Today’s newsletter combines the serious with the silly. Or, perhaps better stated, it’s going to relieve the seriousness with a bit of fun.. I’m going to begin by talking about a question that’s been bothering me a great deal in the debates about “common good conservatism”: Do statist conservatives who seek to foster public morals through force of law not realize the message they send with their simultaneous support of Donald Trump? Also, I think it’s finally time to (briefly) explain why DC is better than Marvel. Today’s French Press:
A porn president is a poor vehicle for an anti-porn crusade.
“The gods walk among us,” or why DC movies are just better (most of them anyway).
Outside the right-wing bubble, Trump support undermines “common-good conservatism.”
Here’s a test—let me write two declarative sentences, and you tell me if you see any contradiction. Sentence one: “I support a politics of the common good, where the levers of state power are used to defeat the sexual libertinism of the porn industry, foster and support the stable, two-parent nuclear family, build social cohesion and social solidarity, and protect against exploitive capitalists who enrich themselves at the working man’s expense.”
Sentence two: “I support Donald Trump.”
While the battle over the future of the right has been raging ever since Trump won the GOP nomination, it intensified dramatically in 2019. This was the year of the “national conservatism” conference in D.C, of Tucker Carlson’s full-throated condemnations of “vulture capitalism,” of Josh Hawley’s legislative attacks on social media, Marco Rubio’s turn toward central planning, and—yes—of Sohrab Ahmari’s attack on “David French-ism.”
I’ve had my disagreements with the nationalist-conservative or common-good conservative crowd. I’ve spilled gallons of ink warning against the perils of statism, defending civil liberties as an expression of the common good, and arguing that pluralism is a permanent fact of American life, and that it’s not possible for a central government to impose a version of the “highest good” on a wildly diverse American nation.
These disagreements, however, shouldn’t obscure the fact that I agree with more-statist conservatives on a number of points. We agree that porn is a malignant influence on American life, deaths of despair are a national tragedy, that there are too many fatherless children, and that negative polarization and an absence of social cohesion (manifested so often through a loss of civic associations in America’s cities and towns) imperil the American republic.
But I wonder, do the advocates of common-good conservatism truly understand (or care) how their embrace of Donald Trump undermines their argument to the rest of America—the America that’s not committed to the GOP and lives their lives outside the conservative media bubble? Do common-good conservatives understand the vast, broad, and deep cultural buy-in they’d have to achieve if they want to accomplish their aims? Let’s break their compromise clearest possible terms. This is what common-good conservatives assert and then ask.
Porn is a problem, so you must support the only candidate in either party who has appeared in Playboy videos and hangs a Playboy magazine cover on his office wall.
Family cohesion is vital to our national health, so you must vote for the thrice-married adulterer who bragged about groping women and paid hush money to a porn-star mistress a month before his election.
Conservatives should focus on building social cohesion and national solidarity, so you must vote for the candidate who intentionally provokes his opposition so that he can consolidate his support in a base that represents a minority of the American population.
It’s time for the right to oppose exploitive capitalists, so you must support a man who ran a fraudulent university that profited off of regular Americans’ desire to improve their economic prospects.
I could go on (and on), but you get the idea. Inside the Republican bubble, all of these objections are easy to address—binary choice, better judicial appointments, etc. But outside the Republican bubble, these compromises send a very different message. They tell Americans that the Christian conservatives don’t really mean what they say. They tell Americans that the pursuit of power is more important than the preservation of virtue.
And why is that? Why does the larger public not see the compromise in the same way Republicans do, as a necessary, (often anguished) transactional embrace of the lesser of two evils? Well, because these same socially conservative Republicans spent years—decades, really—telling the American public that transactional politics was wrong, that character mattered. The same Southern Baptist Convention that will overwhelmingly vote for Trump next fall passed a resolution in 1998 on moral character of public officials that contained this statement, “Tolerance of serious wrong by leaders sears the conscience of the culture, spawns unrestrained immorality and lawlessness in the society, and surely results in God’s judgment.” (Emphasis added.)
You cannot unring that bell. You cannot maintain credibility with a skeptical culture and say, “Our bad. Politics is really just a transactional, antiseptic evaluation of competing policy proposals.” If you’re going to reinterpret a decisive, theological declaration, you need to show your work. And if you think that public skepticism doesn’t matter, that you can just win anyway, write laws, and change the moral character of a nation, an entire history of public resistance to morals legislation—from prohibition, to bans on contraception, adultery, sodomy, and obscenity—stands in your way.
From the beginning, the American experiment has been inextricably linked to the virtue of a “moral and religious people.” Embracing an immoral man to save morality is not a bargain that most of the American people understand—no matter how well it plays on talk radio or conservative Twitter.
When gods walk among us, or why DC is better than Marvel.
In my last newsletter, I concluded with a brief statement that I often make online. “DC is better than Marvel.” And while I got my share of reader comments about the main substance of the newsletter—an evaluation of Trump’s executive order on anti-Semitism—I got more emails challenging my (entirely correct) preference for DC.
How could I say that? How could I defend DC after the Justice League debacle? How could I scorn Marvel after the Endgame triumph? I did not argue that every DC film is better than every Marvel film. I liked Justice League (but I basically like every superhero movie). I loved Endgame. But I do believe that DC at its best is better than Marvel at its best.
To make this argument, I’m going to rely on a concept articulated by the great Sonny Bunch in his defense of Zack Snyder’s DC work. At their best, the DC films explore what it would be like if the gods actually walked among us. Or, if one wants to include the role of the very human Batman, they explore the true weight and gravity of the superhero (or supervillain) phenomenon. What would the world be like if these beings actually existed?
I freely admit, that’s not always a fun thought. The opening moments of Batman v. Superman are the best in the movie, when you see (as Sonny notes in his review) Bruce Wayne as “just a man,” completely helpless in the face of the wholesale destruction of an entire city. It presented destruction not as spectacle but as tragedy, and it was incredibly compelling.
One reason why Todd Phillips’ Joker was so captivating was that it created a villain you couldn’t possibly like but one you couldn’t stop watching. He was revolting and captivating at the same time.
And while some people say this is cheating, the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy stands the test of time as likely the best superhero films ever made. Why? Well, of course Nolan is a singular talent, and Heath Ledger’s performance in the second film belongs to the ages, but part of the reason for each film’s power is that Nolan was committed to the premise—a city is spiraling out of control, the evil is truly terrible, and it’s hard for virtue to triumph.
Man of Steel is underrated, and its virtue was that Snyder also leaned in. He didn’t execute as well as Nolan, but the movie communicates the gravity of Superman’s identity, the weight he feels as he understands who he is, and it also showcases the sheer extent of his power in a way that shocks as much as it awes.
So where does this leave Aquaman? It leaned-in, all right, but it leaned-in to the absurdity of the superhero premise. It’s as if the director said, “Let’s get real, the whole idea of superheroes is absurd, but absurd can be fun.” So you get sharks with lasers mounted on their heads, Julie Andrews as a super-kraken, and Pit Bull re-imagining Toto’s “Africa.” What a glorious absurdity.
My problem with Marvel is that most of its films don’t really lean into anything except spectacle. You can walk in, enjoy a fun evening at the movies, and then one hour after the show momentarily forget the name of the villain. It’s like eating cinematic cotton candy. Tasty in the moment, but dissolving almost instantly.
But we remember the exceptions. The Captain America movies stand out, and there were moments in Endgame that felt DC-esque in their emotional weight. And speaking of leaning in, Thor: Ragnarok leans into superhero absurdity with near-Aquaman intensity.
I recognize that Marvel has done a better job at creating a sweeping extended universe of likable, connected films. DC, by contrast, has essentially created multiple micro-universes. There’s Nolan’s Batman, Todd Phillips’s Joker, Snyder’s Superman, and Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman. (We do not speak of Suicide Squad). Marvel is “more,” but more isn’t always better.
One last thing …
When people ask me why I’m excited for the future of the Grizzlies, I’ll just respond with this:
That, friends, is how you seal a win.
Photograph of Donald Trump by Win McNamee/Getty Images.