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.
An inflexible agenda and a global retreat.
But what if American liberals, while unfortunate in the Electoral College, are luckier than they think in other ways? The fact that populism is flourishing internationally, far from the Electoral College and Fox News, suggests that Trump’s specific faults might actually be propping up American liberalism. If we had a populist president who didn’t alienate so many persuadable voters, who took full advantage of a strong economy, and who had the political cunning displayed by Modi or Benjamin Netanyahu or Viktor Orban, the liberal belief in a hidden left-of-center mandate might be exposed as a fond delusion.
.. The strategic flaw in this reading of the liberal situation is that politics isn’t about casually held opinions on a wide range of topics, but focused prioritization of specifics. As the Democratic data analyst David Shor has noted, you can take a cluster of nine Democratic positions that each poll over 50 percent individually, and find that only 18 percent of Americans agree with all of them. And a single strong, focused disagreement can be enough to turn a voter against liberalism, especially if liberals seem uncompromising on that issue.
A pattern of narrow, issue-by-issue resistance is also what you’d expect in an era where the popular culture is more monolithically left-wing than before. That cultural dominance establishes a broad, shallow left-of-center consensus, which then evaporates when people have some personal reason to reject liberalism, or confront the limits of its case.
None of this needs to spell doom for liberals; it just requires them to prioritize and compromise. If you want to put climate change at the center of liberal politics, for instance, then you’ll keep losing voters in the Rust Belt, just as liberal parties have lost similar voters in Europe and Australia. In which case you would need to reassure some other group, be it suburban evangelicals or libertarians, that you’re willing to compromise on the issues that keep them from voting Democratic.
Alternatively, if you want to make crushing religious conservatives your mission, then you need to woo secular populists on guns or immigration, or peel off more of the tax-sensitive upper middle class by not going full socialist.
But the liberal impulse at the moment, Buttigiegian as well as Ocasio-Cortezan, is to insist that liberalism is a seamless garment, an indivisible agenda that need not be compromised on any front. And instead of recognizing populism as a motley coalition united primarily by opposition to liberalism’s rule, liberals want to believe they’re facing a unitary enemy — a revanchist patriarchal white supremacy, infecting every branch and tributary of the right.
THE drone strike that accidentally killed two hostages held by Al Qaeda, one of them American, in Pakistan’s northwest frontier was a rare moment of media attention for a seemingly endless military campaign. It’s six years old if you date it to President Obama’s escalation of drone warfare, 11 if you date it to the first American drone strike inside Pakistan, and 14 if you date it to when United States Special Forces first slipped into Afghanistan after 9/11. By any estimate, our AfPak intervention has lasted longer than most major wars in American history. By the third estimate, it’s lasted longer than several of the biggest ones combined.
There have been periods in this long conflict when the United States was arguably fighting with some hope of final victory. But that possibility went the way of most victories sought by foreigners in Central Asia, and now we’re in a very different mode. Our AfPak war today, with its drones and Special Forces and deliberately light footprint, is open-ended by design, a war of constant attrition that aims just to keep our friends (such as they are) in power and our enemies from gaining ground.
In essence, what we’ve chosen in Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan is a kind of “frozen conflict,” in which a war is pursued without any vision of an endgame, and that’s actually the point. “Frozen conflict” is a term you’re more likely to hear applied to the borderlands of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, where the Kremlin has encouraged low-grade civil wars (in the Caucasus, in Moldova, now Ukraine) thatare designed to just percolate and fester, keeping Moscow’s former satellites from turning fully to the West.
But while America’s motives are very different, we have this much in common with Putin: We, too, see advantages in managing conflicts, intervening just so far and no further, keeping a hand in (or a drone above) without seeking a final victory or a final peace. That’s true of the AfPak wars; it’s true for now of our interventions against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria; it’s true of smaller antiterrorism forays the world over. It’s even true of our quasi-conflict with Putin himself: He wants to divide and destabilize Ukraine without actually conquering it, we want to limit his gains without provoking escalation, and the result is grinding violence without much chance of resolution.
A few weeks ago, I wrote that President Obama’s grand strategy (such as it is) is defined by a desire to lay down some of the burdens of the Pax Americana. I also wrote that it’s nearly impossible for a superpower to simply slip into a supporting role. Combine Obama’s vision with that Atlas-Can’t-Shrug reality, and frozen conflicts are the near-inevitable result: In theater after theater, this administration has us in just far enough to shape events, but without a plan to win it.
Over the next 18 months, you’re going to hear Republican politicians and — barring a Rand Paul upset — the eventual Republican nominee campaigning vigorously against this state of play, and arguing that America should be fighting more to win and less to draw. Napoleon’s maxim, “When you set out to take Vienna, take Vienna,” will be repurposed as a critique of this president and all his many half-fought, un-won wars.
That critique will have some teeth. Even frozen conflicts cost lives and treasure (and invite blowback), the world has grown more dangerous and chaotic across Obama’s second term, and the sense that American policy makers are constantly playing not to lose is plainly informing the calculations made in Moscow, Tehran and Beijing.
The problem is that Republican hawks have too many wars where they seem intent on turning up the heat, too many Viennas that they want to take at once. There is no sign as yet that the president’s would-be successors have clear strategic priorities; instead, the tendency is to treat every conflict that comes into the headlines, whether it involves Libya or Iran, Syria or Ukraine, AfPak or the Islamic State, as a theater where there’s no substitute for American-led victory.
Some of this is just posturing, and if elected no G.O.P. president (well, except maybe Lindsey Graham) would actually escalate militarily on every front at once. But it isn’t exactly clear what they would do, because their critique of Obama scores points without acknowledging the real limits on American power — and the structural, and not just ideological, realities behind the decisions that he’s made.There may be cases where America needs to fight to win, enemies that we need to actually defeat instead of managing. But there are also wars that shouldn’t be joined at all, and situations where a kind of frozen conflict really is the best out of our bad options. So the test facing this president’s would-be successors, the challenge that should be posed to them as candidates, is to tell us which kind of war is which.
It starts, but doesn’t end, with ditching Stephen Moore.
First, the policy. Our president’s past views on monetary policy range all over the map; he has been both an inflation hawk and an inflation dove, and he obviously has no definite and deeply held views on monetary issues, as he has no definite and deeply held views on many other topics.
But as on other issues, that lack of ideological mooring has enabled him to break loose from the stale formulas, the always-1979 assumptions, that defined a lot of conservative thinking in the last 10 years.
Shaped by the battles of the inflationary 1970s, much of the right reacted to the financial crisis and its aftermath by critiquing Ben Bernanke’s Fed for its interventionism and warning about imminent inflation. A few conservative journalists and economists dissented, arguing that the situation was very different, the ’70s weren’t returning, and if anything the Fed’s policy had been too hawkish. But you had to listen hard to hear them; for the most part institutional conservatism and Republican politicians kept up a steady “inflation is coming” beat.
Actual economic trends, however, vindicated the dissidents. And now Trump himself, for instinctive and opportunistic reasons, has taken up a crude version of their argument, jawboning Jerome Powell to discourage rate increases (a self-interested position, but also the correct one) and trying to elevate Moore in part because he currently shares the White House’s dovish line.
But a lot hangs on that “currently.” Historically Moore has not been an inflation dove; indeed when it counted he was a predictable inflation hawk, calling for monetary tightening in the teeth of the Great Recession. So it’s hard to escape the impression that his newfound dovishness is simply a hack’s adaptation to whatever Trump demands. Especially because — let’s be completely blunt here — Moore’s entire record of writings and arguments are hackish, his prominence a testament to cable-television’s appetite for partisans with think-tank titles, and those titles a testament to conservatism’s decadence.
So while Trump’s embrace of dovishness is moving the Republican Party in a sensible direction on the issue, his personnel moves aren’t rewarding the dissidents who were correct ahead of time. Instead, after making some respectable but uncreative picks, he’s trying to bring in yes-men and conservative-entertainment personalities (like his other, since-withdrawn choice for the Fed, Herman Cain) and relying on their loyalty rather than their ideas to make the policy he favors.
The desire to reward loyalists rather than intellectuals is common to politicians, and many dissident-conservative intellectuals were cool to Trump during the 2016 campaign. But most presidents make some effort to instantiate their governing ideology by elevating figures who actually believe it, rather than relying exclusively on toadies and ring-kissers and guys who look the part when you turn on Fox or CNN.
Not so Trump: All instinct and solipsism, he simply doesn’t care enough about Trumpism to find people who might carry his impulses forward once he’s gone. And so he’s bidding to do for monetary policy what he’s done in domestic policy and foreign policy already: Pursue a somewhat heterodox and populist agenda, but leave its implementation — and therefore to some extent its future — in the hands of men like Moore or John Bolton or Mick Mulvaney who represent the consensus that he once campaigned against.
That desire suggests a very plausible post-Trump scenario — especially if a liberal Democrat occupies the White House next — in which the Republican Party simply abandons his heterodoxies and returns to all its Obama-era positioning, all its reflexive policy clichés. Which in turn would set the stage for yet another Trump-like populist rebellion against this orthodoxy five or 10 years down the line.
In fairness, some Republican lawmakers appear to want to avoid this kind of pointless cycle. A younger cohort in the Senate, including Marco Rubio and Tom Cotton and Mike Lee and lately Josh Hawley of Missouri, appears interested in sustaining a conservative populism after Trump has exited the stage. And as Ramesh Ponnuru noted in a recent Bloomberg column, judging by how they questioned Powell in February, some Republican lawmakers seem to be “shopping” for a different monetary policy, one that actually learns something coherent from the last 10 years.
If those shoppers are serious, they should reject Moore on the basis of his empty intellectual portfolio, not just his dumber experiments in punditry, and they should encourage Trump to make a different kind of outside-the-box pick. I have suggested Ponnuru as a possibility before; as a journalist he has a long paper trail of rigorous, mostly vindicated takes on monetary policy, and as a representative of the right’s intelligentsia he’s everything that Moore is not.
Another clever choice would be Karl Smith, another Bloomberg columnist, a former economics professor and a prolific economics blogger, who has also defended Trump’s much-criticized tax reform (in case that matters to anyone in the White House!). Alternatively, if Trump prefers someone with a current academic title, then he should tap Scott Sumner or David Beckworth from George Mason University, both of whom were elaborating the more dovish case back when Moore was still pitching the gold standard.
Of course because they’re serious people, that “dovish” case is far more sophisticated than the White House’s palpable desire for rate cuts as re-election stimulus. Also, Sumner recently called for Trump’s impeachment … so, yeah, he’s probably off the table.
But so long as Moore’s nomination is in trouble, there is an opportunity here for some entrepreneurial senator to push the White House in a new direction — toward the actual institutionalization of the president’s better instincts, rather than just the appointment of hacks who flatter him. For it will have profited conservatism nothing to have surrendered to Trump’s rebellion, if all it gains in the end is another decade submitting to the imaginary “expertise” of hacks like Stephen Moore.