William Kristol’s choice of David French was a poor one, and is a betrayal of conservatism.
Kristol is famous for being wrong about everything. Inside Washington, he is known primarily as a neoconservative and founder-editor of The Weekly Standard, the man who co-produced Sarah Palin and the Iraq War. Kristol recently picked National Review writer and Brian Posehn look-alike French as his presidential candidate, his preferred nominee to an office of almost Beyoncé-level power. Since then, French has explained he won’t run, disappointing tens of Americans. Kristol is still searching: he believes if he peers deep enough in the baggage, he will find a secret king hiding, like Saul son of Kish.
Still, the fact remains: for a few days, French was anointed and encouraged to slouch towards Bethlehem. What are we to make of Kristol’s choice? As the old saying goes, a huge, laughable mistake is slightly less of a huge, laughable mistake if we can learn something from it. We ought to consider how modern conservatism arrived at French.
In my previous essay I covered neoliberalism, the strange ideology that passes for progressivism among the blessed numbers of the Democratic elect. Now I’d like to turn to the Republican version of the best and brightest. What kind of conservatism do they practice in the hallowed halls of maximum butch? As it turns out, almost none at all. What masquerades as conservatism—in magazines, on talk shows, and in think-tanks—is actually a different ideology: Kristolism.
The entire Kristol-pick fiasco shows the weakness of the established right, not just because French is a loon snatched straight from the dollar bin, but because it illustrates the epistemic closure and small worldview of Kristol and his ilk, and explains just how modern Beltway conservatism has failed. It also shows why many of my conservative friends balk at voting for the GOP in the year of Hillary Clinton’s prospective coronation.
Since Trump sharked up the nomination, most of the conservative establishment has spent their time waiting to exhale. Not Kristol, who prophesied that he would find an independent conservative candidate. Surely this would avenge the crestfallen at George Mason and the Hoover Institute.
He lit out on the road to petition every ward-heeler and time-server who could raise arms against the Orangeman. Because this was Bill Kristol, not just any MBA hater of hip-hop would do. Kristol is the kind of suitor, like Gaston, who prefers a pedigree in those he pursues. And so a nation waited to see who would get the rose.
For weeks upon weeks there were whispers up and down the halls of power, sultry and low-voiced, about who the lucky gentlesir would be. Lesser men could dream, but some fortunate son would stick the landing, and be the chosen fair-hair.
To read Kristol’s dispatches on Twitter during this time was illuminating. It was not, as you might expect, a sad man’s decline into irrelevancy. It wasn’t even like the Wizard of Oz revealed as a four-toothed rhubarb-growing hustler who’d scooted out of countless Kansas towns four minutes before receiving a stomping.
No, this was like hearing rumors about a book of Victorian sexy engravings hidden in your school library’s attic. The man dropped so many hints he might have been a divorced dad trying to leverage his way into a nineteen-year-old barista’s Snapchat. Imagine how a member of Parliament might wink before unloading a trove of nude pics on you, and you have Kristol’s modus to a T. There was probably going to be solid proof of the death of God when he named his choice, but who could even say? Women and men passed one another on the street and refused to meet glances, as if we all knew by playing host to Kristol, the Earth itself had given up any claim to the title of goodness.
The main question was: What would this particular emanation of wrongness look like? With Kristol, the broken compass, no man could say. As with the eventual death of Nic Cage, every possible scenario you could envision suggested new terrors. The man is what would happen if your annoying, smirking, politically-incorrect friend from junior high got his hands on a genie lamp: the power to be rich, wrong, still be invited to parties and on appear on TV, and nobody can do anything about it.
As it turned out, finding a date to neocon prom proved difficult: first-rate careerists turned down the tin cup, and Kristol was soon down to the roach-butts of a party already guzzling its own bongwater for moisture. To quote my favorite current political writer, @dick_nixon (the former president, ghostwritten by Justin Sherin), “Even whores like Cotton and Sasse rejected Kristol. Think about that.”
I did. Like Helen of Troy, Kristol has the flirt’s gift of getting the brave to fall down on his behalf. Had his power ebbed? Perhaps Kristol would not find his Galahad and we could all be spared the graphic scenes to follow. Then he named French. Like many other writers, I clicked on David French’s National Review bio:
David French is a staff writer at National Review, an attorney (concentrating his practice in constitutional law and the law of armed conflict), and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He is the author or co-author of several books including, most recently, the No. 1 New York Times bestselling Rise of ISIS: A Threat We Can’t Ignore. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School, the past president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), and a former lecturer at Cornell Law School. In 2007, he deployed to Iraq, serving in Diyala Province as Squadron Judge Advocate for the 2nd Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, where he was awarded the Bronze Star. He lives and works in Columbia, Tennessee, with his wife, Nancy (who is also a New York Times bestselling author), and three children.
To quote Andrew Kirrell, French fits “the fan-fiction archetype of a Bill Kristol candidate.” Military, but an attorney. Tennessee, but Harvard and Cornell. Writes for a carnival-barker magazine but also feted by the New York Times. Do you see? What a relief to the Kristol worldview: French is … God bless … one of us! Our kind of person. One foot in the world of elite establishments, the other planted squarely in Red State world. But for Kristolism, the first foot, the foot that went to Harvard, is the most important one. Soldiers of any stripe tend to have nuanced opinions about the conflicts they’ve served in. For a master of war like Kristol, picking French was as close to a sure thing as you could get.
It’s also instructive that Kristol didn’t go to, you know, other conservative office-holders in these United States. People who had run for office, won office, and had been forced to compromise with … ugh … Democrats. Or worse, people who had gone to state schools. You know, normals. Washington people turned him down: Romney, Mattis, Coburn, Cotton, Sasse. So Kristol went to this guy.
In his head, this was the next logical step. French, who writes for the National Review, and dislikes, in no particular order: Muslims, academics, Prince, contraception, the gays, gun control, all that anti-Confederacy talk, and [insert today’s craziest reactionary position here]. As a person, French himself matters less: he’s a typical product of a zany subgroup that disconnected from the real world ages ago. As an example of how Kristol and the twilight world of the conservative elite work, he’s the pound sterling.
Why French? Were there no Chili’s franchise owners available? Surely the ranks of golf swing coaches are not so depleted that he’d pass by their lot? I am not being catty. Chili’s managers and golf swing coaches have to deal with a lot of heartbreak, and drama that even Aaron Sorkin at the peak of monologue couldn’t fathom. Either class of people would have the Mandate of Heaven next to French.
If Kristol was a sane man, I would say that French was a careful ploy, as Jeet Heer suggests, to have power after the GOP is good and Carthaged down to its beatnik-hunting bones: “Supporting French, however strange a candidate he might seem, is a way of keeping the lines of communication open with evangelical Christians, so that when the time to rebuild comes, Kristol and the neoconservatives have some building blocks to work with.”
I’m not so sure. This presumes Kristol is an observant man who learns from his mistakes. But we have Charles Foster Kane-sized piles of evidence suggesting otherwise. Kristol (clap) is (clap) the (clap) world’s (clap) wrongest (clap) man. (He’s so wrong that every word in that last sentence had to hold a different link.) Keunwoo Lee’s lexicon of computing defines fractally wrong as “The state of being wrong at every conceivable scale of resolution. That is, from a distance, a fractally wrong person’s worldview is incorrect; and furthermore, if you zoom in on any small part of that person’s worldview, that part is just as wrong as the whole worldview.” This is Kristol.
Consider skill, and how little of it Kristol must possess. To be perfectly wrong is no small art. Aristotle suggests that excellence is not a matter of extremes, but the golden mean: for example, the ideally brave person isn’t a coward or reckless, but is brave at the right time in the right way for the right reasons. To be ideally, heroically brave, everything has to go right; all the clocks have to strike at once. Kristol manages to be heroically wrong: he is wrong at the wrong time, at the wrong place, for the wrong reasons.
You scoff. But could you hit the wrong target consistently? Even the most deluded of us occasionally finds a gold tooth in a Coke can. Look at all Trump has achieved with a dim, otter-level understanding of the world. The blind pig finds an acorn, and the broken clock is right twice a day. How remarkable would it be to find a broken clock that was wrong at all times? It would be considerably more work. This is Kristol’s eerie power, the gift of the compass that always points south. We owe him whatever the opposite of thanks is.
It is the difference between, say, the poorly-shot movie you made when you were thirteen, a merely bad movie like From Justin to Kelly, a so-bad-it’s-good movie like The Room, and the unreasoning, infinite abyss of the 1966 horror film Manos: The Hands of Fate. The thirteen year-old you was incompetent at the technical aspects of filmmaking. From Justin to Kelly was anodyne, boring, and riskless. Whatever you can say about The Room, real money was put into real bank accounts to pay for it. The cameras worked and the soundtrack was made of audible human instruments and the film made it to the projector without bursting into flame. The vision was flawed, the script was tone-deaf, and the acting was cribbed from the school of Soviet realism, but it is a moving picture, much as horses are a kind of moving beef.
Manos, by contrast is a greater achievement than all of them. Manos, made by a Texas fertilizer salesman on a bet, is a real crime of art. Manos whispers to us that we ought to tire of the sun and sink down into shallow wasteland graves, coveting an early death. The film is such a “masterpiece” that to speak of it in human terms, and not the gabbling Pentecostal tongues of space madness, seems disrespectful, somehow, to cosmic evil. Manos is the William Kristol of movies.
I believe French was picked because Kristol honestly thought he could make a go of it.
What of French? He was the Prince that was Promised, I think. Roy Edroso wrote the following, way back in 2007, while summarizing a Kristol column:
But whether or not these young soldiers have made a real difference in Iraq, they have shown “community building” skills, “sophisticated political-military leadership,” and the ability to “operate in a more fluid and volatile environment.” Clearly Kristol is hoping that a nice class of future Republican candidates will emerge from the war, able to repeat before crowds of voters their qualifications as possessors of the abstract values Kristol sees in them. If they can get away with that, what they left behind in Iraq won’t mean much to anyone.
French is the fulfillment of Kristol’s hope.
And what is this hope, in a larger sense? Oh, to expand the feeling that began with Ronald Reagan and “A Time For Choosing.” Reagan was never a perfect vessel for Kristolian notions, however, since he wouldn’t fire all the missiles at Russia, hadn’t really grasped Hayek or Strauss, and increased some social spending.
It is worth noting that every religious movement, as Tom Wolfe told us, is a scaffold built upon the shocking first exposure to some key, beyond-the-normal experience.
“As Max Weber and Joachim Wach have illustrated in detail,” Wolfe wrote, “every major modern religion, as well as countless long-gone minor ones, has originated not with a theology or a set of values or a social goal or even a vague hope of a life hereafter. They have all originated, instead, with a small circle of people who have shared some over-whelming ecstasy or seizure, a ‘vision,’ a ‘trance,’ a hallucination—an actual neurological event, in fact, a dramatic change in metabolism, something that has seemed to light up the entire central nervous system.”
Buddhism had its ascetic meditation bouts, the early Christians used wine for ecstatic purposes, Muslims engaged in fasting, meditation, cave-isolation, imposing sensory deprivations. The Hindus and Zoroastrians dabbled with soma or hoama. Ecstatic dancing, frenzy, bacchanals, Shakers, Bacchic orders … it all begins with that feeling, how do you say?
For Kristol and his circle, Reagan and Goldwater were that feeling. In the beginning. But the earthly clods failed, and the Rule of the Saints did not materialize. Those of us who live in the world might see this as proof that this idea, or this version of the idea, failed. But as someone once wrote, modern conservatism can never fail, it can only be failed by its priests and practitioners.
But what is conservatism? Eisenhower and Nixon would have told you it was peace in the world, moderate social spending, and harmony of a sort. Burke would have told you it was continuation of the organic whole begun by our ancestors. The Romans would have told you it was accord with respect to rank and order. Most of them would have mentioned that it was a respecter of times and places. Finally, and above all, conservatism was supposedly a rational and cool-headed response to radicals.
In the Old World, conservatism meant loyalty to the crown and church, whomever was in the saddle. It was the hope of idealist conservatives in the New World that instead of being the bodyguard for whatever faction of rich and powerful men were running the state, conservatism could be the decent, moderate shield against the intrusion of utopian projects.
Beginning in the middle of the twentieth century, conservatives, feeling outgunned, began to construct their own political infrastructure to combat ascendant liberalism. And just as the Democratic Party decided to toss the working class overboard, the Republicans did something very curious, for a conservative party: they threw in with the free market. That a party of Midwestern shopkeepers became the chief agents of Wal-Mart is either tragic or deeply funny, depending on your political perspective.
Conservatism, ideally, is the man who does not drink at a kegger. The right, for obvious reasons, never liked socialism. But historically, conservatives were not lovers of the free market, because it tears away the old, the small, the rooted. “All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”
I’ve always thought it was the one of the great ironies of history that Marx, not Burke, wrote those lines. From fear of communism and the American state, the conservatives made a peace with payday lenders and shallow propaganda mills, and lo, Kristolism was made inevitable.
These days, establishment conservatism is not exactly an ideology, but a single interest group, a very small one, like poets who kayak. That is the reason for the season of French, why bipedal grown-ups who own ties and collared shirts decided to point and say “Yes, let it be him.” It’s why French can write the following:
I grew up in Kentucky, live in a rural county in Tennessee, and have seen the challenges of the white working-class first-hand. Simply put, Americans are killing themselves and destroying their families at an alarming rate. No one is making them do it. The economy isn’t putting a bottle in their hand. Immigrants aren’t making them cheat on their wives or snort OxyContin. Obama isn’t walking them into the lawyer’s office to force them to file a bogus disability claim.
If it wasn’t abundantly clear modern conservatism deserved to be thrown in the basement with phrenology, eugenics, laserdiscs, and the Madea franchise, this clinches the deal. No, Obama and immigrants aren’t doing these things. But the economy is. And even if Obama and refugees were devils, this would still be inexcusable.
There will always be conservatives. There will always be a need for conservatives. I will probably always disagree with them.
But, my God, there is no need at all for the conservatism of French, because it is not a conservatism at all, but a bizarre, frightened group of well-heeled and well-educated schoolmates and cronies who have been pushing for the abolition of the Import-Export Bank while screwing the veterans and letting our bridges crumble. In what universe is this actual conservatism? The ideology is about preservation. Kristol and his posse do not care about the soaring rates of middle-aged white people committing suicide, or what’s wrong with your church, or your kid’s school, or zoning in Lubbock, Texas. What matters to Kristol is that the very right people are in power and hold the reins of government.
French is the perfect example of this way of thinking, surpassing Bush’s pick of Harriet Miers. It’s the single saddest thing I’ve ever seen in politics, and I remember Ser Dukakis of Tank.
In college I was at a party one time, and this guy suggested we should listen to his band on MySpace. We kickstarted the IBM tower and he played tracks from his “album,” all of which were Puddle of Mudd-level riffs and muttercore lyrics. The artist stared off into the distance and muttered, “Yeah, I think this is going to be the one that hits it big.” That’s what I’m reminded of when I mull French. No wonder he abandoned ship — possibly so he would have enough time to go run over unemployed truck drivers with a snowplow. “No one is making them walk in front of my death-wagon.”
It would be like if our editor Shane Ryan decided he was going to name the century’s greatest rapper, made the people wait, and then named me, Jason Rhode. He would never do this, of course. It’s not just that he would be wrong, but you would wonder about how he saw the world, where I would be a good choice for such an honor. You would conclude reasonably that Shane wasn’t actually looking for the best candidate, he just knew a small group of people and decided that I was the magic man of the hour.
Kristolism, as we understand it, is not a man or a group of eager souls hocking traditional values or limited government, if it ever was. At its most successful, it was a dim-bulb prep-school corps selling culture war to anxious Americans so they could send the factories overseas and extend the war hand where it pleased them. For all the racist and idiotic follies of Trump — those in the past, and those to come — we owe him this, that he has made this truth visible at a higher order of magnification. The latter-day conservative intelligentsia was only a retrograde circle of Choate alums swapping bad jokes.
So it is with Kristol, the oracle of the broken mirror. This is not a serious man, but this is not a serious earth.