"A lot of the illusions that I held dear—rugged individualism, individual freedoms—are coming back to bite us in the ass," Penn Jillette told Big Think in July 2020, the first summer of the COVID pandemic. "Libertarianism has been so distorted that I don't know if I have to pull my name out of that ring. It's been adopted by people who don't seem to hold the responsibility side of it and don't seem to hold the compassion side of it."
For decades, Penn—the larger, louder half of the performing duo Penn & Teller—has been among the best-known spokesmen for libertarian ideas and attitudes in politics and culture. But he says that the 2016 election of Donald Trump—whom he knows well and loathes from his days on The Celebrity Apprentice—and the COVID pandemic have forced him to rethink whether he wants to continue to be publicly associated with the broader libertarian movement.
"I can see arguments for not wearing seatbelts and I can see arguments for not wearing motorcycle helmets," he told Big Think two years ago. "But I cannot see any argument for driving drunk and that is what not wearing a mask is. It's not risking yourself, it's risking the people around you."
For many Americans, though, trillions in wasted spending, contradictory guidance from public health officials, arbitrary school and business shutdowns, and policies like closing beaches and outdoor dining have made them more skeptical of government power and expertise.
So why did the 2016 election and the pandemic cause one of the libertarian movement's most important public figures to go in the other direction?
Has libertarianism changed—or has Penn?
Reason's Nick Gillespie caught up with him in Las Vegas on the set of his popular podcast Penn's Sunday School to talk about Trump, COVID restrictions, and whether his view of the world has really changed. Also joining the conversation was Matt Donnelly, the cohost of Penn's Sunday School.
Produced by Nick Gillespie; camera by James Marsh and Noor Greene; edited by Brett Raney and Adam Czarnecki.
Photos credits: Newscom/Penn Jillette/evphotostwo288423; Newscom/Penn & Teller 2012/zumaamericasseven518137; Newscom/Penn Jillette/ptsphotoshotthree271167; Flickr/Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona/Gage Skidmore; Unsplash/mother and daughter wearing pollution protection masks in taxi/Jon Tyson; Newscom/Penn Jillette-All-Star, Celebrity Apprentice/spnphotosfour433360; Unsplash/David Veksler - https://unsplash.com/photos/0UF_vme6lJ8; Newscom/Penn Jillette/krtphotoslive271616; Image via screengrab/Penn Jillette Responds to Donald Trump's Tweets on Opie with Jim Norton [07-16-2015]; Google Search/Joe Biden/Biden Signs Covid-19 Relief Bill; Newscom/Anthony Fauci/dpaphotosfive795473; Google Search/Education Week/Closed due to Covid-19; Google Search/Beaches close down as Covid-19 lockdown continues; Newscom/President Biden listens to a speaker during a virtual meeting/sipaphotosfourteen130929; Google Search/Young boy receives Pfizer vaccine in Venezuela; Newscom/Penn Jillette on stage in 2017/polspphotos407638; Google Search/Penn Jillette in Vegas before his show; Unsplash/International daily newspaper from Thursday 5th November 2020 – Le Monde (France) & The New York Times (USA) – After the election report. Made with analog vintage lens, Leica APO Macro Elmarit-R 2.8 100mm (Year: 1993)/Markus Spiske; Unsplash/Bar with sign during Covid/Brian Hurst.