I know almost nothing about Ellen Degeneres. I know that to some she is a modern American hero, I know that she recently ruled out ever inviting Trump onto her show and I know that she likes to dance. This last thing I know because I watched her dance to millions of viewers with George W Bush. She had him on her show shortly after Trump’s inauguration: “I love your whole family,” she crooned, and the timing was not accidental. As respectable imaginations shivered at the thought of an orange bull raging through the Oval Office, here was a decent conservative. Time magazine summoned the memory of Bush’s speech after 9/11, where he pointedly refused to blame innocent Muslims for the atrocity. That he then blew up the homes, schools and hospitals of those innocent Muslims and murdered many thousands of them in Iraq and Afghanistan seemed somehow less important than his attachment to presidential decorum.
The whole bizarre experience summoned memories of that moment in 2011 when the first edition of Corey Robin’s book The Reactionary Mind was published. Its subtitle (updated in the second edition to Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump) caused considerable consternation for suggesting a lineage running from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin. The argument of the liberal rejecters was that contemporary conservatives are only warriors in heated political battles, their ideas mere veils for their agendas, but there was once an age of decorum, a time when political treatises were not props for election campaigns but statements of abstract, perhaps timeless principles. This is a kind of anti-historical mode of venerating the past, a view in which the past exists outside history and its struggles, and the first great virtue of this book is to refuse that. “Philosophy is class struggle in the field of theory,” Althusser long ago wrote, and intellectual historians come surprisingly close to acknowledging that when we prize Quentin Skinner’s claim that the pen is a mighty sword, that texts are weapons issuing interventions that aim to remould discursive fields. Once you add Ellen Wood’s insistence that the conflicts engaged by texts are “social” and not merely “discursive”, you get a good sense of this book’s underpinnings. The book is worthy of enormous admiration for breaking free of a disciplinary binary between history and politics, a binary that imposes antiquarianism on historians of political thought and a kind of abstraction on political theorists, who leave real political struggles to the historians who don’t want them – at least not present ones. Ideas are instead brought down to earth in this book.
Much of the scepticism about this way of treating ideas rests on a misguided sense that there exists a choice between instrumentalism and subtlety, a belief that claiming ideas are tools in political fights means seeing them as uncomplicated and intellectually uninteresting. The equation connecting partisanship to theoretical simplicity is really the predictable assumption of those who turn their noses up at any form of professed militancy: it is itself an instrumental view, and a bad one.
If seeing texts as weapons is no shameful accusation, how is The Reactionary Mind a weapon? First, reading conservatism as the defence of privilege is a political intervention because conservatism’s survival in regimes of popular suffrage requires it to present itself as a more universal project, seeking to benefit all – how it makes that self-presentation compelling is then the really interesting question. Secondly, the focus on moments of instability and crisis when democratic conservatism was forged uncovers the contingency, the constructedness of ways of thinking later disguised as organic, but making ideas weapons does more than that: implicitly it uncovers their antagonists, the various subaltern coalitions against which conservatives arraigned themselves. Narrating intellectual history in this way is to remind us that there was always a material possibility that things might have been otherwise.
There is a third sense in which analyses can be weapons, and it is the sense in which Marx’s heuristic of class is a weapon. Ostensibly descriptive pictures of the world can point the way to particular prescriptive conclusions. What are the prescriptions implied by this new edition of The Reactionary Mind? This is where matters get tough. We read throughout that conservatism is a reaction to the presence of the left. Admirably the new introduction opens with an acknowledgement that Trump’s victory, which does not come against a backdrop of mighty leftwing advances, might seem to threaten that hypothesis. The solution proffered here, which is that the sheer dazzling awfulness of Hilary Clinton forced a Trump victory but does not imply a revived conservatism, is shaky at best: it can hardly explain the proliferation of Trump-style politics in Europe, where centrist standard-bearers are usually pathetic but surely never as vile as the Clintons. The final note of the new chapter on Trump seems almost to suggest that its prescription is for the left to stay weak, since a revived left would give Trumpism an enemy against which to assemble a potent reactive ideological formation.
None of this is necessary, if only we read Trump as a product of the left’s absence, not its presence. This is the argument Steve Bannon made to Charlie Rose recently, where he insisted on Bernie Sanders as one of his few “smart” opponents in the Senate, one of the few to understand that stealing from Trumpism its monopoly on the rhetoric of anti-elitism would represent an existential threat to the movement. And in light of Robin’s puzzle about conservatism amid an invisible left it is notable that this last election did of course witness the strongest social-democratic upsurge in decades, during the Democratic primaries, and Trump did not depict Sanders as the threat against which he would ride into battle. Powerfully he constructed as enemies of the American worker the Clintons; Mexicans; Goldman Sachs – but not the political left, and this in a year when the left had reappeared somewhat. If Trumpism was a battle against the organized left, it was a deeply coded, covert one.
In stressing the frequently uneasy marriage between conservatism and capitalism, The Reactionary Mind cuts against a tendency on the left towards functionalism in engaging our opponents. This is to oppose the all-too-neat view that ideological formations on the right merely exist to grease the wheels of enemy systems, and they do so with perfect efficiency at least in non-revolutionary times. There is a risk, though, of reintroducing functionalism by the back door: if conservatism is a mechanism for crushing the left then its unrelated claims about its own autonomous, universal values are masks and deceits – ideology is either a lie or a delusion in this model – and its coalition has elites and their interests as the unceasingly determining element in a hegemonic bloc whose foot-soldiers are recruited from the ranks of the subaltern. They might be incorporated into the defence of privilege by such material buy-ins as whiteness, indigeneity and masculinity, but the right remains ultimately a class project for their dispossession on this view even as it also defends their markers of social status. Alliances of interest are built by allying the have-littles with the have-a-lots, united in looking down with fury and so shafting the have-nots most of all. This might work as a picture of Trump-style politics in the 1920s and ‘30s (to plenty on the New Left, fascism was the cynical adoption of racial and national myths to assemble democratic coalitions capable of saving capitalism) but it is less convincing today without the spectre of socialist revolution to cohere the right. Robin valuably refuses the imagery of sharp, neat, comforting, lazy breaks separating the right of old from the right we now face. But there is just a little too much continuity and not enough epochal specificity in this picture.
Perhaps we might instead distinguish a brand of reaction fitted to the “End of History”. This is to identify the subaltern politics that codes mass experiences of dispossession and disappointment as symptoms of the decline of right-wing norms and institutions and the ascent of left-wing values and demographics partly as an elite ploy to reframe popular anxieties but also as an attempt at genuinely anti-elitist politics at a time when social transformation has been rendered unthinkable, even frightening. It is that Panglossian pessimism, where we live in the best of all possible worlds and it is shit, that provides the backdrop for a new kind of right just as in the 1990s it generated a new, suffocatingly bland left. Unlike Thatcher and Reagan, Clinton and Blair, this is the politics of disenchantment in their era of no alternatives. This politics looks up and is not happy, but knows too that the age of ideologies is over. If one really wants to “drain the swamp” in a world where storming the Winter Palace is inconceivable, the most you can do is to elect a President and a Congress that offend the swamp-dwellers. If one wants to fight corrupt capitalists in a political universe where overthrowing or even reining in capitalism is a terrifying prospect, then finding a capitalist to fight your corner feels like salvation. It was unusually unabashed in Charlottesville, but nobody should be surprised that we now face the perfect feeding ground for a revived anti-Semitism. Jew-baiting is the original subaltern politics of the right. A nominally anti-systemic politics, it presents itself as a language of the oppressed and it has this non-revolutionary character: it says, “you can’t get rid of capitalism, but you can get rid of corrupt finance capitalists; you can’t get rid of all banks, but you can get rid of the Rothschild cabal.”
If Trumpism incorporates genuinely anti-elitist impulses, the relationship between sections of Trump’s base and the American ruling class is likely to be shakier than more functionalist left analyses suggest, and Trump’s difficulty in governing in alliance with the Republican establishment makes sense. His evident weakness in places, which Robin stresses against liberal fears about ascendant fascism, stems from Trumpism’s hodgepodge. His problem is not that conservatism lacks any agenda now, but that it has too many. There are really two Trumpisms, the politics of the elite and of anti-elitism and they are not as easily, enduringly stitched together as in the classic New Left gloss on fascism. The second, subaltern Trumpism is the more interesting, the more distinctive, the only one of the two that breaks at all from the trickle-down priorities of Reagan and Bush. Subaltern Trumpism finds its backers not among the most exploited or oppressed, but not among the satisfied either. It is opposed to those above and to those below. It is the answer to an American death spiral, where the only thing more awful, more suffocating than the hated status quo is thought to be the comprehensive overturning of that status quo – socialism, or the end of repressive regimes of race and gender. That is a spectacularly American sickness and a general one with a broad class base. It is paranoia post-McCarthyism. This is a conservatism whose condition of possibility is the left’s impossibility, not its presence.
On this view, those readers who objected to any equivalence between Burke and Palin should be told not only that Burke is more bloodthirsty than they think, but also (this is sure to upset them more) that Palin is more sophisticated than they think. She represented not a comic spasm but the genesis of a strategy for engaging long-run sentiments of disquiet through a lexicon fitted to the moment. Liberals laughed along with Tina Fey. This book does a valuable job in underscoring liberal cluelessness and it is an urgent lesson. Those whose primary ideological investment is in the integrity of the liberal state are unlikely to beat Trump’s brand of the right, whose base has matured beyond the grossest naivety about established forms of power. Much of what passes in today’s America for a “resistance” is composed of those invested in stability, terrified of ruptures, and so they have more in common with the current cabinet than they care to admit. It is fashionable now to say that nothing is predictable, that hegemony is broken. This I think we can still safely prophesy: there will come a time when Ellen Degeneres will dance with Donald Trump.