Why you should care
Because the a-religious right is on the rise.
“It’s interesting: I’m a lifelong lefty,” begins Dave Rubin, a former Daily Show intern and Big Apple comedian who, in the early 2000s, ran a clandestine talk show from NBC Studios for an entire year before getting caught. Now, though, the 43-year-old is staging a much different sort of insurrection — one that is roiling both traditional media and establishment politics.
After gaining some fame as a Young Turks host advocating for gay marriage and marijuana legalization, Rubin soured on the progressive left. Describing himself as a “classical liberal” who agrees with conservatives on lower taxation and protecting free speech, Rubin left New York for Los Angeles in 2013. He is a frequent speaker at Turning Point USA events and runs with the self-proclaimed “Intellectual Dark Web,” a crowd of disaffected liberal academics and commentators without a political home whose major shared belief is a disdain for left-leaning rhetoric and activism.
Which makes it all the more surprising that his YouTube show, The Rubin Report, has become a campaign pit stop for a host of Democratic candidates vying for the presidency, including Andrew Yang, the entrepreneur now polling sixth nationwide; Marianne Williamson (who has now jumped out of the race) and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard. “I have never once gone into an interview with an agenda other than getting to know that person,” Rubin says. “I treat them with the same respect I would treat any guest: right, left, center.”
They had reason to believe his show could boost their electoral hopes. The show has hosted big names (mostly from GOP circles) such as Donald Trump Jr., FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and Tucker Carlson. The conservative convert Candace Owens was launched into the stratosphere after appearing on Rubin’s show last year (the video reached 2.5 million people, and the president was soon tweeting her). The Rubin Report boasts more than a million subscribers, with more than 234 million views since it was created in 2012. And it is part of a wave of longer-format interviews that allow listeners to get past the sound bites and into the heads of key political players. “This is a credentializing mechanism. Joe Rogan is king of the Hill right now … but Rubin is in that category right below Rogan,” says Peter Boghossian, a Portland State philosophy professor and fellow member of the Intellectual Dark Web who has appeared on the show before.
We live in very strange times, where now sitting down with someone is ‘dangerous.’
Pete Buttigieg was also in talks to appear on the show, Rubin says, until canceling amid online backlash (the campaign did not respond to our requests for comment). “I would have had a great discussion with that guy. Not only about politics, but how often do you get two openly gay, married guys, talking about their lives, similarities, differences? We live in very strange times, where now sitting down with someone is ‘dangerous.'”
Indeed, the Jewish Brooklyn native is routinely called a member of the “far” or “reactionary” right, and, as one Canadian critic put it, a “significant part of a radicalization process ushering people into the neo-Nazi movement.”
After reading such critiques, listening to one of his shows can be jarring — for his lack of partisan fervor. Tucker Carlson, this is not. A typical episode includes an almost professorial Rubin sitting for an hours-long discussion with his guest in his Los Angeles studio. That style has earned praise from the likes of legendary broadcaster Larry King, whose Ora TV aired The Rubin Report in 2015 before Rubin chose to go independent. “Dave Rubin is one of a kind,” King says. “A truly great interviewer. Bright, curious and funny.”
Rubin occupies “a necessary space in the long-form interview space, particularly by calling for not just economic or social liberty, but cognitive liberty,” says Boghossian: essentially, the right to think freely.
Rubin extends that liberty — and his large platform — to some dark places, often playing soft with extremist guests while adopting a shared “us vs. them” attitude toward the left. He has invited Mike Cernovich, who promoted the debunked Pizzagate conspiracy theory alleging that top Democrats ran a child sex ring out of a Washington, D.C., pizza shop, and Canadian white nationalist Lauren Southern on his show. When interviewing controversial Canadian podcaster Stefan Molyneux, Rubin did not substantively challenge Molyneux’s views that different races are genetically predisposed to having lower IQs.
Rubin admitted in a later video that he “could have poked or prodded in another way,” but he said it was ultimately up to viewers to decide whether to accept or reject Molyneux’s points.
Despite those moments, Rubin’s viewership shows an appetite for a new type of a-religious libertarianism that could disrupt a Republican Party long closely tied to the religious right. (Though the numbers are growing faster for liberals, conservatives increasingly identify as having “no religion.”) Of his own claim to identity politics, Rubin says it doesn’t make him “worthy of extra credit” but does add that “there are a million gays who are now having a second coming-out,” as in, politically. While Rubin voted for libertarian Gary Johnson in 2016, he has not yet decided if he will back President Donald Trump in 2020.
Rubin’s influence is only growing. As conservative commentators have raised a ruckus over recent YouTube decisions to demonetize their platforms, Rubin is launching a new technology company and app as an alternative content-hosting platform. His show recently started airing over the conservative platform BlazeTV, and Penguin Random House will publish Rubin’s Don’t Burn This Book in April — with a foreword from the prominent intellectual lightning rod Jordan Peterson.
By criticizing “identity politics” and “woke culture,” Rubin has made himself an easy target for those who believe he is contributing to a rise in hate crimes and intolerance. At heart, though, Rubin is much more absurdist comic than political provocateur — much as he was two decades ago as a 20-something sneaking a whole stage audience up to a little-used studio on the eighth floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, where his Anti-Show skewered traditional talk shows by interviewing the likes of Cobra Commander (from G.I. Joe) or mocking corny Jay Leno jokes. While he used to thrive on crowd work, “I’m just running a circus now,” Rubin says. The high-wire act has proven to be compelling.