Aug 5 • 1HR 48M

Sohrab Ahmari On The Failures Of Liberalism

The post-liberal intellectual talks about his long and winding journey, including a conversion to Catholicism.

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Unafraid conversations about anything

Sohrab is a founder and editor of Compact: A Radical American Journal, and he’s a contributing editor at The American Conservative. He spent nearly a decade at News Corp. — as the op-ed editor of the New York Post and as a columnist and editor with the WSJ opinion pages in New York and London. His books include From Fire, by Water: My Journey to the Catholic Faith and The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos. A new voice for a new conservatism, I tried to talk him through how he got to this place — politically and spiritually.

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 whether the free market is actually a tyranny, and how many liberals actually reject democracy, e.g. Brexit — pop over to our YouTube page.

Sohrab’s appearance this week is a good excuse to publish a transcript from David French, his great nemesis in conservative circles. Here’s a clip from David’s Dishcast:

A reader wrote last week:

I know the Sohrab episode isn’t out yet, but judging by his Twitter presence, it’s going to be a real barnburner of sophistry. His latest quips regarding foreign policy are ones that I find to be ignorant, especially his quips at Yascha Mounk. I know you’ve already shot the episode, but I’d suggest you check out the book, The End of the World Is Just the Beginning: Mapping the Collapse of Globalization. I think it really puts into perspective what American military might has brought to the world (absent, obviously, some of the more glaring blunders), and it might give context, rather than rhetoric, to Sohrab’s arguments.

We clashed a little, but I also gave him space and time to explain his own strange journey to this brand of neo-reactionism. In my view, his biography tells you a lot about his need for moral and political “absolutes.” In my book, that makes him close to the opposite of a conservative.

If you’re sympathetic to Sohrab’s arguments, send us a comment for next week’s edition: dish@andrewsullivan.com. On last week’s episode of the Dishcast, a listener writes:

Terrific interview with Larry Summers. Though my politics are thisclose to Summers’, he floated two whoppers in his talk with you.

1) His suggestion that the United States and other liberal democracies can “build their ways” out of right-wing authoritarianism with more housing, infrastructure and health care is simply not true. Not even close. The evidence is very clear that the driving force behind right-wing illiberalism is demographics and left-wing illiberalism is culture. Under investment in macro-economic indicators is a problem, to be sure, but it has nothing to do with illiberalism.

2) The United States is decidedly not an exporter of inflation. The US dollar is at historic highs, which means foreigners are investing in America and in dollar denominated assets, because Joe Biden’s America represents the “nicest house in a bad neighborhood,” when measured by jobs growth, business investment, private consumption and personal savings.

Summers is right that the America Rescue Plan was too generous. But he seems reluctant to consider the historic relevance of the post-WWII era when American inflation was 14% in 1947, 8% in 1948 and -1% in 1949. As in the post-pandemic era, aggregate demand in the late 1940s rebounded a lot faster than supply, and consumers worldwide bid up the prices of scarce goods, services and raw materials.

Summers responds:

On the reader’s first point, it’s an interesting hypothesis, but my guess is if there were more and better blue-collar jobs, more affordable housing, and more prosperity, there would be less raging populism.

On the second point, I don’t agree. The demand from the US has contributed to global bottlenecks. The strong dollar means weak other currencies which adds to their inflation.

I have thought much about the post-WWII period, and I doubt it is a good parallel. There was the effect of removing price controls. There were very different expectations under the gold standard and given the recent depression.

I agree with my reader on the core cultural question of left over-reach. I suspect Larry does too — but it’s not a subject he’s comfortable with, especially since his Harvard cancellation.

Another reader looks to the deepening tribalism on the right:

Perhaps you missed it, but I haven’t seen the Dish comment on the Texas GOP platform yet. This surprises me, since the Dish is, in my view, the most important defender of classical liberalism on the web. The platform of the largest state Republican Party in the country can be found here. From the AP’s summary:

Approved by 5,000-plus party delegates last weekend in Houston during the party’s biennial convention, the new platform brands President Joe Biden an “acting” commander-in-chief who was never “legitimately elected.” It may not matter who the president is, though, since the platform takes previous language about secession much farther — urging the Republican-controlled legislature to put the question of leaving the United States to voters next year. The platform also says homosexuality is “an abnormal lifestyle choice” …

The platform is the guiding document of a political party that has controlled every executive office in Texas since 2002, a state of almost 40 million people. To put this number in perspective: that’s more than twice as many of our fellow citizens who attend college this year and 25 times as many of our fellow Americans who identify as transgender. Texas and Florida lie at the heart of today’s Republican Party, demographically and financially. To ignore what those Republicans stand for is as near-sighted as ignoring how California and New York stand in the vanguard of what the national Democratic Party will stand for a few years out.

The platform is an affront to liberalism and an example of the “movement after Trump” that you’ve speculated about. In my view, the movement preceded Trump and will proceed in his aftermath.

The extremism was on full display this week in Dallas, as CPAC cheered Viktor Orbàn’s denunciation of marriage equality (which has 71 percent support nationally). I agree it’s creepy and deranged. But so is the postmodern, pro-criminal madness of the CRT/CQT/CGT Democrats — and they run California.

On the growing affection for the Hungarian president on the American right, here’s “a Hungarian living under the Orbán regime”:

In my mind, he has become popular among Republicans for two reasons:

  1. The fundamental problems of Hungarian society (and most of post-communist Europe’s) are not dissimilar to those of the US — at least on the surface. The cultural cleavages between the “globalist elite” and the “deplorables” are similarly wide. Multiculturalism and the markets’ winner-takes-all logic hit these post-communist societies harder than most, because local communities had been extremely weak to begin with: the communists had been suspicious of any organic communities therefore had worked very hard to suppress and eliminate them as much as they could.

  2. Capitalism, financialization, globalization and the wholesale urbanization of culture all happened at once when these societies were completely atomized. No wonder many felt that nobody cared about their problems and all they received from the elite was some lecturing on the inevitability of these phenomena. The American society has gotten to a similar stage through a different path, nicely documented by Robert Putnam. Therefore, the US lower-middle class resonates well to the messages developed from a Hungarian experience.

  3. Viktor Orbán and his team have made conscious and expensive efforts to reach out to Trump Republicans (word in Budapest is that Arthur Finkelstein and Benjamin Netanyahu were instrumental in this effort). The regime has not spared any money to welcome, wine, and dine second- and third-tear MAGA influencers. They came, got impressed, and spread the word at home. It definitely helped that these tours have been all-inclusive: who would not like to spend a few days in cool and beautiful Budapest — for free? Moreover, they received and continue to receive official respect. This is all the more attractive now that they are far from the halls of power in the US. It should not be surprising that they were all too happy to believe the propaganda that the regime fed them.

I am sure I don’t see the full picture on the American side, but these factors seem to be quite important in explaining Orbán’s popularity in the US.

One of those American conservatives courted by Orbán is Rod Dreher. A reader defends Rod:

I’ve generally agreed with most of your recent output and was pleasantly surprised to read your more-than-lukewarm enthusiasm for a DeSantis administration.  However, I think you’re being rather unfair on Twitter to Rod Dreher regarding Orbán and Hungary.

First of all, you and Rod clearly agree that the current level of immigration to the US (and the West more generally) is unsustainably high, and that continuing to bring ever larger numbers of culturally, racially, and religiously diverse groups of primarily economic migrants into any country is bound to increase social tension and strain social safety nets. You also agree that this is especially reckless under a regnant elite ideology that constantly denigrates Western cultural traditions, antagonizing the native-born white population while simultaneously promoting the importance of group identity and solidarity for non-whites. It’s a recipe for civilizational suicide.

I get that Rod is enamored with Orbán and wants an American president somewhat in that vein, but it’s ridiculous to say that he thinks everything that Orbán does for Hungary will translate well for the US or that he would support every analogous policy here. Rod explicitly denies thinking that in almost every post he writes about Orbán.

In addition, Rod is right that racial issues are completely different in the US and Hungary. An ethnically homogeneous country like Hungary that seeks to restrict immigration levels in order to preserve its national character will necessarily exclude most foreign-born members of other racial groups from citizenship. White European countries that do this (and are explicit about their motivations for doing this) should not be held to a different standard than non-white, non-European countries such as Japan that do this (and are also explicit about their motivations for doing this).

It is perfectly reasonable for Hungarians to look at the recent experience of Western Europe and decide that they don’t want to establish another Molenbeek in suburban Budapest. Excluding prospective immigrants for any reason is in no way comparable to committing atrocities against long-resident minority populations like the ongoing Uyghur genocide in China.

Furthermore, the meat of the argument Orbán makes surrounding his objectionable Camp of the Saints reference reads to me as in the same vein as Douglas Murray’s thesis in his masterful anti-Merkelian philippic The Strange Death of Europe, the main difference being that Murray’s perspective is that of the tragic observer, while Orbán obviously has the ability to devise government policies in line with his views. And Murray was on your podcast recently.

In this speech, Orbán, like Murray, is not primarily attacking the migrants themselves, but rather the European political class that constantly ignores its constituents’ wishes on the matter of immigration levels and sources, and that will not be satisfied until every EU country “diversifies” itself by accepting large numbers of Third World migrants.

The same could almost be said about Raspail’s book, The Camp of the Saints, which, despite its disgustingness, provides a useful indictment of a decadent and self-loathing Western elite that is unwilling to fight to preserve its cultural heritage. Indeed, Murray, Orbán, and Raspail would essentially all endorse the same policy outcome (complete moratorium, or at least severe restriction, of non-European immigration) for essentially the same reason (desire to preserve historic character and culture of their societies). They only really differ in their level of empathy for the non-European migrants, with Murray capable of recognizing their individual humanity, Orbán treating them more as an impersonal force of nature to be repelled, and Raspail viewing them with racist contempt as a demonic horde who the last “heroes” of the West will die fighting against. None of them view chronic Third World immiseration as the West’s problem to solve, least of all by allowing the impoverished masses to indefinitely relocate to Europe.

The Covid era showed that Western countries do indeed have the means to control their borders when necessary. But their ruling classes do not think that voters’ preferences for less immigration — tainted as they must be by ignorance, “xenophobia” and “racism” — are a good enough reason to actually enforce their laws. And even restrictionist-leaning administrations have trouble following through with policies that inevitably appear heartless towards those who seek shelter in the West, because each individual migrant often has a generally sympathetic story and by himself wouldn’t pose a great burden on the receiving society.

Yet unfortunately the annual influx of millions of these individuals does strain Western countries, and sometimes tough choices must be made. It seems like an unfortunate reality that it takes someone who is otherwise unpalatable like Orbán to actually enforce immigration restrictions these days. I know I’d vastly prefer someone clear-eyed (even cold-hearted) and competent like him in charge of our southern border over Biden or even Trump.

Lastly, it’s one thing to criticize Orbán for the specific comments he made in the speech, but your continuing guilt-by-association smears of Rod are just lazy. I could analogously indict you on the same topic — not for anything you’ve specifically said or written, but that, say, “I heard Andrew Sullivan did a friendly podcast with Ann Coulter where he largely agreed with her about our current immigration issues… In a recent article she wrote ‘(insert egregiously inflammatory sentence stripped of any context)’… Coulter also endorsed articles that were published on the website of an SPLC-certified hate group… Ergo Andrew Sullivan endorses white nationalism.”

On his blog, Rod clearly and repeatedly says he disagrees with the anti-“race-mixing” language, especially as applied to America and other multiracial societies, and admits that The Camp of the Saints is a racist novel that shouldn’t be praised the way Orbán did. But those demerits don’t invalidate Orbán’s main argument. He can be “racist” by American standards and still right about the overall immigration strategy that is best for Hungary.

I know you despise Orbán, and Rod rankles you with some of his posts that deploy a knee-jerk “think of the children” outrage regarding gay and trans news. But you’re better than stooping to insinuations of racism against him personally, especially when you’re pretty much on the same page regarding the challenges that mass immigration poses for the West. Not sure if it’s something you could hash out with him on a podcast or if tensions are too high, but it could be productive for both of you. 

Thanks for these comments, which I don’t disagree with much. I haven’t called Rod a racist, and don’t think he is. The trouble for me lies less in his defense of Orbanism than of Orbán himself — to the point of becoming a near p.r. spokesman for this authoritarian. The only moment I have actually called Rod out was when he insinuated without evidence that a gay man with monkeypox may have raped a toddler to explain why the kid came down with the disease. Rod withdrew the remark. It’s also perplexing that he shares my disgust at Camp of the Saints but finds nothing significant in Orbán’s belief that the book is “outstanding.” At some point, the rationalization has to stop.

Another reader wants me to be less productive with Rod:

Please, please, Andrew! Do an old-fashioned fisking already! Dreher is totally unhinged! For example: I’m not saying gays are Nazis, but …

Or pick any of his recent articles. Twenty bullet points for defending the “race mixing” comment! Gays didn’t exist forever before Diaghilev! Libraries are groomers! They are so so far beyond. And if you try to comment, you are deleted or told you are doing “whataboutism.”

Best not to use the term “fisking” around Rod. From a reader who loves pluralism and cultural diversity:

I have trouble understanding why people in the US have trouble with newcomers.  Maybe because my dad and maternal grandparents were immigrants, I have a closer view. In my 76 years, I can’t even begin to tell you what I have learned from folks who are NOT like me: black people, immigrants from a whole lot of places in the world, plus their children.

I think people who are afraid of being “replaced” have to have some deep-seated insecurity that I don’t understand. For Tucker Carlson to spout the garbage that he does to get ratings is just scary to me, because it seems to help unleash the worst in people. And believe me, it’s not just a color divide. My Polish dad and Italian mom were subject to all kinds of discrimination and harassment, but it was much easier for them to assimilate because they were white and certainly much easier for their children. My life is so much fuller because not everyone I know and care about looks, acts, or thinks the same. Including you!

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’m pro-immigrant, but the pace and scale of migration right now is far beyond what a country needs to retain a sense of itself, its history and identity. We’re at a century-high peak of immigration; and we could do with a respite for cultural and social cohesion.

“A long-time subscriber, first-time correspondent” has some guest recommendations for the Dishcast:

One theme I’ve particularly enjoyed on your podcast is faith and secularism in the contemporary world. I’m writing to suggest several thinkers who could bring a lot to that discussion.

First is the eminent philosopher Charles Taylor, the most important living Canadian intellectual. While he’s contributed to many branches of thought, his book A Secular Age transformed the study of religious faith in the modern world. He’s also interested in the concept of multiculturalism and has stood up against efforts in Quebec to stop Muslim women from wearing the hijab. His political stance is more communitarian than liberal, though, and he’s had fascinating dialogues with Jürgen Habermas and other thinkers.

Another suggestion is the Anglican theologian and philosopher John Milbank. As a founder of the Radical Orthodoxy movement, he’s taken on liberalism more directly, but I think the two of you could have a very constructive conversation about it. He would also have really interesting — and maybe provocative — things to say about continental philosophy (he has coauthored books with Slavoj Žižek!), Brexit, and the future of Western political systems.

Finally, I’d recommend the Protestant theologian James (Jamie) K. A. Smith, a philosophy professor at Calvin University. He’s written many books on Christianity in the contemporary world, drawing especially on postmodern philosophy. He is particularly interested in how Christian intellectuals can engage with contemporary art and literature, and is editor-in-chief of the journal Image.

I actually read A Secular Age in its entirety a couple of years ago. It’s magisterial but bloated: two words I’m not sure work on a podcast. But thanks for the other suggestions. Next up, a reader with some personal advice:

I wanted to tell you something based upon a comment you made discussing your testosterone shots. Get Biote pellets. I did, and I don’t have the ups and downs. You get them put in every 4-6 months, depending on how active you are with exercise and sex. I work out every day, so I get them replaced at the 4-month mark. 

It’s also referred to as hormone replacement therapy. I used to use the cream daily, but I felt like shit every morning until I put the cream on again. I have no ups and downs now, and my levels stay around 1,200. You can do less if you want, but man, I feel great for months at a time and it’s not that expensive. 

One more reader:

You linked to an interesting piece by Lisa Selin Davis with the teaser, “What if ‘life-saving care’ for trans kids is really more about cosmetic passing?” Yes, it does seem like transitioning is mostly cosmetic. I wonder if trans advocates would support men who want to take testosterone for bodybuilding. What about professional sports, to get a competitive edge? What about Olympic sports? Any thoughts?

I’m not against adult men using steroids to get bigger and hotter. Au contraire. I’m not against trans adults using any safe, pharmaceutical methods to “pass” more easily. I’m against using these very powerful substance on children without extremely careful vetting and an expansive mental health assessment. Yes, transing them before puberty could make them more likely to pass as adults — but I don’t believe most are mature enough to make that kind of decision at that age, especially when it may guarantee them sterility and, in some cases, an inability to experience orgasm ever.

Keep the dissents and other comments coming: dish@andrewsullivan.com.