Dave Rubin Is Not a Bold Truth-Teller

Dave Rubin prides himself on challenging dogmas and slaying sacred cows. But his constant invocations of "reason and logic" can't hide the fact that he trots out the same tired, intellectually lazy anecdotes about triggered college students — and that he refuses to actually debate living, breathing leftists.

Dave Rubin at the 2018 Student Action Summit hosted by Turning Point USA at the Palm Beach County Convention Center in West Palm Beach, Florida. George Skidmore / Wikimedia

Dave Rubin is one of the great contemporary proponents of reasoned debate and free speech, ensuring every side of the argument, from libertarianism to the alt-right, has its day in the marketplace of ideas. On his popular YouTube show, you’ll hear topics ranging from why the Left hates free speech to why the Left hates people who protect free speech, alongside more racy issues like the virtues of nationalism, the dangers of Islamic immigration, and why Richard Spencer isn’t really a racist.

Rubin, as he never tires of reminding viewers, was once on a very different quadrant of the political spectrum. He got his break interning with Jon Stewart before transitioning to the progressive Young Turks network, where he got his own show, The Rubin Report, in 2013. Accounts differ, but according to Rubin he became disenchanted with the political left due to its emphasis on the victimization of group identities, hostility towards free speech, and unwillingness to engage in cordial debate with opponents. He left the Young Turks and had a brief stint at Ora TV before opting to run The Rubin Report independently in 2016. The venture turned out to be quite successful: Rubin’s YouTube channel now boasts over a million subscribers, and his videos have hundreds of millions of views.

Since getting started, Rubin has garnered (justifiable) criticism for granting far-right figures a forum and presenting their ideas in a charitable light. Along with right-wing figures like Jordan Peterson, Ben Shapiro, and Dennis Prager, Rubin has hosted far-right misanthropes like Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux. He has been labeled everything from alt-right to an apologist for fascism.

All this controversy belies the fact that The Rubin Report, while insidious, is a rather predictable, intellectually incurious show. Though the occasional centrist like Andrew Yang appears, the vast majority of Rubin’s guests are on the Right and trot out the same hackneyed anecdotes about triggered college students. Rubin isn’t so much a crusading truth-seeker as a head-nodding cipher — the empty signifier through which repetitive talking points get a politically correct makeover for millennial conservatives.

The Unbearable Lightness of Rubin’s Logic

The typical episode of The Rubin Report finds Rubin interviewing a right-wing pundit or reformed “leftist” for about forty-five minutes, during which the pair go back and forth about the insanities of social justice activism and progressive politics. Inevitably, Rubin and his guest then congratulate themselves for having the courage to stand up to the university professors and Twitter Mafioso, while making a few plugs for their respective shows and products.

Even Rubin’s interviews with more controversial alt-right figures like Southern or Molyneux, who hold truly noxious views about race and Islam (both warn of whites disappearing and Muslims replacing Europeans), are marked by a strangely quietist banality. Rubin never presses them on the more reactionary edges of their belief systems, and often nods along while offering up questions so easy a child could bat them out of the park. Probably the most brazen example was his complete unwillingness to push Southern on the emergence of fascist viewpoints in the United States, largely taking her word that hardly anyone on the far right is an actual Nazi who supports reactionary policies. This despite evidence that a considerable number of Americans hold dangerously far-right views.

Since leaving the Left, Rubin has consistently cast himself as an anti-ideologue, a classical liberal who holds an eclectic mélange of liberal and conservative views. The point of The Rubin Report, he maintains, is to buck contemporary trends and present non-dogmatic conservations about politics using “logic and reason.” As he puts it in the show description:

The Rubin Report is the largest talk show about free speech and big ideas on YouTube. Each week Dave Rubin uses logic and reason to have honest conversations about politics, polarizing issues, current events, and more. Dave goes one on one with thought leaders, authors, and comedians in ‘The Sit Down,’ moderates opposing voices in ‘The Panel,’ and gives his unfiltered thoughts in ‘Direct Message.

On the surface there is little to object to here: who could possibly be opposed to using reason and logic to discuss current events? But with Rubin, the constant invocation of logic and reason stands in for the actual practice of those ideals.

For starters, what constitutes reasonable and logical positions are never really defined, and they shift depending on whom Rubin is interviewing. One of the fascinating things about watching The Rubin Report is witnessing how readily he will agree with various right-wing viewpoints, as long as they parrot the correct platitudes about the dangers of the Left and social justice activism.

To give just a few examples: Rubin has agreed that sometimes reason and logic are simply the “common sense” views that most people hold, but are afraid to express because leftist agitators supposedly refuse to give them a hearing. At other points he’s adopted a more elitist line ala Ayn Rand, suggesting reason and logic are in scarce supply. And at still others, Rubin has said he’s onboard with totally reasonable ideas like banning Muslims from entering the country.

All of these positions draw from very different strands of right-wing thought, many of which are mutually incompatible. One cannot both support the “common sense” views of the demos and the elitist fantasies of Rand’s objectivism (where ordinary citizens are mere “second handers” to capitalist geniuses); one cannot claim to be a libertarian or classical liberal while advocating state-sanctioned prejudice against a religion of billions. Rubin never deigns to defend this patent inconsistency and opacity — ironically, making a mockery of a long debate in Western philosophy that attempts to pin down the meaning of these concepts with greater analytical precision.

Rubin’s opportunistic deployment of “reason and logic” is a common tactic these days on the Right. As Ben Burgis has noted, the affirmation of “logic and reason” is used less as a rigorous analytical tool than as a cudgel against opponents. Rubin might fancy himself an heir to the Socratic tradition, his comfy garage studio a modern-day Athenian agora, but the level of discussion on his program falls well short of any lofty conceits.

There is one point on which Rubin has been consistent: he’s steadfastly refused to invite any actual leftists onto his show. Despite Rubin’s insistence that he wants to engage in an honest debate about political issues, what we get instead is an interminable rotation of guests who all recycle the same canards about social justice warriors, political correctness, and free speech (with the occasional economic theory and xenophobia thrown in to spice things up).

Of course, the views of left critics can and should be presented. No ideology or opinion is above criticism. But Rubin’s pretensions to be balanced are entirely fanciful. By excluding living, breathing leftists, his show is simply serves as an exercise in confirmation bias — convincing his audience that all sensible dimensions of a given discussion have been covered and there is no need to grapple with left-wing arguments since they are either too radical, too unreasonable, or too at odds with common sense.

Dave Rubin and the Reactionary Mind

As much as Rubin omits left viewpoints, there is a perverse sense in which the Left is central to his show (though naturally in a highly skewed form). Corey Robin has observed that one of the characteristics of “the reactionary mind” is the lack of a firm, principled position other than antipathy for the Left. The reactionary isn’t so much defined by his commitment to a set of beliefs about how society should be organized as much as an affective revulsion at any efforts to upset supposedly timeless hierarchies.

This fits Rubin to a T. Unwilling to present the opinions of genuine leftists, Rubin instead gloms on to any interlocutor willing to pillory the progressive bogeyman. A pastiche-like collection of vaguely defined opinions, Rubin’s worldview is one born entirely of opposition to progressive politics. In this sense, Rubin is what I’ve called a “post-modern conservative”: neither a classical liberal nor a libertarian or nationalist, but rather a partisan of whatever ideas seem inimical to the Left. To the extent this approach is ever justified it is through appealing to the dangers and evils of progressivism and the need to do whatever it takes to guard against its nefarious influence.

This makes The Rubin Report, for all its dry, slanted content, an interesting social phenomenon. Rubin has managed to elevate posturing as a rational moderator while avoiding serious debates with intelligent opponents into a reactionary art form. He’s been able to get away with this because there is a serious desire on the Right to avoid staring into the abyss of its own inconsistencies by boxing with the shadows of its opponents.

The result might not be a challenge to the powerful dogmas that dominate our economic and political life. But that was never the point.