A patriot’s perspective
David French says it’s not civil war but a great divorce that looms on the horizon
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David French, 49, has the rare distinction of graduating from Harvard Law School and then volunteering for a tour of duty in Iraq during the Bush administration’s surge. He is a National Review Institute senior fellow and a major in the U.S. Army Reserve. He and his wife Nancy have three children: I interviewed him in their home in Franklin, Tenn. Here are edited excerpts.
When you were in middle school, you read The Lord of the Rings. What’s your favorite part? Easy. The moment when the Riders of Rohan come to the rescue of Minas Tirith and Gandalf confronts the Witch-king at the ruined gates.
You then read it once a year. They’re very rich books, and they resonated with me differently at different points in my life. When you read them as a young kid, it’s the adventure, the world-building—which character do you see yourself as most like? When you get older, you realize the complexity of the different personalities and characters.
I like the Riders scene but also Gandalf confronting the Balrog, and the ending when Sam comes home. Yeah, he comes back, but you know he has changed. There’s a sadness in that aftermath even though they’ve defeated the darkness. That has resonated with me as I’ve gotten older.
Why did you go to little Lipscomb University? That’s where my dad, mom, and grandparents went to school. Then, when I graduated, my choices were graduate school, law school, or flipping burgers. I’d waited enough tables throughout college that the prospect of continued work in that field made law school more appealing.
Were you nervous about going to Harvard Law? Yeah, extremely nervous. I went to public school in a rural Kentucky county, which had a high dropout rate, lots of poverty, lots of struggling families, violence. I had some great, great teachers who took me under their wing. I then went to a very small Christian institution that was struggling to stay open. Then Harvard Law School: I was terrified.
Did you like being there? I had three great years, but not easy ones. I’d say conservative Christian things in public and would be booed and shouted down in class. I started a pro-life club called the Society for Law, Life and Religion, put some pro-life literature in people’s boxes at the school, and received responses calling me a fascist and saying I should die. It solidified my faith in a very powerful way, sharpened my thinking, made me face adversity for being a Christian that I’d never faced before, made me pray a lot more.
‘America now has negative polarization: You belong to the Republican or Democratic party not because you love Democratic or Republican party ideas, but because you despise the other side.’
Your theology changed. I eventually rejected traditional Church of Christ theology that holds if you’re driving to be baptized and have a fatal accident on the way, you’re going to hell. It’s risky to reject the theology in which you’ve been brought up, because a lot of times people say, “That’s Christianity and I’m rejecting Christianity.” But I just said, “I don’t think that is the best expression of the Christian faith.” I don’t claim to have nailed down all the particulars, but my wife and I have belonged to a PCA [Presbyterian Church in America] church for a very long time. My Twitter avatar is John Calvin, for crying out loud. So I say I was predestined to leave the Church of Christ.
After Harvard you joined a big law firm: Two thousand billable hours your first year out? If I’d just had 2,000 that would have been like vacation. I don’t think there was a month when I had less than 220 billable hours—which is just an absurd pace. I tried teaching law at Cornell and had two great years there, but I’ll never forget April 15, 2001, tax day, and my wife comes over with a baby under her arm and snow up to her knees. Nancy looks at me and says with this voice of grim determination, “Hell froze over.” I said, “OK, we’ll go back south.” So we moved back to Kentucky. I took my old job and made partner.
But didn’t stay there. I was always interested in free speech, so I became president of FIRE [Foundation for Individual Rights in Education]. My favorite FIRE case concerned a community college that would not allow a Christian fellowship group to show the movie The Passion of the Christ because it was R-rated—but a university employee hosted a one-woman show called [Expletive] for Jesus: I saw the script, which was one of the most profane and blasphemous things I’ve ever encountered. The double standard was so obvious that even ABC World News Tonight took notice of it.
You didn’t stay at FIRE. Late in 2005 I’m loving my life as president of FIRE and thinking I’ll do this for the next 25 years. Then I read a news story about the Army having difficulty recruiting people. The U.S. was coming apart at the seams, our casualty rates were spiking, and I was 36 and saying out loud to my wife, “America is too soft to fight a long war.” I felt very self-righteous when I said it: What was I doing? I had a beautiful apartment in Center City Philly and a dream job. I was riding on other peoples’ sacrifices and angry that more people won’t sacrifice? I felt an incredible sense of conviction and looked at my wife: Nancy was not feeling it.
She feels it the next day? Nancy and our very young son at the time were walking around Center City Philly and seeing a lot of the statues of Founding Fathers. She, trying to explain things to him, said, “They were all patriots.” Our son asks, “What’s a patriot?” She came up with a spur-of-the-moment definition, which is one of the best I’ve ever heard: “Patriots love their country more than they love themselves.” Then our son asks, “Are we patriots?” At which point Nancy practically chokes up and says, “Yeah, we’re patriots.”
When she tells you the story … I was telling her, “I really see myself as a patriot.” So she said, yeah, you need to do it. I walked into a recruiting station and said, “Hey, I’m 36 years old. I want to be a JAG [Judge Advocate General’s Corps], what do I need to do?” They were used to recruiting 20-year-old guys for the infantry. I was way out of shape. Not one molecule of me looked military. I barely passed the physical at Fort Dix. I started trying to get in shape, but my first night running I thought I was going to have a heart attack.
So slowly you got into shape, and just then came the Bush administration’s “surge.” On Oct. 31, 2007, I headed to Iraq with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, and stayed there until late September 2008.
How did friends and others react to your going? People were remarkably supportive. You could tell they were thinking I was nuts, but the most pushback I got was from Christian supporters who said God had called me to defend religious liberty at home and I should not distract myself from that mission.
You didn’t hunker down in the Green Zone in Baghdad? I’m in eastern Diyala province, at Forward Operating Base Caldwell, about 14-15 miles from the Iranian border. We had hostile contact—an IED, mortar fire, sniping—on a near-daily basis from November until late summer 2008.
How strange did all this feel? When we flew over Iraq in a helicopter at 3:30 a.m., I could see firefights off in the distance and it hit me, “What the heck am I doing?” When we landed, one of the troop commanders put his arm around me and said, “Lawyer (that’s what they called me until they liked me), if you live through this, this is the most important year of your life.” All I heard at that moment was the “if you live through this” part, but he was right. It was the most important year of my life by so many measures. We took a lot of losses when I was there, including guys who came to be closer than brothers. Never been through so much death and injury. We had about 780 guys in our squadron. Around 80 were injured to varying degrees and a bunch of guys were killed and that was just—you don’t have any time to grieve at all because you have to be on it.
What was your particular task? I took care of detainees, was responsible for assisting the command in shoot/don’t shoot situations, was out dealing with tribal relations issues and Iraqi governmental issues, so I was out and about a lot. I don’t compare myself to the guys who were busting down doors, but it was a very intense year nonetheless. When it’s 120 degrees, people aren’t doing a lot of stuff in the afternoon, so it was about 11 p.m. when things got really interesting. At 3:30 in the morning you might get 14 al-Qaeda detainees come rolling in or you might need to leave the base and roll out. My biggest challenge when I came back was for six months I just literally couldn’t sleep.
When you came back, you worked at the Alliance Defending Freedom and at the American Center for Law and Justice, and started writing for National Review. Now you’re writing a book, The Great American Divorce. What’s your thesis? My theory is we’re not heading for a civil war: We’re heading for a divorce. A civil war would imply you care enough to fight and die to stay together, but the disdain we are beginning to feel for each other in this country is so great that if California or Texas years from now said, “We want to go our own way,” there would be an awful lot of people ready to kick them out. America now has negative polarization: You belong to the Republican or Democratic party not because you love Democratic or Republican party ideas, but because you despise the other side.
We’re also geographically sorting. The number of landslide counties that one side wins by 20 percent or more is the highest it’s been. The more we geographically sort ourselves, the more extreme we become, and the less we even have a language that’s a common language and a common worldview to reach some sort of reconciliation. The extreme centralization of our federal government is incompatible with extreme polarization. In the absence of an external factor that we cannot anticipate, America will either have to decentralize or divide. We can be together if we decentralize and de-escalate the stakes of national politics so California can be California, Tennessee can be Tennessee.
That would reverse the 20th-century trend. We have a 20th-century government designed to combat three of the century’s great challenges: the Great Depression, imperial Japan/Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union. There’s an 18th-century solution called federalism for our 21st-century problem—but to embrace federalism, people have to give up the will to dominate and the will to power. That’s the real challenge.
California wants Washington not to interfere with marijuana sales or sanctuary cities. California is becoming more California-ish all the time because it has a net out-migration of California-born citizens and a net in-migration of foreign-born citizens, which means it’s churning its population. That leads to California becoming more California-ish. Some of the red states also have a self-reinforcing cycle in play.
Some issues are on the table but some are off? We should allow an enormous amount of latitude, but federalism does not put basic civil liberties up for negotiation. Since we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, California can’t take them away. The right to life should be up to states: Roe v. Wade should be overturned and that would return it to states just as a matter of default, but in my ideal world you would have a Human Life Amendment. In my conception, California could go as far in sanctuary as it wants, and it could articulate its own carbon emissions standards or become single-payer on health. It would still need to protect free speech and free exercise of religion because those also are rights endowed by our Creator. But matters of economic policy, of social welfare, should be up to the states.
What makes you think the left would go for this and give up the drive for domination that is so evident in California? Some on the left insist, “We’re going to win this thing. Trump is going to be the instrument of your doom.” I can only give you what a good friend of mine, a very powerful, influential progressive told me. He said, “I’m finally realizing that my vision of a centralized American system that embodies my values will never happen.” A lot of people are waking up and saying this “coalition of the ascendant” nonsense from 2012, the thesis that all of America is inevitably going to be like California eventually, is really up for grabs. If you continue to push centralization and your victory is no longer inevitable, you begin to experience serious downside risk. One good side effect of the 2016 election is that lots of people said, “Wait a minute. We may win on an issue or two, like we may win on gay marriage, but that won’t actually close the cultural divide in this country.”
And would the right give up some of its aims? A lot of people in MAGA [Make America Great Again] hats are thinking they’re going to win and dominate: “Now that we are in charge, we’re going to shut down this sanctuary state nonsense. We’re going to use the powers of the presidency to the max, just as Obama did.” You’re seeing an erosion in the devotion to federalism on parts of the right, which is the flip side of the re-embrace of federalism on parts of the left. This is all natural when people swing in and out of power. So, we’ve got a big problem on both sides, with people saying the only solution to this is one side or the other wins and dominates for a generation. Good luck with that. Because the problem is how do you win over a community that doesn’t even understand you anymore? And that’s increasingly where we’re going.
Can you get a majority of people in favor of decentralization? An awful lot of Democrats believe Trump is more of an opportunity than a threat. So when I talk about that, they say “No, we’re going to take it all.” In the same way there are a lot of irrationally exuberant Republicans: “We’re going to take it all.” But it doesn’t require a majority on either side. It requires enough of a critical mass to break a logjam. The prospect may be far-fetched, but I think it’s attainable, because one of the positive side effects of the rise of Trump is that a lot of people on the left and the right say, “Wait a minute, there’s something really toxic happening in American politics.”
Also some real irresponsibility, as the national debt increases. The latest projections on Medicare and Social Security have it insolvent sooner than we thought, yet nobody is offering anything serious about this. It’s all unicorns and rainbows and we’ll fix it someday. Whereas if you actually have a state-based, truly federalist decentralized approach, a degree of responsibility and realism could emerge.
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