‘The Cruelty Is the Point’

President Donald Trump delivers remarks at the White House in Washington, D.C., May 16, 2019. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

I frequently disagree with The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer, but late last year he wrote a piece that should resonate with any person who’s been in the crosshairs of the MAGA right. A fundamental aspect of truly Trumpist political engagement is the intentional infliction of harm on political opponents. Cruelty is the point of their interactions. That’s the purpose of their communication.

I’m making a distinction here between Trump voters and online Trumpists. There are many millions of Trump voters who are kind, decent, and generous people. They’re the salt of the earth and the backbone of their communities. I know them. They’re my friends and family members. They’re the people who help make my community a marvelous place to live. If they were the face of Trumpism, then America would be a less polarized place.

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But they’re not — not by a long shot. Donald Trump’s personal pugilism has been adopted, refined, and magnified by a legion of his supporters, and these individuals live to inflict misery. They don’t care to win an argument. They don’t care to persuade. They want to harass and swarm and mock in a carnival fun-house imitation of the online mobs generated by the woke social-justice left.

I experienced this reality (again) over the course of the last week. When Sohrab Ahmari wrote his now-famous (at least in conservative circles) essay called Against David French-ism, he made three core points. Politics is war and enmity, civility and decency are secondary values, and the right should fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good. After reading his essay, a number of people asked, But what does that look like. What do you mean when you make the case for enmity and against civility?

I’d suggest that it looks a lot like what Sohrab did to me in his essay and what Trump’s supporters did to me in response. A man committed to enmity and who believes decency is secondary repeatedly misrepresented my approach to politics and my role in critical public controversies. As I said when I answered Sohrab, he created a fictional version of me. This article acted like a signal flare, calling a truly enormous number of committed Trump supporters to spend day after day attacking me in the most vicious of terms, including by spreading many of the same falsehoods in the original piece.

This places the target of the attack in a dilemma. Allow the falsehoods to issue unchallenged, and you can see your reputation — built up over decades of writing, litigation, and activism — left in tatters in large quadrants of the conservative movement. Respond, and the attackers cheer their ability to provoke you. They thrill to their ability to trouble you enough to trigger an answer. Even worse, each public attack from the people with larger platforms triggers swarms of additional personal attacks often made in steadily darker terms, culminating in zombie elements of the alt-right lurching up to take their shots.

It’s for this reason that writers miss something fundamental when they begin their own discussion of the issues by setting aside the personal attacks. In this brave new political world, personal attacks are indispensable. A discussion of only ideas represents exactly the kind of politics the pugilists now abhor. It’s a time of enmity,” remember? This is the illiberal right in action, and if you think it’s kinder, gentler, or better than the illiberal left, I’d suggest you spend a few days in its crosshairs.

But it’s all for the sake of the Highest Good, right? And if they have to create a straw man so that a real man can serve (again) as a hate object for the gutter right, then so be it. But when does the cruelty end? After all, they’ve mapped out a goal for the culture war that they cannot possibly achieve. Thus, the commitment to enmity is indefinite, and its indecency is perpetual. The illiberal right will snarl its way into oblivion. Let’s pray that the collateral damage from their inevitable demise is not too great.

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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