Corey Robin is the author of “The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump.” The New Yorker described the first edition of this book as “the book that predicted Trump.” The newly issued second edition looks to put President Trump in the context of the conservative movement and explain him. I interviewed Robin about the book.
HF: Many people, including “Never Trumpers,” claim that Donald Trump is an aberration from more “respectable” Burkean conservatism. Why do you largely disagree with that assessment?
CR: If you look at respectable conservatism since the French Revolution, you’ll find many of the elements that we see in Trumpism: an embrace of violence and an apocalyptic rhetoric of friends and enemies; hostility to existing institutions, conventions, customs, traditions, established elites and the law; and populist appeals to the force of the multitude and the mass.
When I began writing about the right nearly two decades ago, I believed the standard story that Never Trumpers tell about Trump: Conservatism once was a respectable discipline of the governing classes; now it is the property of ideologues and fanatics, the crazy and the cruel. Only back then, the ideologues and fanatics were neoconservatives bent on invading Iraq and declaring an American Empire.
As I began reading the history and canon of the right, I found far more consistency than rupture. I also found — in the 1950s, in response to McCarthyism, Bill Buckley and National Review; in the 1960s and 1970s, in response to Goldwater and Nixon; in the 1980s, in response to Reagan; in the 1990s, in response to Gingrich; in the aughts, in response to Bush and the neocons; more recently, in response to the tea party — a perpetual reinvention of the most recent conservative past as a golden age of responsible and moderate men. Now we’re seeing, under Trump, a reinvention of Bush and the neocons, the very fanatics and ideologues we once believed were a break from the past.
At what point do we start treating these incarnations as the rule rather than the exception?
There are innovations with Trump, but the elements of his rhetoric and regime most people focus on are not, by and large, breaks with the past.
HF: Conservatives, ranging from Trump to intellectuals like Friedrich von Hayek, have increasingly come to see businessmen as the heroes of the modern era. Why is this so?
CR: One feature of conservatism across time has been the embrace of great, exceptional men, who rise above the fray, turning a gray modernity into sharper, severer, more dramatic contrasts of black and white.
Throughout the 19th century, many conservatives believed the market was the sphere of small men. Those conservatives looked to war and diplomacy — high affairs of state — as the sphere of great men. But other conservatives had a different idea: Maybe the market could be the place where a new kind of great man, a new aristocrat, could relieve us all from the tyranny of smallness. With time, they became dominant.
One reason for the rise of these economic conservatives was that the left began politicizing the market, depicting capitalism not as an economic system but as a form of rule. As much as some conservatives were repelled by that idea, others saw in it a possibility: to recreate opportunities for greatness not on the battlefield but in the market itself.
Another reason is that war became just another racket, bureaucratized like the modern corporation (Robert McNamara came from Ford), with minimal opportunities for individual heroism on the battlefield.
Trump is the avatar of this notion of the economy as the sphere of great men. Though he is also, and this is why he’s a departure from the right, weirdly ambivalent about that notion.
HF: You argue that conservatives are most enlivened when they face an active and vigorous left. Why is this so?
CR: Conservatism is a defense of established hierarchies, but it is also fearful of those established hierarchies. It sees in their assuredness of power the source of corruption, decadence and decline. Ruling regimes require some kind of irritant, a grain of sand in the oyster, to reactivate their latent powers, to exercise their atrophied muscles, to make their pearls.
Sometimes war is that catalyst. (We saw this in the right-wing discourse of the 1990s, which mourned the end of the Cold War and longed for a 9/11-type event; when it got that, the right was ecstatic.)
But an active, emancipatory, threatening, in-the-streets left puts the question, as no other political phenomenon does, of life and death for the ruling class, on the table. It forces the right to examine the regime’s weaknesses, to ask itself what is it willing to do, in an existential sense, to save the regime.
Sometimes, the challenge of war and from the left goes together, as Theda Skocpol reminded us in her book on revolutions. But usually war isn’t enough: Without a challenge from the left, as we saw in Bush’s second term, the right can’t be truly invigorated.
HF: Your book talks about the very different ways in which Edmund Burke, the great conservative, and Adam Smith, the great economist, thought about values and markets. Why are these differences important?
CR: People on the right and the left agree on this stereotype of Smith and Burke: The former was the defender of unregulated markets, the latter was the traditionalist critic of the market; from Smith we get neoliberalism, from Burke we get social conservatism.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Smith was extraordinarily sympathetic not just to the role of workers in creating the capitalist economy but also to their claims against their employers. He was quite sensitive to the power of capital, not only by virtue of its backing from the state, but also — and this is something Smith’s libertarian defenders and leftist critics overlook or deny — by virtue of its accumulation of wealth, its possession of capital, and its greater power in the market. Finally, he had a notion of value apart from the market, outside the bargains people strike, which could be used as a source of critique and leverage — as many labor radicals discovered in the 19th century — against the contract and exchanges of the marketplace.
Burke is almost the opposite. If you study carefully his economic writings after the French Revolution, you see none of Smith’s celebration of labor. Burke defends employers against employees. He argues against what we now call a living wage, claiming that whatever an employer is willing to pay is what a worker’s work is worth. But most important of all, he sees the man of capital — whether that man is financing government loans or employing labor — as the source and determinant of value. Not just economic value, but also, as I argue in the book, moral and cultural value.
This, it seems to me, is the beginning of what — and here I am being deliberately anachronistic — we often call neoliberalism. There’s been some excellent work, most recently from Bethany Moreton and Melinda Cooper, knitting the threads between contemporary neoliberalism and social conservatism. Burke’s writing shows us how those threads were knit from the beginning.
Smith’s writing, conversely, shows us that a deep appreciation of the role of power and inequality in the market is not foreign to what we in the United States think of as the liberal tradition.