Let’s save the nostalgia
Understanding conservatism is Corey Robin’s specialty.
His book The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin — which Robin is updating for a reissue this spring — posits that the defining thread the movement that now defines the Republican Party is “the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back” — or, in other words, “Make America Great Again.”
Well, not just America.
According to Robin, conservatism — since its genesis as a response to the French Revolution — “has always been a reactionary doctrine. And specifically what it has been a reaction against are movements of disposed classes that are trying to assert some agency or power on behalf of themselves,” Robin told Daniel Denvir on a recent episode of The Dig podcast.
Conservatism’s genius, Robin argues, is that it continually presents a new defense of keeping power in the hands of those who have been blessed by birth with it.
This is how Donald Trump can both be seen as abomination of Goldwater’s great legacy by conservatives while presenting characteristics of the “alpha male/strict father” mindset that make him the most conservative ever to conservative.
“In the course of that reaction, conservatism never simply reiterates a simple or obvious defense of privilege. It always invents a new defense and a new argument,” Robin said. “And in the course of presenting that new argument, that new defense, it often times borrows from the very movement it is opposing.”
Hence, a movement that prides itself on despising Hollywood and celebrity has ended up with B-level representatives of Hollywood celebrity as its standard bearer twice in the last 36 years.
But, you may argue, what Trump and Reagan have little in common, except the intense desire for Trump to not pay taxes.
This is where Robin’s insight into the right becomes controversial, I think.
We want to believe that Trump is qualitatively different from George W. Bush, that he and Sarah Palin represent a break from a once-great tradition.
The focus on the dynamism of conservatism’s current insanity reinforces the sense that Trump, Palin and the Tea Party are a degradation of a tradition that was already in decline from George W. Bush and Dick Cheney as compared to the nobler Reagan and at least competent Richard Nixon. But for Robin, I think, this fixation on the evolution of the right’s rhetorical strategies and approaches misses that conservatism contains “reactionary qualities that are consistent across time.”
Robin believes radicalism, fanaticism, populism and erraticism we suggest are particular to Trump — or the Tea Party, Neo-Cons or Newt Gingrich — “have been present in conservatism since the beginning.”
Why does Robin think that we need believe that the opponent that we face is different this time? This is where Robin pisses off a lot liberals and moderates.
“Liberals have this odd faith or belief that somehow or another whoever the contemporary ogre is on the right — Donald Trump — that somehow or another his predecessor was more virtuous or reasonable or moderate.”
He notes that the creeping rehabilitation of George W. Bush smacks of this urge. Pining for for Bush in the face of Trump requires forgetting the extraordinary failures of his administration, many of which were intentional — like blowing the surplus, changing bankruptcy laws, regressive labor and environmental policies. And that’s before you attempt to calculate the the atrocity of the Iraq War, an atrocity of extraordinary proportions that killed or wounded millions, including tens of thousands of American soldiers. And it’s an ongoing atrocity that has enabled the silent escalation of wars across the Middle East including Syria in which Donald Trump is now engaged.
Hoping to otherize Trump from the history of Republicanism was a conscious strategy of the Clinton campaign as part of a strategy to win a landslide, by winning over worried Republicans. And it probably would had worked if not for the sudden intervention of James Comey to validate a narrative of “emails” corruption proffered by Trump and reasserted in vague yet unrelenting ways the Wikileaks.
George Lakoff argued the choice to focus on Trump’s personal obnoxiousness and slurs of women and a disabled reporters actually helped Trump. His “supporters liked him for forcefully saying things that liberals found outrageous. They were ads paid for by the Clinton campaign that raised Trump’s profile with his potential supporters!”
Planned Parenthood held focus groups with Trump supporters that found fixating on the GOP nominee’s personal failings helped him in another way.
“It seemed as if Trump’s lasciviousness, which Clinton hoped would disqualify Trump with women, actually worked in his favor,” Michelle Goldberg wrote in Slate. “The focus group participants couldn’t imagine that Trump would enact a religious right agenda.”
Nixon has been called the last progressive president because he signed laws that created the EPA and OSHA and raised taxes on the rich. But he — like Reagan — was moderated and ultimately reined by Democratic Houses and Senate. And Nixon help lengthen the Vietnam War, preventing Lyndon Johnson from ending it in 1968, costing hundreds of thousands if not millions life or limb.
Historian Rick Pearlstein notes that while Trump has nothing on Nixon now, he may yet have a nuclear holocaust, say on the Korean peninsula, chambered and ready. And that fear of the apocalypticism of the right, which has always been a part of American conservatism, was a pretty persuasive argument — until the Access Hollywood tape and Comey and likely Russian interference endorsed by the GOP nominee left us with a race that seemed entirely outside the realm of recognizable history.
Corey Robin suggests that his liberal critics “want to believe in this reasonable conservatism in part because I think it legitimates and allows them to affirm a kind of benign and genial and non-confrontational liberalism.”
Imagining reasonable opponents forgives you for approaching conservatism with your liberal brain that believes logic and reason can and eventually will conquer all.
Unfortunately, this blind faith and nostalgia for a conservatism that never existed has given us true avatar of the movement, unchecked by Congress and any of the small-government pretenses that the movement has affected for decades.
[Image via @realDonaldTrump.]