Sitting in the Heritage Foundation’s Lehrman Auditorium, where David Horowitz is about to give a speech promoting the newly released first book of his upcoming 10-volume collection of writings, The Black Book of the American Left, I am wholly prepared for the possibility that our planned post-program interview will degenerate into a shouting match.
Horowitz has done it before. The editor of FrontPage Magazine has been on camera more than a dozen times yelling at college kids, radicals, academics, liberals — anybody who disagrees with him, really. I’m ready for the worst, and so, it seems, are Horowitz’s compatriots. “I’ve been told by our guest we have an audience full of troublemakers,” says the introductory speaker, John Hilboldt, director of Heritage’s lecture program, before glaring at the people in the front row, where I am sitting.
My concerns about the potential for explosive disagreements aside, I’m a little torn about interviewing Horowitz at all, for fear of giving a broader platform to his politics. In recent years, Horowitz has viciously smeared Muslims, taken to comparing Palestinians to Nazis and led a well-publicized witchhunt against American academia. His 2006 book The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America named dozens of university professors guilty of no crime, it seems, other than offending David Horowitz.
While his standing among neoconservatives has arguably declined in recent years, many of them continue to regard Horowitz as an authoritative voice on the political influence of the far Left. I’ll also confess to being mildly fascinated by him for historical reasons. Though his professional career as an ex-leftist is now twice as long as the amount of time he actually spent on the Left, Horowitz remains a living connection to the Left of the late 1960s and early 1970s, including the anti-war movement, the ascendant anti-Stalinists and the Black Panthers. From 1969 to 1973, he was also the editor of Ramparts, the glossy, well-circulated magazine emblematic of the American New Left, the sort of publication where one could find a review of the Rolling Stones’ fateful November 1969 tour alongside a critique of post-revolutionary Cuba.
And as it turns out, my fears of getting verbally assaulted by Horowitz are far overblown. One on one, Horowitz is disarmingly friendly, seems genuinely curious about my own background and gives me much more time than I had planned.
After Horowitz’s speech, a riff upon his usual argument that most self-described liberals in the U.S. are basically radical leftists in disguise, a car takes the two of us from the Heritage Foundation to the so-called “Breitbart Embassy,” the Capitol Hill home of the late conservative media mogul. The federal-style row house, replete with Americana-themed paintings and royal blue rugs adorned with white stars, now serves as a sometimes headquarters for the Washington correspondents of Breitbart.com. As the website’s writers type away at the dining room table, we go to a room in the back of the house to resume our conversation.
I ask Horowitz if he recalls being a founding sponsor of In These Times in 1976.
“I did it for Jimmy,” he says, referring to the magazine’s founder and longtime publisher James Weinstein, who also founded the journal Socialist Revolution. “I said, ‘I’m gonna regret this one day,’ but you know, it was a tug of war between ‘I’m gonna regret this’ and then there was my friendship with Jimmy.”
He then segues into what will become a common theme of our conversation: his disenchantment with the Left. “I was coming undone,” he says of that period in his life. “I understood there was something very wrong with my worldview.”
Horowitz’s ideological about-face stems from a combination of political disillusionment and personal tragedy. In December 1974, around the same time that he was evaluating his comrades’ so-called inability for critical self-evaluation, his friend Betty Van Patter was murdered — by the Black Panthers, he alleges. After that, he says, he couldn’t ally himself with the cause of the revolutionary Left any longer.
Similarly, there seem to be two sides to Horowitz: the person who regards himself as something of an intellectual, and the no-shits-giving flame-thrower who will do anything to score a point against his opponents. He weaves in and out of both characters, referencing Leszek Kolakowski and Ludwig von Mises at one moment, and then George Soros and Al Sharpton the next.
When I ask him if he really thinks Obama is a Marxist, for example, or that the Democratic Party is dominated by communists and the Service Employees International Union is a “communist union” — all claims he’s made before — he acknowledges that he doesn’t mean any of that literally.
“I encapsulate one mentality under ‘communist’ even though that doesn’t mean that they supported Stalin or that they’re members of the party or that they believe in the dictatorship of the proletariat,” he says. “If you don’t understand that economic redistribution is a threat to individual freedom, then you won’t see that. You are on that Left. I call that a communist mentality.”
This goes hand in hand with his generally sloppy narrative of the Democratic Party. For all of his insistence on a decades-long radical infiltration that began with George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign, the “communist mentality,” as far as Horowitz is concerned, appears to have stricken various politicians and thinkers in an ahistorical fashion. Bill Clinton was a centrist, Horowitz concedes — but Hillary, on the other hand, is a radical ideologue. Some people happen to catch the Marxist malady, others don’t. When I press him to better explain why he calls certain Democratic political figures communists when they so plainly aren’t, the lines between Horowitz the performer and Horowitz the thinker start to blur.
“You know it’s like the Big Gulp syndrome,” he says, referring to former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed ban on sodas larger than 16 ounces earlier this year. “Here’s a guy Bloomberg, he thinks of himself as a Republican, but he’s got this mentality that he knows what’s fucking best for people. Right down to the Big Gulp.”
“So Bloomberg has been infiltrated by the communist mentality?” I ask.
“If you just want to caricature and make fun of me, go ahead, you’re a writer. You’re like God in your little paper,” he scoffs. “You can do whatever you want. But I’m telling you, from a lifetime of experience — basically people on the Left think ordinary people are stupid and have to be guided and controlled.”
Like a born-again Christian explaining the process of his conversion to a non-believer, Horowitz suggests that I can’t really ever get any of this until I see the light for myself.
“I can see through leftist eyes, I understand how the Left sees. But you can’t yet see through conservative eyes,” Horowitz tells me. “You are in a hermetically sealed universe.”
Horowitz acknowledges that he adds some rhetorical flair to his speeches, which necessarily means some glossing over of the complexities of the American Left. “If you read my books, you will not find the kind of speech I made today,” he says, nodding perhaps to his talk’s assertions that “Obama was born and trained in the communist Left,” Benghazi is the “most shameful act in the history of the American presidency” and that “we are in within reach of a totalitarian state in this country.”
I ask what he means by this.
“The speech I made today was a risky speech and you’re gonna make me pay for it. Because it’s easily misinterpreted. But in the books I wrote, even The Professors, I quoted what they said. I didn’t label people. I didn’t call people names.” This is, needless to say, an extraordinary claim about a book that calls a former president of the American Historical Association “an apologist for American communism” while wrongly attributing a quote to him.
I ask if he’s disappointed at all by the kind of audience he drew today. He spent much of the question-and-answer portion of the talk defending his critique of historian Diana West’s recent work, American Betrayal: The Secret Assault on Our Nation’s Character. The book alleges that the FDR administration protected deeply embedded Soviet agents who helped shape U.S. World War II policy. (Horowitz says that many of the book’s claims are unsubstantiated.) He also fielded a question about whether billionaire George Soros is planning a constitutional convention, presumably in order to overthrow the existing United States government.
He acknowledges the barrage of questions from the West loyalists bothered him. But he seems to recognize that this sort of sparring comes with the job. As part of his self-described “monomaniacal” focus on unmasking the Left, Horowitz often values bombastic rhetoric over intellectual coherence — a calculation that’s bound to attract leftwing-conspiracy-minded fellow travellers. Sure, they may disagree with Horowitz on occasion. But one gets the sense that these are the types most attracted to his crusade these days (Horowitz calls his think tank, the David Horowitz Freedom Center, a “battle tank.”) It’s the sort of crowd that’s as angry with the GOP capitulating over the government shutdown as it is with the “socialist” in the White House.
“There’s a task here. Conservatives, believe it or not, are so fucking well-mannered,” he says. “I’m trying to change that and I don’t know any other way to do it except to get them to see this is a war and this [leftist] enemy is totalitarian.”
Things take a fatalistic turn toward the end of our conversation, as we discuss President Obama’s legacy.
“There’s no politicians that don’t disappoint in the end,” he says. “It’s human nature. It’s so easy to lie and get away with it. How can Obama let those guys die in Benghazi? How can Hilary do that? And they’re getting fucking away with it.”
“I spend most of my time with my animals because I’ve come to the point in life where people are just so fucked up,” he continues. “I mean there are good people, and obviously I have a lot of friends and so forth, but animals don’t betray you and they don’t make you gloomy.”
Soon after this, one of his aides comes in and says it’s time to go. Horowitz has a meeting scheduled with Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin. Maybe Johnson will be a little less “fucking well-mannered” by the time Horowitz is done with him.