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Dexter Filkins On DeSantis And Trump

Dexter Filkins On DeSantis And Trump

The war correspondent talks about the focal point of a shifting Republicanism: Florida.

How to think about DeSantis? We decided to ask Dexter Filkins, who recently wrote this super-smart profile of the man for The New Yorker, which the Dish discussed here. Dexter is an award-winning journalist best known for covering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for the New York Times. His book, The Forever War, won the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award. He’s the best in the business, a native of Florida, and a longtime friend of the Dish.

You can listen to the episode right away in the audio player above (or on the right side of the player, click “Listen On” to add the Dishcast feed to your favorite podcast app). For two clips of our convo — on the encouraging record of DeSantis enforcing the rule of law in Iraq, and on how even GOP leaders are now turning against law enforcement — pop over to our YouTube page.

This month is the first anniversary of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan — and our episode with Michael Moynihan on the withdrawal, free speech, Hitchens and other topics. You can read the transcript here. Below is a clip of us discussing the nobility and necessity of admitting mistakes:

A listener writes:

I rather appreciated your episode with Larry Summers and in particular how you got him to open up on non-economic matters. When I think of Summers, I have the impression that he could rhetorically body slam anyone he wants to with his towering intellect and breadth of experience. So kudos to you for making him seem a little less intense. It’s amusing (but also tragic) that the one time Summers was really right about US fiscal policy, no one really listened to him!

Last week’s episode with Sohrab Ahmari was also good, and I enjoyed the sincerity of his conversion story. HOWEVER, when he started talking about the failures of liberalism, he really needed better arguments. Perhaps they’re in his books ...

For one, Ahmari wants to bring back the Sabbath/no-work day. I would only assume most nuclear families in the US can take, let’s say, 12 hours off on the weekends to be with their families. If you work seven days a week, should you have children if you can’t spend time with them? Is he saying the shopkeeper should be forced to close on Saturday or Sunday? It takes about one minute to assess the cash flow implications of such a policy to realize that said shopkeepers would rightly revolt against the government if that were to happen. 

Second, he argues that Fortune 500 companies control employees 24/7 and that this is a failure of the liberal order. You don’t have to work for them! With all their talk about seemingly being sociopathic places, American corporations are the envy of the world and no one really comes close to having their global earnings and productivity. They scale like no other businesses. Public corporations are also held by individuals and institutional investors (i.e. unionized workers) that rely on them to appreciate capital for retirement. So, you can be your own boss, plow your excess earnings into the S&P 500 and retire happily! Since the pandemic, the balance of power has shifted a bit to employees as well, and a nuanced argument would discuss this.

Third, Ahmari kept talking about liberalism and Milton Friedman. Friedman, as an academic, is known for showing that the Fed didn’t do enough to stave off the severity of the Great Depression. Friedman, the public intellectual, is known for claiming the government doesn’t know how to allocate resources effectively and that individuals should be free to choose because otherwise, you have a form of tyranny. This is an essential, economic conservative argument. Ahmari argues, it seems, that all this freedom to choose brings misery and that he (in concert with the Catholic Church) should choose for you instead.  

There’s a pretty good (relatively) modern case study where this occurred: Quebec.  The Catholic Church controlled education, healthcare, and most of social life up until the 1960s. Then, the people rebelled (peacefully) to take back their institutions and to make them secular. Because of this top-down religious authority, Quebec is still behind in literacy and economic productivity compared to Ontario. Marriage is also less common in Quebec than Ontario these days.

In the data, I see a very compelling argument that society is more healthy/cohesive if you give people the freedom to choose than having an authority dictate social matters. This is also an argument that the society Ahmari envisions will lead to overcorrections. (Also, the Quebec government goes crazy at the sight of a hijab, which reminds them of when religion dominated social life. Another overreaction.) In addition, the dominance of the Catholic Church created a vacuum in Quebec business that Anglophones filled. This in turn created tensions between Francophones and Anglophones that last to this day. Essentially, this is a compelling argument for a pluralistic society.  

There’s a lot of substance in being your own person and deciding what’s best for you. This has led to the United States being the most advanced economy (and probably government) in human history. It’s not conservative to want to mess with that.  

I looked up Ahmari further and saw that he’s an Orbán apologist. Sorry, this is bad for conservatism in this country. The first order of business is to slay the QAnon, anti-vaxx, Putin/Orbán apologist dragon to give conservatism more teeth in the United States. Not trying to bring back sabbatarian laws!

My reader channels my own thoughts on this — which is that some moderation of liberalism, or supplement to it, is fine — but junking the liberal order is a non-starter. Here’s a clip of Sohrab in his own words, targeting the “tyranny of the free market”:

Another listener insists that “Ahmari’s point about corporate tyranny was flat-out wrong”:

I realize it’s a long way from your wheelhouse, but as a management consultant working in telecom for 25 years, I’ve seen a lot of Fortune 500 firms and their “bring your own device” policies. He was just so misleading. No Fortune 500 company ever forces you to hand over your laptop or mobile device to be controlled. You are always offered a corporate supplied device. On the other hand, you can choose to provide your own device (“I hate Windows; I wanna use my MacBook”). Either way, the device will be locked down and potentially monitored in line with security requirements, but it’s your choice whether they do that to your personal device.

This next listener “greatly enjoyed your conversation with Ahmari, even though I felt many of his arguments feel short”:

His assertion that market economies inevitably result in coercion, for example, struck me as a prime example of how the unprecedented affluence delivered by those very market economies has blinded us to what used to be common sense. The idea that a person facing a choice of “buy this or starve” is somehow being coerced is a purely modern fallacy. Back when most people obtained their food by growing crops, hunting, fishing, etc, the connection between working and not starving was easier to grasp. The reality is that obtaining food has always required work. This reality is not dependent on what economic system you live in; it is an artifact of nature itself. 

The fact that today most of us (in the First World at least) perform work that has nothing to do with food, and instead choose to trade the money we earn through that work for the food we need, in some way obscures this reality. We have created a situation where buying your food is so much more efficient than producing it yourself that we don’t even consider the later a viable option. This leads to the fanciful notion that obtaining food simply requires money, and it is only the evil system of capitalism that coerces people to choose between working and starving.  Only a society as affluent as ours could entertain such a delusion.

Agreed again. Here’s a clip of Sohrab and me agreeing that a significant number of liberal elites are disdainful of democracy when it doesn’t go their way:

A reader dissents:

When you were responding to a reader on immigration last week, I’m really kinda surprised you wrote this: “I’ve long lived in highly diverse places and love it. But I’m not a typical human being, and the desire to live among ‘people like you’ is so deeply ingrained in human nature it deserves respect in public policy.”

I couldn’t disagree with you more. This kind of “respect in public policy” brought us segregation, redlining, and racial violence. There are many impulses that are very human, but society has nonetheless deemed them unacceptable. Remember when dueling to preserve honor was OK? I teach high school kids, and it is completely understandable that they would want to fight to keep from looking weak in front of their peers. I've talked about it with hundreds of kids. But “respecting” that when making school rules leads to madness. 

People have the right to have whomever they want on the land that they rent or own, but that right goes no further. If people want to say that mass immigration taxes our governmental systems or causes wages to drop, I’m willing to hear those arguments and possibly base policy on them.

But as a Mexican American whose ancestors came here after fleeing religious persecution and violence, the idea that “We should respect those who want to live in an exclusively or at least mostly white Christian town cuz human nature” is, frankly, offensive. I’ve always thought that, especially in modern times, America, and the West to a lesser degree, was about ideas and not race. Countries should have borders, but not because “people want to live with people ‘like them.’” The whole idea that people are “like” each other because of race is completely dehumanizing to the others who are not “like” them. 

A friend of mine recently passed away. We played together in a band. He was in his 70s, I’m in my 40s. He was black. I’m half white, half Mexican. We didn’t allow that to mean shit, because we were like-minded. If I was the type to bow to “human nature” and say that people like him shouldn’t live in my town, I would have never met him, and I would have pushed him away for no good reason. Instead, we had complex conversations and a deep and meaningful relationship based on our shared humanity, and the idea that we “weren't alike” never came into play. I miss him greatly. 

While I agree with you that it is human nature for people to be tribal along racial and ethnic lines, I disagree with you that we have to “respect” it. After all, do you “respect” when students demand to live in segregated dorms? I sure as hell don’t. I find your criticism of wokeness/identity politics (which I generally agree with) to be wholly inconsistent with your position that we should respect the wishes of people who want to live with others “like” them.

Permitting free association inevitably allows people to choose associations that may not be admirable. But that’s exactly what defines a free society: toleration of people of whom you disapprove. Even racists and bigots. They have freedom too. But my deeper point is that these pure principles of color-blind morality always have to encounter the crooked timber of humanity, and tribalism is part of that. You don’t have to approve of it to accommodate it — and see the authoritarian costs of trying to stamp it out. And utopian policies of mass immigration can actually foster racism rather than counter it.

Another reader echoes the one above:

As for wanting to be around “people like you,” I get it — but not in terms of immigration. You could not pay me to return my hometown. I was never like them; it was hell. But there are a lot of immigrants more like me then the people I grew up with. There are also immigrants who are more like the people I grew up with than like me.

As more Indian Americans move into my neighborhood, some of the white people leave, “because the neighborhood is changing,” they say. But it isn’t changing in any meaningful way. It’s more interesting, and I get more Diwali invites, but there may be no one more similar to highly-educated white Americans then highly educated Indian Americans. For many native-born Americans, there seems to be difficulty getting past skin color, or English spoken with an accent, or different cuisines — rather than seeing the the similarities.

For example, we recently had remolding done, and all the subcontractors were Spanish-speaking immigrants. The electrician reminded me of the white man who bought my mom’s house in my hometown, also an electrician. And the plumber exhibited the same bemused disdain for my plumbing ignorance as the old white guys I call when a pipe breaks. I’m sure they could have a great time discussing their silly customers over a beer.

So much of what is seen as “not like me” is superficial. 

Sure! I’m with you. But you wouldn’t ban those white people from choosing to live elsewhere, would you? Another dissenter:

Great discussion and debate with Sohrab Amari. I came away from your conversation liking him more, but his ideas far less.  

I must call you out, however, for your nonchalance about Drag Queen Story Hour.  We agree: kids are not going to be ruined by being exposed to “men in funny costumes,” as you put it. Instead, they are only likely to grow from such experience.  My parents, serious Catholics, happily brought my sisters and me to a La Cage aux Folles-type show when we were kids (I’m exactly one year younger than you), and we had a ball. Drag queens are entertainment.

So the problem is not Drag Queen; it’s the Story Hour part.  

Let’s not be naive. Drag queens didn’t suddenly become interested in childhood literacy. Instead, DQSH has absolutely everything to do with the trans machine’s campaign to mainstream or “normalize” sexual ambiguity and confusion among small children, as it tries to insert its ideology into early school curricula. Like the would-be astronaut reading in a public library, the drag queen is being presented as a potential role model, someone to be emulated — not just an entertainer who will get kids interested in Dr. Seuss. Just like the astronaut, you can grow up to be a girl, or a boy or a ???

I am vehemently against bans of any kind regarding this stuff. But let’s differentiate between entertainment and indoctrination.

I have to say I’ve moved toward this view the more I have learned about DQSH. I do think that this has become an indoctrination device in many venues. I wish it were not so.

When we announced that Sohrab would be coming on the Dishcast, we got the following email from an evangelical “normie conservative” who closely follows the New Right:

I agree with many of Sohrab’s diagnoses, especially of the spiritual rot of modern America, but I profoundly disagree with his prescriptions. I’m not sure how serious he himself is about them, since he seems to prefer operating in the theoretical realm (don’t we all).

I’m perplexed that he seems to believe government is the solution to these problems — and I say that wearing my evangelical hat and not my conservative one. So much of the spiritual rot stems from problems that are far beyond the government’s ability to change or even significantly influence them. Policy can work on the margins, can incentivize and reward certain pro-social behaviors and discourage anti-social ones, but it can’t convince a dad to stick with his family. It can’t give a teen girl the sense of self-worth she needs to resist seeking affirmation online among people who don’t have her best interests at heart, or from a string of random dudes who will use and discard her. It can’t make a young boy feel less alone and alienated and hopeless. It can’t give a sense of purpose and identity to the many millions of Americans who are clearly adrift.

Consider an idea I’ve mulled for years and increasingly can’t shake. Societies may start self-destructing once they reach a threshold of wealth and security. The struggle for survival that has animated most people’s lives throughout history is gone, so they start looking for purpose in other, often injurious, places. The perversity of human nature is also such that having security and wealth unimaginable in most of human history doesn’t make us more grateful. It often makes us greedier and more entitled. That new level of security and wealth becomes the baseline we expect from life, not the historically unique blessing it actually is. We start demanding the next level of privilege and get angry when it doesn’t come.

People need to stop putting their hope in government policy. Doing so only leads to disillusionment and disaffection. It leads to increasingly radical policies, as less-radical policies inevitably fail to bring the utopia people expect. And it leads to intense political polarization as elections become life-or-death struggles.

Instead, we all should pour our energies and resources into what can actually affect: faith, family, and friends — all of which Americans have increasingly spurned over the preceding decades. Again, I’m a Christian, so I believe God alone can change hearts and behavior, so churches and faith communities are critical to this renewal.

I think the spiritual rot has become so acute in recent years that it has forced conservatives to do more intense soul-searching. It has, obviously, propelled the New Right and figures like Sohrab. It puts normie conservatives like myself in a weird in-between space.

I’m in exactly that space myself. But this much I do believe: that the core answers to the deepest human questions will never be found in politics; and that a free and secular society is more conducive to genuine religious expression and faith than theocracies.

Lastly, a recommendation for a future guest on the New Right:

You quoted Curtis Yarvin in the Dish last week. I heard him interviewed on Red Scare recently and found him to be fascinating — and I’m a liberal! He’s hardly the bogeyman he has been made out to be in Vanity Fair and elsewhere. I don’t know if he’d do it, but he’d be very interesting to hear in conversation on the Dishcast.


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