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A blog by Leon Oudejans

The Great Awokening and Its Discontents (VF)

28 July 2019


Vanity Fair title: The Great Awokening and Its Discontents
Vanity Fair subtitle: Are conservatives just too damn nice? An academic debate over the culture war in a little-known political journal has set off an unexpected storm on the right—and forced Republicans to reconsider what they really want from Donald Trump.
Date: 7 June 2019

“The fate of any political opinion journal is to lose money and stare in the face of futility, but sometimes, with a combination of talent and luck, it has a moment. Today, First Things, a conservative and religiously oriented magazine with about 27,000 subscribers, has achieved this improbable state, attracting both fans and haters for articles that have been sometimes shocking, sometimes reactionary, sometimes brilliant, and sometimes all three. Its editor, R. R. Reno, was among the essayists featured in the National Review package titled “Against Trump,” which ran in early 2016, but in the months that followed Reno found himself driven to a position he describes as anti-anti-Trump. True to its name, First Things is asking fundamental questions about how American society should be ordered in this strange new time.

It was therefore appropriate that First Things should have been the setting for an essay that set off an unexpected storm on the right over the past week. It was penned by New York Post op-ed editor and conservative Catholic Sohrab Ahmari and carried the title “Against David French-ism,” a headline surpassed in sexiness only by “Worthwhile Canadian Initiative.” But its arguments tapped into visceral feelings on the right about the left, Donald Trump, and the place of government in society. The titular David French is a lawyer and writer for National Review who seems to enjoy a universal reputation as a nice person (I say that without knowing the man). He has also become, against his will, a symbol of a certain kind of conservatism that many on the right, Ahmari included, view as weak and self-defeating.

Ahmari argues, in short, that French’s brand of cultural conservatism and political liberalism—in which “individual autonomy is his lodestar”—spells defeat in the culture war. “Individual experiments in living—say, taking your kids to a drag reading hour at the public library—cannot be sustained without some level of moral approval by the community,” Ahmari writes. “Autonomy-maximizing liberalism is normative, in its own twisted way. Thus, it represents the interiorization, and fulfillment, of French’s worldview. And this is how David French-ism gets trapped.”

I’ll leave that to conservatives to debate, because the real message of Ahmari’s essay is far simpler. And that message is, “No more Mr. Nice Guy.” Or maybe, in MAGA argot, “Don’t be a cuck.” And that is the insult often hurled at David French by those on the MAGA right. French is too feeble, too willing to criticize his own side too willing to submit to the demands of a totalitarian left. “People like David French have a nice little cottage industry going of calling conservatives racists in The Atlantic,” the blogger Ace of Spades recently sneered, while another author on the blog called French a “prissy little pussy.”

Those who aren’t on the right might find it odd that conservatives in the Trump era are worried about being, of all things, too nice. Trump is president; he has a Senate majority and had a House majority for two years; and he says and does big and awful things and has help doing it. The left, meanwhile, is out of power. But the frustrations on the right are born of a sense that electoral wins by Republicans have not held back the cultural tide or offered much in terms of policy. On the contrary, they feel, conservatism has been losing ground in every way that matters, particularly in day-to-day life.

Such feelings have coincided with a dramatic shift in mainstream mores. The trends of culture have for decades been leftward overall, but what had arguably been a drift until around 2012 became a rocket in the years that followed. There has been an undeniable lurch in liberal opinion, what Vox’s Matthew Yglesias has called “The Great Awokening,” and, in a break with past norms, American institutions such as corporations and nonprofits have embraced the shifts with as much enthusiasm as the activists. This has made many conservatives to feel besieged and even fatalistic. A sense of defeat on the right was what led the writer Rod Dreher to pen a book, The Benedict Option, which argued for Christians to withdraw from mainstream society altogether and create alternative organizations and communities for spiritual self-preservation.

Then came Donald Trump, who appalled many people on the right but also kindled hopes that he might, in his own odd way, use governmental power to advance the cultural aims of conservatives. That’s a divisive idea in itself. Those in the camp with David French agree that there’s a culture war, but they want, in essence, to fight culture with culture and keep government out of the matter, except when it comes to preserving bedrock rights. Those in the camp with Sohrab Ahmari feel that government must take a more active role, using its power to do things like curb the excesses of leftism in academia and promote the traditional family structure, or else the culture war is as good as lost already. Beyond that, they feel the other side has declared war and stooped to any means to win it. For Ahmari, a radicalizing moment was the confirmation fight over Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, whom Ahmari saw as the victim of a power-mad left. These conservatives don’t dislike that Donald Trump is willing to play dirty, because they feel it’s only self-defense.

But as everyone, including Ahmari, knows, erosion of boundaries can fast get out of control. The Kavanaugh fight was indeed ugly, but, for many liberals, it was payback for what Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did to Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland.Now, with a conservative majority on the court, we hear liberals proposing an expansion of the number of justices. It’s easy to see where this goes. Many on the left today are as furious with Democrats in Congress as many Trump supporters are with David French. “Now is not a time to be fucking cowardly and weak,” tweeted Democratic strategist Adam Parkhomenko when Congressman Steny Hoyer announced that impeachment of Trump was unlikely. He spoke for many on his side.

If there were a god to tell us which side was right in the many disputes over fairness, we’d have a lot less anger. But immortal powers remain silent on these matters, leaving us to figure it out for ourselves. In 1944, a frustrated Winston Churchill wrote to one of his generals that the British should consider using gas against the Germans. “I do not see why we should always have all the disadvantages of being the gentleman while they have all the advantages of being the cad,” Churchill complained. Fortunately for humanity, the idea remained on paper, but the argument behind it will always be with us: don’t be a principled loser. The point is fair. It can also be poisonous.”



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