Talking Heads

On Sunday, I was interviewed by Kai Wright on his excellent NPR show “The United States of Anxiety.” The other guest who came on after me was some musician named David Byrne. Wright and I talked about Biden, his State of the Union Address, and why his presidency hasn’t turned out to be an FDR-style transformational presidency. You can catch the show here. In other news, I’ve got some pieces in the hopper. Look for some mammoth essays on Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes, both of which I’ve been working on for about two years, and a shorter take on the idea of late capitalism. Will share them when they’re out.

On the anniversary of January 6 and other matters

I had two pieces and an interview come out today. In Politico, I address the anniversary of January 6, arguing that the events of that day have misled us about the real challenges we face. A quick taste: While scholars warn of fascism on the one side and pundits bicker over wokeness on the other, the larger and longer view reveals how blinkered both of these assessments are. The right’s road to power does not run through street violence, mass rallies, fake news or lawless coups. The left’s weakness has nothing to do with critical race theory and cancel culture. Both claims suffer from the same shortcoming: They focus on the margins rather than the matrix. Driving the initiatives of […]

An Assessment of the Biden Presidency

During the Trump days, I argued that the Trump presidency signified the waning power, if not end, of the Reagan regime. To that extent, Trump bore comparison to Jimmy Carter, whose presidency also signaled the end of another political order (the New Deal). I was wrong about that, and I explained how and why in a lengthy piece in 2019. My argument about Trump was based on two theories: one, my own, about conservatism and the right; the other, Steve Skowronek’s theory of the presidency. In the New York Times this weekend, I take stock of the Biden presidency, asking, essentially, this: if Trump turned out not to be Carter, how does that help us understand Biden? The Skowronek theory […]

Janet Malcolm on the moral evasion of psychological language

Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer: “The book’s [Harry Cleckley’s The Mask of Sanity] thesis…is that there is a kind of evildoer called a psychopath, who does not seem in any way abnormal or different from other people but in fact suffers from ‘a grave psychiatric disorder,’ whose chief symptom is the very appearance of normality by which the horror of his condition is obscured. For behind ‘the mask of sanity’ there is not a real human being but a mere simulacrum of one…. “Cleckley’s ‘grave psychiatric disorder’ is, of course, the same disorder that afflicted Count Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, and a host of other wonderful literary creations. The attempt to solve the problem of evil and perpetuate the […]

Janet Malcolm and Joshua Cohen

Janet Malcolm has died. I, along with three other writers, wrote something about her for The New Republic. Like Orwell, who thought Homage to Catalonia would have been a good book had he not turned it into journalism, Malcolm described her writing as a failure of art. Only writers who invent, she said, can write autobiographies. Journalists like her could not. They lacked the ability to make themselves interesting. The light of their work was powered, almost entirely, by the self-invention of their subjects. You can read the rest of it here. On Tuesday, at 7:30 pm (EST), I’ll be interviewing Joshua Cohen about his amazing new novel, The Netanyahus. You can sign up for the online event here. I can’t say […]

Double Trouble: The Identity Politics of Philip Roth and Hannah Arendt

Philip Roth has been in the news, as has Palestine. By sheerest coincidence, a piece I’ve been mulling over for some time—on the uncanny convergence between the lives and concerns of Roth and Hannah Arendt, particularly when it came to Jewish questions such as Zionism—came out in The New York Review of Books last week. The piece starts with the Blake Bailey controversy, but goes on to explore what the surprising parallels between Roth and Arendt, who knew and respected each other, has to say about the left, Jewish identity politics, and American political culture today. In 2014, the mystery writer Lisa Scottoline wrote an instructive essay for The New York Times about two undergraduate seminars she took with Philip Roth at the University of Pennsylvania […]

What was the “Is Trump a Fascist?” Debate Really All About?

I have a new piece up at The New Yorker. I take stock of the debate over whether Trumpism is an authoritarian/fascist/tyrannical formation. Throughout the Trump years, I consistently argued that that what I call the strongman thesis (just as a catch-all way of describing the various terms that were used for Trumpism) was not the most helpful way of thinking about what was going on with Trump or on the right. In this piece, I try to step back from that debate and examine what was really driving it. Long story short: where liberals and leftists saw power on the right, I saw, and continue to see, paralysis. Not just on the right, in fact, but across the political […]

Keynes thought he was ugly. What does that mean for political theory?

Throughout his life, John Maynard Keynes was plagued by the thought that he was ugly. In his diary, Keynes’s father notes that his six-year-old son “thinks no one ever was quite so ugly.” When he was 23, Keynes complained to Lytton Strachey that “I have always suffered and I suppose always will from a most unalterable obsession that I am so physically repulsive….The idea is so fixed and constant that I don’t think anything—certainly no argument—could ever shake it.” Keynes didn’t lack for sexual partners. He kept a detailed list of his sexual experiences, and it’s long. Nor was he an unhappy person, prone to self-doubt. He was just convinced that he was ugly. Interestingly, his lack of confidence in […]

The End of the Academic Washingtonian Complex?

I have some doubts about what a Biden administration will or can do, but I’d be grateful if Biden delivers on this: He relishes freewheeling discussion, interrupting aides and chiding them for what he deems overly academic or elitist language. “Pick up your phone, call your mother, read her what you just told me,” he likes to say, according to aides. “If she understands, we can keep talking.” Aides made a point of editing out all abbreviations other than U.N. and NATO. Politicians have their own jargon, but one of the irritating features of the Obama administration (Professor in Chief?) was the proliferation of academic tropes in everyday political conversation, among leaders, their staffers, organizers, and journalists. Go to the […]

On the question of impeachment and what it could mean

Over the last four years, I’ve argued that this is a potential moment of realignment, where the Reagan regime we’ve been living under could be shattered and repudiated, and replaced by a new political regime. One of the reasons I’ve pressed so hard on the Trump/Carter comparison is to point out that the Reagan regime, like the New Deal regime in the 1970s, is more vulnerable than we realize. I continue to maintain that Trump’s inability to rule—most spectacularly put on display this past week—reflects the crumbling power of that regime. That doesn’t mean the regime can’t do damage on its way out—the last sentence of The Reactionary Mind makes a point of saying “how much it [the Reagan regime] […]

Max Weber: Worst Colleague Ever

In my New Yorker piece on Max Weber, which came out yesterday, I alluded to Weber’s many, often failed, forays into political life. Several folks on social media have expressed surprise about these expeditions. The facts of Weber’s political involvement don’t seem to fit with the aura of political detachment that surrounds his writing. Indeed, some of Weber’s writing can make him seem almost hermetically sealed off from the barest of political obligations, which is to communicate clearly. But Weber was intensely involved in the political life of his day. In fact, I had an entire section of my piece devoted to these involvements, and was originally going to open the essay with that as a kind of set piece. […]

Max Weber: Man of Our Time?

Max Weber died at the tail end of a pandemic, amid a growing street battle between the right and the left. What could he possibly have to say to us today? I try to answer this, and some other questions, in my review this morning, in The New Yorker, of an excellent new translation, by Damion Searls, of Weber’s Vocation Lectures. I have to confess, a little guiltily, that I get in a few shots against older leftists, of the ex-SDS type, who like to use (or misuse) Weber’s “ethics of responsibility” against the putative transgressions of younger leftists who are allegedly in thrall to an “ethics of conviction.” It’s one of those tropes in contemporary argument that I really […]

Gonzo constitutionalism on the right, norm erosion on the left

I’m in the New York Review of Books this morning, offering my thoughts on the election as part of the magazine’s series on November 2020. I make three points: The right used to be thought of as a “three-legged stool” made up of economic libertarians, statist Cold Warriors, and cultural traditionalists. Whether that characterization was true, it expressed an understanding of the right as a political entity capable of creating hegemony throughout society. That is no longer the case. Today, the right’s three-legged stool is an artifact, a relic, of counter-majoritarian state institutions: the Electoral College, the Senate, and the courts. However undemocratic these three institutions may be, they are are eminently constitutional. The most potent source of the right’s […]

CUNY, Corona, and Communism

The coronavirus has hit CUNY, where I teach, hard: more than 20 deaths of students, faculty, and staff, and counting. Yet the impact of the virus on CUNY has received almost no press coverage at all. At the same time, the media continues to focus its higher education coverage, during the coronavirus, where it always has: on elite schools. The combination of these elements—the unremarked devastation at CUNY, the outsized attention to wealthy colleges and universities—led me to write this piece for The New Yorker online: It seems likely that no other college or university in the United States has suffered as many deaths as CUNY. Yet, aside from an op-ed by Yarbrough in the Daily News, there has been little coverage of this […]

Politics in a Time of Plague

I hope this post finds all of you healthy and safe. It’s been a terrible month, more than a month, for so many people. The New York Review of Books asked me to write something about pandemics and politics. How, they asked me to consider, is it possible to do democracy under quarantine? I decided to flip the question. Much of what is called democracy, after all, presumes the quarantine of vast parts of the citizenry, that they be kept isolated, politically if not physically. So the real question, it seems to me, is how have isolated and separated men and women, often under great duress, nevertheless managed to create democracy over the ages? That’s what I wrote about here, […]

2019 In Writing

I did a lot of writing this year. This is a brief list of some of my favorites. My book, The Enigma of Clarence Thomas, came out. It got some pretty great reviews. You should buy it. I began writing for The New Yorker Online, which has been a joy. My first piece was on political converts, men and women who make the journey from one ideology to another, and why the move from left to right has mattered more, over the course of the last century, than the move from right to left. My second piece was on Eric Hobsbawm, a Communist and a historian, and how his failure at the first made possible his success at the second. […]

On C-SPAN tomorrow, a conversation between me and Jamelle Bouie on Clarence Thomas

If you missed my conversation with Jamelle Bouie at the New York Public Library about The Enigma of Clarence Thomas, not to worry: it will be aired tomorrow night, Saturday, October 12, at 9 pm (East Coast time) on C-SPAN. Also, if you want to see a conversation in person, I’ll be talking with Rebecca Traister about the book at the Community Bookstore in Brooklyn, on Thursday, October 24, at 7 pm. Really looking forward to that event. Doug Henwood interviewed me about the book on his show Behind the News. We talked about how Thomas’s views echo some of the arguments set out by Max Horkheimer in his famous 1936 essay “Authority and the Family,” and why it’s the […]

The Enigma of Clarence Thomas on sale today!

  The Enigma of Clarence Thomas goes on sale today, with the help of a rave review in this morning’s New York Times. In the Times, Jennifer Szalai writes: It’s a provocative thesis, but one of the marvels of Robin’s razor-sharp book is how carefully he marshals his evidence. He doesn’t have to resort to elaborate speculation or armchair psychologizing, relying instead on Thomas’s speeches, interviews and Supreme Court opinions. Just as jurists make ample use of the written record, Robin does the same. … The result is rigorous yet readable, frequently startling yet eminently persuasive. … It isn’t every day that reading about ideas can be both so gratifying and unsettling, and Robin’s incisive and superbly argued book has […]

They Came From Everywhere

Last night, my wife Laura organized a terrific debate watch party for Bernie Sanders supporters at a local bar. About 40 to 50 people showed up. The best part of it was that while most people were firm Bernie supporters, a fair number were not. They were Bernie-curious, but undecided. They came because of friends, girlfriends, boyfriends, and so on, who brought them there. So it felt like a base-expanding moment. Even better, I had an interesting conversation with one woman, who is a definite Bernie supporter, and her boyfriend, who is less certain about Bernie. They’re both nurses. Her parents immigrated from China about 30 years ago. She lives in Sheepshead Bay. So she told me she identifies with […]

When Politics Becomes Professional: From the Obamanauts to the New Deal

The historian Josh Freeman has an excellent review of Michael Walzer’s Political Action, which came out in 1971 but has been reissued by NYRB Books. Freeman compares Walzer’s short pamphlet to the Manual of Practical Political Action, another how-to political guide, prepared in 1946 by the labor movement’s National Citizens Political Action Committee (NCPAC), one of the first modern PACs. Both texts were written at moments of political deceleration, when the velocities of change were about to alter dramatically or already had. But here’s what Josh says about that earlier moment that’s relevant for today: For NCPAC…organizing requires strategies that are not inherently progressive. Somewhat apologetically, the Manual suggests borrowing techniques from commercial advertising, presenting detailed guidance, much of it derived from standard business practices, […]