I had planned on speaking with Fox Business host Trish Regan about her coverage of the crisis in Venezuela and the U.S.-approved attempt to overthrow President Nicolás Maduro. But we wound up discussing a topic much closer to home: whether democratic socialism in America, as many conservatives and moderates fear, is a gateway to authoritarianism.
Regan is in a unique position to offer commentary on that topic. A longtime business journalist at CNBC, Bloomberg and CBS News, and now the host of "Trish Regan Primetime" on Fox Business Network, she was among the first in media to cover the political and economic collapse of Venezuela and has interviewed opposition leader Juan Guaidó and other top Venezuelans involved in the crisis. She has covered Latin America -- from an avowedly pro-capitalist perspective -- for years, and because she speaks Spanish can interview other top players. Whether or not you agree with Regan's views on socialism, the crisis in Venezuela isn't just an abstract news story to her, but an event with personal and political stakes.
When our conversation began, I referred Regan to my recent interview with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, in which Albright criticized President Trump's threatening rhetoric toward Maduro. That led into a broader conversation about how Regan perceives the Venezuela crisis and what it may reveal about left-wing politics and socialism in particular.
Maduro's predecessor, the late Hugo Chávez, came into power as a socialist "who still has some capitalist principles and understands the market," Regan said. Later she told Salon that the Latin American leader Wall Street bankers feared most had been former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, better known as Lula, "because he had a much more socialist-style platform."
Our conversation follows from there. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You seem to be using the term socialist as interchangeable with authoritarian, but there are right-wing kleptocracies, like Vladimir Putin's Russia. There are nations that could be described as feudalistic, like North Korea. There are plenty of authoritarian regimes that are not socialistic. Do you acknowledge that one can support socialism without going to the authoritarian extremism that we've seen in countries like Venezuela?
I think it's very hard in a country like Venezuela to do so. I understand what you're saying in that European socialism is a kind of different model and --
I'm also talking about it as an abstract ideology.
Yeah, the ideology is far more palatable, but here's the problem in a country like Venezuela. Ultimately, and I believe this is one of the fundamental problems with socialism, it's that human beings do have self-interest. It's very hard to ignore that self-interest when you're creating a government structure. This is why our founding fathers were so brilliant in what they did by having some separation of powers. They were able to guard against the selfish, self-motivated instincts that we all have.
But the founding fathers also supported certain policies that today might be construed as socialism. George Washington created the federal post office which was a major innovation within the context of 1790s politics. We had the creation of the First National Bank. We had thinkers like John Taylor of Caroline who argued that just as a concentration of power in the government could be disadvantageous to liberty, so too could a concentration of power in the hands of major economic interests likewise be disadvantageous to liberty.
I personally feel that the problem is with authoritarianism, regardless of the ideology used to support it. There are plenty of non-socialist authoritarian regimes that back up my hypothesis.
Well, first of all, I appreciate what you're saying, and I hope to stress that Alexander Hamilton is a hero of mine. And I do think that if the European Union had had an Alexander Hamilton, they might not be struggling with some of the issues they're struggling with right now. One of the reasons we are the great country we are is because there were people that understood the importance of federalism.
But simultaneously, having the separation of powers is really critical. This is one of the things that Chavez got rid of. I hear you; European socialism is different than Venezuela-style socialism or Cuba-style socialism. But there is a tendency when you go down this path of socialism to say, "OK, well, it's not working, so I just need to make sure that everybody agrees with me. So I'm going to wipe off the Supreme Court and make sure that I put all my people there that completely agree with me. I'm going to wipe off that other part of the legislature. I'm going to make sure that I have an assembly or just one entity that agrees with me."
This is what you traditionally see, and increasingly when someone disagrees with a viewpoint then from socialism you're going into an authoritarian-type government. They wind up in jail. So many of the guests that I have had on this program have wound up in exile and they've escaped from the country under the threat of being thrown in jail. I'm not saying this socialism is actually ... well, best case-scenario socialism does it. Worst case scenario, you're in Venezuela.
True, but the same point could be made about Nazi Germany and fascism. Same point could be made --
Can I just add that right now you have a perfect political science case study going on less than three hours from Miami? I have been watching it for almost 20 years since 1999. I remember a time when Venezuela actually had a lot of prosperity. In the last two decades, not even two decades, that prosperity has completely disintegrated. You need to look at the reasons why that happened and how that happened. Socialism, unfortunately, has been a big part of that, and I think that that's something that we should not ignore.
After this question, I want to talk about the human rights issue. I don't want you to think that I'm ignoring that, just for the record.
By the way, I appreciate this because this is a very provocative and academic interview and I appreciate your style and focus.
Thank you. I'm going to wrap up this subject, and then I'm going to move on to the human rights issues. I don't want to take up too much of your time, but if I can get to discussing Pence and your interview with him, I'll get to that as well.
In terms of this subject, I think we pretty much both said our pieces. I don't want to get repetitive. Do you want me to move on?
This doesn't have to be in the interview, but I'm curious, do you admire the government in Venezuela right now?
Absolutely not! My point is that it's important to distinguish between the ideology and, I guess I would say, methods of implementing certain policy goals. One of the thinkers who influenced me was Eric Hoffer. He discussed the true believer, the idea that there is a certain personality type and a certain type of political movement that regardless of its ideological content lends itself to being authoritarian.
Certain ideologies are always going to be authoritarian, like Nazism could never not be authoritarian. But, I think that the alt-right views that Donald Trump has at least been sympathetic to have an obvious authoritarian bent. I would say policies like separating families at the southern border are manifestations of that authoritarian impulse. But I would not want to lump in traditional conservative Republicans with all those authoritarian tendencies --
Let me ask you a question.
Would you condemn the "alt-left"?
Define alt-left. That term is not as conventionally used as alt-right.
Right, I know. I would define alt-left as people who believed that socialism is the way of the future here, that believe that there should not be any tolerance for any other kind of viewpoints. You look only to some of the university campuses that would not so much as allow a poster, a billboard for President Trump when he was the Republican nominee for president, because somehow that was considered hate speech.
There's a willingness on the other side to shut down all kinds of speech that would somehow be construed as different. That is sort of what the alt-left represents. If you're talking about the alt-right, I agree with you wholeheartedly. There is no place for any kind of extremism in society. It's not right. We should be able to have normal intellectual dialogue, and yet we become so fragmented that whether it's the left or the right, everybody's trying to shut it down. It's not healthy for society, and if you continue on that path, whichever direction it's in, you wind up in the direction that lands you straight in Venezuela.
I would identify two points from what you just said. When you describe the dangers of extremism, I completely agree. Political extremism does lend itself to violence, which is obviously the ultimate form of tyranny, when the government can be violent against its citizens in that way. I will leave aside the fact that some would argue Trump has done that and --
You don't need to mention military action, but you look at Venezuela and right now anybody who had a different opinion than Nicolás Maduro was often put in jail. We've talked to a lot of them. You're not allowed to think differently. If you dare to actually start a different political movement, if you were part of the opposition, you wind up in jail.
But the second point I would make is about socialism specifically. When you look at American politicians like Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who preach what they would describe as "democratic socialism," regardless with whether one agrees or disagrees with it, that's not potentially violent.
The danger of conflating Maduro-style socialism with the democratic socialism of the progressive left, it risks vilifying a movement. Just as Trump's mainstream Republican supporters don't deserve to be lumped in with tyrants and autocrats, the same thing is true for people who support Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez or other politicians with analogous views. That, I would say, is my argument.
But why aren’t they willing to have a dialogue? Why aren't they willing to have a dialogue, for example with me? Why won't Bernie Sanders come on the show? Why won't Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez come on the show with me? To me, these are dialogues that are worth having, but they don’t want to have it with anyone they perceive as having a different opinion.
You know, Matt, my show happens to be on Fox Business, and I have a very strong business and economic background, which is the lens through which I look at everything. I talk a lot about what I would consider an hourglass economy that we have been struggling with now for the last 30 years, and it's gotten increasingly worse. When I say hourglass, just picture it: You have a lot on top, you have a lot on the bottom, and it's the middle class that is increasingly getting squeezed.
As a nation, what do we need to do? We need to address this squeeze in the middle. We need policies that will benefit the middle class because you will not have a strong society without a strong middle class, fundamentally. That has always been our key to success and it will continue to be our key to success, but right now we don't have it. We have a lot on the bottom; we have a lot on top.
When I look at the economic policies during the Obama administration -- I'm not going to blame him entirely. I'll actually go back to Bush and Clinton. A lot of those policies benefited the people on the top and they benefited the people on the bottom. I'll give you a good example. If you're working and your wife is working and you're trying to put your kids through college but you own your house. Your child isn't qualified for the scholarship, for example, to be able to go to college and you're like, "Wait a second. I've been doing everything right. I'm paying my bills on time. I own my house or I have a mortgage on my house." The federal government looks at that and says, "Wait a second. Couldn't you take out a second loan before we give you a Perkins Loan?”
Or could we live in a society where college, an institution that is necessary for socioeconomic opportunity, isn't prohibitively expensive for people in the first place? A possibility that --
I appreciate that you're getting into a whole other issue, but I would argue that the federal government has done far too much in terms of supporting the educational system, thereby allowing people to take out extraordinarily large loans in a way that they really and truly shouldn't, and has actually sponsored a kind of inflation in education that is not quite real, that you don't see in the European system.
Some of what you're saying reminds me of an interview I had last month with Tucker Carlson where he discussed the danger of being almost like a religious zealot when it comes to free-market capitalism. He had the similar criticisms to the ones that you have about the decimation of the middle class, about unfair tax rates, about the rise of poverty and the breaking up of families.
I think anybody with any intellect cannot look at the society we have today and not recognize that -- not anybody with any intellect and any heart and any empathy. What I would say is that I've thought a lot about this, I really have. I think about where society was and the kind of world in which I grew up, where manufacturing had a much more important role. I think about what we have become, specifically over the last decade. We have lived in an environment in which capital has had all the power.
You think about the Obama administration years. There wasn't a lot in the way of economic policy, but there was a heck of a lot in the way of Federal Reserve policy, in terms of lower interest rates. You had record low interest rates for a good amount of time. You know who can benefit from that? People with capital, people with money to invest ... and consequently make more and more and more in the equity market, and you know what?
The people on the bottom, well, they keep getting handouts because the government's saying, “OK, we need to help.” I don't disagree with safety nets. That's a big part of who we are as a society, and by the way, my mother grew up on welfare. If it were not for welfare, she would not have become the person she was. which eventually was a journalist at the Boston Globe and had a scholarship --
There are people who would describe those kinds of welfare programs as inherently socialistic.
No, there's a way to do this in which we as a government help people to help themselves.
But where do you draw that line? You said something about a minute ago that I thought was quite profound. Anyone who has an intellect and a heart can recognize that income inequality and economic injustice in general is a serious problem and needs to be addressed. The question is where does one establish the lines in terms of what is acceptable in political discourse?
Just as you complained, correctly, about how people on the left can sometimes be intolerant of those on the right, conflating social democratic ideology with authoritarians like Maduro is a way of pushing them outside the bounds of acceptable political discourse. If people with good intellect and good intentions can recognize that this is a serious problem, shouldn't we also try to encourage a wide spectrum of opinions?
I wholeheartedly believe in that. It's actually one of the reasons I appreciate the conversation we're having right now. I don't think the left and the right are actually as far apart as some would like to portray. I do think that we all have a common interest, which is the success of this country and the success of the people in this country and the success of our economy. The question is, how do you get there?
To me, economics doesn't need to be political. I look at the policies of JFK — and by the way, I grew up in an Irish Catholic family where you were Irish like you were Catholic like you were a Democrat, OK? If you were lucky enough, you would be a union member. I mean, that is the background from which I originate.
To me, the challenge right now is that that party, that working-class party has gotten very lost and it has been substituted with this “OK, we're just going to get freebies.” To me that is not a path to success because I fundamentally believe that every American out there wants to earn their success. I don't think you can give anyone anything.
I think in Venezuela you see a situation where voting is very much controlled by the government. They know exactly whether or not you voted and they have an idea of who you voted for. I have a source that explained it all to me, recently, that said, "You know what? You have an apartment building with 500 apartments and the government figures out OK, 200 of those people voted for the opposition. You know what happens next? All 500 lose their apartment."
There's something called the ID de la patria which is an ID card so they know whether or not you voted and they have a sense of where you voted. The will of the individual is lost in all of that because you're supposed to be looking out for the good of the community, including the good of your community building or your apartment building, because your rations are dependent on it.
I think we need to get to a place where we're concerned enough about the middle class, because that is really what will preserve our future. I'm increasingly concerned -- I have three children myself -- that we're living in a world where you have extremes. I remember growing up, I used to look at Latin America and think, well, that was the world where you had extremes. You have the extreme wealthy and you have extreme poor and there was no middle class, and there are a lot of reasons for that. For example, you couldn't get a car loan or an apartment loan until quite recently in Latin America. They didn't have the kind of debt markets that we have here in the U.S. We have a lot of things that have made prosperity more easy to attain.
That said, in this environment in which we now live, it's become harder and harder and harder. What I said earlier about this hourglass economy -- I actually have got it out a lot of times on the show. I think the viewers probably start to roll their eyes, because it's like, "There goes Trish again with the marker and the paper and the hourglass economy."
But I'm looking at that middle class and saying, what are we doing for them? Why don't we have any policies that benefit them? If you have money, if you have capital to invest, you can invest anywhere in the world and you can get the cheapest labor costs. But what happens to the people that are actually providing the labor? What leverage do they have?
That is something where you and I would agree. I think we would agree as to the diagnosis but disagree as to the prescription.
True, but we don't need to disagree on the prescription because like I said, if you look back at the policies, say of JFK, his policies were to lower the taxes and actually enabled this freedom, this prosperity.
The tax rates under John Kennedy, the top marginal rate was still much higher than it is today. It was lower than what it had been under Eisenhower, but that doesn't mean that he would have been a supporter of Trump's trillion-dollar tax cut.
Do you want to talk about Donald Trump' s trillion dollar tax cut? I actually have a lot to say about that and I don't agree with it entirely.
I'll be interested in that. Yes.
What I would say is for the extreme wealthy, it actually didn't benefit them. The mainstream media has missed this over and over and over again. They say, "Oh, it’s a tax cut for the wealthy." It really wasn't a tax cut for the wealthy because the wealthy, unless they live in Texas or in Florida, probably wind up paying more because they can't deduct state and local taxes anymore. I would say that the tax cut really benefited the middle and lower classes.
The problem with this tax plan, and I've said this before and I'm very frustrated by it, is it should have targeted some other ultra-wealthy individuals including the private equity sector. I don't want to wonk out on you too much and on your readers, but there's something called the private equity tax cut or as I call it, the “fat cat tax loophole,” which basically allows people in the private equity industry, many of whom are making billions of dollars, to count their income as investment. There are two different tax rates, obviously, for income and investment. This was something that Donald Trump actually pledged to fix on the campaign trail. I was very heartened by it, because this is something that Barack Obama had ignored and this was something that Hillary Clinton and her team had ignored. He went after it full on.
He said it's not right that these private equity investors -- he might have called them hedge fund investors, but he was referring to the private equity community. It's not right that they are able to pay such a lower tax rate, and he said he would fix that. When the tax plan came out, he didn't, and I was highly disappointed. I remain disappointed. I pushed Secretary [Steve] Mnuchin very hard on that on the show. Ultimately, there was a feeling that it just wasn't important enough.
From an optics point of view, it is important. It is not right that some of the wealthiest people in the world get away with paying far lower taxes. It's simply not right and that's something that, in the scheme of things, we really need to do something about. Again, I talk about our hourglass economy: There are benefits that are offered to the ultra-rich and to the very poor that really don't make sense in the overall scheme of fairness, and that private equity tax loophole is one of them.