David Kilon interviews Corey Robin about the real dangers posed by Trumpism and the new conservatism of the Republican Party. Hint, it is not authoritarianism.
David Klion: It’s pretty clear at this point that we are not going through an actual coup and that Biden is going to be inaugurated as president on January 20th, whether Trump wants to admit it or not. At the same time, nothing quite like what’s happening now has ever happened before in the United States. How would you describe what Trump and his dead-enders are doing, and how concerned should we be in terms of the stability of US political institutions?
Corey Robin: You can’t understand what’s happening now without a historical perspective on conservatism and the right. The right was born in response to the French Revolution, as a reaction against the democratic emancipation of the commoner. Across more than two centuries and many continents, the right has never lost that reactionary ethos.
But what the right learned, slowly, over time, was that to mobilize against a democratic and democratizing left, it could not simply assert a traditional, static, and familiar defense of hierarchy; instead, it had to mobilize a dynamic movement of the masses, a populist politics of the right to counter the masses of the left. That populism was never democratic, but it knew how to draw from the tropes of democracy to push back against democracy. It learned how to use the languages of racism, nationalism, imperialism, and sexism to give a broad circle of the masses a taste of privilege over their subordinates. The fruition of that long learning process—of using populist vernaculars against democracy—was the American right that emerged in response to the 1960s and the New Deal.
For all the talk of Trump’s populism and racism and nationalism, the fact is that he was far less successful at using those vernaculars to mobilize the masses than his predecessors on the right—Nixon, Reagan, and George W. Bush. Nixon and Reagan were re-elected with large popular majorities. Trump, like Bush, lost the popular majority the first time around, and unlike Bush, lost it a second time around.
What Trump and the Republican Party have grown increasingly dependent upon are not populism or mass politics of any sort, but rather the Electoral College, the Senate, and the courts. Historically speaking, this is a great—and terrible—reversion for the right, a return to the time when it depended not on its popular touch but on its control over anti-democratic state institutions. It makes today’s right a lot weaker than the right of the Reagan era, and makes it seem much more like the Tories of early 19th-century Britain.
This is why you now see Trump doing what he’s trying to do with the vote. The Republicans can’t win presidential campaigns the way they once did: Since 1992, they have won the popular vote exactly once. Their only hope now is a combination of the Electoral College and the courts.
Far from being concerned about US institutions being insufficiently stable or resilient enough to contain Trump or a similar figure, I’m far more concerned about the stifling stability and resilience of institutions like the Electoral College, the courts, and the Senate, and their ability to prop up Trump and the GOP.