David French, an Army veteran and conservative columnist for National Review, considered running for president earlier this year. Prominent Republicans, notably Bill Kristol, were contemptuous of Donald Trump but entirely opposed to Hillary Clinton. They needed an alternative, someone who would allow them to vote their conscience and, perhaps more importantly, someone who would undercut Trump’s bid.
They recruited French.
A Bronze Star recipient and a respected constitutional lawyer, French checked all the right boxes. Had he run, he almost certainly would have lost. Still, though, he might have changed the conversation on the right, and at the very least he would have given Republicans someone else to vote for besides Trump.
But French decided against it in the end. What happened after he declined to run is now the bigger story.
In a disturbingly raw piece for National Review last week, French discussed the torrent of abuse unleashed on his family by alt-right fanatics and Trump supporters. The harassment began in 2015 when French was publicly critical of Trump, but it escalated when his name was leaked as a possible third-party candidate.
“I saw images of my daughter’s face [an Ethiopian girl French adopted] in gas chambers, with a smiling Trump in a Nazi uniform preparing to press a button and kill her,” French writes. “I saw her face photo-shopped into images of slaves. She was called a ‘niglet’ and a ‘dindu.’”
And that’s just the beginning. The details are grotesque, and stretch far beyond online trolling.
On Wednesday, I spoke to French about his piece and about his decision not to run for president. I asked him if he had any regrets, if he’s surprised by the abuse he and his family have suffered at the hands of Trump supporters, and just how dangerous he thinks this political moment has become.
Our conversation, edited for clarity and length, follows.
First, I have to say your last piece was just brutal to read. Can you explain what has happened to you and your family since your name was leaked as a possible third-party, anti-Trump candidate?
Sure. You know, even before that, I had been opposed to Trump publicly, and that had exposed us to what I call round one of the online hate. And round one was really brutal all on its own. It began with a series of tweets that were mainly aimed at my youngest daughter, who’s now 8 years old — at the time she was 7. She’s African American, adopted from Ethiopia, and just the sweetest kid you’ll ever meet in your life, and her face was photoshopped onto gas chamber images with Donald Trump’s face in an SS Nazi uniform, with him pushing the gas button to kill her.
Her face was photoshopped into slave images. She was called every racial slur imaginable. I was accused of “race cucking” the white race, an absurd term in the alt-right world, which simply says I’m engaging in inappropriate race mixing. They would tweet at me saying my daughter was going to grow up and kill me. And that was just round one — it got much worse.
They found my wife’s blog on Patheos, which is a religious website, and they began to put images of murdered African-American men on the comment board. Fortunately my wife didn’t see it — she was out of town at a veterans’ benefit in DC. I looked at it and began to frantically scrub the website before she or my children could see those images.
Sadly, some of my neighbors and friends saw the pictures, and they began to be concerned for our safety and for their own, because they live right around us. So that was round one.
Then round two happened when I talked to Bill Kristol about the possibility of mounting an admittedly long-shot independent run against Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. And the trolls came in force once again with all the same sorts of images. They launched a series of taunts at me that they were having sex with my wife, which was particularly hurtful and harmful because my wife is a survivor of sex abuse.
And then it got worse as things moved from Twitter to email. We had a very deeply disturbing email death threat, and then just a couple of weeks ago my wife was talking on the telephone with her father and a person broke into the call. It sounds crazy, but it happened. A man started screaming profanities at her and my elderly father-in-law about Donald Trump. We immediately contacted law enforcement, and they’re trying to figure out what happened.
So that’s sort of the Reader’s Digest version of a pretty sordid and terrible last year of our lives.
That’s incredible, and obviously we’re not merely talking about online trolling here. We’re well beyond that.
Oh, absolutely. Even if it’s just confined to online trolling, anytime people are putting on your own timeline or in your wife’s comment section of her blog images of murdered men and women and children — that is deeply disturbing. And these images were so graphic that had I not been a veteran in Iraq during the surge and seen worse things in real life, it would have been the kind of images that can really scar you. God forbid my kids having to see such things.
So you just can’t imagine the impact, and it’s hard to talk about it because you don’t want to give the trolls any sense that they’ve gotten to you, that they’ve in any way caused any form of emotional distress, because they feed on that. But at the same time, if you just sit there and you suffer in silence and everyone who receives this kind of hatred sort of suffers in silence, then people don’t know what’s happening, and they don’t know what our political culture is becoming.
Has Donald Trump ever denounced any of this? Several others besides you have experienced similar abuses. Trump can’t be held accountable for everything crazy people do in his name, but he can — and absolutely should — condemn it. Has he?
I’m not aware of any denunciations. The thing that’s really disturbing, and you’re exactly right to point out that it’s not just me, is there have been hundreds of journalists who have been targeted to some greater or lesser degree. I have friends who’ve had to install security systems in their homes, who’ve purchased a firearm for the first time in their lives.
Here’s what is so deeply disturbing about the Trump campaign: Not only has Trump retweeted some of the white nationalist alt-right accounts, which is bad enough, but maybe charitably you could say, well, what does he know, he doesn’t know who these people are, he just found a funny name and tweeted it.
But he has in the middle of his campaign Steven Bannon from Breitbart, and there are some people who have called Breitbart the enablers of the alt-right in the larger conservative movement. I think that’s a little mild. They’ve the empowered the alt-right; they’ve published lengthy pieces rationalizing alt-right behavior, rationalizing the alt-right worldview. Some of their writers have mobilized some of these online blogs. Breitbart’s just in bed with the alt-right in many ways. Certainly not every person there, but it’s deeply disturbing, and Steve Bannon’s at the very beating heart of the Trump campaign.
So it’s hard to see a whole lot of daylight between the Trump campaign and this alt-right explosion.
It’s easy to forget just how many lines Trump has crossed. Amid the cavalcade of offenses, we end up shrugging our shoulders when a major party presidential candidate encourages supporters at rallies to beat people up, when he offers to pay their legal fees, or when he hints at “Second Amendment” remedies for his opponent.
These are extraordinary breaches of democratic norms, and it’s incredibly dangerous to whip people into a frenzy like this.
It’s extraordinarily dangerous, and in a weird way the very multiplicity of his offenses is its own form of distraction. Because, believe me, I have had many conversations with Trump supporters, and you can pull out any one incident and they’ll fight you tooth and nail on each incident, no matter how egregious. And you could spend literally half an hour or 45 minutes going down that rabbit hole of that one incident, and then there’s 50 other incidents to bring up and to talk about.
I think that’s one of the most dispiriting thing about all of this — that Trump has succeeded in a remarkable degree in keeping many of his most loyal supporters tunnel-vision focused only on the source of allegations, only on one allegation at a time, and then hanging over their heads the specter of Hillary Clinton. People are not pulling back and taking in the bigger picture, the bigger view of it. They’re losing the forest for the tree of each individual allegation.
It makes you wonder what Trump is really up to here. I’ve struggled to gauge his intentions throughout this process. I’m still not sure he actually wants to be president, but I’m absolutely positive that he’s a political nihilist. There’s no reason to think he cares about ideas or believes in any coherent worldview.
So the question is why would he take it this far? Why would he play this dangerous game if he’s not a true believer, if he’s just winging it?
You know, you raise a great question. I was actually at a debate a few weeks ago at Notre Dame with a pro-Trump conservative, and the point I made is that I believe Trumpism is narcissism and demagoguery in search of an ideology; it’s the ambition of one man. And in many ways, that’s more dangerous and can be more dangerous than ambition for the sake of an idea.
I think history’s replete with examples of how ambition for the sake of an idea can be deadly, but so can ambition just for its own sake. And I think that’s one of the things we’re dealing with here.
This is a man in pursuit of power — that’s how to understand him, that’s how to understand everything that he does — and maybe not only just power but prominence, fame, wealth, whatever he wants in a moment.
I gave a talk last week, and I was asked about how nasty and violent this election has become and whether Trump is solely responsible for it. My response was that Trump has uncorked something dark in this country, something that’s always there but is normally marginalized.
His great lasting sin, in my view, is that he’s unleashed this hate and normalized it. Is that your view?
Yes. The big question that I have in my mind right now is: Are we at the beginning of the end of a really nasty chapter in American politics, or are we are the end of the beginning of a really nasty chapter of American politics?
I agree that certainly amongst his followers, he has uncorked something nasty. But, you know, there’s also been acts of violence directed against Trump supporters during this process, and there’s something nasty going on on that side as well. So I’m very concerned. I think it’s a fair statement to say that this is the worst election, from a standpoint of polarization and violence, since 1968.
And my real concern is that we are going to hit a point where the enmity and the hatred is so deep that this is just the beginning of a new cycle and a new downward spiral. As an individual and a person, I would say one of the most distressing things about all of this is to talk to people I’ve known for years and describe to them what our family has gone through, and while they’ll express some sort of rote level of sympathy, because that’s the polite thing to do, that’s not what really upsets them.
What really gets them upset is not what my family’s experienced but the notion that I cannot and will not ever support Donald Trump. That’s crossing the line to them. And that is deeply dispiriting for the future.
It is. And what is perhaps more dispiriting is that Trumpism doesn’t need Trump to survive. The alt-right was waiting for a candidate like Trump, someone who could carry their message to a mainstream audience, and that’s exactly what he’s done. And there’s no reason to think that that’s going to go away whenever he does, if he does.
Well, to me that’s the $64,000 question. The optimistic side of me says there is actually no Trumpism as an ideology. There’s just Trump as sort of the embodiment of many different forms of discontent and anger all balled up into one person. That’s the optimist in me.
The pessimist in me says there’s this generations-long project on the right to try to inculcate a certain coherent set of ideals and values of limited government, of government within its constitutional bounds, of a society that is as much as possible a colorblind society, of America’s place in the world, that all of that is in jeopardy and losing to a competing set of ideas that I think are far worse for American life, far more divisive and antithetical to the true spirit of the American experiment.
The stakes are no doubt high.
I was probably too generous when I attached an “ism” to whatever Trump represents. The Trump movement is essentially a grab bag of resentments and anxieties and bigotries and all the rest. But to the extent that he represents a vague rejectionism and a hostility to civil discourse, he’s extremely dangerous.
Let me broaden this out a little bit and ask you how shocked you’ve been by what we’ve seen over the course of this entire campaign, from the primaries up until now.
I was shocked early on, because early on the whole Trump spectacle bored me, frankly. I thought, “Why are we wasting time talking about what Trump said about John McCain, or that ridiculous stuff that Trump said about Megyn Kelly?” All of this stuff is just going to burn itself out, I thought, and Trump will be seen as a failed reality TV show candidate in the mold of Herman Cain.
But I began to see in the fall of 2015 that something was happening, that Trump was tapping into something. And I just kept feeling like the rest of the Republican field wasn’t taking that seriously.
Everything was operating under the presumption that he’s going to burn himself out, so we don’t need to alienate his supporters, we need to compete over who’s going to pick up that basket of people once he loses. So it was like watching a car accident in slow motion.
We had a cascading series of decisions that could be justified in the moment, but when you stepped back and took the broad view, it was just a lot of shortsighted foolishness.
Are you disappointed in Republican leaders for not taking a stronger stand against Trump, especially as it became obvious that he wasn’t serious and that the mythical “pivot” was not on the horizon?
Absolutely. I understand the fears and concerns people have for their political careers — I don’t want to minimize that. Look, I’m not speaker of the House; I don’t have all of those same pressures on me. But I am absolutely disappointed.
The party is not just a uniform that you wear, with one team wearing red uniforms and one team wearing blue uniforms. A political party is supposed to be organized around a set of principles, and if along comes a person who not only defies many of these founding principles but is openly contemptuous of them, you have to take a stand.
How do you get to a place where Donald Trump is the nominee of the party of Lincoln? You get there when people are continually making short-term, self-interested decisions to maintain power and influence. And it just builds on each other one after the other after the other until you’re trapped.
Do you regret not mounting a third-party bid for the presidency when you had the chance?
No, I don’t, and there’s a couple of reasons. One is, quite frankly, I don’t think I was the right person. I think that in hindsight it may very well turn out that right person stepped forward, because if Evan McMullin does win Utah, I think that will be an important moment on a number of fronts. I mean, it will be historic, the first third-party electoral votes in a very long time, and then I think it will give America’s faith communities a model for how they can be the centers if the GOP does indeed persist in being the party of Trump.
Second, I was looking at it and the last thing that I wanted to be was a mere anti-Trump spoiler. I didn’t want to be the Ralph Nader of 2016. To be that National Review writer who got 3 percent in Florida and 4 percent in Ohio would not have been a great contribution to American politics.
You’ve said that you won’t vote for Trump or Clinton, that these are “dreadful choices.” Do you still feel that way?
Oh, absolutely. I’m not going to vote for Hillary. I’m definitely not going to vote Trump. I will either vote for a third party or leave the presidential slot blank. I’d certainly vote for Evan McMullin if he was on the ballot in Tennessee.
I will definitely vote down ballot, but under no circumstances will I vote for Clinton or Trump.
They may well be terrible choices, but given everything that’s happened and everything you’ve said, do you really think that these candidates are equivalent threats?
I have written that I think they are and that I don’t believe there is a clear argument that one is better than the other. I think there are ways in which Donald Trump is more flat-out dangerous than she is, since, for example, she’s not going to yank us out of NATO because she’s in a bad mood or she’s not going to threaten our security arrangements with South Korea. Trump is catastrophically dangerous.
You seem to be making the case that Trump is, in fact, more dangerous than Clinton, so why not vote for her and ensure Trump doesn’t win? Because, as you know, one of them will be the next president.
I’m a lifelong pro-life conservative, and if there’s one thing Clinton has been very consistent on, it’s her support for abortion rights, and I’m just never going to support that. And so on domestic policy, if there was even a chance that he would be better than her on some of these issues, I would have to give him the edge.
Obviously, his character problems are horrific; his foreign policy ideas are horrific. At some point, I just think it’s not even worth having this argument. Her values on key issues are diametrically opposed to mine, particularly in domestic policy. I think he’s flat-out, dangerous and I hate what he’s cooking up in this country.
But I’m just not going to support either one of them.
This is becoming a boring question, but I’m going to ask anyway: How much damage do you think Trump has done to the conservative movement?
Wow. Well, talk to me in a little more than two weeks, and I will give you a better answer. I think that if it’s a Trump win or a very close Trump loss, the damage will be worse than if he loses pretty convincingly.
If it’s a Trump win, the GOP becomes the party of Trump for the foreseeable future and it’s just flat-out not a conservative party at that point — it’s just not.
I think that’s mostly right. I tend to see Trump as political dynamite: He’s ripped apart the threads holding the Republican coalition together — the religious right, the libertarians, the neoconservatives, the free traders. Trump appears not to believe in anything at all, apart from himself, but he’s now the face of the party.
After his political star fades, what then? Which wing of the GOP will survive what seems to be a coming civil war within the party?
Or am I being too dramatic?
I don’t think that’s too dramatic. I think that there is a real likelihood of significant ideological blowback following this election. If he wins, you’ll see an enormous amount of triumphalism. You will see hundreds of GOP officeholders who held their noses and endorsed him feeling and acting vindicated, which will be just a tragedy.
And then you would have an awful lot of Americans feeling extraordinarily deeply alienated from this country, which would magnify the partisan divide in this country. And if it’s a very, very close loss, we might have the same kind of dynamic.
So everything’s in flux now. It’s always easy to predict what might happen, and then when an actual event occurs it often has a psychological effect that we didn’t necessarily predict.
My view is that a big Trump loss — which I think is possible but I wouldn’t call it probable at this point, because some of the polls are tightening — but a big Trump loss will have an interesting psychological effect.
I see a Republican civil war brewing, a civil war that will be hard to avoid.