- He’s also a lawyer, free speech advocate, Iraq War veteran, and an early Never Trumper. His new book, “Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation,” was released this week.
- French spoke with Business Insider Columnist Anthony L. Fisher about the book, the fraying of free speech principles on both the left and right, the redefining of racism, and why he thinks the US is in such danger of literally coming apart.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
David French is a Senior Editor at The Dispatch, which launched in 2019 and describes itself as providing “fact-based conservative news.” French is also a columnist for Time magazine, and previously spent four years as a writer at the conservative magazine National Review.
A principled social conservative, free speech advocate, lawyer, and Iraq War veteran, French was an early Never Trumper. His new book, “Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation,” was released this week.
From his home in Tennessee, French spoke via Skype with with Business Insider Columnist Anthony L. Fisher about the book, the fraying of free speech principles on both the left and right, the redefining of racism, and why he thinks the US is in such danger of literally coming apart.
This interview has been edited for style, length, and clarity.
You’ve got a chapter on acceptable discourse and the moving of the Overton window. Can you talk a little bit about how you think that window has changed in recent years on the left and the right?
For those people that don’t know what the Overton window is, it is a term for the bounds of acceptable discourse. That there is a window that reflects where acceptable discourse happens in the US. There’s an Overton window that exists on the right, and one on the left. And you can’t go out of your window. What that means is in some areas, the two sides just can’t really speak anymore. The possibility of compromise is often completely squelched because the very act of engaging in a compromise moves you out of your window and moves you out of your tribe. And you’re sort of cast into the outer darkness.
One of the areas where the Overton window has moved on the left is gender identity. Arguments or discussions that you might have five years ago, in parts of the left, you can not have anymore. On the right, one of the areas where I say the Overton window has moved a ton is in arguments around gun rights and gun control. The right’s activists and the base used to be far more divided about things like gun rights. But now there is a stampede towards a further and further libertarian position on gun rights. And so what ends up happening is the two sides just can’t even connect at all on these really important cultural issues.
One counter-argument is these are people just holding true to their principles. If you’re on the left and you believe that there are innumerable numbers of genders, then to argue otherwise is to engage in bigotry. And if you’re on the right and you’re for certain gun regulations, you’d basically consign yourself to being a RINO (Republican In Name Only). But the activists on both sides would argue that they’re the principled ones, they’re not the squishes.
A lot of times if you’re talking about politics, someone will say so-and-so is divisive. What they mean by divisive is that they disagree with me. So the argument in my book isn’t, “Can’t we all just agree?” The argument is we can hold two convictions at the same time. You can hold a specific conviction about gender identity. At the same time you can hold a particular conviction about pluralism and free speech, rather than treat a discussion as outside of the Overton window, where you cannot have it. You can have the moral conviction and yet engage, extend, expand the Overton window to where you can engage with people on the opposite side of the aisle.
That’s the key issue here. It isn’t can’t we all be more politically moderate â€” in the sense of sort of joining around a centre-right or centre-left vision of the United States. It’s can we create a country in which all of these really diverse communities â€” some of them centered around real convictions that might be on the far-right or the far-left â€” can’t we have a country and a culture that accommodates that?
That’s where I get back to Federalist Number 10, James Madison’s early vision of American pluralism in both the dedication to individual liberty, and also to communal self-governance. Federalism, in other words. The most relevant government should be the government closest to you. And right now the most relevant government in many people’s lives is the government farthest from them, the federal government.
Losing the culture of free speech
In your writing and on your Twitter feed, I’ve long found you to be a pretty fair operator when it comes to the principle of freedom of speech. But in the chapter on losing free speech culture, you don’t really mention the right-wing threats to free speech, particularly the bans on Palestinian activism or the Trump campaign’s frivolous lawsuits against media outlets.
In the book I spent a lot of time talking about the attacks on Colin Kaepernick and the kneeling NFL players. To me, that was one of the most salient examples of how the right tried to exert its own cancel culture. And I juxtapose it with the right’s support for James Damore, the software engineer at Google who put out a libertarian-influenced document about how Google could increase diversity without engaging in, for example, gender discrimination. He made some arguments about why there might be fewer women in the hiring pools. If you’re at all familiar with conservative or libertarian thought regarding diversity, and regarding the reasons why there are disparities in the workplace, it would have read as a pretty anodyne document. But he was fired and conservatives said, “Look, that’s cancel culture. Look at the intolerance of the left.”
And then you have a situation where a football player kneels quietly, doesn’t hurt anybody, and a few others do as well. And the President of the United States thunders, “Fire them!” And rather than saying, “No, that’s cancel culture. We need to support a culture of free speech,” thousands and thousands and thousands of people at those rallies and millions of people online cheered, “Yes, fire them.”
One of the points that I make is you’re not part of the solution if you’re going to find reasons to punish your political opponents for their speech and reasons to protect the political speech of your friends. I can have my core convictions regarding foreign policy, regarding domestic policy, regarding cultural issues like abortion or gender identity. But the instant I try to shut off or close down the body politic to my opponents, that’s the instant that we began to unacceptably raise the stakes of political conflict in this country where what’s at stake is not just the policy position, but the very structure of our constitutional republic itself.
In a current like corporate or academic situation, do you think even the mainstream conservative beliefs on abortion or guns could be discussed without generating tremendous controversy or HR complaints?
In some places, no, they can’t be discussed without generating tremendous controversy. But here’s the thing: this is not new. We kind of have a recency bias that if it’s beyond the memory of Twitter, it didn’t happen. But I was in law school from 1991 to 1994. And the blowback on campus for just conventional social conservative positions was enormous. In some easy, much worse than it is now for conservative students. It’s just that nobody really knew about it because nobody was tweeting it with a hashtag. Now we the instant national access of social media, when we can find out within minutes,whether some kid had a MAGA hat knocked off their head in Des Moines. But in ideologically monolithic communities, a lot of this hostility to dissent is not all that new. We’re more aware of it, but it’s not new.
Defining, and undefining, racism
This is a quote from your book: “The essence of bigotry is to look at the colour of a person’s skin, and on that basis alone, make malicious judgments about their character or worth.” Over the past few months, the work of antiracist writers like Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo have argued differently, that race is paramount and to ignore skin colour is in fact, racist. Do you think the Overton window has moved to the point that the definition of racism has been irrevocably changed in American culture?
No, it’s splitting. The Overton window on the right does not have room for the Kendi or DiAngelo definition of racism. If you start walking around in certain right-wing circles waving Robin Di Angelo’s book and talking about white fragility in the terms that she does, nobody’s listening to you. And similarly if you walk into some spaces in the left and you say, “A person of any race can be a bigot. A person of any race can be a racist,” they will flat out deny that because their definition of racism is fundamentally different.
As I wrote in the book, Sarah Jeong was hired by The New York Times as part of the editorial board. A lot of her earlier tweets came out that were just viciously denigrating of white people. My position was that those tweets are racist. And calling them racist doesn’t mean that the racism of that person is of the same magnitude and danger of the racism say of a member of the alt-right. It’s a matter of degree, not of kind. And I had a lot of people write back to me and respond to me and say, “No, that’s not racism. Racism has to be connected to either present or historical power to be called racism.” Well, that’s not the definition that most people grew up with. And it’s one of the ways in which I point out that we’re beginning to live in these separate communities where a word like racism doesn’t have the same meaning in Brooklyn as it has in Franklin, Tennessee, for example. And that’s only been exacerbated in the last several months.
This is sort of the very downstream effect of clustering, and like-minded communities separating from each other geographically. It means that we learned to talk to each other and we don’t learn to talk outside of each other. And what happens is we lose a common language. One of the things I’ve tried to do, especially in my writings on race, is to bridge that gap by trying to shed the conversation as much as possible of these various buzzwords that don’t have a common meaning anymore.
Talking about power and bigotry, I’m reminded of a sentiment that emerged after the
Charlie Hebdo shootings
, when journalists were cowering under their desks in fear for their lives. Though the magazine had lampooned Islam and other religions, at that moment, it was the terrorists who had the power.
Power is both contextual and historical. There are people who belong to historically marginalised groups, but in a given context, may have a ton of power. But that doesn’t change the fact that they’re historically marginalised, that they belong to a group that’s historically marginalised, and that many other members of that same group are historically marginalised.
Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina has given pretty powerful personal testimony of his experiences. On one hand, he’s one of 100 senators in the United States Senate. He has an enormous amount of power. On the other hand, he has been in contexts that somebody like me, a suburban white guy from Tennessee, is rarely going to experience, like some of the dangers from unexpected encounters with police, or unnecessarily hostile encounters with police. In that circumstance, the historical weight of America’s past sins comes down on him, even though he’s a senator. Power is both rooted in history and rooted in present context. So in the very moment of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the most powerful people in that room were the terrorists.
It reminds me of something my commander told me in Iraq. He was talking about a village that would otherwise be allied with us, but it was under the control of Al-Qaeda And he said something that I’ll never forget: “In a room of a hundred people, what do you call the one man in there with a gun? A majority.”
How America comes apart
There’s a fictitious interlude in the middle of the book that deals with Calexit and Texit, the secessions of California and Texas, which brings about the dissolution of the country. And it seems frighteningly believable.
It feels like the coming Supreme Court confirmation hearings could be one of those triggering events.
I think we’re on a cycle of continual escalation. Now, I’m not saying that we’re on the verge of dissolving, but I did write those fictional scenarios for a very specific purpose. I wanted to take the conversation out of the sort of rarefied air of “This study says this” and “This study says that,” and explore how the things I talked about [in the book] would look like in the real world.
Imagine you’ve got a pile of wood of dry wood, and you’re just throwing more and more kerosene on it. If somebody comes around with the match, the whole thing can go up. What’s happening is every single new cycle, if there’s a choice to escalate and punch the other side in the mouth, or de-escalate and seek compromise, time and again, we’re seeing escalation. And sometimes the escalation, oddly enough, is based on the presumption of the escalation of the other side.
A lot of Republicans said in 2016, “If we’re close to an election, don’t have a hearing and a vote on a Supreme Court nominee.” Flat out. It wasn’t conditioned on when there’s divided government. It was flat out. Rubio said if a Republican was president, I would say the same thing. Lindsey Graham said after the primary starts, we should put a hold on nominations. Ted Cruz said we haven’t done this in 80 years, referring to this exact situation. I can go down the line with Republicans who said flat out they wouldn’t do this. And then the time comes to keep your promise, in a time of extreme national volatility and anger, and you say, no, because I can’t trust the Democrats’ word, so therefore I’m not going to keep my word.
So you have this preemptive escalation based on the expectation of the anger and failure of the other side and it puts you in a sort of a doom loop of escalation. If you believe that there’s no cost to polarization, that people get angry but at the end of the day, they’re going to swallow their defeat, take their lumps, and move on.
My argument is that’s ahistorical nonsense, that there is nothing so unique about the United States of America that you can’t push people to want to leave this place to dissolve it. In fact, we were born into disillusion. We were born in a separation. The majority and the more powerful, more wealthy side of the British empire, pushed the colonists. The colonists were smaller and less powerful, but they said, “We’re going to risk conflict with a world superpower to get out of this.” And they did it for good reasons, for individual liberty. In 1861, the South did it for evil reasons. But in 1861, you had a geographically contiguous, relatively powerful, sub-part of the US that completely turned its back on the democratic process.
I just think we don’t have a better human nature than we had before. We don’t have a greater willingness to swallow injustice than we had before. And if we keep pushing people and pushing people and pushing people, you cannot assume that they won’t break. That’s one of the reasons why I wrote the book and wrote the scenarios. I want people to have those scenarios in their mind as they’re walking through politics. Not just, “Will my policy be enacted,” but “Will this approach that I’m taking help divide or unite this country that we love.
The Justice Department just designated several cities, including New York, as anarchist-run and threatened to cut off federal funding. It’s one thing for Trump and his hardcore followers to fan the flames of the culture war. As a lawyer and conservative, what do you make of the Attorney General Bill Barr participating in something like this?
The Trump funding threat is just flat out unlawful. It just is. And in a functioning body politic, an attorney general would say, “Mr. President, this is unlawful. I’m not going to participate in it. And I’ll resign if you make me.” But we’re not in a very well-functioning body politic right now. And, and the priority for all too many people is, am I punching the other side in the mouth? So there’s a lot of applause for things like this unlawful executive order, because it’s punching the other side of the mouth.
Now in all likelihood, if there’s any concrete action taken beyond the Department of Justice designation, the City of New York can go straight into court and get an injunction. But why do we need to rely exclusively on the courts, which are now increasingly in contention, to protect the constitution? Everybody swears the oath who is in government. Each one of them has an independent obligation to uphold the oath. And calling New York an anarchic jurisdiction, is it just laughable. There might be areas in which they’re having difficulty maintaining order, but a city of what, eight million, nine million people? Anarchist jurisdiction?
It’s laughable, but it’s red meat for a certain part of the base. The part of the base that actually controls the GOP right now. And they love it. It’s owning the libs, it’s fighting back, it’s punching back twice as hard. It’s all of the dysfunctions rolled into one of these actions that sort of encapsulates our dysfunction.
There’s no Evan McMullin this year. There isn’t even a Gary Johnson. What does a principled, right-of-centre voter like yourself do in 2020?
Well, I’m definitely not voting for Donald Trump. I think the two viable options for conservatives who’ve said no to Trump, that’s vote third party or vote for Joe Biden. I prefer the third party option for a very specific reason, and that is, I don’t agree with Joe Biden’s agenda.
So if hundreds of thousands of conservatives vote for Joe Biden, those are just numbers in his ledger. They’re not divided out as to not supporting Biden’s agenda, but opposing Trump. And Democrats would rightfully look at that vote total and say, “That’s for us. That’s for our agenda. That’s for Biden.”
One of the virtues of the third party vote or write-in is it’s a quantifiable way of saying, “I don’t agree with either of these people.” And there is an X number of people who will vote in this election who are alienated from this binary choice. And I think that’s an important metric. When you’re talking about me, until 2016, when I didn’t vote for either Hillary Clinton or Biden, I’d never not voted Republican. I voted for every Republican nominee. So I’m the kind of vote that they should feel like they don’t even have to work for. As a staunch social conservative, I should be the easiest vote in the world.
So when you’re removing votes like mine from the ledger, it’s a concrete loss for a GOP nominee. I’m a typical Republican voter and a typical Republican voter is withholding his vote, that’s minus one in the Trump column. And by adding a third party vote, it’s a plus one in the column of alienated Americans who are deeply dissatisfied with what the two parties have become.
The GOP after Trump
After the election, Trump is either an ex-president or soon-to-be a lame duck. What comes after next? What’s the Republican party after Trump?
There’s three options. One: He wins. And then the Republican Party after Trump, barring a total disaster beyond what we’ve seen in 2020, you’re talking about a party remade in his image in much the same way that the party was remade in Ronald Reagan’s image after his successful two terms. If Trump wins. the bond between him and the GOP base will be doubly cemented because he’s even more of an underdog this time than last time. It would be seen as an extraordinary triumph.
Two: If it’s a very narrow loss, it’s still a Trumpy party. Maybe not as much devotion to Trump, the man, but I think a lot of devotion still to that nationalist populist outlook. Because the idea would be that either he was the right message but the wrong messenger, which the non-Trump family heirs in the party will say. Then the Trump family heirs would say, he had the right message and was the right messenger. He was stabbed in the back by those darn Never Trumpers in the media.
And the last one is if he loses decisively, all bets are off. Every part of the Republican coalition would have an opportunity to vie for control, including the changing Reaganite wing, the nationalist populist wing, all the various strands of the Republican coalition would be fighting for dominance. And we wouldn’t know who won until the primaries are decided in 2024.
That hurt my head hearing you cite Reagan. Because that means there could potentially be quarter-century of Trumpism ahead.
That’s an awful thought. The dedication of one of our two great political parties to a nationalist pugilist style that has no regard for personal character, I think would be disastrous for our country.