The recent brouhaha in right-wing political and cultural circles about civility, freedom, and other “liberal” values cherished by pre-Trump conservatives may appear to be a form of early-summer light entertainment, wherein fractious intellectuals and gerund-grinders spar before engaging in the serious partisan work of the 2020 elections. Ramesh Ponnuru and Ross Douthat have both suggested there’s too much heat emanating from this war of words, adding to the impression that it’s just a continuation of the right’s awkward efforts to adjust its ideology to the erratic views of its new warrior king.
But as New York’s Andrew Sullivan explains, there’s something quite serious going on in the angry attacks on liberal values launched by the New York Post’s Sohrab Ahmari, the chief perpetrator of the fight:
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.
Michael Anton, you may recall, was the author of the infamous “Flight 93 Election” essay that compared conservatives in 2016 to the doomed passengers on the hijacked September 11 plane who nonetheless charged the cockpit and saved countless lives in Washington. It was the first of many efforts to convince conventional Republicans to abandon their fine scruples about the Constitution and liberty and democracy and put on the MAGA hat.
But now the fight is less about encouraging accommodation to Trump — all but a handful of conservatives did that a long time ago — than about shaping the post-Trump conservative movement and GOP. It’s parallel to the debate in Democratic circles spurred by Joe Biden’s implicit message that returning to the pre-Trump status quo ante should be the prime directive for the out-of-power party. Many conservatives explicitly or implicitly believe that once the 45th president is gone, their movement and their party can more or less pick up where they left off, maybe with some “populist” tweaks on immigration or trade or foreign military adventures that proved to be effective politically.
Ahmari and his supporters are saying “Hell no!” to that proposition. And they identify an abandonment of any liberal norm — whether it’s “civility” towards the hated secular-socialist enemy, an appreciation for democracy that’s more than strictly instrumental, or free-market idolatry — as the enduring essence of Trumpism that must be preserved.
This isn’t just a rhetorical beanbag; it has implications for the real world of right-of-center politics. And to an increasing extent there is a specific politician whose name is being identified as a potential face for a new, militant, post-Trump, post-liberal Right: freshman Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, a polished, Ivy-educated 30-something whose world view is intensely reactionary. Douthat linked him to the Ahmari uprising from the get-go:
A more assertive form of social conservatism is already visible in the state-level pushes to substantially restrict abortion, which amount to a demand that all those Republican court appointees actually deliver the latitude for pro-life legislation that generations of religious conservatives voted for. It’s visible in the forays made by Missouri’s new Republican senator, Josh Hawley, who has incited small uproars by imposing sharper abortion and religious-liberty litmus tests than usual on the Trump administration’s judicial nominees, and by taking an explicitly censorious stance toward Silicon Valley.
Hawley is already being celebrated as a symbol of post-Trump conservatism in the precincts of The Federalist. And in a recent taxonomy of the contemporary right, Matthew Continetti described the Missourian as the chief political representative of the “post-liberals” exemplified by Ahmari:
The closest the post-liberals have to a spokesman in the Senate is freshman Josh Hawley, who attends an evangelical Presbyterian church. Not six months into his term, Hawley has already established himself as a social conservative unafraid of government power. He has picked fights with the conservative legal establishment by criticizing two of President Trump’s judicial appointments. He has identified Silicon Valley as a threat to traditional values and proposed legislation to begin to rein in the tech industry …
The post-liberals say that the distinction between state and society is illusory. They argue that, even as conservatives defended the independence of civil society from state power, the left took over Hollywood, the academy, the media, and the courts. What the post-liberals seem to call for is the use of government to recapture society from the left.
Government-sanctioned culture war against private entities like those which control Hollywood and Silicon Valley is indeed a departure from traditional American conservatism. But it’s entirely consonant with a European brand of right-wing authoritarianism that drew on precapitalist strains of religion-based hostility to liberalism in economics as in culture, and contemptuously rejected modern liberal democracy while utilizing its institutions to seize power whenever possible. What makes Hawley fascinating and scary is how systematically he embraces this illiberal world view. In a much-noted commencement address at The King’s College in New York last month, the young senator denounced any commitment to freedom as an end in itself as a vestige of the ancient heresy of Pelagianism, usually described as stipulating the perfectibility of human nature without divine grace:
Perhaps the most eloquent contemporary statement of Pelagian freedom appears in an opinion from the United States Supreme Court, in a passage written by former Justice Anthony Kennedy. In 1992, in a case called Casey v. Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania, he wrote this: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
It’s the Pelagian vision. Liberty is the right to choose your own meaning, define your own values, emancipate yourself from God by creating your own self. Indeed, this notion of freedom says you can emancipate yourself not just from God but from society, family, and tradition.
This is superficially startling coming from a man who made his bones in conservative circles as an attorney for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty — until you understand that, for him, “liberty” is reserved for the righteous, as an instrument of God’s plan for humankind. That’s how Hawley described government itself in a 2012 essay:
Scripture teaches that political government is mandated by God for his service and is one means by which the enthroned Christ carries out his rule….
These things together tell us something quite important about what government is for, and what Christians should be trying to do with it and with politics. Government serves Christ’s kingdom rule; this is its purpose. And Christians’ purpose in politics should be to advance the kingdom of God — to make it more real, more tangible, more present.
There and elsewhere, Hawley went out of his way to deny his goal was an explicit, Gilead-style theocracy, but it’s clear he views politics, the Constitutional order, and other secular institutions as means to a godly end. And for that reason, he is inclined to view his natural allies as cultural reactionaries, whether they are fellow evangelicals, traditionalist Catholics (like Ahmari), or even conservative non-Christians, as opposed to the gay-friendly, feminist-infested infidels of the corporate world.
It was characteristic of Hawley that he denounced “Pelagian” liberty at The King’s College, a small citadel of militant conservative Christianity in Manhattan (probably best known to the rest of the world as a school that briefly installed Dinesh D’Souza as its president). There is no Christian Right gathering that is too extreme for his taste. Back during his successful 2018 Senate campaign, I noted one association that I found alarming:
Excerpts of an audio tape have leaked of Hawley speaking to a conclave of Christian-right activists in December that’s more than a little out there, blaming the scourge of human trafficking on the sexual revolution of the 1960s and ’70s. Sexual freedom leads to sexual slavery, he explained.
“It ends in the slavery and exploitation of young women. It will destroy our families,” he said, per the Kansas City Star. “You know what I’m talking about, the 1960s, 1970s, it became commonplace in our culture among our cultural elites, Hollywood, and the media, to talk about, to denigrate the biblical truth about husband and wife, man and woman.”
But it was the company he was keeping that amazed me, given the usual caution of candidates for statewide office:
[T]he venue for his pithy remarks [was] a “Pastors and Pews” event sponsored by the Missouri Renewal Project, the local branch of famed Christian nationalist activist Dave Lane’s American Renewal Project, itself [once] financed [up until 2015] by the virulently anti-gay American Family Association. If you’ve forgotten about the extremely influential Lane, he last made news in arguing that CNN had “forfeited its right to broadcast” by featuring Anderson Cooper and Andy Cohen, “both homosexuals,” on its New Year’s Eve broadcast.
Hawley’s fellow headliners at the “Pastors and Pews” event were quite the rogues’ gallery of crazy people as well. There was the father of lies himself, pseudo-historian David Barton, the man responsible for propagating the myth that the Founders wanted an explicitly and exclusively Christian nation. There was another pseudo-historian, Bill Federer, who has argued that the “atheist homosexual gay agenda movement” is, incongruously, guiding America toward “Sharia law.” There was Laurence White, a Texas-based conservative Lutheran minister known for his blood-curdling jeremiads against any sort of compromise with “baby-killers,” i.e., supporters of legalized abortion, and his comparisons of abortion to the Holocaust. There was Bishop E.W. Jackson, veteran Virginia wing-nut politician and another Sharia law shouter, probably best known for his warnings that yoga can lead to Satanism.
This was hardly an unusual assemblage for Hawley. Shortly after his King’s College gig, he was a featured speaker at the extremist Family Research Council’s annual Watchmen on the Wall conference in Washington, where he issued a politico-religious call to arms:
To start moving America in a new, pro-family direction, in line with the Constitution and Christian morality, “we have to take a stand right now,” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) told a conference of pastors on Thursday in Washington, D.C.
“If we’re willing to fight now, it really is going to change the trajectory of this country in the next 40 or 50 years,” he told the Watchmen on the Wall conference gathered at the Family Research Council. “But this is the time and this is the hour. We cannot wait for a later time. We can’t wait for a later date. This is it. We have to take a stand right now.”
One might object that whatever gleam culture warriors and proto-fascists may get in their eyes when they look at young Hawley, he’s just another right-wing pol among many. But progressives need to understand where, exactly, he is coming from, because there’s already a tendency in the news media to treat him as some sort of anti-corporate comrade in arms to Elizabeth Warren and other left-bent critics of Big Tech. Perhaps that’s true from a tactical point of view. But this is one savage wolf in the sheep’s clothing of the trust-buster. And if enough influential people on the right begin to agree with him, it may not be Mike Pence, the conventional conservative whose sycophancy has earned him the trust of Trump supporters, who is the 45th president’s successor as leader of the movement and party, but someone more like Hawley, for whom your liberty is a threat to his truth.
The piece was modified to note that the American Family Association did not sponsor the American Renewal Project after 2015.