JANUARY 19, 2018
WHAT SHOULD WE MAKE of conservatism in the Trump era? Last spring, Rick Perlstein, a historian of the American right, published a mea culpa in The New York Times Magazine explaining how the election of Donald Trump had led him to reconsider the settled narrative of modern American conservatism. Perlstein bemoaned the fact that 20th-century political historians mostly restricted their attention to establishment figures like William F. Buckley Jr., Barry Goldwater, and Ronald Reagan. Instead, he exhorted his colleagues to look fringeward, to “conservative history’s political surrealists and intellectual embarrassments, its con artists and tribunes of white rage,” in order to understand the foundations of Trumpism.
Though much of its contents were written and published prior to this call to arms, the updated edition of Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind can be read as a powerful rejoinder to Perlstein’s argument. Robin posits that the roots of Trumpism are not on the right’s fringe but rather among its standard-bearers, going back as far as Edmund Burke, the father of modern conservatism, and winding through respected figures like Joseph de Maistre, Friedrich Hayek, and Antonin Scalia.
For Robin, Trump’s victory presented less of a conceptual crisis and more of an opportunity to test the thesis of his controversial 2011 book. Although it was published just after the Tea Party’s midterm electoral coup, The Reactionary Mind was largely conceived at the height of the George W. Bush era, with the result that the first edition’s emphasis on the War on Terror as the organizing focus of the right now seems somewhat outdated. Unlike most second editions, which often add little more than a hastily written epilogue, the new version of The Reactionary Mind is substantially different: Robin has fundamentally restructured the chapters and refined his argument. He has refocused on the economic ideas of the right, adding a chapter on the Austrian School and reworking his earlier chapters on Burke to emphasize that ideas about capitalism have long been central to conservatism.
This revision, far from seeming arbitrary or forced, actually enables Robin’s original ideas about the nature of conservatism to better come to the fore. As his title suggests, Robin sees conservatism less as an autonomous intellectual tradition than as a series of reactions to the progressive left. He defines conservatism as “a meditation on — and theoretical rendition of — the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back.” The sequence begins with Burke’s outrage at the French Revolution, which Robin argues was due less to the revolution’s violence and more to the ways in which it called for inverting the obligations of deference and command.
Robin rejects those who define conservatism as a commitment to limited government and liberty; these ideas, he allows, are perhaps “byproducts of conservatism,” but they are not its “animating purpose.” In one of his most provocative formulations, he contends that the fundamental difference between the left and the right is not that one values equality and the other freedom, but rather that “the conservative has favored liberty for the higher orders and constraint for the lower orders.” Moreover, it’s no accident that the conservative tradition begins with Burke’s appalled response to the French Revolution. Conservative ideas, Robin contends, are not merely reactionary but counterrevolutionary: the right has always made violence (both abstract and real) a central part of their efforts to constrain the emancipatory politics of the left in order to preserve their power. While not all counterrevolutionaries are conservative, he posits, “all conservatives are, in one way or another, counterrevolutionary.”
Robin is a political theorist, not a historian, and his approach is admittedly episodic. At places, the lack of context and attention to chronology is glaring. At one point, in the span of two pages he moves from Buckley to Burke to Dinesh D’Souza, and later crams discussions of Tocqueville, Fukuyama, Maistre, Georges Sorel, and Teddy Roosevelt into a single section. This spasmodic approach nevertheless enables Robin to draw fresh connections and arrive at important insights about the nature of conservatism. For instance, Robin offers an original interpretation of the Austrian School that illuminates both the aristocratic dimensions of their ideas and the parallels in their vision to that of Nietzsche. While he notes that this connection is one of “elective affinity” and not “direct influence,” Robin sees key similarities in the ways that both aimed to address the challenge of socialism and labor and called for “a new ruling class in and for an age of mass politics.”
This gets to the heart of the matter. The Reactionary Mind argues that the right has increasingly come to understand, over the course of the past few centuries, that in order to defend the old regime and preserve the power of elites they have to build alliances with the masses, and practice a form of “upside-down populism.” He argues that “conservatism really does speak to and for people who have lost something,” and to be politically successful the elites need to convince the masses that they have lost something, too. This is why conservatism, though fundamentally concerned with economics, has also been inextricably linked to forms of patriarchy and white supremacy: what unites them all is the effort to protect power in both the public and private sphere.
This argument makes logical sense, but the fact that Robin emphasizes the way elite thinkers have co-opted the masses means that his analysis often reproduces the very elitism he critiques. The exclusion of the voices and experiences of the working- and even middle-class conservatives from The Reactionary Mind makes it seem that any non-elite who votes Republican or adheres to conservative ideas must be suffering from a bad case of false consciousness. This problem is by no means unique to Robin; this is often the default assumption of scholars of the right and intellectual historians more generally. However, it is especially pressing to pay attention to the attitudes and subjectivities of members of “the masses” here, since it is fundamental to Robin’s argument that the political success of the right comes from their ability to galvanize “the energy of the mass in order to reinforce or restore the power of elites.” A thicker description of the conservative rank and file would do a lot to help make Robin’s case.
In a similar vein, one of Robin’s most important insights, and a central part of his book’s argument, is his recognition of the ways in which the right borrows from the left’s repertoire of political tactics. “To destroy that enemy by some means or other,” Burke wrote of the Jacobins, “the force opposed to it should be made to bear some analogy and resemblance to the force and spirit which that system exerts.” Robin contends that, ever since Burke, conservatives have copied and learned from the revolutionaries they oppose. He argues they have especially adopted ideas of agency and rights-based claims to their advantage. Throughout the book, however, Robin depicts the left as static, amorphous, and capacious. If the right is defined by its opposition to and co-optation of the left, what is the left defined by? Without more discussion of how the left’s ideas tactics have evolved, many of The Reactionary Mind’s claims about the relationship between conservatism and the left are somewhat elliptical.
The linchpin of the new Reactionary Mind is Robin’s essay on Donald Trump, one of the most astute and useful interrogations of Trumpism to date. Rather than dwell on the “rhetorical brutality” of the president’s tweets and public statements, Robin’s treatment of Trump revolves around a close reading of his 1987 memoir Trump: The Art of the Deal. One might think that linking a text like this to the distinguished lineage of Burke, Maistre, and Hayek would be a tall order, and Robin does not try to argue that Trump is well versed in the work of conservative thinkers (save perhaps Ayn Rand, whose Fountainhead is one of the few books he has admitted to reading and liking). Instead, he reveals how Trump’s spontaneous philosophy embodies many of the central features of conservatism. Though Trump was frequently portrayed by both liberals and conservatives, especially during the campaign, as an unholy anomaly within the history of the modern Republican Party, Robin has little trouble assimilating him to the broader reactionary canon. All the things that supposedly separate Trump from the conservative tradition — his racism, his populism, his inconsistencies and contradictions — are in fact, in Robin’s eyes, central features of that tradition.
Robin views Trump as the symptom, not the cause, of widening fissures within the conservative movement primarily around its inability to balance elites and masses. In a somewhat counterintuitive argument, Robin argues that the weaknesses and instability of the Trump administration and the Republicans on Capitol Hill are a result of conservatism’s past successes, and proof that that it is on the decline. The decline of conservatism as an intellectual tradition — its increasing instability, incoherence, and irresponsibility — has occurred, in Robin’s opinion, less because of Trump’s furious tweet storms and doctrinal sloppiness and more because the right does not have a credible left to borrow from and react against. Over the last half-century, he argues, conservatives have been so successful at thwarting emancipatory movements that now it has nothing to unify it. Although Robin does acknowledge the achievements of Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and the Bernie Sanders campaign, he believes that none of these movements are strong enough to truly galvanize and discipline the right. Robin seems to perversely suggest, therefore, that those on the left should be rooting against such movements for social justice, lest it awake the sleeping giant.
It seems to me, however, that what Robin’s analysis reveals is why it has been so difficult for the various constituencies and movement on the left to pose a sustained response to Trump. Few activists have truly grappled with the deep roots of Trump’s worldview, and been willing to take seriously his ideas or those of conservatism writ large. The recent elections in Alabama offer a clear example that the best way to stave off Trumpism is to use the tried and true techniques of direct democracy and grassroots organizing, particularly in marginalized communities. The possibility of combining these tactics with the insights of works like The Reactionary Mind provide a glimmer of hope in this dark hour.
Lily Geismer is an associate professor of history at Claremont McKenna College. She is the author of Don’t Blame Us: Suburban Liberals and the Transformation of the Democratic Party (2015) and the co-editor of Crisis and Continuity in 20th Century U.S. Politics (forthcoming). She is currently working on a new project that examines the Democratic Party’s promotion of market-based solutions to problems of social inequality since the 1960s.