Not Since Buckley...

Yes, Jordan Peterson Really Is That Smart

The New York Review of Books sneered at him, but he’s for real. To have David Brooks and the Trumpists in his corner, he has to be.


Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star via Getty

In the last year, or so, Jordan Peterson, the University of Toronto clinical psychologist turned internet sensation, has emerged as arguably the most important intellectual figure on the right today.

His new book, 12 Rules for Life, is No. 1 on Amazon. New York Times columnist David Brooks has called this “The Jordan Peterson moment,” and The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf has puzzled over why liberal interviewers don’t seem to hear what he is saying.

As you might expect, controversy has followed, most recently having to do with a negative review about his book. In response to a New York Review of Books essay by the Indian novelist and essayist Pankaj Mishra titled, “Jordan Peterson & Fascist Mysticism,” Peterson tweeted at Mishra: “And you call me a fascist? You sanctimonious prick. If you were in my room at the moment, I’d slap you happily.”

Not since William Buckley threatened Gore Vidal has intellectual pugilism been so accessible to the masses.

Peterson doesn’t mind honest criticism of his book, but this was a bit much. Aside from calling Peterson a fascist, Mishra wrote about Peterson’s friendship with a Native American on Vancouver Island, saying that Peterson was “pretentiously but harmlessly romancing the noble savage.”

“To me, that just crossed the line,” Peterson said. “I’ve been helping [his Native American friend] develop his artistic career… for 15 years. I thought that was a really dirty blow, and I also thought it was racist.”

Still, should Peterson have pushed back so hard? Twitter “rewards impulsivity,” Peterson concedes, “but he went somewhere that I don’t think it was acceptable to go… I think if a conservative writer had said what he said, they would have been absolutely taken apart.”

Fair enough. But it’s also interesting that Peterson got away with calling someone a “sanctimonious prick.” He wasn’t “taken apart” for saying that. When Jordan Peterson calls someone a “sanctimonious prick,” I tend to believe him. If Sean Hannity said that about someone, I wouldn’t buy it.

In a world where the right is coming apart, Peterson bridges divides. His fans on the right are a disparate and motley crew. He can have David Brooks sing his praises, but a lot of Trump supporters treat him with equal reverence.

Although Peterson has emerged as one of the most important thinkers on the right, the fact that he hails from Canada, plus the fact that focuses primarily on hot-button culture-war issues such as the war on men, illiberalism on college campuses, and political correctness run amok, means that he has said surprisingly little about American domestic politics.

So would he have voted for Donald Trump? You might think this question would have elicited a slam dunk “Yes!” coming from a man who has become something of a regular guest on Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight.

“Jesus,” says Peterson, “that’s a hard question.”

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“I think what I would have done was walk into the voting booth with the intention of voting for Clinton, and then, at the last minute, gone, ‘To hell with it. I’m not doing it,’ and voted for Trump,” he said.

(Listen to streaming audio of my full 47-minute conversation with Jordan Peterson or download the podcast on iTunes.)

Like many on the right, this is a question he struggles with.

“For the entire election, virtually, I thought, well, Clinton has the experience necessary to at least keep the status quo in motion. So, in some sense, she was a conservative choice,” he continued. “Because she’d been in politics so long.”

Ultimately, though, Peterson became concerned about Clinton’s ideological direction. Likewise, he believes that Americans concluded they liked “the unscripted, impulsive lies of Trump better than the conniving, scripted lies of Clinton.”

“I think I would have impulsively voted for Trump at the last moment,” Peterson concedes. “But it wouldn’t have been with a sense of delight—I can tell you that.”

This was an academic exercise for a Canadian, but the fact that he reasoned through this hypothetical question, and answered with a sort of intellectual honesty is why Jordan Peterson matters—and why economics professor Tyler Cowen says he’s our most influential public intellectual (even if he doesn’t know it yet).

The smart answer for a guy pandering to the Fox News crowd would be to praise Trump. The smart answer for a professor trying to win friends in academia would be to praise Clinton. But Peterson did neither: He thought about it. And his nuanced answer is the kind that we don’t see enough from political commentators these days.

Unlike the recent slew of rising star right-wing politicians and pundits who predictably let us down by playing to the lowest common denominator, don’t expect Peterson, a 55-year-old professor turned “overnight” internet sensation, to fall prey to the same temptations.

In a world where the most talked about conservative celebrities tend to come from the anti-intellectual fever swamps (or pretend to), Peterson has emerged as a bit of a unicorn: a bona fide academic who still sounds like a professor, has cultivated a huge following on YouTube and social media, and generally drives the left crazy by attacking identity politics and political correctness in eloquent fashion.

For what it’s worth, Peterson doesn’t see himself as a conservative, so much as a “terrified traditionalist” who generally believes in exercising caution over endorsing sweeping or radical cultural changes.  

He is an academic. He sounds like an academic. He isn’t abandoning his academic credentials.

Not since Buckley has the right boasted such firepower. It’s no wonder people are so mad.