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The Capitol Riot in Context

Nick Gillespie on the Arrival of a New Libertarian Moment

Whatever 4D chess maneuvers the President may have been planning for the last days of his term, we might label Wednesday’s botched rally and final electoral college vote as “checkmate” for the lame duck.

Is this how the Trump presidency ends? With both a whimper and a bang?

Perhaps this is the time to leave the echo chambers of mainstream and social media to reflect on not just the last year, but the last four. Joining me this Sunday is Reason Magazine’s editor-at-large, Nick Gillespie. Nick will help guide my retrospective.

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We also contextualize the rather stunning events of this week at the Capitol.

How will this bizarre period be remembered, and who will write the story? Listen or read the transcript, as Nick and I dictate history’s first draft aloud, on the show of ideas.


Bob Zadek: This morning, I am offered a unique opportunity — during a chaotic week of politics, disturbance, rioting, and the chaotic actions of a President in his waning days — to provide the voice of reason the country needs now more, perhaps, than ever.

What we now desperately need is reason, and who better to offer us reason than Nick Gillespie. Nick is the editor-at-large for Reason Magazine, the flagship publication of the Reason Foundation. Reason Magazine is the voice of reason — “free minds and free markets.”

To help us understand this week in a rational, reasoned, and thoughtful way, I’m happy to welcome Nick Gillespie to the show.

Nick Gillespie: When I signed up for this, I was expecting a much slower news week to be quite honest.

Bob Zadek: I thought we’d be talking about spring training starting in a few months — stuff like that. It’s quite the opposite.

We had a riot at the capital. There was a carefully planned rally. President Trump seems to have possibly incited the riot — if not in the legal sense, certainly in the everyday sense.

The Capitol Police did a miserable job and exacerbated all of the problems.

The Capitol grounds were breached. The chambers of the members of the House were stormed and were occupied until control was taken. Put the rioting in context. What were you saying to yourself and to your colleagues at Reason about what these riots tell us about where we are as a country today?

Nick Gillespie: You are absolutely right to immediately put this in a larger context. It’s not to suggest moral or political or cultural equivalency between Black Lives Matter and the recent Trump supporters protesting in the Capitol — who were ultimately responsible for five deaths in DC.

“We are in a particularly long-lived and continuous erosion of trust and confidence in all aspects of government.”

It is important to understand that history doesn’t happen randomly. We are in a particularly long-lived and continuous erosion of trust and confidence in all aspects of government: the Presidency, the Supreme Court, and Congress. Congress was at various points in the past four years in the single digits of approval. When you have a massive erosion of confidence and trust, all sorts of things happen.

Everybody recognized that absent the coronavirus lockdowns you probably would not have had the riots in the wake of George Floyd’s killing at the hands of police in Minneapolis. Absent the Black Lives Matter riots over the summer, you wouldn’t have had this.

Having said all of that, what happened in the Capitol is indefensible, and the people involved really need to be held to account for that. But it’s important to understand that this is not going away when Joe Biden shows up on January 20. It’s not going to go away if Donald Trump is impeached or removed from power before his term is technically up in a few days.

This is a long-lived kind of dialectic in American politics. It reminds me of the ’80s when Reagan conservatives were ascendant and painted the ’60s as this act of panty raids on the part of left wing radicals. They missed the point that there were almost as many right wing radicals and nut jobs out there.

“It reminds me of the ’80s when Reagan conservatives were ascendant and painted the ’60s as this act of panty raids on the part of left wing radicals. They missed the point that there were almost as many right wing radicals and nut jobs out there.”

The ’60s were a violent decade on both sides of the political spectrum, and we are there now, with this. The larger context and understanding of this is that it proceeds directly from the loss of confidence and trust in the institutions of government. Every permutation of institutions you can imagine have lied to the American people, have failed to deliver what they said they were going to do, and have acted perniciously. You get people rioting against the police, and you get people rioting against Congress.

Bob Zadek: During the Black Lives Matter rioting in the summer, many public officials on the left and spokespeople on the left would often drum up a pretty well known Martin Luther King quote from a 1968 Mike Wallace interview that was taken out of context. He said, “I think we have got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard.”

That quote found its way into the media a lot recently. It is a misused and dangerous quote, suggesting that if you feel unheard, then rioting is okay. Instead, Martin Luther King was really saying (in context) that if you have a segment which is unheard, then it is logical to expect rioting will result. Like, if you eat too much, you’re going to be fat. It’s a symptom of something else.

Anarchy and the Power Vacuum

Bob Zadek: Starting from the spring, rioting quickly became an acceptable tool, since public officials on the left especially didn’t appropriately renounce the destructiveness and the wrongheadedness of it all. If it’s okay, for the left, it’s okay for the right. That is what gave birth, in part, to what we saw.

Nick, you mentioned the breakdown of so many institutions. You’re exactly right. What frightens me is that anarchy is the result. Anarchy means the absence of any overriding institutional control. When the institutions are not respected, they lose control de facto.

Nick Gillespie: I agree. Again, the point here isn’t to say that because of rioting and looting by the Black Lives Matter rallies, the Trump people get a pass on what’s going on here. The point is to understand what is going on. People like John Lewis, the deceased civil rights icon, said when Donald Trump was elected, “He is not really the president.”

He specifically called the election illegitimate and claimed that it was because of Russian interference. A bunch of Democrats did not go to Trump’s inauguration, and pointedly claimed not that they were upset with the outcome per se, but that it was an illegitimate election.

There is a dialectic here, and things get ratcheted up. I wrote a story charting the long-term erosion of trust and confidence in the aspects of government. If you go back to the mid ’60s, when places like Gallup started polling, over 50% of Americans believed that the government would always try to do the right thing in the various subset. Now, nobody does. We don’t for a wide variety of reasons, most of which stems directly from the bad behavior of government. Then you have what you’re talking about. What happens in the face of that?

To be honest, from a libertarian perspective, I thought we were going to win with something like this, because over the past [several decades] we have said that the government is bad at what it does — it should focus on very few things and try to do them well. As people understood the government was not capable or willing to deliver the basic services and structures they’re supposed to, they would evacuate the government and allow us to have more freedom to live how we want.

What happened is that we got a bigger and bigger government because once you get to this place where anarchy is loosed and where everybody knows the rules don’t really apply, they are masks for power in particular situations.

What is right or wrong changes radically depending on who is wielding power and to what end. People say, “Give me some of that.”

We get bigger and bigger governments that get less and less effective and more and more in every aspect of our lives. In that sense, I hope that these past four years is finally the wake up call to say:

We need a different set of structures in life. We don’t need the government to regulate every aspect of every part of our lives. What we needed to do is to pull back, to cover the basic services that I think most of us would agree on, and to help structure certain things and allow us to kind of structure our lives the way that we see fit.

We have this huge void created by the loss of legitimacy of almost all of our institutions. Throw in things like the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts, which have soiled themselves for failing to reign in the worst elements in them. The nonprofit, United Way, went through a massive scandal that it never recovered from. Even Volkswagen, which had origins shrouded in Nazism, but then rose to be recognized as very dependable, was caught cheating people and regulators. There has been this massive evacuation of trust and confidence in institutions for good reason. There is not enough said about the fact that the result is a power void.

“We have this huge void created by the loss of legitimacy of almost all of our institutions. Even Volkswagen… was caught cheating.”

Where do we turn? There needs to be some guiding hands in charge. When you have a void, that draws in authoritarian figures, because people want somebody to be in charge. We’re seeing that.

In the ’90s, as the internet age was beginning, there was a great hope that cyberspace would allow for different methods of interacting with one another, with reinforcing systems where reputation counted — who were the good and bad actors would be kind of visible and transparent. That seemed to be working. In many ways, it has.

But you already now have tech giants who are clearly not playing by their own rules. Twitter is a private company, so Twitter has the right to kick anybody off if it wants to. It kicks off Donald Trump, but it allows other tyrants who have hundreds of thousands of people’s blood on their hands, to continue to tweet.

“[Twitter] kicks off Donald Trump, but it allows other tyrants who have hundreds of thousands of people’s blood on their hands, to continue to tweet.”

I love Twitter, I love digital culture, but we see that the thing that was replacing the old world of the Great Society and Richard Nixon all of that kind of stuff, has been revealed as hopelessly interested in particular outcomes and masking its will to power. We have a lot of work to do. We cannot just obey one authoritarian strong man figure.

The Great Escape: An Exodus from Mainstream Media

Bob Zadek: I am so frightened that the bad actors will opportunistically fill the void and before we know it, we will have ceded power to the wrong players. I mentioned the media, Nick, because you are such an astute observer of the media in the broadest sense. I recall and for most of my intellectual life, my day started reading the daily newspaper. It was every day, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal — I had my media sources. I watched the evening news, like every other American who paid attention.

Now, I find that I have taken a solemn oath to not watch the news. The news became entertainment. Once news becomes entertainment — fighting for eyeballs and ear lobes of attention for commercial purposes — then its success is measured by a different matrix.

When you walk out of the performance and you say, “That was a great play,” you are saying, “My emotions became excited.” If you leave the theater feeling flat it is because your emotions were not excited by the performance. Entertainment equals emotional excitement. If you apply that test to the news, how does the news excite you? Not by making you a bit smarter and more informed, it excites you by getting you fearful or angry. The news is measured by an entertainment matrix, not an informational matrix.

“How does the news excite you? Not by making you a bit smarter and more informed, it excites you by getting you fearful or angry. The news is measured by an entertainment matrix, not an informational matrix.”

Nobody turns on the news because it is the most accurate. You mentioned how excited you were in the early 90s when the internet was in its infancy, because you’d be exposed to so many different points of view you never had access to before. That’s what Americans have to do today. The task of being an informed adult is to pick your sources of information, because now you have all you want. That is what Americans must do, but do not pick mainstream news in any form, because that is purely entertainment. That will just satisfy emotional needs, but not intellectual needs.

Nick Gillespie: I resist any attempt to kind of create a golden age of American journalism, which is a subset of media — to say that maybe the New York Times was more fair and more objective in the mid ’60s than it is now. I’m glad that those days are long past where any single source has that much power. Even the Drudge Report. A Drudge link to [your article] used to mean that you could take the rest of the week off. Even the Drudge Report doesn’t have the clout that it had. Everything is far more distributed. I think that’s good.

Our public discourse that we seek out — if not entertainment, per se — is something that gives us a warm feeling about our preferred vision of the world. My Italian grandparents emigrated to the US in the mid 1910s and lived their entire lives into the 1980s never speaking English because they were able to live in an Italian speaking community in a small city in Connecticut of all places. We can now all do that, where we only speak whatever language we want heard and spoken.

That can become really bad because this is what you see when people listen only to one entity, whether it be an Alex Jones type character, or Fox News, or MSNBC and The New York Times on the other side of the aisle, where all you are doing is confirming your existing sense of the world or burnishing it a little bit.

In contrast, the best journalism forces us to consider the world as it is rather than the way we want it to be. There’s more good media across every possible level. But it’s also less effective because people have more options. To bring it back to politics, Congress is supposed to be a national body. The government in Washington is supposed to be disinterested. They are not supposed to be petty rent seekers trying to ship home to the public one earmark at a time or something like that. They have so fallen down on the job, both Republicans and Democrats. That is the vacuum that worries me the most.

Bob Zadek: So many things worry me the most, it’s like a tie for “the most.” I am jealous that you can identify what worries you the most, because I can’t get there. I have a dear friend who is very politically active. I called him in another state just to see what his spin was on the week and how he survived. He said he has limited his media intake to Gunsmoke reruns from radio. All he is listening to is Gunsmoke. Radio reruns. Before there was James Arness on television. That is where he finds respite.

We have to escape from the media. I try to help my listeners and my friends, by offering this analogy. When we run our lives and we do not feel well, we have two choices, we can go to medical school and then cure ourselves. Or we can seek help from a professional who has spent his time accumulating the information that we need. We pick a doctor based upon reputation and the like. Then we rely upon the doctor. We outsource the medical decision making to some degree to a doctor, or a lawyer or an architect, whatever.

We should do the same thing with the media. Whether it’s print, broadcast, or online, who I have concluded using my brain, that they know what they are talking about. Just like I can rely upon my doctor, I can rely upon my journalist. I seek guidance from them. I am avoiding the entertainment media and focusing only on those people who succeed based upon their proven wisdom. That’s what I have done and that is the gift of the internet.

Nick Gillespie: When I hear you talk about your friend, as well as yourself, I recognize that in myself.

The events of Wednesday, when the Capitol building was stormed, the ease with which these clown commandos were able to get into the Capitol building is stunning. We need to offer an alternative way to talk about things like politics. We can’t simply turn our back and watch seasons of Gunsmoke on TV in color, or radio serial gunsmoke. We can’t do that.

“We can’t simply turn our back and watch seasons of Gunsmoke on TV in color, or radio serial gunsmoke. We can’t do that.”

We need to figure out ways to engage the world and to engage one another in good faith arguments about what matters in the world and how best to proceed. This may be skipping ahead, either in terms of what’s going to happen over the next couple of years in America or what your show plan was.

This is a real opportunity for libertarians. People who believe in individual autonomy, people who believe in communal action that is voluntary and things like that. We have a story to tell. We have a set of principles that pose a real opportunity. One of the things to recognize is that American politics for a wide variety of reasons that are always worth discussing have become more and more polarized because the parties are enthralled to more and more activist wings that are unrepresentative of a typical voter. Not just the average American voter — the modal American voter — but the modal person who’s a Republican or a Democrat, a liberal or a conservative.

What people want is people who have principles that allow you to predict and control and regulate where things end up. I think libertarianism has a real possibility here. We need to maintain the idea that America is an interesting place, and the world is an interesting place to the degree that it gives individuals opportunities, and means to become the best version of themselves.

“We need to maintain the idea that America is an interesting place, and the world is an interesting place to the degree that it gives individuals opportunities, and means to become the best version of themselves.”

It comes up with institutions, social, economic, cultural, political institutions that allow that to happen. We have a lot to share right now in a world where a lot of people are shrinking back. When you shrink back it creates a vacuum, and we cannot afford that, because the person who fills it will not be good for the future.

An Alternative to the Two Party System

Bob Zadek: I outsource the job of finding the truth, to other people. The two sources that are on my shortlist are The Reason Interview with Nick Gillespie. It is one hour every Wednesday. It is in the widest range of interest because Nick’s interests are very broad. I commend it to you. In thinking back to the left wing riots over the summer, and we went through one day of right wing rioting. I was struck by the extremes the Democrat and Republican party have in common. What they have in common is that both parties aspire to have a very muscular form of government, for totally different reasons. Both want power over the other side. The way to achieve power is either by illegitimate force or lawful force of taking control of government. Then you have a muscular government to carry out your aims. Both sides have chosen the government as their solution.

Nick Gillespie: Let’s underscore the fact that the government has not become smaller under Republican rule. When we talk about it in terms of spending or in terms of the things that they regulate in everyday life. Donald Trump was talking about radically resizing or cutting back the size and scope of government. He didn’t do that at all. Both the republican and the democratic ideal is to use political power to create the world and to regulate the world in the way that they see fit.

One of the things that gives me great hope comes from Morris Fiorina, who has talked about how since the beginning of the 21st century, we have seen incredibly unstable majorities where each party gets either partial or complete control of the federal government in an election. Then within two years or four years, it flips to the other side. This is historically very rare.

He says it is because both parties are so extreme that they have reduced the ability to get much more than 50% of the vote plus maybe one vote. In the case of many presidential elections of the past 20 years 49% 48% of the vote. The party extremists take control and begin pushing an agenda which is revolting to most people and so the party gets thrown out. The Democrats were repudiated at the Congressional level.

If Joe Biden pushes his agenda, which the Washington Post of all places said was the most liberal platform that any Democrat has ever run on, the Republicans will be back in power in 2022 or 2024. Until these parties get to a closer approximation of what you’re going after Bob, which is a government that actually gives people more freedom to live, how they want, regardless of the dollar amount of the government, we’re going to have these unstable majorities and just keep going back and forth between competing and equally repudiated visions of control through political power.

Bob Zadek: You mentioned freedom. When was the last time that either political party even mentioned the word “Liberty?”

When was the last time that was a plank or a sentence or even followed by a semicolon? When was the last time that freedom became an element of a party platform? The answer is “”not in our lifetime.” But libertarians say that is the starting point. I fear that freedom has become like a disposable commodity. Look at the plank of either party. Both parties always stand for less freedom. We have two political parties who are anti freedom. That’s why they want more governmental power. I find it to be astonishing, both on the national level and in more than one state like Florida, that the country is so close and that elections are decided by a dozen votes? It seems astonishing. I’ve reached my own conclusion about that. How are we so evenly split?

Nick Gillespie: My colleague Matt Welch and I wrote a book called The Declaration of Independents. The starting point was that if you look at Gallup in 1970, 50% of Americans considered themselves Democrats, and somewhere in the 40s were Republican. Now, when you look at those same declamations, it is 31% for Democrats and 29% for Republicans. The two major parties have stopped representing the plurality of American people and we are locked in because they are long, lumbering, slow moving institutions. They were created to reflect political coalition’s. They use ideology in order to paper over the complete arbitrariness of the assembled positions that they believe in.

Why does being in favor of a constitutional amendment banning flag burning go with lower marginal tax rates?

Why does being a democrat mean that you are sensibly in favor of free speech and of union veto of massive unionization of the workforce?

None of this makes any sense whatsoever. They are holding over from previous political coalition’s and they’re long and slow moving. Each of the parties has been hijacked by extremists, who are the activists who get to nominate the characters who run for office. People don’t want a package deal anymore. They say if you want lower taxes or less regulation, you have to be anti-abortion. You can’t go from abortion, to free speech, to taxes, to trade policy, and stay in the same party. It is impossible.

“Why does being in favor of a constitutional amendment banning flag burning go with lower marginal tax rates?

Why does being a democrat mean that you are sensibly in favor of free speech and of union veto of massive unionization of the workforce?”

Elections are going to continue to be super close, and super volatile, because the parties do not represent large numbers of Americans. A few thousand votes separated George W. Bush and Al Gore, and we are still there. It was much closer, and the Democrats who were projected to take the Senate in a big way, and increase gains in the house, actually lost seats in the House. Most people say they’re going to lose control in 2022 or 2024.

Bob Zadek: This is Julia Child meets politics. Here’s what I mean. When you make a recipe, I imagine, you take a bunch of disparate ingredients, and you put them together. Ah, it tastes perfectly. When you are designing a political campaign, you have to get to 50.1 of the vote. So you say, “We have the public service unions, that accounts for X percent, and we have the Latinos, and that accounts for Y percent. We need another couple of percent. Let’s go for white college educated women in the suburbs. Okay, great idea. That gets us up to 48.”

You cobble together disparate groups, which themselves have nothing in common, but you cobble them together, so you get to 50.1. So it is by design. The reason elections are so close is because each party has made their own calculation as to how they can get the 50.1 and they’re good at it. That’s why you have blacks voting democratic, even though the democratic position on charter schools is so adverse to the interests of some members of a large number of the black community. It’s a marketing cooperative, not a political philosophy, designed to get to 50.1. That’s why these elections are so close. The only reason we have two parties is because the political parties have captured the decision making through control of the debates and control of ballot access. So political parties have done what, when Facebook does it they can be antitrust. But if parties do it, it’s fine. We are more protective of our ability to buy breakfast cereal for that we are to have exposure to ideas.

Nick Gillespie: People now have vastly multiplied choices of what to consume in media and also how to live our lifestyles. So many great gatekeeper institutions, whether we’re talking about churches or government or whatever, nobody can tell us how to live anymore. What we need to do, I think, as libertarians, Bob is to really offer that kind of principled alternative that here is a better way to live, where we come together for the few things that are absolutely necessary to help have a society where people can participate and actualize themselves.

What are the things we need to do? How do we keep a minimal amount of order? How do we allow people to flourish and kind of fly their own flee flag to follow their bliss. This is what the libertarian alternative is to where we are at now, which is, you know, a summer of riots and a winter of riots. That’s what we’re offering. We need to make that as widespread and as persuasive and as visible as possible. Because the next two years and the next four years are going to be really bleak if we don’t get out there and kind of start converting people to a different way of thinking about what politics is for.

Bob Zadek: This is Bob Zadek ending an hour with Nick Gillespie, host of The Reason Interview with Nick Gillespie — a podcast you must follow. Nick is editor-at-large at Reason Magazine.