Published July 13, 2022
David French and Sohrab Ahmari were right about each other. A few years after their dust-up launched a thousand think pieces debating the nature and future of conservatism, we should at least have learned this: neither an Ahmarist nor a Frenchman be.
American conservatism has been the home of opponents of abortion, the sexual revolution, and transgender ideology. And both French, an evangelical Protestant, and Ahmari, a Catholic convert, claim to be conservative champions of Christian politics. Yet neither man is offering a viable way forward for the conservative movement—and it is not even clear that either of them wants to. For instance, consider their respective reactions to the demise of Roe v. Wade. Instead of celebrating this monumental pro-life victory, each writer used the Dobbs decision as a chance to lay into perceived enemies on the Right.
Notably, their targets were not the many insincere Republican politicians, donors, staffers and consultants who thought they were playing pro-lifers for suckers. Rather, even though both Ahmari and French profess to be staunchly pro-life, they chose to train their fire on fellow opponents of abortion and Roe.
For French, the Dobbs decision was another chance to lay into the conservative Christians he used to fight for. Instead of rejoicing wholeheartedly at the end of Roe, he denounced his allies and aired old grievances, writing that “In a time of hate and death, too many members of pro-life America are contributing to both phenomena… The Dobbs ruling has landed in the midst of a sick culture, and the pro-life right is helping make it sick.”
Ahmari, meanwhile, began his assault on the architects of Dobbs even before the decision was official. In a New York Times piece co-written with professors Patrick Deneen and Chad Pecknold, Ahmari used the leaked draft of the majority opinion to attack the rest of the conservative movement. Instead of rejoicing over a generational pro-life victory, he denounced everyone from the Federalist Society to the Heritage Foundation to National Review as “jackals of Mammon.”
Though Jackals of Mammon would be a great name for a punk band, it is a poor summation of the conservative movement’s past and present. These institutions, and especially the Federalist Society, contributed far more to the end of Roe than Ahmari did. Nonetheless, Ahmari then spent the afternoon Dobbs was handed down rage-tweeting about the Heritage Foundation, concluding that “The danger to populism is co-optation by the zombie-like institutions of the (un)dead consensus, Heritage above all, desperate for fresh meat and skin to graft on to their decaying bodies.” But while Ahmari fumed, Heritage and its leaders celebrated Roe’s demise.
Both French and Ahmari exemplify the fratricidal flaws of their respective factions. Each has an enemies list that is a who’s-who of the movement they ostensibly belong to. For French, and many other Never-Trump die-hards, the disputes of 2016 remain all-consuming. Proving the moral and intellectual awfulness of those who cut a deal with the orange devil is an obsession that swallows comity, charity and principles. In his writing, every scandal, failure and crackpot conservative evangelical is another confirmation of the fundamental MAGA corruption of American Christianity.
Ahmari is typical of populists who seem more interested in jockeying for position and attacking perceived rivals than in building effective alliances and coalitions. They see the real danger as rivals for power on their own side, especially institutions who long have held and still hold power among conservatives. But populists actually have the momentum in the Right’s factional fights, and their influence is strong in many of the institutions Ahmari lambastes, such as the Heritage Foundation. “Faster, please” might be a reasonable populist response, but eternal enmity is not—unless the goal is to increase their own power and prestige by trashing other leaders and institutions.
Both writers demand that the Right purify itself. French is appalled at working through a libertine like Trump, while Ahmari is horrified at the thought of working with a libertarian. French calls for atonement for the sins of Trumpism, while Ahmari seeks to lead a revolution on the Right that will cleanse it of ideological impurity. Neither is convincing, in part because their positions seem largely dictated by personality. French is consumed by bitterness over every slight or cruelty directed at him and his, and he casts blame widely even for the misdeeds of anonymous internet trolls. Ahmari, in turn, is a Johnny-come-lately who has had more views than an alpine tour, and is therefore ridiculous as he denounces those who have not changed as quickly or as much as he has.
Whatever the personal motives informing their positions, the fundamental failure of each writer is in abandoning the essential conservative virtue of prudence. Both of them are retreating from the messy, compromising business of actual politics, and the requisite prudential weighing of means and ends undertaken by our fallible judgment acting on imperfect information. The Christian Right, and the Republican Party it tries to work through, are certainly full of flaws, and there is a time and place to criticize them. But there is no politics on this earth that does not require compromise and its attendant risks. As Whittaker Chambers once wrote to Bill Buckley:
Those who remain in the world, if they will not surrender on its terms, must maneuver within its terms. That is what conservatives must decide: how much to give in order to survive at all; how much to give in order not to give up the basic principles. And of course that results in a dance along a precipice. Many will drop over, and, always, the cliff dancers will hear the screaming curses of those who fall, or be numbed by the sullen silence of those, nobler souls perhaps, who will not join the dance.
Among the perils of this dance along a cliff is that politics often require working with and through people we disagree with, dislike, and are even repulsed by, in order to achieve good ends. Overturning Roe required the people and institutions French and Ahmari most loath on the Right. It was Donald Trump who appointed the justices who created an anti-Roe majority on the court. And it was the institutions Ahmari hates, especially the Federalist Society, that nurtured those judges, sustained the pro-life cause, and made Trump deliver on his promises regarding the Supreme Court.
The challenges of alliance-building and deal-making require prudence for a movement to be effective without sacrificing too much in the way of principle. Disagreements are inevitable, but both French and Ahmari want to turn differences of opinion into purges. French eagerly awaits the latest perceived failure he can pin on his former allies—and so he has ended up denigrating the pro-life movement during its greatest victory. Ahmari is doing much the same, from denouncing the late Justice Scalia as a “moral midget” to declaring that “You can make common cause with Heritage, but then you can’t call yourself a populist or part of the New Right.” I wasn’t aware that Ahmari was the pope of populism, but if we accept his pronouncement, then the populist New Right is going to be a lot smaller.
A conservative movement ordered by the vision of either man would be miniscule, with little political potency. Their narrow bickering contrasts with the actual process by which the Dobbs decision overturning Roe was attained. Dobbs was a culmination of decades of work within culture, law and politics. The backstory of the case itself begins with allies planning a joint approach to challenge Roe. Advocates and lawyers worked with politicians in crafting legislation designed to win the inevitable litigation. As the case progressed, more coordination was required to make the best possible arguments, in court and in the media, that Roe needed to go. And they succeeded.
Overturning Roe was hard. Compromises were necessary, and in politics, as in superhero shows, there is “the age-old tale of story equilibrium: some villains become good, some heroes become evil, some go—sideways.” Donald Trump was an unlikely person to appoint the judges who secured the end of Roe, and David French was not someone I expected to use the occasion to attack pro-lifers.
Politics is complicated. And one of conservatism’s central insights is that the problems of politics are with us always. We are inclined to ask: what went wrong? The conservative, drawing on the Christian heritage of the West, knows that things have always been going wrong. To go wrong is the human condition. It is hard work just to preserve and pass on human knowledge, insight, and achievement, and there are a multitude of temptations to decline. This understanding of human weakness is what leads conservatives to be, well, conservative. We therefore mistrust those eager to burn it all down and build something new on the ashes, whether the target of their arson is society in general, the American constitution, or just the conservative movement.
French and Ahmari are not wrong in all their critiques of the Right, but they demonstrate a lack of prudential perspective necessary for them to be fruitful, rather than destructive. Both men could serve conservative Christians well. French spent years in the fight as a litigator and pundit. Ahmari is a good writer and the populist Right has much to offer. Yet they could easily consign themselves to irrelevance. French is becoming one of the tame “conservatives” that liberal outlets keep around to bash the rest of the Right, while Ahmari’s eagerness to pronounce anathemas against the rest of the Right may end with him effectively excommunicating himself.
Fortunately, the rest of us need not choose between two men who are too embittered to rejoice in the overturning of Roe. We can leave them to their schemes and backbiting while we celebrate our victory and then return rejuvenated to the fight to protect life.
Nathanael Blake, Ph.D. is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His primary research interests are American political theory, Christian political thought, and the intersection of natural law and philosophical hermeneutics. His published scholarship has focused on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Alasdair MacIntyre and Russell Kirk. He is currently working on a study of J.R.R. Tolkien’s anti-rationalism. As a cultural observer and commentator, he is also fascinated at how our secularizing culture develops substitutes for the loss of religious symbols, meaning and order.
Photo by Christopher Czermak on Unsplash