In May of last year, David French of the National Review wrote a short piece denouncing evangelicals who support Donald Trump. People who profess Christianity but ignore the president’s flagrant and unrepentant sinfulness, French wrote, are “collapsing the Evangelical moral witness”:
We are not told, however, to compromise our moral convictions for the sake of earthly relief, no matter how dire the crisis. We are not told to rationalize and justify sinful actions to preserve political influence or a popular audience. We are not told that the ends of good policies justify silence in the face of sin.
Last week, French published a different sort of warning to evangelicals—a warning that leftists are now making conservative Christians targets to mobilize against, as the necessary “despised ‘other'” that populism requires. He compared it to “old-school southern populism,” which was “focused directly and intentionally against black southerners.” And then he started to write about contemporary Trumpian populism:
Much ink has been spilled analyzing Trump’s populism. And the for/against dynamic on the right is alive and well. If Trump’s appeal were based mainly around his calls for tariffs, his desire to retreat from the Middle East, or even his immigration restrictionism, he likely would have crashed and burned in the general election. Each of those positions is contentious within the Republican community, much less the nation at large.
Instead, his core appeal is built around his combativeness. He can flip from position to position — govern as a traditional Republican in 2017 and then shift to economic populism and military withdrawal in 2018 — but so long as he fights the common enemy, he retains his hold on the base.
And then, right there, French moved on to complaining about the left, without ever pausing to name the “common enemy” against whom the current Republican government has organized itself.
Part of this is yet another example of David Graeber’s ever-relevant theory of bullying, in which the reaction of the people who’ve been targeted is used to justify having targeted them. To talk about whom Trump’s followers have been mobilized against would get in the way of the story of victimization French needs to tell: it’s less impressive to complain about the “attack on Karen Pence for teaching part-time at a Christian ministry” if you mention the anti-gay policies that were the substance of the controversy; it’s more shocking to talk about the MAGA teens as “students at a Catholic boys’ school” than as whooping supporters of the president decked out in his rally gear.
Another part of it, though, is a fundamental rhetorical shiftiness among the right-wing writers who do business as Trump foes. It’s the same maneuver Ross Douthat used to warn New York Times readers that the case for impeachment is weak, in a column that pretended the emoluments clause and Trump’s other financial entanglements don’t exist, or the maneuver Bret Stephens used to brush off the evidence against Brett Kavanaugh while praising Trump for defending him.
They speak against Trump until it’s time to make a meaningful choice between the president and his political opponents—at which time the facts become unimportant. Given a choice between Trump and losing, they’re for Trump.
Last year, warning evangelicals against capitulating to Trump, French wrote:
Soon enough, the “need” to defend Trump will pass. He’ll be gone from the American scene. Then, you’ll stand in the wreckage of your own reputation and ask yourself, “Was it worth it?”
Back then, he declared the answer was “No.” Now that the moment is closer at hand, though, he’d apparently rather avoid the answer altogether.