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David French, Sohrab Ahmari et le débat sur l’avenir du conservatisme

Benjamin Wallace-Wells, "David French, Sohrab Ahmari, and the Battle for the Future of Conservatism", The New Yorker, September 12, 2019.

One evening in early September, the Catholic University of America, in Washington, D.C., hosted a debate between Sohrab Ahmari, the op-ed editor of the New York Post, and David French, a constitutional lawyer and a staff writer for National Review—two writers who represent different possible futures for American conservatism, and who, to add an additional dash of energy, plainly seemed to dislike each other. Via a live stream, representatives of every ideological faction, from the dirtbag left to the chaste Catholic right, followed the conversation intently ; in the overflowing auditorium, the moderator, the even-keeled Times columnist Ross Douthat, often looked pained. The fight between Ahmari and French had begun early this summer, when Ahmari published an essay called, with a belligerent tabloid flair, “Against David French-ism,” which swelled into a conflict that Douthat wrote was “a full-employment bill for conservative pundits.” French, an evangelical Christian who blends the language of civil liberties with scriptural admonitions, has an “earnest and insistently polite quality,” Ahmari wrote. “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.” But to Ahmari, a recent convert to Catholicism, conservative Christian values were under existential threat—and he wanted his side to dispense with the niceties of liberalism. Cultural conservatives, he wrote, should embrace Donald Trump’s scorched-earth approach to politics and “fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy.”

I had spent time with both Ahmari and French earlier in the summer, and still it was compelling to see them positioned opposite each other, because of how perfectly each embodied his cause. Ahmari, who is thirty-four, wore a sharp gray suit, a white shirt, and a skinny black tie ; he had a serene expression and the puckish manner of the disruptor. French, who is fifty and keeps his head shaved and his beard thick, was wearing a blue blazer and khakis and had an angry, troubled look. Ahmari kept returning to the extremist complaint that Drag Queen Story Hours are being staged for children in public libraries. To him, these were a sign of “a five-alarm cultural fire.” French, who spent years as a litigator, replied that he had never understood what Ahmari wanted the government to do about Drag Queen Story Hour—which tenets of local control or free speech he would have the Trump Administration set aside. The same First Amendment principle that allows drag queens to read to children in public libraries had also allowed Christian groups to flourish, French said, by permitting them to organize in universities and other public spaces. “So you would undermine viewpoint neutrality in First Amendment jurisprudence ?” French asked. “Yeah, I would,” Ahmari said. French raised his arms in exasperation. “That’s a disaster, y’all !”

Afterward, the American Conservative reported a “near-universal consensus that French mopped the floor with Ahmari.” But even as that became apparent in the course of the ninety-minute debate, the basic emotional dynamic between the two did not change. French was sometimes worried, sometimes angry ; Ahmari was impish and kept making it personal. What provided the event with its ambient uncertainty and anxiety was the possibility that Ahmari, because he was broadly allied with Trump, might have some purchase on the future of conservatism that French did not—that French could wipe the floor with Ahmari and it might not matter much at all. Jon Askonas, a professor at the Catholic University of America, wrote for the American Conservative that “all of the Millennials and Gen Zers I talked to instinctually agreed with Ahmari (even if they didn’t think he acquitted himself well).” Watching, I remembered something that Ahmari had said to me earlier in the summer : “What sparked all of this is a generation of young conservatives—and I’m not the only one ; I’m part of an ecosystem—that is trying to kill off some of the older generation’s ideas.”

Donald Trump’s political ascent upended the convictions of many American conservatives, but perhaps few so profoundly as David French. For decades, his life had been intertwined with the progress of religious conservatism toward the center of American politics. French graduated from Harvard Law School, in 1994, taught at Cornell, and spent most of his career working as a religious-liberty attorney, representing small evangelical congregations and religious professors at secular colleges. He took a break from this work to serve as an Army officer in Iraq, and over time became a prominent conservative writer ; in 2015, he began writing full time for National Review, producing often daily columns about religious liberty or foreign policy, which were unified by the considered affability of his approach as much as by his preoccupations. His wife, Nancy, works as a ghostwriter. One of her clients was Sarah Palin, with whom she wrote two books in the past decade. In their home, just outside of Nashville, the Frenches display a large mounted photograph of themselves, at the 2012 Republican Convention, carrying a sign that reads “Evangelicals for Romney/Ryan.” It was a losing campaign, one whose ethos the Republican Party has now turned sharply against. In the photo, they look expectant and happy.

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