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The US Right's Dangerous Quest for Unbridled State Power: An Interview With Robert Tracinski

The US Right's Dangerous Quest for Unbridled State Power: An Interview With Robert Tracinski

It is embracing the thinking of an overseas autocrat like Orbán while forgetting its own country's wisdom

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Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to Zooming In, a project of The UnPopulist. I'm Aaron Ross Powell. For a certain sort of social conservative, Viktor Orbán's Hungary is the North Star. The realization of fantasies about how social liberalism can be done away with and “trad living” elevated to primacy, if only the power of a committed executive were turned to that task. On today's episode, I'm joined by Robert Tracinski. He's the editor of Symposium, a journal of liberalism, and writes additional commentary at The Tracinski Letter.

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He recently published an essay at The UnPopulist on Orbán, DeSantis, and the conservative longing for a world where their social preferences are enforced by the state.

Aaron: What is Orbánism?

Robert Tracinski: That's a good question. Well, Orbánism is—It's funny. From what I've been able to tell, there's a Hungarian version and there's an American version. The Hungarian version is what the system Viktor Orbán, the Prime Minister of Hungary is creating in Hungary, and then there's the version of it that's been popularized by the Nationalist Conservative-types, by the Steve Bannon-types who are popularizing this as a model to be followed in America.

It is the idea of using the power of the state to promote conservative values or nationalist values. In Hungary, it's been a matter of Viktor Orbán using his power to grab control of various levers of the state to keep his party and his faction in a majority, and in control, and prevent dissent. A very effective dissent. A lot of it is focused on control of the press, the fact that he's starved out the independent media and made it impossible for there to be any large-scale media.

It's like if you had only Fox News—and there's nothing but Fox—and everybody got their news from that. Imagine what the country might look like. That's essentially what he's managed to do. He's done some things in Hungary that don't translate to America. For example, most of the media there is very dependent on advertising from the state, from the government.

If you have the government give advertising to the outlets that are friendly—and not to the outlets that are not friendly—then you can see how he exerts a lot of control. It's not as easy to do that in the U.S. But where the model comes over most effectively is what he's done with education and especially with higher education. There's a very notorious case in Hungary, where he chased out the Central European University.  This was a very well-regarded, world-class standard academic program funded by George Soros, but of course, again, another element imported to America. George Soros is in Orbán's world the ultimate bad guy, the guy plotting to create this globalist system. He made Soros out to be the big villain and did various things to harass and put legal barriers around the Central European University.

Eventually, they gave up trying to have it in Budapest. They moved it to Vienna. In its place, Orbán did this thing where he had billions of dollars in state funds that were dedicated to something called the Mathias Corvinus Collegium, which has much lower academic standards but is very much a nationalist curriculum and promoting nationalist values.

It's this idea of taking control of the media, taking control of higher education, and using it all to promote a consistently nationalist agenda. But then also having a system where basically if you don't go along with the regime, you can't go into business, you can't successfully run a business because you'll be harassed or starved out from various kinds of state-controlled funds.

It [Orbánism] is the idea of using the power of the state to promote conservative values or nationalist values.

Aaron: It sounds like this is just about power. The appeal of it to conservatives in the U.S. is they see themselves as no longer holding the commanding heights of the culture. Whether that's Hollywood or that's education, or that's higher education, they see those as irredeemably lefty, and a threat to their values. Is this just the fantasies of “we were all Reaganites and keep government small and limited when the culture was on our side but now that it's not, we'd like to use this cudgel to establish our dominance over the culture”?

Robert: Right. The version that's been imported to America is this idea we have to get comfortable using the levers of state power. We have to get rid of this old small government Reaganism where we're going to have small government, and we're going to have less power for government. We need to be comfortable with government having power, but we have to use that power for our conservative ends.

The basic contradiction of it is that idea that we are a small, persecuted minority who's losing power, we're being overwhelmed by the rest of the culture. Therefore, let us expand the power of the state and have control over it. How are you going to get control over it if you are a smaller-growing minority? I think really to put this in historical context, you have to think in terms of going back to the '80s, and going back to Reagan, if you remember the moral majority. This is Jerry Falwell's group, the moral majority.

At the time they could actually plausibly have some idea that, yes, we are the majority. We represent the majority view. Now, that's clearly no longer the case. I think partly this is a panicked response to the fact that religious belief is in decline in America. You see these poll numbers, it's going off a cliff starting somewhere in the 1990s. And you could talk about all the reasons why. There are the scandals. I remember the televisual scandals of the 1990s. You have echoes of them up today with Jerry Falwell Jr.—the copy being degraded somewhat from the original—and they also had the Catholic Church scandals. If you look at church attendance, at church membership, especially for Evangelicals and for Catholics, there's this long-term decline.

They see themselves basically we're going the way of Europe. Most countries in Europe, especially Western Europe, have become secularized where it's like 60-70% secular people, people with no particular religious belief and Christianity is in a minority, culturally and electorally. I think they're panicking at that prospect and making this last-ditch attempt to say, "Wait a minute. Maybe if we clamp down now, if we seize the levers of power, we can reverse this trend."

There is a certain delusional aspect to it. The sense of, we're a small, despised minority, so let's gain power. You can increase the power of the state, but the fact that you're the ones to use it for your ends is not really the likely outcome.

Aaron: It seems too that this is part of the appeal of Orbán's more authoritarian direction of controlling the media, and so on. One problem with increasing the power of the state in order to enforce your cultural hegemony is that only works as long as you're in control of the state. When you fall out of favor, which inevitably happens in the cycles of a democratic system, you now have an empowered state that the other guys are in charge of, and you have set a standard of enforcing cultural hegemony so now, why don't they do it too?

Orbán is working—his movements in the authoritarian direction are often attempts to make sure that doesn't happen. A permanent dominance.

Robert: I think that's also why you're seeing Orbánism is not going to be—I think there's some fantasies of doing it on the national level. Donald Trump will get back into office and then he'll use this, and he'll mandate classical architecture, and he'll create a fund for patriotic education. All these things he was going to do before. It's a lot less likely. It really doesn't make sense to try to do this at the national level because there are not enough conservatives. There's not enough to maintain that dominance and power, but you can see the appeal of this has on the state level.

If you're saying, "I'm governor of Florida," to pick the example at hand here, "I'm governor of Florida." You can think that in Florida, yes, we have a conservative majority. We have the hope of maintaining a dominant conservative majority over a long period of time. We can implement this. We can say, okay, we're going to seize control of the local district that controls Disney's infrastructure, their water and sewer, and police, and fire and all that sort of thing.

We're going to seize control of that, put my cronies in charge so Disney will have to answer to us. We get to tell them what to do, and they can't have all this woke stuff, and all the homosexual stuff going on, supposedly in their TV shows and in their movies. We can take over the university system and we can ban CRT and we can do this in the schools, we could do that.

The idea that you could take this model of control of authoritarianism from Hungary and apply it here in the U.S., it makes sense on the state level if you're in a conservative state where you have a strong dominant party and unfortunately in Florida, you have an opposition party that has long been in a great deal of disarray.

Aaron: This seems to get to the fantasies about DeSantis because DeSantis is the standard bearer of this view. His rise among possible presidential candidates in 2024 is largely driven by “he can do to the US what he's doing to Florida.” Does this mean—we've seen these debates like who would be worse as a nominee? Should we be worried about a Trump or should we be more worried about a DeSantis?

I don't know if it pushes against being worried about thinking Trump is not a big deal, but that DeSantis is much less likely to be able to accomplish as president what he's accomplishing in Florida.

DeSantis is more likely to be more methodical and systematic and follow things through with the self-discipline that Trump lacked notably in office.

Robert: I think he definitely is—he's much less likely to be able to replicate this on the national scale. He will try. I do think the Trump versus DeSantis thing is “choose the form of the destroyer”— I've got to go back to my 1980s pop culture reference. Younger kids, look it up. It's this idea, you've got two people who are both, I think, a danger to the liberal American system, the system of a free society, of government being out of the business of dictating what you're supposed to read and what you're supposed to believe, and also respect for voting and for majority rule.

You have two people who are both a threat to that. The question is, well, what kind of threat is going to be worse? I think it's a somewhat unprofitable question to ask because I think it's enough to establish, well, they're both a threat and they're both the same kind of threat. Then within that, I think the case is simply that, well, Donald Trump, I think is more erratic.

He's more likely to call for—as he's just done in the last week, to call for a mob to turn out and a violent mob to turn out to defend him from having to face legal consequences for his actions or to overthrow and overturn our election results or what have you. He's more likely to do the big extravagant crazy things. DeSantis is more likely to be more methodical and systematic and follow things through with the self-discipline that Trump lacked notably in office.

Aaron: Is sometimes feels like the conservatives, and especially the national conservatives, in their vision of “we're going to return to a ‘trad’ society,” underestimate the amount of pluralism that even exists within their circles? Yoram Hazony, a very conservative Jewish guy—the world that he would institute if he had the full-on cudgel of the state versus whatever the very weird world that a Rod Dreher would want. If they seize power, they're just going to end up fighting amongst themselves.

Robert: They'll end up fighting each other.

Aaron: Once they banished all LGBT people. They can all agree on that.

Robert: Well, one of the odd things to me is that a number of the leading nationalist conservatives who want integralism and want the state to get involved in religion are Catholics. Traditionally in America, Catholics have been on the brunt end of government involvement in the state. It's an old story that has been forgotten because it all happened 150 years ago.

There were literal riots in places like Boston and I think Michigan or Indiana over public schools. When they first had the first systems of public schools that were put into place, they often had religious instruction in the public schools. The religious instruction used the King James Bible. It was Protestant religious instruction, and it was very deliberately created to take all these Catholic kids, all the Irish kids, and all the Italian kids who were coming in, who were raised Catholic and trying to pull them over and give them Protestant religious instruction.

There were actual riots over this that when you had religious instruction in the public schools, it was used as a cudgel by Protestants against Catholics in exactly the way you're talking about that they're fighting against each other. A lot of the solution to those school wars, as they were called in America, the solution was, let's not have religious instruction in school. Let's have secular schools and let's get the schools out of religion.

You put the schools back into religion, which is one of the integralist ideas and you go back to having exactly those conflicts and disagreements.

Aaron: One of the interesting things has been the particular focus on education, because prior to this latest rise of deeply illiberal views on the right under Trump, we had school choice [as] the primary argument you saw among many people on the right that the solution to ideological uniformity and indoctrination, whatever it happens to be, in elementary and secondary education was school choice freedom, let people go where they want to go.

Now it seems what we're seeing is that that was always—that wasn't a principled position, it was more just school choice was a way for us to escape what we saw as a leftist-controlled education establishment. Now in part, due to COVID upsetting a lot of parents and bringing sweeping in conservative school boards, superintendents, and so on, we have an opportunity to remake public education in our image.

Even that commitment to freedom has largely disappeared. Even people who in the past were very good on educational freedom seem to be pretty silent about what DeSantis is up to.

Robert: Well, I think there has been—I just saw some news about there's a bill going through in Florida for school choice and I am hoping that one of the things that emerge from this will be that maybe some people on the left will start to see the virtues of school choice. If Ron DeSantis is controlling your public schools and saying you can't have certain things taught about history of racism in the U.S. and about segregation and what have you, the great appeal of this would be, well, you can send your kids to a private school that will teach them all the values you want to promote.

I’m hoping that will break school choice out from being this partisan-coded thing where only Republicans favor it and Democrats feel like they have to be against it. Again, it's this idea that we have given up on saying freedom and pluralism is the answer and said, no, the answer is from my side, to seize control. There's a long history of this. The old saying is free speech for me but not for thee.

The ACLU partly is an example of this that, the left was very much in favor of free speech when violations of free speech involved things like putting communists in jail, when they felt they were the targets of censorship, they were very much in favor of free speech. The more they control the institutions and the more that other people who don't share their views become the targets, the less concerned they become about censorship.

That's a long-standing trend, how you feel about freedom from government control depends on how much you feel that your side and people sympathetic to you are going to have control over the state. In a pluralistic society like America, in a diverse society where nobody has—I mean, James Madison designed it this way on purpose. Federalist 10, go read it. The whole point here is he said, well, what happens if somebody gets a majority and that majority decides to run rough shod over the rights of individuals?

He says, well, the protection against that is we're going to have a country so large and so diverse, so many different interests and factions that none of them will be big enough to get a majority and combine together to take away the rights of other people. I think that is our protection on the federal level. That's why my concern is more—and I think why we're seeing a lot of battles right now from abortion to education to things like this DeSantis versus Disney using the power of government against the private corporation.

We're going to see a lot more of that happening on the state level because that's where you're more likely to be able to get a majority that can be panicked (I see a lot of what's going down in Florida, by the way, as an Anita Bryant-style gay panic). You transplanted from the '60s and '70s and brought forward into the 21st century. This idea that we're going to have these church lady groups filing suits or making complaints against the schools that you can't carry this dirty book—this is an obscene book. You can't have that in the school library.  It's very recognizable as this old-fashioned gay panic transported into the 21st century and you can get that to get some traction in some states, but you're not going to go do that on the national level.

Aaron: Does the fact that this works on the state level but not on the national level, or it's at least we'll say harder on the national level, mean that there is something of a natural check against its spread or I guess a ceiling of how bad it can get even on the state level. Florida gets a lot of money from Disney. But it would be hard for Disney to move to a different state because it owns a lot of expensive real estate in Florida, but if things got bad enough, it could.

It seems like a lot of the largest corporations and a lot of the centers of economic dynamism and growth in this country are much more sympathetic to, if not outright progressive social views, then certainly not DeSantis-style social views. It seems like there are strong economic mechanisms for punishing this stuff if it gets too far out of hand.

Robert: Yes, economic, and also there's the courts too, because the interesting thing is no one side of this debate has a monopoly on the courts. You could have a majority on the Supreme Court, but on the lower courts, especially where there's a lot more diversity. And one of the things DeSantis has already run up against is that there's the old-fashioned Reaganites are still out there. The Reaganite conservatives are still out there.

David French was arguing to you recently, he wants to make the case about how the Federalist Society saved America in 2020 because a lot of the rulings that went against Trump were from the Federalist Society conservative judges, and the same has been true for some of the rulings. DeSantis put into place this “Stop WOKE Act,” which was supposed to prevent people from teaching critical race theory or teaching ideas he didn't like, even in private corporate training seminars.

This has scored blatantly unconstitutional, and a lot of the rulings that came against it were from old-fashioned conservative judges, Federalist Society-type judges who were still following that Reaganite originalism. It was very obvious and blatant that this was a violation. One of the techniques somebody like DeSantis uses is, they’ll pass a law—and this has happened in Texas, this happened a number of different places…the left does this too, by the way, where they control things—at the state level that they pretty much know is going to be struck down on the federal level. It's unconstitutional, the courts are going to strike it down. But it's like the old fashion messaging legislation, where you propose a bill that was never going to pass, but you get to go back home and pander to your base by saying, well, I proposed this bill. It doesn't matter that it never had any chance of getting passed. Same thing happens here. With loud fanfare, you sign a bill to Stop Wokeness in your state, knowing that a large chunk of it is going to get struck down by the federal courts, but by the time that happens, that's months later and that's those guys out there in Washington who did that, and you still have had this opportunity to pander to your base back home.

Now, the problem is, you then create this precedent of “anything I can get away with is okay, and I should be pushing the bounds of what I can get away with.” Also, you have somebody like DeSantis, who clearly has his eye on higher office, has his eye on being the guy who's going to be able to appoint the judges on the federal level in the future, who would then to the extent there is a conservative faction in the judiciary, that would embrace these things, he could put them on the bench. That's the more long-term danger.

This idea that we're going to have these church lady groups filing suits or making complaints against the schools that you can't carry this dirty book—this is an obscene book. You can't have that in the school library.  It's very recognizable as this old-fashioned gay panic transported into the 21st century…

Aaron: There's a point in the essay that you published at The UnPopulist that I rather liked that's related to this and the courts where you're talking about David Azerrad saying, conservatives need to be comfortable basically using whatever power we can get our hands on, and then adds within the “confines of the rule of law.” I like that you say this is a self-contradiction because the rule of law implies the very impartiality and the use of power that he is rejecting. That seems to speak to, I think, partly why the courts are rejecting a lot of this, but ultimately, this fundamental problem.

It seems one lesson we can draw from what's happening is that a lot of the people who spoke in the language of freedom and liberty, free enterprise and so on— that wasn't a principled commitment; it was an expedient commitment because they saw that as the best way to advance their cultural and economic interest and now they have turned.

That's not an isolated phenomenon on the right, the left does similar things. In that environment where we see this happen, and it can in these ways where it just runs in really awful directions as we're seeing in Florida. What do those of us, who maybe are in the decided minority, but have an actual principled commitment to liberalism and pluralism, even if it means people are doing weird stuff that we're not into, how do we make our case in a world like that, where it seems like people aren't really interested in the principles?

The history of religious liberty is really a history of failed religious conflict in Europe and in England…

Robert: Well, one thing I think we need to point out is that a lot of these principles of institutional neutrality and this idea of the government will stay out of the way and allow these different ideas to flourish and different people to have different lifestyles and that sort of thing, was not something that somebody adopted because they wanted to.

A lot of this came out historically from all these battles being fought to a standstill. The history of religious liberty is really a history of failed religious conflict in Europe and in England in particular and in Europe in general, that you had these knockdown battles, Protestants versus Catholics, people killing each other on a very large scale, long wars that were fought over it.

Eventually, what happened is they got themselves to such a stance that they said, "Okay, look, we can't settle this by just having one side kill everybody on the other side by having the state impose something and totally dominate." Religious liberty was adopted as—and governmental neutrality in religion—was adopted as the last resort as the thing nobody wanted, but as a result of the fact that if we let this be just a conflict, a war of all against all, it ends up being much more destructive.

I think that hopefully, we can arrive at a less bloody and less traumatic version of that, which is going back to James Madison. He anticipated … He created this system so that you'd have one faction trying to get its way, having to deal with—Oh wait, but then another faction is out there and neither faction really can get enough of a majority, enough power to totally impose its views. Eventually, once they've exhausted that effort, they have to decide, "Okay, we're going to—we have to stand at the meeting point. The neutralizing point in the middle is: Let's have the government be neutral." I mentioned the school wars—that's a great example. Instead of saying, well, let's have the Protestants control the schools and they can indoctrinate all the Catholic kids, the eventual truce is let's have the schools stay out of religion and just focus on teaching.

I think that is the case we're making essentially for why you have these neutral principles in the first place. And we're probably going to have to relearn that a little bit, but the history is on our side, is the way I'd put it.

Aaron: Thank you for listening to Zooming In at The UnPopulist. If you enjoy this show, please take a moment to review us in Apple Podcasts and also check out ReImagining Liberty, the sister podcast of The UnPopulist, where I explore the emancipatory and cosmopolitan case for radical, social, political, and economic freedom. Zooming In is produced by Landry Ayres and is a project of The UnPopulist.

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