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.
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.
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 a 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 nightlife and into their communities, their neighborhoods, their towns where they live, and give back.”
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.
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.