This episode of Hub Dialogues features host Sean Speer in conversation with journalist and pundit Damon Linker about his own intellectual and political evolution, the ongoing upheaval within American conservatism, and why, as his Substack newsletter’s title alludes, he thinks it is important to keep eyes on the Right.
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SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Damon Linker, a well-known American columnist, pundit, and public intellectual who’s been a columnist for The Week, an editor of First Things magazine, and an author of the highly regarded books The Theocons and The Religious Test. Today, he’s responsible for the must-read Substack newsletter Eyes on the Right, is a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center, and a regular guest on the Bulwark’s Beg to Differ podcast. I’m grateful to speak with him about his own intellectual and political evolution, the ongoing upheaval within American conservatism, and why he thinks it’s important to keep eyes on the Right. Damon, thanks for joining us at Hub Dialogues.
DAMON LINKER: Well, thanks for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.
SEAN SPEER: Let’s start with a bit of biography, if that’s okay. Your fascinating career as a columnist, pundit, and public intellectual has occurred against a backdrop of your own intellectual and political evolution. You were a third-generation Straussian scholar and an editor of the Catholic magazine First Things. You now describe yourself as a quote, “conflicted moderate”, and a quote “liberal, rightly understood” who’s an opponent of the excesses of left-wing radicalism but a bigger opponent to the Trumpian shift in the world of American conservatism. Is your story a version of the Ronald Reagan line about how “he didn’t leave the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party left him”? Or did your own thinking evolve beyond the conservatism of your past before Trump came on the scene? If so, what changed for you?
DAMON LINKER: Well, thanks for queuing that up. It’s a complicated story, and I’m now old enough at age 53 that there’s a fair amount of a story there. So I’ll try not to take too long on it. I was raised to be centre-left, I guess, as I was growing up. I’m Jewish, and so there was a kind of general suspicion of the far-Right and that it’s dangerous. And so one should always be sort of secular liberal and tolerant in the way that that gets defined by secular American Jews especially. So that was my starting point. But as I went through college, I encountered ideas that might be described as Straussian or kind of related to Leo Strauss, especially through Alan Bloom’s big bestselling book, The Closing of the American Mind.
And through that, I ended up studying with those folks in graduate school. I was lucky enough to be studying with students of Leo Strauss who were not particularly political, actually. They didn’t talk about politics much. This was during the ’90s. Bill Clinton’s in the White House. I don’t remember a professor ever mentioning Bill Clinton. Politics never came up. We were reading Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Rousseau, Nietzsche. We were reading old books and debating the philosophical ideas within them, not talking about what was going on in Washington.
But as so happens so often, when I finished my PhD, I needed to find a job, and I taught for a couple of years in a visiting position at Brigham Young University out in Utah. And then I had no prospects, and I could have stuck on at BYU for another year or gone on the market again. But I just felt like I’m a good writer. I don’t want to have to pick up and move anywhere in the world where there’s a job for a year and do that indefinitely. So, I did the really smart thing and decided I’m not going to be a professor; I’m going to be a journalist, because that’s a real growth prospect. And at that point, because of my Straussian background, all my contacts were basically neo-conservative intellectuals. So for a year or so, I just wrote like crazy for a whole series of magazines and newspapers. National Review, The Wall Street Journal, Policy Review, which doesn’t exist anymore, The Weekly Standard, which doesn’t exist anymore, and a bunch of others. Commentary Magazine. A bunch. And through that, I got a job working as a speechwriter for Rudy Giuliani, where my boss was one Michael Anton, who I don’t know if your listeners are aware of, but he’s a very prominent hard-right pro-Trump guy affiliated with the Claremont Institute out in California. But then, within about six months, I got a job as an editor at First Things.
So even though I wasn’t that political, by this point in my work life post-PhD, I look like a conservative. I’m working for conservative magazines and these are now—this is now my tribe. The only problem is I guess I have an inveterate skepticism about myself. And so I was going along with the program pretty well until the start of the ramp-up to the Iraq War, and I started to say, “This doesn’t sound too smart.” I don’t think we should do this. And that led to a lot of tension within the First Things staff because I was opposing this as the war broke out. Then also George Bush, as he was preparing to run for reelection in 2004, came out very strongly against gay marriage, and I was kind of ambivalent about that. I was like, “Well, wouldn’t civil unions be okay? Could we at least defend that?” And the magazine wouldn’t really do that either. So basically, things just snowballed. And I eventually left in a huff. Quit the magazine.
Got a big book deal to write a book about, well, the magazine and its influence on the Bush administration and the other Catholic intellectuals in its circle. So that was a real bridge-burning exercise. And from that point, I kind of shifted back to where I started on the centre-Left, and I’ve sort of been there ever since. But my centre-Left is kind of quirky and idiosyncratic. I’m sort of the reverse of a lot of American centre-Left people. A lot of the centre-Left is defined in the U.S. as being sort of libertarian-ish on economics. So low taxes, cut regulations, pro-business and growth, and then very, very liberal on social issues.
Whereas I’m the inverse of that. I’m a little more conservative on social issues, and I’m in favour of more regulation, universal health care, those kinds of things that are associated with European Christian democracy, something like that. And then on foreign policy, I’m really off the grid because I was, as a kid and as a young man, I was sort of a Reaganite cold warrior, which was originally a liberal cold warrior if you go back to the ’50s and ’60s. But I thought that the way the Bush administration was waging the war on terror was not wise. As I told you a minute ago, I opposed the Iraq War. I supported the Afghanistan war, but not staying there for 19 years. I didn’t support getting more involved in Syria during the Syrian Civil War. I didn’t support Obama going into Libya. So in general, the war on terror I just dissented from. So you put those three things together, kind of offsides on every dimension. And that’s the sensibility from which I write my Substack newsletter now, in my attempt to analyze and understand and criticize the Trumpian Right.
SEAN SPEER: There’s so much there, Damon. I would just encourage listeners to check out your Substack where you expand on some of those different experiences and perspectives, including of course a two-part series on your relationship with Michael Anton, which I strongly recommend.
As you say, you were already moving away from the Right well before the 2016 election. But it’s fair to say that Donald Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party served to reinforce your trajectory. You wrote in your final column for The Week (where I should just say incidentally, you published more than 1300 columns over eight and a half years, including during the Trump presidency), that the experience made you feel “unmoored, adrift in a churning, storm-tossed sea, expending most of my mental energy on rendering elemental judgments about whether the topic I had chosen to write about on any given day was based in fact or conspiratorial fiction spun out by our gaslighter-in-chief or the spirited army of antagonists arrayed against him.” Do you want to talk a bit about the challenge of writing about ideas, policy, and politics during the Trump presidency?
DAMON LINKER: Sure. I mean, there are two things going on there. On the one level, around the world, we’ve seen the rise of a populist harder Right. I mean, one way of looking at this, if you use American terminology or nomenclature, is that you have, or you had all the way up until Trump, a kind of base assumption that both Republicans on the Right and Democrats on the Left were different variations of liberals in the classical sense. So, the main consideration is freedom, and it’s really a clash over whose freedom and how much freedom in different spheres. So Democrats have their own vision of freedom and also equality as ideals. But Republicans believe in a base equality of American citizens vis-a-vis the state and the government. That the government is there through our consent, and we can withdraw that consent if it transgresses those bounds, the bounds set by protecting rights. And then the Republican Party tends to defend rights in terms of economic liberty, property autonomy, whereas Democrats have a little different definition of autonomy, but they’re related, and they overlap.
The thing that happened with Trump is that, and then also with a lot of the other populists around the world, from Bolsonaro in Brazil to Orbán in Hungary and many other places, is a harder Right, a kind of anti-liberal Right that actually emphasizes things like an almost autarkic understanding of citizenship as rooted in place and people, and blood, and so very strongly opposed to outside immigration, especially if the immigrants are not part of one dimension of this tribalism. So like, especially in Hungary for instance, it’s not so much immigration as such, but immigration from the Muslim world is very feared because that is something other than us.
And also suspicion of trade for similar reasons. A kind of needing to have an industrial policy to protect our polity against interests which are universalistic and care about profits wherever they are and that can undermine the manufacturing base of our country, and so forth. These are the issues that got put on the table. The interesting thing about my own position on this is that, actually I said earlier, on economic issues, I tend to be a little bit more in favour of like say, European social democracy or Christian democracy. And so I’m actually not opposed to some of that. I also tend toward being in favour of allowing lots of immigrants in. That’s a big old American venerable tradition. But I don’t see, unlike a lot of people on the Left, I don’t see a kind of moral offence of citizens getting together and deciding we’ve allowed too many people in, we need more time for assimilation. We would want to close the door a little bit, or at least narrow it, and have less immigration for a while. I might not even vote for that, but I don’t think it’s a moral crime for people to have that view.
And so there are some ways in which if you just sort of looked at what Trump stood for: not wanting to gut social security in Medicare in our country, not doing what say someone like a Paul Ryan, who was a very more libertarian economic style conservative in the U.S. who was the vice-presidential running mate of Mitt Romney in 2012, not like that, but more in favour of a sense of national community and needing to set borders up to protect polity, that didn’t strike me as horrible.
And actually, there are some ways in which that was more appealing to me than what the Republican Party was standing for when all it cared about was cutting rich people’s taxes and that’s the only thing it would talk about. So in that respect, one would think maybe I would’ve found Trump a little appealing, even though I prefer the Democratic Party version of those things. But in fact, the problem with Trump is that he personally—there was, now this is the second layer, and this isn’t always true in all the places where right-wing populism has run for office or won office—he personally is corrupt. He doesn’t really appear to believe anything other than advancing his own sense of his self-interest. He’s willing, as we saw with the horrible events of January 6th, 2021, he’s willing to shred the Constitution and overturn an election. If he could have figured out how to accomplish it, he absolutely would have.
And he’s also an inveterate liar. He lies constantly. And that’s the bit that you read from my final column at The Week that spoke to that. That he just pumps nonsense into the public space. Because when the president talks, people listen. And Trump would just say complete and utter nonsense constantly.
And that made it very difficult throughout the whole of his presidency to even get a sense of what was true and what was false. Because he would just assert things as true that were not. And then he was so good at, if you know the term online being a troll, he was, you quoted me calling him the gaslighter in chief. Another way to put it is “a troll in chief.”
He just basically existed for those four years, primarily to provoke liberals and progressives to have conniption fits. And so they would then say outrageous things and jump on any story that they saw coming up that would make Trump look bad and run with it without doing due journalistic diligence to check the facts and see if it’s true. And so what you had was this endless cycle of mutual provocation and attack. That just made it very difficult sometimes to know what even was going on. And that part of the Trump phenomenon is truly distressing because, when you’re living in the midst of that, it’s very difficult to again find your bearings. And if you can’t even agree on what the facts are, then it’s very hard to mount a more elaborate argument about why they’re wrong or an interpretation of them is wrong. Because we don’t even know if we’re talking about reality or something that came out of Donald Trump’s very large mouth in a cloud of BS. So it was really hard.
SEAN SPEER: Let me ask a somewhat related question. One of the striking things about Trump’s rise in the 2016 Republican primaries is the evident disconnect between leading Republicans like Paul Ryan, who you mentioned, and the party’s core voters. It seems clear in hindsight, for instance, that Republican voters were far less dogmatic about market economics and limited government than Ryan and others understood. What do you think explains the gap between Republican politicians and base voters that Trump was ultimately able to exploit?
DAMON LINKER: Well, I do think that the Republican Party has a real donor problem. There is, I mean, as we’ve seen in our country, and there are versions of this happening around the democratic world, that there, there is a growing gap in sensibility between the massive middle-class, working-class voters and the sensibility of what you could call progressive elites. The people who run leading media companies and universities and other institutions and civil society—their sensibility isn’t the same. And one way in which the people who are running the Republican party up ’til 2016 actually were continuous with a lot of progressive elites, is in a presumption that—I don’t know how to put it besides saying a kind of open borders universalism. And I don’t mean strictly speaking, like we will now open borders and anyone can walk into our country and there’s no restriction.
But I do mean a sense that, the assumption that ideally, we would have as much immigration as possible, as much free trade as possible, as many businesses, closing factories here where the labour’s too expensive and moving to cheap labour countries, usually in the developing world because then our companies can make more profits there. And that’s good because rising tide raises all boats, this kind of outlook. And then on the Left side of that, you then also add in a kind of distaste for national identification at all. That this is somehow morally questionable, that people have more attachment to and love of their own country than someone in another country. That that’s morally questionable to feel that way. And what Trump recognized is that most people, most Republicans in general, and even some people who kind of straddle the Republican-Democratic divide and maybe didn’t even vote very much because they could intuitively sense that both parties sort of look down their noses at these feelings of attachment to the country, to our towns, and anger at the company that used to own a factory in town but shut it down because they wanted to move it to Mexico where they could have cheaper labour and make more money, and so people lost their jobs. The town is devastated because of it, and so forth.
Trump sensed that people were not talking about that stuff. And there was a huge audience of potential enthusiastic voters who were not; politicians were not speaking to them. And he did, and they said, “Whoa, finally someone hears us!” and I think that’s a real thing. I mean, it’s one of the reasons, I mean things are complicated in the U.K. because of how the Conservatives have performed, but you’ve seen this in recent elections there; you’ve seen it in a lot of the elections of the somewhat recent Italian election, where you look at who’s voting for which party and what you end up with is a kind of middle-class, lower middle-class, working-class group, that finds very appealing a kind of anti-liberal populist Right-leaning message that does emphasize these issues of shutting down immigration, being suspicious of trade, making trade agreements for the sake of enhancing us versus them, not having a free flow of labour and people and money and capital all over the globe freely.
And the Paul Ryan wing of the Republican party—and to this day, even the Republican majority that was just elected barely in the U.S. House of Representatives—still is largely in that Paul Ryan camp. If you look at the people who, the Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy is put in charge of key committees in the house, they tend to be the more kind of economically libertarian types who would like to cut taxes, cut regulation, and do a pro-business policy outlook, which is not really the Trump position and not the right-wing populist position. So the Republican Party in the U.S. is still deeply divided about these issues. I think Trump clearly showed that there was an opening for the more populist/nationalist stuff that was not getting spoken to and responding to that.
But it’s not like it was 90 percent in favour of that and 10 percent not. And so that fight goes on. And the Republican Party limps along tryingto win elections in a big way, and just either barely winning them or actually losing the popular vote, but yet sort of winning through the electoral college and so forth. But like the prospect of Republicans say, blowing it wide open and winning like 55 percent or something, or 60 percent of a national vote for president, they’re nowhere near that, I think because whichever one of those two factions the person running speaks to, it kind of alienates some other parts of the party who then aren’t as excited by that candidate.
SEAN SPEER: That brings us to your Substack newsletter, Eyes on the Right, which I’d strongly encourage listeners to check out. What was the key insight behind its launch in 2022? Why did you think there was a need for a newsletter dedicated to developments on the American Right? And why were you the right person to document and analyze these intellectual and political trends?
DAMON LINKER: Well, I like to think that because of that rather unusual biography that we went over at the top of the segment, I mean, I come from a different point of view because I used to be on the Right. And because my dissent from it was sort of partial, I feel like I still speak the language of conservatives, and my own disposition is still sort of conservative. And I really don’t like instability. Like for instance on crime. I got my start after graduate school working for Giuliani. Giuliani himself has gone kind of nuts. I largely supported his policies in the ’90s, and I still would if I could go back in time. I think he helped the city a lot when crime, violent crime, was very high there.
And so there are all kinds of issues I could go through where I’m still sort of centre-Right. But I’m a dissenter from what the Republican party already was becoming, even under Bush. But then, under Trump, I definitely dissent from it. But again, in this complicated way where, well, some of that populism sounds pretty good, but this particular person saying it is dangerous, so we have to oppose it. But yet maybe the Republican Party could be reformed to do it more responsibly. And so I think that I bring kind of a unique perspective where I’m critical, but yet sympathetic in ways that are somewhat unusual. But then why do it at all? Well, because it is a big deal that in this last decade we have lived through the crack up in some ways of the old, you could say the old centrist consensus, where the debate was largely—
Now this, of course, in Europe is more complicated because in Europe, you had an active left-wing opposition throughout much of the post-war period. You had active communist parties vying for power, and so forth. So the spectrum was a little broader in electoral democracies in Europe after World War II. But in general, especially since the end of the Cold War, you kind of coalesced around a debate between centre-Right and centre-Left. Both were versions of, in American terms, “liberalism.” So, a little more pro-business on the Right side, a little more economically libertarian on that side. And then on the centre-Left side, you want to spend a little more, have some more social programs, taxes a little higher, but debates were about the fine-tuning of policy knobs. But bigger questions about what’s going on—whether the whole trajectory might be wrong and we need to make a harder turn in one direction or another—didn’t really happen very much. But now, over the last decade, we have seen a shift, and especially now that you’ve seen some right-wing populist parties gain power and then lose them, and now they’re the opposition, I think what we can now start to conclude is that the Right opposition to liberalism is now no longer a form of Right-leaning liberalism. It’s now something a step or two further Right.
It more fundamentally challenges the liberal order of the centre. And I think that this is important. It’s ominous in some ways because you go another couple of steps further Right and you start to get into overtly authoritarian governments, and of course, fascism lies over there and further in that direction. And so it is disturbing in some of its manifestations; some of the popular passions within these right-wing movements are pretty ugly, as they have always been. But I find that a lot of the criticism of these movements from the centre-Left tends to be shrill and sort of always in favour of pure denunciation without trying to understand. Everyone seems to believe—that’s too extreme to say everyone, but a lot of people in that region, ideologically the centre-Left, sort of respond as if they think that if they label these people immoral or racist or bigots, that somehow their work is done.
Like a lot of times, you see criticism in our country among people in that who think that way of say, The New York Times. So, if the New York Times runs an article in which they send a reporter to a midwestern state in the middle of the U.S. and they interview some people to try to find out why did you vote for Trump? And they run that story to give them a voice and listen to what they have to say, a whole bunch of people will respond to that by saying, “How could you give these bigots a megaphone?” In other words, we should tell them to shut up, and if we do talk about them at all, always include caveats and clauses, like “As Joe Smith said, expressing his racist convictions.” You have to add that last bit at the end. So that people reading the article—as if the danger is that people reading the article will be seduced to believe that that person and the Ohio diner is somehow correct and then we will have converted people to Trumpism.
When I think it makes much more sense to try to calm down a little bit and keep our judgments tough when they need to be, but also try to understand and listen to what people are saying and grasp why it is that people are voting for this now when they didn’t use to. So that’s the case, and what I try to accomplish in the Substack. It’s called Eyes on the Right; it’s not hit the Right on the head with a sledgehammer. It’s look at them. And I could also say, “Listen, put your ears to the Right.” Listen to what they’re saying. And again, not beyond critical about it, but when critical come from a place where you’re actually criticizing what they say, taking their premises seriously. So yeah, that’s where I’m coming from.
SEAN SPEER: Before we wrap up, we’ll come to politics, including the 2024 presidential race, but I want to stay on the state of conservative ideas. One of my favourites of your recent Substack posts is on an obscure intellectual radical named Curtis Yarvin who has come to attract a following for his heterodox views about the limits of American democracy and the politics of being “red-pilled.” Help us understand the significance of the “red pill” metaphor and Yarvin’s place in the broader trends that you’ve come to document on the American Right.
DAMON LINKER: Yeah, well, according to what I was just saying, if Trump and people like Trump are a couple of clicks further Right than centre-Right liberalism, Yarvin is like a football field further out, or a soccer field. I mean really, his dissent and he started writing this in the late 2000s in a blog that was written under a pseudonym, named Mencius Moldbug. And the reason he wrote under a pseudonym is very obvious if you go back and read those posts because he explicitly thinks democracy is a bad form of government and really thinks that the United States needs to have what he calls, I think somewhat euphemistically, a monarchy. What he really wants is an absolute monarchy or a form of tyranny.
He thinks that we’d be better off if we just had a president who could do whatever he wants, appoint fire, anybody wanted any level of government, the slow creaking, bureaucratic edifice of the federal government that is inevitable in a country of 330 million people. I think that you’re going to have a lot of people who work in that and do things according to rigorous rules and norms and the rule of law and so forth. He just basically wants to clear that all out and just put this person in charge and that person would just declare “I is my prerogative that we do this and do that and get rid of this department of state and I’ll put all my people in charge and we’ll just do whatever I say. There’ll be no question about the legitimacy of pretty much anything.”
So, I think that’s pretty crazy and irresponsible to advocate for that. But the thing that I wrote about in my recent piece, which is longer than most of my essays as it’s a deeper dive, is he combined that political philosophy with an account of our current world that claims—he basically claims that the reason why we need that is because, in effect, we already live in a tyranny ruled by the Left. It’s not that the Left is always in charge through electoral politics, because clearly that isn’t true. We just have the Trump administration a few years ago for four years, and in the first two years, he had control of both houses of Congress plus a majority on the Supreme Court. So that looks like unified Republican rule, but no, Yarvin insists that actually, what’s really in charge is what he calls “The Cathedral”, which is all of the country’s media and academic institutions.
So basically, all the universities, the bureaucratic institutions of the federal government, and then also like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and NPR, all the people who rule these very powerful institutions that disseminate information. And he claims they decide what’s true or false, what’s acceptable, what’s unacceptable to say. they set the terms of debate, and that’s a meta-control that is deeper than the political control of the federal government. If they don’t want something to happen or be talked about, it doesn’t happen. So, they’re in charge. So, if you know the 1999 American movie The Matrix where the guy Neo finds out that his entire world, which looked very much like America in 1999, totally normal—you go to your job, have a relationship, go on vacation, pay your taxes, all your normal stuff in your daily life—actually, none of that is real. It’s a computer simulation controlled by a bunch of intelligent computers who have us all living in a dream. We’re all connected through a dream wired and we don’t know that we’re really dreaming.
And Neo, this character, is given the opportunity to swallow the red pill. And if he swallows the red pill, he wakes up and will see the truth. In the movie, he does swallow the red pill, and he wakes up and discovers in truth, he is in a pool of gelatinous liquid, wired up dreaming his life, which is the life that is very much like the lives we lead now. So Yarvin claims, reading his own work is taking the red pill. He wakes you up to see that we’re enslaved to The Cathedral that runs the world.
And because it’s so insidious, the only way to get rid of it is to put in power a dictator who will basically get rid of The New York Times, get rid of Harvard University, fire everyone who works in the federal government who listens to the scientists who work in the universities, and so forth. This is a really extreme and dangerous way of looking. And you hear people on the American Right talking this way all the time these days. They talk readily about, “Oh, I’ve been red-pilled, and now I see. I see actually how progressive liberals run everything and rule the world.”
What that ends up doing, I think, is you always have to ask what are you giving yourself permission to do?” And if you convince people that actually just winning the next election is like, “That won’t change anything. We actually not only have to win the election, maybe we don’t even have to win, we just have to seize power and topple the whole system and create a new system that we run and construct from the ground up, in which the other side will never even have an opportunity to wield power again.” So again, it’s an ideology that is designed to set up the establishment of a tyrannical government. And it’s crazy, but these tropes of “I just got woken up, it’s all just an illusion, I’ve been red pilled” is spreading on the American Right, and it’s distressing.
SEAN SPEER: I’m a conservative and have grown up in the world of conservative ideas, including the case for limited government and the economic and social spheres. A basic premise of a lot of modern conservatism is to essentially privatize economic decision-making as well as one’s moral life. I wonder sometimes—I admit that I even have these feelings on occasion—if one of the reasons we’ve seen some of these heterodox and even radical ideas on the Right is that the prevailing version of conservatism in the past several decades is boring. In a 2022 article about Francis Fukuyama’s End of History thesis, you wrote about the restart of history, “initiated by those bored, by the peace, prosperity, and equal rights offered by liberal democracy.” Let me put it to you: how much of the current intellectual and political turmoil on the Right should be understood as an expression of boredom with the conservatism of, say, National Review magazine and Ronald Reagan?
DAMON LINKER: Well yeah, I do think there’s definitely something to that, although I want to put a little more flesh on the bones of boring as the way of understanding it, even though you quoted me saying that. But if your listeners go back and read that piece on Fukuyama, what I’m talking about in that piece is his initial arguments in the End of History book. It’s titled The End of History and the Last Man. And the argument, distilled down quickly, is that the motor of human progress and development down through the centuries and millennia is the desire for recognition. And the desire for recognition on the part of individuals has two dimensions. You either want to be recognized as being the equal of others. So, I want you to recognize that I have the same rights that you do.
And then we say, okay, “I believe I have the rights, you do, do you believe I have? You tell me you recognize my equal rights? And then I’ll tell you, I’ll recognize your equal rights.” And that’s how we get liberal democracy. But there’s another dimension to the desire for recognition, which is the desire to be recognized as superior, to be better, to have greater honour, greater dignity, greater nobility than other people. And the promise of liberal democratic capitalism is that people—and not everyone is driven by that craving to be recognized as better. But for those of us, and there are always some of them around who do feel that way, the hope is that instead of taking over the government and becoming a dictator and making everyone bow down before you, that instead you’ll become like Elon Musk or Bill Gates or someone who’s in charge of a huge enterprise and you’ll become rich, and you’ll be recognized as being brilliant.
You’ll be the next Steve Jobs or something like this. And that will satisfy your desire for standing out and being better. That you become one of the richest people in the world, and you can buy anything you want, and you can create new enterprises that employ thousands of people, and you’re known around the world. All these things. The question though, is whether even that is enough. Are there people who long for the exaltation of greatness that you can only get, say, by conquering the world, like Alexander the Great or Napoleon, or just being that tyrant to whom everyone bows down? Or even for a more, in a more ordinary way, like, is it enough to get up and go work and have a nice house and have kids and put them through college and so forth—these more quotidian kinds of achievements?
Is that enough to keep, again, not everybody, but some people who have itch for greatness beyond that, a lust for glory? What happens to those people if they aren’t satisfied with it? And it could be that our societies became so liberal democratic—especially in the wake of the Cold War. So, we’re not even still involved in this great world-historical clash with communism. Now that’s been settled. All there is get a job, get a house, put your kids through college, do this do that, and then you die. There might be enough people around who find that intolerably mediocre, what Nietzsche called “the Last Man”, which is again the latter part of Fukuyama’s title, The End of History and the Last Man. This notion that we will become subhuman in our mediocrity by not striving to achieve anything great.
And again, it’s not that everyone will feel that way, but are there enough people who will be troublemakers if they’re not satisfied in that lust for glory? That they’ll actually act to tear down the world, burn it down just for the sake of the mess that it’ll make and the opportunities that will provide them to shine in the chaos. I don’t know if your listeners know the Christopher Nolan three Batman movies and the one with the Joker, I forget what the exact title is because they all sound the same to me, but the middle movie where he lights a huge mountain of cash on fire with gasoline. And then I think, Alfred the Butler comments that some people just want to watch the world burn. Well, there are some people who would like that, and I get the feeling someone like Yarvin might be one of them, but he doesn’t want to burn it himself; he wants to be giving advice to the person who will burn it down.
SEAN SPEER: In my penultimate question, I want to ask about a point that we’ve already discussed, which is that you’ve written positively in the past about a conservatism that was less dogmatically libertarian on economics and even a bit to the Right on culture broadly defined. It’s fair to say, as you said earlier, Damon, that to the extent to which Trump occupied this political space, it was mostly a function of raw intuition or self-interest, or whatever. There are, however, credible voices, including, say, Oren Cass at American Compass, trying to bring intellectual expression to such a vision of American conservatism. Does that resonate with you at all? And what do you think its prospects are in terms of taking over the centre of gravity of Republican politics and American conservatism more generally?
DAMON LINKER: Well, as an intellectual pursuit, I think it has value. I think Oren Cass’s is a project that is interesting and worth watching. Some things published also at—oh, all the journals sound the same. There are a number of new journals that have been founded since Trump came on the scene to explore the policy quadrant opened up by this new, more populist conservatism, and I’m all for that. I read those magazines, or at least look at them and read selectively when I think something is interesting. The problem is that I don’t see so far this gaining much traction on the Right. As I said earlier, the Republicans just took a narrow majority in the House of Representatives, and I don’t see any evidence that that stuff is really gaining ground in the party.
Part of the problem is that the people in the party who control the purse strings—I mentioned in passing a few minutes ago about the donors. The really rich people on the right who donate to political campaigns still care mostly about having their taxes cut and regulations cut for their own businesses, and so forth. As long as the money is coming in that way, you’re not going to get a huge ground swell unless the Republican electorate was really, really committed unambiguously to the other side. But as I also said earlier, that’s not even clear. It’s sort of some, I don’t know if it’s 50/50 exactly, but there is a hunger for that among some Republicans, but there’s still plenty of Republicans who are just like, “Get the government out of my life, get it off my back, cut my taxes, leave me alone. I don’t want anything to do with you. The old American “don’t tread on me” mentality is still very powerful, and the Republican Party is a big focal point for that, those feelings.
So as long as that’s the case, I don’t really know what the prospect for that is electorally. It’s frustrating, because I do think there is a potential for that to be something healthy and good, but we live in a country with only two parties, and so they divvy up the options. The way they’re divvied up now, it hasn’t yet worked to accomplish a true realignment where the Republican Party outrightly flips to something different. It’s sort of stillborn so far. It just hasn’t really happened yet. I think that’s unfortunate, and I’ll keep watching and hoping but I’m not seeing it at the moment.
SEAN SPEER: I said earlier that my last question had to be about politics, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t raise it. Polling tells us that Trump’s position as the undisputed leader of the Republican Party is no longer quite so undisputed. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis seems to be his biggest threat yet. Let me ask a two-part question. First, in your view, does DeSantis represent a continuation of Trumpist politics or a return to normalcy, or something altogether different? And second, do you view him as a credible threat to Trump in 2024?
DAMON LINKER: Well, I’ll start with that last thing. Yes, he is a credible threat to Trump. We’ll see, the voting doesn’t start for another year, and a lot can happen in that time, but he is polling decently, and I’ve been impressed as a tactical issue how he’s handling the early stages of this. I’m impressed that he’s very disciplined. He doesn’t take Trump’s bait. He is like, “You can attack me if you want. I’m going after Biden; I’m not taking your bait.” And I think that that is the best thing for him to do now. Now eventually he’s going to end up on a debate stage facing Trump, and he won’t be able to do that. But for now, I’ve been impressed at the discipline and focus of the guy and his advisors. Ideologically, he is clearly on the culture war side, the cultural side of populism, he is very much not only a continuation of Trump but, I think, a much more effective cogent exponent of Trumpism.
He doesn’t just talk about it in tweets and in rallies; he actually is accomplishing things culturally on the ground in Florida. Now I’m sympathetic to some of his aims there. I’m very anti-woke, as they say, but I’m skittish about how mean he is about it. He likes to throw red meat to the angriest Republican voters, which again, tactically from a strategy point of view, might be smart, but it’s dangerous. Because these are potentially very nasty impulses that can bleed over into outright government discrimination of minorities and so forth in a way that worries me. I would not be tempted by voting for this guy unless the whole way of framing that message changes rather dramatically in a much more broad way.
I’m in favour of something that appeals to a lot more Americans than just this faction of Republicans. But then the other side of it is that we really don’t know much about what DeSantis thinks about economic policy but his record when he was in Congress and the House indicates that he’s even further in the libertarian direction than Paul Ryan was. He actually voted in favour of a more draconian cut to entitlements and taxes than Ryan supported. So the real question that’s going to come up as we get closer to votes actually being cast is, well, wait a minute, what do you have? Do you repudiate that? Are you now more in the economic populist quadrant, or is all the culture war smoke and mirrors just to conceal that when you get in the real thing you want to do is cut taxes, cut social security, cut Medicare, and so forth?
So is this really just more of the same Republican thing which we’ve seen over and over down through the decades of, like, “Yeah, we talk a good game on the culture, conservative stuff party, but the thing we really care about is letting rich people keep more of their money.” If that’s what DeSantis ends up standing for, then I think it’ll be another example of what I mean about being stillborn, where he’s half a true populist and half not. But it is early, and we don’t really know. I mean, similarly on foreign policy, we have no idea where he stands because he’s the governor of a state. There’s no real foreign policy there. And so, we have a lot to learn about the guy, but thankfully a lot of time.
SEAN SPEER: Well, for those who want to understand not just the guy but the deeper intellectual and political currents that are shaping politics on the American Right, I’d recommend you check out Damon Linker’s must-read newsletter, Eyes on the Right. Damon, thank you so much for joining us at Hub Dialogues.
DAMON LINKER: Thanks for having me. Good conversation.