What the strange war over “David French-ism” says about the right.
In March the religious journal First Things published a short manifesto, signed by a group of notable conservative writers and academics, titled “Against the Dead Consensus.” The consensus that the manifesto came to bury belonged to conservatism as it existed between the time of William F. Buckley Jr. and the rise of Donald Trump: An ideology that packaged limited government, free markets, a hawkish foreign policy and cultural conservatism together, and that assumed that business interests and religious conservatives and ambitious American-empire builders belonged naturally to the same coalition.
This consensus was never as stable as retrospective political storytelling might suggest; even successful Republican politicians inevitably left many of its factions sorely disappointed, while conservative intellectuals and activists feuded viciously with one another and constantly discerned crises and crackups for their movement. But the crisis revealed or created (depending on your perspective) by our own age of populism seems more severe, the stresses on the different factions more serious, and it is just possible that the longstanding conservative fusion might be as dead as the First Things signatories argued.
Among them was Sohrab Ahmari, the op-ed editor at The New York Post, whose public career embodies some of those shifts and stresses: An immigrant whose family fled the Islamic Republic of Iran, he began his career on the right as an ex-Marxist secular neoconservative at The Wall Street Journal editorial page and has since become a traditionally inclined Catholic (a journey detailed in his striking memoir, “From Fire, By Water”) and also more Trump-friendly and populist into the bargain.
In the last week Ahmari has roiled the conservative intellectual world with a critique of something he calls David French-ism, after David French of National Review, another prominent conservative writer. This controversy, like the debate over Tucker Carlson and capitalism earlier this year, has been a full-employment bill for conservative pundits. But it probably seems impossibly opaque from the outside, since superficially Ahmari and French belong to the same faction on the right — both religious conservatives, both strongly anti-abortion, both deeply engaged in battles over religious liberty (where French is a longtime litigator). Indeed it is somewhat opaque even from the inside, prompting conservatives engaging with the dispute to wonder, “What are we debating?”
I’m going to try to answer that question here. We’ll see how it goes.
Basically the best way to understand the Ahmari-French split is in light of the old fusion, the old consensus, that the First Things manifesto attacked. French is a religious conservative who thinks that the pre-Trump conservative vision still makes sense. He thinks that his Christian faith and his pro-life convictions have a natural home in a basically libertarian coalition, one that wants to limit the federal government’s interventions in the marketplace and expects civil society to flourish once state power is removed. He thinks that believers and nonbelievers, secular liberals and conservative Christians, can coexist under a classical-liberal framework in which disputes are settled by persuasion rather than constant legal skirmishing, or else are left unsettled in a healthy pluralism. He is one of the few remaining conservatives willing to argue that the invasion of Iraq was just and necessary. And he opposes, now as well as yesterday, the bargain that the right struck with Donald Trump.
Ahmari, on the other hand, speaks for cultural conservatives who believe that the old conservative fusion mostly failed their part of the movement — winning victories for tax cutters and business interests while marriage rates declined, birthrates plummeted and religious affiliation waned; and appeasing social conservatives with judges who never actually got around to overturning Roe v. Wade. These conservatives believe that the current version of social liberalism has no interest in truces or pluralism and won’t rest till the last evangelical baker is fined into bankruptcy, the last Catholic hospital or adoption agency is closed by an A.C.L.U. lawsuit. They think that business interests have turned into agents of cultural revolution, making them poor allies for the right, and that the free trade and globalization championed by past Republican presidents has played some role in the dissolution of conservatism’s substrates — the family, the neighborhood, the local civitas. And they have warmed, quickly or slowly, to the politics-is-war style of the current president.
But what, specifically, do these conservatives want, besides a sense of thrill-in-combat that French’s irenic style denies them? I don’t think they are completely certain themselves; in a useful contribution to the Ahmari affair, R.R. Reno, the editor of First Things, describes their animating spirit as a feeling that something else is needed in American society besides just classical-liberal, limited-government commitments, without any certainty about what that something ought to be.
Still, you can see three broad demands at work in their arguments. First, they want social conservatives to exercise more explicit power within the conservative coalition.
This may sound like a strange idea, since, after all, it is social conservatism’s growing political weakness, its cultural retreat, that led the religious right to throw in with a cruel sybarite like Trump. But there’s a plausible argument that even with its broader influence reduced, religious conservatism should still wield more power than it does in Republican politics — that it outsources too much policy thinking to other factions, that it goes along with legislation written for business interests so long as the promised judicial appointments are dangled at the end, and that it generally acts like a junior partner even though it delivers far more votes.
Lately, we’ve been nerding out about cattle. Specifically, about this one particular set of facts. Every year, the United States exports 500 million tons of beef to Mexico. But every year, the United States imports 500 million tons of beef from Mexico.
We heard this, and thought: How is that possible? Why are we trotting all these cows back and forth across the border? We sent a reporter to the border to find out. The answers to those questions explain a lot about how trade works.
US President Donald Trump’s goals in renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement were to reduce the current-account deficit and restore US manufacturing jobs. But the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement fails on both counts and will reduce US employment and weaken American producers’ position in international markets... Meanwhile, US tariffs on imported steel and aluminum from Mexico and Canada remain in place... Among other things, the USMCA will limit the number of vehicles that can be imported into the US, which effectively opens the door to managed trade. It is not yet clear how import quotas will be allocated; but almost any quota-allocation system will stifle competition and innovation by favoring incumbents over new market entrants... Trump’s stated goals in renegotiating NAFTA – if “renegotiation” is the right word for when a bully attacks his smaller neighbors until they accede to his demands – were to reduce the bilateral US trade deficits with Canada and Mexico and “bring good jobs back home.” By those criteria, the new agreement is a spectacular failure. As any economist knows, a deficit in goods and services is a macroeconomic phenomenon reflecting a country’s domestic expenditures and savings. For the US to shrink its overall deficit, it must either reduce expenditures or increase savings. Nothing in the USMCA does that... Moreover, the deal will probably destroy more US jobs than it creates. The new rules-of-origin (ROO) benchmark requiring that 75% of an imported vehicle be produced in North America (up from 62.5% under NAFTA) is likely to reduce employment by raising the costs of production... In fact, automakers in Asia and Europe are probably ecstatic at the prospect of increased sales. They have gained an edge over North American producers in third countries, and perhaps even in the US market itself... As for foreign-owned automakers operating in the US, they will almost certainly offshore any facilities that are producing inputs destined for foreign markets. This diversion, combined with the higher price of cars in the US, will further reduce overall US auto production, and thus auto-sector employment... even if US parts producers were to expand production, they would be inclined to automate as much of it as possible, rather than hire more workers.
.. One of NAFTA’s major benefits was that it allowed for integrated supply chains across North America. US automakers gained access to labor-intensive parts at lower cost from Mexico, and Mexican producers gained access to less expensive capital-intensive parts from the US. As a result, the North American auto industry improved its competitive position internationally. The USMCA will not destroy NAFTA’s efficient supply chains, but it will raise their costs, thus undercutting that advantage.
.. in the long run, it will likely
- reduce US employment,
- shrink North America’s share of the global auto market, and
- undermine America’s credibility on international trade issues –
all while failing to reduce the US current-account deficit.
.. other governments will now have to ask themselves why they should negotiate with a country that tears up settled agreements at will.
.. Even if forcing friends and allies to the negotiating table actually benefited US trade, it still would not be worth the loss of US soft power.
US President Donald Trump holds himself out as a brilliant negotiator, and his supporters regard his trade policy as a perfect example of his success. But in his recent trade talks with the Europeans, Trump was clearly out of his depth... The two sides agreed “to work together toward zero tariffs, zero non-tariff barriers, and zero subsidies on non-auto industrial goods.” It seemed like a remarkable U-turn for Trump, who, until recently, was threatening the European Union with higher tariffs – and extolling the value of trade tariffs (which are essentially taxes on imported goods) more generally. He even called the EU a “foe” as recently as June.Substantive follow-through on the joint US-EU statement would represent a major policy shift for the Trump administration. But this is no triumph for Trump; rather, he seems to have been outmaneuvered by adroit European diplomats... what Trump and Juncker announced was essentially a pledge to work toward exactly the kind of trade agreement that the Obama administration was negotiating with the Europeans from 2013 through the end of 2016. Work on that earlier version, known as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), was suspended following Trump’s inauguration... Restarting the TTIP negotiation is a big win for Juncker.. It is also remarkable that Juncker managed to get Trump to emphasize working with the World Trade Organization to resolve issues regarding intellectual property rights.. What did Trump get from the Europeans, other than a return to a trade negotiation straight out of the Obama era? Trump claimed, at the press conference and subsequently, that he won a pledge from Juncker to buy more natural gas and “a lot of soybeans.” Some media coverage even suggested that the Europeans had made concessions. But that interpretation does not fit the facts... Regarding potential US exports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Europe, the Europeans have long been keen to increase this trade. The hold-up is US restrictions on energy exports... If there is any concession promised by the joint statement, it is from the Trump administration on this issue. This was made explicit in the fact sheetthat the White House subsequently issued: “the United States will make it easier for the EU to purchase liquefied natural gas.”At the same time, Juncker does not buy soybeans – the European Commission has no such budget, and any such imports would ultimately be a private-sector decision... . The price of US soybeans has fallen significantly more than has the price of Brazilian soybeans, as Brazil is not subject to the new Chinese tariff. Given this, it makes sense that the European private sector will buy more US soybeans, regardless of what Juncker says or does... there was no European concession at the White House on this issue – just a clever restatement of market realities... The soybean pledge has some superficial political appeal, as growers have found themselves caught in the crossfire of Trump’s trade war with China. The cost is real, and the Trump administration recently promised up to $12 billion to help affected agribusinesses.
However, this entire potential cost is due to the Trump administration’s disruptive policies and represents a scandalous waste of taxpayer money – an amount equal to about one-third of the entire annual budget of the US National Institutes of Health.
.. Trump holds himself out as a brilliant negotiator, and his supporters regard his trade policy as a perfect example of his success. But in his recent talks with the Europeans, Trump was clearly out of his depth.