What Happened to David French?

What Happened to David French? July 29, 2021

For months, now going on years, I’ve been trying not to talk about David French. Of course, I was aware of his work. I couldn’t not be in the circles where I run. These days, it seems every other week someone asks me the same question: “What happened to David French?”

By which they mean “What happened to the David French we used to know? What happened to the culture warrior, the free speech guy, the guy who went to court with Mike Adams? What happened to the National Review columnist whose takes we always looked forward to?”

It’s a good question. It’s a question I’ve been asking myself for a while.

It’s not that I’ve always agreed in toto with French’s critics. Much as I sympathized with Sohrab Ahmari’s instincts in their debate, I’m no more convinced that the polity would be better served by King Frank the Catholic Monarch than by French’s naive classical liberalism. To say the Catholic integralist project lacks a certain…cohesion, is putting it mildly. Still, at the time, I resonated with Ahmari’s sense of urgency and outrage, ill as it served him from an optical standpoint against French’s lawyerly polish. A reviewer covering their clash for Rod Dreher’s blog noted fascinatingly that there was a decided generational split in the audience, with Gen Zs and millennials breaking Ahmari while Gen X and boomers broke French. Pugnacious and disorganized as Ahmari was, it was as if he was tuned into a frequency that French’s establishment ears simply couldn’t, or wouldn’t, pick up. This was most famously brought out in the discussion of Drag Queen Story Hour, which French matter-of-factly said had to be tolerated as part of the “blessings of liberty.” (The phrase has since become a running joke on Twitter as new cultural abominations roll around.) French’s insistence on a “first come first serve” approach for public venues raised the obvious question: Is there anywhere he would draw a line? If not at Drag Queen Story Hour, then where?

What happened? When people ask, my answer generally boils down to “It’s complicated.” The common answer is “Trump broke him.” There’s truth to this, but I believe the root cause traces back to French’s truly harrowing encounter with the alt-right. I vividly remember that period, because at the time I was vigorously engaged in defending French against the sort of critics who believed writing for National Review automatically made you a sellout. I was also trying to warn people that yes, there really was an alt-right. Case in point, look at what happened to David French: For the sin of adopting a black child, he and his family were deluged with verbal abuse, vile memes, and even death threats. 

It was a shock to his system. It was a shock to the system for conservatives generally. I remember the days when it was just assumed that conservative pundits only ever got unhinged hate mail from the left flank. I had always pictured the conservative version of “hate mail” as a wonky rant on why you need to read Thomas Sowell already, signed by your resident pointy-headed College Republican. The emergence of the alt-right changed all of that. It turned over rocks and showed things crawling underneath that I’d never even conceived of, and neither had French.

And then Trump arrived. A loose cannon, a fluke, a giant orange enigma who seemed to attract weird fringe voters like a magnet—including the alt-right. Of course, this was a marriage that wouldn’t last. The bloom of first love faded quickly, and within a few years the same people who’d hailed Trump as a god were denouncing him as a normie centrist. But the connection was made. And French paid a price for vocally adding his voice to the Never Trump chorus.

At the time, I, too, was firmly Never Trump. I watched the primaries through my fingers, groaning in disbelief as Trump bluffed and blustered his way to a majority while a bench full of bright, capable candidates clambered over each other for second place. I likewise groaned when prominent old guard evangelicals lined up behind him, calling him a “baby Christian,” etc. How could James Dobson be that stupid? James Dobson?

David French was asking the same questions, emitting the same groans. And at the time, I picked up what he was laying down. If he had ever actually launched the presidential campaign he was toying with, I might even have voted for him. What he felt, I felt. The bewilderment. The shock. The jadedness. The surreal upside-down picture of trusted Christian leaders who’d once fought for a Moral Majority now trading in their principles for a mess of pottage. My own parents were Never Trump as well, but I sympathized with other people of my generation who parted ways with their own parents, confused to find themselves disagreeing with the very people who had taught them to believe “character matters.”

And then Trump won. And so began the Age of Trump. And over the next four years, we all came to know Trump for what he was. Or, rather, what he was not. He was not alt-right. He wasn’t even on the right in various ways (although he cared enough about pleasing a right-leaning base to let himself be guided towards some policies that weren’t that bad, actually). He was also, I realized, not really a racist. Time and again I would find myself in an odd position where I was defending a guy I intensely disliked, but the fact that I disliked the guy wasn’t the point. The point was that people repeatedly rushed to put the most extreme, most malicious spin on the words he was actually saying, which on closer inspection typically were bumbling at worst. And in some cases, such as the “very fine people” speech, were middle-of-the-road speechifying on any fair-minded reading. 

But that was the problem. The Trump effect hadn’t just messed with the minds of the people who fell in line to vote for him. It had messed with the minds of at least a fair portion of the people who had opposed him. It was as if they had gotten stuck in 11/10 mode and couldn’t seem to get unstuck. Trump lived rent-free in their heads, their opinion columns, their Twitter feeds. Every time Trump spoke or tweeted, it was a national emergency. By extension, the Trump voter base became a subject of intense focus. A whole cottage industry of op-eds endlessly psychologizing The Trump Voter sprang up overnight. 

This was where French came in. A perfect storm of factors had conspired to make him the poster boy for this new post-Trump breed of opinion columnist. Perhaps partly as a function of his brush with the alt-right, it was as if he had developed an allergy to expressions of shock and outrage when directed right-left. Picking up the (admittedly overwrought) analogy some made between voting Trump and storming the cockpit of United-93, French built a narrative where the plane had never been crashing in the first place. It was just going through “a bit of turbulence.” To say otherwise was to give in to panic, to become “fearful.” In this narrative, “fearful Christians” thus became his new focus of complaint, creating a kind of silent caste system—French, a calm, rational, intellectual Christian, was up here, while fearful panicky evangelicals were way, way down there.

I had a number of friends who voted for Trump. Some of my best friends, even. But all our lives just…went on. I still loved them. We still shared fellowship. We didn’t argue over politics. They were the same decent, kind, salt-of-the-earth people I’d always known, people without a vicious racist bone in their bodies. They’d just fallen for a snake-oil candidate who didn’t deserve them.

That was where I sat by the time 2020 hoved into view. Saddened? Certainly. Jaded? For sure. Partly hoping Trump might lose so that we could just call cut on the whole reality show? That too. I hadn’t voted for him in 2016 and wasn’t about to vote for him now. Not my circus, not my elephants.

But was I still at an 11/10? Was I occupied day and night with friends of mine who were planning to vote Trump, some for the first time? Unless they made themselves obnoxious enough to force me to think about them (which a few people on FaceBook did), not really.

Then COVID happened. George Floyd happened. January 6th happened. And with each new news cycle, David French’s takes just kept getting worse. Legitimate concerns about the tradeoffs of masking and distancing became “rebellion” and “lack of neighbor love.” “Evangelical vaccine hesitancy” became a new invitation to psychoanalysis in op-ed form. Once again, French had a particular type of evangelical in his cross-hairs. Pieces like this Capitol riots analysis exemplify the sort of conflation that’s come to typify his brand, mixing true statements like “America is not lost if Trump loses” with false statements like “The left does not hate you [conservatives].” Yet both “America’s survival depends on Trump” and “The left hates conservatives” are binned as “enabling lies” in French’s categorization scheme. 

This is particularly head-scratching given French’s record representing beleaguered Christians in court. Combined with his strange inability to even so much as say “Yes, of course drag queen story hours are really bad,” the cumulative impression one gets is that French’s post-Trump process has been a gradual reveal of the libertarian under the mask all along. Owen Strachan, in his Patheos response piece, cites as his first “red flag” with French the fact that French enjoyed Game of Thrones and told people not to be prudish and uptight about the famously p*rn-adjacent show. Some might say this was random or silly of Strachan. But it’s not so random when contextualized by French’s clash with Ahmari. It was difficult to gauge whether the loss of culture to the hyper-sexual revolution, and now the post-modern sexual revolution, even bothered French all that much. Yet much of his distress at the Trump presidency ostensibly stemmed from Trump’s crudeness, lewd talk, and general p*rnifying effect. Perhaps French should consider that the same culture which brought us Game of Thrones brought us Donald Trump.

Meanwhile, pieces like this took French’s legitimately horrific experiences of alt-right abuse and put them in a blender with various perceived “microaggressions” his family had experienced after adopting their daughter. He concluded that systemic racism was an inescapable reality conservatives simply needed to deal with. At the time, I noted this piece with a weary sigh, even as I also went on to commend moments where French was willing to acknowledge legitimate uses of force in white-on-black officer-civilian encounters, like  the case of Ma’Khia Bryant. Takes like that latter piece reminded me that even post-Trump, French could still be clear-headed and fair-minded. But I anticipated a mixed bag going forward. Which brings me to the present day, and the piece that finally made me say “Okay fine, I’ll write a thing about David French.” 

The topic was the recent upheaval at David Platt’s church over his perceived “wokeward” drift, together with his colleague pastor Mike Kelsey. Congregants were troubled by comments both pastors had made taking systemic racism and “white privilege” for granted. French gives one quote from Platt instructing the church that “we need to see that racialization is our problem. It’s all of our problem. We subtly, almost unknowingly, contribute to it.” 

Another example of the sort of comment that’s given cause for concern, which French did not quote, comes from this June 2020 interview with Kelsey in the wake of the George Floyd killing. Lest anyone accuse me of lifting these remarks out of context, here’s the full surrounding Q & A:

I want to take a step back and talk about your feelings these last few weeks, because a lot of people have been on the internet, but they may not have friends that are African American so they haven’t had these conversations in person. I want you to share a little bit of what it has felt like to experience these last few weeks. 

A lot of people have asked that and unfortunately it feels the same as it has felt, for me personally, since Trayvon Martin was killed. That was a real turning point for me, and a lot of people will say that. We knew injustice was real, we knew racism was real, all these things, but that was a unique thing. Partially because now we have video and social media. So it’s a mix. I was telling a mentor the other day that I feel like I keep vacillating in between sadness, anger, resignation, and resolve. To be totally honest, it’s difficult for me sometimes not to just torch all white people, specifically white evangelicals and Christians. What keeps me from that is meeting and being in community with so many white brothers and sisters. Jesus never gives us permission to hold people in contempt. Even people who are straight up explicitly racist. The Lord challenged me a couple years ago with this question: do you want to be helpful, or do you just want to be heard? That was a humbling moment for me, to ask what my role as a Christian and as a pastor was. I’m not just trying to add to the noise. I want to be a helpful voice. Sometimes that helpful voice is tense, and it needs to be. But at all times, that voice needs to be governed by the character of Christ and the fruit of the Spirit. So I’ve been wrestling through how I’ve been feeling. The dominant feeling has been anger, but I’ve been trying to submit that anger to the Spirit so it can be productive and redemptive anger, not just out here going in on everybody.

Sure, Kelsey labels his angry feelings unhelpful, but let’s be honest: Would anyone give a mulligan to a white pastor who articulated that he was “wrestling” with such feelings towards “black evangelicals and Christians,” say in the wake of a destructive BLM riot? No, and rightly so. But if we want to be fair-minded, the denying of mulligans in such cases should cut both ways. 

However, in French’s frame, Platt and Kelsey are unquestionably in the right, and the complaining congregants are unquestionably in the wrong, betraying both their Christianity and their conservatism. Here, as an example of how they’ve “abandoned the whole counsel of Scripture,” French decides to make an abrupt foray into exegesis. To prove the biblical soundness of the principle that people are responsible for their ancestors’ sins, he takes as his proof-text 2 Samuel 21:

During the reign of King David, Israel was afflicted with three years of famine. When David “sought the face of the Lord” regarding the crisis, God said, “There is bloodguilt on Saul and on his house.” (Saul had conducted a violent campaign against the Gibeonites, in violation of a covenant made with the Israelites many centuries before.)

Saul was king before David, and God was punishing Israel years after Saul’s regime because of Saul’s sin. It was the next king, David’s, responsibility to make things right. And so David turned to the remaining Gibeonites and said, “What shall I do for you? And how shall I make atonement, that you may bless the heritage of the Lord?” 

The Gibeonites’ request was harsh—to hand over seven of Saul’s descendants for execution. David fulfilled their request, and “God responded to the plea for the land.” 

Note the underlying conception of justice here: Israel remained responsible for its former leader’s sins, and they were required to make amends.

Pardon my French, as it were: What the actual hell? As Neil Shenvi commented on Twitter, I am likewise no theology Ph.D., but my spidey sense tells me that King David’s coldly pragmatic capture and surrender of seven innocent men to be lynched by a vengeful mob is perhaps, just perhaps, not the most helpful model for Understanding Racial Justice in 21st-century America. To say this passage is cryptic and murky would be an understatement. We don’t know by what means David was “seeking the face of the Lord,” nor by what means he was given his information. And the concluding line that “God was intreated for the land” after the lynchings (meaning He broke the drought) could just as well be a narrative imposition of causation onto mere correlation. (And yes, I’m familiar with the alternative reading in which God’s relenting is actually tied to David’s eventual burial of the men by request of their grieving mother. I find this thoroughly unconvincing as far as how the narrator is shaping the sequence.)

Of course, I’m aware my own alternative interpretation opens the door for errancy. But let’s even waive that. Suppose the passage is inerrant and God really did directly demand the human sacrifice of Saul’s sons for Saul’s crimes (which given God’s repeated express hatred for human sacrifice seems quite tenuous, but again, we’ll put that aside). Where is French going with all this? There’s a reason why even your most rock-ribbed inerrantist won’t point to hard passages as if they have “application for today.” While we’re at it, why don’t we call up the Canaanite slaughters and see what contemporary insights could be gleaned therefrom? Or really any passage where God allows one nation to devastate another, plundering, pillaging and taking prisoners. If that’s the sort of “biblical text” one is going to insist on talking about when one talks about “justice” and “reparations,” let’s just admit that “reparations” under that template looks a lot more like Sherman’s March than a white church setting aside a portion of its yearly offertory for Head Start (or whatever it is Duke Kwon and Greg Thompson are “working on” behind the scenes while they write long-winded, sanctimonious books with no thesis). 

French makes a few other wild stabs at “biblical applications” which I won’t address, since Owen Strachan has handled them neatly in his aforementioned response. TL;DR, they don’t mean what French thinks they mean. Look, I’m a generalist myself. I get the desire to try on multiple hats. If French wants to dip his toe in biblical exegesis when he’s not being a lawyer or a pundit, he can have at it. But when he cherry-picks sans context, as he does here, then it’s not mean-spirited or uncharitable to point this out.

I haven’t even touched the other issues Strachan also addresses, like French’s assumption of DEI (disparity equals injustice), which is simply stated as bare assertion, as if this hasn’t been a subject of intense ongoing debate for [checks notes] decades. I saw on Twitter someone dismissing Strachan’s response as “microwaved Thomas Sowell” merely because Strachan quoted an apt passage from Discrimination & Disparities. No doubt, had an African-American writer quoted James Cone in praise of the piece, nobody would have criticized him for employing “microwaved James Cone.” But in any case, who cares? If an argument is old, or if it’s been made by a popular writer, why does it matter? Is the argument sound or isn’t it? But hey, this is Twitter, so.

Now, does any of this excuse actual racism in our systems, to the extent that it exists and is perpetuated by bad actors? Of course not. None of this excuses cops who abuse their authority to stop, frisk, shake down and/or attack minorities. I’ve written on this subject at length at my Substack here. (However, as I say in that piece, and as French himself might even agree, the systemic problems in our police departments are too deep and too wide to be conveniently labeled “racism” and treated with increased diversity training.) It’s also worth knowing about cases like Flowers vs. Mississippi, where it appears that a prosecutor was able single-handedly to create a Kafka-esque nightmare for Flowers, a black man, by unconstitutionally striking blacks from his juries. Each time the verdict was reversed, the case was retried, and the same prosecutor kept making the same move. He dragged the process out for a total of 23 years until it finally worked its way up to SCOTUS in 2019, and Mississippi dropped the case. So here, as with individual corrupt cops, we have a clearly corrupt public servant who chose to make life hell for a black man out of what appears to be thinly veiled bona fide racism.  

Cases like this are good to bring into the light and discuss honestly. But they still don’t prove all the sweeping claims French would like to make. A pundit of his caliber and status shouldn’t be allowed to skate by on the surface with such an outsized proportion of assertion to deep analysis.

And yet, French is capable of such analysis. Which is precisely the source of confusion and disappointment for many of us who are now criticizing him. We wish him no ill. Many of us, including me, stood by him when his family was under attack. And when our mutual friend Mike Adams tragically committed suicide last year, I commended French in The American Conservative for not abandoning his friend while ghouls danced on the fresh grave, even as I recognized the additional tragedy that was the rift in the two men’s partnership, and by extension their friendship. At these times, I’ve praised French as a man of personal integrity. I certainly don’t regret doing that. I thought it was true. I still do. 

But it’s 2021 now. And we’re just tired. We’re just disappointed. We’d just like to know where David French is, and what this writer has done with his body.

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