David French became something of a darling to a certain segment of the evangelical world for his strong critiques of Donald Trump during the 2016 election season. While I don’t share all of his views, let’s be honest, there’s plenty to criticize Donald Trump for. It’s completely reasonable that people were turned off by Trump.
But from what was once someone respected for taking principled stands on Trump, French seems to have gotten blown off course, particularly by his feud with Sohrab Ahmari. Today I hear from even his admirers (often privately or in closed forums or listservs) that he’s lost his way or is going too far on some issues. As one DC policy person put it, “The Ahmari-French feud made both of them worse versions of themselves.” Or as someone else tweeted, “As someone who went to school with David, he is unrecognizable now.”
Someone I know who used to work for David French and was even inspired in his own choice of careers by French, recently said to me:
Watching him self-destruct has been distressing for me, to say the least. I feel incredible gratitude and admiration for him, which has slowly but persistently decreased over the last four years. The conservative movement and religious institutions are in need of some hefty criticism so as to become more spiritually robust for the hard times that are coming and to make proper adjustments to our "new and radically changing world." But his criticism is unhinged and unhelpful.
I wrote a piece this week for the Federalist looking at French and what has happened to him. I attribute what has happened to him in part as a result of the perverse incentives of our media and social media system. Here is an excerpt:
After an online feud triggered by Sohrab Ahmari’s “Against David French-ism” piece in First Things, French ended up getting caught in a flywheel in which more extreme rhetoric gets him more attention, which then draws more attacks, which leads him in turn to even more extreme rhetoric.
Today, that flywheel has taken him to the point where he attacks other people’s character in the strongest possible terms, using words like “cruel,” “vicious,” “deceitful,” and “indefensible.” A white evangelical himself, he recently claimed that America has “become more just” as “white Protestant power has waned.”
He describes evangelical Trump supporters the way he might once have talked about Islamic terrorists abroad, as potential national security threats. He says, “The hardcore Trump evangelical base threatens our constitutional rule of law.” He tweets, “The evidence that January 6th was a Christian insurrection just grows and grows and grows. Combatting this perversion of the Gospel has to be a top priority. It’s not just heresy, it’s an active threat to the peace and security of the nation.”
It’s not clear where he goes from here, but French has certainly profited from this so far. His name is now on many people’s lips. He drives a lot of online conversation. And he’s been rewarded with a recent elevation from purely conservative media to the Atlantic.
Click through to read the whole thing.
Undoubtedly I am not immune to the same dynamics. For example, my twitter follower account had been stagnant for years. I made the decision to turn up the rhetoric level a bit, and I had a net increase of followers of about 5% in short order. Articles like these, or my previous critique of pastor Jason Meyer over a sermon on abuse, draw lots of traffic. Drier piece of longform analysis generally aren’t as popular. The best way to raise my profile would probably be to make lots of polarizing statement and attempt to start many personal feuds (the same techniques Trump used).
I’d rather not do that, but in today’s world, market dynamics will always be a temptation. I do think there are things that need to be said and people who need to be critiqued, and I don’t want to shy away from doing that. But I don’t want to let that kind of work devour me. I’m hoping that you all can help keep me on course here.
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Featured image credit: Gage Skidmore, CC BA-SA 3.0