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A Book for Reactionary Times

Corey Robin's studies in the conservative tradition explain the rise of Trump.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty

In 2017, everyone wants to know why. Why Trump, why mass shootings, why student debt, why anything? And why does Republican Party policy enable the worst of today’s catastrophes? There are no prophets, so we are on our own and must discern for ourselves the shape of the society we inhabit. Six years ago, Corey Robin, a Brooklyn College professor of political science, attempted just this: His 2011 book The Reactionary Mind looked at the major figures of the conservative tradition and attempted to trace how conservative thought in America had become increasingly radical.

Published in the wake of the Bush years, Robin’s book took the spectacle of Sarah Palin as its anchor. Political journalists held Palin up as a deviation from the Republican Party’s attitudes rather than an accurate reflection of them. Whereas traditional conservatives valued small government, a balanced budget, and restrained conduct in public, Palin was more impulsive, less coherent, and more reactionary. Robin disagreed, placing Palin within the history of conservative ideas. His central contention was that conservative thought principally reacts against egalitarian demands; it is committed to conserving a social order marked out by hierarchy. It has opposed the labor movement, the LGBT rights movement, the feminist movement, the civil rights movement because each has threatened that hierarchy—and conservatives’ grasp on power. The book’s second edition, eagerly awaited, now swaps out Palin for the commander-in-chief.

Palin and Trump both demand some sort of unifying theory. How can it be that the party of Senator Ben Sasse—who enjoys a mostly-unearned reputation as a moderate—is also the party of Trump? The answer is even less difficult to discern than it was in 2011, yet the center-left seems befuddled by Trump, unable to describe his actions in any way more precise than in the mantra “this is not normal.”

The Trump presidency invited a re-evaluation of The Reactionary Mind: In 2016, a New Yorker headline called it “The Book That Predicted Trump,” while in March Bookforum recommended it as an “indispensable guide to how adeptly conservatives looked upon the age of Obama.” But the second edition is more truly a book for our time. Trump makes sense as a quintessentially conservative figure, and so did Palin. His peculiarities do not place him outside the movement that propelled each of them to prominence. His populism is as substantive as his business acumen; his rhetoric is empty. He is an elitist, and he understands what it means to thoroughly embrace the free market. In some respects, he’s the most honest conservative in power.

Robin’s new edition leaves Trump for the end, and builds inexorably up to his presidency through a combination of old material and newer essays. Burke’s theory of value and Nietzsche’s influence on the Austrian school of economics make up the other two new additions. This arrangement is still prone to some of the flaws of the original; it can be sweeping in places. But it remains a keen and necessary book, one that informs our understanding of Trump’s particular grandiosities. Robin’s second edition ties Burke’s conviction that the market, and the “monied men” who control it, should determine value to Nietzsche’s passionate attachment to the idea of an aristocratic, cultural taste-making class and both, eventually, to Trump.

Burke scorned both the Levellers and the French Revolution, mostly for the same reason: They wanted to overthrow an order that he wanted to preserve. His theories of value were central to defining and defending that order. Robin credits Burke with arguing both that value is “subjective,” and that there is an objective “hierarchy of value that divides and distinguishes rich from poor, capital from labor.” Similarly, Nietzsche later feared that the demands of workers presented serious threats to his sense of order, writing that they would tear “down the walls of culture.” In this he resembles not only the ideals of the Austrian school but that of contemporary conservatives, who frequently speak of the dignity of work and the glories of free enterprise as though both comprise some intrinsic cultural facet of American national identity. When they praise “liberty,” and defend America’s role in defending it, this is what they mean. Conservatives may praise the worker when it is time to win Wisconsin’s electoral votes, but when they are in power we see who they really admire, and that is the CEO. If workers were able to determine their own value, they would hardly occupy such a low position.

At the core of the conservative tradition is the defense of the stratification of society into upper and lower classes. Conservatives do not all justify this stratification in the same way, or communicate it in the same terms. Some, like Palin, conceive of it as a religious order. Others prefer pure Randian narcissism. But they share a belief in hierarchy, and an opposition to egalitarianism. Most call it liberty, and a few probably believe that they are telling the truth. Beneath this, their populism is a marketing gimmick. It’s meant to lull us, to sell us something.

And so we have Trump, salesman-in-chief. He has “revised” the conservative script, Robin argues, but his most virulent qualities do not subvert it at all. “The racism of the Trumpist right is nastier than its most recent predecessors,” he writes. “But the weaponization of racism and nativism under Trump is an intensification of a well-established tradition on the right, as studies of American conservatism from the 1920s through the Tea Party have shown.” Strom Thurmond and Lee Atwater might be dead, but their party hasn’t turned away from white supremacy. The war on drugs, hardline immigration policies, the privatization of public schools, the weakening of organized labor: Republican policies still disproportionately target people of color and reinforce the injustices previously visited on them by slavery, Jim Crow and violent, organized groups. Trump’s racism is only a more open expression of older beliefs. So is the manner in which he politicizes his own wealth.

Trump is not especially well-versed in the history of conservative ideas, as Robin allows in the book. But Trump’s ascent shows that one need not be conversant with the conservative tradition in order to take an important place in it. Trump’s canny callbacks to Reagan require only instinctive revanchism; he doesn’t need to seriously consider any political questions in order to invoke the Gipper and reap the adulation of college Republicans in all fifty states. Nor is his celebration of wealth out of step with conservative norms. Where he presents a challenge to conservatives, it is because he puts forward what Robin calls “competing visions of the market.”

In The Art of the Deal, Robin writes, Trump “mounts a persistent, almost poignant question of the value of capitalism.” “A lot of attention alone creates value,” the book asserts. Meanwhile, Trump celebrates the market, and the position he has created for himself within it. It is a world, and he is its strongman.

For Robin, this is a telling admission: “The market is a moment of truth—and an eternity of lies. It reveals; it hides. It is everything; it is nothing. It shall be all; it is naught.” Trump believes in the market. He believes in himself as an economic “warrior prince,” to use Robin’s term. And he grasps the utter futility of it all. “That is the truth about capitalism that is revealed in The Art of the Deal,” Robin concludes. “There is no truth. It’s a show about nothing.” Trump doesn’t even really possess a clear conviction in the power of the state. He takes too literally the conservative idea that government should be run like a business.

Trump’s literalism serves as a useful indicator of the conservative movement’s general health. And the news, Robin argues, is not good. For Republicans. Trump’s agenda, which is a Republican agenda, has stalled. His popularity is plummeting; a poll released on Tuesday suggests that most American voters currently hope the Democratic party recaptures Congress. Trump hasn’t been able to channel resentment into governance, and his failures leave the conservative movement vulnerable to its opposite: The left.

When the first edition of Robin’s book appeared the left’s power was waning. “Why, in an era of extreme unemployment, rising inequality and social dislocation,” Sheri Berman asked in her review of the book, “is it the right rather than the left that generated a movement like the Tea Party? Why are mass protests railing against tax increases rather than demanding more progressive and activist government?” Neither the center-left or the socialist left marshalled the sort of political intransigence that captured state legislatures and pushed Congress into a hostage situation with the far-right.

That is no longer true. From Black Lives Matter to the second life of Democratic Socialists of America, the left is on the move. Its energy helped propel a flagging Democratic Party to unforeseen success in Virginia’s recent delegate races, and proposals like Medicare for All are increasingly popular. The conservative fixation on the market, and the market’s ability to lock society into the correct order of life, means that any ideological response to a conservative president must feature economics prominently in its analysis. It’s impossible to counter either near-religious fervor in the market’s liberatory potential or Trump’s grotesque materialism without a competing, egalitarian economic vision. If equality is a turn in the seat of power, as Robin defines it, we must take on the economic forces that keep it out of reach just as we take on racism, sexism, and homophobia.

In this effort, we will find no allies in the conservative movement. Moderate conservatives are mostly useful as a vote against the worst of Trump’s legislative agenda. Otherwise, the drive to anoint a William F. Buckley or an Irving Kristol some lost avatar of sensible intellectualism is a pathological one and it will condemn any resistance effort to failure. Conservatives will never work for you, unless you are already rich or pious or white or male. The problem is not particularly egregious conservative politicians like Trump or Palin, but conservative politics. Ours must be better. We can only respond to a show about nothing with something; with substance, and with political force.