Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Peter Wehner: A Polite Zealot

November 15, 2023
Notes
Transcript
We may have averted a government shutdown for the moment, but the new speaker of the House believes dinosaurs were on Noah’s Ark. Pete Wehner joins Charlie Sykes for a deep dive on Mike Johnson. Plus, the closing of the American mind on the right.

show notes:

https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2023/10/polite-zealotry-mike-johnson/675845/

https://www.nytimes.com/2023/11/06/opinion/trump-allan-bloom-republicans.html 

This transcript was generated automatically and may contain errors and omissions. Ironically, the transcription service has particular problems with the word “bulwark,” so you may see it mangled as “Bullard,” “Boulart,” or even “bull word.” Enjoy!
  • Speaker 1
    0:00:08

    Welcome to the Bulwark podcast. I’m Charlie Sykes. I was thinking of doing something a little bit different today, stepping back from the horse race, stepping back from the latest shambolic stories about what’s happening in Congress. I thought this would be a good moment to pull the lens back just a little bit and ask how we got here and what is happening and who better to do that than our our guest today, Peter Weiner, contributing writer at the Atlantic and the New York Times, the author of a number of books, including the death of politics. He’s a senior fellow at the Trinity forum and served in the Reagan Bush forty one and Bush forty three administrations, which we refer to as the before times around here.
  • Speaker 1
    0:00:47

    Welcome back on the podcast, Peter.
  • Speaker 2
    0:00:49

    Great to be with you, Charlie. Thanks for all you are doing and your colleagues are doing.
  • Speaker 1
    0:00:53

    Well, you had a brilliant piece in the Atlanta. That put everything into context, including what’s happening now in Congress. A lot of a lot of coverage right now about whether or not the new speaker, Mike Johnson, whose name I’m still getting used to, Mike Johnson, is part of me that always thinks I’m getting that name wrong. Right? It’s like, okay.
  • Speaker 1
    0:01:10

    Can’t be Mike Johnson. Right? Your piece I thought was really interesting because it described who Mike Johnson was. And, you know, none of us actually do this. And the headline was the polite zealotry of Mike Johnson.
  • Speaker 1
    0:01:24

    And you wrote this shortly after he became the speaker. And you start off by noting that when Johnson was asked by Sean Hannity about where people could find out about his worldview. He said people should just pick up the Bible. What did that mean, Peter help me understand this guy?
  • Speaker 2
    0:01:43

    It was an interesting response that he gave to Hannity. I think for him, what it meant was that if you consult the Bible, you would have a view of what Mike Johnson saw about the world, and you would have a sense of what was true and write and ordered about the world. It was kind of a manual not only to understand. Make sense of reality, but also to understand his politics. And that you could make some kind of connect the dots from the Bible to to whatever he happened to believe.
  • Speaker 1
    0:02:12

    The details were a little fuzzy. Not sure what Levitica says about continuing resolutions.
  • Speaker 2
    0:02:18

    Well, that’s right. That’s right. Actually, the that’s an interesting way to put it because I think the details are extremely fuzzy, but I don’t think they’re fuzzy for Mike Johnson. I think that’s the important thing to understand. For him, I think it is it is a book that will will instruct him on politics and every aspect of his life.
  • Speaker 1
    0:02:35

    I
  • Speaker 2
    0:02:36

    think that that’s extremely shallow and misguided just as a person of the Christian faith, which I am, because when it comes to the interpretation of the Bible, scholars refer to as hermeneutics, it’s a very complicated thing. Now the Bible itself is written over thousands of years by dozens of dozens of different people often arguing and saying different things at different times So it requires discernment to try and figure out what in the Bible applies in any particular moment that you’re in. So I think he’s wrong Jonathan Last I think the other thing to understand about about Mike Johnson, and and I know the kind of person he is just because of my own life within the evangelical world where I’ve spent a fair amount of my adult life, always somewhat on the fringes, I would say. But I know these subcultures, and I think I understand how a lot of these folks think For Mike Johnson, I think he is a zealot. Now, he he’s a mild mannered and polite zealot.
  • Speaker 2
    0:03:30

    I would say by certainly by by Magas standards. His rhetoric is not as abrasive and reckless, at least as often as a lot in in Magaworld. But he is a true believer. He’s not a cynic like Kevin McCarthy was or like Lindsey Graham is or like JD Vance is. That he really, really believes, and that has its own worries that attend to it.
  • Speaker 1
    0:03:53

    Let’s talk about what he believes. You wrote that he has deep ties to the Southern Baptist Convention and believes in a literal reading of the Bible, and he’s close friends with, Ken Ham, who is an Australian fundamentalist and creationist and provided legal services to his organization answers in Genesis. So what does answers in Genesis believe? Well, one of
  • Speaker 2
    0:04:15

    the things that they believe is that the earth and the universe are six thousand years old. Okay. And so they don’t think that, the first couple of chapters or the first eleven chapters in Genesis are in any sense figurative or even even using as as CS Lewis referred to true myths to try and express truths. So that tells you a certain mindset. Right?
  • Speaker 2
    0:04:36

    Six thousand. Six thousand years old.
  • Speaker 1
    0:04:38

    So that dinosaurs What’s the dinosaur?
  • Speaker 2
    0:04:40

    The dinosaurs were with the people on the arc. It’s pretty convoluted, and it’s really, really fascinating psychologically. And I think we see this manifest station in Magga World two. But what it tells you one thing it tells you about Mike Johnson is this is a person who is impervious to evidence. And to reality sets up a force field.
  • Speaker 2
    0:05:00

    So all of the overwhelming evidence, some is just not an open question about the the age of the earth, certainly when it comes to being six or ten thousand years old. But it doesn’t matter because the starting point is this is what the Bible teaches, and the Bible is true. And therefore, it must be true in any evidence and contrary to that has to be explained. And that’s where you see these leaps of logic, these twists and knots of rationalizations and justification. And when you’re dealing with somebody like that, you know, in day to day life, that has its own challenges.
  • Speaker 2
    0:05:32

    But when you have people like that Yeah. Yeah. In political leadership, that is doubly or triply troubling
  • Speaker 1
    0:05:39

    I actually worked with a guy who was, a very competent professional, very, very creative guy and completely normal and rational, until you began talking about the age of the earth. And then as you pointed out, he was impervious to any kind of information. So carbon dating, fossils, archaeology, all of that is fake news. Yeah. And you write that Johnson is it’s not just on board.
  • Speaker 1
    0:06:01

    You wrote Johnson is enthusiastically on board.
  • Speaker 2
    0:06:05

    Yeah. That’s right. I mean, they they have these, arc in Kentucky where there there’s, thousands made probably tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people Will Saletan visit these museums that they have set up.
  • Speaker 1
    0:06:17

    They have their own museums.
  • Speaker 2
    0:06:18

    Yeah. Exactly. Exactly. And this answers in Genesis, you know, if you’re a person in the Christian world, at least some parts of the Christian work. You will have heard of them, and they will go through their websites.
  • Speaker 2
    0:06:29

    And any questions that come up theological or or otherwise, but particularly related to science. They think that they the answers are literally in Genesis, and they’ll give it to you. If it were confined and it went in terms of Mike Johnson, just to this issue, I mean, I obviously had my differences with them, and it would be worrisome, but it would be contained. But I would say that the trouble is that that kind of mindset in my estimation permeates Johnson in all sorts of ways and we can talk about it, but including in the in the, election denial.
  • Speaker 1
    0:07:01

    Well, and also, I mean, in in terms of, like, the relevance of this, Johnson thinks that churches should be more politicized Yeah. And that the so called Johnson amendment, no relation, which prevents churches from engaging in political activity to keep their tax exempt status should be overturned lots of evangelical conservatives believe that. Exactly. He’d also like to criminalize gay sex and refers to abortion as a holocaust. Right.
  • Speaker 1
    0:07:26

    Okay. So The politicization of churches, let’s leave that to one side. The criminalization of gay sex, that does put him outside the mainstream, even of conservative thought. Even I’m tempted to say Maga thought because originally, I don’t think that Maga was about criminalizing gay sex for all the other things that you and I find implausible about it. That’s on the edge of even of Edge Magga.
  • Speaker 1
    0:07:49

    Right?
  • Speaker 2
    0:07:49

    Yeah. I think that’s right. I think that’s right. And he’s avoided that topic since he’s been speaker, and I understand why why he has. I assume that the deep down his views haven’t changed because I do think he’s a he’s a true believer.
  • Speaker 2
    0:08:01

    He may make the utilitarian judgment the prudential judgment not to talk about it. This was in the context of the case years ago. You’ll remember Lawrenceby, Texas. Yeah. I think Justice Scalia eroded dissenting opinion on on that.
  • Speaker 2
    0:08:13

    And that had to do with the criminalization of gay sex. But when you read and look at Mike Johnson’s history, The issue of homosexuality has been extremely prominent in his writings. It’s really a focus of his attention and his energy and abortion. Those are the two Those are the two issues. And the groups that he’s been affiliated with back in the two thousands and later made these issues primary, and he was his lawyer and he advocated for those groups, but he clearly shares their world view.
  • Speaker 2
    0:08:45

    He is a culture warrior in the true and authentic sense.
  • Speaker 1
    0:08:50

    Okay. So let’s talk about his attitude towards school shootings, which I can half understand, and then we get to a different area here. You write that he thinks the school shootings are the result of generations of Americans being taught that there’s no right or wrong that it’s about survival of the fittest. And you evolve from the primordial slime.
  • Speaker 2
    0:09:08

    Right. Now there
  • Speaker 1
    0:09:08

    are a lot of conservatives who have argued, like, you know, Bill Bennett, you know, back in the the nineties before Maga in the in the before times that that, you know, clearly we are seeing a a collapse of traditional values of right and wrong of morality. You know, that’s not particularly, you know, is elitrade. Bulwark you suggesting that he also believes that school shootings are the result of belief in evolution, belief in any of these things? I mean, so because these start to tie together the the, you know, for him religion is not in the box over here.
  • Speaker 2
    0:09:38

    Right. Exactly. About that. Yeah. I think that’s what’s happening.
  • Speaker 2
    0:09:42

    I think that’s a reasonable surmise from what he said. He didn’t say it directly, but he heavily implied it. Yeah. Part of it is, again, I think that when you have that kind of mindset, you are committed and determined to dry and obliterate the ideology that you don’t agree with. Right?
  • Speaker 2
    0:09:58

    So he thinks evolution is this enormous threat and moral threat?
  • Speaker 1
    0:10:02

    It’s a cancer on our civilization then.
  • Speaker 2
    0:10:04

    Right. Right. So what does he do? He ties these horrific school shootings to the idea of evolution because of evolution existed, then you can’t have right and wrong, and there’s no argument for the morality of of individuals. So he’s using these current day events to try and discredit evolution because that’s so contrary to to his world view.
  • Speaker 2
    0:10:26

    Now, of course, when you get into the the realities of the school shootings, there are a couple of things that you have to keep in mind. The vast majority of the people who are committing these, it’s it’s not as if people who, you know, high school kids that weren’t disciplined because they were late going to class or because they had their their cell phones. These are people who were mentally ill and deeply deranged overwhelmingly. So Right. So this the normal moral infrastructure that shapes most people doesn’t apply to them because they’re not mentally well.
  • Speaker 2
    0:10:58

    So his argument would fail on those grounds. And in addition, other countries have problems that we have in terms of moral dissolution, and mental health as you’ve talked many times on the show. Exactly. So that’s that’s the problem. But again, From my perspective, it’s what do we learn about my Johnson and his worldview that informs where he is now, what can we expect from it?
  • Speaker 1
    0:11:23

    Okay. Just one step back. This may seem like a digression to some people. Yeah. What do most mainstream Christians think about evolution and morality?
  • Speaker 1
    0:11:32

    Most mainstream Christians do not reject evolution, but they also do not believe that evolution means that there is no right and wrong. Correct?
  • Speaker 2
    0:11:40

    Yeah. I think that’s right. I mean, it depends. Of course, in in the Christian world, you have fundamentalists.
  • Speaker 1
    0:11:45

    Right. Right.
  • Speaker 2
    0:11:45

    You have hyper evangelical then you have main line and you have more progressive Christian. So you have a, you have a wide range of views. So, yeah, the mo the I I would guess the majority of Christians. There’s issue of evolution, right, which is that’s one set of questions. And then the other is if evolution existed would that mean that there couldn’t be a moral standard for us, right, right, wrong?
  • Speaker 2
    0:12:07

    I think most Christians would say no, and that god used, I mean, if you, for example, Francis Collins, who’s who’s the esteemed former director of NIH, founded a group called Biologos, which is an effort to try and bridge the world of science and faith. And it’s an outstanding standing group and often in the sites by the way of answers in Genesis. You know, they they would argue, of course, that evolution is true. It’s scientifically true. We we know it for a fact, but that god can use evolution in this unfolding drama and this unfolding story, and certainly, precisely because we know evolution is true and we know moral standards exist in their moral people.
  • Speaker 2
    0:12:43

    That itself explodes the theory that evolution means that you can’t be moral.
  • Speaker 1
    0:12:48

    Okay. Let’s go back to Mike Johnson. Your article had just so much detail here that So there’s there’s somebody else that needs to be known to understand Mike Johnson’s worldview, and I’m not familiar with his Bulwark. David Barton, not well known outside of evangelical fundamentalist circles, but very, very significant within them. He went to oral Roberts University, was the chairman of the Texas Republican Party He advises people like Mike Huckabee, newt gingrich, Michelle Bachman.
  • Speaker 1
    0:13:14

    He considers Trump to be one of the five greatest presidents in American history. So who is David Barton? Why is he significant in this story?
  • Speaker 2
    0:13:22

    Yeah. He’s significant because he, took on a role as essentially a revisionist historian, and he’s not a historian by training, but he’s very, very popular within some of the subcultures of the evangelical world, for example, in some of the homeschooling movements, some of his teachings, his textbooks, his conferences, And so a lot of people who are in the fundamentalist and in some areas of the evangelical world would have gone to the conferences that he had. And his basic argument and theory and thesis is that America is a Christian nation that the founders were Christian themselves that the idea of the separation of church and state is a myth, it’s a fiction. There shouldn’t be such a thing, is probably most noted for a book that he wrote Jefferson’s lies, which I think came out in twenty twelve.
  • Speaker 1
    0:14:13

    Jefferson.
  • Speaker 2
    0:14:13

    Yeah. And it argued that that Jefferson was an Orthodox traditional Christian and that the interpretations that most people have, which was I
  • Speaker 1
    0:14:21

    think it’s safe to say that as a revisionist view of Thomas Jefferson.
  • Speaker 2
    0:14:24

    Yeah. We know it’s a revisionist view of Thomas Jefferson. And Jefferson scholars just eviscerated the book. It’s it’s just filled with falsehoods.
  • Speaker 1
    0:14:33

    They call it awful, relentlessly anti intellectual.
  • Speaker 2
    0:14:37

    Yes. Exactly. And it really it really is. Interestingly Charlie Sykes book itself was published pre trump. And these were signs on the American right, which, I think you and I sort of saw.
  • Speaker 2
    0:14:50

    There were elements of these, but we thought that they were fringe, more fringe than they turned out to be, and it was more contained, I think, than than it turned out to be. But Barton is a prominent figures sold a lot of books, and he and Johnson are quite close. Johnson and his wife had a podcast. I think they’ve ceased it now. And Johnson would would appear on it.
  • Speaker 2
    0:15:11

    And Johnson himself has said something to the effect that you can’t understand me without understanding Barton and and his and his views. So, again, to understand Johnson, you do want to understand this world that Barton is coming from.
  • Speaker 1
    0:15:28

    Kristen Dumay, who’s been a guest on this podcast, history professors, scholar of all this has written about Barton’s claims. What that means, you know, that the Thomas Jefferson one today in Orthodox Christian Asian. What that means is that he kind of takes conservative white evangelical ideals from our current moment and says that those were all baked into the constitution and that god has elected America to be a special nation, and the nation will be blessed if we respond in obedience and maintain that. And not if we go astray, it really fuels evangelical politics and the idea that evangelicalism has a special role to play to get the country back on track. And as you write, Bartner is reportedly giddy about, Mike Johnson’s Ascension, and he’s spoken with his team about the kind of people he needs as his staff.
  • Speaker 1
    0:16:11

    I mean, wow. Okay.
  • Speaker 2
    0:16:13

    Yeah. No. Kristen, Demay is a is a very distinguished historian, and she wrote a very good book called Jesus and John Wayne. I wanna say one point about this, which I think is important to understand, which is politics by its nature is infused with passion and strong strong beliefs. That’s that’s the nature of the of the enterprise.
  • Speaker 2
    0:16:31

    But when you overlay that, and people think this is not only, you know, debates about the meaning of the republic and the country but that this is actually an epic struggle between the children of light and the children of darkness and that god is on one side and Satan is on the other. Then you’ve taken politics, which is, as I said, inherently intense and difficult and and elicits passions And he had this jet fuel of saying that this is an epic cosmic spiritual struggle. And then the people that believe this, and they many of them believe it in good faith. Then they take it upon themselves as essentially kind of warriors for god, and it’s not just our country that we’re fighting for, but it’s for god and god’s ways. And then you can see how politics gets into very, very dangerous territory.
  • Speaker 1
    0:17:21

    Becomes very toxic and why you would not consider, compromise or bipartisanship to be virtues in any way whatsoever. In fact, they are betrayals. Exactly. Okay. So setting aside Mike Johnson, you wrote last week.
  • Speaker 1
    0:17:39

    In the New York times. And this this sort of thing is is really a a gut punch, I think, tying together, you know, the before times You were in the New York Times last week. The one of the books that most electrified conservatives over the last fifty years was Ellen Blooms closing of the American mind, which was published in nineteen eighty seven. And I am old enough to remember this, and and remember what the reaction was that and as you wrote, It warned, the closing of the American mind warned of the dangers posed by moral relativism and nihilism of accepting everything and denying reasons power. And Bloom argued that the denial of truth and the suppression of reason were leading to a crisis of civilization and that that was the fault of the new left.
  • Speaker 1
    0:18:24

    This was embraced universally by conservatives, I think, well, close to it. And you at the time, Bulwark working in the Reagan Administration’s Department of of Education. And, obviously, you were very interested in higher education. I was very interested in higher education. And so at that point, you could almost define conservatism as pushing back against moral relativism and nihilism What happened, Peter?
  • Speaker 2
    0:18:51

    Yeah. I think a lot of things happens, and all of them are disquieting. And, and disturbing. One of the things that happened, and I I quote, Rich Taffel, who’s the chief executive of Public Square, who said that in his conversations with people on the right, There are narratives that try fighting the left for years, but the game had changed in that trying to work against the identity politics to the post modern left, just wasn’t working. And so they came to embrace the politics of post modernism, which means that there’s no truth.
  • Speaker 2
    0:19:25

    You can make up your own narratives. You can ignore evidence that you that you want. And I think that that became for them not only a a way to any I heard any number of times, and I I’m guessing you did too, Charlie Sykes actually started in twenty sixteen. Number of these people, by the way, were Christians that that I spoke to. And what they said about about Donald Trump at that time is Look, he’s a person to flaw character.
  • Speaker 2
    0:19:51

    In the conversations I had, they would they would admit whether it was Mitt Romney or John McCain or George w Bush. Trump’s character was worse than theirs.
  • Speaker 1
    0:20:00

    Mhmm. What
  • Speaker 2
    0:20:01

    they said is that he understands the nature of the struggle He’s gonna bring a gun to a cultural knife fight. He understands the enemy. These these other people are too gentle. And I still have conversations literally emails within the last several weeks with people in Maga World who believe that the left I
  • Speaker 1
    0:20:20

    remember this.
  • Speaker 2
    0:20:20

    Is not only destructive to everything that they believe in, but is immoral and will use any means and methods necessary. And so one person literally told me that Trump is not good and decent, but good and decent doesn’t work anymore. And that he was the one person
  • Speaker 1
    0:20:41

    that’s right.
  • Speaker 2
    0:20:42

    So what they came to do is to embrace this kind of nihilistic, broached politics, the will to power, not gonna be constrained by rules or norms.
  • Speaker 1
    0:20:52

    Well, and this is what you you wrote is that Republicans have embraced, nihilism. You know, the American right Most fully embodies the attitudes that alarmed Alan Bloom back in nineteen eighty seven. And then you go through all of this. I mean, just witness the rights embrace of Trump’s cruelty, his remorselessness, his vindictiveness, his vindictiveness, His conspiracy theories. I mean, no other president has been so disdainful of knowledge and annihilating truth each week as statements become more deranged, more menacing, more authoritarian.
  • Speaker 1
    0:21:18

    We can get tax on the prosecutors and judges. We can just run through all of that. The people that he suggests that he would have executed, you know, joking about the attack on Nancy Pelosi’s husband. Yep. And as you point out, he’s wildly popular with the right and it as it turns out, his indecency is a plus.
  • Speaker 1
    0:21:36

    His supporters are galvanized by the criminal charges against him because now that becomes the signal of that he’s being politically persecuted. And so this is what’s different in twenty sixteen because he kind of alone. I remember thinking to myself at one point. Okay. Trump’s bad, but there are just not a lot of, you know, you know, mini trumps around the country.
  • Speaker 1
    0:21:56

    And now we’ve seen hundreds of imitators across the country. So you wrote the haunting question raised by Alan Bloom is more relevant now than it was when he first posed it. When there are no shared goals or a vision of the public good, is the social contract any longer possible? I’m gonna turn the question on you. Is it?
  • Speaker 2
    0:22:17

    It is, but it’s it’s being challenged. A lot is at stake This is a tremendously difficult disorienting period. In some ways, I think it’s it’s the greatest threat to the republic since the lead up to the civil war I would say that the next twelve months, whether Trump wins this election or not, will go a good distance toward determining the degree to which the republic as we’ve known it is gonna continue and survive. And the right has has not only embraced the post modernism, but with a kind of zeal that even the left didn’t. And I think it’s more widespread on the right.
  • Speaker 2
    0:22:51

    There’s a kind of psychic satisfaction that I’ve seen on the American right, we refer to it as, you know, of trolling the lips and owning the lips. And there is a kind of delight that people take in being able to make arguments that they want that are removed in distance from facts. They can just throw out any any narratives that they want. And what I think what happened I think that people at the time, most people who were conservative or the American right, embraced the bloom thesis. I think they would have said that they they believed it.
  • Speaker 2
    0:23:24

    But I think what happened is over time when they felt like they weren’t winning and that the ends in justify the means came into play, and they began step at a time to discard the moral norms that they had held to. Always coming up with a rationalization. Look, we have to we have to cut this corner in order to defeat the left because defeating the left and defeating the democratic party is prima Central Paris. For the survival of the country. And at each step and each accommodation, it became easier to make the next accommodation.
  • Speaker 2
    0:23:54

    And so what was a bug for don Donald Trump in twenty sixteen became a feature by twenty twenty. And now it’s an aspect of him in which they they celebrated because They feel like he hates the same people that we do. He drives the left crazy and anybody that does that is somebody that warrants our support. So It’s really disturbing. And, of course, for people like you and I who grew up in the conservative reform by the conservative movement, it’s disorienting.
  • Speaker 1
    0:24:20

    It’s very disoriented. It is feel like the upside down world. And in your piece and the time, you you also reference the work of Jonathan Last, who wrote the Constitution of Knowledge, talking about the way the incentive structure, and I think you’ve hinted at this. The incentive structure has, you know, really been reversed. I mean, it’s played an indispensable role in this this epistemic crisis here because as you point out, I think people in the media have discovered that right wing ecosystem have discovered, you know, that spreading these lies and the resentments is very, very profitable.
  • Speaker 1
    0:24:50

    There is an audience for it. People like this. They want it even if they know it’s not true. And this is something that I wrestle with. It’s like, do you believe that lie, or do you not care whether it’s a lie that it’s just the the utility?
  • Speaker 1
    0:25:04

    As as long as it’s a cudgel that triggers the lips, I’m willing to say it. And this goes back to a a conversation I I had about Carrie Lake. Is Carrie Lake nuts, or is she just fundamentally thoroughly dishonest? And I’m not sure which is worse. I actually believe that she knows it’s all bullshit, but this is what you have to do these days, and they kinda like it.
  • Speaker 1
    0:25:25

    Yeah. It it’s a really good question, and it’s a puzzling question.
  • Speaker 2
    0:25:29

    I mean, I think the way I view it is that there’s a spectrum. And there are some people who were true believers, like probably Sydney Powell. Yeah. And then there are people who are deeply local, I would say, like like Lindsey Graham. I do think that for an awful lot of people who are who are trump supporters and mega supporters, It’s a combination.
  • Speaker 2
    0:25:48

    And just give me a sec to explain what sort of my theory is, which is informed by clinical psychologists and social psychologists that I’ve talked to. Which is there’s a phenomenon called cognitive dissonance. And cognitive dissonance is when you live at odds with what your values are. And if you know it, and that creates an enormous internal tension. Think about in a sense of a minister that goes up and gives sermon on Sunday and has an affair on Tuesday or Wednesday and then comes back the following Sunday.
  • Speaker 2
    0:26:16

    Right. People probably wonder how how the heck does that person get away with that without feeling disgust and self loathing, and I’m I’m alive.
  • Speaker 1
    0:26:23

    But
  • Speaker 2
    0:26:23

    what happens? A lot of people that have affairs like that. They justify you know, my my spouse wasn’t paying attention to me. I wanted to, you know, get out of this. It wasn’t working or whatever.
  • Speaker 2
    0:26:34

    And so they’re able to do it. Mhmm. Our mind works to allay and mitigate cognitive dissonance. So we’re not living in this tension. So in my experience, when I’ve talked and communicated, people in Trump world and Maga World, and laid out not in provocative language, but laid out very methodically.
  • Speaker 2
    0:26:52

    Fact, and circumstances, I can see psychologically what they do, which is how they change the conversation, how they tend to mitigate how awful trump is, and then they try and escalate how that biden is. So they’re basically looking for a draw on the morality of Biden and Trump, hence, Hunter Biden and so forth. They have to keep in the front of their mind this notion that Biden, and the Democrats are next substantial struggle. And if you said, look, he’s been president for three years, some things you may disagree with, some things may agree with, But the country is not in in a markedly worse shape, and in some ways, better shape than a Trump. It doesn’t matter.
  • Speaker 2
    0:27:31

    They have to hold to this idea and the rationalizations, you know, kick in, which is these indictments our political prosecutions, and the impeachment was a political prosecution. And we can’t trust the evidence because it’s the mainstream media that that hates him.
  • Speaker 1
    0:27:50

    It it is very interesting how effective this is because I have written as as you have about Trump’s threats to weaponize, the criminal justice system to have a regime of of revenge and retribution. And the almost universal response from Mago World is, first of all, good. Second, but because that is what Democrats are already doing. So let me ask you this because you’ve described this mannequin world as the children of light versus children of darkness and why you need to embrace, you know, all of all of these things in order to defeat, you know, the the satanic opposition. What is it?
  • Speaker 1
    0:28:26

    That they hate when fear the most on the left. What do they cease on? It’s not about inflation. It’s not about the Paul. It’s not about the infrastructure bill.
  • Speaker 1
    0:28:37

    What is it that they see as so dangerous? Is it gender related stuff? What is it?
  • Speaker 2
    0:28:44

    Yeah. It’s an important question because in the effort to try and understand where they’re coming from, you do want to try and get some degree of insight into their world. Right. I think about it on several levels. I think there’s just a core reaction that the left and the progressive movement is dangerous and anti American and anti values.
  • Speaker 2
    0:29:05

    So there’s this starting point that their threat to what we believe If you said, look, tell me exactly what it is about the left that worries you. Then you have to get a distinction between Biden and the left because Biden has shown that he’s not hard left.
  • Speaker 1
    0:29:19

    Mhmm.
  • Speaker 2
    0:29:20

    For them, they would say, most recently, Hamas in Israel. So that’s some of what I’ve heard, which is And there, I think that’s a that’s a completely legit legitimate point to make. We’re seeing the progressive movement exposed at least parts of the progressive of it. Yeah. Some of it is not.
  • Speaker 2
    0:29:36

    It’s a complicated issue, but there is enough that’s going on in the campuses and elsewhere. So they would they would mention that. They would mention gender and abortion is often an issue that’s there. I would say that transgenderism has replaced homosexuality as the main concern with insceptual ethics, but homosexuality is is still there too. They would still mention to this day, defund the police.
  • Speaker 2
    0:29:58

    Because a few radicals in the Democratic party used that in in twenty twenty, even though Biden supports funding the police and so forth. I think those are the issues that they would point to, but it’s very visceral. And it’s a sense that they believe that the left and the progressive movement is out to destroy the country, destroy their children, And I would say it’s informed by a view and they actually want to believe that the progressive left is more dominant in the Democratic party in Biden than is the case. I’ve talked to David French about this when he and I have written essays on good news. For example, the number of abortions today And by the end of the the Obama administration was lower than it was Roe v Wade in nineteen seventy three.
  • Speaker 2
    0:30:41

    Now presumably, that would be good news if you’re pro life. Because you’ve had this dramatic drop in and and also crime. Crime in the early nineties was the record levels, and it’s gone down a lot since then. But when you write about the good empirical news, that elicits not thankfulness or not redoubling the energy because we’re making progress. It often elicits anger.
  • Speaker 2
    0:31:03

    Why would that be the case? The reason it is is because that narrative of existential threat.
  • Speaker 1
    0:31:10

    You’re challenging the narrative. Yeah.
  • Speaker 2
    0:31:11

    Exactly. And, of course, for some of these organizations, you’re challenging their funding. Because a lot of them raise money by constantly hitting the panic button.
  • Speaker 1
    0:31:20

    The hair doesn’t set itself on fire. It has to be constantly lit. Right? And and if you point out the good news, you know, you have to reignite the hair.
  • Speaker 2
    0:31:29

    Exactly. Exactly. So I think that that’s That’s what’s behind it. I I think, you know, a fair amount of it is genuine, but again, it gets complicated because I think there’s such a deep investment in creating these narratives. And then these narratives are part of people’s core identity.
  • Speaker 2
    0:31:46

    Right. So if you’re having these discussions, I’m sure you’ve had these these conversations where you’ve thought This is not just a policy disagreement. This person is reacting as if it’s an attack on who they are.
  • Speaker 1
    0:31:58

    Exactly.
  • Speaker 2
    0:31:59

    And it actually is because they they have these views that are core to their identity. So if you were to criticize them on an issue, they interpret that as you’re attacking my worldview.
  • Speaker 1
    0:32:10

    So I think I have borrowed an idea from from you and Jonathan Rausch. And I know you and I agree in of our listeners may not agree that there is illiberalism on the left and there’s illiberalism on the right that that liberal values are facing a two front attack. I think, you know, for people who said that there’s so many liberalism on on the left, I think what you’re seeing with the Hamas support is is indication of that. But the analogy that I borrowed from you and Jonathan Last the distinction between cancer and a heart attack that the threat from Maga illiberalism is immediate. It is tangible, it must be dealt with now.
  • Speaker 1
    0:32:46

    It doesn’t mean you ignore the liberalism on the left or pretend that it doesn’t exist or do not challenge it. But the liberalism on the right, and you wrote a really great piece with Jonathan Last about this that that the liberalism on the left does not justify. What we are now seeing on the right. So do you think that’s a fair analogy, heart attack versus cancer?
  • Speaker 2
    0:33:07

    Yeah. I I do. I think John was the one who first used it I mean, at this point, I probably quite honestly would say that the threat to the republic from the right is significantly greater than the left maybe we’re talking about broken bones versus cancer. For one thing, the attack on our electoral system is more profound and more immediate on the right candidly, I think the derangement is just more widespread. And I I say that as somebody who still is considers myself conservative, and I do think a lot of what we see unfolding on the campuses is generally problematic, and and Jonathan Last I wrote about that in in the New York Times’ piece.
  • Speaker 2
    0:33:44

    But there just doesn’t seem to be a stopping it. I’ll tell you another thing which is, I think, an important distinction right now between the Democratic and Republican parties. Which is the leader of the Democratic Party, whatever your qualms with Joe Biden
  • Speaker 1
    0:33:56

    Right.
  • Speaker 2
    0:33:56

    Is not a person who is post modern, nihilistic, and advocating the agenda, the progressive left. In fact, we’re seeing right now in this moment criticisms within the Democratic Party of Biden because they feel like it’s too pro Israel. So the person who is the head of the party and really sets the tone of the party and the parameters of the party in many ways is a normal democrat within the sort of the traditional forty yard lines, I would say, American politics. That’s not the case with the American right, the Republican party. There, the front overwhelming front runner, Donald Trump, is a sociopath, and he is getting more deranged and more dangerous you know, with every passing week, his statements, you know, make mein Kampf seem like a subtle text.
  • Speaker 2
    0:34:41

    I mean, he is advertising what he’s going to do and how he’s going to do it. There is no veneer, no no effort to distance.
  • Speaker 1
    0:34:51

    No subtlety. No secrecy. In
  • Speaker 2
    0:34:53

    fact, it’s the opposite. The more outrageous he is, the more that gins up his his support, that to me is a significant difference between the American right and the American left Yeah.
  • Speaker 1
    0:35:04

    What did you think of of his use of the word vermin? I guess I’m stuck on that because it just seems so distinctive. It’s got such historical resonance. I I know that he that he’s not a man of words. He’s not a man of thinking in-depth, but that that word made it into a rather important statement.
  • Speaker 1
    0:35:20

    What did you think of him referring to his opponents as vermin?
  • Speaker 2
    0:35:24

    Yeah. I I think it’s typical of him. I think he was given the word. I think it was intentional I don’t think it’s a word he
  • Speaker 1
    0:35:29

    I’m just even Miller.
  • Speaker 2
    0:35:30

    Yeah. I don’t think it’s a word a, he would know, or b, he would know the historical context. I think probably when he was told what it means in the context of it. He said that’s is exactly the word that I wanna use. This is something we’ve seen not just in in Nazi Germany, but throughout we saw it in Rwanda, really through many of the most gruesome revolutions in history, which is the dehumanization.
  • Speaker 2
    0:35:53

    Right? That’s the thing that has to happen. That that pre dates and it’s the groundwork that needs to be laid to try and use extraordinary means to defeat your enemy. You have to dehumanize them. And so if you go over Trump’s rhetoric, going back to twenty fifteen and really ear earlier than that, it’s a constant dehumanization and the amount
  • Speaker 1
    0:36:15

    of dehumanization. I mean, everything we’ve described, you know, children of light versus children of darkness, the forces of Satan, you are in fact evil. You are in fact dangerous And if we can also dehumanize you and make you into vermin, this is a toxic stew.
  • Speaker 2
    0:36:30

    Oh, it’s I think it’s a really toxic stew. It really worries me. Now I mean, I will say that America because of its its traditions, its history, its institutions, it’s a country that is is probably well prepared to deal with these kind of threats, is any country, and it withstood it in twenty twenty, but it barely withstood it. And a few key people in a few different positions, if they had acted differently, things could have gone in a very different direction, and I’m not at all competent that if Trump were to win in twenty twenty four, that our institutions could survive like they did in twenty twenty. And as as you’ve talked about, there are now efforts Stephen Miller and others to try and get into essentially a government in waiting, trying to learn from the lessons from twenty sixteen.
  • Speaker 2
    0:37:16

    So as Trump’s imprint, his most malevolent imprint, his most, depraved imprint on the country will done in a way that it wasn’t in a in a first term. And so you’re seeing this rhetoric kinda ratching up. And one other thing I just wanna say Charlie about how this happens, which is you think about things that Trump has said or done in the last month or certainly, but, you know, the coup attempt and the effort to storm the capital. If you had talked to a Trump supporter in October of twenty sixteen or February of twenty seventeen, and we’re able to fast forward and say, this is what he’s going to do. They would have genuinely many of them would have genuinely been shocked, and they would have said in in good conscience, I would not stand with this person.
  • Speaker 2
    0:38:03

    I won’t go with that.
  • Speaker 1
    0:38:04

    Right.
  • Speaker 2
    0:38:04

    I won’t And now they do. And that is the lesson of how people accommodate themselves with one norm, moral norm, and transgression after another.
  • Speaker 1
    0:38:14

    This is what has always struck me, but Donald Trump is Donald Trump. He is who he is. There’s no secret. There’s no subtlety. There there is no mystery.
  • Speaker 1
    0:38:20

    What he has done to his supporters, you know, turn the camera away from him and look at the crowd. The way he has transformed American culture, you know, one of the questions I I we all wrestle with is, you know, If not for. If not for Donald Trump, would this be happening? Would these people be making these decisions? Would we have had this transvaluation of values?
  • Speaker 1
    0:38:41

    This collapse? Of belief and character. Yeah. I mean, a lot of it would have happened anyway, but I have a hard time thinking, you know, if not for Donald Trump that we would not be in a very different place. Wouldn’t be, you know, paradise.
  • Speaker 1
    0:38:53

    Yeah. But there’s so much of this that traces back to looking at him and this moral rot that has taken place just the way you described in just the last few years. And it doesn’t seem to be abating in
  • Speaker 2
    0:39:06

    any way. No. No. If anything, it’s it’s accelerating. And I agree with you and how you describe it.
  • Speaker 2
    0:39:11

    It it would have gone on. But Trump accelerated. The one thing that’s important to keep in mind, of course, is that in twenty fifteen, when Trump announced he was gonna, you know, when he in June, he announced he was gonna get into the race. He got into the race. Mhmm.
  • Speaker 2
    0:39:26

    Almost nobody was willing to give him a chance. I I wrote a piece in July of twenty fifteen. It’s three weeks after he announced. And the title of the was present Donald Trump question mark just say no. And I was warning about his appeal.
  • Speaker 2
    0:39:43

    And an awful lot of people thought, you know, why isn’t New York Times giving real estate to this guy. He’s he’s a passing phenomenon, and he’s he’s he’s never phenomenon. It’s not gonna it’s not gonna last. And There was a since I had at that point that he was resonating with with the base, I actually wrote a piece in the Wall Street Journal in twenty eleven On the GOP and the birther trap where I warned about Trump, and I said, don’t play footsie with people with these conspiracy theories because you’re go you’re gonna regret it And and my point in saying that was that it wasn’t simply that Trump sort of came out out of nothing. He tapped into something.
  • Speaker 2
    0:40:21

    He didn’t have that much money. He didn’t have the history in the Republican Party. The group that he faced in twenty sixteen were pretty accomplished Republicans. And there was pretty much any flavor of ice cream that you wanted, whether you were a libertarian or a cultural conservative or a Marco Rubio, Jet Bush conservative or Kriski or Mike Huckabee or Ricks the term of the, you know, they were all representative of one degree or an or another. And the fact is that Trump, without a history in the Republican Party, in fact, having de supported the Democratic party, having said that he was fine with partial abortion and so forth.
  • Speaker 2
    0:40:54

    One, and was energizing the base, said that the base was there. He tapped into it. Now when he tapped into it, he has this, kind of reptilian intelligence or the reptilian instinct of how to energize and connect with his base that base was already there.
  • Speaker 1
    0:41:15

    Mhmm. And
  • Speaker 2
    0:41:15

    that meant that something was happening pre trump that that was worrisome. So that’s why I agree with you. If Trump had lost, we would have been in a very different place, but I think that these issues would still that’s silly with them. But Once he won the nomination and especially when he won the presidency, you know, that changed everything and his capacity to imprint the Republican party. I I would argue that his imprint on the Republican Party, Trump’s imprint on the Republican Party is greater than Reagan was.
  • Speaker 2
    0:41:44

    And Gregans was enormous.
  • Speaker 1
    0:41:46

    I can’t argue with you about that. I mean, I think that people thought there was a pendulum. The pendulum would swing back. And in fact, I think the analogy that works is a ratchet effect. And, yeah, it’s gonna be very hard to take it back.
  • Speaker 1
    0:41:56

    Peter Weiner is a contributing writer at the Atlantic end of the New York Times. You really ought to read his piece. On Mike Johnson, the polite zealotry of Mike Johnson. Peter, it is so good to have you back on the podcast. Thank you so much.
  • Speaker 2
    0:42:09

    Always great to be with you. Thanks, Charlie.
  • Speaker 1
    0:42:10

    And thank you all for listening to today’s Bulwark podcast on Charlie Sykes. We will be back tomorrow, and we’ll do this all over again.
Want to listen without ads? Join Bulwark+ for an exclusive ad-free version of The Bulwark Podcast! Learn more here. Already a Bulwark+ member? Access the premium version here.