In late May, the essayist Sohrab Ahmari saw a Facebook ad for a “children’s drag queen reading hour at a public library in Sacramento” and sat down to write a screed about the toxic multiculturalism he believed had taken over society. It was time, he said, for the right to stamp out degenerate liberalism once and for all—but some of his fellow conservatives, like David French, were standing in the way. A longtime National Review columnist, French insists on giving people what Ahmari called the “individual autonomy” to choose between Christianity and the “paganized ideology of the other side.” That tolerance had to end.
Ahmari published his essay in First Things, a journal of religious thought founded in 1990 by Richard John Neuhaus, a neoconservative Roman Catholic priest. The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat once wrote that First Things showed “it was possible to be an intellectually fulfilled Christian,” but beneath this veneer of sober intellectual thought, the magazine has a different role; even before Ahmari slimed French in its pages, it was perhaps the only magazine in America that provided a home for proponents of a religious state. In a First Things essay published last August, the minister Peter J. Leithart argued that “theocracy is ultimately reassuring,” and earlier this year, the Israeli nationalist philosopher Yoram Hazony made the case for substituting “public religion” for secular rationality. First Things is a small magazine—it has just 27,000 subscribers—but its reach is substantial. Ahmari’s tirade set off a heated debate within the conservative intelligentsia about the merits of civil society—and how ruthless they should be in achieving their vision of a Brave Old World. (First Things editor R.R. Reno suggested he might tear down liberal democracy altogether. “Something else is needed,” he airily declared.)
Ahmari and his ilk were trying to sketch out a new division within the conservative movement—between fiscal hawks, like French, and socially conservative Christians who want to cluster-bomb Hollywood. “There is no returning,” the First Things brain trust announced in March, to the “conservative consensus” that reigned in the four decades before Trump’s election. But their clarion call may be little more than wishful thinking: The Trump administration has found room not only for zealots but also for war hawks, septuagenarian segregationists, TV hosts, and coal-industry shills, all united behind a womanizing casino mogul whose favorite Bible verse comes from the imaginary Pauline letter called “Two Corinthians.” It seems a safe bet that if Ahmari and his acolytes succeed in their new crusade to cull most of the Republican fold, they’ll only make it easier for the degenerates to take power again.