Same Old Song and Dance: On Robert Kagan’s “Rebellion”

Who is to blame for Trump? Bill Thompson reviews Robert Kagan’s “Rebellion: How Antiliberalism Is Tearing America Apart—Again.”

By Bill ThompsonJune 14, 2024

Same Old Song and Dance: On Robert Kagan’s “Rebellion”

Rebellion: How Antiliberalism Is Tearing America Apart—Again by Robert Kagan. Knopf. 256 pages.

HE WAS derided as a “transparent charlatan,” dangerously stoking “the passions and prejudices of the ignorant.” South Carolina Senator Benjamin “Pitchfork” Tillman (1847–1918), that is—a demagogue infamous for his paramilitary fervor and white supremacist views, including his ardent defense of lynching.


Donald Trump’s own rhetoric approaches that of fire-eating Southern Redeemers, in tone if not in substance, and his predictions of a “bloodbath” if he’s not reelected harbor the same appeal to his followers as Tillman’s calls for a restored antebellum social order did to his post-Reconstruction listeners.


Misguided patriots on the MAGA Right are certainly to blame for the rise of populist authoritarianism, but the Left also bears some guilt, says conservative scholar Robert Kagan in his new book, Rebellion: How Antiliberalism Is Tearing America Apart—Again. “One of liberalism’s great weaknesses has always been the belief in its own inevitability,” he writes.


Kagan views liberalism as defined by the Revolutionary War generation, a set of guiding principles of the United States. It is easy to forget just how radical these ideals were at the time, a triumph of reason over revelation, and foremost a mechanism for safeguarding individual rights. “The new, radically liberal tradition in America would from the beginning be accompanied by an antiliberal tradition every bit as potent,” writes Kagan, also a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.


But taking a selective view of the Revolution and the republic’s founding is not unique to Trump supporters. Kagan’s generally evenhanded analysis shows there is nothing distinct in the current populist movement or its authoritarian impulse, apart from its buffoonish figurehead. The same forces of anti-liberalism always have been with us, merely submerged when broader public sentiment was not in their favor. But as Kagan warns, “The institutions that America’s founders created to safeguard liberal democratic government cannot survive when half the country does not believe in the core principles that undergird the American system of government.” He views the 2024 presidential election not as “the usual contest between Republicans and Democrats” but rather as “a referendum on whether the liberal democracy born out of the Revolution should continue. […] Although this crisis seems unprecedented, the struggle that is tearing apart the nation today is as old as the republic.”


Many, Kagan argues, have rebelled against these principles, from the slaveholding South and Reconstruction South to the second coming of the Ku Klux Klan, from the Dixiecrats to Joseph McCarthy and the John Birch Society, from the Christian nationalist movement to the New Right of the Reagan era, from QAnon to the Trump-dominated Republican Party of today.


Suspicion of government was an animating force in American politics from the beginning, as was the tension between states’ rights and central authority. They remain so today. The belief that all Americans are committed to the nation’s founding principles is “a pleasing myth, or perhaps a noble lie,” says Kagan.


“All these antiliberal groups […] have feared that their idea of America as a nation of ‘small government, maximum freedom, and a white, Christian populace’ was under attack,” Kagan writes. And the bogeymen have been the same: “All have believed elite cabals involving ‘Wall Street,’ Jewish bankers, ‘cosmopolitans,’ Eastern intellectuals [including the ‘liberal media’], foreign interests, and Black people have conspired to keep the common white man down.” Thus, they have also “sought to ‘make America great again,’ by defending and restoring the old hierarchies and traditions that predated the Revolution.” Invariably, they have failed.


The chief, and at times reassuring, virtue of Rebellion is this historical perspective, alloyed with Kagan’s hopeful tone. Yet his survey occasionally succumbs to overstatement, couched in the usual alarmist predictions: “As in the past, millions of Americans are rebelling against the constitutional order and the liberalism it protects, and millions more, out of blind political allegiance, fear and hatred of the Democratic Party and ‘woke’ culture, and out of ignorance or indifference to the consequences,” he writes, “are willing to go along with their party’s radical antiliberal wing even if it leads to the overthrow of the American system of government and perhaps the dissolution of the nation.”


However vulnerable it is, one suspects the United States is more resilient than that, and that sufficient powers remain to restrain or counter the anti-liberal push. But there’s also an element of wishful thinking in Rebellion, such as supposing Trump is a one-off phenomenon, that Trumpism and the greatest risks to the republic will dissolve when he passes from the scene. Perhaps, but don’t bet a bundle on it.

LARB Contributor

Bill Thompson is the author of As Luck Would Have It: A Journalist’s Memoir (2024).

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