A little over a week ago, seven people were killed during a shooting spree in Midland-Odessa, Texas. It was August’s third high-profile mass shooting—following attacks that killed 31 in Dayton, Ohio and El Paso, Texas earlier in the month—and the fifth shooting this year to have killed at least a half dozen people. At an Odessa press conference last Sunday, it was noted by an FBI agent that there is an active shooting episode every two weeks in America, one of the striking statistics that have convinced many on the left that these increasingly common events—beyond reflecting the failures of our policymakers and political system to address gun violence with meaningful legislation—are evidence of a national psyche gone horribly wrong. It is a sick country that prizes its gun culture over public order, the freedom of a minority of Americans over the safety of all.
This includes our children, who have proven to be particularly vulnerable targets of mass gun violence. As of 2015, 96 percent of American schools now undergo active shooter drills. Last week a school district in Michigan unveiled plans for a new high school building with features designed to thwart gunmen including curved hallways and impact-resistant windows. Against solutions in this vein, a growing chorus of progressives is insisting that the time has come to take on the issue of gun violence more aggressively than ever before—to, through mandatory buybacks or gun bans—fundamentally rethink a certain sacred freedom for the common good.
Take full measure of liberal alarm and consternation over gun violence and its impact on our youngest and you might come to understand the terror inspired within a particular corner of the conservative world this year by Drag Queen Story Hours—library events held around the country in which drag queens read books, sing songs, and make crafts with children. “Through a fun and fabulous literary experience,” a website for the events reads, “DQSH celebrates learning and play, encouraging kids to celebrate gender diversity and all kinds of difference, while building confidence in expressing themselves.”
Not long ago, a project like this wouldn’t have rated more than a few fiery missives from the likes of the Family Research Council as an evangelical outrage of the month. A meandering denouncement, perhaps, from Pat Robertson on the 700 Club. But for the past several months, Drag Queen Story Hour has ripped apart the conservative intelligentsia like no subject since the nomination and election of Donald Trump. Long jeremiads and emotional rebuttals have been penned. Friendships have been strained. Alliances have been broken. All in the course of debating a question that may alter the trajectory of the American conservative movement—whether events like Drag Queen Story Hour should be tolerated by conservatives as the byproducts of a free and pluralistic society or whether conservatives should see in the construction of glitter wands and paper bag puppets a societal sickness grave enough to warrant the abandonment of classical liberalism.
It began, naturally, with a tweet. Scrolling through Facebook in May, Sohrab Ahmari, op-ed editor of the New York Post and a resident of New York City, came across an advertisement for a Drag Queen Story Hour event in Sacramento, California. He shared the post with his followers. “This is demonic,” he wrote. “To hell with liberal order. Sometimes reactionary politics are the only salutary path.” He went on to mention a defender of an alternative path by name. “There’s no polite, David French-ian third way around the cultural civil war. The only way is through.”
French, a writer at National Review and a lawyer for conservative causes, is perhaps best known as one of the right’s most prominent critics of both Donald Trump—having considered a run against him in 2016—as well as political incivility. He is also, like Ahmari, a staunch social conservative. After the passage of Alabama’s bill banning abortion in nearly all instances this past spring, French wrote a column defending the state’s lawmakers from critics, who by then included a number of pro-life conservatives concerned the bill had gone too far, as well as the editorial board of National Review. Alabama’s law, along with a fetal heartbeat law passed in Georgia, he argued, vitally laid the groundwork for a final assault on Roe v. Wade. “It’s time,” he wrote, “for another fundamental challenge to the ‘right’ to kill a child.”
It was with this and other proud service to the social conservative project in mind that French, befuddled, penned a response to Ahmari’s broadside. “According to some folks on Twitter, I don’t ‘fight,’” he wrote in National Review. “I’m too polite for these times. I’m too much of a squish.”
“We live in a strange time,” he continued, “when fighting for fundamental liberties while treating other human beings respectfully is seen as a sign of weakness. One can’t help but see the outlines of a case for Trump, the insulter-in-chief, in the disdain for basic decency. Is treating other people like garbage the way to a better America?”
In a piece for the conservative Catholic magazine First Things, “Against David French-ism,” Ahmari replied with a yes. “Progressives understand that culture war means discrediting their opponents and weakening or destroying their institutions,” he argued. “Conservatives should approach the culture war with a similar realism. Civility and decency are secondary values. They regulate compliance with an established order and orthodoxy. We should seek to use these values to enforce our order and our orthodoxy, not pretend that they could ever be neutral.”
The enforcement of that order, per Ahmari, would require the conservative movement to jettison a libertarian “horror of the state” in favor of a new willingness to use “public power to advance the common good, including in the realm of public morality”—an offensive move against progressive cultural tyranny. “Such talk—of politics as war and enmity—is thoroughly alien to French,” he wrote, “because he believes that the institutions of a technocratic market society are neutral zones that should, in theory, accommodate both traditional Christianity and the libertine ways and paganized ideology of the other side.”
This drew both another indignant reply from French and the interest of the wider conservative world, with prominent writers taking sides in the back and forth.
National Review’s Charles C. W. Cooke, for French: “Ahmari says he wants 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.’ Okay. But what does that actually mean in practice?”
The Federalist’s Ben Domenech, for Ahmari: “The distaste with the Molotov is understandable. But the truth is the culture has long ago passed the point of consensus where it is possible for a peaceable navigation of the conflict.”
Reason’s Robby Soave, for French: “Time and again, classical liberalism has provided the tools for defending conservatives’ rights. It is the First Amendment, Enlightenment values, and the liberal principles undergirding the marketplace of ideas that have empowered conservatives to defend conservative students’ right to speak and organize on college campuses.”
First Things editor R.R. Reno, for Ahmari: “[Ahmari] senses, like many of us, that something else is needed, something other than our liberal tradition. Rights are not going to repair marriage. Rights cannot reknit our nation.”
The American Conservative’s Rod Dreher, for everyone: “I wish I had a neat, clean answer to this argument among two bright, articulate conservatives. It’s something I think about all the time as I try to settle this same argument within myself. I have never been able to reach a satisfying place, but this dispute is exactly the one the Right needs to have right now.”
On Thursday, the Institute for Human Ecology at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., brought that dispute before a standing-room only audience of students, faculty, and other conservatives in a testy debate between French and Ahmari moderated by New York Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat. All who gathered were eager to hear out cases for and against the liberal order and, of course, more details on Drag Queen Story Hour, which Ahmari was eager to provide. “[I]t’s a global movement,” he said early on. “It has thirty-five chapters in the U.S.”
French scoffed. “Thirty-five whole chapters?”
“Thirty-five whole chapters operating in thirteen states and the District of Columbia,” Ahmari said, relating how these events are regularly attended by scores of parents and children. “And it is a threat. And it is demonic. Because by the description of the organizers themselves, it aims to quote ‘promote a glamorous unabashedly queer role model for kids.’”
Ahmari described one such event, held in Britain, in which the drag queen storyteller taught the assembled audience how to twerk. (“You crouch down into this position, your bums sticking out and you just move your bum up and down like that,” Ahmari recalled the host saying.) Here Ahmari’s eyes crinkled with the requisite disgust. “And the parents laugh and the kids kind of giggle unknowingly. So, to me that should raise a five-alarm cultural fire.”
“I do not recognize drag queen story hour as a cultural crisis of great importance in the United States of America,” French replied. “We have a nation of 320 million people. It is a free nation. Throughout the course of our history, we have had cults here and there, polyamorous communities here and there. People are doing bad things that I disagree with. It is a byproduct of a free nation. These are choices people make in a free nation.”
“I’d like to see every drag queen in the United States of America come to a saving relationship with Jesus Christ,” he continued. “I am not in any way willing to upset the constitutional order and to provide governments the ability to engage in viewpoint discrimination against disfavored organizations for the sake of dealing with that menace. You have to consider a larger superstructure. And the reality is that you cannot take these things on a case-by-case basis and establish rules that say free speech from me and not for thee. Because then you better be sure that the me is always in charge.”
Throughout the debate, Ahmari was notably vague on what rules and policies might plausibly reestablish moral order in America to his liking. At one point, he suggested that Drag Queen Story Hours could be addressed by a congressional hearing—“make the head of the Modern Library Association [sic] or whatever sweat,” he said—and the passage of local ordinances.
Such measures, French insisted repeatedly, would not only fail in court but would inevitably chip away at the framework of rights and liberties shared by both Ahmari and the drag queens he loathes. “I think one part of my Christian witness to this country and my Christian mission to this country is to live a legal version of the golden rule,” French said. “I’m going to fight for the rights of others that I would like to exercise myself because I also know that my rights are fragile and that there’s going to come a time when I’m going to need some assistance in fighting for the rights that I would most like to exercise.”
Ahmari’s response was one of his biggest applause lines of the night. “I think one problem is that too much of the intellectual firepower of the right has been focused on lawyers and litigation,” he said. “What the sexual revolutionary left wants is not censorship. It wants self-censorship. It wants people who object to things like drag queen story hour—which by the way isn’t akin to just a cult or a weird hotel; it’s promoted, every kind of mainstream media power is behind it, so it’s not quite that—what they want is, is self-censorship and for people to just sort of take it.”
It has become almost a cliché to note the persistent victimhood embedded in conservative thought, but these kinds of statements remain remarkable renderings of sociopolitical reality. A political movement that has already twice this century taken the presidency against the will of the American voting public and which holds total and undivided control of nearly half the states in this country remains, evidently, the underdog of American political life, helplessly buffeted by the winds of change. Liberal parents having drag queens read to their children anywhere is the latest intolerable imposition of liberal authority upon Christian conservatives everywhere.
During the debate, French encouraged them instead to look on the bright side—to acknowledge, for instance, how wildly successful the right has been in preventing women from obtaining abortions. “In the last five years of the Obama administration, more pro-life laws were passed at the state level than were passed in any period of time in American history since Roe,” he reminded the audience. “The abortion rate right now is below the point it was when Roe was decided—when abortion was illegal in some parts of the United States of America.”
Ahmari waved this away. “David, I live in New York City, where more brown, black babies are aborted than are born. That’s an emergency. I aim to stop it.”
Substantively, there wasn’t much more than this to the debate—a nonplussed French offering textbook defenses of classical liberalism and strategic reassurances to an interlocutor and roughly half an audience for whom liberal norms and the concrete political victories the right has won over the past decade are immaterial in the face of an oppressive left. On French’s face throughout the night, one could see the confusion laced throughout his pieces in response to Ahmari. “My political opponents are my fellow citizens,” French wrote in his reply to “Against David-Frenchism.” “When I wore the uniform of my country, I was willing to die for them. Why would I think I’m at war with them now?”
This is a question that French should pose to himself more often given how frequently his renderings of the left mirror Ahmari’s. In a 2017 French piece titled “It’s Time to Crush Campus Censorship,” for instance, readers learn that the campus controversies that have brought breathless attention to a half handful of America’s 4,000 colleges and universities over the past few years constituted a threat not just to “free speech on college campuses” but “free speech in America” and demanded congressional action. Two years later, the First Amendment, perhaps miraculously given the existential threat to it evidently posed by our liberal arts students, remains in effect.
Another French piece from earlier this year asks whether “woke progressives will allow celebrities to be Christian” and notes that several stars have become “problematic to some people” on social media—a fate worse than death—due to the views of their respective churches on LGBTQ people. In the piece French specifically references Chris Pratt, an evangelical Christian cruelly consigned by godless Hollywood progressives to that obscure backwater of the film industry, the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
In French’s coverage of the Masterpiece Cakeshop saga, he urged to believe that the legal travails of a baker morally opposed to a fast-growing category of weddings that now take place in our society, who nevertheless chose to sell wedding cakes in a deeply litigious country with anti-discrimination statutes on the books, risked making “sexual revolution, not the Constitution ... the supreme law of the land.”
French might not see Drag Queen Story Hour in particular as a threat, but he and those who have taken his side of the debate in dismay at Ahmari’s illiberalism have helped shape the premise from which Ahmari and the social conservatives in his camp are operating—that American social conservatives face, as their enemies, ruthless progressives wielding a tyrannical amount of political and cultural power.
Even as the right has succeeded in functionally eliminating legal abortion across large swaths of the country; firing college professors and de-platforming campus speakers not by public protest but by law; deploying state government to invalidate local anti-discrimination ordinances passed by liberal communities; working to ban transgender people from serving in the military, and Muslims from entering the United States; and otherwise forcibly establishing, by hook or by crook, dominion over a country in which their sociocultural preferences no longer predominate, center-right conservatives like French have been roughly as eager as Ahmari to claim leftists are the perpetual aggressors and intolerant bullies in American politics—rapacious and vindictive revolutionaries with boundless power and influence who brook no dissent.
And LGBTQ Americans—who earned the right to marry practically yesterday; who still lack a strong framework of employment protections; who are still being driven from their communities, attacked, and murdered in some parts of the country—are, because one might see them on television or reading to kids at your local library, in the very driver’s seat of American life.
French’s eloquent defenses of the liberal order have been laid over a mainstream conservative rhetoric that, now deployed by more temperamentally combative conservatives, threatens the values that French claims to revere. What hope can there be of preserving the values underpinning classical liberalism in the first place, Ahmari essentially asks, if progressives are as nasty and all-powerful as French routinely agrees they are? Ahmari’s chief transgression against the conservative establishment is that he has taken them too seriously, arguing that a left conservatives accuse of imposing sexual revolution and mass infanticide at cultural knifepoint can only be defeated in a knife fight.
This is how the conservative movement works; the golden rule ethos—here derisively called “Frenchism” by people who mostly agree with David French—typically loses. The conservative response to supposed liberal media bias within mainstream journalism wasn’t the creation of better, even-handed press outlets, but right-wing outlets as biased as conservatives imagined the liberal press to be, such as Fox News. The conservative response to supposed liberal bias and indoctrination within the academy wasn’t the creation of more viewpoint-neutral and academically free universities, but the funneling of resources to explicitly conservative universities like Liberty and Hillsdale.
And if a greater amount of open racism and xenophobia now exists on the right, conservatives shrug it away, demanding that we not look to the right’s record of supporting segregation and apartheid for answers, but rather to the activists demonstrating against racial disparities in policing, or The New York Times for having the temerity to argue the institution of slavery had a definitive impact on the development of this country. The left just started all this race stuff, we’re told, and the far right is only responding in kind.
This tit-for-imagined-tat has worked remarkably well for the conservative movement over the years, having established strong right-wing institutions fighting a perpetual war against an enemy that mostly does not, despite what conservatives say, believe itself to be at war. The current front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, Joe Biden, is a man who cites his relationships with segregationists as evidence he can rebuild consensus with a Republican Party that he insists is fundamentally good.
But should Biden win the presidency, it is assured he will join the conservative movement’s long list of uncompromising demons to be slain. It is the Ahmarists, not the Frenchists who will be poised to inherit the movement and do the slaying from here on out, not only because their more openly illiberal attitudes sit better with the right’s new populism but because, ironically, those attitudes spring from conservatism’s deepest, sturdiest roots: The defenses of old hierarchies that led early conservative thinkers like Edmund Burke to regard the then-woolly and new ideals underpinning classical liberalism and its revolutionary proponents with deep caution and often open suspicion.
The fusionism between social conservatives and the apostles of laissez-faire capitalism and individual liberty that came to characterize the modern conservative movement was an arrangement that could last as long as the social conservatives could stomach the choices being made in the liberal world. Now there are drag queens at the library. So the bargain is in crisis. And the right’s self-professed defenders of liberalism, as aghast as they might seem at the rise of Sohrab Ahmari, or Tucker Carlson, or Donald Trump, are only its fair weather friends.
During the debate, French told Douthat that in addition to his support of the use of state power to restrict the reproductive liberty of American women, he would support state restrictions on pornography, clarifying that, for him, the probable preferences of the founders on the question outweigh an abstract commitment to free speech and expression. There’s not much distance between this kind of hazy originalism and deference to the Founders and Ahmari’s implied vision of American cultural conformity. The chief difference is that French, feeling magnanimous, has rather arbitrarily decided that Drag Queen Story Hour isn’t worth the energy he devotes to other cultural fights.
What should trouble pluralists left of center is that his compromised defenses of liberal rights are the only ones conservatives are willing to hear. Convinced or at least determined to pretend that the left is demonic—“If you can’t see why children belong nowhere near drag,” Ahmari tweeted in May, “we have nothing to say to each other”—the conservative movement looks entirely inward as it decides whether to blow up our framework of freedoms and liberties and has, in French, brought on as Devil’s Advocate someone who shares most of their anxieties and supports most of their agenda.
If the left takes away nothing else from this episode on the right, it should take away this: Christian conservatives have gotten a second wind. Even as the policy failures of the political establishment have grown a constituency for ambitious and transformative material politics within the Democratic Party and built market skepticism within certain factions on the right, issues like LGBTQ rights and abortion will remain, like immigration, potent wedge issues, thanks in part to a new crop of traditionalists like Ahmari, intent on reviving old battles to revive an old world and crushing imagined monsters behind socialism and progressivism.
At one point during their debate, French asked Ahmari incredulously whether he believed a Bernie Sanders presidency would actually bring about “the Colosseum”—a reference to the martyrdom of early Christians in Rome. During the night’s question-and-answer session, the first audience member to rise earnestly replied to French that Sanders would. “I think socialism is the Colosseum,” she said. “I just want to be clear about that. Rounding up Christians.”
Of course, there will be no rounding up of Christians in the United States under a socialist or any other plausible administration, which is not to say that conservatives won’t find among themselves new martyrs. On the right, martyrdom is for everyone.