A Conversation with Rod Dreher
On the nature of journalism, Ron DeSantis, and Viktor Orbán.
During my recent stay in Hungary, I sat down for a wide-ranging conversation with the conservative journalist Rod Dreher, who has been living in “self-imposed exile” in Budapest for the past two years. We discussed the American culture war, the coming DeSantis-Trump presidential primary, and Hungarian political strategy. The following are some highlights from the video transcript.
On Journalism, Objectivity, and Activism
Rod Dreher: One of the things that I’ve seen—I’ve been a professional journalist for 30 years—is that mainstream journalism, “respectable journalism,” is operating by [a false set of] rules. They’ve been completely ideologically captured, but they wear the old-fashioned “we’re just being objective” standards like a skin suit. And you’ve seen this, too, in academia, which we can get to later, but this is one thing I think conservatives, at least in our country, really don’t understand, is how following the rules is being used against us by the Left, which has no respect for the rules, except as a cover.
Christopher F. Rufo: Yes, that’s one hundred percent right. And I tell people very openly, I’m much more honest than my counterparts in the mainstream left-wing press, whether it’s the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, a host of other outlets, who pretend to be objective journalists and launder in their own political activism or political narratives.
In distinction to this, I tell people very explicitly that I am an absolutely committed political journalist. I have political objectives. Here’s what they are: A, B, and C. And I also have developed this habit or practice of actually telling people in real-time, “This is how I’m going to then do this next campaign or reporting series.” I’m trying to, through doing that, dispel this myth of neutral, objective journalism of the mainstream. And I’m also trying to demonstrate for people in our world that you can absolutely break that frame and then you can attack this in a very different way. I’m trying to teach people in our sphere, perhaps one way of achieving these political objectives that we have.
Because look, you don’t become a political journalist if you don’t have political beliefs. I mean, I find it just absolutely bizarre that people who spend their lives reporting about politics pretend to not care about political outcomes. I mean, it’s absurd. It’s like being a doctor, but not caring if your patients get sick or get healthy. I think it’s baked into it, and I prefer to be honest about it and to be open about it than to play some duplicitous game with it.
On DeSantis, Trump, and Nixon
Dreher: Chris, you moved into closer collaboration with Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida. Now, one of the reasons I’m excited about DeSantis is because he’s not like your standard Republican politician who might give a good speech about wokeness but won’t do anything about it. DeSantis is actually doing something. Can you talk a little bit about what DeSantis is doing and what makes him different on the American scene?
Rufo: It’s been a great honor and a privilege to work with the governor. I’ve worked with the Governor and his team on critical race theory, on gender ideology, on the fight with Disney. And then, earlier this year, he appointed me to be a trustee at one of Florida’s public universities. So, I’m helping reform one of these universities, taking it from what had been traditionally in the system, the most left-wing university, into a university of classical liberal education. It’s called New College of Florida.
What I’ve observed with the governor and his team that he’s assembled around him is that he knows how institutional power works, and he has the courage and the insight to put together policies and political strategies to actually shift institutional power, to shift law, to shift financing, in a way that actually advances his political vision, or more broadly, a conservative political vision. And I think he has a number of unique traits. He sees the scenario better than anyone in the game. He has the patience and the follow-through and the strategic wisdom to figure out how to appoint boards, how to move laws, how to get money from here to there, how to do all of the actual governance and institutional management to make a difference.
Dreher: Trump does not have.
Rufo: Does not have, yes. I mean, you talk to Trump White House staff, and he was essentially running the government on Twitter, which is amazing, and, from my point of view, a fascinating case study in a different leadership style. And not to say that every leadership style has to be the same, but when we’re operating from a drastic institutional disadvantage as conservatives, it’s essential to have someone that understands how to change institutions. And so, the reality is that the institutions submerged Trump more than Trump reformed the institutions. I think that’s an obvious truth. And I think with DeSantis, he’s shown in Florida and could perhaps show nationally, that he’s capable of advancing against the institutions and then reorienting the institutions towards something better, towards something different.
I think the only other president in recent history who had that vision and unfortunately was unable to execute it was President Richard Nixon. Nixon understood the problem of bureaucracy better than any conservative president following him. But of course, Nixon was a tragic figure and was ultimately dethroned by the bureaucracy with the Watergate scandal. So, my own read on American politics is that we are stuck in a 1968 loop. We’re constantly redoing 1968 over and over and over, both on the Left and on the Right. You have the Black Panther Party and you have Richard Nixon. That’s the fundamental cultural dynamic that we’re in, and we haven’t figured out how to escape it.
On Viktor Orbán and the Post-Liberal Society
Dreher: That’s the big lesson that I learned from watching Viktor Orbán when I first started coming here two years ago, it’s that Orbán seems to me to have an accurate read on how power is actually exercised, not simply through elected officials and the bureaucracy, but through NGOs and major corporations, universities, and so forth. And he seemed to realize, too, that the only thing that conservatives have is the power of the state through elections. So, when I see some of the things Ron DeSantis is doing, I’m like, he’s taking it from the Orbán playbook, whether he’s actually doing that literally or not. But that is, I think, going to be the only way that conservatives can compete with this overwhelming progressive hegemony within every other institution in the country.
Rufo: Conservatives are in a really interesting position where we have very little general institutional power. If you look at media, you look at NGOs, you look at the technology industry. If you look at arts and culture, if you look at other aspects of civil society, let’s say, or private society, we also are operating at an extreme disadvantage. In the public sphere, most federal bureaucrats, for example, lean very far to the left. In some of the departments, political giving is something like ninety percent to ten percent, favoring Democrats. But conservatives still win elections. And, in a sense, this is the key to everything, because if you win elections, you get to make laws. And laws are the basis of everything else in a society. At the end of the day, the democratic power is the supreme power. That’s how our Constitution is written.
Of course, the government is supposed to secure individual rights; the government should be limited in a way that protects people’s individual rights. But in a practical sense, the political power is the supreme power in the management of institutions. And so, we have to get more sophisticated in how we manage that and how we run that. That’s not to say that you should trample on people’s individual rights. It is to say that you must take setting the rules of the game seriously. If you have not just the power, but the responsibility to craft laws and set the rules of the game of the society, and you’re entrusted with that power by the public, you should do so. Because by abdicating and not taking those questions seriously and not taking action on them, you’re delegating the basic rules of society to your opponents, to people who absolutely have no hesitation in trampling on individual rights, for example.
We’re going to have to wrestle with this. And one of the fears that I have and the questions that I’m trying to grapple with intellectually and journalistically, is are we already in a post-liberal society? I hope we aren’t, frankly. I’m a small-l liberal at heart, in the classical and constitutional sense. But I fear that we may have already crossed into a new managerial public-private system, in which state and society are becoming one. And if so, are we in a bureaucratic society where those liberal norms and liberal principles no longer apply? I don’t know. I don’t answer. I hope not. But I fear that we are verging towards that, in any case.
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This video is sponsored by Manhattan Institute.