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The Ongoing "French War"
As opposed to a schism or a conservative civil war, the Trump era represents serious intellectual decay in the conservative movement.
I have to apologize for the unexpected break in sending out newsletters these last few weeks. I’m currently in a bit of a transition phase in my life, and things have been pretty hectic (I’ll tell you more about that next week).
As for this week’s newsletter, I thought I’d resurrect an older but very relevant guest post I wrote for the Saving Elephants Blog a little over a year ago.
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The Ongoing “French War”
Last year, a debate was ignited in conservative circles by Sohrab Ahmari’s essay “Against David French-ism.” While the terms of the debate may be (more than) slightly skewed by the Ahmari camp’s position (and the selection of David French as the target for ridicule, which was nonsensical), the moment nevertheless punctuated the intellectual decay of conservatism in the Trump era.
Notice that I call it a moment of intellectual decay and not a civil war or an intellectual schism. While the debate over “Frenchism” appeared to be between Burkean and Lockean sensibilities, the lines of conservative conflict do not neatly split along these intellectual traditions.
For example, my good friend Josh Lewis over at Saving Elephants is a veritable disciple of Edmund Burke, while I am a declared classical liberal grounded firmly in the Lockean tradition. If this were a schism between disciples of Locke and those of Burke, then Josh and I should be foes. And yet, not only do we maintain our friendship, but we tend to find general agreement on many things, both intellectual and political.
The relationship between Burkean conservatism and Lockean conservatism falls into the greater idea of fusionism, of which I remain a strong proponent. This was the topic of discussion the first time I was a guest on Josh’s podcast. Fusionism, often discussed chiefly as an organizing principle, is something more profound to me.
I often find myself uniquely espousing Lockean ideals in policy discussions while holding to Burkean principles in my private life. I sometimes describe myself as a lone warrior of fusionism and the belief that traditionalists and individualists share a fundamental kinship. This is in contrast to the growing consensus among many pundits on either side of the “French” divide who observe that social conservatism is shedding the classical liberalism of the conservative coalition. It’s becoming common to postulate that the era of Trump has finally severed the frayed knot connecting different camps of the conservative movement.
In my dissent to the deathly prognosis of the conservative movement, I must first concede several things. I agree that under Donald Trump, the Republican Party has mostly surrendered the mantle of the founding tradition. His followers, and many vocal parts of the conservative movement, have largely moved beyond the classically liberal traditions as represented in the tenets of the US Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
Today’s Republican Party attempts to maintain the trappings of the founding vision but now stands in favor of new and aggressive strongman politics. The direction of the conservative movement, at least in the current moment, has moved from a desire to slay Leviathan to one where they seek to wield it as a weapon in the culture war. Despite these developments, I would point out this does not yet represent a conscious abandonment of classical liberalism.
Frank Meyer, whose essays and writings helped create an understanding of what fusionism is, often sought to differentiate between what he termed natural conservatism and conscious conservatism. Natural conservatism, or visceral conservatism as I like to think of it, refers to the inherent human tendency to resist change. Conscious conservatism refers to a deeper and more appreciative understanding of why particular change should be resisted and an intellectual appreciation for why certain things need to be conserved or restored. Visceral conservatives shout “Stop!” instinctively, while conscious conservatives shout “Stop!” as they stand athwart history.
This is where I tend to disagree with both the idea that fusionism is dead and that we are witnessing the opening skirmishes of a conservative civil war. I like to think that I am a conscious conservative, and I’m sure my friend Josh Lewis does as well. Our sensibilities are different in some ways because Josh is a conscious Burkean while I am a conscious Lockean. Yet, we do not find ourselves on opposing sides of this conflict because we each understand and appreciate the deep tenets of our traditions.
As conscious adherents to our ideologies, it is not difficult for us to see that the hundreds of years separating our current times from our respective intellectual forebears have not canceled out the reality that we still agree more than we disagree. The claim I made on Josh’s podcast still holds true: the difference in sensibility between traditionalists and individualists is one mainly of emphasis as opposed to any fundamental disagreement.
When I read Sohrab Ahmari’s essay, I did not see it as an opening salvo in an intellectual civil war between adherents of Burke and adherents of Locke. And, I did not hear taps ringing out in my mind, mourning the death of fusionism or big tent conservative coalition building. I saw it as another attempt to craft something coherent out of an incoherent moment in American history.
Like him or hate him, Donald Trump is a verifiably incoherent man. I can find very few policies upon which our current president has been consistent in word and action. Move from the relatively shallow realm of policy and into the deeper realm of underlying beliefs and ideals, and Donald Trump is rendered entirely incomprehensible.
Nevertheless, Donald Trump’s followers consider him a conservative because “he fights” for a litany of political stances that fall into a bucket list of contemporary conservative demands. Donald Trump is a profoundly visceral man. It should go without saying that his brand of pseudo-conservatism and his style of leadership is incredibly visceral. His followers and his apologists buy into the visceral nature of the Trump phenomenon.
This is why attempts to categorize Trump and his followers as occupying a space in the traditional understanding of American conservative politics have always fallen short. To say they are part of some or another conservative tradition is to say they are conscious of where they stand intellectually. They are not.
Trumpism is famously lacking in self-awareness. It is visceral, instinctive, reactionary, and angry. The very fact that they chose David French as the symbol of their contempt for classical liberalism, a lawyer who has successfully litigated on behalf of socially conservative positions for most of his life, demonstrates the incoherent nature of Ahmari’s essay and the trend it represents.
To call what is happening in the conservative movement a civil war is to flatter the active and vocal aspects of the movement with an intellectual stature it has mostly lost. A body succumbing to disease is not at war with itself, it is dying from pathogenic invasion and decaying as the natural faculties fail. What we are seeing in the conservative movement is fundamental and pervasive intellectual decay. And, like any animal facing what it fears as its last limb of life, its mind is backsliding to a visceral understanding of its fight for continued existence as it loses its grip on conscious reality.
Luckily for the future of America, the nihilistic sense of doom peddled so successfully by Trump and his ilk is mostly manufactured. It requires significant buy-in on a visceral level. Many conservatives, perhaps represented best by such intellectuals as David French and Jonah Goldberg, have not bought-in to these ideas of “Flight 93 elections” or other suggestions that decency, values, or principles must be sacrificed on the altar of victory to stem off impending doom.
In other words, in the face of an incoherent moment in time, we have not lost our heads. We are standing athwart the zeitgeist of this moment in history and are remaining conscious of what we believe, of our intellectual ancestry, and of what we as conservatives actually want to conserve.
This is the point. This “war” is not a debate or conflict between camps of conscious conservatism. It is a backlash against conservatives who remain conscious of their traditions and principles.
If it were a clash between Burke and Locke, Josh Lewis and I would be opponents. And yet, we are both equally derided as “Never Trumpers” and we find ourselves standing side-by-side in our attempts to re-ignite intellectual and conscious conservatism.
David French is the symbol chosen by Sohrab Ahmari, not predicated on any ideological stance that David French has, but simply because he is the most visible conservative who refuses to consent to the dominance of the conservative movement and the Republican Party by Donald Trump. Ahmari’s essay is not a conscious attempt to stake out ideological footing in a coming intellectual civil war. It is a visceral reaction to those whose conservatism remains conscious.
I would argue that represented across the broad field of conservative intellectuals who reject Trumpism, the traditional tent-poles of Reagan’s big tent conservative coalition remain intact. All three legs of the three-legged stool remain firmly on the ground among conscious conservatives.
The calamity we are faced with isn’t any sort of civil war or final fraying of the fusionist rope. It is a hostile takeover of the vessel for conservative change, the Republican Party, by a loud and vulgar populist who has been enabled by pseudo-intellectuals in conservative media. These personalities either reflect the visceral conservatism of Trump or have discarded their better judgment for a place at the table.
If there is a struggle to be engaged in, it is a struggle between the coherent and the incoherent, between the principled and the unprincipled, and between a visceral or a conscious conservatism.
The first step in this struggle might be to recognize that most of the conservative media enterprises have failed as gatekeepers and communicators. Beyond that, however, we must simply continue to voice and champion the conscious tenets of our ideological persuasion and trust to the intellectual weight of the truths we espouse.
The great advantage conscious conservatism has over the self-destructive tendencies of purely visceral conservatism is that we have a higher conversion to our natural conservative sensibility and believe our principles are more than ideal, they are fundamentally true. We believe and trust in the strength of our argument and its capacity to endure beyond ourselves.
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