interesting times

This Is What a Real Conservative Looks Like in 2019

Just doing his job. Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

This week, two eminent Republicans did something quite novel in 2019. They committed conservatism. By conservatism, I mean a philosophy of limited, constitutional government, individual rights, trust in tradition, love of country, prudence in foreign policy and restraint at home. Restraint means not doing something that you could. It means conceding the right of your opponents to run the country for a while — for the sake of the common good. It means admitting that sometimes you’re wrong. It means give as well as take. It often means compromise.

First up, Robert Mueller. I think it’s worth reiterating how impeccably he has behaved in what has become an extremely tense constitutional moment. He kept his cool and maintained his silence in an era of massive and deafening oversharing. His bland affect is attuned to the role he plays: as a neutral enforcer of the rule of law. He strikes me, in this sense, as a classic conservative — dedicated to existing institutions and liberal democratic norms. And he felt the need to explain this week, in the wake of the obfuscations and misdirections of William Barr, what his report actually outlined, its reach, and, most importantly, its limits.

Any objective reading of the report would come to the conclusion that the president clearly obstructed justice — several times. In fact, Volume II is proof of the president’s multiple attempts to rig, stymie, pressure, and prematurely end the investigation into Russian interference in our elections — including witness tampering, and alteration of documents. Mueller did not need to go into all this, but he restated why it matters: “When a subject of an investigation obstructs that investigation or lies to investigators, it strikes at the core of their government’s effort to find the truth and hold wrongdoers accountable.”

Then, critically, Mueller explained why nonetheless he hadn’t indicted the president — solely because it was outside his authority under Department of Justice rules: “Under long-standing department policy, a president cannot be charged with a federal crime while he is in office. That is unconstitutional. Even if the charge is kept under seal and hidden from public view, that, too, is prohibited.” So Mueller disappointed everyone who wanted him personally to get this dangerous and deranged president out of office, but it was emphatically not his role. Instead, he reiterated the proper remedy: “the Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing.” That is to say: impeachment. And with that, he left the stage. Less is more, he seemed to say. It’s Congress’s job now.

And then another actual conservative, Representative Justin Amash, Republican of Michigan, did another actually conservative thing: He read the report closely, and expressed his view that impeachment was obviously the only appropriate response to President Trump’s attack on the rule of law. He did this in clear and simple English, in a Twitter thread, more effectively than anyone else in Congress, including the Democratic leadership. Then he went back to his district and explained himself further.

If you have a couple hours, I recommend watching the town hall. I found it hard to tear myself away from the YouTube video of the two-hour grilling. In the years we have lived with a strongman threat to our system of government, this was the first time I discovered someone deep in the congressional GOP who recognizes the profound danger of doing nothing, and may have the fortitude to live up to his constitutional duties. It was, in a word, thrilling. The simplest case against Trump is a deeply conservative one — as Amash, a founding member of the Tea Party and Freedom Caucus, understands. It’s about constitutional order, the restraint of Executive abuse, and resistance to tribalism.

Amash understands how a tribal mentality — and the mutual hatred and fanaticism it generates — devastates our form of liberal democracy. Here he is responding to a woman who says that he’ll be attracting more Democrats than Republicans in his desire to hold Trump accountable and still run for office:

I represent the entire district. So it doesn’t matter to me if a person voted for me or didn’t vote for me, or donated to me or didn’t donate to me … That’s not going to change my principles and who I am … I agree with you that many of the people cheering me on aren’t going to support my campaign … It doesn’t matter to me. This is what it means to be a bigger person. It doesn’t matter to me that some people won’t support me or are hypocritical. You have to do the right thing regardless.

This is a central struggle of this time: Do we acquiesce to tribalism or aim for the citizenship the Founders hoped for? Do we worship a cult leader or practice self-government? This week, Amash has done something important: He has opened up a tiny space within the congressional GOP to debate this question. In a very dark room, he’s the light that begins to seep through the crack under the door. It may not be much, but it’s enough to allow your eyes to adjust and see.

And this is part of a wider ideological struggle within conservatism. You can see the contours of the Amash versus Trump battle, for example, in last week’s online debate between Sohrab Ahmari, a recent Catholic convert, writing at the theo-conservative, Trump-friendly journal First Things and David French, an Evangelical voice of reason at National Review. Ahmari makes the case for Trump the same way that Michael Anton did: All that matters right now is the culture war between good and evil, the West and the rest. Since this is an emergency, and the Godless enemy is on the march, niceties, such as being a stickler for the rule of law, or rhetorical civility, are irrelevant. Insisting on legal distinctions, believing in constitutional restraint, even cooperating with the other party in some circumstances are, for the illiberal mind, all forms of cowardice and surrender.

Deeper down in Ahmari’s case against French’s liberal conservatism is a critique of modernity itself — as an arena for slow conservative surrender to liberalism and for religious truth to collapse into nihilism. Ahmari is, strictly speaking, a reactionary, seeing the very liberal modern order as tainted. Quite what he intends to replace it with — and how — is not entirely clear. But he knows what he’s against!

He mocks “that earnest and insistently polite quality of [David French] that I find unsuitable to the depth of the present crisis facing religious conservatives.” He has no time for a live-and-let-live pluralism which leads, Ahmari believes, to the end of a Christian culture. Even though French has spent much of his adult life litigating in defense of religious freedom, Ahmari regards these legal sallies as lame and ineffective, when the culture as a whole is rapidly secularizing. Then he ventures into chilling territory. He wants the state to act boldly “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.”

I’m trying to imagine all these Christians of the future “defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils” of controlling the lives of others for their own good. And I shudder. At one point, Ahmari attacks “religious-liberty absolutism.” I guess it depends on what the religion is. He wants to shut down the primacy of individual autonomy in a country where different people can coexist with others of radically different politics or faith. He despises civility the way the hard left does: because it’s a form of “respectability politics” that merely perpetuates the corrupt system. “Civility and decency are secondary values,” Ahmari writes. “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.” Rewind that one more time: Ahmari wants to enforce his moral order on others. He believes pluralism is merely a cloak for libertinism.

And that’s why many on the right, even and especially conservative Christians, support Trump. He may be morally corrupt but he can be relied on to enforce moral order against the destabilizing forces of individualism and secularism. Ahmari seems particularly enraged by drag queens telling stories to children in libraries — “This is demonic. To hell with liberal order. Sometimes reactionary politics are the only salutary path.” — and the treatment of Brett Kavanaugh — “Kavanaugh snapped something in me.” This unholy, emotional fusion of religious fundamentalism and strongman politics is the real innovation of the Trump era.

I have my issues with some Never Trumpers. They have stoked religious fundamentalism for political gain, they gave us Sarah Palin and Abu Ghraib, and they bequeathed us a crippling debt. But many on the center right in Britain and America still haven’t given up on the liberal democratic project. For the most part, they believe in a pluralist system, defend norms and objectivity, value civility, persuasion, and a broadly liberal order. They seek to disperse power, not concentrate it; they prefer compromise over raw victory; they pursue magnanimity in success and grace in failure. They defend skepticism against certainty, doubt against faith, freedom against power, and culture over politics.

This is the liberal conservatism I’ve long believed in. It’s one you can easily recognize in a man like David French. It’s being eclipsed right now by a cruder, darker form in which Trump is the useful instrument for a broader illiberalism. This is a deeper divide that Trump has brought to the surface — and you can see it also in the increasingly authoritarian and illiberal right in Europe.

The choice for conservatives is between an Oakeshottian understanding of politics as a conversation in the tradition of individual liberty and a near Schmittian view of politics as the exercise of raw power. It’s between a pragmatic reconciliation with modernity and an angry, bitter war against it.

I made my decision a long time ago. I thought the mainstream right had too, by and large. But the fight is now on again. I’ll do my best to keep it civil.

All Too Human

Human beings are complicated. “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being,” in Solzhenitsyn’s famous formulation. This is as true of towering human beings as of those of us who toil in the muck of eventual obscurity. The longing for icons doesn’t disprove this. But it can cover it up.

And so it’s with very mixed feelings that I read the new revelations about Martin Luther King Jr.’s private life. Everyone has long known that King was no pristine saint. Documents in the National Archives allege that he had multiple affairs with many women, even as he was being closely monitored, followed, bugged, and taped by the FBI. I don’t find this even faintly tarnishing for King’s wider legacy. In fact, I find the interaction between his aspirations and his flaws both fascinating and humanizing. We want saints. We get sinners. But sometimes we get sinners of prodigious courage, vision, and eloquence. This is as true of statesmen and women as it is of artists. The reduction of a person’s entire life to his sexual proclivities is an obstacle to understanding and appreciating any great figure.

But new documents add to the tension between King’s greatness and his shortcomings. Most of the FBI files on King are sealed until 2027, but for a variety of reasons, some have surfaced recently. And there’s no way to sugarcoat this, but they are brutal. I would not mention this story if it were not relayed by one of King’s preeminent biographers and experts, David Garrow. Garrow explains that “in recent months, hundreds of never-before-seen FBI reports and surveillance summaries concerning King have silently slipped into public view on the Archives’ lightly-annotated and difficult-to-explore website.” Many are records of King’s extensive and consensual sexual adventurism — recorded by Hoover’s henchmen as weapons of potential blackmail. In one case, an FBI official sent King an anonymous letter detailing these alleged offenses and advising him to take his own life. It is horrifying to see just how powerful, unrestrained, and callous the FBI then was. They even told King to kill himself on Christmas Day.

But Garrow regards the documents as legit. Some are disturbing. Garrow details one incident:

King’s friend Logan Kearse, the pastor of Baltimore’s Cornerstone Baptist Church and, like King, the holder of a PhD from the Boston University School of Theology … had brought to Washington several women ‘parishioners’ of his church, a newly-released summary document from [Assistant FBI Director William C.] Sullivan’s personal file on King relates, and Kearse invited King and his friends to come and meet the women. “The group met in his room and discussed which women among the parishioners would be suitable for natural or unnatural sex acts. When one of the women protested that she did not approve of this, the Baptist minister immediately and forcibly raped her,” the typed summary states, parenthetically citing a specific FBI document (100-3-116-762) as its source. “King looked on, laughed and offered advice,” Sullivan or one of his deputies then added in handwriting.

Is this FBI disinformation? Some experts have made that suggestion:

In a statement provided to The Post, King’s personal lawyer Clarence B. Jones vociferously denied the claims, adding, ‘J. Edgar Hoover is laughing in his grave today.’ Donna Murch, a Rutgers University historian who specializes in the civil rights movement, said the story had a “strange trail of evidence … that seems just very, very flimsy to me.” … “I would question the veracity of an anonymous, handwritten note on an FBI report,” said Yale historian Glenda Gilmore, who has worked extensively with FBI reports on civil rights activists. Files such as these contain “a great deal of speculation, interpolation from snippets of facts, and outright errors.” Johns Hopkins University historian Nathan Connolly, who has also examined FBI files, said, “I would be deeply suspicious.”

Garrow is sticking to his guns — for the following reason:

Throughout the 1960s, when no precedent for the public release of FBI documents existed or was even anticipated, Sullivan could not have imagined that his and his aides’ jottings would ever see the light of day. Similarly, they would not have had any apparent motive for their annotations to inaccurately embellish upon the actual recording and its full transcript, both of which remain under court seal and one day will confirm or disprove the FBI’s summary allegation.

Garrow continues:

At the Willard Hotel, King and his friends’ activities resumed the following evening as approximately 12 individuals “participated in a sex orgy” which the prudish Sullivan felt included “acts of degeneracy and depravity … When one of the women shied away from engaging in an unnatural act, King and several of the men discussed how she was to be taught and initiated in this respect. King told her that to perform such an act would ‘help your soul’.” Sometime later, in language that would reflect just how narrow Sullivan’s mindset was, ‘King announced that he preferred to perform unnatural acts on women and that he had started the ‘International Association for the Advancement of Pussy Eaters’.’ Anyone familiar with King’s often-bawdy sense of humour would not doubt that quotation.

I can’t summarize Garrow’s lengthy discussion of all this, so read the whole thing. (The Guardian, the Atlantic, and the Washington Post declined to publish.) By 2027, we will have far more context, and we should withhold final judgment till then. But if it’s true, it means that alongside his active consensual sex life, there might have been a much darker side. The idea that King allegedly encouraged a rape and treated women as objects to be used and abused sits rather awkwardly with our understanding of this great man, as close as America is going to get as a secular saint.

But does any of this detract from King’s epic moral achievements? The wounded doctor always plies the steel. Purity is not human. And King himself acknowledged his own complexity: “There is a schizophrenia … going on in all of us. There are times that all of us know somehow that there is a Mr. Hyde and a Dr. Jekyll in us.” But God, King said, “does not judge us by the separate incidents or the separate mistakes that we make, but by the total bent of our lives.”

If it’s good enough for the Almighty, it’s good enough for me. We can revere King as an icon, but acknowledge and even love him as a flawed, even profoundly flawed, human being as well.

Gay Politics Post-Post-Stonewall

It will be the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots later this month and World Pride will happen in New York City. I’ll try not to get too annoyed by some of the coverage. It is and was a seminal, defining moment in the history of homosexuality, but sometimes it’s portrayed as the beginning of the gay-rights movement, as if nothing existed before, erasing pioneers of a more mainstream variety. I wish it were seen as one more moment in a long, long history of gay struggle and joy.

It’s likely too that the picture you will get of those riots will be selectively intersectional, framed by the trans and people of color who were very much a part of it, and absolutely deserve memorializing — but needlessly sidelining the white cis gay men who formed the bulk of the protesters. I wish it weren’t either/or when it was clearly and emphatically both/and. It sometimes feels these days, in fact, as if white cis men are, in some woke quarters, even deemed part of the oppression Stonewall was fighting.

It’s my cis gay white fragility speaking I guess, but check this out: a piece about Pete Buttigieg’s groundbreaking candidacy for president that’s based on the Time cover of Pete and Chasten standing in front of a house. The headline? “Heterosexuality Without Women.”

So that’s what gay men are now, is it? Straight misogynists.

The author, Greta LaFleur, describes the inspiration for her hot take which is another essay about “whiteness.” Just like whiteness is a systemic form of oppression, LaFleur argues, so is heterosexuality.

You don’t have to necessarily be white, [essayist] Ramos-Zayas instructs us, to weaponize the immaterial power of whiteness; while whiteness can be and regularly is weaponized by white people, she’s interested in naming a form of power that draws from and invokes whiteness that is nonetheless still deployable by certain non-white people.

And so we come to gay men and straightness. For queer theorists, gay men who have conventional lives are sometimes deemed “homonormative” — a riff on the term “heteronormative”, which means conforming to straight culture. Being “homonormative” means not totally conforming to queer, alternative culture, or being able to pass as “straight” or simply being yourself in much of the country. It’s all a form of mockery, rooted, of course, in insecurity.

But LaFleur ups the ante. Analyzing the Time cover, she notes “the unmistakable heraldry of ‘FIRST FAMILY,’ alongside the rest of the photograph — the tulips; the Chinos; the notably charming but insistently generic porch; the awkwardly minimal touching that invokes the most uncomfortable, unfamiliar, culturally-heterosexual embrace any of us have ever received — offers a vision of heterosexuality without straight people. It is, significantly, a heterosexuality without women. Why might we want this, now?”

Well, how about this is the first time an openly gay man and his legal husband are on the cover of Time because one of them is running for president? I don’t know: Maybe that’s why “we” want this.

I have not lived that long, but long enough to have witnessed an astonishing advance in the humanity and equality of gay men and lesbians. And I am grateful for it. As grateful as I am angered by those too young or too woke or too hip to appreciate it.

See you next Friday.

Andrew Sullivan: This Is What a Real Conservative Looks Like