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When the Pope Hits Your Eye Like a Big Pizza Pie, That’s Ahmari

From neoconservatism to integralist cosplay to active worship of China and Russia, the ‘post-liberal’ right has had a giddy five years

James Kirchick
February 03, 2022
Photoillustration: Tablet Magazine
Photoillustration: Tablet Magazine
Photoillustration: Tablet Magazine
Photoillustration: Tablet Magazine

I first met Sohrab Ahmari, one of the most influential and controversial writers on the American right, a little over a decade ago, during the secular neoconservative phase of his dizzying ideological pilgrimage from Marxist atheism to Catholic “post-liberal neo-traditionalism.” An intellectually restless law student, Ahmari aspired to a career in journalism, and a mutual friend—a human rights activist, as it happened—introduced us.

Like many immigrants to this country, Ahmari, who was born in Iran, had a way of making you feel obscenely lucky to be born an American, and that you should never take it for granted. The first things that struck me about him were his infectious optimism and seemingly old-world civility. This was about a year after the birth of the Green Movement, when millions of Iranians, mostly our age at the time, poured into the streets to protest the regime’s fraudulent presidential election. Ahmari was an eloquent advocate for their democratic aspirations. Though we came from very different backgrounds—he, the product of a broken home and a refugee from an Islamic theocracy; I, the son of upper-middle-class Jewish professionals in the most hospitable country Jews have ever known—we shared a love for the written word and the freedom that America represented.

I connected Ahmari to a few editors, but can’t take any credit for his subsequent rise, which has been dramatic. Not long after we met, he co-edited a collection of essays by dissidents from across the Middle East, Arab Spring Dreams: The Next Generation Speaks Out for Freedom and Justice from North Africa to Iran, which included a piece by a gay Moroccan man compelled to mourn his lover’s suicide in secret, and for which Ahmari managed to snag a foreword from Gloria Steinem. Around this time, Ahmari joined The Wall Street Journal editorial page, based first in New York and then in London, a perch he used to skewer authoritarians and bolster embattled democrats around the world. While in Britain, Ahmari converted to Catholicism, which he announced publicly in the summer of 2016 after the gruesome murder of a French priest by Islamists in Normandy. I’d recently started to notice a more pious bent in Ahmari’s writings, and given what I knew of his universalist commitments, this development (which he later recounted in a thoughtful memoir) did not come as a particular surprise. The following year, I attended the baptism of his first child.

When Donald Trump descended onto the political scene in a fit of nativist and isolationist bluster, Ahmari was exactly where I expected him to be. In the summer of 2016, he published a cover story for Commentary, “Illiberalism: The Worldwide Crisis,” which diagnosed a transnational, cross-ideological tendency distinguished by, among other things, an “impatience with norms and procedural niceties; a tendency toward populist leader-worship; and skepticism toward international treaties and institutions, such as NATO, that provide the scaffolding for the U.S.-led postwar order.” Ahmari included Trump alongside other practitioners of such politics like Russian President Vladimir Putin, the “xenophobic” French National Front leader Marine Le Pen, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. The following year, after Trump’s shock election victory, and by then a Commentary senior writer, Ahmari published another cover story titled, “The Terrible American Turn Toward Illiberalism,” in which he presciently decried “the perils of conspiracism and romantic politics” on both sides of the U.S. political spectrum, but especially among his fellow conservatives. “Beginning when Trump clinched the GOP nomination last year,” he lamented, “a great deal of conservative ‘thinking’ has amounted to: You did X to us, now enjoy it as we dish it back to you and then some.”

Like other right-of-center Trump critics, Ahmari hoped to join a broad, bipartisan coalition committed to defending basic liberal values at home and abroad from the whims of a president who threatened to undermine both. But as what should have been a loyal opposition hardened into an often unethical and perpetually panic-stricken “resistance,” it became harder for self-respecting, intellectually consistent, anti-Trump conservatives to be the team players that their left-of-center peers demanded. In particular, the unscrupulous behavior of Senate Democrats and the media during the Brett Kavanaugh nomination battle, and the cynical promotion of the Russia “collusion” narrative, put Ahmari in the position of defending Trump from the hysterical excesses of his adversaries, a cause he would take up with gusto after leaving Commentary in 2018 to become editor of the New York Post op-ed page.

Now at a more populist, pugilistic media outlet than the Journal or Commentary (and one that had endorsed Trump in 2016), Ahmari’s targets shifted. Rather than fight an increasingly lonely battle against the enemies of liberal values on both right and left, Ahmari quite rapidly transmogrified into a partisan supporter of the president, in turn appearing to renounce the ideals that had, until quite recently, been his lodestar. He has since become representative of a new intellectual and political redoubt on the American right, one that is fundamentally pessimistic about the country, its people, its values, and its role in the world, imbuing his dizzying personal odyssey of the last 10 years with a broader cultural salience.

In March 2019, the conservative Catholic journal First Things published an open letter that Ahmari helped draft. Titled “Against the Dead Consensus,” it looked favorably on Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party, lambasted “consensus conservatives” for “fetishizing” “individual autonomy,” and condemned other aspects of “tyrannical liberalism” such as “the transhumanist project of radical self-identification.” Two months later, Ahmari went further. In “Against David French-ism,” also published in First Things, he singled out the even-keeled, evangelical political commentator as just the sort of spineless conservative “unsuitable to the depth of the present crisis facing religious conservatives.” (As the titles of his First Things manifestos suggest, Ahmari had become motivated more by his animosities than his passions.)

As Ahmari defined it, “David French-ism” is a posture of political engagement too “polite,” “guileless,” and respectful of a nonexistent “neutral” public square for our current predicament, which demands nothing less than an acceptance of “politics as war and enmity.” Engaged in existential struggle with “autonomy-maximizing liberalism,” American conservatism could no longer afford to be Burkean, soberly defending the accomplishments of civilization from revolutionary progressivism. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and conservatives must answer the call by becoming revolutionists themselves, harnessing the power of the state to fight mercilessly for “a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.”

What incited Ahmari’s broadside against French, and what led him to embrace the very “impatience with norms and procedural niceties” he had warned against just three years earlier, was not the sort of event that future historians are likely to identify as having clearly distinguished an old political era from a new one, like Pearl Harbor or 9/11 or the murder of George Floyd. Ahmari was perusing Facebook one day when he came upon an ad for a “drag queen reading hour at a public library in Sacramento.” Organized by private organizations across the country, drag queen reading hours are what they sound like: drag queens reading children’s books aloud to children. “More than just exposing youth to different forms of beauty, performance, and experience, it dispels the stigma and stereotypes of predation and lechery that are so often and unfortunately projected onto LGBTQ youth workers,” is how one participant described the program. “And it does so in such an innocent, playful, and positive way. It’s a beautiful thing.”

Ahmari expressed his disgust on his popular Twitter feed: “If you can’t see why children belong nowhere near drag, with its currents of transvestic fetishism, we have nothing to say to each other,” he tweeted. “We are irreconcilably opposed. There’s no polite, David French-ian third way around the cultural civil war. The only way is through.” Ahmari singled out French for abuse because French, who, before becoming a journalist had litigated cases for an ecumenical roster of clients on behalf of a conservative religious liberty group, is a prominent advocate of “viewpoint-neutral access to public facilities when those facilities are opened up for public use.” This is the legal principle that allows, for example, both a private organization to host a drag queen reading hour at a public library in California and a Christian church to host weekend prayer services in public buildings in New York.

No family has ever been forced to send their child to a drag queen reading hour; it was the mere existence of this voluntary event, some 3,000 miles away in Sacramento, that whipped Ahmari into a frenzy.

Besides the constitutional argument, the French position also represents the broader ethic of pluralism: Just as Ahmari would find it unconscionable for parents in San Francisco to dictate the terms of his children’s education, so they expect noninterference from him. No family has ever been forced to send their child to a drag queen reading hour; it was the mere existence of this voluntary event, some 3,000 miles away in Sacramento, that whipped Ahmari into a frenzy. Never mind that putting a stop to it would require state intervention, thereby junking the First Amendment and its guarantee of free association, which also protects him and his fellow religious conservatives from overweening secularists. “This is demonic,” Ahmari declared. “To hell with liberal order.”

Observing Ahmari’s breakdown from afar, I felt a pang of guilt. Several years earlier, before his conversion to Catholicism, I’d brought him and two other straight friends to a Sunday drag brunch at a restaurant near my home in Washington, D.C. Popular with tourists, the drag brunch is a weekly gay ritual where guests, fueled by bottomless mimosas and Bloody Marys, consume generous helpings of comfort food as drag performers sing and strut around the room. The person at our table who relished the raucous affair most was, by far, Ahmari. Had I mistaken his apparent enjoyment that day for an inner turmoil? Had I helped seed it?

Even understanding that his Catholic conversion would almost certainly lead to a more socially conservative belief system, the nature of Ahmari’s attack on French stunned me. It wasn’t only that the person I’d known to be so unfailingly polite was now embracing public incivility as a positive good. I was also confused by how a drag queen reading Red: A Crayon’s Story to other people’s children could lead to a wholesale personal and intellectual break.

But homosexuality and nontraditional gender expression are high on the list of fears shared by Ahmari and his fellow travelers on the post-liberal “new right.” Last year, in his inaugural column for The American Conservative (where he is now a contributing editor), Ahmari explained his trajectory from grateful immigrant convert to the creed of American exceptionalism to a chastened American citizen who now enjoins the leaders of his country to “Stop lecturing the world, and for God’s sake, stop trying to remake other societies in your own image.” Looking back on his earlier neoconservative political orientation in disbelief, he wondered who could possibly believe such things, “but a young opinion journalist with a mind self-marinated in the goopy abstractions of interventionism, nurtured by men like Bret Stephens, who on the day he hired me at the Journal told me that his ideal vision of freedom was the 82nd Airborne escorting a Pride parade through the streets of Tehran?”

Ahmari’s self-examination was less notable for the intellectual evolution it tried to convey than for its inadvertent admission that, in the process, he’d evidently lost his sense of humor. I’ve never worked for Stephens, but I know him well enough to be certain that his comment was a joke. But Ahmari—whom I suspect took it as a joke at the time—must now, from the distance of a decade, take such things literally (if not seriously). Elsewhere in the column, Ahmari derided American leaders for being too busy with “LGBTQ rights in Uzbekistan” to notice the house is on fire at home.

Ahmari may have a point about the naïveté of the American foreign policy establishment, but he gives the impression of being preoccupied less with U.S. economic or political failures than with nightmare visions of men in thongs and dykes on bikes—that he is haunted by a fear, as H.L. Mencken defined Puritanism, that someone, somewhere, may be happy.

In his 1981 book Political Pilgrims: Travels of Western Intellectuals to the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba 1928–1979, the Hungarian-born political scientist Paul Hollander observed that communism enjoyed its greatest popularity among Western intellectuals during the Great Depression, “not when its performance was the most impressive or its policies most humane, but at a time when a severe economic crisis buffeted the Western world.” Record-high unemployment and poverty at home “helped create a perception of the Soviet Union as an island of stability, order, economic rationality, and social justice.” Likewise, during the wave of Western intellectual admiration for China and Cuba in the 1960s, the United States was undergoing major social upheaval over civil rights, the sexual revolution, and the Vietnam War. According to Hollander, the intellectual admirers of communism sought a “social order in which the individual was free from aimlessness, confusion, and uncertainty such as the intellectuals experienced in their own societies and which are endemic to contemporary, secular, pluralistic societies.”

Hollander’s subjects were men and women of the left whose disgust at the inequality produced by Western capitalism inspired a search for alternative models in countries where inequality had supposedly been eliminated. They shared an “amalgam of alienation and utopia-seeking.” But the yearning for a society devoid of “aimlessness, confusion, and uncertainty”—a society, as Ahmari might say, “reordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good”—is not specific to the left. Thirty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, a similar yearning is conspicuous among the post-liberal right, whose veneration of authoritarian regimes is—like Hollander’s Cold War intellectuals—moving from live-action role-playing to programmatic political ambition.

When I recently asked Ahmari to explain the new right’s take on foreign policy, he said it is a belief that “America needs retrenchment. There is nothing bad with a power saying we need domestic consolidation for a while.” Behind this belief is “the sense that America is internally incoherent, internally decaying, and that hawkishness of the kind that certainly I used to subscribe to and I got my entrée into the journalistic world through, a kind of secular neoconservatism, that kind of hawkishness not only doesn’t address these internal crises but distracts us from our ability to address them.” Ahmari pointed to the “vast number of underemployed men, fentanyl addiction,” and “visible social decay” as signs that America has become “a machine that runs itself without any sense of telos.”

Pretty standard fare, except that the alternative model most favored by Ahmari and the new right is, of all places, Hungary—and not the Hungarian system or economy or society per se, but the goulash authoritarianism of its current prime minister, Viktor Orbán. Last summer, Fox News host Tucker Carlson spent a week broadcasting his show from Hungary, which he lauded as a “small country with a lot of lessons for the rest of us”—so many, apparently, that he returned recently for another week of Budapest-based broadcasts. Carlson was followed by former Vice President Mike Pence, who praised the Orbán government’s curbs on abortion access at the Budapest Demographic Summit. This spring, the city will play host to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). Orbán was the first and one of the very few world leaders to endorse Trump in 2016, and Trump recently returned the favor, expressing his support for Orbán in Hungary’s upcoming parliamentary elections.

New right thinkers frequently cite Orbán’s ban on university gender studies programs as an example of the kind of thing they would like to do in America, and while some of them expressed perfunctory disapproval of Orbán’s expulsion of Central European University, they barely hid their delight that the George Soros-funded campus was forced to relocate to Vienna. “The biggest difference between our conservative politicians and Viktor Orbán is this: Our team talks incessantly about how horrible wokeness is, but Prime Minister Orbán actually does something about it,” enthused Rod Dreher, Ahmari’s colleague at the American Conservative, last fall at the National Conservatism Conference in Orlando. Another source of admiration is the law, modeled on a 2013 Russian measure, prohibiting the “popularizing” of homosexuality to children. (The legislation was adopted in response to a series of sex scandals involving Hungarian officials, including one member of Orbán’s political party who was arrested while fleeing an all-male orgy held in defiance of COVID regulations.)

Like the Western intellectuals who thrilled to communist dictatorships during the Cold War, the American new right seems enchanted more by grand and highly symbolic gestures performed by the state (children, who still have access to the internet, will no longer be “taught” homosexuality!) than by, for example, per capita wealth, which is now lower in Hungary than in Romania, or with cultural and intellectual achievement, which has mostly deserted Hungary in the Orbán era.

As recently as 2016, Ahmari was castigating Orbán, who, he wrote, “hollowed out the country’s democratic institutions … politicized the judiciary, nationalized pensions by decree, proscribed ‘unbalanced’ media coverage, and removed a slew of other checks and balances on his own power.” Three years later, he was conducting a softball interview with Orbán’s foreign minister, Péter Szijjártó, and indignantly arguing that “Western elites should stop lecturing Hungary.” More recently, he appeared to endorse the Hungarian government’s imposition of price controls on groceries.

Ahmari’s new admiration for “eastern” alternatives to Western decadence does not stop at the Danube. “I’m at peace with a Chinese-led 21st century,” he announced last year in a (since deleted) tweet. “Late-liberal America is too dumb and decadent to last as a superpower. Chinese civilization, especially if it recovers more of its Confucian roots, will possess a great deal of natural virtue.” He has repeatedly praised Wang Huning, first secretary of the Secretariat of the Chinese Communist Party and a leading party intellectual, whose 1989 book, America Against America, assailed what one writer described as the “radical, nihilistic individualism at the heart of modern American liberalism.” When the Chinese government recently decided to ban depictions of “sissy men” in popular entertainment, Ahmari favorably contrasted the move with the United States, which “got rid of its restrictions against degeneracy in a flash of postwar ‘liberation,’ and it has definitely backfired.” China’s war on metrosexuals, Ahmari continued, “would’ve been commonplace in, e.g., an older Hollywood that wasn’t at war with nature and the family.”

This perception of Western society as enervated and effete and dictatorships as vigorous and manly was shared by the political pilgrims of old. Hollander quotes the Polish American Sovietologist Adam Ulam, who observed in 1966 that “an intellectual often finds a certain morbid fascination in the puritanic and repressive aspects of the Soviet regime and also in its enormous outward self-assurance, which contrasts so saliently with the apologetic, hesitant self-image of the democratic world.”

Then there is Ahmari’s native Iran. “The lesson of the Islamic revolution is that rapid secularization of the kind that the Shah pursued was bound to create a backlash,” he told me in a recent conversation. It was startling to hear, especially considering his passionate, almost vocational support of the Green Movement when I met him a dozen years ago. As recently as 2018, he described the Pahlavi dynasty as overseeing a “benign autocracy,” but now he castigates the shah for having “owned half the casinos in Tehran” and “instituted a social welfare program for prostitutes.” While noting that the Iranian Revolution was a “tragedy for my family,” Ahmari cryptically warns that it offers an “interesting lesson for American liberals today and what kind of backlashes they may be fomenting.”

Ahmari is at pains to distinguish the new right’s approach to foreign policy from the isolationist right and the anti-imperialist left. The former, driven by nativism, fears and distrusts the world outside America’s borders, and believes that too much American engagement abroad can only corrupt it at home. The latter, driven by self-hatred, romanticizes the foreign, and believes that American racism, capitalism, and oppression of marginalized peoples corrupt the world. By way of distinguishing the new right, Ahmari pointed me to a “moronic and sinister” argument from the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a Washington think tank funded by both Charles Koch and George Soros, which depicts the Chinese government as the primary victim of violent attacks on Asian Americans, and advocates for toning down criticism of the CCP:

The specific substance of Quincy’s strange take may be at odds with what Ahmari and the new right believe, but you’d be forgiven for noticing that they advocate a lot of the same things. The isolationist right, the woke left, and the new right are all pretty repulsed by their country (albeit for different reasons), and believe its unique repulsiveness disqualifies it from having an active role in the world.

Wary of the “Globalist American Empire,” Ahmari now argues for understanding small, vulnerable, but independent democracies as belonging instead to the “historic civilizational spheres” of revanchist great powers like Russia and China. With 130,000 Russian troops massed on Ukraine’s borders, Ahmari has recently been frothing at “Liberals and NATO jingoists.” Last August, during the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, he ghoulishly exulted in the humiliating defeat dealt to a decadent West: “Motherfucker, you couldn’t handle Afghan goatherders,” he taunted from his keyboard as U.S. Marines and Afghan civilians were being targeted by the Taliban. By contrast, that same week, he tweeted admiringly of the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran, who “Isn’t ashamed of his national heritage” and “Couldn’t give a shit about your pronouns.” Ahmari insists on calling the Biden administration “the regime,” lamenting “the bizarre fact of a regime that enacts laws referring to mothers as ‘birthing people.’” (His Twitter account has lately become a daily encyclical of Francoist pronunciamentos, juvenile invective, and praise for political extremists.)

Beyond the moral weirdness, Ahmari’s new creed is also notable for its incoherence. At the same that he would like the U.S. government to adopt what he believes is the Russian model of state interference in the public square, he worries that, “The repressive mechanisms used in America are a lot more sophisticated” than in Russia. It would seem, therefore, that the United States already uses state power to shape society along certain moral dimensions—just not the ones Ahmari likes. So is the point to have a repressive state apparatus that privileges his side in all places at all times, regardless of elections? If so, why on earth is such a transition from democracy to autocracy incumbent upon Americans in particular? Which America is that supposed to revive or save?

When I asked Ahmari why his writing and tweeting include not just criticisms of American liberals but praise of foreign autocrats, he responded that, “There are moments in which an adversary tells you a truth about yourself and it’s worthwhile to listen and look in the mirror and see if it matches reality.”

It wasn’t an answer to the question I asked, but on its own terms, I understood what he meant. Although I’m much more relaxed about issues of human sexuality than Ahmari, there are aspects of the new gender ideology, particularly its harmful effects on women and children, that I too find deeply troubling. But it remains a question how Ahmari gets from A to B: from defending Trump against fanatical anti-Trump ideologues to ditching liberalism and democracy altogether; from rolling his eyes at the use of silly new gender pronouns to admiring the perceived virility of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. When Putin delivers a speech bemoaning American cancel culture and praising Martin Luther King Jr., why do Ahmari’s bullshit detectors suddenly fail and leave him as credulous as Anna Louise Strong reporting on Stalin?

Maybe, as a secular Jewish homosexual, I’ll never be able to understand Ahmari’s … “transition.” And maybe I’m the fool for not being sufficiently chastened by the failure of America to promote democracy abroad and crush wokeness at home. But if the rah-rah neoconservatism of our misspent youth was naïve, Ahmari’s new preference for playing authoritarian, ethnically homogenous, Eastern European dress-up in a diverse, continental democracy of 330 million is no less romantic, and even less practical. Ahmari still acknowledges that the United States is “the only country in the world where someone like me could come from Iran and within that span become a leading intellectual on the right.” But he seems to be left with nothing but contempt for the system, principles, and people that made his American dream possible.

In each of his books, Ahmari has generously acknowledged “three men to whom I owe my career in journalism and whom I have resolved to thank in every book I publish till I pass from this earthly vale”—his former bosses Bret Stephens and John Podhoretz, and me. I used to feel a measure of slightly bemused pride at this tribute. But now the first thing that comes to mind is a question posed by a pair of my fellow degenerates: What have I done to deserve this?

James Kirchick is a Tablet columnist and the author of Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington (Henry Holt, 2022). He tweets @jkirchick.