In 2019, the writer Sohrab Ahmari launched a blistering attack against David French, a former lawyer and political commentator who now works as a columnist for The New York Times. Both men were known as committed conservatives and prominent figures on the religious right. Yet their dispute became emblematic of the deepening division within conservative intellectual circles since Donald Trump won the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 — the ripples of which have been felt throughout the entire American political landscape.
“It’s weird that we’re both considered conservative,” French remarks to New Lines’ Faisal Al Yafai. “Someone can say that they’re a Republican, and it won’t necessarily tell you their view of individual liberty or their view of the power and role of government and economic affairs or their view of foreign policy. That’s how divided the right is right now.”
The author of the book “Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation,” French has spent the past few years increasingly worried by the intensity of partisanship that now characterizes U.S. politics. “I think it’s a public service to humanize each other,” he says. But that was precisely Ahmari’s objection.
“This idea that you can punch your way to enduring cultural victory is just deeply misguided.”
“The right is, I would say, by and large on Ahmari’s side,” explains French. “In other words, this idea that we’re not going to play by gentlemen’s rules here. We’re going to roll up our sleeves and we’re gonna have at it.” From the point of view of Ahmari and his fellow travelers, that partisanship is a feature, not a bug. Feeling increasingly out of step with the direction of American society, French argues that they have embraced an uncompromising, ends-justify-the-means approach to politics embodied by politicians like Trump or his potential rival Ron DeSantis — even to the point where some are questioning their commitment to democracy itself. “Many folks are not necessarily after majority rule at all.”
It’s a line of thinking that extends beyond the realm of the strategic and into the intellectual.“This is sort of where you’re going to see the classical liberal versus authoritarian approach,” he explains. “The more authoritarian approach takes a very negative view of individual liberty, because they argue it breeds individualism, which fractures, community bonds and ultimately harms all of us. What Ahmari and others are saying is, ‘Well, when people fail in their responsibility to exercise liberty virtuously, then the government has to step in and eradicate that liberty.’ And I firmly disagree with that.”
While he shares many of the anxieties powering the new right’s illiberal shift, he doesn’t share their pugilistic tendencies. “To sort of say we’re gonna wrap our arms around cruelty and pugilism strikes me as extremely counterproductive, in a pragmatic sense, even if it was morally permissible, which it’s not,” he says. “This idea that you can punch your way to enduring cultural victory is just deeply misguided.”
So that may be what the division comes down to — power vs. persuasion. “And it’s so weird that in our politics, we’ve become so polarized that a lot of people just scorn persuasion entirely,” French says.
Produced by Joshua Martin