What motivated the rioters to buy plane tickets and storm the Captol? Was it a pre-meditated, organized coup or something more spur-of-the-moment? And what’s the future of the Republican Party, given that so many base voters still support Trump?
On this inaugural episode of the Vital Center podcast, The Week’s Damon Linker joins Niskanen’s Geoffrey Kabaservice to discuss the intellectual, psychological, political, and socio-cultural forces behind the January 6 riots, and if/how moderates can play a role in bringing the U.S. back to normalcy.
Geoff Kabaservice: I’m Geoff Kabaservice for the Niskanen Center. Welcome to the Vital Center podcast, where we’ll try to sort through the problems of the mighty, muddled, moderate majority of Americans, drawing on history, biography, and current events.
I’m delighted to have Damon Linker with us today. Damon wears many hats. He’s one of America’s best and most productive columnists, writing for The Week at a nearly unbelievable clip of three times a week in most weeks of the year. He’s also a professor, the author of two books, The Theocons and The Religious Test. He has edited both publications and books, and he’s a podcaster with Mona Charen’s Beg to Differ podcast, put out by The Bulwark. So welcome, David.
Damon Linker: Thanks for having me, Geoff. I’m excited to be here. I think we’re going to have a good chat.
Geoff Kabaservice: Really glad to talk to you. Where are you right now?
Damon Linker: I’m in my home in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, just a little bit outside of the city.
Geoff Kabaservice: Okay. How long have you been in the Pennsylvania area?
Damon Linker: And I should have said the city of Philadelphia. We’ve lived here about 15 years now. My wife’s a professor at Penn, has tenure there. So we moved here when she got that job. So even when I’ve worked in New York, I’ve commuted from this long distance down here near Philly.
Geoff Kabaservice: Okay. And how have you been doing amidst the pandemic and threatened collapse of the republic?
Damon Linker: Well, I always have to say I’m very privileged. This is supposed to be a confession we all make now, but I am in the sense that my life has not changed a whole heck of a lot in the pandemic. I always worked mostly from home.
Now, if there had been no pandemic, I’d be teaching in a classroom. So that has changed, having to teach from Zoom sessions in my home. That’s not ideal for teaching, so that is a change. But my main job has always been, at least for the last several years, the column writing, and that has always been done very much from my house.
So the main difference in my life of the last nine months is there are a lot more people in the house now with me. I used to do this largely by myself while my wife was on Penn’s campus teaching and my kids were at school, but now everyone’s at home hunkered down doing it with me.
Geoff Kabaservice: I write a column every week or so usually on average and I find it very difficult to do that. I feel like I maybe could have a better time concentrating if I was on my own at the bottom of a well somewhere. I just don’t know how you turn it out three times a week at such a high level of quality in a house full of people.
Damon Linker: Well, thank you. That’s very flattering. I don’t know how to answer how I do that. I think I have, or at least have developed sort of like a marathon runner develops a certain kind of stamina, I’ve developed over the years a very high level of ability to concentrate and kind of tune out the world around me when I’m doing this kind of work. That helps with the distractions of the domestic life here in the house.
And then as for how I come up with things to say and meet deadline, I don’t know. I started doing this seven years ago, January of 2014, and came right out of the gate and just found myself capable of doing it. And I have to say that as the state of things in the country has degraded under the Trump presidency, my work has in that respect gotten that much easier. Because the hardest part the first few years during the boring second Obama administration was coming up with something I wanted to say three times a week, whereas now, there’s just always some looping pitch coming over the plate from the latest news cycle that I can pronounce on.
It’s like my biggest fear for my career would be if Trump just disappeared, everything went back to pre-Trump normal, Biden was a really boring kind of middle of the road president. And by the middle of 2022, I’m sort of banging my head against the wall every day trying to figure out what the heck to write a column about. That would be very good for the country, but not so good for me personally. So there’s a tension there.
Geoff Kabaservice: It may or may not be true that may you live in interesting times is an ancient Chinese curse. The flip side of interesting times is that they are interesting.
Damon Linker: Yes, indeed. They are. It’s very stimulating. Fundamental questions of political philosophy are raised all the time now in a way that they aren’t when politics is conducted between on the 40 yard lines, with left and right sort of in toward the center, and the further extremes as sort of just a kind of academic discussion. Now, our politics seems to veer further out from the center all the time, and that does raise much bigger, more sweeping questions about political issues and kind of extreme cases. So that does make for very interesting topics of columns. It makes for a sort of ominous political context however to live in.
Geoff Kabaservice: Very true. And that does also provide the raison d’etre for a Vital Center podcast, even if the center is not quite as vital perhaps as it might’ve been once upon a time, for those who may not know what kind of a publication is The Week?
Damon Linker: The Week is actually one for which a vital centrist like myself is quite at home. That doesn’t mean that everybody who writes there is a centrist by any means. We have Ryan Cooper, who’s very firmly on the left, probably Bernie Sanders or even further left than that. And then we have Michael Walther who is quite on the right, but a quirky, unusual right, where he’s a deeply pious Catholic who, for instance, is the kind of person who writes columns with a title like The Conservative Case for Socialized Medicine. And then we have a range of other people, some of whom are on staff, others of whom are regular freelancers who are just sort of all over the map.
What we don’t really have a lot of, which is what I meant when I said that it was a good place for a vital centrist, is we don’t really have a lot of people who are sort of pulling for the standard settled political positioning of the parties, by which I mean, say, and I don’t mean any disrespect to him because I think he’s very good at what he does, but say someone like a Jonathan Chait who was a total Obamaite, even went so far as writing a book at the end of the Obama administration about how great Obama was. And we have nobody on staff who’s really that kind of writer, who’s just sort of advancing the agenda of center left Democrats as they exist in Washington.
We also have not a lot of people writing kind of, I don’t know, Bulwark style defenses of, say, Bush-era Republicanism. We just don’t have that. We sort of have lots of kind of offside positions, so further left than the Democrats, further right than the Republicans in weird ways, and then myself who is a centrist, but not a centrist in a kind of Howard Schultzey kind of way, Michael Bloomberg kind of way. I’m not that kind of centrist.
Geoff Kabaservice: Do you mean that you’re not a billionaire?
Damon Linker: No, I’m not a billionaire and I also don’t sell coffee for a living. But yeah, I mean, my own definition of centrism is almost the kind of inverse of that other kind of centrism, whereas those both tend to sort of take the more libertarianist or libertarianish aspects of each party’s positions and put them together into one thing. I sort of take the more anti-libertarianish aspects of both parties and put them together.
So I tend to be more conservative on cultural questions and more liberal and economic questions. You could say I’m kind of a centrist populist of a kind, which means I don’t have a lot of company in our actual day-to-day political life in the country. And of course that’s much to be regretted, not just for my own loneliness, but because I think it would be good for the country. But then again, that’s the ultimate pundit fallacy, isn’t it? That I think the whole country would be better if there were more people like me.
Geoff Kabaservice: Oh yes. I agree completely. And that’s actually a very interesting way to describe yourself politically. I love the Beg to Differ podcast that Mona runs and that you appear on with Bill Gauston and Linda Chavez, but I’ve always had a bit of a problem with the tagline that Mona uses, which is that it brings you opinion from across the political spectrum from center left to center right. That sort of seems like Dorothy Parker’s witticism about an actress whose emotions ran the gamut from A to B.
Damon Linker: Yeah, I get it. And I think that kind of to myself every time I hear her say that. I do think that to the extent, dare to dream, Donald Trump does recede a little bit into the rear view mirror over the coming weeks and months, that differences between us will crop up more. One reason why, and this is the kind of distortive quality to the spectrum when you have someone who’s kind of out pretty far on one side like Donald Trump has been, that those who are in the center begin to kind of cluster together. This is kind of the horseshoe theory of the spectrum, like that extremes make the center come together in the middle.
So I think if our politics, again, dare to dream, becomes debates about the Biden administration’s budget plans and policy priorities for healthcare and the minimum wage, and all kinds of other standard kind of policy-focused political debates, you’re going to start to hear Mona and Linda on the more conservative side and Bill and I probably making the case in defense of what Biden is trying to do.
So, again, I would like to think that we will revert to something like that. It’s going to be partly a function of the extent to which the craziness of the last four years, and especially the last two months, starts to wane a little bit. And whether that’s a realistic hope, I don’t quite know yet.
Geoff Kabaservice: Nor do we. Damon, do I recall that The Week is sort of both a British and an American publication?
Damon Linker: It is. There is no digital arm of the British version of the magazine. I mean, that’s the thing. It’s a print magazine and there are different of the magazine in the UK and the US, but the website is just in this country. And they’re very, very different. Unlike a lot of places that use a business model where there’s an old print magazine that’s sort of slowly dying over time because fewer people subscribe and ad rates for print are going down and down and down over time, and so the magazine then tries to get the website to try to bring in money to make ends meet. We have thankfully the opposite model at The Week where the magazine is actually extremely successful, has very high rates of subscriptions. And we don’t discount them very much, so we make all of our money basically from the magazine. And then the website exists almost like putting out a shingle for the public to try to bring in subscriptions to the magazine and to offer a very different kind of content.
The magazine is almost entirely digest material without by-lines, where news stories, kind of arts and leisure stories, and then opinion pieces from other publications are paraphrased and digested for readers to kind of get a true sense and kind of overview of what happened in the world over the last week, whereas the website is the opposite. It’s almost entirely originally written material, lots and lots of opinion columns like mine that don’t appear in the magazine, and very little of the magazine appears on the website. So it’s an unusual model, but it works for us as a business.
Geoff Kabaservice: Damon, I’m not sure when this podcast will go up, but we are speaking in the week after the assault on the Capitol, at a time when the ashes, metaphorically speaking at least, still feel warm. And your first post-riot column went up the week on January 7th, so you must have written it the night of the riot.
Damon Linker: Yeah, probably. I actually can’t remember if I wrote it then or early in the morning the next day and they edited it and put it up right away, but it could have been either of them. But yes, it was pretty quick.
Geoff Kabaservice: Well, your first sentence of that piece declared that the events of Wednesday, January 6th, 2021 were not an attempted coup. Is that still how you feel?
Damon Linker: Yeah, I mean, this comes from my political science training. I just really think that it matters that we define these things correctly for the purposes of analysis. And a coup is an elite action, usually involving members of the military, where a non-legal, extra legal power grab is attempted by these elites. The classic case, which most coups could be described as, is when the military attempts to power or the person who’s already in power attempts to get the military on his or her side to remain in power. That would be a self-coup.
So for instance, a coup would be if Trump on Wednesday, January 20th at noon refused to step down as president and claimed he was going to continue to be president and the military backed him up in that so that there was nothing that anyone could do immediately to stop it. Likewise, if he tried that and the military refused to go along, that would be a failed coup.
Damon Linker: Similarly, if Biden becomes president and two weeks later Trump waltzed in with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs at his side declaring that he was now, once again president, that would be a coup as well.
What we saw on the 6th was something different. That was an insurrection that was incited by the President of the United States in order to reverse an election. Now, again, if the end result is to make Trump president, I see why people would say that sounds like a coup, but again, he did not do it in a coup-ish way, which would be to, again, get some powerful force in the elite of American politics to make it happen. He instead bypassed the elites and went straight to his supporters and got them to try to do it for him. And that’s different. That’s, again, incitement to an insurrection. So that’s the way I think it’s proper to think about it.
Geoff Kabaservice: You pointed out that Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz and others of those who are, in a lot of ways, behind these events essentially were doing what their constituents demanded and approved of. And you cited that YouGov poll, which said that 45% of Republican voters on the afternoon of January 6th approved of what happened in Washington, and you concluded that the insurrectionists are their constituents.
Damon Linker: Yeah, exactly. That is our problem. And I keep writing about this in different ways. I mean, I have on and off for the last four years, but more and more so since the election of November 3rd, that we are in a situation where Trump has cultivated a segment of Republican voters to essentially become followers of him personally rather than Republicans.
Now, we, meaning the Republican party as an institution, now, we can go back and forth about this, and people do debate does Trump own the Republican party now? Has he turned it into the Trump party? And there are some respects in which that is an accurate way of looking at it, but I think what we’ve definitely seen since the election in November is that it might be more accurate to say that what he has really is that the Republican party is itself sort of split with a lot of the voters willing to vote for Trump in elections because they believe what they care about is advanced by doing it, but it’s only a subset of those voters, maybe say 30% roughly of the party itself, who are really true Trumpists who really care about him. And if the Republican party is him, there’ll be Republican. But if he splits from the Republican party, they will vote for him and essentially form a separate party that is the Trump party.
That seems to be what’s happening. And that latter party, that Trump party is completely dominated by conspiratorial delusional fantasies. And that is extremely scary and extremely dangerous for the future of American democracy. And I think there are any number of ways it could go, one of which would be the insurrection continuing.
Now, the weird thing about recording this podcast right here in the middle between the insurrection of the 6th and the inauguration on the 20th, a day between now, which, again, is January, what, 12th? Yeah, between now and the actual inauguration day, a lot of these groups, Trumpist groups have been promising major demonstrations, more violence in as many as all 50 state capitals and Washington. Now, if that were to happen, I think things could very easily spiral in a truly disastrous direction fairly quickly. But Washington is basically an armed camp right now, both in the Capitol building itself with I think hundreds of National Guard troops, and all over the city, there are National Guard troops stationed.
So I don’t know how much could realistically happen in Washington itself. And then there’s the question of whether Trump’s intermediary sort of talking down statements where he sort of denounced violence more than he has before, they keep releasing these kinds of hostage tapes from him. [crosstalk 00:20:15] two of them where he talks about how, on the one hand, violence is wrong. We stand for law and order. There should be no violence for this movement. And then on the other hand, he says absolutely nothing to walk away from the actual incitement, which was not really, “Go fight.” The incitement has been for two months now. The incitement has been you live in a country in which the person you voted for won the election in landslide and you are being deprived of your victory by a conspiracy of everybody but you, everybody, Biden, the Democrats, the media, the universities, all the judges, including the Trump appointed judges.
“Everybody is in on it except you, and they are stealing this from you.” That’s the incitement, and we’re in a situation where, again, about 30%, I think … There’s a new poll this morning from Pew saying about 29% of Republicans even since the events of last week support Trump and believe that the election was stolen from them. So we’re talking a little less than a third of the Republican Party, which is not a huge chunk of the country as a whole, but it is a significant chunk of that party.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah. So in thinking about the potential split in the Republican Party, I think the critical question is going to be how many of those Republicans are going to follow Trump all the way down the rabbit hole into what you called in one of your columns the alternative epistemological universe, where those people are really walled off from the rest of their country by their fraudulent belief system?
Damon Linker: Yeah. Well, I mean, in my view, they already have done that. That’s why they’re still answering the way they are in these polls. So for me, the question’s a little different, is it’s more how can we possibly talk them out of this? That’s the real problem we face, is are these people even potentially reachable now that they’re already in that alternative epistemological universe that Trump has cultivated and encouraged them to back themselves into for four years now? But the divergence now between what they believe in that universe and what the rest of us believe is true is now a huge gulf, a big enough gulf that all those people who …
I mean, I’m continually amazed when I think about the fact that not only did that happen on January 6th on Capitol Hill, but most of those people were not locals. They bought plane tickets and flew to Washington to do that. That requires effort, resources, motivation. It’s one thing to curse and spit and say nasty things while looking at Twitter and Parler on your phone or on your laptop in your house out in Omaha. It’s quite another thing to buy a plane ticket, fly to Washington, and do that. That requires the kind of initiative that I think points in very ominous directions when we think about things like rates of how well-armed a lot of Americans are.
Again, if you, Geoff, genuinely believed that you voted for a candidate who won in a landslide and are being deprived of this candidate, that, in fact, we already have a coup going on in the other direction, and in that respect, it would be a real coup, not the one that I think was not accurate and applying to what Trump has pulled. But if it is true that Biden, the media, the courts, his entire party, the entire Republican establishment and Democratic establishment except for the members of Congress who voted on the other side, all of those people are in on this conspiring to make Biden President when he, in fact lost, if you believed that, you might buy a plane ticket, fly to Washington, and be willing to fight in a war to make it stop, right?
Geoff Kabaservice: I put that in my latest Guardian column. If you believed that, there would be no reason to obey what that government had to say, to obey its laws, to pay taxes to it.
Damon Linker: Right. It would be totally illegitimate.
Geoff Kabaservice: Right, right. But my feeling, looking at the television and the sort of Internet feeds from that day was that people didn’t go there with quite as direct a plan in mind. The thing that seemed kind of familiar to me, and it took a while to place it, was feed from what had happened with the shootings in Kenosha, Wisconsin a few months ago. There were just a lot of people milling around, waiting to see what was going to happen. There were a few people who had brought flex ties, who had brought serious weaponry, who had a malign and precise intent, but I think most people were just waiting to see what was going to go off.
Damon Linker: Yeah, that’s probably true. I mean, that’s true to kind of academic studies of crowd psychology. These things are unstable. They unfold in an unpredictable way. Even people who are just sort of showing up that day maybe just to see what happened, they weren’t even going to go to, say, Trump’s speech, or if they did, they were only going more as observers could easily end up kind of just whipped up into a froth and end up doing things they would never have anticipated doing a few hours earlier. You saw some of this in some of the feeds that were coming out that confusing afternoon of they broke into the Capitol, but then when they were in there, they showed the hall of statues, where there’s the typical cordon posts with a blue velvet rope between the little gold pillars, where you rope a line through. They were coming in almost in a single file and staying within the ropes, as if they were there on any other day like tourists waiting to get the tour. That’s not the behavior of a mob that’s there to hang Mike Pence from the gallows.
So it probably was a mix of different things, but it was a confusing scene. I mean, that was happening from one entrance, I guess the west entrance, probably, the kind of visitors’ entrance. Then on the other side, you had horrifying events that only became public in video feeds days later of the police officer being beaten, I believe to death, by a crowd out on the east side, or I guess maybe that’s the west side. Yeah, I’m getting my directions messed up, but-
Geoff Kabaservice: I think it was the DC police who defended the west side entrance against the crowd.
Damon Linker: Okay. Yeah. So, anyway, yeah, you’re probably right that you can’t say that if there were, say … I don’t know how many people were there, 5,000 maybe. Maybe that’s too many. I don’t know. But however many were there, what percentage of them were actually there to sort of overthrow the government, kind of break into the House chambers and take Pelosi as a hostage? I mean, I don’t know. I don’t know. Maybe only a couple dozen out of all those, or maybe it was more. That’s hard to say,
Geoff Kabaservice: But we are going to have to try to segment the Republican Party to figure out who can be weaned off of this belief that the election was stolen, the Democrats are evil. Who’s gone along with which of the various conspiracies? Who’s going to follow Trump to the dead end? In your column on January 13th, you said that what might be needed is the civic equivalent of rehab and some amount of the Republicans learning to wean themselves from these divisive lies and defy Trump and relearn how to practice politics in a world of shared facts, common truths, and prudential judgements.
Damon Linker: Yeah, that’s the ideal. I mean, David French, the conservative pundit, has been saying some things, writing some things in recent days, likening what needs to happen to kind of counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan and Iraq. I’m not entirely comfortable with that, because it treats our fellow citizens as the members of an occupied country. I think the analogy is a little pernicious. But I understand also that the language of my own that you quoted about rehab sort of points in a similar direction. I mean, I was deliberately vague about what that would look like, and that’s because I don’t really know what it would look like. I mean, if it implies a kind of centrally planned reeducation effort, then I don’t think it can succeed, simply because the very effort to bring people in and do that to them will just feed into their conspiracy theories about the deep state trying to reprogram their brains. So that I don’t think can work.
I mean, there’s an interesting psychological dimension to it, too, though, because you have to think in terms of the old line. I think it was Osama bin Laden, his line about how the US has shown itself to be a weak horse, and people like a strong horse. This is this very kind of brutally real politic view that you sort of make yourself strong by acting strong. If you win, then people will follow you sort of after the fact. There is a lot of truth to that, that if Trump can be shown to truly be a loser, that he did lose, that he has left office, that he doesn’t have a Twitter account anymore, that he can’t do the things that people got used to him doing, his allure might fade.
Geoff Kabaservice: People who are on the QAnon train right now do honestly still believe that Trump will be inaugurated on January 20th, that he has even right now called for the Pope to be arrested as part of his international sting of child sex traffickers, and that this is all part of the plan. He’s merely luring people out into a position where he can take them.
Damon Linker: Right. I mean, I see things along these lines all the time, like Nancy Pelosi’s in jail already, just completely obvious untruths that people send around online and others seem to actually believe them. Yeah. So, I mean, I could see that going in two ways. One could be when he in fact is not inaugurated for a second term and Biden does in fact put his hand on the Bible, say the oath, and then give a speech and then go back to the White House and begin acting as the president, that could lead these people to spin off into a kind of revolutionary wave of violence, or it could completely demoralize them and convince them not necessarily that they were completely wrong, but that their hopes for Trump were somehow misplaced.
Now, I don’t think that means they’ll do what I talked about in the column that you quoted, come back and join us in a shared epistemological world of shared truths. It probably will do for many of them what always happens when the prophet predicts some event happening on a certain date and then it, as it always does, does not in fact happen. They then just adjust the theory with different points that are further off into the future. So they will do that. The question is, is the substance of whatever it is they come up with to replace their current faith less dangerous to the country than the one they’re affirming now?
Geoff Kabaservice: Yes, I think that’s the critical question. I’m sure some people simply cannot be persuaded. There’s a joke going around that two Trump supporters die and go up to heaven, and they’re ushered through the pearly gates and welcomed into the inner celestial sanctum for a direct talk with God. One of them says to God, “Lord, now that we are in this place where all things are known, tell us, how big of a landslide did Trump really win by in 2020, and how did the Democrats pull off the steal?” God says to them, “My sons, Trump lost fair and square. Joe Biden won by 7 million popular votes and had 306 electoral college votes. It was all above board.” The Trump supporters are stunned, and one looks at the other and whispers, “The conspiracy goes even further up than we thought.”
Damon Linker: Yes, yes. I’ve heard this. I’ve heard this joke. I intended to actually say that on a different podcast. I almost told that, showing again that you and I are very simpatico here. But I feared I would screw it up telling the joke on the podcast, but you did not. So you proved that it’s possible, and maybe I should’ve had the guts to give it a try. It’s a good joke.
Geoff Kabaservice: But even people who would not be convinced if the heavens opened up and Trump told them that Biden won by 7 million votes can behave as normal citizens who do not pose a threat to the republic. But in your most recent column published today, you did suggest that civil war is actually something we might need to think about in a way we haven’t in the past.
Damon Linker: Yeah. I mean, I tried very hard in that column to be very clear that this is a tail end scenario. This is not something I’m predicting that’s about to happen. There are a million contingencies out there that could lead to other paths, and I still think many, many other paths are more likely if I had to bet on them. But I’ve been talking about, worried about that scenario for quite a long time. I bring it up in columns occasionally. I wrote a column in mid-December that was sort of a less philosophical reflection on some concerns of mine, heading in that direction. But in this column, I did go on at some length to actually try to think through, “Well, is this likely? Could it happen? What would precipitate it? What would it look like? What precedents in other civil wars could ours look like if it did?
Again, I don’t think it’s necessarily likely, but after the 6th and that event, a lot of the things in my mind that were helping me to believe that it was very unlikely to happen fell away. Again, the fact that significant numbers of citizens went out of their way to show up that day and did what they did really scared me and convinced me that we can’t just assume the country is sort of a nation of couch potatoes who like to cosplay civil war from their homes while munching on potato chips, that this sort of virtual insurrection that’s always churning online is not guaranteed at all to just remain online, that it can easily be channeled into the real world. If that’s true, then a lot of the madness that we saw on the 6th and then some of the left wing madness that we saw over the summer, frankly, with some of the more violent and destructive Black Lives Matter-related protests, riots, looting, you put those two things together, and it could get very, very ugly.
Now, again, as with the way history unfolds, even probably in the fall of 1860, was it inevitable that there would be a civil war six months later? No, there probably were several paths from that point forward that could have led elsewhere, maybe to it happening a year in the future, maybe not at all, but there are contingencies involved all the time. So I like to hope in the end that isn’t where we’re going, but I certainly think there are increasing numbers of pieces in place that are compatible with that happening if about nine other essential elements of it also fall into place in exactly the right way, by which I mean the wrong way.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah. My colleague at the Niskanen Center, Brink Lindsey, has an interesting essay up on our blog called “In Search of Civic Virtue.” He does point out that the framers thought that civic virtue was an essential quality if democracy was to be preserved from demagoguery and tyranny. Brink’s prime directive, as he puts it, is that you need to treat all of your fellow citizens, regardless of their political views, as your civic and political equals. That sounds a lot like Abraham Lincoln’s views, which Bill Galston quoted in your last podcast on Beg to Differ. Yet Lincoln wasn’t opening his arms to the southerners until he had defeated them.
Damon Linker: Right.
Geoff Kabaservice: Then once succession was extirpated, it was possible to talk about reconciliation, but not until then.
Damon Linker: Exactly. I mean, that is a little bit how I felt this last a week and a half since the insurrection. There are perfectly legitimate and respectable arguments on kind of the more libertarian side of these tech companies shouldn’t be banning the president. They certainly shouldn’t be de-platforming Parler. They shouldn’t be doing these things. I understand both the absolute principle of it, kind of on an absolute reading of the First Amendment, that you shouldn’t ban pretty much anything. Then there’s the concern that you’re just going to inflame the situation further by acting this way. Again, you sort of confirm the narrative of deep state conspiracy that just sort of makes the other side say, “Aha, see? I told you. They are out to stamp us out.”
But I would say on the kind of Lincolnian side that, well, just as Lincoln of course didn’t do what you described, because the southerners seceded, and then they fired on Fort Sumpter. At a certain point, you have to stand your ground and fight. Similarly, the time to say, “I have respect for my civic equals in America” is not right after they have stormed Capitol Hill and acted as if they wanted to take hostages of members of Congress and were trying to find the vice president to murder him. I mean, these are not the acts of … You don’t respond to that by saying, “Oh, come on. Can’t we all just get along?” I mean, yeah, it’d be nice if we could all get along, but clearly we’re not right now, and the institutions at the core of American government have to stand up for themselves.
Damon Linker: The danger is that that’s part of the ratcheting that gets you to a civil war. I mean, if Lincoln had said, “Okay, well, maybe you Southern states just really can go,” then we could have avoided the Civil War, perhaps, at least right away. There wouldn’t have been a war. The US would have divided in two. You would have had the United States of America and the Confederate States of America sharing a long border. One would be a slave-owning state. The other would not. Could that have been a viable way forward? There are good arguments on both sides, but I don’t know. I mean, I guess I’ve talked myself into a cul-de-sac.
I do think that it’s possible to respond to what happened on the 6th in such a way. But I think that there is a genuine threat there. I mean, I’ve made this argument several times over the last few weeks to people who are trying to draw what about equivalences between some of, again, the Black Lives Matter-related civic violence six months ago versus what happened on January 6th on the other side. They’re saying, “Oh, chickens coming home to roost. You didn’t care too much about the violence when it was happening in these other places, and now it’s happening in Washington. Why is one worse than the other?” Well, I actually do think what happened on the 6th is categorically worse, because it was an assault on the seat of American democracy, the national legislature. If that is torn down, all bets are off. We no longer have a government, friends, and therefore no longer a country. So there is a higher standard there for our need to actually stand and defend.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah, I agree. Damon, let me come at our impending apocalypse from a slightly different angle. I’m always interested in people who are in the political center, because very rarely do they come there by the same path. So I’d just like to know something about you. Where did you grow up, for example?
Damon Linker: I was born and raised in Stuyvesant Town, New York, which for the listeners who aren’t aware is post-war housing built after World War II in Lower Manhattan, kind of between 14th Street and 20th Street on the Far East Side, east of 1st Avenue. I was raised there until I was eight, and then we moved out to southern Connecticut, Fairfield, about an hour outside of New York City.
My father continued to commute into New York for his job as an art director for a series of magazines. So we remained very much a kind of New York City oriented family. Even after we had left the city for the burbs.
Geoff Kabaservice: Is Linker a German name? Dutch?
Damon Linker: It’s kind of Austrian Jewish. That side of my family comes from Austria and Poland, both Jewish. The other side of my family, I don’t know actually all that much about because my mother had a complete mental breakdown when I was eight, moved out, disappeared, and I had no contact with her after age nine. And I learned about five or six years ago that she died when I was in college in 1987.
Geoff Kabaservice: I’m sorry.
Damon Linker: Well it’s okay. Thank you. I’m over it by now. But yeah, I was raised by my father from age eight on so raised to be very, very secularly Jewish, which means in effect kind of identifying as a Jew while having no religious content to it whatsoever, including no Jewish education, no bar mitzvah, no Hebrew school, nothing. So that’s sort of where I was as a young adult.
Geoff Kabaservice: And given that you eventually ended up as the editor of the conservative Catholic magazine, First Things, how did you come to religion?
Damon Linker: I mean, ending up at First Things has a somewhat different path than the one implied by your question. I ended up at First Things because I wasn’t willing to jump through hoops, trying to get a tenure track job as a conservative leaning political theorist. So I was a refugee from the Academy and the most sensible thing for me to do at that moment was to try to go into opinion journalism, which sounds goofy to people probably these days, because everyone knows it’s hard to get a job as a professor, but it’s not like journalism is particularly thriving. So that’s kind of, if I become like a stockbroker, that would make sense, but to try to be a journalist seems crazy, but I did try to do it. So my path from being a professor without a tenure track job to First Things went first to writing about 16 book reviews and essays in center right publications for about nine months. I just wrote constantly. So my byline was appearing in the Wall Street Journal, National Review, the Old Policy Review, Weekly Standard, Commentary Magazine, just all these places in a huge glut.
That led me to get hired as a speech writer for none other than Rudy Giuliani, for whom I worked for about six months. And very quickly after I got that job, applying for a position at First Things as the associate editor. And I got that job. So that’s how I ended up there. And it was not really because of the religious thing. I mean, if Commentary had had an opening, I would have applied for that. I would have applied to go to any of those places I mentioned that I was writing for. It just so happens that the guy who was the associate editor was leaving the magazine and they had an opening. So they were the publication in that world that had a position.
It is also a coincidental fact that I was also in the process of converting to Catholicism at the same time. But it is not the case that I pursued First Things because I was already religious. My conversion was more of a kind of anticipatory one. I very much at that point in my life, wanted to believe in God and hope that if I followed St Paul’s advice and began doing things like praying and going to church, that I would gin up belief after that. So sort of like do it so that you believe it. It turns out that did not work and I’ve left all that behind a long time by now. But, again, those two things sort of happened in parallel, but not as one directly in influencing the other.
Geoff Kabaservice: And where had you studied and what was your academic focus?
Damon Linker: Well, I got my PhD at Michigan State in political science, and I was studying political philosophy as my major field there with students of Leo Strauss or at least students of students of Leo Strauss. Most of them were students of Harvey Mansfield. I was never a perfect Straussian by any means. I was dissenting there as well. I found some of the character of the Straussian world to be a little too kind of schoolish for me. So I sort of remained at arms length from it a little bit, learned a lot from it. I’ve come to very much revere Strauss as a major influence on my own thinking, but Strauss more than Straussians. There aren’t that many Straussians whose work I really love and learn from, but there are some, but many of them I think are pretty much off track on a lot of things.
But my other major intellectual influence is from Mark Lilla, the sort of recently controversial central left thinker who teaches now at Columbia. I studied with him before the Straussians when I was working on a master’s in history at New York University in the early nineties. He was just a recent hire at NYU and I sort of strolled into his French political and social thought from 1750 to 1870 seminar at the French Institute at NYU back in the fall of 1991 and was totally hooked. He was a student of Harvey Mansfield as well, but also of Judith [inaudible 00:48:26], the great liberal pro enlightenment political theorist and his writings and thinking have continued to be a blend of those two sides of things. And that influenced me a lot.
And at times in my graduate education, when the Straussian stuff at Michigan State got to be a little too much, Lilla was kind of my life preserver. I would like write him and say, “Oh, this is driving me crazy. What should I read instead?” And he would send me a reading list, so forth.
So my own distinctive sensibility comes from… You could say like little one of Lilla’s biggest influences on his thinking as Isaiah Berlin. So I guess you could say the greatest influences on me are a blend of Isaiah Berlin and Strauss.
Geoff Kabaservice: Okay. And how did you meet or how did you get to know Richard John Neuhaus, the founder of First Things?
Damon Linker: He interviewed me over lunch when I applied for a job in his magazine. That was it. I did not know him prior to that. And in fact, the honest truth is I knew very little about him, period. I was not a First Things reader, did not follow the debates surrounding the magazine. I was honest with him about that. I was also honest in my lunch with him for the interview about the fact that the one big thing I did know about First Things was the End of Democracy Symposium from 1996. And that I would not have been pleased, had the magazine tried to publish that while I was on staff.
By that point, he sort of wanted to be sort of a cagey about that because it had been very, very controversial if your listeners don’t know about it. Very briefly, it was a symposium that’s First Things ran in the November ’96 issue of the magazine in which they proposed that the judiciary of the United States was becoming outrightly anti-democratic by refusing to overturn Roe V Wade and refusing to uphold the rights of people who would be euthanized and similar social conservative possessions. And it was a kind of cry of despair and rage against the Clinton presidency and Clinton appointing lots of judges to the courts, and saying in effect that if this did not change, then eventually there would come a time when socially conservative Americans would be justified in engaging in an insurrection against the government. Gee, that sounds weirdly familiar.
Geoff Kabaservice: It does.
Damon Linker: Yeah. So that was the one thing I really knew about First Things that I had followed that somewhat when it was going on, when I was in graduate school. It actually happened when I was living in Germany, working on my dissertation, but I followed things in the very, very primitive internet back then enough to have heard about it and kind of knew what was going on. And when I got back from Germany, I kind of read up on some of the things that had been written by conservatives against what First Things had printed in that issue. So I knew about it and I knew that that… I hoped, I should say, that that was an outlier and a rare thing that would not be repeated and Neuhaus assured me that, that it would not. Not with any hard, real promise, but his attitude about it was very blase. And so it eased my mind.
Geoff Kabaservice: And do you now, in hindsight, and given the present moment, draw a direct line between that kind of insurrectionists thinking on the religious right and the situation where we are now?
Damon Linker: That’s a complicated thing to answer. I guess I would say no in one respect and yes, in another. In one respect, it isn’t because I think that the religious right, and it’s sort of self definition and self understanding at the time of the symposium, and at the time that I worked at First Things was quite different than it is now. And thus my eventual, very sharp criticism of that configuration of the religious right in my first book-
Geoff Kabaservice: The Theocons.
Damon Linker: The Theocons.
Geoff Kabaservice: Which was 2006 or thereabouts?
Damon Linker: Yes, 2006. That was a critique of a different religious right than the one that we have now. Now there are some similarities, but the whole, it has been Trumpified by now. And we could talk, in a moment, if you want about the ways in which it has changed, but that is different. And so in that respect, there really isn’t a direct line.
The place where there is a direct line is at the level I think of what I call political psychology, that if there is a through line and argument to my book, which is mostly a history, but it does have an argument that begins at the beginning and ends up being developed at the end, after the story has been told. It’s about a certain theologically informed way of thinking about politics and our country. And it ends up leading to a certain kind of oscillation between, on the one hand, when our side is in power, you become almost an authoritarian willing to turn the other way when there’s an abuse of power, willing to spend your time as an intellectual coming up with arguments to justify the government doing things that you would normally never say they should be allowed to do. Basically the acting as an accelerant for the powers that be because they’re on your side. To then when the other side wins the election and you’re out of power, becoming extremely agitated and questioning the legitimacy of them being in power, the other guys. And so you kind of oscillate between authoritarianism and insurrectionism.
And I trace in the book, the fact that Neuhaus as a person sort of his entire career, going all the way back when he was on the far left in the late 1960s, has sort of oscillated between those things all the way through the seventies when he was an incredibly over the top gushing supporter with incredibly high hopes about Jimmy Carter. To then some hopes about Reagan, but then especially about Bush. The second Bush, when I was there. Being wild during the nineties, a kind of willingness to countenance or kind of revolutionary rebellion against center left Democrats. And then what we saw a week and a half ago in Washington, there is that tendency to oscillate between those extremes, rather than seeing a kind of Aristotelian kind of Aristotle inspired vision of politics as an attempt to have ruling and ruling in turn ruling and being ruled in turn. So you take power, but you rule knowing that your opponents will be taking over before long. And so you try to bring them along as much as you can, and then you step down and let them take over and they treat you with respect and you work with them to the extent that you can, and it oscillates like a seesaw back and forth.
What we’ve been seeing going back, I think several decades and accelerating very much in the very recent past is this oscillation or the seesaw becoming more severe, more unstable, more extreme all the time. And so to that extent, there is a continuity, I think.
Geoff Kabaservice: And I suppose part of how I might define myself as a moderate in the terms that you’ve laid out is that I tend to be suspicious of people who go for those kind of excessive amplitude and shifts. For somewhat different reasons, I was very critical of Michael Novak who was a kind of uncritical supporter of the Viet Cong almost in the late sixties, and then shifted toward being this extremely conservative Catholic without necessarily learning much along the way, ultimately exchanging one kind of extremism for another really.
Damon Linker: Yeah. And I do talk about Novak in the book. He’s sort of the other main focus, although Neuhaus takes over probably about four fifths of it, but certainly in the early chapters, I spend a fair amount of time on Novak. Yeah. If anything, he was in a way… It’s strange. Neuhaus was more politically radical than Novak. Novak was like culturally radical, like really going in for some of the loopiest extremism of the new left. I mean, again, combining it with Catholicism so that like having a great orgasm is a glimpse of the God head and we need to have more sexual liberation in order to improve our politics. Like really the kind of thing that you look back at now at the late sixties and early seventies, and almost everyone would roll their eyes at the bizarre kind of back flips into weirdness that were going on at the time. And that faded very quickly. Like by the mid seventies, most of that had burned out already, but Novak was very much in the center of it then.
He wrote a pamphlet later in, I think 1982, talking about like corporations in terms of like Catholic charterisms. I mean, like really he too, like Neuhaus, sort of swung from one extreme to the other within about a decade. So that is sort of the story of that book, The Theocons, that one way in which I distinguish them from neo-cons of the time is that the neo-con swing was comparatively minor, like from sort of standard mid 1960s post Cold War liberalism to kind of center right Reaganism, whereas Neuhaus and Novak were from the anti-liberal left to then this kind of more theologically informed kind of conservatism inspired by Catholic and cyclicals and so forth.
Geoff Kabaservice: Now Damon, your 2010 book, The Religious Test seems a shift in its own way to a somewhat different position from what you’d said to me.
Damon Linker: It’s more moderate. Yeah.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah. It’s no longer quite an aggressively secular reading of the American founding and politics. It’s more seeing the political religious battle as a kind of skirmish line that goes back and forth. Is that right?
Damon Linker: Yes. I came fairly quickly to regret some of the more heated rhetoric in The Theocons. It was very much written from the kind of from within a crucible of the moment on two levels. First of all, The Theocons was written… Well, it was proposed to book publishers and got a fairly large advance precisely because it was shopped around. In that brief moment, you may remember just after the 2004 election, when there was one reading of exit polls showing that the main reason why people supported Bush was because of social conservative values. And so suddenly there was all this panic among the liberals of like, oh my goodness, the religious right’s in charge of everything. And it was in that moment that I had my proposal ready to go. And so it fetched a nice advance and got [inaudible 01:00:29] very, very excited about marketing it in this certain way of like, oh my God, it’s on the verge of a theocracy. And I, to some regret, went along with that more than I should have, in a lot of the framing and some of the rhetoric in parts of the book.
So I wanted to pull back on that a little bit in the second book. And so I think my current position as much closer to the, the final chapter of The Religious Test, where I talk, as you just said, of kind of battles between religion and politics, are they intertwining as more of a skirmish line, pushing back and forth on a battlefield. So it’s not a separation of church and state. It’s more a kind of weaving or back and forth that never really gets settled definitively. By that point, I preferred that kind of a metaphor instead.
Geoff Kabaservice: Once upon a time I reviewed Jody Bottum’s collection of essays. I think it was called An Anxious Age. He’s another person who was attached to First Things, of course. And the main thesis of his book is that mainline Protestantism used to unite the country. It was almost three centuries, really a great river at the heart of American public life, our cultural Mississippi. And now that river is almost run dry, but the question has been raised not just by Bottum, but by many other observers, that maybe this religious impulse has been channeled into other directions. And part of what makes our political disputes so intense and over amplified and dangerous is that they are channeling essentially religious impulses. Does that seem fair?
Damon Linker: Yeah. I do think there’s a lot of truth to that, especially with the so-called woke revolution that seemed, at least over the summer, to really be at a high pitch. Yeah, I think there’s a lot of truth to that. That that’s a kind of post-Protestant kind of secular great awakening or as people joke and call it a wokening. I do think that there are a lot of religious aspects to that.
Bottum’s book is actually two books. There’s that argument that’s the first half. And then a second one that’s a kind of apology for exactly the things that I descended from it at First Things. So I really that second [inaudible 01:02:49] book, but the first half of that book I think is quite good. A good amount of it is sort of developing things that Neuhaus used to say all the time. He wrote very frequently about the importance of the old line, main line churches, and how his vision of his own project that I described in my book, The Theocons, he saw as kind of the successor governing ideology for the waning of the Protestant main line. So his vision of a kind of Neo-conservative Catholicism, which again, I call Theo-conservatism, and in my book would be kind of the new main line. And that did not turn out. It didn’t work out. So, I think Jody and, and Joseph Bottoms’ book was an attempt to gesture toward another possibility, which is that a lot of what you see among sort of liberal impulses among ostensibly liberal elites these days, and he was writing before the woke stuff really started taking off in the last couple of years, could be described as a kind of successor to the whole liberal main line.
Geoff Kabaservice: There was an interesting finding that I think came from Emily Ekins at Cato, which is that the really bad aspects of Trumpism are much more intensely held by non-religious or less religious Trump supporters. But on the other hand, most of Trump’s beliefs about immigration and the dangers of Democrats and all the rest of it are also held by the religious right and people who we would consider to be in the circles of evangelical Christians or conservative Catholics. What do you think is the role of religion and particularly the established evangelical denominations in Trumpism, both at the beginning and now?
Damon Linker: It’s a complex question. I mean, political coalitions always have many parts, many factions within them. Obviously, evangelicals are a big part of Trumpism, but demographically speaking, I think they don’t play a significantly different role than they played in say, the George W. Bush coalition. It’s a fairly stable chunk of Republican voters who are evangelical Protestants. The content of what they’re supporting obviously has changed quite a bit between Bush and Trump, but their role in that coalition is quite similar. Now, it is interesting to reflect on the differences in the content of it because of the whole vision of what the relationship is all about is quite different.
Whereas under Bush, there was an almost, and this is the kind of the Newhouse influence on a lot of it, which came through on the Bush side, because Newhouse was personally close to Bush, and met several times at the white house with him. He was very close with Peter Wayner, who was very high up in the administration, just under Karl Rove. Their vision of it was very much that this is a kind of moral crusade that they were engaged in to bring religiously-inspired moral sensibility to American politics by way of the Republican party led by Bush. So the idea was to make America a more moral country using these religious convictions as the kind of sustenance to make it happen.
And again, that’s a very idealistic vision for what the role of religion is in American politics. Whereas now, it’s become this very different thing, whereas that earlier view, the Bush view, its premise is that these conservative religious believers, a lot of them evangelicals, but also their allies, who are Catholics, and even some Orthodox Jews, and even pre 9/11, some Muslims involved in this, that this coalition of conservative believers are a majority, that they’re the moral majority.
This goes all the way back to Jerry Falwell using that line in the late seventies, the hope was that they were the majority, and the only reason they hadn’t done this before, namely inspire our moral rebirth in the country with their convictions of religion, was because these liberal elites controlled these institutions, and they just simply had to be deposed and overthrown by democracy. Just let them win.
But as you know, as everyone listening is well aware, the story of the intervening years in America has been the demographic shrinking of the Republican party, such that it’s now sort of conceited by everybody that it doesn’t appear that at the moment Republicans can win the presidency by actually winning a majority of the votes. They have to rely on the electoral college and an increasingly hyper-efficient distribution of voters in certain states, that they win by only narrow margins, but they’re enough that they come close sometimes in the electoral college through a kind of counter-majoritarianism.
That implies that these people, the religious believers, are actually a moral minority. And if they are a minority outnumbered by a secular, hostile, liberal country and culture, what they really need to do is have a strong man protector in power, who will win battles for them through sheer brute force, and don’t worry too much about actually making the country as a whole any more moral. That’s what Trump is to them. So that for me is the main shift, the main change. It’s the same type of voters, but what they want out of national politics has changed quite dramatically over the last couple of decades because of their perception of their own power in American life.
Geoff Kabaservice: You know, I’m reminded, Damon of something that you said at Niskanen’s conference back in February 2019, where we were all trying to figure out what the future was, if any, for moderation. We criticized both the Democrats and the Republicans, and you articulated the critique of the Republican side very well. But on that occasion, you pointed out that the Democrats probably were becoming a majority party, and that seems clear now that they’ve won the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections. But the problem is that you said that Democrats don’t really have an account of a larger whole, in which all of the different groups that make up this country belong. And there’s so much disagreement among Americans about who we are and what our national vision is of the country. Do you think that the Biden presidency is going to try to redress this need, or are they even aware of it?
Damon Linker: I think Biden, he wouldn’t talk about it in these kind of intellectualized terms, but I think he instinctually understands exactly that. His instincts are actually perfect for what I would hope to see. I think for instance, the Biden campaign running for president this past summer and fall showed extremely good political instincts, that with all of these provocations from the right, but also from his left in his own party, the sort of defund the police things that were cropping up a lot from the more activist side of the party, they never rose to the bait. Never felt baited to mollify those factions by endorsing things that it would be stupid to endorse. If your goal, as it has to be, is to win a broad coalition of the voters, including a lot of white working class voters in places like Western Pennsylvania, Ohio, and so forth.
I think that Biden’s instincts are right on the score, and he will try to do what I said at that Niskanen conference needed to happen, which is Democrats to try to reconstitute something like a shared consensus position for a broad center of the country. He will try. The problem is that the younger parts of the electoral coalition on the left don’t see politics that way, and they are activists and they buy into a kind of wokefied identity politics. They’re not going to want to go along with it, and they’re going to keep pushing.
And the fact is that it’s such a big part of the party, not Biden himself, and maybe his closest advisers, but the democratic party as an institution is so deeply enmeshed in that world. And so many of the people who work for it are coming from that point of view, that you’re going to have this tug of war pushing and pulling going on throughout the Biden presidency, constantly pulling him as much as possible in the direction of taking stands on these positions. And what you could end up with is like certain cabinet secretaries doing things to mollify that side of things, which then kind of gives fodder to the right, and gives Tucker Carlson nice segments on his show on Fox to show that actually the Biden administration is totally radical, totally woke.
Damon Linker: Then Biden is then put in a position of either having to endorse it, which would be bad, or distancing from it, which will then inflame the people doing it, and make them turn on him. This is the kind of tight rope walk that he’s going to have to engage in. I have some hope that he’ll try, but one reason why we are where we are in this country right now with our polarization problems is that there are structural forces at work that are contributing to it, and one guy who’s 77, 78 years old and his out-of-date, mid 20th century sensibility is going to be dealing with some pretty strong centrifugal forces.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah, absolutely. You know, you mentioned the great awokening on the left as a kind of quasi-religious movement. The Q-Anon conspiracists on the right actually use the term “great awakening” as well for something that they both expect and seek to bring about, which raises the prospect of not just a political ideological civil war, but a kind of holy war as well. And yet, from what I remember distantly from my graduate school classes on the European Wars of religion, those wars eventually came to an end without a winner. They ended really in defeat for both sides, which led them to understand that there’s a circumscribed role, even for religious passions in political life. To go back to your idea that maybe people can be rehabbed or weaned out of these views, they can be de-radicalized. How might this happen? That you can actually get perhaps a persuadable part of both the left and the right back towards something more like traditional politics of the center?
Damon Linker: Oh boy. That’s a tough one. I hate solution questions because I’m not good at solutions. I’m good at diagnosing problems, and then even taking the problem you bring to me and showing you that it’s even worse than you thought. Those are my specialties, but coming up with, I mean, one reason why I haven’t written a third book is because anytime I have an idea, an agent I talk to will always say, “Okay, but what are you going to write for the chapter at the end about how to fix this?” And I always say, “Hell, if I know.” I find that part of books are usually very sort of perfunctory, and they’re never very persuasive. To be honest, I mean, your question is a great one. I’d love to see a new modus vivendi crop up, in which out of that each side canceling itself and its other, we derive a new common space where both sides can live in peace.
At the moment, I can’t really wrap my head around how we get there, which is one reason why I despair and write columns about how we might be on the verge of a civil war, because I don’t really see how to get out of it. The one thing I’ll say, which again isn’t a solution at all, at least not a realistic one, but I do think that social media is making all of this worse all the time, and it will continue to do so.
Geoff Kabaservice: Not just here, but all around the world as you’ve pointed out.
Damon Linker: All around the world. Yes. There’s a reason why we don’t just have a right wing populism in this country, but it’s happening in countries everywhere. Well, not everywhere, but… Not Canada very much. Although, I guess in Toronto you had the right populist mayor.
Yeah, it’s a really difficult question as long as so much of our political activity is taking place in these virtual networks, because as I’ve written in a couple of columns in the last month or so, they are some of the most effective forms of political organization ever devised in human history. Incredibly powerful. And our systems are not really designed to handle the consequences of that.
If you’re a member of the alt-right and have very racist or antisemitic or sexist, whatever, you’re an incel, something far out on the sort of extreme, where, 30, 40 years ago, you would never have expected one of the two major parties to really define its agenda and identity by the way you see the world. That would just be something you would have to come to grips with because you’re depressed, you’re not happy, you’re not thriving. You believe certain extreme far-out conspiratorial views, but the system doesn’t really hear you because you’re outnumbered.
We’ve learned because of social media networking that, actually, there are lots of people who feel that way. They just don’t live near each other. They had no way in the past of getting in touch and finding each other, but now they can. So now you can get nationwide and even global networks of like-minded, for want of a better term, weirdos. People on the fringes now have a way of organizing politically in a way that they never could in human history, except in very rare cases, where say, when something goes very wrong, like a depression or defeat in a war, something really bad happens. Then the number of people in a given place who have far-out extreme views will increase, and then they can organize and get something done.
You had that in Weimar, and the Weimar Republic. Post-war Germany, lots of disenchantment with the defeat in the war by the very onerous sanctions and punishments imposed on Germany by the Allies after their defeat, which was humiliating. Then you had the depression strike, and you put it all together, and you’re left with then a kind of cauldron where the number of communists, and Nazis and other peripheral far-out extremist parties is multiplying. And so the center ends up swamped by the extremes, but that is a pre-internet phenomenon, and it was happening because the number of extremists was multiplying. It’s not all that clear that the number of extremists has multiplied that much in the last decade. It’s more that they, now scattered across the universe, are now able to bind together into movements, separated by huge amounts of space in the world.
Geoff Kabaservice: And also to converge, at times, on places like, say, the US Capitol.
Damon Linker: Exactly, exactly. Like what I described earlier about this amazing thing, that all these people bought plane tickets and flew to the nation’s Capitol for this event on the 6th. 50 years ago, again, it’s a different context in which the president himself was calling for this, but his victory itself was a function of a lot of this. Like the fact that people like Richard Spencer and the far-out, the alt-right, and even further right out, and the kind of Neo-Nazi right suddenly had a candidate they could get excited about four years ago, and bring energy to that. It’s how we got Charlottesville.
Damon Linker: Then, of course, I would say very clearly, want to make clear that I see this as morally in a different category, but some of the more destructive, violent protests last summer in response to police brutality against blacks, those protests happened because of social media as well. Why did they happen everywhere? Not just in Minneapolis, where the initial event happened. It happened because the video got seen everywhere within a matter of hours. Then all the people who are outraged about it talked about it on Twitter and Facebook and other websites, on Instagram and others. And they all took to the streets at once. And then we’re able to organize, where are we going to go? What are we going to do? On their phones with all of these different platforms. So it makes de-stabilizing mass politics far more potent than we’ve ever seen in human history, because we’ve never had at our fingertips such powerful networking devices.
Geoff Kabaservice: Well, Damon, your specialty is indeed making us realize that things are even worse than we thought they were anytime one ends the discussion.
Damon Linker: Thanks for noticing.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yes. Yes. And anytime one ends a discussion with an invocation of the Weimar Republic, you know where we’re going with that, but I really liked the message that you carried in your column of January 13th, which is that January 6th was in a way, at least a summons back to reality again, and brings the kind of clarity, perhaps that only comes as you’re about to crash the car on black ice, but nonetheless it offers a chance, to pull back from where otherwise these politics are taking us.
Damon Linker: Yeah. I would hope so. The last thing I’ll just say in response to that is the polling is showing this. Trump’s approval has gone off a literal cliff in the last 10 days because of what happened. You’re seeing in lots of polls, the bad part of the polls is that it shows a lot of Republicans are still with him. On the other hand, a fair number of people who stuck with him with a little reluctance, but still were by his side, I think now could probably be described as never Trump, at least never more from now on.
Geoff Kabaservice: Knock on wood. Damon Linker, thank you so much for coming on the Vital Center podcast. Good luck with everything you do. And thank you all for listening to us today.