Q&A with Angelo Codevilla: Cancel Culture, Leadership, Trump, the CIA, and more
Angelo Codevilla is one of the most vigorous polemicists in American politics. He is one of the pioneers of based politics — eyes open to the madness of the times, heart on fire. He doesn’t hide the bad news or the ugly truths. The FBI and CIA are rotten, the military is corrupt and being turned against America as we speak, elite institutions are now in the power of a minority that hates most of us openly. But he also doesn’t run away from politics into cultural commentary or metaphysics. We have a fight on our hands and we have to want to fight in order to find the leaders willing to risk everything on our behalf.
Born in 1943 in Italy, he came to America as a boy, and has since had a long career in government and academia. He served as a U.S. Navy officer, a foreign service officer, and a staff member of the Select Committee on Intelligence of the US Senate for eight years, during the Carter and Reagan administrations. He also taught politics for generations and translated Machiavelli’s Prince. He’s now a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute and professor emeritus of International Relations at Boston University.
Despite his age and decades-long presence in the political scene, he still has more spiritedness than most Millennials.
What follows, is an edited version of our conversation, recorder on March 18th, 2021.
“Power lies in the hands of those who wish to exercise it.”
— Angelo Codevilla
Titus Techera: Sir, you write about we the democracy destroying the oligarchy. Where do we start?
Angelo Codevilla: Well, the very first thing is: Take away respect. Cancellation is inherently a two-way street: They’re canceling you and you are canceling them. You can’t simply say: Oh, let me in, let me in! No, you say: You don’t like me? Guess what? I don’t like you either. Buh-bye!
The number one practical problem we’re facing is inherent in oligarchies, namely that state powers, public powers, are being wielded by ostensibly private organizations. You try to fly in an airplane without a mask and you’re in trouble. You go into a national chain store without a mask and they try to throw you out. Well, the only way to deal with that is to do it en masse, and to say: OK, starting on April 1st, if this store, airline, or whatever tries to enforce masks on anybody, it will be boycotted by everybody. Thank you and good night!
So we should organize and scream from the digital rooftops. I think we’re just about angry enough to start. But this universal shyness you and I are trying to break through comes from the fact that none of us have public standing. The law isn’t on our side. In fact, it might be turned against us. What do we do about the legal problem?
That is one way to deal with it. It’s not the only way. The other way, since the shape of the polity has changed and the violations of the Bill of Rights are being perpetrated by ostensibly private organizations, is to extend the Bill of Rights to those organizations. It’s that simple. You can’t have it both ways: You can’t have private privilege and at the same time have no public responsibility.
This is one of the things we are shocked most to see happening around us: Supposedly private corporations busy as bees in the free market are in fact private political authorities. Privilege is the right word, because it means private law. Any corporation big enough can now act like it’s a feudal fief in the oligarchy, lording it over mere serfs who don’t dare talk politics. How do we get back from serfdom to political protest?
There are all sorts of examples out there already. They’re not particularly happy examples, but ever since 1964 [the Civil Rights Act], if you own a bakery or a lunch counter, you cannot turn away someone for service, on the ground of race or anything else. Public accommodation law means that if you are open to the public, you must serve the public, period. Now, it’s entirely logical to add political statements to the list of things that may not be discriminated against. There are all sorts of things that can be done, but all of these things take leadership, and that’s what we haven’t got.
Yes, we should make it the law that being a normal citizen isn’t a crime you can be punished for. No power can discriminate against ordinary people, indeed. It seems much of your polemic is trying to remind us that we should behave with self-respect, to not let ourselves be trampled.
Yes. Look, politics is inherently a collective activity. For example, during the Occupation in the 1940s, Charles de Gaulle warned the people against individual acts of resistance. This is something I’ve pointed out before: Don’t do these things individually, do them only as part of a larger national political enterprise led by… Well, at that time, Charles de Gaulle.
What we need here is for someone to step forward and say: “I will lead the Deplorables out of slavery in Egypt, yeah? And I will organize: Follow me!”
So it’s as bad as the Jews in Egyptian slavery? We’re looking for Moses? I’ll admit that when you look at the state of leadership against Woke Capital, it feels that way…
Let’s talk Exodus — that means consolidation of power, of organizations, of wealth and enterprises, in Red States, in conservative America?
It certainly does. But again, the condition for that is that some prominent person — or two, or three, or four — stepping forward and saying: OK, this is the way it’s gonna be. Follow me and we’ll wreck these bastards! You know: Follow me and I’ll take you out of here. Right now, the closest we’ve got to this is Gov. DeSantis of Florida. The other one is Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota… [The interview took place before Gov. Noem vetoed a bill intended to protect women from trans-gender competition in school athletics.]
But there has to be national-level leadership. That’s the way it’s always been! Think back in the 1780s and 90s, there were a whole bunch of Washingtonians. Well, there wouldn’t be any Washingtonians without Washington — there wouldn’t have been any Jeffersonians without Jefferson — any Jacksonians without Andrew Jackson. And on and on and on. The reason that the country was rallied as it was to stop the spread of slavery had a lot to do with Abraham Lincoln, who stepped forward and made the argument and sustained it.
But we don’t live in the age of Washington or Lincoln. We don’t seem to have that leader with the character to end up in the history books, nor on monuments, which are being torn down these days. Maybe there’s a movement gathering that makes it possible for a leader to assume that sort of power to change the nation’s history?
Well, Ronald Reagan, there was a tremendous movement. It’s not that he ran the whole thing, but people would look to Reagan and say: Ah, that’s us! And Reagan looked at this whole movement and said: Yeah, this is ours! He knew whom he was leading and the people knew who the leader was. There wasn’t anything contractual, there were no membership cards or anything like that, but you know…
We talk politics each from his isolated perch on top of a computer, and we don’t see how people might come together in revolt. It seems like all the powerful institutions are against us and we have no memberships or contracts to trust in. We need some way of organizing so we can be less scared of our individual vulnerability. We tried with the Trump rallies and what do we have to show for it?
Donald Trump was something like that, except that Donald Trump barked a lot and bit only a little. You know, you can’t go around saying big things and then letting the bad guys run all over you.
Yes, it’s surprising how little damage he did give all the panic he stirred. These are the two problems we’re dealing with indeed: It’s very hard to find national leaders and it’s also very hard to persuade anybody willing or eager to do the job that it’s not just rhetoric, but also action.
That’s right, you have to be political. And now they know that. Whether anyone likes it or not, the last several years have taught Republicans lessons. Number one: you can’t talk like Donald Trump did, and then not hurt your enemy. You actually have to be able to do that, to lead people and give them safety in numbers. Give them safety in cohesion.
That’s maybe the strangest thing happening to us. There are so many of us, yet all so vulnerable to cancellation, to threats of losing jobs, or just losing job opportunities. The internet should mean we can band together, communicate, but it’s not happening yet. The only organizations up and running are the ones trying to indoctrinate us into woke.
If you don’t go to one of these sessions where you’re told about white privilege, you’re fired? Alright, but if your national leader has organized ten thousand or one million people to protest on a particular day, well, then it’s different. In that situation, you’re in power, they’re not. You simply can’t fire everybody…
So we need organizations just so people can go on with ordinary life without feeling afraid?
Look, in politics, as well as in economics, there is a law of supply and demand. Put yourself in the shoes of someone with national ambitions on the conservative side of things: Well, you know what you’ve got to do! Number one, get out in front — number two, you know that you’ve got to actually deliver safety.
It took the political strife after 2016 for people to realize how much demand there is for safety on the conservative side. Does this create opportunities for the leaders now only beginning to come up?
That’s right. They know they’re not going to go anywhere by being recycled versions of Jeb Bush. Or Mitt Romney, or McConnell… If you have national ambitions and you present yourself that way, you’ve just committed hara-kiri! The only way you’re going to go somewhere is by being literally to the right of Donald Trump. And I don’t mean in terms of rhetoric, I mean in terms of real leadership for real safety and promotion of our way of life.
Indeed. Perhaps when we realize this way of life is endangered, there is more opportunity to act to protect it. Do you see people realizing what’s going on?
Yes, thank goodness. I wrote an essay for American Greatness, Clarity After Trump. Clarity means a lot — there’s no doubt about what’s going on. I mean, cancellation of Dr. Seuss? You gotta be kidding me! Bugs Bunny? No, no, no — that’s not normal in anybody’s book. Even the president of France, Macron has said that this movement coming out of America [Critical Race Theory] is a danger to all countries, to all people…
There was a time not long ago when the woke left was claiming that their culture, what they’re pushing, was inclusive, and it was really the culture of cultures — that it was friendly to all cultures. Well, the truth, as it turns out, is now pretty indisputable: the woke movement is the reverse of all that; a very, very peculiar culture that is meaningful only to a very small number of people.
So is this the revolutionary woke democracy, where the demos is the first to be excluded?
Yes, politically and culturally they have painted themselves into a corner and the corner is getting smaller and smaller. They hold all the power, but the number of people on whose behalf they wield that power is small and shrinking.
In a way it seems to be the great political struggle now going on: Can control of elite institutions silence majorities — can it get people to obey — can it humble, shame, scare the people?
Well, that’s just it, the answer to those questions is up to us, not them.
But let’s now go back to the original question: What is to be done? It would be counter-productive for the right to struggle for control of the institutions, because those institutions are now so thoroughly identified with the people who run them that it’s extraordinarily difficult to unseat them all and reseat other men. Plus why should we even try? Why not just make our own and say: OK, you want Facebook and Twitter to be organs of wokeness? Take it, all yours, now go away! Except none of us are going to be involved with them…
You want Harvard and Stanford and high-ranking universities as a kind of club for your own kind, when your kind is not the excellent kind, because we see that they have in fact given up on objective standards? Keep’em! Who the blankity blank wants to go to Harvard? Go to hell. We will run schools strictly on the basis of merit. And our people, who are chosen for merit and who are given lots and lots of work, whereas folks at Harvard are given very little work, will outperform yours. So if you are a serious entrepreneur or a serious person, are you gonna go to somebody who was chosen on the basis of his social profile and who has worked very little, or are you gonna go with someone who was chosen on the basis of objective performance and who worked like mad? Devalue Harvard — tell’em to go to hell!
Yes, freedom requires competition. We need to make institutions, and this is something that conservatives haven’t been doing for a long time, and it is only under the pressure of events we’re starting. Do you think there are opportunities ahead?
There are — if we take advantage of them.
You said we need to deny respect to those who would humiliate us. But another part of the problem is that conservatives are learning, shocked, that institutions they used to believe in, above all law enforcement and the military, are at least at the top corrupted and against conservatism. Something that has been going on for a long time.
Oh, yes. Absolutely. You don’t hear it anymore, but up until recently, you could turn on the Hannity show and hear: “Oh, these wonderful policemen! The police are on our side — the police, the police, the police, the police…” No, no, and no! The police work for whoever pays them and that is the problem. The police will taze a lady or arrest somebody because they violate what the mayor or the governor says ought to be done. So — no!
It was in the news the other week that Tucker Carlson was being criticized by various generals and other high officials in the military. How do we come to grips with these big national problems?
As far as the armed forces are concerned, this cannot be allowed, and the way to disallow it is for conservatives to vote as a bloc against appropriations for the armed forces. Not so long ago, bills that fund the armed forces used to come in many pieces and each of the pieces was voted on separately. There used to be personnel account, a military construction account, weapons, etc. That used to give a great deal of power to whoever would make a point out of particular problems. Now, these terrible personnel policies are in the process of ruining the armed forces. If conservatives can protest the bundling of all military appropriations into one lump, and if they can go back to the system of having hearings and votes, they can darn well kill or cut the personnel counts.
Republicans are still elected to Congress, a few determined people could use hearings to cause a big scandal. How do civilians get a grip on the military?
Now, I assure you that there’s one thing which the military treasures far above everything else, never mind ideology. And that is the opportunity for advancement — promotion. They will do anything to increase the number of senior officer billets. If conservatives vote as a bloc to restrict the number of senior officer billets, they will literally have their hands around the gonads of the armed forces, because that’s what they really care about.
The GOP is not far from winning the House of Representatives again, it might happen in 2022, and then indeed rethinking appropriations is due, and the Senate, which is already 50-50…
Sure, but the Senate it’s mostly a free enterprise institution. I served in the Senate for eight years [as staff] and I know for a fact that whoever is bloody-minded, whoever really has a bug up his rear, and really wants to have something done, can have his way, because most people will not oppose him. Those who are really interested in something generally can get their way.
And so it should encourage ambitious politicians to pursue something of great importance to their electorate. Can a Senator become the voice of the people by denying approvals?
Yes, that’s it — you just put your finger on it: Denying something is a lot easier than affirming it. Saying no in Congress is a lot easier than saying yes…
Until now, politicians, perhaps, but certainly the electorate, were not aware of the extent to which the institutions of the federal government are being used against conservatives, were they?
That’s right, that’s why the current situation is an opportunity, because now there’s no doubt that’s true.
We have ended up in an America where the former director of the FBI or of the CIA can turn into a partisan pundit on MSNBC, and people don’t even blink. How is this possible, for such high officials?
Well, this is the problem. See, Donald Trump was a jerk, a complete jerk. He could have stopped that instantly. There are laws on the books — black letter, clear as a bell laws — against these people even mentioning or hinting at information obtained through communications intelligence. Those laws, unlike the Espionage Act, do not require all manner of proof about intentions or anything like that. They are what are called strict liability laws. You reveal or purport to reveal something gained through communications intelligence — you go to jail, period.
Now, Donald Trump could have appointed — should have appointed — an Attorney General to do exactly that. This is black letter law, not legal reaching — this is plain black letter law. He didn’t do it! He was scared of the agencies. This is one reason why I think the prospect of Donald Trump running again would be a disaster. Tell me, Donald, what are you going to do now that you didn’t do your first time around?
Yes, we need younger people who have seen what happens when you wave a red flag at the bull that is the federal government. They will come at you with everything. Yet it’s still astonishing how much something like the FBI has become a tool of political controversy, scandal, and all sorts of malfeasance.
Yes. But it did not happen overnight. This has been coming for a long time…
Another thing you’ve written about again and again is that having the CIA involved in domestic politics follows from its autonomy. Has it got out of control?
Yes, it has. The thing to do is to put it under the foreign counterintelligence side to put it under the armed forces.
Indeed, you cannot separate intelligence from its military uses. To have a CIA independent of the armed forces is to create an independent political center in the government.
That’s right, because operations are a natural discipline on intelligence.
Suspicions about the CIA are not so new, but that the same should happen with the FBI is, I think, still a shock to people.
Yes, the CIA was never any good, from the very beginning. The FBI used to be pretty good — but the CIA… That’s a long story.
Don’t we need to reevaluate longstanding conservative commitments to these institutions, since they have turned from national security to partisan purposes on behalf of the oligarchy?
So this would seem to be the most important thing we have achieved: Political clarity about just how serious the problem is. Couldn’t we say that this is a reason to hope? Isn’t this is how American politics works: Each major change in our politics has begun with an attack on centralized oligarchy, usually in Washington D.C. This is how Jefferson did it, Jackson, and Lincoln. This is what Reagan did, too.
Yes, and again, I hate to sound like a broken record, but it’s leadershis, leadership, leadership.
Indeed. This is something that’s often avoided, because we’re embarrassed. We do not have the leaders we need and now that we realize it, it’s shocking: How can we be in a situation where there is no one who is willing to act on our behalf? For a long time, people have acted as though politics were a spectator sport and essentially reducible to rhetoric. Now that action is needed again — people have to learn how to do it again.
As Theodore Roosevelt once said, one of my favorite quotes: “The combination of the unbridled tongue with the unready hand.”
You have a better title to prescience than most public commentators, since you wrote about The Country Class and The Ruling Class back in 2010. This dichotomy of American politics has come into ever-sharper relief since. What are your thoughts on our ruling class a decade on?
I was surprised at how fast the logic of this whole situation has unfolded. I thought it would take longer. But quickly in 2017, I saw this whole thing coming together. Nobody could have foreseen the COVID business turning out the way it did. But remember that it could not have happened this way had it not been for Donald Trump. It was him who went on national television and said: “15 days to slow the spread.” It was Donald Trump who put Fauci on television and treated him like a god.
He left the country in the hands of bureaucrats, didn’t he?
That’s right. Donald Trump handed the keys of the country to Anthony Fauci. We can’t say: Oh, the left, the left, the left! Trump did it!
The point that I made in the original Ruling Class essay, is that this ruling class is a bipartisan thing — the oligarchy is a bipartisan thing, which is why we have to sort of exit these institutions and forget about a lot of so-called leaders. The nicest thing about the 2016 election happened during the primaries, when it was impossible for anyone to get traction who wasn’t against the ruling class. So it really came down to two people: Trump and Cruz, and Trump won because he was more adamant. Never mind that it was a multi-candidate field and in a multi-candidate field, the choice is never between A and B.
In the future, it’s not going to be any different. The only people who are going to get any traction are people who are going to make Donald Trump look like a moderate.
That’s a timely lesson: Things that were thought unthinkable have kept happening the last couple of years, and they are not stopping. Are we waking up to a far more adversarial politics?
That’s right. Victory has to be bold.
Look at Nancy Pelosi. Back in 2009 when Obamacare was being cooked up, some reporter asked her: In what way is this constitutional? And her answer was: Are you kidding? I don’t give a damn whether it’s constitutional or not. We’re gonna do it!
Nobody follows an uncertain trumpet. That’s why the motto of the Marine Corps Officer Candidate School is: Ductus Exemplo, “Leadership by Example.” Follow me!
We are living through a test of democracy: Are the people of America still, in some sense, in charge? Can they, first, negatively, withdraw their consent, and then, positively, create new leaders?
I have a place in Wyoming, and a lot of people ride a lot of horses there. And once, I was standing with an old-timer, and we watched a guy get on a horse, and the horse was giving this man a tremendous amount of trouble, he was about to throw him down. And somebody said: Oh, what a bad horse! But the old-timer looked up and said: No, no, no! What a bad rider!
[Note from the Author:] Ancient wisdom teaches us that when you train young men for war, it’s best to give them heavy weapons for practice, so that in actual battle, they will feel the weapons suddenly light in their hands and themselves more powerful.
This interview is part of American Cinema Foundation's PoMo-Conservatism series. Listen to the audio recording: