In 2011, historian Corey Robin published The Conservative Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin. In the book, Robin argued that the era of George W. Bush and the Tea Party did not represent a radical departure from the supposedly genteel origins of the conservative movement—conservatism’s ancien regime, as it were—but rather a logical extension of its core principles.
Robin argued that conservatism has always been fundamentally reactionary, counter-revolutionary, and centered on preserving the hierarchy of elite power over the emancipation of lower classes. Counter to liberals who pine for the days of the Good Conservative, Robin argues—with examples dating back to the French Revolution—that there has not been a devolution of conservatism in a more radical direction. Rather, the wild revanchism has been in the nature of conservatism from its very beginnings.
At the time, liberal critics bristled at that premise. The New York Review of Books called the book “a diatribe that preaches to the converted rather than offering much to general readers sincerely trying to understand the right’s role in contemporary American political dysfunction.” Well, Donald Trump is now president, and time has perhaps vindicated Robin’s original thesis. Last November, the New Yorker heralded The Reactionary Mind—which is being published in a second edition this year, with new material—as “the book that predicted Trump.”
Still, despite the conservative movement’s wins during the Trump era, Robin says conservatism is “a movement in terminal crisis,” with Trump representing a considerably weakened president compared to the presidencies of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, or George W. Bush. While the Trump era has introduced a shock of explicitly white identity politics not seen in decades, Robin argues the conservative movement is declining and weakening. And leaders within the GOP—the smart ones, at least—can see the writing on the wall.
Robin spoke with Splinter about his new books the long arc of American conservatism, historical amnesia, and why liberals can find solace in the weakening of the conservative movement during the Trump era. You can read an edited and condensed version of the interview below.
Q: When your book was first released, it was greeted with some hostility—not from conservatives, as you’d expect, but from liberal critics. Why do you think that is?
At the heart of my claim about conservatism is a notion that what politics is about is a struggle about social domination. Conservatives have understood this, and traditionally, the liberals and the left understood this. But over time, I think liberals have lost that understanding. I think part of what they bridled at was the picture of what politics is about. Secondarily, liberals have wanted to hold onto this notion that there is a kind of genteel, gentlemanly, deliberative, rational conservatism that they can be in conversation with: “These are the reasonable men of the common room with whom you can have reasonable disagreements about what is the good life.” There’s this constant, recursive need to reinvent a past that bears very little relationship to reality.
Q: You started writing this book during the Bush administration. I’m curious how you feel about seeing neoconservative hawks from the Bush era like Bill Kristol and David Frum, rebranding themselves as the hashtag-resistance by saying slightly critical things about Donald Trump. You’ve watched these people’s trajectory. Is it bizarre to see? Is it infuriating?
There’s a long history of conservatives claiming for themselves the mantle of radicalism. There’s nothing new about conservatives claiming for themselves the mantle of revolution and radicalism and resistance. That’s actually part of the DNA. Now of course, what they’re doing here is slightly different. What’s of concern to me is that it elides what the Bush administration did, particularly with the War on Terror and the entrance into the Iraq War. The erosion of American institutions predates the Trump administration. I don’t think you could have ever gotten a Donald Trump had there been no Iraq War. Presidents have lied in the past. There’s nothing new about that. But the lie was so blatant, and produced such cataclysmic consequences—hundreds of thousands of deaths because of it. And all for what? For nothing. And then at the end of that, nothing happens to those people at all. Just imagine you’re an ordinary American citizen—I don’t care of what persuasion, right or left. There is kind of a creation of a world with no consequence, where words literally do not matter anymore. That, I think, breeds a pervasive contempt and cynicism for institutions.
What’s of concern to me is not Bill Kristol; it’s our inability to connect the dots. Of course, the Iraq War was enabled in part by John Kerry, Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton, who all voted for it. So this goes back to that question of amnesia. Our analysis is completely impoverished if we don’t see the ways in which the building blocks for the current moment were being designed and constructed and assembled under the very same people who now so cavalierly denounce what’s going on.
Q: It seems like the way that we think about politics has become very minute-by-minute. There’s so much happening all the time. It’s hard not to feel like it’s impossible to keep up with, let alone take a step back and say, “Well, where does this stand in the firmament of American political history?”
Right. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. The classic cliche about the United States: “the USA stands for the United States of Amnesia.” The loss of historical memory and a kind of absence of a past has been something that everybody from Alexis de Tocqueville onward has noticed about this country. If you go back and read the history of the French Revolution you find something slightly analogous. Events were moving at such a rapid pace during the French Revolution compared to how it had been under the ancien regime. The story that always gets told is that Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher—who was obsessively punctual—the morning that he learned of the fall of the Bastille, he was late for his walk. That gives you this sense that history was speeding up so that even a man like Kant, who was always on time, was late. He couldn’t keep up with the pace of events. But that was the French Revolution. This is the American Devolution. Here we are spinning and spinning. Every time Trump does something—“Oh, it’s outrageous!” And I think, “Really? Compared with pussy grabbing?” How many Rubicons can you cross?
Q: I wanted to talk to you about Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse. I find him to be such a fascinating figure in modern conservatism, in the same way we thought about Ted Cruz and Rand Paul during the Tea Party movement. He just came out with his own book about character and telling the youths how to bootstrap themselves into respectability. What are your thoughts about him and his ideology?
Honestly, I don’t know that much about him. I think he has probably given the single most incisive and devastating account of what conservatism today stands for. He was asked to do it in one word. He did it in two, and he said, “Question mark.” I think liberals need to pay attention to that. Sasse is not the know-nothing wing of the party. He has a Ph.D. in history from Yale. This is not the statement of a stupid person. This is a statement of somebody who’s fairly learned. What he’s saying is that conservatism has lost its path.
If you were to have asked a conservative in the 1960s, 1970s, “What’s the program? What’s the ideology?” They would have said, “Freedom is the ideology, and here’s the program: defeat Communism, defeat the welfare state,” and then as we get into the ‘70s and ‘80s, “traditional family values, and some kind of color-blindness.” There was a very clear sense of what it was all about and how it fit together as part of a coherent ideology.
Then something happened to them, which is that they won. Victory can be a bit of a bitch for people, particularly for a movement of activists, which is what conservatism was. At the heart, contemporary American conservatism does not know what it believes in, and they’re desperately trying to figure that out. Trump was, I think of it as their last-ditch attempt to find an answer: amped-up white supremacy and economic nationalism, which was a real break from historical conservatism in certain ways. But, as you can see, they can’t get it off the ground.
Q: It’s hard to know what path to take when there’s no clear enemy, when you hold the keys to the car and no one’s really standing in your path.
Absolutely, I think you’ve just hit it right on the head there. This is why I didn’t think Trump had a chance to win the election. It was really unclear what it was they were reacting against. This is why, from the get-go—once I recovered from my shock of him winning—I started saying that this is a movement in terminal crisis. You saw it most viscerally in the first defeat of the Obamacare repeal in the House. Here they were, this moment they’d been waiting for. They had complete and utter control of the federal government, an unprecedented opportunity to roll back this Rube Goldberg contraption that a lot of people hated. And lo and behold, they cannot pull the trigger. That tells you something.
Q: Let’s talk about some areas where the Trump administration has been successful. One example you outline in the book is deregulation. Another is the judiciary.
I think this is really where liberals are falling down, is on his appointments to the judiciary. It’s kind of fascinating because for a presidency that is so completely and utterly unfocused, some part of that administration is extraordinarily focused on getting more and more judges into the judiciary. They’re young, they’re overwhelmingly white, male, graduates from the top Ivy League law schools. And that’s important because, ironically, the single most important thing that will preserve Trump’s legacy beyond his time in the White House will be the judiciary. Liberal critics of Trump like to think of him as assaulting the judiciary. Nothing could be further from the truth. He is staffing the judiciary through his Constitutional powers, and it’s happening before our eyes. We will be living with this 20, 30, 40 years down the road.
It tells you something about the state of play in the contemporary conservative movement that the judicial branch is the most important object of their focus. What it tells you is that they understand that the writing is on the wall. The populism and mass democratic politics that they once championed, they understand that that kind of stuff has a decreasing valence. It can certainly ramp up a base, but they don’t know how to grow beyond that.
They’re like the Romanovs fleeing Petrograd and taking all the family china with them, preparing for the long exile. Mitch McConnell is not being a dick. He’s not being irrational. He is very shrewdly sizing up the situation and saying, “This is going to be our redoubt of power, because time is running against us.” Overturning Obama’s regulations, the next Democratic president could just reverse that. All that stuff is the will o’the wisp of the four-year electoral cycle. Judges are forever.
Q: When Elaine Chao wants to give Mitch McConnell a birthday present, it’s: “Judges are forever.”
Q: As the New Yorker said, you predicted Trump—or at least his rise within the Republican Party. Can you now please predict every major event in American politics for the next 20 years? It would take a lot of pressure off of me.
[Laughs] It would probably be a very lucrative thing for me as well.
The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump comes out on October 1. You can preorder it here.