What is your current position?
For most of the last 15 years, I’ve been working somewhere at the intersection of policy, politics and political affairs when it comes to issues of US national security, especially focused on the Middle East. I am the president of Strategic Improvisation, a communications company focused on developing and executing impactful and flexible strategies for a variety of clients in the national security world. I take clients who are pro-America, are sympathetic to the conservative or nationalist point of view and, often, are strong opponents of Islamism.
What inspired you to choose this career path?
The terror attacks of 9/11 inspired me to find out what the enemy was thinking. I had a feeling that projecting our biases and ways of seeing the world onto our enemy would be useless in either understanding or defeating him. So I became very interested in Islamic doctrine, and the intellectual motivations that could spur thousands and potentially millions of people to act against America’s interests in a predictable way. What made things especially difficult was an elite resistance to grappling with any of these issues. Along the way I met Andrew Breitbart, who was working on ways to bypass the communications impasse we’d found ourselves in with the mainstream media. In many ways, he succeeded beyond his expectations, and the political communications environment has changed many times pretty quickly since then.
What is your fondest memory of the Claremont Institute? There are all sorts of educational programs out there for current and rising conservative professionals. What do you think makes the Claremont Institute’s Fellowships unique?
It’s ongoing! The Claremont events are wonderful, thought-provoking and educational, including the Lincoln Fellowship and the regular get-togethers in Washington. But most of all, though, Claremont has the importance of building real friendships based on a sense of shared values and intellectual pursuits. It’s a great group, and I’m constantly proud to be associated with it.
What do you believe is the United States’ weakest link when it comes to national security?
America’s weakest national security link is our disunity. We’re no longer in agreement about the most fundamental questions underpinning the regime—including who we see as allies and who we consider adversaries on the world stage. While there was always an insistent and vocal part of the American Left that agitated for our enemies during the Cold War, the mainstream debate consisted of how best to deal with the Soviet Union as an evil rival. You’d have to travel out to Berkeley or into socialist bookstore co-ops in urban areas to find people who held bake fairs for the Sandinistas or praised Mao in coffee shops. A lot has changed since, and you’re now able to recognize the attitudes of university sociology and grievance studies departments in small town America’s classrooms. A substantial minority (or greater?) believes the nation’s founding was unjust and criminal. More importantly, that view has the endorsement of all of the country’s elite institutions, from media to education to culture to the administrative state bureaucracy. I don’t think another nation in history has been so thoroughly despised by its own elite class. Now, because these are our society’s elites, they have the power to change the character of the country, to finally wrest it from both the traditions of its founding and the citizens who still believe in those traditions. And they’ve largely done that; they’re just now trying to neutralize the last holdouts. That struggle is the disunity we’re seeing.
What are the defining differences and similarities, as you see them, between the United States and Europe?
I was well prepared for profound political change by 2016, though it took me a little longer to recognize Donald Trump as the avatar for that change. The attitudes and concerns of the average Republican voter were no longer recognizable in the Republican political or commentariat class. More than that, it was clear that that establishment class held these attitudes and concerns in total contempt and would fight with eagerness alongside the Left to crush them when they appeared. It’s a dynamic that’s well articulated in one of the essential books for understanding our time, Caldwell’s Reflections on the Revolution in Europe. For Americans, the traditional use for Europe is as a vacation destination, a grave of aesthetic tradition to loot (and then discard), and political cautionary tale—all pretty useful and worthwhile things, if you think about it. For our present political concerns, and in very broad strokes, we understand well that most terrible ideas have come from Europe. In the last century, it was the jackboot of an all-powerful modern state that seeped across the ocean from the continent. In this century, it’s a deep sense of civilizational and cultural self-loathing. Caldwell’s focus is, rightly, on Europe’s experience with mass immigration, and how that self-loathing both led to the destructive policies themselves, as well as altered the permissible public or political discourse in the host nations. In these respects, Europe is always only just half a step ahead of the American experience.
What qualities will make outstanding statesmen/women in this century?
There’s an essential question many friends and I ask, when discussing a potential ally: “Does he know what time it is?” That is, does one have the ability to be unsentimental and realistic in assessing our current situation. Does he understand the predicament we’re in, with a left that’s already marched through the institutions? Does he accept the impossibility or the extreme unlikelihood of “returning” to anything resembling even the America of the 1990s? I think that grappling with these questions is a prerequisite for more than leadership, going forward; it really should be the minimum of what makes someone a political voice worth hearing at this point. The most cutting passage of Michael Anton’s Flight 93 essay was about the threat perception capabilities of the conservative establishment. If America could afford to continue on, drifting ever-leftward, and farther away from the nation as founded, and never pass a point of no return, is conservatism even true? If they were not capable of or unwilling to wrap their heads around that problem, what do we need them for? They hated the essay’s smart, fulsome endorsement of Donald Trump, but what really made them crazy was Anton’s diagnosis. He told them that—for reasons of stale ideology, lack of imagination, habit, or corruption—they had no idea what time it was. A few pundits and thinkers have started to grapple with these things, but most of the establishment commentariat still finds these questions too horrific to consider. As far as statesmen who’re hip to looking at the clock, we’ll have to wait for a few of them to emerge.
What do you think has been the major contributor to the demise of political civility? What do you think has been the major contributor to the redefinition of our culture in the 21st century?
Many of my friends and colleagues would, I’m certain, be quick to blame the Left. Some would say the New Left; others would offer the first generation of Progressives as the ultimate culprits. And they’re not wrong. There’s always someone there who’s actually doing the unwinding, but that it would unwind was inescapable. I believe that civilizations exhaust themselves when they no longer understand what made them unique and worthy in the first place, and I think it’s an inevitable phenomenon. With Modernity eventually comes the demystification of traditions, the rebellion against traditional morality, and the replacement of revealed religions with other things based in materialism. Many have said that regimes eventually crumble through fetishization of their basic, foundational principle. There’s no question that America’s obsession with the constant redefinition of “equality” has led us to where we’ve undermined the justness of the regime for a large number of Americans. When this is the case, and the intellectual guardrails of reason are taken off, it becomes possible, even laudable, to assault your fellow countrymen with the most horrible calumnies. What seems to work rhetorically and politically—like cynically screaming, “racist!” in order to boost voter turnout—gets repeated.
What do you think is the most difficult challenge a Communications Director faces in terms of conservative political messaging?
The first thing you have to say to yourself is, “no, I’m not a loser”—If the task you set out for yourself is to convince a mainstream media reporter to run with your narrative that will strike a blow against a politician or cause on the left, give it up and find another line of work. The extent of hyper-partisanship and ideological commitment in the mainstream press corps reveals itself every day, and it is total. Not so long ago, even a left-wing reporter or editor would recognize a good scoop or an interesting story and run with it. Today, there’s enormous peer pressure from the guild to squash anything that would trouble the left’s narrative. The turning point came, I believe, in 2009 with Glenn Beck’s story about then Green Jobs Czar Van Jones. Amid the uproar over Jones’ appointment, the Obama administration blinked, and let Jones go. They instantly regretted it and resolved never to toss one of their people overboard again—if the demands came from the Right. The media, then, also recognized its role in amplifying the Jones furor and resolved never to give oxygen to controversies or stories originating from right-leaning media again. They’ve been remarkably disciplined about this over the past decade, and it’s not going to change now. There are two basic ways around this problem: (1) to micro-target to specific audiences, using rhetoric they’re familiar with; or (2) somehow trick the mainstream media into reporting something they’re determined to ignore—often by allowing your client to bleed out a little bit in public. Often your clients find that this second solution is not ideal.
What is the most distinctive attribute/character of the people in the state where you grew up that you genuinely admire?
I grew up in North Jersey, which was very much Soprano-Land. When I was a kid, we had a neighbor whose house kept getting burned down; I learned what “arson” was long before kids in other states got the chance. In many ways, though, it was an ideal suburban childhood setting. I grew up in a large, tight-knit community of very patriotic Hungarian Jewish immigrants. Everyone’s parents, like mine, were very keen to become Americans and take part in the common culture. What they were insistent on retaining was the secondary, in-house language, religion, food, and a sense of our own history. It never once seemed at odds with the larger American national identity, and for that experience I’ll forever be grateful.
What books are you currently reading?
Like most people I know, my eyes for buying books are too big for either my attention span or the amount of free time I’ve got. So naturally, there’s a growing stack in every room. Before the virus panic, I’d grabbed most of the books about Bossa Nova and Brazilian music written in English; of these, Caetano Veloso’s Tropical Truth is the most literate and interesting. Christopher Caldwell’s Age of Entitlement was also brilliant. Lately, I’ve had a lot of fun reading excellent new books my friends have written—from Michael Malice’s The New Right to Mollie Hemingway’s Justice on Trial or Lee Smith’s The Plot Against the President.
What book, film, or speech has left a lasting impression with you and why?
Closing of the American Mind is a marvelously written book that knocked me out, and still does. In many ways, it made me see more clearly the intellectual journey I was already taking. The lights were turned on, suddenly, and I could see a path before me—not really the destination, but all the fascinating things along the way that fill the imagination and make the journey engaging and wonderful. Orson Welles’ F for Fake is an avant-garde marvel, though I can understand how such a description would scare most people away. But it’s so much more than a very, very watchable film, executed with mindboggling virtuosity; it’s a cinematic meditation on expertise and truth and beauty. It’s also devilishly funny and summarizes the Magyar condition expertly. “Hungarian is not a nationality,” pronounces the film’s primary subject, famous art forger Elmyr de Hory, “it is a profession.” To which Welles adds, “The truth about Hungarians, which they do try to cover up, is that they are not any more crooked than the rest of us.”
Do you see any similarities between the world of jazz improvisation and the world of politics?
First, the big difference: I’ve yet to be knocked out or overwhelmed by the stunning beauty of the world of politics. That said, I’ve always seen these two worlds as very similar. There’s inevitability and perfection in a well-executed communications campaign that—very much like jazz—involves a perilous tightrope walk into the unknown, with only a given set of materials and your wits to keep you from disaster. In music, too, as in verbal communications, the intervals or patterns we find pleasant are ones we’ve heard many times before. Imagine, for example, that the only music you’ve ever heard is composed with the C major scale. The first time you’d hear G minor would be a rude awakening. Once we hear new intervals, they can seem sour or unpleasant until we allow our ears and brains can make sense of them. Political messaging and the Overton Window isn’t that different.
There’s a technique developed by the saxophonist Ornette Coleman that was given a name by an old friend, pianist Paul Bley, called the “erasure phrase.” It’s a phrase—a little like a musical or sonic spasm—that an improviser uses to reset the ear to hear a different key going forward. It actually works brilliantly, and it’s a reminder that your aesthetic memory isn’t really that long. It only takes a moment to change perception, and a new one can be substituted almost instantly. Yes, applying this to politics from the position of a practitioner seems awfully cynical. And it is. But we should be able to agree on phenomena that certainly exist in the world of political communications and, at the very least, be able to notice them when they happen.
What is your favorite cultural/recreational pastime (or hobby) and why?
Since I entered college, jazz was my life. What began, for me, as mood music deepened into an obsession with the sound, the musical form and the tradition. Not everything, as they say, rewards repeated listening. But I was fascinated by some musicians’ capacity for spontaneous, improvised creation based on an agreed-upon framework. Later, the absence of that framework proved to be just as interesting. Creating a unique musical universe or language is rather difficult, if you think about it—complete with its own grammar, vocabulary, emotional sensibility and way of relating to other sounds and musical personalities. Countless musicians have had the ability to operate at this level of technical and creative genius, and it’s always a marvel to behold.