The Atlantic looks at this frightening trend of illiberalism and a longing for authoritarian rule. Here are highlights:
By the tail end of the Obama administration, the culture war seemed lost. The religious right sued for détente, having been swept up in one of the most rapid cultural shifts in generations. Gone were the decades of being able to count on attacking its traditional targets for political advantage. In 2013, Chuck Cooper, the attorney defending California’s ban on same-sex marriage, begged the justices to allow same-sex-marriage opponents to lose at the ballot box rather than in court. Conservatives such as George Will and Rod Dreher griped that LGBTQ activists were “sore winners,” intent on imposing their beliefs on prostrate Christians, who, after all, had already been defeated.The rapidity of that cultural shift, though, should not obscure the contours of the society that the religious right still aspires to preserve: a world where women have no control over whether to carry a pregnancy to term, same-sex marriage is illegal, and gays and lesbians can be arrested and incarcerated for having sex in their own homes and be barred from raising children.
The religious right showed no mercy and no charity toward these groups when it had the power to impose its will, but when it lost that power, it turned to invoking the importance of religious tolerance and pluralism in a democratic society. That was then. The tide of illiberalism sweeping over Western countries and the election of Donald Trump have since renewed hope among some on the religious right that it might revive its cultural control through the power of the state. Inspired by Viktor Orbán in Hungary and Vladimir Putin in Russia, a faction of the religious right now looks to sectarian ethno-nationalism to restore its beliefs to their rightful primacy, and to rescue a degraded and degenerate culture. All that stands in their way is democracy, and the fact that most Americans reject what they have to offer.The past few weeks have witnessed a nasty internecine fight among religious conservatives about whether liberal democracy’s time has passed. Sohrab Ahmari, writing at First Things, attacked National Review’s David French for adhering to a traditional commitment to liberal democracy while “the overall balance of forces has tilted inexorably away from us.”Many religious conservatives see antidiscrimination laws that compel owners of public accommodations to serve all customers, laws that might compel priests to break the seal of confession if they are told of child abuse, and the growing acceptance of trans people as a kind of impending apocalypse. It is no surprise that among their co-partisans, Ahmari seems to have the upper hand here; in such circles, “Crush your enemies” almost always plays better than “The other side has rights too.”
The concerns Ahmari airs are not wholly without merit: Religious conservatives are not paranoid to imagine themselves pariahs someday in the future because of their views; it was not so long ago that liberal champions such as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton held public positions that today would be described by the left as bigotry.
In spite of their disagreements, Ahmari and French are in accord about a great deal when it comes to abortion, women’s rights, and LGBTQ rights. French’s adherence to liberal democracy is a commitment to a set of rules under which these goals can be pursued in a pluralistic society: through public discourse, the courts, and the ballot box. For Ahmari and his ilk, this is insufficient. He seems to believe not only that the state should always settle such disputes in his favor, but that it should prevent cultural and political expressions he finds distasteful.This isn’t an exaggeration. In a since-deleted tweet, Ahmari praised Alabama Public Television for refusing to air an episode of the cartoon Arthur in which the titular character’s male teacher marries another man; his attack on French was preceded by another since-deleted eruption, over Drag Queen Story Hour at a public library, in which he cried, “To hell with liberal order”; and he has since suggested the humanities should be defunded because “they may be lost to us for good.”
If this is where Ahmari and his cohort are while the GOP still controls the courts, the Senate, and the presidency, imagine what they’ll be willing to countenance should they lose them. Ahmari’s demands here outline the United States that illiberals would like to see: one that resembles Orbán’s Hungary, where rigged electoral systems ensure that political competition is minimal, the press is tightly controlled by an alliance between corporations and the state on behalf of the ruling party, national identity is defined in religious and ethnic terms, and cultural expressions are closely policed by the state to ensure compliance with that identity. It is no surprise that the vast majority of black and Latino Christians see a secular but pluralist left as more trustworthy allies than conservatives who rail against “poisonous and censorious multiculturalism,” and darkly warn of a plot to “displace American citizens.”
The illiberals see the wealthy and upper-middle classes getting married, forming families, and raising children much as they did in the 1950s, and conclude that the problem with working-class Americans is not the diminished political power relative to their bosses, but the absence of a sharp enough lash, whether from the state or from a culture that has escaped the religious right’s grasp. Gillette should be making commercials about women staying at home and fathers going off to work, not dads teaching their trans sons to shave for the first time.
This understanding also helps illuminate the right’s eruption over YouTube’s decision to demonetize (but not remove) the channel of Steven Crowder, a conservative YouTuber who called the Vox reporter Carlos Maza a “lispy queer,” among other slurs. A world in which one can refer to gay people as “lispy queers” without repercussion is one in which the illiberal right is winning the culture war, so it matters little that YouTube is no less a private business than Masterpiece Cakeshop, and has a right to define the rules for using its platform. The same sort of protests that the right decries as illiberal when deployed against right-wing speakers on college campuses are suddenly a legitimate tactic when used against Drag Queen Story Hour.
The objective here, in Ahmari’s words, is to defeat “the enemy,” not adhere to principle, and that requires de-stigmatizing anew the kind of bigotry that was once powerful enough to sway elections.
[T]he illiberal faction in this debate retains Trump as its champion precisely because the president is willing to use the power of the state for sectarian ends, despite being an exemplar of the libertinism to which it is supposedly implacably opposed, a man whose major legislative accomplishment is slashing taxes on the wealthy, and whose most significant contribution to the institution of the family is destroying thousands of them on purpose. It is power that is the motivator here, and the best that could be said for these American Orbánists is that they believe that asserting an iron grip on American politics and culture would offer the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Every authoritarian movement has felt the same way.
The question of whether the Republican Party would abandon liberal democracy for sectarian ethno-nationalism was decided in the 2016 primary, and all French and Ahmari are doing is arguing about it after the fact. The commercial and social incentives for conservative writers to succumb to Trumpism are vast. . . . And the support Ahmari has drawn suggests that the conservative intelligentsia will offer less resistance to authoritarianism than it did in 2015 and 2016.
Trump is the symptom of the Republican Party’s turn toward illiberalism, not its cause; even before Trump ran for president, some Republican elites were plotting to diminish the political power of minorities and enhance those of white voters. Whatever their disagreements, the leaders of both the populist and establishment wings of the Republican Party have concluded that they cannot be allowed to lose power simply because a majority of American voters do not wish them to wield it. The president speaks of imprisoning his political rivals, and his voters cheer. He valorizes political violence, and his followers take note.Trump’s supporters exult in the head of state attacking private citizens who demand equal rights, then wave the banner of free speech exclusively in defense of expressions of bigotry. In the end, Trump will dictate the course of his party on these matters, and his base will do whatever he gives it license to do.
Writers such as French and Ahmari cannot shape this course; they can only argue about it after the fact.[T]his faction did not abandon its faith in liberalism’s capacity to solve problems during the decades of Jim Crow. It did not cry, “To hell with the liberal order!” over mass incarceration. It did not erupt in fury over the shattering of Latino families at the border, or the Trump-made aftermath of the catastrophe in Puerto Rico. It did not question whether liberalism had failed after the first, third, fourth or 15th mass shooting at a school, or because it is typical for Americans to beg strangers on the internet for money to cover their health-care costs or after an untimely death.
The state of emergency occurred when, and only when, liberal democracy ceased to guarantee victory in the culture war. The indignity of fighting for one’s rights within a democratic framework is fine for others, but it is beneath them.
[W]hat they describe as a crisis of liberal democracy is really just them not getting exactly what they want when they want it.