Syphilis Unbound: On Corey Robin's New Yorker Piece
Whose Fantasy? Whose Reality?
I read with great interest Corey Robin’s summation of the Trump phenomenon on the New Yorker website, “Trump and The Trapped Country.”
We are not witnesses to Prometheus unbound. We are seeing the sufferings of Sisyphus, forever rolling his rock—immigration reform, new infrastructure, green jobs—up a hill. It’s no wonder everyone saw an authoritarian at the top of that hill. When no one can act, any performance of power, no matter how empty, can seem real.
I believe Robin’s position can be restated thusly: Trump is not really a fascist, authoritarian, dictatorial etc. threat to democracy, rather the real threat to democracy is in the constitutional regime that frustrates any substantive democratic will-formation. The Republican Party and conservative movement relies on this constitutional order: the Senate, the courts, and the electoral college to maintain its undemocratic rule, and they have little use for a mass, demagogic appeal. Moreover, Trump was a bad candidate for demagogue: he was terrible at dominating his own party and his rhetoric actually pushed the American public in the other direction of his political projects. The vision of Trump as authoritarian or fascist is really a shared fantasy: a frustrated longing for democratic power and rule that can’t be accomplished under the present constitutional and political constraints. Robin does not really downplay the significance of Trump’s egging on of January 6th or the vileness of his rhetoric, but the main point for him about Trump’s supposed threat to democracy is actually a concealed wish about what the presidency and democracy ought to be like: a marshaling and focusing of the power of public opinion to create sweeping changes to the country.
As usual with Robin’s writing, it is a fine argument made with equally fine rhetoric and I am almost persuaded. In fact, I agree with much of it. But let me summarize what I would say instead, and then I will look at specifics from Robin’s piece I have some issues with. My position is this: Robin is absolutely correct about constitutional deadlock and paralysis, but this is precisely the type of political situation that occasioned fascists and their forebears. Before fascism was a word, the anti-parliamentarian and anti-democratic movements in the Third Republic longed for a strong leader to do away once-and-for-all with an impotent regime of trucking-and-bargaining and replace it with a single, decisive leader. This desire produced a lot of duds: General Boulanger dilly-dallied at the last moment when it seemed the initiative was on his side, Paul Deroulede’s desire for a “Republic through plebiscite” resulted in an attempted coup during the Dreyfus Affair, which was similarly farcical as the Boulanger affair and only seemed to empower the center-left’s politics of Republican defense.
These movements and initiatives never seized power. Their chances of success were dubious, but still probably better than Trump’s: sections of the Army and police were really opposed to the Republic. But what they did indicate was that the right was searching around for a new synthesis, a new form of politics that could use parts of the culture and tactics of democratic mass movements to put an end to democracy itself. Another such synthesis was antisemitism: when the old myths of Monarchism and Bonapartism seemed to be losing their power, conservative elites in the countryside seized on a new myth, of the Jewish syndicate controlling power and being the single cause of all deprivation and disaster. As the historian Nancy Fitch writes, “Dreyfus, the Jewish traitor, appeared almost miraculously in 1898 to save the cause of anti-parliamentarian conservatives.”
I think we can see strong similarities between both these failed and farcical strongmen, as well as the bizarre, conspiratorial theories of government and society (think QAnon) in the modern GOP. There were also hints of the kind of organized political street violence that Weimar is more famous for. These fantasies of the strongman and the desire to overcome a constitutional order that frustrated decisive action repeated in the fascist era, except then the fantasies became realities for a variety of causes.
One major cause that I feel Robin neglects is the cooperation of conservative elites. Neither Mussolini nor Hitler seized power in a dramatic coup, they liked to give the appearance they did, but the fact is they were welcomed in by conservative elites that wanted to use the mass support of the fascist movements to shore up their own projects. This is what I think people were afraid would happen with Trump. In those cases, conservative elites thought they could dominate these political neophytes and ended up being wrong. Maybe in the U.S. they just gambled correctly: as Robin points out, elites like McConnell could dominate Trump in important ways. Trump of course had no mass of organized squadristi and no “replacement state” waiting in the wings to threaten recalcitrant elements with. But the fact remains that Republican electoral chances and popularity seem to revolve around a willingness to—at least superficially—pay court to Trump. GOP voters may be getting the sense that they’ve been duped by their leaders, which has definitely been their experience in the past. And what remnant of popular power the GOP does have lies with raw Trumpian demagogy and not with an appeal to parliamentary procedure and the traditions of the Senate and the hallowed wisdom of the Court: even if it is, major sections of the right doesn’t feel it’s working; it’s just not visceral enough. I think that sentiment is an underrated contributor to Trump’s rise within the GOP. It’s worth asking: “How long will GOP voters suffer the rule of squishes whose constitutional, procedural obstructionism they don’t believe in anymore?”
Robin writes that, “The current moment is less reminiscent of the last days of Weimar than of Britain in the years before the Reform Act of 1832.” I also don’t feel that Weimar is quite the appropriate place to look, but I think it’s clear that we’re already in a different place than the (granted, very reluctant) conservative acceptance of constitutional reform that England witnessed. Again, The Third Republic seems like an interesting place to look to me, where there was a repeated search for the paradoxical mass anti-democratic alternative—a search that failed but nonetheless can be said to have weakened the national commitment to the democratic republic.
The strongman thesis was supposed to capture something novel on the right: not its cruelty or racism, which had long been observed by scholars and journalists, but its potential to end democracy itself.
I’m not sure I would say it’s novel. Whatever the other flaws of their analysis, the mid-century liberal commentators on the rise of the conservative movement identified it as a potential threat to democracy. The particular faction of the American right I focus on was very clear since the early ’90s that mass democracy and their ideal America were not compatible. (They were also not exactly as marginal as the mainstream right would lead us to believe.) Joe Sobran, then still a senior editor at National Review, wrote in one of his columns: “Now that democracy has overthrown communism, we can turn to the problem of how to overthrow democracy.” Sam Francis, around the same time: “[S]erious conservatives ought to ponder is whether the failure of the Reagan experiment means that conventional conservative policies can be implemented in a mass democracy.”
What these paleoconservatives wanted to find was a kind of scary demagogue to go around the liberal media and stir up a revolt from Middle Americans against the D.C. establishment. They believed the proceduralism and constitutionalism of the conservative elite wasn’t doing enough to stop the libs and the left anymore. In short, constitutionalism could no longer guarantee white rule. In a speech supporting Pat Buchanan, Murray Rothbard declaimed,
And in this era where the intellectual and media elites are all establishment liberal-conservatives, all in a deep sense one variety or another of social democrat, all bitterly hostile to a genuine Right, we need a dynamic, charismatic leader who has the ability to short-circuit the media elites, and to reach and rouse the masses directly. We need a leadership that can reach the masses and cut through the crippling and distorting hermeneutical fog spread by the media elites.
Their wish came true in Donald Trump, who fortunately was a total moron. Fantasies coming true usually have a tendency to disappoint. It’s also important to remember that we often only have a fantastical view of history as heroic or tragic. The thing that good scholarship reminds us about Mussolini and Hitler is that they were not the demigods of their propaganda: in many ways, they were just lucky sons of bitches. The great theorist of myth in politics Georges Sorel reminds us, rather surprisingly, of the paltriness of all things: “Revolutions closely resemble romantic dramas: the ridiculous and the sublime are mixed so inextricably together that we are often unsure how to judge men who seem to be at one and the same time buffoons and heroes.” We definitely seem to get much more of the ridiculous than the sublime these days.
I’m not sure about others, but certainly my interest in the history of fascism and its forebears is not to elevate the drama of the present day to the heights of tragedy and heroism, but rather to emphasize the proximity of the tragic and comic, and the ways utter buffoonery can tip into catastrophe. Marx, writing about Napoleon III, said he was the real Napoleon, the Napoleon sans phrase, because he revealed the actual squalor and absurdity of the Napoleonic myth. Maybe Trump can do the same for the history of fascism: to help us undo the myth-making of fascist propaganda and reveal “that’s all there is,” to quote Trump’s favorite song.
The events of January 6th straddled a fine line between the comic and the tragic. There’s undoubtedly something darkly funny about the delusions of Trump believing he won the election and his supporters believing against all evidence they are still a majority in a country that has passed them by. But the picture becomes less sanguine when we think that these delusions are not just mistakes, but lies, something active and aggressive and not just passive, and lies that can clearly animate people to violence. It seems hard to deny that the notion that only certain people can be the real rulers of the nation has a resonance with fascism. The fact that the balance tipped towards the absurd this time no doubt has many structural reasons. But structures can change and next time we might not be so lucky.