Violence and calls for “revolution” have engulfed Portland, Oregon and other major U.S. cities. Rioters have attacked police officers with rocks, bottles, bricks, and fireworks. Authorities have responded with tear gas, rubber bullets, pepper balls, and arrests.
How did we get here? And what is really at stake?
In this episode, we sit down with Colorado Congressman Ken Buck to discuss his new book “Capitol of Freedom: Restoring American Greatness,” which takes readers on a journey through the halls of the U.S. Capitol to understand the principles that make America exceptional and that are now under siege.
We also explore foreign threats to America, and Congressman Buck’s push to ban government employees from using the Chinese-owned TikTok app on their phones.
This is American Thought Leaders 🇺🇸, and I’m Jan Jekielek.
Mr. Jekielek: Rep. Ken Buck, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Rep. Ken Buck: Thank you.
Mr. Jekielek: You’ve written this fascinating book, “Capital of Freedom: Restoring American Greatness.” I’ve been looking in there. This kind of stems from your love of the Capitol. I know I’ve actually spoken with a number of people who have told me about the tours of the Capitol that you give, and how insightful they are and so forth. We’re going to deep dive into that. Before we go there, I want to talk a little bit about your work in getting the app Tik Tok banned on government cell phones, and why you think that’s important.
Rep. Buck: Sure, well, it’s important because China is stealing information from the US in every way possible. And Tik Tok is a Chinese app that is being used by Americans. It’s used by China to gather information on Americans, and if there ever was a conflict between China and the United States, they will use that information in a cyberwar with the United States. And so I think it’s really important [not only] that everyone knows about Tik Tok and knows about the Chinese Communist Party and their plans, but also that on government phones, those phones that are issued by the government to government workers, the government makes sure that Tik Tok is not on those phones so that China can’t gather information that is intended to be secret, intended to be confidential.
Mr. Jekielek: Tik Tok says it’s an independent company.
Rep. Buck: Sure. It’s an independent company controlled by a communist China.
Mr. Jekielek: Should this app be banned across the board or is it just important for the government?
Rep. Buck: Well, it should be banned across the board. We should stop espionage from our adversaries in any possible way. But the reality is that in this country with free speech and other issues, it’s difficult to do that. While a case could be made that it is a tool of espionage, it is also clear that many Americans favor these kinds of toys without realizing just how dangerous they are.
Mr. Jekielek: I was just reading that India banned Tik Tok, and in addition, another 47 apps got added to this blacklist. They just can’t show up presumably in the app stores and so forth. Is this kind of legislation something that you’d be interested in?
Rep. Buck: It is, and obviously, India is a different country with a different set of values and a different set of rules. And so we would have to look at each of the apps, see how it’s being used, see what the ownership is, see what the agreements are with the ownership. And I think it’s not unreasonable for the US to treat Red China as an adversary, to treat Red China as someone who is or a country that is interested in trying to gather more and more information about Americans. I think a country like India really shows great insight and vision in banning apps from China.
Mr. Jekielek: So just roughly, broadly speaking, in your mind, what is the Communist China threat here?
Rep. Buck: There’s no doubt, and I wasn’t born yesterday. I’m sure we’re doing the same thing with the Chinese and the same thing with the Russians and others that we consider potential adversaries in the future. So I think that intelligence gathering is one of the functions for which the superpower is all conducted in engaging. But I think it’s incumbent on the US to counter that espionage whenever we can. Clearly, the Russians, the Chinese, and other countries want to know the patterns of behavior. They want to know our dates of birth and social security numbers. They want to know our bank accounts. If they could shut down our economy during times of war, that’s exactly what they want to do. And we are much more vulnerable now to something like that than we were in the 1940s or early turn of the last century.
Mr. Jekielek: So let’s move into talking about your book. It’s very interesting. First of all, tell me about the inspiration. As far as I can tell, you use the Capitol as the centerpiece to discuss American exceptionalism and essentially what you see as being great about America. How did this come about?
Rep. Buck: I really have, one, a love for history. And two, I like to spend evenings giving my constituents a tour of the Capitol. They think it’s special. I learn something new every time I go through the Capitol. So I visited the Capitol with historians and others to talk to them and learn from them about the features of the Capitol, stories that occurred in the Capitol, and architectural features, statues, other items that I think are really fascinating. In the process of doing that, I gained a great appreciation of the Capitol.
And I use my tours as a way to talk about conservative principles because the symbols of our foundation are just so prevalent in the Capitol that when I talk about freedom of speech, when I talk about freedom of press, when I talk about freedom of religion, when I talk about separation of powers or federalism, there’s just symbolism all over the Capitol for those concepts. And so, it’s not just a historical tour to me, it’s a way of talking to Americans about why our foundational principles are so important and why we should not ignore or try to rewrite history.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, one of the things you talked about in the book—basically you’re talking about how many Americans just simply aren’t aware of a lot of their own history and what a big challenge it is. Tell me a bit more about this.
Rep. Buck: Sure. I’m always amazed when I go through the Capitol and I talk about separation of church and state. So many Americans believe that that’s actually written into our Constitution. It’s not. It’s something that the Supreme Court wrote into our Constitution. Or I talk about the fact that we don’t have three co-equal branches of government. The judiciary was never meant to be a co-equal branch of government. Our founders talked about it as the weakest branch of government. It was something that was there to help the executive branch and to help the legislative branch in their respective roles, but it was never meant to compete or overrun those branches of government. So, [with] many of the issues that I raise, we get into very good discussions because people are just unaware of what our founders intentions were and why it’s so important to follow the intentions of our founders.
Mr. Jekielek: One of the most fascinating things for me—and someone shared this with me, and it really turned my thinking around—is in a sense, the American system is a way to have representative government, but to act to protect from the tyranny that can happen through actual democracy. And I find that—tell me more about this.
Rep. Buck: Oh, I read about that in the introduction, and it was fascinating to me to research it more and more. In fact, a colleague just last week in the committee hearing said, “We are a democracy and President Trump is a threat to our democracy.” And I went into quite a long-winded discussion about how we’re not a democracy. Democracies, as John Adams said, commit suicide. [“There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”] They envelop themselves with this constant shift in policy.
We’re a republic. We elect individuals to represent us and legislative bodies at the federal level. At the state level, democracies actually take votes of the entire population on important issues. And that’s not what our system of government was set up to do. In fact, our Constitution has only been amended a handful of times, because we don’t want to continue to shift our fundamental rights, and the left would love to take our fundamental rights in various directions. That’s why they love the courts so much, because they can rewrite the constitution through the courts. It wasn’t intended to be that way. And so we have to respect the fact that we are a republic and not a democracy.
Mr. Jekielek: You were speaking offline earlier, and you were describing an event here in DC where people basically had come out to support the police, against the idea of defunding the police. And then they were met with force so to speak. Tell me about this. Tell me how what your book has to say about that.
Rep. Buck: Sure. In my hometown of Colorado, there was a rally to support the police; very peaceful, mostly older Americans had gathered to support the police and show their support for the police during this very difficult time. There was a counter-protest, again, a peaceful counter-protest. But at that point in time, elements of Antifa infiltrated the peaceful protest and then started to physically assault the supporters of the police. The police were ordered to withdraw at that point in time.
It’s a perfect example of what we’ve seen across the country with these fascists from the left, who are intending to stop speech that they disagree with. We see it in universities. They talk about needing safe spaces. They talk about being triggered by ideas that they disagree with, as if [once] you disagree with an idea, I don’t have a right to talk about that idea anymore. They want to suppress speech they disagree with. They do it with thugs from the left in rallies, like we just talked about, but they also do it all around at our universities that are supposed to be really the most open part of our society.
Mr. Jekielek: So what do you see as the roots of this? And I think maybe we’ve already started talking about that. But tell me about that.
Rep. Buck: So the roots go back to fascism and obviously go back centuries, in terms of political discourse. Those that believe in totalitarian concepts, those that believe in a top-down government system, believe that they can suppress speech. Even American leaders, John Adams, Woodrow Wilson, developed laws that they got through Congress, the Sedition Act and other laws that were designed to stop those who wanted to criticize the government.
It’s unbelievably un-American and not just un-American, but John Adams was a founder. But he lost an election to Thomas Jefferson, based on his belief that he could stop people from criticizing his government. He then lost to Thomas Jefferson. And I think it’s really important to realize that the founders intended this country to be a country that was run by the people, not the government. It was the people that gave government power, not the other way around. It was God who gave us certain unalienable rights and empowered people with those rights, and government can’t limit that which God gives us.
Mr. Jekielek: So, … you described that the system was created to actually prevent the government from taking too much power, right?
Rep. Buck: Absolutely, yes. I think the greatest founding document, even more so than the Constitution, is the Declaration of Independence. It sets out clearly what our rights are, where those rights come from, and how those rights cannot be infringed. And then we have the Constitution that builds from that and is more explicit about those rights. But it’s clear that this country was founded on the concept that the people are in charge and that the people create government; it’s not the government that gives people certain rights. And if government doesn’t give us rights, government can’t take those rights away from us.
Mr. Jekielek: So why in a nutshell, is freedom of speech so important for all of this to work well?
Rep. Buck: The most basic right we have in this country is to speak our mind, and obviously there are some appropriate limits on speaking our mind. We can’t incite riots, and we can’t cause others physical harm with what we say, but absent that very small area of speech, we are a stronger country, because we disagree with each other. And we find that middle ground that Americans can move forward on.
When we don’t hear from one side or the other, we create a revolutionary spirit, a set of circumstances that allows revolution, and that’s not what we want. We want evolution in this country. We want peaceful evolution. We want people who disagree with each other to be able to learn, to be able to grow and move on as united people. One of the Latin sayings that really shows us unity is E Pluribus Unum, out of many, one.
We aren’t intended to be a country that excludes immigrants. We aren’t intended to be a country that excludes ideas. We’re a country that welcomes people to our land or a country that welcomes different ideas, different religions to our land. And then as we move forward, we assimilate. We come together as one people. And I think that Osama bin Laden learned the lesson the hard way that when you mess with this country, there will be a swift unified response. It doesn’t mean we don’t argue among ourselves just like families do, but we are a family. And we need to make sure that we come together and we stop the kind of divisive behavior that’s going on right now.
Mr. Jekielek: Where’s that divisive behavior coming from in your mind?
Rep. Buck: Well, the divisive behavior comes from the anarchists. It comes from the left. It comes from the progressives, the socialists that are trying to cause our country to break down, so that they can rewrite some of the norms, some of the values, some of our Constitution, in a way that allows their godless, socialist country to exist. We haven’t accepted Western European socialism. We haven’t accepted Chinese, Russian communism for a very good reason, because we know that our system works better. So the left needs to tear that down. They need to pit black against white, woman against man, tall against short, fat against skinny. Whatever it is, they want to pit people against each other to try to break down the unity that we have in this country.
Mr. Jekielek: You do talk a lot about socialism and communism in the book. How is it that, and you actually started talking about it I suppose a little earlier, but how is it that this has somehow managed to take root here given the various checks and balances that exist?
Rep. Buck: Yeah, I don’t think it does take root in a country that thrives on capitalism, that thrives on our republican form of government, that thrives on our history of prosperity. The reason that we’re a prosperous people is because we let people go out and succeed or fail. Our government doesn’t create wealth; individuals working hard create wealth, and that wealth allows us to rise in the economic structure in this country.
My grandparents came here; they were poor. They raised my mother, and my grandparents raised my father, with the same principles, the idea that if you worked hard, you could get ahead. My parents raised me with that idea. It’s only a couple of generations from dirt poor immigrant to congressman. My family and so many families in America can tell that same story.
That doesn’t happen in socialist countries. When you look at a country like France or a country like Germany or a country like Sweden, the Muslim immigrants from Syria or other Middle East countries that move to those countries, they aren’t German; they aren’t French; they aren’t Swedish. It will take generations before they’re accepted in those countries as a part of that country. Our fabric immediately weaves people into our country, welcomes people and accepts them for the hard work and their character that they bring to our country.
Mr. Jekielek: So one of the interesting things you actually also talked about in the book is that some of these ideas of multiculturalism, diversity, and tolerance are actually all good values ostensibly, but these are somehow being used to undermine this actual tolerance that you were just describing.
Rep. Buck: Sure. So I think that the left is very talented at taking words that you and I believe have one meaning and completely changing the meaning. For example, Antifa stands for anti-fascists. They’re one of the most fascist organizations that’s been in America and in our history. They are created to prevent speech that they find objectionable; that is a hallmark of fascism.
The idea that we need to be more tolerant, what the left means by that is, “You need to accept our version of the world. It doesn’t mean we have to accept your version of the world.” Tolerance only runs one way [for them]. We know that tolerance works both ways. Judge certain actions based on the result. Don’t just prejudge something as good or bad. And so the left has co-opted language and used it in a way that really fools many Americans.
It’s sad because the most tolerant people in this country are Christians, and for some reason they have been deemed to be haters. If you think about what our command is from our God, it is to love our neighbor. Our commandment is to love our neighbor; that it completely runs contrary to what the left is trying to portray as the Christian spirit.
Mr. Jekielek: And that’s very interesting. So, to that point, … correct me if you see this differently, but when I look at some of the founding ideas of this nation, there were people of multiple religious backgrounds who frankly didn’t really see eye to eye on a heck of a lot of things right? And the system was structured—this is where this freedom of religion piece comes in—to ensure that these different-thinking people could all actually work together, function and have a successful union. Am I reading this right? I find that really fascinating.
Rep. Buck: I think that’s right, and yet there has been discrimination in this country since our founding. Obviously, there was slavery, a terrible stain on our country’s history. When Catholic immigrants came to this country, they were discriminated against. There is constant discrimination in this country, and yet we grow from that, and we get better. Nobody should deny that that discrimination occurred, because it happened.
The first groups that came here were mostly Protestant groups. They fought among themselves, and then another group would show up, and they would fight with that group. So it’s not as if it’s always been harmonious in this country. It hasn’t. But we’ve always had the intention in this country to find that common value and move forward with that common value. And I think that’s one of the things that truly has made us a great nation.
Mr. Jekielek: But would you say … that people did find that value? Of course, there were all sorts of instances where that didn’t happen, but I’m unaware of other founding stories where people were forced to face that reality.
Rep. Buck: I think that’s absolutely right. We are not a homogenous society. We are a heterogeneous society, and the story of the Catholics and the story of the Mormons clearly [show] discrimination in our history. But if you look at those groups, now they are mainstream religions, and they are accepted by the vast majority of Americans as being Americans, as being patriotic, and as really co-equals.
Mr. Jekielek: Tell me about Statuary Hall. I know that you mentioned that in the book as being one of the places when you give the tour that’s most inspiring, that gets you talking the most. Tell me about that.
Rep. Buck: Sure, so Statuary Hall used to be the chamber for the United States House of Representatives. And on the floor, you can see the plaques where some of the famous Americans sat, who later became president. In one instance, John Quincy Adams, he served as president and then was elected to the US House. In the House, we consider that a promotion; others might disagree. There’s a plaque for Abraham Lincoln and a plaque for others who sat in the house and then became president.
It’s also filled with wonderful statues. There are statues of many famous Americans. My favorite is a statue that sits above the House floor, and it sits right over where the speaker would have been on a raised platform. It is the statue of Liberty [“Liberty and the Eagle”]. The statue of Liberty has a scroll in her hand, and she’s handing that scroll as if she’s giving it to the members of the House as they’re sitting there.
That scroll is the constitution, and it is supposed to serve as a reminder to the members of the House to think about the constitution before you vote on this particular bill. It’s something that I look at over and over, and I wish it was in the House chamber now because I wish more members were forced to reconcile their views with the constitution before they voted.
In Statuary Hall
That’s the statute that we were talking about [“Liberty and the Eagle”]. You can see the scroll in her right hand. That is a great symbol to me. The serpent representing wisdom, the eagle representing strength, and the statute of freedom with the Constitution I think is just an awesome symbol. And then on this side, we have [the person] who was recording in history so that all the members of the House would realize that history is being recorded.
Every state in the Union gets to place two statues here. And it’s not Congress’s decision; it’s up to the state legislature, and it’s just this idea of federalism that the states created the United States. The federal government didn’t create the states, the states created the federal government, and there’s a recognition by having two statues from every state that the federal government owes its existence to the states. It’s just an important thing that’s been forgotten largely that that’s the way it happened.
So this is a replica of the Declaration of Independence. And what’s odd to me, and no one’s ever explained this to me, but what’s odd to me is, it sits on this wall, and it sits on that wall, the exact same document. I think it’s because Democrats and Republicans sit on either side of the aisle. So it’s a reminder to Republicans, and it’s a reminder to Democrats, that these are our founding principles. This is why we revolted against English rule.
So here’s where John Quincy Adams sat. John Quincy Adams was the son of John Adams. John Adams was the second president of the United States and was vice president to George Washington. John Quincy Adams was the sixth president of the United States. And after he left the presidency, he ran for the House in Massachusetts … .
He was a staunch abolitionist, and he served at the same time that Abraham Lincoln served. And so a lot of Abraham Lincoln’s thought on the abolition of slavery came from John Quincy Adams. John Quincy Adams was quite old when he served in the house, and he had one good ear and one bad ear. If you look at the ceiling, you can see the curvature of the ceiling. So you can hear a whisper. The pro-slavery Democrats were on that side of the room, and John Quincy Adams could hear their strategy as he sat here. Now turn around and say something.
Man from across the room: Hello.
Mr. Jekielek: Wow, that’s incredible.
Rep. Buck: And they thought he was napping. I mean, he had his head down on his desk; they thought he was napping and wasn’t listening to them. So at his desk, he had a stroke. They carried him into that room right there, and he died. The couch where he died is still sitting in that room with a plaque above it that recognizes that’s where he died. So he spent most of his life in public service but passed away in that room right over there.
Mr. Jekielek: Why is it that you chose to write your book using the Capital as a backdrop for all these concepts?
Rep. Buck: I love to give tours of the Capitol, and I’ve studied the history of the Capitol. I think the history is so amazing because it speaks to our foundational values. And the further we get away from our foundational values, the less exceptional America is. I think it’s so important to learn those values and to see evidence of those values all around us. And then to make sure that our children learn that and our grandchildren learn that so that we keep those traditions going.
Mr. Jekielek: Is there one value that one of these gentlemen here would personify that you can think of?
Rep. Buck: Yes, I think that of all the founding fathers, George Washington really personified American exceptionalism. He was willing to take a risk as a military leader. And most importantly, and this is something that really shocked the leaders in Europe, he was willing to give up power before he died. There is a great portrait in the rotunda of George Washington resigning his commission to the Continental Congress. And I think that that’s such an important concept in America that you come to government, you serve, and you leave. You don’t try to grab as much power as you can and stay forever. George Washington was so benevolent and selfless in how he led that it really made an impression on America.
Mr. Jekielek: A great inspiration, clearly.
Rep. Buck: Yes, and it’s the reason that the district is named after George Washington. And it’s the reason why they intended to have him buried in the Capitol Building. Just because if there’s anybody Americans should choose to be like, it’s George Washington.
In seated interview
Mr. Jekielek: Something that you talked about prominently, which frankly, I don’t think very much about, which you find quite important is private property. And you actually dig into that a little bit and explain what it actually means. What are the implications? What’s the social function? I found that whole element of the book fascinating because it’s not something I’ve really, frankly given much thought to at all. I take it for granted. Tell me about that.
Rep. Buck: Sure. I think private property is at the heart of our foundation, and I think that the idea that the government determines how much property you have or don’t have is the old Europe, the way that the world used to see property. It was the monarch who decided what land you could work and where the proceeds of that work went. In a very feudal system of wealth distribution, the idea that was really revolutionary with our founders was that you owned your property.
And private property was more than just my car or my home. Private property was my thoughts, my writings, and my creative product. And so the idea of patents and copyrights are so important in the concept of private property. Having private property is essential to incentivizing hard work. If we don’t have priority property, we’ve seen what happens in the old Soviet Union, we’ve seen what happens in socialist countries around the world that have done away with private property and people owning the means of production. And so I think that in order to have a true republic, in order to have a political system that works, you’ve got to have an economic system that works, and private property is at the heart of successful economic systems.
Mr. Jekielek: If it were up to you, how would you address the challenges in education that you see that lead to this loss of memory of what America is all about?
Education is a fundamentally local matter. So it’s very difficult as a federal official to say, “We should mandate more civic lessons and more American history in our schools.” I think it’s something that local school boards should do, but I also think it’s really unfortunate when Americans don’t have a unifying knowledge of history and what makes this country great. And so I hope that the federal government in some ways can incentivize through an awareness with state governments and local school boards that need to make sure that Americans understand American history.
Also, I’m sure you’re familiar with the 1619 Project. Associated with the 1619 project is a curriculum, very extensive curriculum, that has already been adopted by many schools in a number of states. I don’t remember right now exactly where, but from what I know, they provide these materials free of charge, and there’s a big kind of movement around that. Is there something in that vein that would offer the more traditionalist version of history?
Rep. Buck: Well, there’s certainly one. There’s a curriculum that exists, and I know Texas, for example, uses a more traditional curriculum. But here’s the unfortunate thing with the 1619 Project. There’s nothing wrong with information, and there’s nothing wrong with spreading information. And there is a point in time at which students can see two different views of the world and make an informed decision about that. Elementary School is not that point in time. It’s high school; it’s college; it’s graduate school. But to suggest that elementary school students should be taught that the foundations of America are based on slavery is just not true, number one, and it is totally unfair to what happened in this country and why this country is great.
Mr. Jekielek: What do you see the role of slavery being in how America has developed to this day?
Rep. Buck: Well, I think there was an economic system that existed during our founding. It existed in many other countries and was brought to this country. And we weren’t able to resolve that. I say we, [but I mean] our founding fathers. The founders of this country, weren’t able to resolve the issue of slavery. And we ended up 100 years later in a civil war that tore our country apart and killed hundreds of thousands of Americans. And so it’s unfortunate that they weren’t able to resolve it.
But the country would have been split into 13 separate countries if they had tried to resolve it at the time that they wrote the Constitution. So it’s horrible that it existed ever on this continent, and it’s understandable that it wasn’t resolved until after the Civil War. That system of slavery was an economic feature of our government that has really tarnished our reputation.
And those that can trace their lineage back to slaves absolutely deserve our respect and deserve every opportunity to succeed in this country. In no way should anyone ever consider someone a second class citizen because of their race, religion, or ethnic background in any way. I hope as a country, we come together, and we move past many of those issues. The vestiges of discrimination continue in this country. It’s terribly unfortunate. We have to recognize it, we have to deal with it, and we have to move on. We shouldn’t condemn our country for the future as a result of what our ancestors did in the past.
Mr. Jekielek: What do you see as the prescription for moving on and continuing to crack the wrongs that you see.
Rep. Buck: I think that it’s clear that there are African Americans who can trace their history back, who are continuing to be discriminated against. We need to craft laws. We need to educate. We need to make sure that we have institutions in place that promote diversity and promote understanding and tolerance and [promote] that it is a value in this country that we will never discriminate because somebody has a particular skin color or national background.
Mr. Jekielek: So Congressman Buck, who should be reading your book?
Rep. Buck: I think all Americans should read the book in order to understand their roots and also understand our future. My faith teaches me that truth will set me free. This book is filled with truth. And it’s filled with the historical analysis that’s important, so that somebody is able to put the arguments that they hear from the news and from various sources in perspective and to be able to move forward in a unifying way.
Mr. Jekielek: If there’s a single message that you would expect people will gain from reading this and you would hope they would gain from reading this, what would that be?
Rep. Buck: I think the most important message from this book is that America is an exceptional country, and we will remain exceptional as long as we look back and see the foundations that we were built on.
Mr. Jekielek: Wonderful. Well, such a pleasure to have you.
Rep. Buck: Thank you very much. Good to be with you.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.