It’s been a full month since Election Day, and Donald Trump still refuses to concede to Joe Biden. Instead, he continues to insist that he won, making baseless accusations of widespread election fraud and enlisting the aid of a comical crew of sycophants to press legal challenges to the vote totals in swing states—all of which have been laughed out of court. Trump’s ongoing efforts to overturn millions of votes have prompted a public debate over whether to describe his actions as a “coup” or something similar. This is just the most recent phase of a wider debate dating back to the beginning of Trump’s presidency over whether Trump represents a “fascist” or “authoritarian” rupture with the Republican Party pre-2016.
One of the leading critics of that interpretation has been Corey Robin, a professor of political science at the CUNY Graduate Center and the author of an influential and controversial 2011 book on the history of conservative thought, The Reactionary Mind. This week, I spoke to Robin about the Trump presidency as it enters its final months. In contrast to the popular conception of Trump as an incipient fascist dictator and a break with American liberal institutions and norms, for Robin, Trump threatens liberalism only to the extent that movement conservatism in general has over many decades, and is otherwise a weak leader whose power is largely constrained by broader political conditions. Whether or not one fully agrees with every point, Robin offers a provocative alternative to some of the more unhinged reactions to the Trump era from the self-proclaimed Resistance.
This interview has been lightly edited. It originally appeared in yesterday’s email newsletter, to which you can subscribe here.
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.
DK: You’ve maintained from the beginning that Trump is actually a historically weak president, in spite of his authoritarian bluster. Can you elaborate on why you thought so back in 2017, how those predictions have been borne out since, and what makes Trump weaker than other recent presidents?
CR: I thought Trump was weak for two reasons, neither having anything to do with his skill or character, but with larger political forces and structures.
The first is that conservatism is an inherently reactionary politics that depends on the real threat of an active, emancipatory left: not the specter of a threat, not the discourse on Twitter, but an actual social movement that has taken state power and is engaged in a project of dispossession of elites. When the left is defeated or disappears, the right’s power ebbs. That is what has happened in the US. The left is, historically speaking, relatively weak, so it’s difficult for the right to get the juice it needs.
Trump’s presidency reflected that: Compared to the Republican presidencies of Nixon, Reagan, and George W. Bush, Trump’s was significantly less transformational, and its legacy is far less assured. Next to “law and order” and “the silent majority” (which Nixon made part of our political grammar), next to “the era of big government is over” (which Reagan bequeathed to Clinton as the ruling doctrine of the age), next to Bush’s war on terror and the Department of Homeland Security and the Patriot Act, none of Trump’s attempts to permanently transform the political climate—not of the Republican Party but of the whole political culture—seems even remotely comparable. With the exception of the tax cuts, Trump was hardly able to get much legislation through Congress; many of his executive orders will be undone by Biden; the only custodian of his legacy, ironically, will be the courts, which many had seen as the antidote to Trumpism and caretaker of the rule of law.
The second reason I thought Trump would be weak is that all presidents are elected to oppose or defend a larger political regime. A regime, in US political history, is the combination of ideology, interests, and policies that govern over an extended period of time. In American history, we had the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republican regime, Jackson’s Democratic regime, Lincoln’s Republican regime, FDR’s New Deal regime, and now Reagan’s free market regime. Whatever the party of a specific president elected may be, he will be forced to operate under the larger regime’s assumptions and expectations of good governance. Bill Clinton was a Democrat, but he had to govern like a Republican; Eisenhower was a Republican, but he had to govern like a Democrat.
There are some presidents who are affiliated with a dominant regime, but the regime is vulnerable. Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter were those kinds of presidents, and they are considered to be among the weakest. From the moment Trump was elected, I thought he belonged in that Hoover/Carter category. The Reagan regime is increasingly unable to provide the answers and policies to govern the country, much in the same way that the New Deal seemed unable to offer answers during the 1970s. The fact of that weakness made Trump quite weak. Again, the fact that he was so unable to push through legislation, that his budgets were more liberal, in some ways, than Barack Obama’s, and that the Republicans, when they controlled all the elected branches of government, were not able to implement big parts of their program—all that suggests how weak the Republican regime is.
In the coming years, once the emotional context of Trump’s presidency fades away, I think more and more people will see just how weak he really was.
DK: The historian Timothy Snyder, among other prominent public intellectuals, has argued that Trump's approach to the presidency resembles that of 20th-century dictators like Hitler or Mussolini. The obvious counter is that Trump is going to submit to the election result, but are people like Snyder completely off-base? Trump may be lazy and incompetent, and US institutions may be stronger than some predicted, but is it fair to characterize Trump and his hardcore supporters as far-right, illiberal, even fascist, and at the very least a test of how much strain the Constitution can endure?
CR: There is no question, in my mind, that Trump and his supporters are far-right and illiberal. I’ve said so from the beginning. One of my differences with Snyder and people who subscribe to the view that Trump is a fascist or authoritarian is that their desire to call Trump that often arises from a failure to understand conservatism more generally, which has always been a far-right and illiberal and anti-liberal form of politics. Many of the attributes people decry in Trump and his followers were primary features of the conservatism I was describing in The Reactionary Mind (and got a lot of flak from liberals for so describing). To my mind, the comparisons between Trump and Hitler or Mussolini come from people who only began thinking about American conservatism and the Republican Party when Trump came along.
I would also reject some of the premises of your question. The issue is not that Trump is lazy or incompetent, though he is. As I said in my previous answer, the real reason for Trump’s ineffectiveness has virtually nothing to do with Trump and everything to do with the larger forces on the right that I discussed. Virtually any Republican president elected in 2016 (and I’m not sure anyone but Trump could have been elected) would have been as constrained in their effectiveness as Trump has been.
Conversely, I also think it’s wrong to say that the reason Trump didn’t prevail is that the institutions were stronger than people feared. This is part of an argument that is often falsely posed by liberals and the left: If you assert that Trump is weak and will fail, as I have said from the beginning, people assume that means that the institutions will constrain him. That’s nonsense: American institutions have often been the friend of the most authoritarian projects, as I argued in my first book, Fear: The History of a Political Idea. And in fact, to the extent that Trump’s politics had any juice at all, it was precisely because the institutions support that politics. Where would Trump be without the Electoral College or the Senate confirming his judges and justices—and where would Trumpism be under a Biden administration without the Senate and the courts?
It’s ironic to me that people would choose this moment, and Trump’s presidency, to assign the label “fascist” to the right, for what fascism is about, above all else, is a politics of strength and will. That’s why fascists traditionally loathe the constitutional order: because they think it constrains the assertion of political will. The irony of Trumpist/GOP politics is that it is completely dependent upon the constitutional order. In that regard, it’s almost the complete opposite of fascism.
DK: Okay, we’ve made it through the Trump era, almost, probably. But are we really out of the woods? How strong a president do you expect Biden to be, and is the US at any risk of drifting toward illiberalism in the foreseeable future?
CR: We’re definitely not out of the woods, but not for the reason I think you mean. What we’ve learned over the last decade—and what Trump’s bombast allowed many liberals and the left to avoid—is how much our political institutions constrain action. Assuming the Democrats don’t win the Senate seats in Georgia, we are going to reach the end of 2022 having endured 12 years of political immobility. That is, from Obama’s time in office after the midterms of 2010 to Biden’s time after the midterms of 2022, we’ll have had virtually no legislation dealing with any of the challenges of the day and a lot of executive orders that temporarily change things and then get undone by the next president. It seems so strange to me that people spoke so much of authoritarianism under Trump when what we’ve been seeing for years now, including the Trump years, is political impotence, the absence of political will. And without the left getting its act together, I don’t see that changing any time soon. That is something to be very worried about.