Earlier this month, a skirmish broke out on the American right between white nationalists and classical liberals. The white nationalists, calling themselves the “groyper army” (don’t ask), have been attending campus events organised by classical liberals in order to ask questions about “demographic replacement”, US support for Israel and the morality of homosexual acts – topics on which the two sides disagree.
Both sides, and most commentators, have emphasised these disagreements. But the most remarkable fact about the controversy may be the one point of absolute agreement: the value of free speech.
By asking “edgy” questions and taunting the classical liberals for their unwillingness to take them up, the white nationalists appealed to this value, often explicitly. And their appeal was successful. Charlie Kirk, one of the classical-liberal leaders in this fight, was forced to write a conciliatory article declaring his belief in free speech.
“We should not shy away from our differences but embrace the dialogue in good faith and with the understanding that the best ideas and the best leaders will win, and the conservative movement will be better off as a result,” he wrote.
Nick Fuentes, a leader of the groypers, crowed over the article. “Well, I agree! I agree with all of that … I agree that we should not shy away from our differences. I agree we should embrace dialogue. And I also agree that the best ideas and the best leaders will win.”
It is important to note this agreement because many classical liberals have assumed that the way to defeat white nationalism is to double down on freedom: free trade, free speech, free love. They assume that in the “marketplace of ideas” (unlike in real markets) bad currency somehow will not drive out good. In a speech denouncing the groypers, Ben Shapiro said: “What helps America win the culture war is freedom: freedom against a government encroaching on your activities that don’t harm anyone else.”
Despite what so many well-meaning people believe, an ever more radical insistence on freedom will not defeat white nationalists. For many years, conservatives – once the party of censorship and discretion, as men such as Irving Kristol well understood – have revelled in provocation (“triggering libs”), disrupting “safe spaces,” and advancing an absolute idea of free speech. This shift in emphasis has reflected broader changes in our legal culture. Against longstanding precedent, the First Amendment is now widely seen as a licence for all manner of obscenity.
Conservatives now insist on free speech in large part because they fear being censored. For example, when the Satanic Temple tried to organise a Black Mass at Harvard, Robert Miller, a conservative law professor and a Catholic, wrote an article explaining “Why Harvard was right not to ban the Black Mass”. Miller’s argument came down to a concern that a similar sort of ban would one day be turned against Christians.
In 2010, the same concern moved Liberty Counsel, a Christian conservative legal organisation, to file an amicus brief in defence of Westboro Baptist’s supposed right to shout gay-baiting obscenities at the funerals of fallen soldiers. “Today it is the offensive speech of the Phelpses, and tomorrow it could be religious, pro-life or pro-family speech,” a press release said.
Underlying these very un-conservative arguments is an assumption that we cannot and should not distinguish between good and evil, argument and obscenity, truth and falsehood. In contexts not remotely governed by the First Amendment, “free speech” is invoked against anyone who opposes the spread of evil ideas.
Classical liberals bear some blame for the rise of white nationalists. They spent years decrying censorship and according prestige to “edginess” and “triggering.” They defended Black Masses and Westboro Baptists, lest someone someday restrict the Catholic Mass and Southern Baptists. They thus rendered the conservative movement unwilling and unable to call evil evil and good good. One of their most eloquent champions, David French, has said: “The fact that a person can get a room in a library and hold a Drag Queen Story Hour and get people to come? That’s one of the blessings of liberty.”
Now classical liberals find themselves calling for “dialogue” with the likes of Nick Fuentes, who uses anti-Semitic slurs (“Jewy Jewstein”), has described the writer Matt Walsh as a “race traitor … he hates white people”, and says of racial segregation: “Even if it was bad, who cares?” Once again, classical liberal conceits provide an opening for falsehood. Meanwhile, the alt-right trolls who pride themselves on opposing liberalism appeal to the same liberal conceits as mainstream conservatives.
In order to defeat the white nationalists and anti-Semites, conservatives must become less liberal. Only a conservatism that praises restraint and discretion will have weapons to fight those who are “just asking questions” about the Holocaust. Only a conservatism that abjures “viewpoint neutrality” will be able to side with truth against lies.
Conservatives must be ready to say that the freedom to host drag queen story hour is not a blessing of liberty. At the same time, they must be able to say loud and clear that they oppose white nationalists and anti-Semites, especially ones that wrap themselves in Christian garb. Our civilisational inheritance is spiritual, not racial. We were taught by a Jew to love; we were not taught to hate Jews.
Classical liberals have built a conservative movement that valorises “dangerous ideas”, thereby allowing people whose ideas are dangerous indeed to gain a foothold. That is why in the latest conservative debate, both sides need to lose.