Still Batshit Crazy After All These Years: A Reply to Ta-Nehisi Coates

Jumping off from Mark Lilla’s negative review of my book in the New York Review of Books—about which more later, though if you’re looking for a hard-hitting response, check out Alex Gourevitch’s demolition at Jacobin—Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a helpful corrective to Lilla’s claim that “political apocalypticism” is a recent development on the right.

It’s interesting that Lilla raises Buckley here. People often bring him up as foil to Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, as an example of a time when conservatism was sane. But that Buckley joke has always struck me (a college dropout) as batshit crazy. I constantly hear about the sober-minded Buckley, but it’s tough for me to square that with the man who posited that the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church might lay at the feet of  “a crazed Negro” and basically worked as a press agent for apartheid in South Africa. (But National Review is against the drug war, so it’s fine.) From a black perspective, modern conservatism’s batshit phase began in Birmingham.

One of the reasons I wrote The Reactionary Mind was to challenge this refrain, which you hear on the right and the left, that today’s conservatism is fundamentally crazier—not being a licensed professional, I prefer the term “more radical” or “more extreme”—than yesterday’s. As I  state on p. 43:

As the forty-year dominion of the right begins to fade, however fitfully, writers like Sam Tanenhaus, Andrew Sullivan…claim that conservatism went into decline when Palin, or Bush, or Reagan, or Goldwater, or Buckley, or someone took it off the rails.  Originally, the argument goes, conservatism was a responsible discipline of the governing classes, but somewhere between Joseph de Maistre and Joe the Plumber, it got carried away with itself.  It became adventurous, fanatical, populist, ideological.  What this story of decline overlooks…is that all of these supposed vices of contemporary conservatism were present at the beginning, in the writings of Burke and Maistre, only they weren’t viewed as vices.  They were seen as virtues.  Conservatism has always been a wilder and more extravagant movement than many realize—and it is precisely this wildness and extravagance that has been one of the sources of its continuing appeal.

So, naturally, I agree with Coates’s claim that there’s no great disjuncture between the Buckley of the 1960s and contemporary conservatism.  (Readers interested in these continuities should check out Kevin Mattson’s Rebels All!.)  And in my book, I offer many more instances of the ways that modern conservatism and visions of a racial apocalypse are intertwined. (Though if you want a real sense of that fusion, Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland is the place to start.)

Nixon, according to White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, “emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks.” And of course there is this classic National Review editorial from 1957:

The central question that emerges [from the civil rights movement] is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes—the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race.

That “for the time being” adds a nice touch of dread: the end may be nigh.

But I’d like to suggest that Coates’s dating of the beginning of “conservatism’s batshit phase” needs to be pushed back a bit. Like a hundred and seventy-three years bit.

As I’ve argued repeatedly, from its very inception in the reaction against the French Revolution, conservatism has contained within itself some of the most wild and extravagant visions of war and apocalypse.  It was none other than the supposedly level-headed Edmund Burke who, when confronted with the Jacobin challenge, declared, “The madness of the wise…is better than the sobriety of fools.” Burke was fully prepared to see and stare down the coming apocalypse, by any means necessary: Jacobinism “must be destroyed,” he insisted, “or it will destroy all of Europe.” By Jacobinism he meant not simply a political movement but an “armed doctrine.”  Each and every expression of that doctrine would have to be exterminated: “If it can at all exist, it must finally prevail.”And far from arguing that the destruction of the Revolution would bring a return of the tried and familiar, he insisted that whatever came next would in fact be “in some measure a new thing.”

It’s arguments like these—and my book features many more of them throughout the 19th and 20th century—that led me to choose as the epigraph to my book this lovely passage from a letter Emily Dickinson wrote to a suitor she kept at bay: “Dont you know that ‘No’ is the wildest word we consign to Language?”

Now Coates has an important qualifier to his claim about conservatism’s history: “From a black perspective, modern conservativism’s batshit phase began in Birmingham” (my emphasis).

But even from a black perspective, I would argue, the batshit—sorry, extremism—goes way back.  Some of this, of course, is not news to Coates, who’s been writing at length about the history of slavery and white supremacy in this country. John C. Calhoun’s constitutional vision, which is featured in virtually every anthology of the conservative canon, is absolutely rooted in the defense of slavery. (Manisha Sinha’s The Counterrevolution of Slavery: Politics and Ideology in Antebellum South Carolina is the definitive account; her discussion of Calhoun’s stance on the tariff and its relationship to slavery, which Coates also discusses here, is positively riveting.)

And as I discuss in my book, virtually every major defense of slavery, from Thomas Jefferson’s to William Harper’s, ends on a note that should be familiar to any student of European fascism, the apex of right-wing apocalypticism.  If the slaves are set free, warn the slaveholders, there will have to be a final solution to the Negro Question: either deportation or elimination. (Though it’s not considered polite to say so, it’s important to remember that, as late as 1941, the Nazis were mulling over the same options.)

Beating the drums of race war, Jefferson warned that emancipation would “produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of one race or the other.”  The only alternative was an “effort…unknown to history.  When freed, he [the slave] is to be removed beyond the mixture.” Anticipating the writings of Robert Brassilach, the French fascist who argued that compassion meant that Jewish children should be deported along with their parents, Thomas Dew claimed, “If our slaves are ever to be sent away in any systematic manner, humanity demands that they should be carried in families.” With abolition, Harper concluded, “one race must be driven out by the other, or exterminated, or again enslaved.” (Drew Gilpin Faust’s The Ideology of Slavery and Paul Finkelman’s Defending Slavery are excellent anthologies of pro-slavery primary documents.)

The relationship between conservatism, slavery, and white supremacy is a complicated one, and I by no means wish to suggest either that all conservatives were pro-slavery—some, including Burke, were not—or that liberalism does not have its own intimate relationship with slavery and racism, as the example of Jefferson reveals. (The latter topic has generated a vast literature, but two useful places to begin are Charles Mills’ The Racial Contract and, more recently, Dominic Losurdo’s Liberalism: A Counter-History.)

But mere opposition to slavery hardly made conservatives abolitionist: far from it. When confronted with the actual question of emancipation, the intransigent demand to politically transform societies of deeply rooted domination into societies of freedom—Ground Zero, as I argue in my book, of the reactionary mind—virtually all of them sang a different tune (see chapter 4 of Patrick Allitt’s generally sympathetic survey The Conservatives).  As I put it on pp. 27-28:

Today’s conservative may have made his peace with some emancipations past; others, like labor unions and reproductive freedom, he still contests.  But that does not alter the fact that when those emancipations first arose as a question….his predecessor was in all likelihood against them.  Michael Gerson, former speechwriter for George W. Bush, is one of the few contemporary conservatives who acknowledge the history of conservative opposition to emancipation. Where other conservatives like to lay claim to the abolitionist or civil rights mantle, Gerson admits that “honesty requires the recognition that many conservatives, in other times, have been hostile to religiously motivated reform” [of the sort that produced the last two centuries’ worth of black freedom movements] and that “the conservative habit of mind once opposed most of these changes.” Indeed, as Samuel Huntington suggested a half-century ago, saying no to such movements in real time may be what makes someone a conservative throughout time.

And, again, we can date this to 1789. One of the issues conservatives worried about in the French Revolution was that it might spur slave revolts and revolutions throughout the Americas. (John Adams, incidentally, voiced a similar concern about the impact of the American Revolution.) In a speech before Parliament in April 1791, Burke warned that any “constitution founded on what was called the rights of man” would open a “Pandora’s box.”

As soon as this system arrived among [the French]…every mortal evil, seemed to fly open, hell itself to yawn, and every demon of mischief to overspread the face of the earth.  Blacks rose against whites, whites against blacks, and each against one another in murderous hostility; subordination was destroyed….

Four months later, on the night of August 21, black slaves fired the first shots of the Haitian Revolution. As with so many things, Burke’s was a prophetic voice. Small wonder he called for not a little bit of madness and mayhem in response: “Acquiescence will not do; there must be zeal.”

Long after the slaves had thrown off their masters in Haiti, that revolution—and its predecessor revolution in France—would haunt the memories of the master class in the South. In response, they would not only tighten their coercive hold on the black population—as well as the national government—but they would also begin to promulgate the most elaborate notions of white supremacy, some based on religion, others, more far-reaching, based on science.

Not only did these notions justify the enslavement of blacks, but they also helped create the cozy inclusiveness of a white herrenvolk democracy. Racism and slavery made whites, no matter how different their holdings, equal. As Calhoun put it:

With us the two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black; and all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.

Not only would such a notion help conscript all whites, whether masters or not, in the defense of slavery, but it would also provide, as Thomas Dew would note, an enormously potent toxin against the egalitarian notions and movements then roiling Europe and Jacksonian America.  Radicals, Dew wrote, “wish all mankind to be brought to one common level. We believe slavery, in the United States, has accomplished this.”  By freeing whites from “menial and low offices,” slavery has eliminated “the greatest cause of distinction and separation of the ranks and society.”

More than a century later, pioneers of the Southern Strategy would find a similar utility—as they sought to beat back the New Deal, the Great Society, and the egalitarian movements of the Sixties—in the avenging armies and arguments of white supremacy.

From Bristol in 1789 to Birmingham in 1963: not such a long journey, after all.  Apocalypse then, apocalypse now.

Update (January 4, 11:45 am)

Lauren Kientz Anderson offers some fascinating follow-up material on white supremacy in the South here. (And if you don’t know or follow the U.S. Intellectual history blog, you should. It’s got great stuff and great writers.)


  1. ezeflyer January 3, 2012 at 4:21 pm | #

    Conservatism as a reactionary organic response to environmental stimulus goes back much further than modern and primitive humans. Further back than our reptilian ancestors and indeed to single celled organisms and viruses that react physiologically when endangered and when presented with food, shelter or sex. Conservatism has been the instinctual mechanism by which life has evolved and adapted. It is the beast within.

    The question is, can humans transcend their bestial conservative nature? Overcome the fear, superstition, greed, and cruelty that characterizes conservatives and other unconscious and reactionary beasts, and become a truly unique animal? To be humanists that shape the world in peace and harmony, instead of berserking beasts that destroy themselves and their habitat? Conscious humans with the characteristics that we think separate us from beasts, such as technology, science, art, cooperation, peace, kindness, respect for nature, and so on?

    Or should we even aspire to be against nature’s designs and continue to act like conservative beasts?

    • eopton January 4, 2012 at 2:40 pm | #

      Correct! I hope you, and Robin, will expand on this vital point.

      • troy grant January 4, 2012 at 3:56 pm | #

        In moneyless nature, no organism is able to hoard more resources than it can personally or communally defend. Money and its unique characteristic of promoting an unnatural, unlimited increase in the concentration of wealth and the power it represents, invariably leads to a dictatorship of capital or hegemony.

        It is said that the more one has to conserve, the more conservative one becomes. This truism seems to apply to resulting oligarchies whose paleocon plutocrats come to think they are somehow superior to all other humans, not by virtue of strength, appearance, or intelligence, but by virtue of luck, inheritance and compounding interest.

        The unnatural state money hoarding produces exacerbates all problems for life on our biosphere. Instead of sustainable ecosystems, we have ecocide. Instead of conservatism being a check on excesses, it has become excess itself.

    • Benjamin David Steele February 11, 2014 at 1:48 pm | #

      The destructive nature of modern conservatism maybe shouldn’t be blamed on conservatism any more than the destruction of an invasive species is the fault of that species. In both cases, it is something natural that has been displaced outside of its natural environment and hence its natural equilibrium.

      Conservatism may have worked well enough within the environment of simple, localized, small-scale traditional communities. But it never evolved for the purposes of modern society. Liberalism, however, may be a later trait that emerged as the human species expanded and developed more complex societies.

  2. msobel January 3, 2012 at 7:10 pm | #

    Great as always. I thought for a second your closing was referencing Wallace. Batshit yesterday, Batshit today, Batship forever.

    • d January 3, 2012 at 9:52 pm | #

      I like your overall thesis, and have been following it. But beware of uber-lumping nonetheless. As well as of dichotomous minds. Anachronistic ones too…Tocqueville circa Democracy in America was not a reactionary, a la Burke, but far more accommodating. He’s an interesting figure either beyond the scope of your argument or perhaps a potential foil? Perhaps an even more complicated (yet typical perhaps) is William Jennings Bryan. Was he a conservative or a democrat? Both? And does the answer parallel the theme of localism you are pursuing elsewhere? just some thoughts…

      • Corey Robin January 4, 2012 at 12:20 am | #

        Tocqueville in DiA wasn’t facing a political revolution. In 1848, he was, and he wrote about it in his memoirs. Sounds a lot like Burke there. I discuss him in chapter 3 of my first book *Fear: The History of a Political Idea*.

  3. Brian Faux January 4, 2012 at 7:02 am | #

    “the most elaborate notions of white supremacy, some based on religion, others, more far-reaching, based on science.”
    I think the `science` here was never very scientific even for the standards of the day. Hypotheses such as phrenology which sought to show racial differences in a `scientific` way were exactly that – hypotheses which never attained the status of proper theories as they could not be used in any predictive sense. It is a shame that a still common view of science is `that which people who call themselves scientists do` rather than a system of thought and experimentation which correctly, as far as we can tell, predicts the future state of the world.
    I will gird myself and buy your book Corey: reading about conservatives can leave me a bit shaky but I suppose it must be done. Congrats on your great blog.

  4. Manisha Sinha January 4, 2012 at 9:30 am | #

    It should come as no surprise that I agree with every word! Manisha Sinha

  5. William Neil January 5, 2012 at 1:39 pm | #

    I have a question for Corey Robin, one I also posted online at Naked Capitalism, today, January 5, 2012, in response to the fine, fine interview which headed today’s offerings there: who on the Right today, and let’s for the sake of argument, include Libertarians in the definition, is anti-free market, even, and especially in the wake of the monumental market failures of 2007-….??? I know something about the early history of conservativism, where, esp. in England, there were conservative critics of what unfolded 1780-1850…and one can even find reservations in people like Whittaker Chambers in the America of the 1950’s who was all for capitalism – but because of its nature, meant he couldn’t consider himself one..(capitalism standing for constant change and turmoil) .while wanting to stay on the vaguer Right….it seems to me that “market fundamentalism” has pushed any reservations out of sight and mind…even among the neoliberal Democrats: Carter, Clinton, Obama…making it much harder to make the case to “conservatives” that the market “uber alles” tidal wave in America can be very destructive to…family values. leading directly to the rootless characterization of American elites that Christopher Lasch painted for us in his last two books especially….see my essay “Pre-Occupied: A World Economy Beset by a glut of both labor and capital…”

  6. Nigel January 5, 2012 at 2:35 pm | #

    “One of the reasons I wrote The Reactionary Mind was to challenge this refrain, which you hear on the right and the left, that today’s conservatism is fundamentally crazier—not being a licensed professional, I prefer the term “more radical” or “more extreme”—than yesterday’s…”

    That is certainly not a refrain that you would hear in the UK.
    Given the title of your recent book “…from Edmund Burke to…”, you might address this.

  7. YankeeFrank January 7, 2012 at 9:14 pm | #

    Conservatism conserves nothing but unearned privilege and unjust dominance. The primary trait of a conservative is fear – fear of loss of status and privilege, and fear of loss of livelihood. These fears are primal and so some would say understandable; the natural response is that a life based in fear of loss is not spiritually vital or meaningful: its basis is hoarding rather than sharing, and stasis, not movement. The reactionary or conservative mind is a brute animal thing, and does nothing to advance the cause of humanity and justice.

    • ezeflyer January 8, 2012 at 2:01 pm | #

      Well put. At least one exhaustive psychological study, “Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition.” carried out by John T. Jost, Jack Glaser, Arie W. Kruglanski, and Frank J. Sulloway, write, “People embrace political conservatism (at least in part) because it serves to reduce fear, anxiety and uncertainty; to avoid change, disruption and ambiguity; and to explain, order and justify inequality among groups and individuals.” To come to this conclusion the authors examined 88 different psychological studies conducted between 1958 and 2002 that involved 22,818 people from 12 different countries. They boiled that information down into a number of psychological attributes that are closely associated with people who are politically conservative.:

      A good summary can be found here:

      Conservatives Deconstructed
      by Joel Bleifuss
      In These Times magazine, October 2003:

      And a good article titled “Why Conservatives Can’t Govern”
      By Alan Wolfe

      • Benjamin David Steele June 29, 2023 at 4:11 pm | #

        Thanks for bringing up some social science research. I’ve mentioned this kind of evidence to Robin before. But in his response, he didn’t seem interested. I assume because he sees it as outside of his field of expertise. It’s understandable, as academics will get criticized for not staying in their lane. This creates the unfortunate silo effect of scholarship.

        The thing is the reactionary mind, more or less, seems like nothing other than the dark political triad of sociopolitical conservatism, right-wing authoritarianism (RWA), and social dominance orientation (SDO). The last particularly fits Robin’s theory, since the leaders of the far right tend to be SDOs or Double Highs (SDO+RWA). SDO is all about hierarchy.

  8. Aaron Baker July 9, 2012 at 5:13 pm | #

    Very informative. I promise to buy your book soon.

  9. Benjamin David Steele June 29, 2023 at 4:07 pm | #

    Two things stood out to me on rereading this more than a decade later. The first thing is Burke’s quote: “The madness of the wise…is better than the sobriety of fools.” That amazingly sounds a lot like when Barry Goldwater infamously said, if written by a speechwriter, that, “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.” It’s the exact same sentiment, in that a straight line could be drawn between them. That is the only thing essential to conservatism. All else is a response to changing times.

    The other thing is about dating the origins. Is the reactionary mind in the modern era really all that different to the reactionary defenses of hierarchy during the English Civil War, the European peasants’ revolts, or the ancient slave revolts? And what about Plato’s rather reactionary attitude about democracy, increased suffrage, and sophists educating the non-elite? In social scientific terms, the reactionary mind is simply the dark political triad of sociopolitical conservatism, right-wing authoritarianism, and social dominance orientation.

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