Liberalism and Fear: What Montesquieu has to teach us about Clinton’s Use of Trump

Many people on social media tonight were puzzled why the Democrats at the convention in Philadelphia spent so little time laying out a positive agenda, focusing instead on the dangers of Trump. The Democrats, after all, are the party in control of the White House. Usually, that party’s candidate runs on the record of the incumbent or lays out a vision, if the incumbent is popular, of how she’ll continue that record into the future.

I was less troubled or puzzled by this. Donald Trump is Clinton’s strongest argument for her election. Simply by running against him—as, let’s face it, LBJ did in 1964 against Goldwater—she shores up support not only within her base but among moderates who are legitimately terrified of Trump. But without committing herself too much to any particular agenda. It’s smart politics, and I suspect that between now and November, we’ll be seeing more of it. A lot more of it.

It may be smart politics, but it’s also an old problem in liberalism, a problem that runs deeper than the current travails of the Democrats.

As I argued in this passage from my book Fear: The History of a Political Idea:

Like Hobbes, Montesquieu turned to fear as a foundation for politics. Montesquieu was never explicit about this; Hobbesian candor was not his style. But in the same way that the fear of the state of nature was supposed to authorize Leviathan, the fear of despotism was meant to authorize Montesquieu’s liberal state.

Just as Hobbes depicted fear in the state of nature as a crippling emotion, Montesquieu depicted despotic terror as an all-consuming passion, reducing the individual to the raw apprehension of physical destruction. In both cases, the fear of a more radical, more debilitating form of fear was meant to inspire the individual to submit to a more civilized, protective state.

Why would a liberal opposed to the Hobbesian vision of absolute power resort to such a Hobbesian style of argument? Because Montesquieu, like Hobbes, lacked a positive conception of human ends, true for all people, to ground his political vision.

Montesquieu’s liberalism was not the egalitarian liberalism of the century to come, nor was it the conscience-stricken protoliberalism of the century it had left behind. Unlike Locke, whose argument for toleration was powered by a vision of religious truth, and unlike later figures such as Rousseau or Mill, whose arguments for freedom were driven by secular visions of human flourishing, Montesquieu pursued no beckoning light. He wrote in that limbo period separating two ages of revolution, when weariness with dogma and wariness of absolutism made positive commitments difficult to come by and even more difficult to sustain. His was a skeptical liberalism: ironic, worldly, elegant—and desperately in need of justification.

Despotic terror supplied that justification, lending his vision of limited government moral immediacy, pumping blood into what might otherwise have seemed a bloodless politics. Montesquieu did not know—and did not care to enquire—whether we were free and equal, but he did know that terror was awful and had to be resisted. Thus was liberalism born in opposition to terror—and at the same time yoked to its menacing shadow.

But hitching liberalism to terror came at a price: It obscured the realities of political fear.

Montesquieu painted an almost cartoonish picture of terror, complete with a brutish despot straight out of central casting, and brutalized subjects, so crazed by terror they couldn’t think of or for themselves. So did he overlook the possibility that the very contrivances he recommended as antidotes to terror—toleration, mediating institutions, and social pluralism—could be mobilized on its behalf….

The polemical impulse behind his account was clear: If Montesquieu could show that despotic terror destroyed everything men held dear, and if he could show that terror possessed none of the attributes of a liberal polity, terror could serve as the negative foundation of liberal government. The more malignant the regime, the more promising its liberal alternative. Built into Montesquieu’s argument, then, was a necessary exaggeration of the evil against which it was arrayed.


  1. kevin July 26, 2016 at 1:30 am | #

    Mr. Robin,

    please post your overdue rant about how those neoliberal fascists supporting Clinton (Sanders, Weaver, and Ellison) will bring about TPP and WW III. Can’t wait. Thanks.

  2. Mike Pouraryan (@mikepouraryan) July 26, 2016 at 3:04 am | #

    One has to be able to play the politics to be able to win–Senator Sanders’ argument point by point laid out the rationale…isn’t that in fact what politics is? What are solution is there?

  3. foppejan2 July 26, 2016 at 3:45 am | #

    One wonders whether resorts to ‘fear’ have historically flourished especially at times when establishment candidates felt the socioeconomic trends / status quo were to be preserved.* Because I don’t really see Hillary’s politics as “smart”; just as the best play she can make, given her allegiances, and her intellectual/ideological predilections (-> See Tom Frank’s Listen, Liberal!, also Doug’s book). Because if you look at the socioeconomic issues Trump is raising (whether his interest is genuine is irrelevant; the point is that he’s believable), it should be obvious that Hillary does not — cannot — respond substantively. Too much (of her and her cohort’s career) is at stake / implicated, and the democratic party more broadly simply isn’t interested in investing in solving the underlying problems.

    * Keep in mind as well that the people y’all in the US call liberals — the professional class — by and large aren’t egalitarian; they’re just as wedded to social darwinism as conservatives, they just prefer a different ladder — “merit”. Aside from that, it’s exactly the same yammering about “desert”, “proving oneself”, “reward”, etc.

    • Will G-R July 26, 2016 at 10:11 am | #

      It’s even worse than that: on some level these people’s implicit (and sometimes even explicit) premise is that white working-class right-wing constituencies actually deserve impoverishment by virtue of their racism and sexism and so on. Of course the idea that depriving people of means of subsistence is an acceptable punishment for anything is an irreconcilable antithesis of any true leftist position, but there you have it.

  4. Roqeuntin July 26, 2016 at 8:27 am | #

    Perhaps the grandest irony of all is that, with what little exposure I have to people who support the GOP anymore, is that most Trump supporters are voting with a “Stop Hillary” vote and think she’s the devil incarnate. The best way to shore up support for a bankrupt establishment is to convince people the other guy is the anti-Christ, the second coming of Hitler, or something similar. People get so scared they support all sorts of things they would never consider otherwise.

    The political system sweeps people up at both ends, depending on where you are located and which cultural signifiers make you feel at ease. Trump needs Hillary and Hillary needs Trump. It’s a match made in heaven, which all but guarantees nothing will change.

  5. Will G-R July 26, 2016 at 9:55 am | #

    I’m not normally one to wax rhapsodic about the game-changing potential of electoral reform in a bourgeois capitalist democracy and all that jazz, but it certainly seems like the Clinton camp’s appeal to Sanders supporters is so monomaniacally fixated on the threat of the spoiler effect that a simple procedural shift like instant runoff voting would entirely undermine their only real argument for keeping leftist electoral constituencies in line behind the ordained standard bearers of the neoliberal “radical center”. If enough of the Bernie camp’s leftover energy gets devoted to institutionalizing a ranked-choice system of one sort or another in federal elections, which seems plausibly achievable in ballot-proposition-friendly states like California, we could possibly be witnessing this version of the institutional US presidential election cycle (i.e. an immutable major/minor party distinction forcing insurgencies like those of Trump and Sanders to shoehorn themselves into one of the two major-party apparatuses) for the last time, at least in its fully-fledged form.

  6. Glenn July 26, 2016 at 10:05 am | #

    Republicans feel Democrats are to be feared, and Democrats feel Republicans are to be feared.

    I fear they are both correct.

    • Tom Allen July 26, 2016 at 7:29 pm | #

      Great quote, which I will use.

  7. xenon2 July 26, 2016 at 10:41 am | #

    too many words.
    love twitter,
    forces me to edit posts.


  8. Nathaniel Beyer July 26, 2016 at 6:46 pm | #

    Interesting, but it seems that this article could be just as true of Trump’s assertions about Clinton, or, even better, Trump and right-wing assertions about “Islamic Terror,” which has been their go-to fear since 9/11. If ever a political convention or party was suffused with a dark view of the country and the future, it’s the repubs. From what I see of progressives and leftists at this point, we have become too obsessed with the Hillary and whether she is evil or not.

    Also, I wonder if Montesquieu’s definition of “liberalism” is the same as the one we have today.

    Plus, aren’t “toleration, mediating institutions, and social pluralism” essentially good things that have lead to a lot of positive social change? Like any other tool, they could be use to obfuscate problems or placate opposition. But ultimately, is it not true that many societies have become more just and less brutal as a result of ” a more civilized, protective state.”

    FWIW, Trump’s economic policy, insofar as it has been articulated, is the same old hodge-podge of Republican trickle-down, tax-cuts for the top strategy that we’re seen for decades. For all the innovation of his presentation, there’s very little in the way of policy invention in his platform– as far as he has articulated one, that is.

  9. kwp July 27, 2016 at 10:51 am | #

    While this approach to politics and campaigns is limited and problematic, it can be effective. Moreover, is it not possible that these despots do, in fact, exist? Might it be appropriate to be afraid of Le Pen, Straiche, Orban, or Kaczynski? Is the greater danger in relying on this tactic or the inability to distinguish between a cartoon despot of one’s making and the real thing?

  10. jimbales July 27, 2016 at 11:53 pm | #

    Prof. Robin asks:
    Many people on social media tonight were puzzled why the Democrats at the convention in Philadelphia [are focused] on the dangers of Trump.

    I think the answer is obvious. They honestly believe that a Trump presidency would be a grave danger to our nation. Professor Robin, do you consider a Trump presidency to be a danger to the United States? Do you consider the danger to the United States of the Clinton presidency to be roughly comparable to, substantially greater then, or substantially less than that of a Trump presidency?

    Jim Bales

  11. Gregory Harris July 28, 2016 at 5:38 pm | #

    If you want to find an issue more boring and less able to mobilize the base than campaign finance reform, voting process is definitely it. I worked with the Green party in Florida back in 2005/06 to get IRV on referendums for four cities, as a prelude to a statewide campaign. No democrats (not even the Dean people) ever showed up. Maybe it was because we weren’t part of the tribe. Also, since Bill was encouraging the Donald to run back when he was just a birther with access to a major media camera, this was clearly Hilary’s strategy all along.

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