“Founding friend” David French returns to address with Curtis the visceral question in many hearts and minds, “When will things return to normal?” They explore all the questions behind the question, such as “What exactly is ‘normal?” Does it differ for different people? What picture of the past undergirds my longing?” They compare this political and social moment with past eras in American history and church history. Most importantly, they ask, “Is this the right question that God would have us ask – or is there a better question to pose in this particular moment?”
This excerpt has been edited for length and clarity.
DAVID FRENCH: This is the new political normal. And maybe what I used to consider normal was, in fact, an aberration. I’ve thought a lot about that in the context of my conservative political ideology. The conservatism I grew up with might have been the aberration and the modern American right that we’re experiencing right now is a return to the norm that existed. And that’s one thing that I’ve been kind of turning over in my mind quite a bit.
CURTIS CHANG: Well, give us a glimpse of that turning over.
DAVID FRENCH: Yeah, so I’ve been really influenced by an excellent book: The Right, the Hundred Year War for American Conservatism by Matthew Continetti. It’s really good. It takes, as the title says, a 100-year-long look at the right. And what you see is that, beginning ideologically with Goldwater, but then moving to Reagan with both the combination of ideology and disposition, was the creation of something different. It was very different from Nixon, the previous Republican president. And that this combination of an ideological libertarianism, social conservatism, and then also – I think this is very important – this hopeful, optimistic look at the American experiment in American life. You combined all of those things into a particular package at a very specific time in American history. They landed at a time of very low confidence. They’ve landed at a time of very high alarm about the future of the United States.
That’s what I grew up in. I experienced this as a movement alive with ideas. And I’ll give you an anecdote that illustrates this.
When I was in law school, Jack Kemp came to our conservative group at the law school. And he spoke to us about enterprise zones, his effort to bring economic revitalization to America’s inner cities, his effort to expand the Republican intent to include more black voters. And he talked to our group, Curtis, for three hours. And I felt like I was at the beginning of something special, if that makes sense.
Then during that time, the Berlin Wall fell during my sophomore year in college. Then the Soviet Union collapsed not long after that. And the world felt alive with possibility and you felt that you were part of a movement that had really accomplished something concretely good, even if you’re the tiniest little cog in the machine. Sure, you can’t even measure your involvement with an electron microscope, it’s so small. But you still felt a part of something. And to me, that was conservatism.
So when I saw the bad apples pop up, it was easy to say, “Every movement’s got some bad apples, but this is who we are. We’re trying to build a bigger tent. We’re trying to liberate the creativity and the industry of the American people. We have confidence in American strength and that it’s, on the whole, a force for good in the world.”
I didn’t fully grasp that the moment didn’t reflect the American right, by and large, over the course of American history. Now, I’m not going to say the American right was fully a malignant force over the course of American history. But we weren’t that far removed from a very corrupt and authoritarian version of the right in Richard Nixon. We were not that far removed from a very paranoid and authoritarian version of the right in McCarthy. So I’ve come to realize that what I was living through was the aberration, and this sense that I lived through an aberration was reinforced by how quickly the right shifted. Because if the right was thoroughly what I thought it was, it would not have shifted.
CURTIS CHANG: Well, you’re making the political version of the same point that Jesus and John Wayne makes about the church – that we are getting this resurgence of chauvinism and misogyny in recent years because that’s just a return to the historic norm in American Evangelicalism.
Iit does really point to the fact that our definition of normal is highly contingent on when we came of political age. Like you said, the 20-somethings that are growing up have a completely different sense of what normal is. We’re not even talking about the same thing when we ask when things will return to normal.
DAVID FRENCH: Oh, totally. A perfect example happened in the debate last week when Vivek Ramaswamy and Nikki Haley over foreign policy. Nikki Haley is speaking the language I have understood and have grown up with. Vivek is speaking a totally different language. It’s both new and old. It’s new in the sense that that is part of the new right, much more isolationist. But it’s also old. There’s a reason why that view is also, until recently, called paleo-conservative because it’s an older view. So it’s the melding together of old and new. And my version is stuck right in the middle between those two.
CURTIS CHANG: We forget that historically, the 1990s were an extraordinary period of time. It’s when Francis Fukuyama wrote The End of History, that we’ve reached some culminating point in ideology that actually ends ideological division. And it turns out, boy, that it was just a blip and the extreme ideological conflicts may actually be more the norm in our political history.
DAVID FRENCH: Yeah. And I think his book is often misunderstood.He was talking about the triumph of the liberal democracy model, but he also talks about what happens when liberal democracy has triumphed. They’ll fall in on themselves.
CURTIS CHANG: Yeah, he does warn that.
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