A view of the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall is viewed on Feb. 12, 2019. in Washington, D.C. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
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Why Jews Should Pay Attention to the Recent Debate Rocking American Conservatism

In the conflicting views of two right-wing writers, competing visions for the future

Liel Leibovitz
June 04, 2019
A view of the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall is viewed on Feb. 12, 2019. in Washington, D.C. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

In yet another sign of our tortured political moment, the most meaningful civic discussion currently raging is being waged not by our elected officials, spiritual leaders, novelists or celebrities, but by two writers engaged in what may appear to be an intramural intellectual quibble in niche publications.

It began last week when Sohrab Ahmari, the op-ed editor of the New York Post, took to the journal First Things to point out what he believed was wrong much of American conservatism, a bundle of self-contradictory tics embodied, he argued, by National Review writer and dedicated Never Trumper David French. It didn’t take long for French to jab right back. A host of other pugilists, including New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, soon entered the arena, framing the argument in personal, sometimes quasi-slanderous terms.

To appreciate the depths of each side’s argument, you’d do well to read them in full. Here, however, is each side’s claim in brief. We live, thundered Ahmari, in perilous times, with a progressive vanguard on the rise, dedicated to maximizing individual liberties at the expense of communal and traditional values.

Even worse, today’s social justice warriors, Ahmari continued, see any dissent from their dogmas as an inherent assault. “They say, in effect: For us to feel fully autonomous, you must positively affirm our sexual choices, our transgression, our power to disfigure our natural bodies and redefine what it means to be human,” Ahmari wrote, “lest your disapprobation make us feel less than fully autonomous.” This means that no real discussion is possible—the only thing a true conservative can do is, in Ahmari’s pithy phrase, “to fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.”

Needless to say, big battles like this one have little use for niceties. “Progressives,” Ahmari went on, “understand that culture war means discrediting their opponents and weakening or destroying their institutions. Conservatives should approach the culture war with a similar realism. Civility and decency are secondary values.” Which is not to say they should be jettisoned; instead, Ahmari concluded, “we should seek to use these values to enforce our order and our orthodoxy, not pretend that they could ever be neutral.”

Almost immediately, French delivered his riposte. Ahmari’s call to arms, he wrote in his response, betrayed a deep misunderstanding of both our national moment and our national character. “America,” French wrote, “will always be a nation of competing worldviews and competing, deeply held values. We can forsake a commitment to liberty and launch the political version of the Battle of Verdun, seeking the ruin of our foes, or we can recommit to our shared citizenship and preserve a space for all American voices, even as we compete against those voices in politics and the marketplace of ideas.”

Which means that civility is not a secondary value but the main event, the measure of most, if not all, things. Bret Stephens agreed: In his column in The New York Times, he called Ahmari—who was born Muslim in Tehran and had found his path to Catholicism—“an ardent convert” and a “would-be theocrat” who, inflamed with dreams of the divine will, had failed to understand that it was precisely the becalmed civilities of “value-neutral liberalism” that has made his brave journey from Tehran to the New York Post possible.

What to make of this argument? Stephens and others clearly imply that behind Ahmari’s call to arms lurked a shadowy figure, draped in Catholic robes, who would force Americans to recite the catechism while banning abortions and forcing gays back into the closet. Scary, if true; ugly bigotry, if not.

You don’t have to be conservative, or particularly religious, to spot a few deep-seated problems with the arguments advanced by French, Stephens, and the rest of the Never Trump cadre. Three fallacies in particular stand out.

The first has to do with the self-branding of the Never Trumpers as champions of civility. From tax cuts to crushing ISIS, from supporting Israel to appointing staunchly ideological justices to the Supreme Court, there’s very little about the 45th president’s policies that ought to make any principled conservative run for the hills. What, then, separates one camp of conservatives, one that supports the president, from another, which vows it never will? Stephens himself attempted an answer in a 2017 column. “Character does count,” he wrote, “and virtue does matter, and Trump’s shortcomings prove it daily.”

To put it briefly, the Never Trump argument is that they should be greatly approved of, while Donald Trump should rightly be scorned, because—while they agree with Trump on most things, politically—they are devoted to virtue, while Trump is uniquely despicable. The proofs of Trump’s singular loathsomeness are many, but if you strip him of all the vices he shares with others who had recently held positions of power—a deeply problematic attitude towards women (see under: Clinton, William Jefferson), shady business dealings (see under: Clinton, Hillary Rodham), a problematic attitude towards the free press (see under: Obama, Barack)—you remain with one ur-narrative, the terrifying folk tale that casts Trump as a nefarious troll dispatched by his paymasters in the Kremlin to set American democracy ablaze.

Now that this story has been thoroughly investigated and discredited, it seems fair to ask: Is championing a loony and deeply corrosive conspiracy theory proof of anyone’s superior virtue? The fact that these accusations were false implies that the Never Trumpers who made them early and often were among the political pyromaniacs, and are therefore deserving of the very obloquy that they heaped on Trump. And what about people like Carter Page, a blameless ex-Navy officer who was defamed as an agent of a shadowy, ever-expanding conspiracy headquartered in Moscow?

Conspiracy-mongering doesn’t seem like much of a public virtue. Certainly, the Never Trumpers should have known better than to join in the massive publicity campaign around a “dossier” supposedly compiled by a former British intelligence officer rehashing third-hand hearsay and paid for by Hillary Clinton’s campaign. You can still find many faults with Donald Trump’s behavior in and out of office, including some cardinal enough perhaps to merit impeachment, without buying in to some moronic ghost story about an orange-hued traitor who seized the highest office in the land with the help of Vladimir Putin’s social media goons. All that should go without saying, especially for people who ostensibly devote their lives to elevating and enriching the tone of our public discourse.

It is therefore particularly strange to find that David French lent his considerable conservative credibility to the Russiagate lunacy. Here he is, for example, mocking those calling Russiagate a hoax by accusing them of being complicit with Trump receiving oppositional research from a foreign power—which, ironically, is precisely what the Clinton campaign had in fact done, in compiling the “dossier” in the first place. And here he is cheering for the now highly contested BuzzFeed story alleging that Trump instructed his lawyer, Michael Cohen, to lie to Congress, an allegation that is contradicted by the Mueller report itself. And here he is dismissing the suggestion, by then backed by mounting evidence, that Russiagate may be a hoax or itself some kind of conspiracy.

It is true that French took care to sound unfailingly fair, a lone voice for reason in a political reality inflamed by lunatics left and right. The thing he was being reasonable about, however, was an FBI investigation that emerged out of a blatant politically motivated forgery. Now, it’s perfectly plausible that French was carrying on his arguments in good faith, even when overwhelming evidence to the contrary was always there for a slightly more curious or skeptical journalist to discover. What’s disturbing, from the public virtue standpoint, is that French has yet to admit his own failings, which are compounded by his less-than-courageous misrepresentations of what he actually wrote: In his reply to Ahmari, he strongly denied he had promoted the collusion story, a point of view that’s difficult to defend when your byline appears on stories like “There Is Now Evidence That Senior Trump Officials Attempted to Collude with Russia.”

French and the other self-appointed guardians of civility, then, should do us all a favor and drop the civic virtue act. They’re not disinterested guardians of our public institutions; they are actors, working in an industry that rewards them for dressing up in Roman Republican drag and reciting Cicero for the yokels. This is why Bill Kristol, another of the Never Trumpers, could raise money for his vanity website, The Bulwark, and why he could expect his new creation be lauded on CNN as “a conservative site unafraid to take on Trump,” even as the site was staffed by leftist millennials and dutifully followed progressive propaganda lines. Like anyone whose living depends on keeping on the right side of a leftist industry, they understood that there’s only so much you can say if you care about cashing a paycheck—especially when the president and leader of your own party won’t take your phone calls.

The Never Trumpers, of course, aren’t the first Americans to hide cold careerism behind a wall of virtue-signaling. It’s why so many in the professional punditry went the way of Never Trump: More than anything else, the decision to align oneself with a movement that, ontologically, vows to reject the president a priori, no matter what he might say or do, regardless of your own supposed political beliefs, is a way of affirming one’s professional class loyalties, thus ensuring that your progeny will still be accepted and acceptable at Yale.

Which, really, wouldn’t be much of a problem if the Never Trumpers were all as genuinely committed to gentility as David French. Sadly, they’re not, and you needn’t go much further than Stephens’ column to understand why. Stephens and Ahmari are friendly. It was Stephens who helped Ahmari get his first job at The Wall Street Journal. And Stephens is thanked in Ahmari’s recent memoir, a candid, thoughtful, and deeply moving account of his journey to Catholicism. And Bret Stephens is a gentleman, in a way that Donald Trump surely is not. Yet it is possible to imagine Stephens as the wrong kind of gentleman when reading his column contra Ahmari: Sounding every bit like a bigoted member of a 19th-century gentleman’s club railing against the papists, Stephens casually and cruelly robs his former protégé of the intricacies of his faith-based argument for the pleasure of painting him as “an ardent convert” merrily rolling along on his way to a Handmaid’s Tale-like future for America.

To tell an Iranian immigrant that he doesn’t understand the way American liberalism works because he ended up on the side of faith rather than on the side of deracinated cosmopolitan universalism isn’t just an impoverished reading of America’s foundations or a blatantly condescending comment; it’s also indicative of a mindset that seeks to immediately equate any disagreement with some inherent and irreparable character flaw.

On the subject of dissenters, the Never Trumpers eternal and immovable contempt merely apes that of their newfound pals on the left, for whom the president is a Nazi, the Republicans are perennially in the throes of a War on Women, and anyone who doesn’t fully subscribe to the latest lunacies of the identity politics-driven college campus cult is a racist creep. You may believe such an approach to politics is effective, but to pretend it is somehow morally superior is dishonest at best and, at worst, nefarious—a sleazy attempt to portray anyone who disagrees with you as not quite clean enough to be admitted into the league of enlightened gentlemen.

So much for the cocktail party chatter. The larger problem here is that at no point do Stephens, French, et al. deliver a concrete explanation of how they propose conservatism go about opposing, to say nothing of reversing, the new social and moral order that the progressive left has been busily implementing in America for a decade or more. At best, they claim that there’s no real crisis after all.

Presumably, the Never Trumpers and their ilk were simply manipulating the rubes and making bank when they denounced tenured radicals and liberal judges and the like under Clinton and Obama. In reality, they are perfectly content to live in a culture in which universities reject scientifically sound peer-reviewed papers for fear of offending the transgender community; in which pro-Israel speakers are routinely shouted down on campuses, and people with unpopular views are physically attacked; in which large technology platforms actively censor speech; in which journalists giddily defend the doxxing of a private citizen who created and shared a video they didn’t like; in which faith and those who practice it in earnest are dismissed as benighted bigots; in which the whims of unelected bureaucrats trump the rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. Never Trump was therefore a misnomer; they were simply elitist progressives who did an awkward kind of dance before arriving at their predestined home in the Democratic Party.

Ahmari, not unlike the zealous left he opposes, has a very distinct idea of where he wants the country to go. He doesn’t want it to end up where objecting to lunatic theories, forged by crackpot academics and defying millennia of lived human experience, gets you called a bigot and fired from your job. He doesn’t want to try and engage in dialogue with people who believe that disagreeing with their opinions causes them some sort of harm and that speech must therefore be regulated by the government or large tech companies. He doesn’t want an America in which color of skin and religious affiliation and sexual preference trump or mute the content of your character. Looking at public schools and private universities, Hollywood and publishing, academia and social media, Ahmari sees the threat posed by progressive doctrine to established American norms and values as entirely real. That he wants to fight it doesn’t make him, as Stephens suggested, a Catholic mullah-in-waiting. It makes him a normal American.

Which is why American Jews, too—whether they identify as liberals or conservatives—would do well to take this squabble seriously. The liberalism that American Jews have defended so ardently, the reason so many of us ended up voting for the left and supporting organizations like the ACLU and cheering on firebrands like Bella Abzug, was geared to secure precisely the values and rights that Ahmari champions, without which it would have been impossible for us to survive, let alone thrive, as immigrants to a white, Christian-majority culture.

A religious minority cannot expect to last very long in a society, like the one the progressive left advocates, that is allergic to tradition and intolerant of dissent. Only in an America that takes faith seriously, that respects and empowers community, and that shudders at any attempt to censor wrong beliefs and incorrect thinking, can Jews hope to thrive.

Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.