On this episode of American Thought Leaders, I sat down with Claremont Institute fellow David Reaboi at the National Conservatism Conference in Florida to discuss the broader impact that progressive ideology is having on America.
“We’re seeing the necessary consequence of, let’s say, ‘radical left thought’ over the last 50 years really in full bloom,” says Reaboi. “We’re living in a place now, or an America now, where the most grave threat to our lives and liberties come not from a foreign country, but from our own government.”
We discuss a host of topics, from the roots of conspiracy theories, to the redefining of the concept of justice, to the pitfalls of urban planning.
“The conservative movement needs to sit down and address what urbanism looks like in a way that is not a kind-of free-market, post-Cold War, fundamentalist libertarian, free for all … Walgreens and Starbucks and Orangetheory lining the streets of every city,” says Reaboi.
David Reaboi, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Great to be here.
David, I recently did a quick interview here at the National Conservatism Conference with Senator Rick Scott. We talked about him being in New York on 9/11. We were doing the recording on 9/11, and immediately I was surprised to see in my feed that someone was talking about it being an inside job. You have some thoughts about 9/11 “conspiracy theories.” Tell me what you’re thinking.
I was a New Yorker at that time. I lived through 9/11. I was right there. At first, I used to get very angry about it. I didn’t understand how people could be conspiracy theorists. Then over the years, especially in the last couple of years, it dawned on me why, and a few thoughts occurred.
One was that we’re living in a place now or an America now where the most grave threat to our lives and liberties come not from a foreign country, but from our own government, whether it be in terms of persecution of political enemies, whether it be draconian nonsense in regards to COVID and all this, or what they want for us in terms of Green New Deal and all this stuff.
It’s pretty uncontroversial to say that. Essentially, what we saw the other night with Joe Biden’s speech, our own leaders hate us more than any foreign country hates us. Okay, so you’ve got that on one hand, that realization.
And then on the other hand you start to think, “Well, if they could do something terrible, then maybe they did.” I think that’s necessarily a mistake. It’s an analysis mistake where you see that the people who I hate the most could do this horrible thing, and in fact, they did do it, only because they’re bad and that’s what bad people do, and we saw that.
The best example for that was Trump-Russia for the last several years, which is you had an entire credentialed class of Russia experts all come together and say, “You know what? We hate Trump and we hate Putin; therefore, these two things have to go together. There is nothing that’s going to prevent us from imagining all kinds of nefarious dealings between these two.” So, you have that on one hand.
Then, on the other, the conspiracy temptation at the end of the day is a security blanket. It’s a security blanket that says, “There is some order to the world. Our intelligence services or their intelligence services or whoever, they’re ultra-competent. Our enemies are 12 feet tall, and anything they set out to do, they can achieve.
They can manipulate every little possible.” That may be terrifying superficially, but at the end of the day, it is a security blanket, because it presumes that there is order in the world, and it presumes that if we just fix and we just get rid of the bad guys and we replace them with good guys, the whole thing will be fixed. This is the QAnon phenomenon in many respects.
My message is, I think, that the government class, our elite class, yes, they hate us. No, they’re not good at their jobs, and no one is coming to save you. There’s not necessarily an order to the madness that can be explained by a vast conspiracy theory. Now, I think there are definitely conspiracies, for sure, but they operate on a smaller level. When you have one conspiracy theory that explains everything, it is more than likely not true, and more than likely speaking to a deep need in the believer.
I want to talk about the hate you’re describing, i.e., “The elite class hates us.” I’ve heard people say that, and I’ve also heard people say, “No, this is just a political ploy. There isn’t deep emotion involved here. This is just simply a power play and marginalization of the political group that we’re not aligned with.” How do you see that?
I think there’s definitely hate from the point of view of the elites, the hate elites have of most of the country. At this point, it’s very obvious. Twitter has been amazing for this, because you see it raw and unvarnished. Heck, you can now see it on broadcast TV. You see it on The View every night or every day. You see it on MSNBC and CNN all the time.
There is a palatable amount of contempt that these people have for their political enemies. All of these people, as a few folks have said, all of these people, at the end of the day, the Left, let’s say the mainstream Left, have all bought into the old Marcuse idea of repressive tolerance, which is that, “In the service of our ideology, they’re all fascists.”
“We don’t allow fascists to speak.” Once you’ve defined half the country as fascist, and once you’ve said half the country then has no right to speak, and these opinions are not legitimate political disagreements and speech is violence, by the way, then you have a moral obligation, or not a moral, but an intellectual obligation, an ideological obligation to follow through on this stuff.
And that’s what we’re seeing. We’re seeing the necessary consequence of, let’s say, radical Left thought over the last 50 years really in full bloom. Really, it’s terrifying, because I always say, “If they believe 50 per cent of what they say, we’re in a lot of trouble as a society.”
To me, it strikes me that there’s these political operatives. Someone else wrote President Biden’s speech. He didn’t write that. I’m pretty sure, right? Someone else wrote that.
“Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic.”
In fact, I think he was back peddling on it the next day. So, there’s a political motivation to all of this, that is what you’re saying. Do you think that hate and contempt are the primary motivators here? Do I understand that right?
No, I think that’s the flowering of the necessary … It’s the flowering necessary consequence of their ideology. They’ve been put into a box or put themselves into a box where they say that we are fascist and punch a Nazi. Of course, they’re the ones who decide who is the Nazi. They’re the ones who decide who’s the fascist on an ever-shifting scale. Definitely, we’re in a cold civil war.
I believe personally that the country is coming apart in an irreparable way, and that we are at the end of this American experience. How that is going to take shape in the future is an open question. But I don’t think we can come back from this. I don’t think an election or anything like that can come back from this, because the basis of our disagreement, I think, is a disagreement on the concept of justice.
Every civilization needs to agree at the very basic level, what is justice? Justice as the West has traditionally understood it since the Enlightenment is equal justice. You and I, we may be from different backgrounds. We may commit a crime, our different backgrounds have no bearing on our guilt.
For half the country now, we say that that’s right and proper, and in fact, that’s really the only way to run a civilized country that is fair for all the people. The Left has rejected that in favor of group rights and in favor of group conceptions, of social justice, so it really turns that on its head.
Now this particular understanding of justice has infected every bit of society. There are so many examples every day that pop up to really illustrate this, to the point where we just shrug our shoulders and say, “Oh, it’s a Trump supporter who’s facing a jury in Washington DC. Or a conservative that, ‘Well, that person obviously isn’t going to get a fair trial.'” We say it’s not a big deal, but in fact, it is a big deal.
Because the basis of our country and our civilization is that, yes, that person should be able to get a fair shake, and the people should decide based on things that are not related to Klan or race or politics or religion or whatever. So, I think once that’s eroded, you don’t just get it back. You have to suffer the consequences of that erosion.
I don’t really actually think it’s half the country that believes in this alternate model of justice. I think it’s a much smaller but very fervent group. and then there’s some portion of the people that just go along to get along. What do you think?
You’re probably right. The number of people who think about it in these terms is probably very, very small, but that’s it. I think it’s a larger group than you may think; not explicitly endorsing a two-tier justice system, but who de facto say, “Okay.”
In this country, we tried very hard explicitly to overcome these types of prejudices when it came to different ethnic groups, and we understood that it is something that should be overcome. It’s like if you are of a certain race, you are allowed to say something, where someone of another race cannot say the same word, even if all things are equal.
Some school district, I think in Michigan or somewhere, they said, “You know what?” Or Minnesota, “You know what? When we cut our budgets, we’re going to cut the white teachers first.” This would’ve been crazy, unfathomable not long ago, but here we are. As you said, it’s so ingrained in our elites and in the elite mentality that through the elites it infects many other things, and it does so through social media and journalism and all that stuff.
But I’m not sure how you defeat this particular point of view with the elites, other than to appeal to the folks who have this old fashioned, very American conception of equal justice to just say, “No, this is an important thing that we need to hold on to.”
Speaking of conspiracy theories, people pointed to this conspiracy theory that the academy, that all these institutions are being taken over by the Left. People say, “No, they’re just some students. They’ll grow out of it. There’s no big plan.” Do you think there was a big plan to have people with this ideology specifically be able to work together to grab the levers of power?
Well, yes and no. I don’t think that 50 years ago they would have looked around and said, “You know what? They’re talking about weird gender stuff and at some point, we’ll get to the point where we’ll talk about weird gender stuff, and that’s good, and that’s what we want.” I don’t think it works that way.
I think that the Left has been … It’s established to be a self-licking ice cream cone, a self-radicalizing ice cream cone over the years. 50 or 60, 70 years ago, when they were first encountering some of these institutions with the very explicit idea of subverting them and taking them over, they didn’t know the result, but they knew approximately the form that it would take because they were smart people.
So explain to me the self-radicalizing ice cream cone.
It’s in the nature of progressivism. It’s in the work. It’s progress, it’s not a destination. It is always the search for more expansive rights, for more expansive understandings of expression, for breaking down more barriers. Every couple of years, you will encounter folks who used to be on the Left, even the far Left, who say, “Whoa, this is completely crazy.” They will say, “Yes, of course. It’s the natural result of moving towards an egalitarian society”
Even Barack Obama used to say, and what does it mean, “The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.” Well, we don’t know what’s over that rainbow, but it’s going to be good. That has been the currency of the Left. In fact, it’s been the Left since the French Revolution at the very least, which was continually radicalizing.
It ended up in a very bloody way, with one group killing the other group. And it happened in Communist countries, happened in the USSR, and under Mao. One group was not radical enough. They have to be liquidated to make room for the more radical groups. So, that’s the history of the Left.
A number of guests on this show who, for example, lived through the cultural revolution in China, or through the killing fields in Cambodia, have pointed out on this show that there’s a lot of similarities. But what the difference is there isn’t this large-scale killing, which seems to be characteristic of all these cultural revolutions that have happened. Is it fair to make this comparison?
I think it’s very fair. I would compare the temptation and the intentions of the Left in America today, and I’m including, let’s say, the mainstream Left and the government, to some of the worst regimes in history. I would do it. I would say the intention is there.
However, they’re a little more sophisticated and a little more squeamish when it comes to violence. They don’t want to get their hands dirty, so they can very easily shut off a financial spigot or they can de-platform you. I think for them, social media is a great opportunity to be able to regulate the thoughts and opinions of the people in society that they despise.
They think that by shutting it off on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram, and removing from Google searches and YouTube and all this stuff, they think they’re able to disappear the air in which, let’s say, dissent from orthodoxy happens. I think they may be right about that.
At the end of the day, they don’t need to throw us in camps if they take away our livelihood, if they take away our bank accounts, if they take away the ability for us to express ourselves and to understand ourselves, and to get news to navigate the political and cultural space. They don’t need to do anything more to us than that.
What you’re describing is, you could call it Communism. I think Rod Dreher calls it a soft totalitarianism. Fascism actually comes to mind as a term, because there’s this corporate-government fusion, which constantly we’re learning more about how closely that works together. Have you ever come across, I believe it was James Lindsay’s term, the iron law of woke projection?
Sure. Yes. They accuse you of doing what they’re doing at all times.
Why is this an iron law? Because frankly, whenever I see examples of it, I rarely see counter examples, but it could be just because of my confirmation bias, right?
I don’t know. I try not to get overly psychoanalytic about some of these folks, especially not ever having met all of them. I think it’s different in every case. But I do think at the very base level it’s something that’s common throughout humanity, and especially common since, let’s say, the dawn of the Left. You can even say since the French Revolution, which is to say people get so obsessed with ideology. Ideology takes the form that fanatical religiosity used to take in the ancient times. They get so obsessed with the ideology that it overrides their basic humanity. We see this in terms of the trans kids issue.
I wonder and I was thinking the other day. I see Taylor Lorenz devoting her life, who works at the Washington Post, devoting her life to make sure that nobody knows who’s performing these horrible medical procedures on minors and trying to destroy anyone who points out that yes, it is happening. I think what could be the motivation of someone like this to do something so horrible?
Then I thought she, I’m sure, sees herself as a trans-ally, and any bad reflection on her, what she perceives to be as the trans community needs to be tamped down and needs to be squashed, regardless of circumstance. If you make an anomaly, you’ve got to break some eggs. She and others on the Left have just closed off their basic humanity, because they’re obsessed. They’re ideologically fervent, true believers.
I’ve talked to perhaps over 100 separate people who have told me that, and these are people that would call themselves disaffected liberals, perhaps that’s the term. They’ve told me that roughly, paraphrasing, that the thing that opened their eyes, that red pill moment, that’s another term that’s commonly used, is when during COVID, the Black Lives Matter riots and protests are happening and this letter is published by some, I think it’s 1200 health professionals that says, “No, this is good and just.
This is good health policy to have people out here in the midst. For everybody else or any other reason, it would be terrible health policy because of COVID, but because racism is a bigger health issue, these things are good and just.” I’m paraphrasing, and a lot of people at that moment, as you were describing earlier, said, “Okay, whoa, there’s something really, really amiss here.” Ideology can be incredibly powerful.
I think those people who you’re describing, the disaffected leftists or disaffected liberals, at the end of the day, they had a classical liberal understanding of things, which is to say, an unequal justice understanding of things. The folks who you’re talking to who were disaffected Leftists or liberals, they look at that and they said, “That’s crazy. How can you do that? That violates the most basic law of classical liberalism, the enlightenment, all this stuff.” The answer is, “Yes, of course, it does.” That’s who we’re dealing with.
We’re here in Florida at the NaCon Conference, and we had Governor Ron DeSantis speak earlier. A lot of what he spoke about was actually in various ways standing up to the fruits of this ideology. A lot of his popularity seems to come from him standing up to the fruits of this ideology, now that I think about it. Why is Florida so different than many other states in the country in your mind? By the way, you moved here too.
I moved here before COVID. I moved here in early 2019. I was fortunate to be here before, and then everyone started coming. I thought I would be alone here, but so many friends came to join me. As I say, Miami has had a boom time before, like Orlando and Tampa and other major cities. But this is really the first time in the state’s history that the whole state is booming.
That is, I think, a 100 per cent a reflection of the leadership of Governor DeSantis during COVID, and really, since then. We all know what he did. He was coming out very firmly and saying, “No, let’s not go crazy about this. Let’s not make this state a biomedical security state. Let us allow for people to live freely and really make their own decisions and not be hysterical about this.”
He stood up and he took so many arrows from the press, from other politicians, from activist groups, not only the United States, but internationally. Without his example, I don’t think there’s another state that would’ve come out ahead and lessened their COVID restrictions and allowed people to get back to normal life the way they did after Ron DeSantis did it in Florida. I do think that he saved the country in that respect. He was the guy who was there, and he was the guy who did it, and he was a great example. And people don’t forget it.
Also, they came down here. I didn’t know this until I heard from him last night, that 45 per cent or something, maybe 40 per cent of the total tourism to the United States from abroad has been to Florida in the last year. So, people from all over the world understand that what we’ve created here is something very special.
Certainly, amidst the very populated states with these large cities like Miami, it was a very unusual approach, and it has withstood the test of time.
I think that Florida is experiencing a boom, which is wonderful for a number of great reasons, but they’re also pitfalls because a lot of this stuff is not cost-free. For example, I am very bullish on the state of Florida, but I think that the leadership of the city of Miami is terrible. It started me thinking about how we understand urbanism, and how we understand citizenship and how we understand ownership of space and ownership of the country.
After 2016, conservatives have come to understand that Donald Trump was right about the most basic things. If you don’t have a border, you don’t have a country. We understand now on the Right, most of us out there, understand that there is a finite number of immigrants, both legal and illegal, that any given country can take in without being overwhelmed with assimilation issues or changing the character of a country issues, all these things.
We understand on a basic level, what Ron DeSantis said the other night, which is the state, the government is there to protect the lives of its citizens. That’s an important distinction. The people who live here, they’ve started businesses and families and all kinds of things. Okay. So we understand that when it comes to the United States of America.
But our urban policy when it comes to, let’s say, the city of Miami is, “Okay, open the doors. Double the size of your metropolitan area. It’s okay. The people who live here, it’ll be fine. Even if they’re priced out of their homes and their businesses and only multimillionaires can now afford to buy property or to live in a place, it’s fine. Because at the end of the day, the only thing matters is the free market and the tax receipts, and the economic activity that’s generated by the city.”
It occurred to me that there is a massive disconnect here. We’ve come to understand one thing about the country, but we toss away all of those lessons when it comes to the city or the county or the location. I think the conservative movement needs to sit down and address what urbanism looks like in a way that is not free market, post-Cold War fundamentalist, Libertarian, free-for-all, Walgreens and Starbucks and Orange Theory lining the streets of every city.
I think the Left has a very good point when it comes to gentrification. I’ve seen it, it’s real, and it’s a mixed bag. It’s good and bad. But for the Right, the Right has for the last several decades refused to deal with the bad. It’s just said, “You know what? Creative destruction is fine. It doesn’t matter that all of these old businesses could no longer afford to operate.
It doesn’t matter that this once Cuban or Italian neighborhood is now full of newcomers and its character has completely changed.” In fact, the people who used to live there got priced out. They’re now living 100 miles away and in the middle of the swamp. That’s okay, because it’s still Miami, it’s still wonderful.
So we have to recalibrate our idea of what urbanism is, about what city policy and city planning is. I would love to see Miami avoid that fate, because I see it happening. I saw it happening in San Francisco and New York and Washington D.C. and in Austin, places where I’ve lived. It’s very important to maintain the tie to what made a place great. I think it’s a very conservative value, and it’s something that needs to come back.
Looking back at woke ideology, which is really what we’ve been talking about earlier, it has this huge, what I would call antipathy towards history and tradition. It believes that these things are just power plays and it needs to construct its own variance to justify itself, because that’s just how things work. It just strikes me that there seems to be a parallel between that approach and what you’re describing as perhaps happening in the cities.