Recently Sohrab Ahmari, op-ed editor of The New York Post, saw something online that left him shaken. “This is demonic,” he tweeted. “To hell with liberal order.”
His moral indignation led him to write a much discussed essay in the religious journal First Things. Castigating conservatives who see a possibility of coexistence with the left, he called for a religious Reconquista of American politics. The right, he argued, should “fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square reordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.”
The post that set Ahmari off was not, needless to say, about the spike in miscarriages among detained migrants, or the prenuptial agreement allowing Donald Trump to cut off support for his daughter Tiffany if she joined the military. It was about Drag Queen Story Hour, a public event series founded in 2015 in which drag queens read to children and lead singalongs.
Ahmari’s jeremiad launched a civil war among conservative intellectuals. It revealed a growing crackup of the so-called fusionist consensus on the modern right, which had long united social conservatives, economic libertarians and foreign policy hawks. Some of this debate is serious. But a not insignificant part of the reactionary intelligentsia is obsessing over the following question: How long can conservatives tolerate a political system that victimizes them by allowing Drag Queen Story Hour to exist?
Does it sound like I’m kidding? I’m not. “The effort to ban Drag Queen Story Hour starts when we have the courage to clarify the moral stakes,” Ramona V. Tausz wrote in a follow-up First Things piece. “This requires casting off the civility creeds of the woke liberal left.”
This is clarifying. There are times where the rights of religious believers and those of a pluralistic society conflict: when, for example, conservative Christian bakers are asked to make wedding cakes for gay couples, or ultra-Orthodox Jewish parents are ordered, against their own convictions, to vaccinate their kids. The existence of Drag Queen Story Hour is not one of those times. Conservatives are not being subjugated because they can’t stop other people from holding a public event that offends them. It’s telling that some of them think they are.
A progressive truism holds that when one is accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression. Ahmari and his allies seem intent on proving the point. A RedState article siding with Ahmari described two recent incidents in which Christian clergymen got involved in political controversies and faced harsh criticism on Twitter and from within their churches. Such pushback seemed, to the RedState writer, totalitarian. “If we don’t increase the level of pain we are able to inflict upon them to the point where they back off, we might as well climb in the boxcar that is heading for the camps because that is our destination,” said the article, referring to secular leftists.
This sense of persecution seems odd at a time when the far right controls the presidency, the Senate and the Supreme Court. States are passing the strictest anti-abortion laws since Roe v. Wade. The Trump administration is allowing federally funded foster care agencies to refuse to place children with couples who are gay or non-Christian.
And yet many social conservatives — particularly those who’ve made their peace with Trump — feel apocalyptically embattled. Maybe they need to feel that way to justify their corrupt bargain with the most morally degenerate president in American history. Or perhaps they understand that, thanks in part to that bargain, their cultural standing has never been lower.
During the 1980s and 1990s, when the self-described champions of family values battled the forces of louche cosmopolitanism, the right could make at least a plausible claim to representing the interests of wholesome squares against the edgy cultural vanguard. Back then, there was a live debate on the left about the institution of the nuclear family, and a vogue for shocking the bourgeoisie. One huge public controversy of the period involved government funding for avant-garde art that was sexually explicit, or that Catholics considered blasphemous.
These days, however, the left has become overwhelmingly family-friendly. For years now, the mainstream L.G.B.T. rights movement has been more consumed with marriage and children than sexual liberation. The anti-Trump resistance is dominated by middle-aged suburban mothers horrified by the president’s depravity. On the left’s cutting edge, meetings of the Democratic Socialists of America often provide child care, and a recent issue of the socialist magazine Jacobin came with a kids’ book.
Rather than a plot to corrupt children, Drag Queen Story Hour, which started in San Francisco and has spread to cities across the country, is another sign that the cultural left has been domesticated. Instead of performing in seedy bars, drag queens are using their love of music, theatricality and elaborate costumes to help caregivers entertain little kids. It’s a way, said Jonathan Hamilt, a co-founder of the program, for the performers “to get out of the night life and into their communities, their neighborhoods, their towns where they live, and give back.”
On the right, by contrast, an online demimonde has developed where nihilistic subversion is celebrated. White supremacists recruit through video game culture. The alt-right lures disaffected adolescents with subcultural signals that baffle the uninitiated. I’d happily take my kids to Drag Queen Story Hour if it were held closer to my apartment, but I’d smash my computer to bits before I’d let them near a pro-Trump message board.
I wonder if Ahmari has any inkling of how preposterous it looks, from outside his right-wing bubble, for Trump apologists to posture as defenders of family life. Ahmari is a recent convert to Catholicism and advocates a greater role for the church in ordering public affairs. I can think of few institutions with less standing to lecture others about protecting childhood innocence.
Then again, as a right-wing trope, family values has rarely been about actual families. It is, rather, a way of sanctifying gender hierarchies. Our socially conservative intellectuals may think it unfortunate when children are snatched from their migrant parents and locked in detention centers rife with sexual abuse, but family separation is less of a challenge to their view of the natural order than a man in makeup reading “Julián Is a Mermaid.”
In January, a Trump supporter with a gun was apprehended trying to shut down a drag queen children’s book reading in Houston. James Greene Sr., a right-wing radio host, later claimed he’d been “arrested for being a white Christian.” Here, in particularly stark form, was the dynamic that runs through many pro-Ahmari essays: aggression hiding behind howls of aggrievement. Ahmari is right, at least, about the depth of our mutual enmity. Between those who see Greene as a victim, and those who see him as a menace, there’s not much room for compromise.