Robert Kagan, Donald Trump, and the Liberal Imagination

Robert Kagan has an oped on Donald Trump in yesterday’s Washington Post. It’s called “This is how fascism comes to America.”

It’s got the liberal chattering classes chattering. It blames Trump on democracy and the mob, it cites Tocqueville, it gives a hand job to the Framers. For the liberal imagination, it’s the equivalent of a great massage.

And it’s got critics on the left clucking. Kagan, you see, is a neocon who supported the Iraq War, so he’s not above suspicion as a commentator on the American way of violence.

But if you say that, liberals will cry, Ad hominem!

So let’s pay closer attention to what Kagan says, while being mindful of who he is. The two points, as we’ll see, are not unrelated.

Trump, says Kagan, is not “a normal political candidate.” His appeal has nothing to do with “policy or ideology.” It has little to do with the economic anxieties of the middle class. So what is it about? According to Kagan:

What he offers is an attitude, an aura of crude strength and machismo, a boasting disrespect for the niceties of the democratic culture that he claims, and his followers believe, has produced national weakness and incompetence.

This, remember, is what makes Trump not a normal political candidate. It’s what makes him a candidate whose appeal and program “has transcended the party that produced him.”

What’s interesting about that claim is that it describes, almost to a tee, the sensibility of the extended circle of intellectuals, academics, think tankers, government officials, and journalists, radiating out of the inner circle of Robert Kagan and William Kristol, who not only pushed for the Iraq War and the War on Terror but who pushed for these violent adventures with arguments that he, Kagan, claims are peculiar to Donald Trump.

Many forget just how contemptuous these neoconservatives were about the America that emerged victorious from the Cold War, but I haven’t. For the neoconservatives, the America of Bill Clinton was a horror. In that “that age of peace and prosperity,” David Brooks would write after 9/11, “the top sitcom was Seinfeld, a show about nothing.”

The major problem of post-Cold War America was precisely that it was too consumed by “the niceties of democratic culture.” In an influential manifesto, Donald and Frederick Kagan (Robert Kagan’s father and brother) wrote—their pens dripping with bitter irony—that “the happy international situation that emerged in 1991” was “characterized by the spread of democracy, free trade, and peace.” Such a situation was “congenial to America,” with its love of “domestic comfort.”

Added Brooks: “The striking thing about the 1990s zeitgeist was the presumption of harmony. The era was shaped by the idea that there were no fundamental conflicts anymore.” Fellow traveler Robert Kaplan went even further. In The Coming Anarchy, he could barely restrain his criticism of the “healthy, well-fed” men and women of “bourgeois society.” Their love of “material possessions,” he concluded, “encourage docility” and a “lack of imagination.”

Many of these writers were equally contemptuous of the Republican Party, as Gary Dorrien documented in his Imperial Designs: Neoconservatism and the New Pax Americana. Bill Kristol, Kagan’s co-conspirator and frequent co-author, derided the “brain-dead Republican Party” of the 1990s. Borrowing the language of the antiwar left of the 1960s, he called for “one, two many insurrections” against a party whose motto was “No agenda. No fireworks. No nothing.” He lambasted the “fearful complacency” that “characterizes the mood of the American establishment today.”

During the 2000 election, Kagan heaped criticism on the GOP frontrunner and eventual presidential candidate. He complained that George W. Bush’s support for the Kosovo War was “hedged, careful.” Once Bush was elected, he and Kristol complained that Bush “campaigned more as an Eisenhower than as a Reagan. Believing Americans did not want radical changes, either at home or abroad, he proposed none.” Bush was too solicitous of the “soccer moms,” whom he didn’t want to “unnerve.”

Lest we think this was a temporary blast at the virtues of prudence and restraint (or women) that Kagan now claims to champion against the adventurer Donald Trump, Kagan would repeat the same charges against Colin Powell, once he was installed as Bush’s Secretary of State. Powell liked “diplomatic pressure” and “coalition building.” That was his fatal flaw, a theme Kagan returned to ten days later, when he teamed up with Kristol to urge Bush not to listen to his secretary of state. Because Powell “was preoccupied with coalitions,” they claimed, he sought to avoid war with Saddam in 1991 and then refused to march to Baghdad to finish the job. It was his obsession with “compromises” that got the US into trouble then and would get the country into trouble now. Best to ignore his “timidity disguised as prudence.”

But the biggest charge Kagan and Kristol could think of to leverage against George W. Bush during the 2000 election was simply that he didn’t scare people enough.

Reagan in 1980 scared people, to the point where he had to spend the last few weeks of his campaign assuring everyone he did not intend to blow the whole world to pieces. Bush’s campaign from the beginning was designed not to scare anyone, anywhere, on any issue.

Well, now we’ve got a candidate who scares the shit out of people, including Robert Kagan. And what is Kagan’s response?

This is how fascism comes to America, not with jackboots and salutes (although there have been salutes, and a whiff of violence) but with a television huckster, a phony billionaire, a textbook egomaniac “tapping into” popular resentments and insecurities,…

That “not with jackboots and salutes” is convenient. It severs any connection between the song of war Kagan has been singing all these years—with its descant of hostility to restraint, compromise, coalition, and prudence—and Trump’s candidacy. It refuses the possibility that Trump’s domestic belligerence is the transposition of Kagan’s international belligerence, that Trump’s “aura of crude strength and machismo” would appeal to a country that had achieved such untrammeled and uncontested mega-power, as Kagan once kvelled, that its citizens could be rightly be characterized as hailing from militaristic Mars. Small powers, Kagan sneered, like the constraint of an international order because its protects them; great powers, he cheered, “often fear rules that may constrain them.” Likewise the would-be leaders and citizens of those great powers.

It makes perfect sense for Kagan to opt for this explanation of Trump. Why liberals, many of whom opposed the Iraq War (though not the War on Terror), would applaud him, well, that’s a different story.







  1. ronp May 19, 2016 at 1:46 pm | #

    You have any influence on Sanders? Tell him to drop out of the race and campaign for Hillary. Otherwise a dimwit small fingered nutcase will be our next president. Even with Sanders help it could still happen.

    • Glenn May 19, 2016 at 3:01 pm | #

      Scare talk for Hillary here.

      But Hillary loses to Trump.

      Trump is rather like Rod Blagojevich, ex governor of Illinois, now resident of its penal system.
      Both speak aloud that which all know to be true, but is properly spoken of only discretely in whispered words.

      Obama and Hillary are pressing for the escalation to thinkable nuclear weaponry, and so are thinking nuclear war.

      The health of the state after all, is war.

    • aab May 20, 2016 at 5:28 am | #

      Sanders isn’t dropping out, and a huge chunk of his supporters will never, ever, ever vote for Hillary Clinton. She will lose to Trump. So if you have any influence with Clinton, tell her to drop out and campaign for Sanders.

  2. UserGoogol May 19, 2016 at 2:03 pm | #

    I don’t really think your message and his are contrary. Kagan is saying that Trump is tapping into a dangerous form of right-wing resentment. You are saying that conservatives have been tapping into that for a while. (Moving beyond your writings in just this post, not just post Cold War neoconservatism, but it’s been a part of the reactionary mind for centuries.) These are complementary messages, even if Kagan wouldn’t particularly like your addendum. The rise of movement conservatism, the rise of neoconservatism, has all been leading up to this, and things have just gotten to the point where Kagan feels like he wants to distance himself from that and say Trump is taking things too far.

    • srogouski May 19, 2016 at 8:19 pm | #

      This is the same kind of argument I saw Kagan and his supporters use in 2003 when people pointed out Reagan’s support for Saddam in the Iran/Iraq war.

      Basically it went something like:

      “Yes, we supported Saddam when it was convenient for us. Now we’ve evolved. Yes, Kagan supported “toughness” in 2000. Now he’s evolved.”

      All it comes down to is what Glen Ford said about the Democrats being the “lesser evil.” No, he said they’re the “more effective evil.”

      Kagan isn’t against Trump’s belligerence. He just thinks Clinton would be more effectively belligerent.

      • Glenn May 20, 2016 at 12:36 pm | #

        Trump’s wars of aggression might be protested, even by Democratic Party office holders, whereas there would be little resistance or notice if the same acts were committed by Hillary.

        My representative from the ninth Congressional district actually met with her constituents on the war issue when Bush invaded Iraq. When I later called her about Obama’s invasion of Afghanistan, all I received in response was a weak apology.

        More effectively belligerent indeed.

    • Chai T. Ch'uan May 20, 2016 at 1:24 am | #

      The distinction here recalls the terms that Michael Ledeen in his book Universal Fascism attributes to Italian historian de Felice — Kagan’s defense of “fascism-regime” railing against the Trumpian’ “fascist-movement”.
      Hell, the ‘Ledeen Doctrine’ (as repurposed by Jonah Goldberg into his cris de coeur for Iraq War II) that “every 10 years or so, the US needs to pick up some crappy little country and throw it against the wall just to show the world we mean business” would slip effortlessly today into the rhythmic meter of a Donald Trump foreign policy tweet.

  3. Labitokov May 19, 2016 at 2:38 pm | #

    I thought the most interesting part was his claim that Trumpism has no basis in “policy or ideology.”

    Anti-politics has been a strong tendency for decades, particularly in Latin America, and has has strong ideological roots and clear policy implications (usually austerity).

    I was hoping that beyond the international critique you could have connected this to his neo-populism at home.

  4. jonnybutter May 19, 2016 at 3:11 pm | #

    He certainly does lay it on thick. In addition to ‘jackboots and salutes’, he calls post-election Trumpies ‘his [Trump’s] legions“:

    if he wins the election, his legions will comprise a majority of the nation.

    There is so much horseshit in this article, but, to pick just one clump: the idea that Trump has nothing to do with the GOP other than having been ‘incubated’ by it!

    It does make sense for Kagan to write this. He surely sees HRC for what she is: an ally to him and his, whereas Trump is incoherent and unpredictable; a product of too much democracy, while simultaneously evincing contempt for democratic ‘culture’ – different from democracy, you see.

    Reasons liberals cluck include: ‘even the neo-conservative Kagan’, and ‘Tell me again about the rabbits, George…”

  5. Roquentin May 19, 2016 at 3:20 pm | #

    Nearly everything about that Kagan OpEd is wrong, from the first sentence to the last. You can always count on Freud’s “Narcissism of small differences” in situations like these. People like Kagan need to drone on about how awful Trump is to obscure the fact that political establishment, nearly to a man, is composed of center-right neoliberals. I’m going to go a step further and say hysterical essays like these are bad because each time one of these pops up, where Trump is made out to be the end of the world instead of just another center-right politician who is a little more open about his racism, it gets harder to take criticism of him seriously. Sooner or later, people are going to start writing it off as nonsense (honestly, it’s starting to happen already), and when it does the Clinton campaign will take a nose dive.

    But he’s wrong in more ways than that. Trump’s victory is 100% about loyalty to the GOP brand. I occasionally see comments on Facebook peripherally from some right wingers, due to growing up in the Midwest. Recently a guy said something to the effect of “Yeah, I know Trump is awful, but if the GOP ran a chimpanzee I’d still vote for him.” Oh yes, that is exactly what this is about. Team conservative getting back into power. When all you’ve heard out of the Dems for a year is “Hillary sucks, but we have to stop Trump” it shocks me that so few don’t understand that this same logic is at work on the right. Of course it is, and even though they think Trump is an asshole, he’s their asshole and Hillary is even worse.

    The icing on the cake is his crude misunderstanding of Putin. I’ll let you in on a little secret, Putin is actually relatively moderate for Russian nationalists. Look up the name Alexander Dugin, then come back and talk to me about how “Putinism” is about one man and not a consistent expression of Russian nationalism. That’s what people like Kagan will never, in a hundred years, understand. Putin is more amenable to the West than a sizable portion of the people behind him. Russians tolerate him simply because he stands up for their interests to a degree and, unlike Yeltsin, doesn’t allow wholesale looting and exploitation of the population by the West.

    • Glenn May 19, 2016 at 5:35 pm | #

      Plus, Snowden is kept out of reach of the great espionage prosecutor, Obama, by Putin’s grant of asylum.

      That justice prevails in spite of the law’s efforts to subvert it must burn the Obama administration.

    • Harold May 24, 2016 at 2:26 pm | #

      I’m going to go a step further and say hysterical essays like these are bad because each time one of these pops up, where Trump is made out to be the end of the world instead of just another center-right politician who is a little more open about his racism, it gets harder to take criticism of him seriously.

      I think you’ve hit the nail on the head here, not just for Kagan but for most of the conservative establishment mouthpieces who denounce Trump. It isn’t that he isn’t cut from the same cloth – it’s that 1) he owes the establishment nothing, and 2) he’s revealing the real reasons for the conservative agendas.

      I won’t be voting for him – but I can understand why he’s become the nominee.

  6. L.M. Dorsey May 19, 2016 at 3:48 pm | #

    It’s a general problem — though perhaps especially acute for us Americans, who, carefully schooled in the avoidance of self-reflection, inhabit Escher-like abysms of cognitive dissonance — we never see our faces in the mirror in the mornings, not the face everyone else in the world sees, anyway.

    Brydon breathed his wonder till the very impunity of his attitude and the very insistence of his eyes produced, as he felt, a sudden stir which showed the next instant as a deeper portent, while the head raised itself, the betrayal of a braver purpose. The hands, as he looked, began to move, to open; then, as if deciding in a flash, dropped from the face and left it uncovered and presented. Horror, with the sight, had leaped into Brydon’s throat, gasping there in a sound he couldn’t utter; for the bared identity was too hideous as _his_, and his glare was the passion of his protest. The face, _that_ face, Spencer Brydon’s?–

    Henry James. “The Jolly Corner”

  7. Thomas L. Dumm May 19, 2016 at 4:58 pm | #

    Trump actually is a fascist, if we are to use the criteria usually used to characterize it, namely, racist nationalism, corporatism, pseudo-populism designed to appeal to class resentments in such a way as to incite violence against scapegoats, and a cult of personality. Kagan of course blames it on democracy, but it is a democratic deficit that is responsible for his emergence. Even so, occasionally a broken clock… The irony of Kagan’s accusation is as Corey notes. (If anyone is interested, I wrote a piece last September suggesting that he be taken seriously, back when few were.

  8. Raven Onthill May 19, 2016 at 8:17 pm | #

    Arsonist fighting the fire he set.

  9. chatterjeevk May 22, 2016 at 8:06 pm | #

    What’s most revealing is what Corey Robin and Robert Kagan have in common. Both of them avoid the real reason for the rise of Trump – his call for a ban on Muslim immigration to the United States, and his statement “I think that Islam hates us” – a fact a blindingly obvious as the day is long.

    These statements by Trump are the real reason for his success, because Americans hear at long last a politician that isn’t in a state of total denial of reality about Islam.

    The fact that both Robin and Kagan avoid this obvious point in their explanations for Trump’s success (with Kagan just barely dropping the word “Muslim”, and by placing Muslims alongside a host of other groups : “Hispanics, women, Chinese, Mexicans, Europeans, Arabs, immigrants, refugees”, does so in such a way that shuttles Islam under the rug) puts them, in the current geopolitical context, squarely in the same Camp. The Camp of Islam.

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