The Populist Interviews: Darren Beattie on Trump & DeSantis, Cultivating an Elite, US Foreign Policy, and more
Darren Beattie is a former speechwriter, White House official under the Trump administration and the publisher of Revolver News. He holds a B.S. in mathematics from the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. in political theory from Duke University, where he wrote his dissertation on Martin Heidegger. While on the faculty at Duke, he was the only non-tenured full-time academic in the country to endorse then-candidate Donald Trump.
After returning to the White House to serve as a board member of the Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad, Darren founded Revolver News, a news website which has led investigations into federal involvement in the January 6th protests. Since, he has appeared on several podcasts and TV shows – including Tucker Carlson’s, where he’s a regular guest – and has been a vocal opponent of the Biden administration.
As part of our series of interviews with ‘populist’ figures, we decided to reach out to Darren for an interview. What follows is an edited transcript of a conversation between IM—1776’s editor Mark Granza and Darren Beattie, recorded on August 25, 2022.
— The Editors
“There’s no getting around the pain box. If you’re challenging the Regime, you are going to face the storm.”
— Darren Beattie
Mark Granza: Darren, you describe yourself as a centrist. What does that mean to you?
Darren Beattie: [Laughs] I say it almost facetiously because it doesn’t really mean anything. At least on Twitter, I’m a Grothendieckean centrist, which is a kind of consciously ridiculous description, as Grothendieck was a radical, very eccentric stateless mathematician. And so I’m just kind of playing around with it and mainly riffing off the idea that everyone wants to push the edges while always framing the other people as the radicals.
Mark Granza: The current New Right in America appears increasingly split between the populist politics represented by Trump and MAGA, and anti-Democratic elitist politics articulated by Curtis Yarvin and others. Where do you stand on this question?
Darren: I wrote a piece for The Spectator years ago called “When Populism Fails“. The basic argument was that Trump’s election could be interpreted in some ways as a kind of stress test for democracy, properly understood. Here you have a guy opposed unanimously by every single powerful institution in society: from the leadership of his party, the leadership of the opposing party, the entire corporate world, the military-industrial complex, the national security apparatus, the mass media – pretty much every single institution that matters, not only opposed him but actively conspired against him. And he still ended up winning an election. So leaving aside what one thinks of Trump, I think purely from a political science perspective, the fact that he won despite having all these institutions aligned and opposed to him seems to suggest something very healthy about the functioning of our democracy – with “democracy” at least understood intuitively, and not the way the Regime likes to invoke the term, which has become almost a proxy word now for a certain extreme, anti-democratic network of people. So while there’s a question as to whether that could ever be repeated now that the powers that be are on high alert, at least at the time that someone could run and win just because he had popular support was a very encouraging sign.
So that’s one thing. You can say 2016’s America passed the democracy stress test. But then you have to look at how the presidency played out and how the opposition not only didn’t stop when Trump was elected, but in fact intensified. It’s true that Trump sort of let his guard down and governed fairly moderately, certainly not in the way that was commensurate with the stakes involved as reflected in the election. But still, the fact that he wasn’t able to implement his agenda because of the strong opposition from all these powerful institutions was a very cynical lesson, which suggests it is precisely those institutions in the end that decide what can or cannot get done. And I think this is what drives some of the criticism directed at populism from the Right, which is certainly in part correct. I mean, populism is a tool, but it’s one tool among many, and it’s certainly not sufficient on its own. You do need a faction of the ruling class behind you in order to be effective in governance. You know, people conflate populism with just lowbrow, mass behavior, and these kinds of things. But it’s clearly necessary to also cultivate an elite, both cultural and intellectual, and capture the institutions that serve to reinforce your ideas once you get political power so you don’t have to find yourself again in this situation where you nominally have government, but functionally you’re kind of impotent.
That said, my sense is that the anti-democratic, elitist critique can also go a bit too far and become somewhat ridiculous. I mean, where is the critique? Is Trump “elite” or not? And so in so far as it’s adjacent to this approach, i.e. of quietly recapturing the institutions, infiltrating the elites without rocking the boat too much, etc. it can turn into a bit of a LARP, and transition into a kind of dangerous acquiescence, or “quietism” that provides comfort to people who are red-pilled but not based, if you know what I mean. To be “red-pilled” means you know the facts. But to be “based” means you’re a creature capable of withstanding the coordinated social pressures smothering you if you dare to challenge the system publicly and aggressively. Those are very different things. And so I think, while there’s some truth to this idea, it can also function as a rationalization for people who are constitutionally red-pilled but not based. Take the tech-bros. A lot of these tech people are very weak; they don’t have what it takes to confront the system. You saw this with Elon Musk trying to buy Twitter. He dipped his toes in the arena and then ran back with his tail between his legs and all his billions of dollars as soon as he realized what that entails. “I’m sorry guys, I am content to resume my role as glorified IT support for the Regime.” So yes, there’s value to the “elitist” message, but there’s also a danger and we should be careful in the way we promote it precisely because it’s so attractive to certain people who are essentially weak and just want to be reassured that there’s nothing wrong with inaction. And so that would be my chief objection to this critique. Although I fully acknowledge that there’s a lot of validity to it as well.
Mark Granza: So would you say Trump succeeded in so far as he made people reflect hard on the nature of power in America, and that that is the main utility of Populism?
Darren Beattie: To some degree. Again, I think populism needs to be understood as an instrument, just like anything else. Even if you take the critique that ultimately the masses can’t exercise power – which, I think, despite there are nuances to it, on some fundamental level it’s true and always has been true – it doesn’t mean that populism can’t be an effective instrument in challenging an existing and dominant faction of an elite. And furthermore, even if it was completely true, not all elites believe that. In fact, very few elites really do. Our elites are very sensitive to public opinion and public approval. If you think I’m wrong, just look at how conscientious American elites are when it comes to managing their public image. And so if someone commands influence over the masses, that itself is a currency that can translate into intra-elite dynamics. There are a lot of more complicated dynamics wrapped up in it, but yeah, I think there’s truth to the claim that a lot of Trump’s value was in his ability to expose the Regime for what it really is. The unfortunate part is that while he went into full war footing during the election, he didn’t push harder and instead retreated and governed like a moderate once in Office. For a long time, the Right and even the Trump administration had this idea that things will “just go back to normal” once they’d be in charge, and I think this is what contributed in some crucial ways to the dire situation we’re in right now with respect to a rogue national security state and the extreme asymmetry of power.
Mark Granza: In a very critical article for TakiMag writer David Cole seems to argue that the Democratic establishment fears DeSantis more than Trump, for the latter’s ability to actually implement an agenda as opposed to Trump’s, and that this might be the purpose behind the Jan. 6 Committee, i.e. an attempt to dare/entice Trump to run in 2024 because DeSantis might be the real threat. What do you make of that?
Darren Beattie: I think that’s really dumb, even by David Cole’s standards… Look, as I recently said on Steve Bannon, I am an extremely grateful beneficiary of DeSantis’ leadership here in Florida, so I want to answer this with respect to the Governor. I wish him all the best. And I think he could have a very bright political future. But this idea that DeSantis is the real guy now, and Trump is not, is kind of bizarre. And I think a lot of it is born out of legitimate frustration that stems from some of the circumstances that we’ve discussed, as well as pure bitterness in the case of particular individuals that I won’t name. But let’s just look at this idea. It’s a very weird claim that the Jan. 6 committee is some sort of chess move designed to rile up Trump so that he wins instead of the real danger, DeSantis. I mean, if they really wanted Trump to run and win, why does it seem like they’re doing everything from day one to take him off the table? Why are they holding indictment over his head, threatening and daring him to run? Looking at it objectively, it’s pretty clear that the Regime wants to do everything in its power to prevent him from continuing to be a political force in America; they’ve pulled out all the stops to do so basically since the day before he was elected. Just to give a little context: look at the head of this Jan. 6 committee, Bennie Thompson. Thompson issued a personal lawsuit against Donald Trump. Now, the fact that he’s allowed to be the head of this committee when he filed a personal lawsuit that advanced a specific theory of January 6 would be considered a conflict of interest in a country that has a basic rule of law. But of course, that’s not the country we have. Still though, Bennie Thompson is clearly not the brains behind the lawsuit. The theory was concocted by this lawyer whose lawfare activity against Trump goes all the way back to the first days of his presidency, when Lawfare operatives were hounding him about violating the Emoluments Clause. So the Jan. 6 committee, at least in relation to Trump and its broader significance, is clearly a pretext to re-orient the entire national security apparatus against the American people, and more specifically Trump, which itself is a direct extension of the impeachment process. To suggest otherwise is ridiculous.
Mark Granza: Should Trump run in 2024?
Darren Beattie: I think yes. For all his faults, unlike DeSantis, he has already developed a movement. He has loyal followers. He can go and fill up a stadium of 30,000 extremely dedicated people and have them hang on every word of his. Now there are some downsides to that. To be attached to a particular individual like that it’s an obvious downside of populism. But that’s just basic human nature. All these people who think there’s some strict ideological underpinning beneath Trump the man, and that we can extract it and make it a little softer, more palatable, thus move beyond Trump, fail to understand that most of his voters are attached to him as a person. And that’s just a fact of political psychology. The “cult of personality” around Trump supersedes any kind of ideological allegiances on the part of the populace. So this notion of “Trumpism without Trump” is only possible if you have someone that can replicate the charisma and build a movement as he has. That’s what the job requires: more than just someone willing to get up on stage and lay out the plan reading from a little policy paper. And without taking anything away from DeSantis, who is awesome, Trump has already done that. We don’t know if DeSantis would be able to implement his policies at a national level, nor how he would function if you put him in a position with the same stakes and coordinated pressures as the 2016 election. That takes a very specific type of skills.
Mark Granza: As Auron MacIntyre recently said to me, “I’d rather have 10 Governor DeSantis rather than 1 President DeSantis.”
Darren Beattie: Absolutely… And again, to some degree, much of this attitude is adjacent to the problem of “quietly infiltrating the elites.” This desire for “Trumpism after Trump” is just a product of people’s constitutional weakness and inability to accept the pain boxes associated with actually challenging the system. They think that if we’d only keep the policies and communicate them in a nicer way, then maybe they wouldn’t be canceled, or have the FBI knocking down on their door, or be called a “racist”. I really think that’s a significant part of this impulse. And to the extent that that’s true, it’s a fool’s errand, because it makes you think you can challenge the Regime without paying the price. But there’s no getting around the pain box. If you’re challenging the Regime, you are going to face the storm.
Mark Granza: I’d like to move on to a different subject. In a podcast with Charlie Kirk you posited that much of the US regime’s foreign policy is actually a way to control politics at home. Can you expand on that?
Darren Beattie: I don’t remember the exact interview, but I think I know what you mean… It’s not that we use foreign policy to control domestic policy. I’d say that the same mechanism of power is deployed domestically as we do in foreign policy. The larger context of this claim is a sort of interpretation of – for lack of a better term – “woke politics”. This idea that Wokeness is just a kind of smokescreen for the Regime embraced disingenuously in order to distract us from working-class issues, etc., is wrong. This theory radically underestimates the extent to which Wokeness is fundamentally integrated into the basic structure and functioning of the American regime at this point. Before Revolver News gained national attention and notoriety for our coverage on January 6th, we were known mostly for our coverage of this concept called “color revolution”, in the context of certain dynamics occurring in the lead-up to the 2020 election. What is the color revolution in a nutshell? It’s basically a combination of mass mobilization. So you’re mobilizing people to the streets. You are exploiting preexisting cleavages, either ethnic or religious or so forth, and using that as a motivating basis to get people to protest, using dominance over the media and dissemination of media narratives in order to facilitate that.
Now, this is a core feature of how the United States translates its soft power into geopolitical preeminence overseas. Ever since the Iraq war, there has been a really low level of popular support for anything resembling a boots-on-the-ground war, which even further goes to privilege this alternative method of regime change and projecting influence. And this is usually done by NGOs that we plant throughout the world, pushing feminism, human rights, and all these kinds of things. Feminism especially is very central to all these color revolutions. If you look at the protests in Eastern Europe, such as in Belarus, or punk groups like the Pussy Riot in Russia, or even Afghanistan, women are always mobilized on the basis of women’s rights. They identify whatever the preexisting cleavages are and exploit and exacerbate those cleavages in order to create political pressure to undermine our rivals. And of course this method is not just useful overseas. It’s ultimately the same method that’s used over here at home. In the US, these cleavages are principally race and gender, and now with this weird addition of the transgender stuff. But the mechanism is basically the same.
Mark Granza: I think in that specific instance you were referring to Nina Jankowicz from the Governance Disinformation Board and her previous employment in the Ukrainian government, and how for instance much of the hatred directed towards Putin today is not really about helping Ukraine but about justifying control of information at home.
Darren Beattie: Yes, well, there is that dimension to it as well. It used to be that you could implicitly threaten complete social ostracism by accusing someone to be a “racist”, or a “white supremacist”, but at some point that wasn’t good enough. So now they add the national security threat on top. “You’re a disinformation agent” means you get filed under a specific national security category which justifies the full weight and force of the national security apparatus to shut you up. And this definitely intensified in the Trump era. Partly it has to do with the specific threat that the intelligence community perceived by the Trump phenomenon, as well as a product of just the kind of chronological semi-proximity of the invasion of Crimea. Then Brexit, etc. All these things happening within a certain timeframe and threatening the authority of the Regime made these organizations conflate them as one single thing, in this case, Russia, Russia, Russia. So yeah, ultimately what we’re seeing is the reclassification of disfavored speech from terms of extreme social and professional significance like ‘white nationalist’, ‘racism’, and so forth, to things of a national security significance, which indeed invites new mechanisms of control on the part of the government and its various subsidiaries.
Mark Granza: The recent FBI raid at Mar-a-Lago marks a stunning escalation of the politicization of federal law enforcement and an unprecedented departure from the norms of American democracy. Can States act as a check on potential abuses of federal police power?
Darren Beattie: I’m very skeptical. I think states should be flexing their power in other ways. We recently published a piece for instance which argued that Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s bill proposing to criminalize medical professionals who perform various gender surgeries on children probably can’t pass in the current Congress. But similar types of bills could pass in states controlled by Republican legislature, such as Gov. DeSantis has done here in Florida. And there’s no reason why they shouldn’t do that. So I think there’s a whole host of areas that states with Republican legislators should be flexing their muscles a little bit more. But when it comes to the showdown between federal authorities and state authorities, that’s something that I ultimately can’t really envision, given how integrated the whole thing is in the first place. Nor do I think it would really turn out too well if anyone were to attempt it.
Mark Granza: Are you optimistic about the future of the country?
Darren Beattie: No, I must say I’m not optimistic about the future of the country. But that doesn’t mean I’m a pessimist, you know. Countries come and go. This notion that people should pledge allegiance and remain in perpetuity loyal and sacrifice all sorts of things to the United States of America as this coherent unit, is a kind of false dichotomy. I think there are other ways people can find meaning and exercise power. Nations and empires come and go and the United States is no exception to that. There’s really no question that the country is in a profound decline. But out of that decline, I think great things can be created. If only we’d manage to successfully navigate these conditions better structures for the future could potentially emerge. You know, I like to say that ‘blackpill’ and ‘cope’ are two sides of the same coin. And I think the trick is to navigate that very thin edge so that you’re developing a sort of ‘Pessimism of Strength’, to use a Nietzschean term, and learn to avoid the devil of cope on one shoulder and the devil of blackpill on the other.