

If First Things is moving in a more explicitly Trumpist direction it is not at all surprising to see them echoing, in more respectable language, the ugly personal attacks that the Frenches have already been subject to from other reactionary Trumpist people and groups. Ahmari is simply following an established revolutionary script of purging the insufficiently radical from the movement.

What makes this move particularly egregious is the way it positions Ahmari’s brand of radtrad relative to other trends in the conservative movement. As Tara Isabella Burton recently noted for the Post, we are beginning to see a script emerge in which the next step of red pill radicalization amongst some alt-right members is to embrace trad forms of Christianity:

Roosh V characterized his transformation from pickup artist — one with a loose definition of consent that led some to call him “pro-rape” — to Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Christian not as an about-face but as a linear progression. In fact, it’s representative of a broader trend within far-right Internet-based groups: Some of their members come to embrace a highly conservative, traditionalist version of Christianity as a bulwark against what they see as the decadent, liberal modern world. In the minds of many would-be Internet transgressives, conservative Christianity has become the biggest troll of all.

If one move we are seeing is the far right moving toward trad forms of Christianity as a sort of ultimate troll, then another troubling move is the trad Christian moving to Trumpism and the alt-right as being the only movement with the political will and, let us be honest, indifference to basic moral principles required to resist liberalism.

One of the most important tasks for Christians right now is to recognize that both progressivism and reactionary conservatism are dead ends. The test for our work must be not only does something advance a Christian ideal, but does it advance it in a Christian way? To resort to cliche, it is to ask if one can resist Sauron by taking up the ring.

Our answer to such questions must be an unapologetic “no.” And just as in 2016, when fearful and reactionary conservatives told us to give our support to a man whose life represented the wholesale rejection of divine love, we must be willing to accept a loss of power before we would countenance cynical, consequentialist lines of thought meant to justify some greater good. When our methods of resistance become intelligible to our opponents we have left the path of fidelity. If First Things is going to resist liberalism through laughable misrepresentations of Trump and an increasingly cozy posture to some genuinely scary trends on the American right, then leaving the path of fidelity is precisely what they will end up doing.

“What, then, of political power?” you might ask. Does not the above represent little more than yet another twist on Anabaptist style quietism, a refusal to get one’s hands dirty in the necessary and inevitably messy work of politics?

It does not. Rather, it recognizes that a genuinely Christian political witness is not merely about a certain political content in our ideas, but a particular mode of existing as political beings. To become intelligible to those whose only political standard is the acquisition of power is to give up any political good other than power. It is, then, to give up our quiet confidence that God is at work in the world and that his work will not be advanced by those of us who would eat the king’s food and bow to his idols.

It is only candor that our foes do not understand, Berry reminds us, an inner clarity that comes from knowing that there are goods in this world grander than political power and fates in this world more dark than martyrdom. Whatever his faults may be, I have no doubt that French knows these things to be true. I am feeling less confident these days that I can say the same for a certain brand of dissident conservative.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).