On David French’s Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation
David French’s 2020 book Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation is a more complex book than the title suggests—or than most Christians who know David French’s name might expect.
French’s goal in the book is to analyze America’s increasing polarization, imagine hypothetical scenarios in which the country splinters into new nation-states, and offer advice and hope for averting these scenarios. At the same time, the book provides a window into the author’s own intellectual evolution. For this reason, Divided We Fall reads like a combination of two different books.
In the midsection of the book, French often appears to blame America’s growing polarization on the totalitarianism of the cultural left. French notes that in his law practice he witnessed “more than a hundred” colleges attempt to bar Christian student groups from campus. He attacks the NBA for hypocritically boycotting North Carolina while playing in China, lists a string of violent threats and attacks on non-progressive campus speakers that occurred from 2016 to 2017, and points out that the New York Times defended a journalist who boasted of the joy she took in “being cruel to old white men.”
In discussing progressive totalitarianism, French is careful to recite the claim that both sides are to blame for the polarization crisis. Yet French cannot produce serious right-wing analogues to any of the above-mentioned cases.
To his credit, French rebuts progressive attempts to excuse or downplay these incidents. “[I]t is simply false to excuse anti-white racism on the grounds that people of color lack power,” he writes. “[W]hen anti-white sentiment is embedded in the New York Times editorial board, it’s no longer ‘powerless’ in any meaningful sense.”
Underlying this rising tide of authoritarian progressivism are political positions so novel—for instance, that Title IX “protects the right of boys who identify as girls to participate in girls’ sports”—that French says he never heard a single person express them during the entire time he was “a student at the very liberal Harvard Law School from 1991 to 1994.”
If you’re at all familiar with French, it goes without saying that all of this might seem out of keeping with French’s current public persona.
As someone who has been peripherally aware of French’s work for almost ten years, I have seen French’s political self-identity radically change over time. I sporadically read, and even cited with approval, David French’s writing as early as 2013, when French was identifiably on the political right. These days—it almost goes without saying—French has transformed himself into a byword for culturally progressive Never-Trump-ism.
On Advisory Opinions, the mostly-excellent legal podcast that French co-hosts with the somewhat more moderate Sarah Isgur, French almost always takes the side of the cultural left—except on speech issues or when mentioning in passing that he opposes abortion. French even took a mixed view of Kyle Rittenhouse’s self-defense claim on the podcast. While acknowledging Rittenhouse’s argument as more-or-less legally sound, French seemed inclined to think that the law of self-defense is flawed if it leads to Rittenhouse’s acquittal.
French’s written pronouncements are more obnoxious, often sounding like they’ve come from an algorithm fed on progressive cliches. He writes pieces for The Atlantic which have headlines like “The New Right’s Strange and Dangerous Cult of Toughness” and which just happen to mostly flatter the existing views of Atlantic readers. “Here’s a challenging reality,” French recently announced: “America has become more just (and thus closer to the ideals one expects of a Christian nation) as white Protestant power has waned.”
This version of David French is not absent from Divided We Fall. In fact, French begins the book by narrating his realization that the GOP—which he for some reason once “perceived to be the party of hope”—has recently “become a party of rage.” French describes watching mournfully as his once-beloved GOP generated an “online onslaught against Trump critics” and embraced unspecified “extraordinary attacks on Mexican immigrants,” among other things.
French’s opening recollection conveys the impression that American right-wing anger has inexplicably escalated in a vacuum—as if it was not preceded by years of merciless totalitarianism from the culturally omnipotent left. This narrative is not a mere foil for the rest of the book. While anecdotes about left-wing intolerance do take up much of the book’s midsection, French concludes Divided We Fall by once again inscrutably blaming the political right—characterizing polarization as something most embodied by Josh Hawley and “right-wing online mobs.”
My suspicion is that the beginning and end of the book were the last parts to be written. When he began this book—maybe in 2019 or earlier—French perhaps wished to occupy a kind of moderate high ground between the right and left. By the time he’d finished the book, I suspect, French had allowed the hostility he faced from online right-wing trolls to shape his inner identity into that of a man exiled to the left.
French narrates this story himself early in the book. When French began criticizing Trump in 2015, he says, alt-right trolls subjected him and his family to a litany of online abuses. They photoshopped obscene images of a close family member, accused his wife of “having sex with ‘black bucks,’” called French “a ‘cuck’”—a word French says is “a racialized term”—and filled the comments section of his wife’s blog with “images of dead and dying African Americans.” In one instance, someone hacked into a phone call between French’s wife and her elderly father and “began screaming profanities at her and berating her about Donald Trump.”
While reading this narrative, I was struck by the fact that—although this harassment was disgusting—every single instance of it, excepting only the phone hack, could have been ignored or deleted. I then thought of how my personal history with online hostility contrasted with French’s.
More than ten years ago, I began working as an opinion columnist for my college newspaper. On the newspaper’s website, my op-eds soon garnered negative comments. When I responded to some of these comments under my own name, my editor promptly informed me that writers were forbidden from engaging in the website’s comments section. Looking back, I don’t know why my newspaper had this policy—but I know that it was wise.
I immediately realized that, if I continued to read these comments, I’d probably be unable to restrain myself from responding to them. Accordingly, I adopted what has been called “the first rule of the internet”: never read the comments. Ever since that time, I have for the most part ignored or deleted—by automatic instinct—obviously bad faith, hostile attacks online.
Of course, “the first rule of the internet” doesn’t solve the problem entirely. As I continued writing for the paper, I received emails and other hard-to-avoid responses that were comparable in viciousness to the attacks on French. Yet the attitude I had cultivated helped them simply bounce off me. I had not thought about many of them in years until writing this review.
French never learned this lesson. In fact, French seems to have painstakingly browsed and remembered in detail every online attack he could find against him and his family—even quoting some of their exact words years later. Had I been subjected to the kind of online abuse French faced, the fact is that I simply would not have read or even been aware of most of it.
In one sense, French’s political transformation seems to be less a result of online abuse itself than the fact that French was in his thirties when broadband internet was invented. French seems to have been blown leftward because he faced a torrent of online abuse without the kind of mental armor that Millennials and Zoomers have acquired in order to survive in the radioactive culture of cyberspace.
French’s story might elicit some sympathy from the reader were it not for the fact that—at the end of the book—French has the audacity to suggest that the online harassment he experienced was worse than the real-world harms faced by those doxed and fired from their jobs by the cultural left. “[C]ritics of the Trump administration often face consequences much more serious than ‘mere’ social sanction or threats to their careers,” he writes. “They often face direct, malicious harassment that threatens their very lives.” This tone-deaf comment may be the closest French comes to explaining why—despite presenting evidence that mostly incriminates the left—he ultimately lays the blame for American polarization at the feet of the right.
But French’s book is more than an account of current polarization. He also presents an intriguing, but flawed, socio-historical account of how polarization produces fault lines which fracture nations. Secessions like the American Revolution and the American Civil War, he explains, result from a combination of cultural division and fear—especially fear. Secession happens when one geographical-cultural block comes to believe that it is “necessary to view your political opponents as dangerous” and that it is “foolish to believe they mean well.”
This is true as far as it goes. But to French, the “fear” element is usually a paranoid delusion—not an insight. “To be clear,” he writes of the American Civil War, “the southern fear that the northern states wanted to see mass white killings in the South was unreasonable.” In other words, French’s theory is rooted in the notion that, in highly polarized societies, disfavored factions have a tendency to falsely believe that their rivals desire their deaths.
But that is patently untrue. Consider that, throughout history, supercharged polarization has frequently resulted in people massacring their own neighbors for belonging to a disfavored group. Examples abound from antiquity to modernity: the massacre of Italian Anatolians in 88 BC, the proscriptions of the early Roman Civil Wars, the Massacre of the Latins in Constantinople in 1182 AD, the Reign of Terror, Kristallnacht, the Cultural Revolution, and the genocide against the Tutsis.
How many of the people killed in these massacres believed—as they put their families to bed the night before their deaths—that their neighbors would rise up and butcher them in the morning? The answer is obvious: virtually none. If these victims had believed that polarization was about to erupt into bloody slaughter, most of them would not have waited around to be killed. After the Nazis’ ascent to power, Victor Klemperer—a German historian of Jewish ancestry—recorded the mood among the Jewish community his diary: “No one fears for their lives yet—but for bread and freedom.”
Klemperer came to mind when I read about French’s conversation with a progressive Ivy League professor. “‘I’m terrified of my own [progressive] students,’” the professor told French. French writes dismissively that, “while actual terror was inappropriate, there was no reason to doubt that his students could make his life miserable.”
A key element of David French’s theory—that cultural out-groups are inclined to a paranoid fear of sudden violence—seems to be the opposite of historical reality. On the contrary, out-groups seem to have an extraordinary capacity naively to believe the best of their neighbors and countrymen until it is too late.
Two of the most interesting chapters of Divided, entitled “Calexit” and “Texit,” envision hypothetical scenarios in which America fractures into two or more nation-states. These chapters are written like political thrillers, each complete with a cast of fictional characters. True to his theory of secession, neither of French’s scenarios involves more than flashes of violence.
In two senses, these thriller plotlines deserve credit for their prescience. First, French imagines that—with America focused on internal conflict—the world will regress towards a multipolarity characterized by a more assertive Russia and China. He describes a Russian takeover of Ukraine before correctly narrating that, in response, “Germany rearmed as fast as possible to face a renewed and immediate Russian threat.”
Secondly, in his “Texit” scenario, French imagines corporate America punishing defiant conservatives by imposing a total economic blackout on all red states—cutting off communications, shipping, and even logistical services for hospitals. This scenario is remarkably reminiscent of the West’s current policy of “economic and financial war” and “sabotage” against the entire nation-state of Russia. French correctly predicts that the policy will prove counterproductive.
French seems to end the book on a note of realism, affirming that America is not exempt from the historical forces that have ripped apart other nations, and warning that “we cannot simply presume our national unity will last.” While French’s book is not without its insights, however, he ultimately fails to offer any path away from the crisis he describes.
French’s two examples of nonpartisan bridge-building—the faux-kumbaya after Pete Davidson mocked Dan Crenshaw, and Ellen DeGeneres’ defense of her friendship with George W. Bush—do not truly cross the geographical and cultural blocks that are the subject of French’s book. These interactions were possible only because Crenshaw and Bush are—unlike most American conservatives—part of an essentially defunct establishment consensus. The fact that Crenshaw is slightly to the left of John McCain did not even prevent Davidson, as French himself notes, from later retracting his apology to Crenshaw.
Where French does hit on the germ of a solution is in his advocacy for federalism. He writes that states can help preserve the union by, perhaps paradoxically, asserting more control over their own internal affairs.
Incidentally, I agree with French that we should strive to avoid the risks of a national divorce—and that a push for greater regional autonomy is the best way to do so. Yet French fails to perceive the dire need for America to sail between Scylla and Charybdis: the alternate evils of civil conflict and totalitarianism. His observation that America is not exempt from historical forces only goes so far—for French’s view of history is limited and rose-tinted. Accordingly, he consistently fails to entertain the real possibility that America could produce a totalitarian movement capable of bloodshed.
It is partly for this reason that—however American history might unfold from here—French’s allegiances seem to be a foregone conclusion. While Divided We Fall is surprisingly and commendably critical of the left, it also reveals that French is likely to dismiss any meaningful countermeasures by conservatives as manifestations of paranoia and delusion. To acknowledge conservatives’ grievances and fears as fundamentally legitimate, after all, would be to give up on the established order for which French has become a self-appointed guardian.
One gets the sense that, if conservative rather than progressive states were to pursue the greater federalism that French purports to advocate, French would be among the first to condemn them. “For the first time in my life, I’m a man without a party,” French writes in the first pages of the book. “I have no ‘tribe.’” It is hard to bring oneself to believe him.
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