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Why US conservatives are fighting each other

Sohrab Ahmari, a contributor to the Catholic Herald, has caused a stink in the United States with an article that says it’s time for conservatives to wake up and smell the coffee. He says: too many conservatives take liberals at their word when they insist that all they want is “diversity”. In reality, the Left is marching through the institutions and taking control – and they’ll use lawyers, smears and boycotts to silence anyone who dares disagree.

An example: the Georgia statehouse recently passed a bill that bans abortions if a doctor can detect a heartbeat. It’s about as soft a pro–life law as you’re likely to get – exemptions for rape and medical conditions etc – but it’s not woolly enough for the entertainment giant Disney, which says its staff are so disgusted with Georgia that the company might have to pull out of the state. Here we have an unexpected alliance of liberals and capitalists, using the threat of economic sanctions to overturn a democratic decision.

The liberal would reply: “Hang on, all we’re doing is standing up for the rights of women. For hundreds of years you conservatives controlled every institution going, and now that we’ve finally won our freedom, yes, we’re going to do what’s legally possible to protect it. Conservatives would do exactly the same if they needed to and the idea that they haven’t got a voice nowadays is ridiculous. The Right controls the Supreme Court, the Senate and the presidency, and the President is on Twitter, almost every waking minute, shouting the odds.”

My imaginary liberal makes some excellent points, but this fighting talk just goes to prove that very few people – Left or Right – really believe in live–and–let–live anymore. Instead, life has become a contest for dominance. Everything, even Disney – you know, Disney? Dumbo and the singing candlesticks? – is a weapon of war.

If all Sohrab was doing in his infamous article was telling it like it is, why did some conservatives take offence? Well, they thought he was saying “the Right needs to play as dirty as the Left and stop being civil”, which would indeed be wrong because if Christianity stands for anything it is humility and leadership by example.

They also detected a whiff of religious authoritarianism, because Sohrab is a gloriously eloquent Catholic and theology does play a role in this debate. On the one side, you have libertarian conservatives who think the state should be as small as possible; on the other side, Catholics with a more European perspective who are willing to use the state to defend what they call the “common good”. The Catholics ask: “If the liberals can use tax, welfare, even libraries to pursue their idea of virtue, why can’t we?” To which the libertarians reply, through gritted teeth: “Because the whole damn point of conservatism is to shrink the government. Not grow it!”

The biggest reason this debate is happening in 2019 isn’t Disney, it’s Donald Trump. Trump has torn up old orthodoxies. Yes, he’s cut taxes and regulation, as Republicans always do, but he’s also talked about putting the government back on the side of the working–class, and he’s gone full Rambo in the culture war. Trump has forced conservatives to rethink their own strategies and priorities, something they desperately needed to do – but he provides no definitive or emollient leadership, which is a major problem.

Back in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan’s Republican Party was also a coalition of wildly different people, operating at a time when the culture war was every bit as intense as it is today. But he held conservatives, and his country, together with humour and class. What really makes our era stand out is the lack of unifying and, yes, civil leadership. Without it, things descend into ugliness very quickly.

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One thing I do disagree with my friend Sohrab on is drag queens. His article was inspired by a Facebook ad for a “children’s drag queen reading hour at a public library in Sacramento”. I’m against this too, but not because I’m worried about the impact on the children. I’m worried about the effect on the drag queens. What’s a drag queen doing reading books in a library? They’re supposed to be subversive, camp – exotic birds of the night telling blue jokes to drunks. How on earth did they become so boring?

This is the thing about America: everyone’s a puritan. The Right thinks drag queens are demonic and the Left thinks they need to be rebranded as something normal and safe, a lifestyle rather than a daring performance. But why? Nothing about a good drag queen belongs in the stultifying silence of a library: on the contrary, if you shh–ed one of them, I hope they’d leap on a table in their high heels and belt out “I Am What I Am!”

And from the few I’ve met, they tend to be surprisingly right–wing; like topless models, they’ll shock you with their conservative tendencies. You just know RuPaul secretly voted for that nice Mr Reagan.

Tim Stanley is a journalist, historian and Catholic Herald contributing editor