The American Terrible

Someone recently asked me: if you don’t think Trump is a fascist, what do you think is going to happen? I answered her as truthfully as I could: I don’t know. The fact is: none of us knows. Not even, I suspect, Trump or Steve Bannon.

In the course of several argumens and conversations over the last few days—about Trump, what he’s up to, and so on—I’ve sometimes found myself, against my better judgment, drifting into predictions. I start out trying to think about what this current moment means, and I wind up making claims about where we’re going. That’s not a place I want to be. Not simply because my prediction about the election was so completely wrong, not simply because I’m trying to be more attentive to the mistakes I’ve made in the past lest I repeat them now, but also because prediction is a mug’s game. None of us knows what’s going to happen, and what’s going to happen with Trump, as I’ve repeatedly said, depends in part on what we do. This is not a fixed or frozen force field; it’s changing every day. What makes things especially challenging, however, is that analysis so often lends itself, or bleeds into, prediction.

In the coming weeks, I’m really going to try avoid getting drawn into debates about the future or what’s coming. While I’ll continue to analyze and explain what I’m seeing, I’m going try and be more circumspect about whither we’re tending.

Before I launch on this predictions fast, though, let me explain a bit about where I am coming in my assessments of Trump and Trumpism.

Before I wrote my book on conservatism, I was a student of the politics of fear. My first book, which was based on more than a decade of research, was an analysis of how political theorists since Hobbes have understood the politics of fear. In the second part of the book, I offered my own counter-analysis of the politics of fear in the United States. Fear, American Style, I called it. I focused primarily on McCarthyism and the war on terror, but my archive was based in an array of American experiences: from slavery to the labor wars of the Gilded Age, from Jim Crow to the contemporary workplace. As a followup to that book, I began working on a book about American political repression, which I was co-authoring with Ellen Schrecker, the noted historian of McCarthyism. We never finished the book, but we amassed quite a bit of research and wrote a couple of chapters, from an even deeper and richer array of archival resources.

Here’s what I learned about Fear, American Style: The worst, most terrible things that the United States has done have almost never happened through an assault on American institutions; they’ve always happened through American institutions and practices. These are the elements of the American polity that have offered especially potent tools and instruments of intimidation and coercion: federalism, the separation of powers, social pluralism, and the rule of law. All the elements of the American experience that liberals and conservatives have so cherished as bulwarks of American freedom have also been sources and instruments of political fear. In all the cases I looked at, coercion, intimidation, repression, and violence were leveraged through these mechanisms, not in spite of them. (You can read an article-length version of the argument here.)

My position on Trump and the possibilities of American fascism, in other words, does not rest on any optimism or faith about the American experiment or the resilience of American institutions. Just the opposite: it is precisely because I know how easily mobilized for terrible purposes the American regime can be that I am skeptical of the possibilities or necessity for a strong-man politics of the sort we see in authoritarian regimes elsewhere. This is a country that managed to enslave—to torture and drive unto death, both physical and social—millions of black men, women, and their children, for over two centuries, and then to reenslave them by another name for another century, not by shredding the Constitution but by writing and interpreting and executing the Constitution. This is a country that managed to mow down trade unionists and dissenters, to arrest and throw them into jail, to destroy vibrant social movements, to engineer a near-complete rout of American social democracy after the Second World War, to build and fill concentration camps, to pass legislation during the Cold War authorizing internment camps: all without a strongman; indeed, often with the collusion of some of the most esteemed voices of liberty in the country. This is a country that in the last half-century has managed to undo some of the precious achievements of liberal civilization—the ban and revulsion against torture, the prohibition on preventive war, the right to organize, the skepticism of the imperial executive—through lawyers, genteel men of the Senate with their august traditions and practices, and the Supreme Court.

When it comes to the most terrible kinds of repression and violence, Fear, American Style has worked because it has given so many players a piece of the pie. The most prized elements of American constitutionalism—shared and fragmented power, compromise and consent, dispersed authority—are the very things that have animated and underwritten Fear, American Style.

Insofar as Trump and Bannon believe that we need authoritarian strongman politics in order to achieve their ultra-revanchist aims, they don’t understand American politics. When it comes to American revanchism, that kind of strongman politics is almost entirely superfluous. Indeed, it’s pure surplus. And may be well counter-productive to what they and their constituents truly want.

We have in this country legions of intellectuals, journalists, and scholars who are steeped in the knowledge of the American terrible: racism, slavery, imperialism, misogyny. Yet when it comes to analyzing the relationship of that American terrible to American institutions, in this moment, these same intellectuals, journalists, and scholars are driven for their explanations either to exotica from abroad—fascism, Putinism, and so on—or to a notion of the American terrible as a shape-shifting anti-institutional, anti-legal, anti-traditional, anti-rational, psychological, cultural, ever-bubbling stew of affect and evil.

The truth of the matter is that Trump and Bannon could get most if not all of what they want—in terms of the revanchism of race, gender, and class, the white Christian nation that they seem to wish for—without strongman politics. American institutions offer more than enough resources for revanchism. That they seem not to know this—that they are willing to make opponents of the military and the security establishment, that they are willing to arouse into opposition and conjure enemies out of potential friends—may be their biggest weakness of all. Or, if they do know this, but seek strongman politics anyway, perhaps because it is a surplus, then they’re willing to put strongman politics above and beyond the project of social revanchism that their base seeks. Which may be their other biggest weakness of all.

So I do think Trump and Bannon are vulnerable: Not because American institutions are so strong and resilient, but because Trump and Bannon don’t seem to understand how weak and pliable those institutions actually are, if you know how to delicately use and manipulate them. And if you only hear in my analysis a hope for the future, you’re missing the cloud in the silver living.

But enough with the predictions.



  1. zenner41 January 31, 2017 at 12:56 pm | #

    I fully agree with your refusal to predict, although it is a basic function of the human mind to be always looking ahead to try to find opportunities and prevent dangers and disasters.

    I also think that your argument that many basic features of U.S. constitutionalism and governance can serve revanchism and have in the past. I would just want us to remember that they can also be used to resist it, as they have in the past. It all depends on what the people do–all of the people, including those who sit and do nothing. I have adopted my own slogan, which I want to write on a sign for the next demo: “You’re apathetic? That’s pathetic!”

    Let’s keep hitting the streets. The more commotion we stir up, the more it bugs him, and the more it bugs him, the more craziness he indulges in, and the more people who get roused to stir up commotion. At least that’s a hope, maybe our only hope.

    Another thought I want everyone to consider. Most of the mass demos so far seem to be largely filled by people who are very angry about Trump only, or mostly. But the problems he is exacerbating have existed in this world for a long time before he came along. What needs to happen is that the people who haven’t yet thought beyond this one man begin to understand what needs to be tackled at a more basic level, which in my opinion is essentially capitalism. Lots of work ahead, even if Trump is toppled.

  2. jonnybutter January 31, 2017 at 1:42 pm | #

    if they do know [that they don’t need], but seek strongman politics anyway, perhaps because it is a surplus, then they’re willing to put strongman politics above and beyond the project of social revanchism that their base seeks. Which may be their other biggest weakness of all.

    Yes. The biggest weakness of the Trump/Bannon team is Trump himself, who – among other huuuge problems – is probably not utterly committed to anything ideologically, *except* strongmanism, ego feeding. Well, and racism, which seems pretty dyed in the wool with him.

    I’d like to know what you mean by ‘pure surplus’ though. My first guess is that you might mean ‘gratuitous’ (in the philosophical sense), i.e. for no single reason at all – which is to say, (in this case) authoritarianism just for the sake of it. If so, it is a weakness, and a stupid one, but still scary.

    Thanks for this post.

    • Corey Robin January 31, 2017 at 2:08 pm | #

      Yes, in that sense. But also in the sense that there is so much power available, they want to use it in more maximal ways.

      • jonnybutter January 31, 2017 at 4:14 pm | #

        I see, yes. Thanks. Overreach. They could get most of what they want if they had the slightest bit of patience and skill, but they don’t appear to have that (and the GOP is kind of a mess which doesn’t help).

        I actually hope they don’t get rid of Trump too early – after all, that means Pres. Pence, who could ‘end our national nightmare’ and de-sully our indestructible, zombie Innocence.

  3. Daniel45 January 31, 2017 at 1:54 pm | #


    In my own view it would help immensely if the people who are lambasting the Trump administration had at least given some thought to the following questions and could go some way to giving answers to such questions as:

    1 – Do you accept that America (like many other countries in the world today) has security problems? Do you recognise that despite the giggly charts on social media showing lawnmowers to be more of a threat to American life than terrorism, there are legitimate security concerns that reasonable Americans might hold?

    2 – Do you recognise that Islamic terrorism is not a figment of a fevered imagination, but a real thing that exists and which causes a risk to human life in America and many other countries? This isn’t to say that other forms of terrorism don’t exist – they obviously do. But how might you address this one (assuming you can’t immediately solve global peace, poverty, unhappiness, lack of satisfactory sex, masculinity etc)?
    3 – If you do recognise the above fact then would you concede that large scale immigration from Islamic countries into the US might bring a larger number of potential challenges than, say, large scale immigration from New Zealand or Iceland?

    4 – Is everybody who wants to visit Disney World morally akin to Jews fleeing the Holocaust? If not then what are the differences, and is it always wise to conflate the two?

    5 – Would you recognise that Iran is one of the world’s leading state-sponsors of terror, and that, for example, an Iranian-born American citizen in 2011 was caught planning to carry out a terror attack in Washington (against the Saudi Ambassador)? Would you recognise that aggravating though a temporary halt on all Iranian nationals visiting the US might be, and many good people though it will undoubtedly stop, there is a reason that some countries cause a greater security concern than others? Might citizens of a country whose leadership regularly chants ‘Death to America’ present a larger number of questions for border security than, say, citizens of Denmark whose government rarely says the same? What would your vetting policy be to distinguish between different Iranians seeking to enter the US?

    6 – Does the whole world have the right to live in America? This is a variant of the same question we Europeans should have been asking for years. If you do not think that the whole world has the right to live in the USA then who should be allowed to live there and who should not? Who might be given priority?

    7 – If you believe in giving some people asylum, as I do, who should be given priority? Should asylum be forever? Or should there be a time-limit (such as up until such a time as your country of origin is deemed safe)? How do you deal with people who have been given asylum, whose reason for asylum is over (i.e. their country has returned to peace) but whose children have entered the school system (for instance)?

    8 – Is it wrong that the Trump administration says it wishes to favour Christian refugees over Muslim refugees? This is a fascinating and difficult moral question. Many Christians refuse to accept that the plight of Christians – even when they are the specific target of persecution – should be given priority over anyone else. This is a noble example of Christian universalism, but is it wise or moral when you consider the limited numbers that can come in and if you accept that the entire persecuted world cannot arrive in America?

    9 – How do you identify the type of Muslims who America should indeed welcome? And how do you distinguish them from the sort of Muslims who the country could well do without? In other words, what would your vetting procedures be? There are some people who have thought about this. But what is your policy?

    If you think all of the above questions are simply ‘racist’ or ‘bigoted’ then I suppose the rest of us will just have to accept that we’re going to lose you to four years of shouting on the streets in vagina hats. But the rest of us should try to address these questions. We’re not going to be able to shout them away you know.

    • empty January 31, 2017 at 2:32 pm | #

      That’s a rather large number of questions. It would be difficult to answer them all in one sitting so let’s take them a few at a time in reverse order. I am not very good with words so I will plagiarize your style in answering the questions. Starting with the last unnumbered question:

      10. Yes, they are racist and bigoted. (Note the lack of the scare quotes). If this answer makes you go sulk in your basement, I suppose the rest of us will have to live with that.

      9. You, as a government do not identify a ‘type’ of Muslim, or a ‘type’ of Christian or a ‘type’ of Jew. (note the scare quotes). There are possibly an uncountable number of ‘types’ and enumerating all ‘types’ would probably take too long or I would ask you to enumerate them. The requirements for immigration and the reasons for which you can be denied admission are enumerated on US government websites. You might wish to peruse those and then point out what further requirements you feel should be included or what requirements you feel should be discarded. In other words, do some work.

      8. Yes it is wrong for the Trump administration to say it wishes to favor Christian refugees over Muslims. It is neither wise nor moral to say that. The humanity of an individual trumps their religion every single time.

    • LFC January 31, 2017 at 10:02 pm | #

      Is it wrong that the Trump administration says it wishes to favour Christian refugees over Muslim refugees?

      yes, and there is also a good argument that it violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

    • unowhoyah March 3, 2017 at 1:25 am | #

      Daniel45, Please remind me when it was that Iran last attacked another country ?

  4. louisproyect January 31, 2017 at 2:17 pm | #

    “How do you identify the type of Muslims who America should indeed welcome? And how do you distinguish them from the sort of Muslims who the country could well do without? In other words, what would your vetting procedures be? There are some people who have thought about this. But what is your policy?”

    This is an extraordinarily ignorant question. I understand that it is being posed by a European who might not have access to CNN or MSNBC but there certainly are websites that he can check out that describe how lengthy and exhaustive the vetting process is for refugees from the seven nations:

  5. Dr_Tad January 31, 2017 at 3:41 pm | #

    Hi Corey, thanks for writing this and for linking me via twitter to your earlier go at explaining Trump’s win.

    I’m going to be blunt. I think your predictions have been wrong because you start with the ideological thread that you see running through conservatism rather than the material organisation of politics on the Right (and Left for that matter), and its relationship to the state and to civil society.

    So there is a basic unwillingness on your part to accept that Trump is someone who came from outside the established, materially-existing contours of the organised US Right (the mainstream Right around the GOP, because independent far Right forces are so tiny, fragmentary and socially weak, even if capable of occasional outrages through terror tactics) — and leveraged the already-existing decay of GOP control over its electorate to win the nomination. He then played on the decline of the Dems’ control over their voters (already part-revealed by the unexpected success of a kindly old socialist from Vermont against their most well-connected party figurehead) in the general.

    Yes Trump has some terrible reactionary policies, but he also has some weirdly non-GOP positions if you look at what the GOP is and has been rather than try to find an ideological thread that makes him just like them, or part of their philosophical tradition. If we look at ideology in the end we can always find overlap that allows us to arbitrarily point to someone like Trump and say “aha, he’s a real conservative!” while conveniently explaining away ideas that might make him overlap with liberalism (eg his insistence on LGBTQ equality on all but the issue of marriage) or even further Left (eg his trade position as one to defend “the American worker”).

    If we look instead at what Trump has done we can see that his anti-political posturing was not just a side note but absolutely suited to a campaign against both the GOP and Dem structures and leaderships. We can also see how his appeal could cut across usual lines. The pundits were shocked by him winning the primaries because they thought he was a factional candidate, but from the start he took votes across usual factional lines that play out in the primaries. He could take southern states and New Hampshire, and the breakdown of the early exit polls made clear he was the candidate of a broad cross section of the GOP base. Actually sensible conservative commentary (by people who hated him) at sites like The American Conservative was pointing this out from late 2015. It’s how I could write my blog post in January last year with a high level of confidence that Trump would win the primary and have a serious chance in the general ( It required looking at his whole message and all his behaviour rather than focusing on the “outrage” he liked to provoke to get media coverage and lock in voters on the basis he seemed tough enough to “get things done” cf the Washington paralysis no one else had solved.

    Coming to what is happening now, the same pattern of behaviour is expressing itself. Trump needs to establish his (ideologically mixed) agenda now because he may well have defeated the GOP and Dem structures in 2016, but he is incredibly isolated in Washington. He has the power of the Executive Branch, but most of the rest of the Establishment hates him and wants him gone. Right now the GOP is mainly behind him, but he has exposed (and humiliated) their weakness, and they will want to leverage their alliance with him to eventually restore their own power. For Trump the problem is that he needs to not just keep enough public popularity to have a stick to beat them off with, he also needs to reshape how politics is done to secure his position (including a use of the state much less veiled by political game-playing).

    Both parties’ problems are ultimately underpinned by ongoing US decline as a hegemon, something Trump openly addresses with his rejection of US exceptionalism.

    Trump’s win has also exposed the fragility of the Dems’ identity-based politicking, and of Obama’s moral technocratic temporary fix for his party’s longer-run problems. The Dems are in full meltdown, and I think the protest activity of recent months is actually more a rearguard action against their unexpected defeat, not social resistance *independent* of the Dems. Everything is overshadowed by a theme that Trump’s outrages require a return to the old politics, even if that means the Dems need to be more progressive in the future (how many times have we heard that in social struggles against the Right before?). If voters turn out to be unmoved by the protests, there will soon be demoralisation and moralistic denunciation of the reactionary masses (and, I guess, more claims that the masses have been won to fascism).

    Understanding Trump as being part of a long conservative ideological tradition misses what is happening structurally in US politics. It is not useful for predicting the future, because this is about a structural crisis of politics and how one uniquely placed maverick has tried to leverage it for his own ends. To do this Trump has had no choice but to continually disrespect the ideological lines of division that have justified the alignment of the US party system for decades. Not recognising this will leave progressives fighting an enemy in their imaginations, not the one who is actually there.

    • Corey Robin January 31, 2017 at 5:44 pm | #

      You give me no reason to think I’m wrong. You simply state your point of view which you’ve been repeating and repeating on Facebook for months. We disagree, but again, you give me no reason to think you’re right. Also, if you actually read the post that I pointed you to, and the piece I wrote to which it linked, you’ll see that I actually deal with some of the key differences that Trump has adopted and that distinguish him from mainstream conservatism. But this isn’t really a conversation or even an argument. You just want a platform to rehearse your position and you’ve found my pages on Facebook and my blog to be a convenient soapbox in that regard — and that’s fine, you’re free to do that, so long as you’re not rude or annoying — but you can’t really show why my position is wrong. You can only say, and say again, and again and again, that yours is right, which isn’t very persuasive.

    • Carlos Zevallos February 1, 2017 at 5:47 pm | #

      “Right now the GOP is mainly behind him, but he has exposed (and humiliated) their weakness, and they will want to leverage their alliance with him to eventually restore their own power.

      Can you expand on this? How might they accomplish this? On the one hand there is a clear division right now between Trump loyalists and moderate or establishment republicans who are willing to question him on orthodoxy. On the other hand, many deeply establishment republicans are in non-competive districts, where their biggest threat is a primary challenger who supports Trump, incentivizing them to toe the president’s line. I suppose Trump’s popularity going forward will help determine which of these opposing forces will win out, but it seems to me that (like the dems) going back to the status quo won’t win them any power back.

      I also wonder if the loyalist-establishment divide will simply be a continuation of the tea party-establishment tension throughout the Obama years, with the important difference that the ideologically pure tea party has morphed into populist Trumpism, and Trumpism is now on offense rather than defense.

      “For Trump the problem is that he needs to not just keep enough public popularity to have a stick to beat them off with, he also needs to reshape how politics is done to secure his position (including a use of the state much less veiled by political game-playing).”

      Which ties in with my previous question. In what specific ways do you think he might try to reshape politics? When you say, “use of the state much less veiled by political game-playing”, it sounds like a continuation of the same political process, only without the trappings of commity. But it seems to me his tendencies are to go further than that; to really consolidate power through intimidation, executive orders, quelling dissent, and institutional restructioring (e.g. Steve Bannon at the NSC) in the vein (though perhaps not extent) of Latin American demagogues and strongmen.

      Regarding your analysis of Dems right now, I think you’re absolutely right there’s a good chance protests will dissolve into demoralization. But if protests don’t accomplish anything, and returning to traditional political structures seems implausible, what would the optimal course of action be for Democrats moving forward? It seems like they’re in a similar bind as the GOP. No going back, but no clear path forward.

      I’d love to hear different perspectives on this from others.

      • Dr_Tad February 2, 2017 at 4:53 am | #

        “How might they accomplish this?”

        They still have a party and a machine, even if weak. And Trump has very little social base. If Trump’s agenda faltered I would think they would move to ditch him (even backing impeachment, identifying Pence as their man).

        I agree Trump is not the Tea Party reborn. He took the base of the Tea Party (the ones who joined the revolt because they wanted a revolt against the GOP establishment to join) but not the more elite Tea Party leaders and ideologues were more aligned with Cruz and others. So he needs to keep as much of the GOP base on side as possible but I think also needs to reach across to certain groups of Indy and Dem voters. Maybe even sections of the African-American working class who feel less and less loyalty to the Dems. Trump is playing a difficult game of having to keep a Right-leaning GOP base on side enough while driving a wedge between the Dem/Left panic merchants and more moderate voters to his Left.

        “But it seems to me his tendencies are to go further than that”

        I think that the centralisation stuff is a function of having a weak base himself. In fact he is just using the tools that have been bequeathed to him by predecessors who have also tried to overcome roadblocks to action using centralising measures.

        I think it’s important not to mix up sledgehammer politics, using the naked force of the state to establish to your political opponents that you are not easily messed with, with actual increases in power. The power of the state is only ever in relation to social forces that could challenge it. Trump’s ascension hasn’t resulted in any direct attack on social forces outside the state (e.g. a PATCO re-run) because those were already mostly passive. He is, rather, mostly manoeuvring in the political sphere. Nasty stuff will happen but nasty stuff happens because of the state all the time; the problem is more the state and not the fact someone is being so obvious in running it.

        The Democrats and the Left have little social base anymore and so find it harder to mount an effective challenge to a shift of power within the state towards the POTUS, let alone challenge the power of the state itself (if they even wanted to).

        I guess I find Corey’s analysis unconvincing because, like the rest of the Left, he conflates attacks on Left political forces with social reaction. He also downplays how much the Right’s abject weakness has been exposed by Trump’s nomination and current freedom of manoeuvre. That leads him to fall in with an apocalyptic view of what is happening when in fact it is Trump taking advantage of crises of both the Left and the Right.

        I think you’re right that there is no clear way forward for either side of the political class, and certainly no going back to a time where they commanded serious authority. I would think that actual social movements (not Dem-cheerleading anti-Trumpism, which is focused on restoration of the old political arrangements) is the real alternative here. None of us can conjure that up, but I feel able to predict that if/when such movements emerge they won’t be easy to squeeze into partisan political categories — sort of like the 15M/Indignados movement in Spain attacked the failure of all side of politics.

        • Joel Bocko (@LostInTheMovies) February 3, 2017 at 8:38 pm | #

          Right now there are (at least) two forces coalescing in protests. One is a faction of the Democratic loyalist/likely Hillary-voting base who are not willing to channel their election-season outrage into tepid cheerleading for the leadership as more centrist figures are. The other is a more independent left, largely outside the Democratic fold, except inasmuch as many of them supported Bernie Sanders in the primary (who, let’s remember, was not a Democrat either before or after that race) – although many of them probably supported no one at all and aren’t much interested in electoral politics. Incidentally, both strands (even the “loyalists”) are primed to become as disillusioned with the Democratic elite establishment as the tea party was, albeit for slightly different reasons: the first on a more purely tactical basis, the second (who are already pretty thoroughly disillusioned with Democrats) from an ideological (as well as tactical) basis. I think it’s a mistake to simply dismiss the protest as purely partisan outrage.

          I agree that there are many more-or-less nonaligned independents throughout the country who are presently invested neither in Trump nor the protest movement (which, I’ll grant you, begins from a more particularly ideological base though it would be a mistake to identify this totally or even predominantly with the Democratic Party). Interestingly, many of these types – to the extent they were paying attention at all during the election – were admiring of Sanders’ campaign (again suggesting a space on the left that has both populist potential and independence from the two-party structure). The trick will be to yolk the energy of the anti-Trump protests (which, again, you are presenting far too unimaginatively) to a more positive agenda that can mobilize people who are willing to look the other way with Trump’s offenses that don’t affect them personally, but would also be willing to vote against him if presented with an encouraging, positive alternative.

      • JoiningUnrelatedDots (@Mareeswj) February 3, 2017 at 4:56 am | #

        I think, what he is trying to say is that, since Trump considers himself as an outsider, he can’t count on establishment/institutions backing his agenda. So he is explicitly re-moulding all institutions in his image, so that he will be able to carry out his agenda without 100% support of existing insiders.

  6. Andy February 1, 2017 at 2:38 am | #

    The problem with your treatment, as I see it, is that Bannon (Trump should be seen as a non-entity, trundled out for signings and media spectacles only) is discarding some of our institutions, but at the same time is strengthening (DHS, CBP) or reshaping others (DoJ and really, the entire rule of law) to directly benefit the material condition of his (white Christian) base.

    If this is true, then he will be able to use the more punitive institutions to wreck havoc against minorities while still maintaining certain institutions as is that he can then present as unscathed to craven centrists. It would be a hybrid system, with elements both of the monolithic American state of the last 60 years, as well as the unpredictability of the unitary strongman. On another point, I think when Bannon says Leninist he actually means Maoist, in that having built a base of support at Breitbart, he’s now moved through the guerilla warfare of the campaign into open warfare in the White House.

  7. stevenjohnson February 1, 2017 at 7:52 am | #

    “precious achievements of liberal civilization—the ban and revulsion against torture, the prohibition on preventive war, the right to organize, the skepticism of the imperial executive—”

    It’s not even clear that liberal civilization is a thing at all, much less that it had at some point “achieved” any of these things. Nor is it very clear whether “revanchism” is precisely the term to use for a program of class stratification a la Old Europe. Taken seriously, a revanchist program in the US context would mean going back to, say, a regime where class mobility for some of the working class was bought with lands stolen from the Indians, while foreign money was brought in by slave labor exports. And “strong-manism” seems to be another infelicitous coinage for the determination of the owners to rule in their own persons (or at least one of them,) without condescension to that democratic extortion. That determination seems to be all the more important precisely because the so-called revanchists have increasingly lost the ability to command the electoral support to operate the levers of power.

    The part about how the government, when ratified by majorities in periodic elections, can do all sorts of repressive things to defend property is correct, at least. But that still leaves out the difficulty of the so-called revanchists getting their act together and agreeing on how to do it. The tacit assumption appears to be they at least know how to get what they want. I suggest they do not.

  8. stevenjohnson February 1, 2017 at 7:55 am | #

    That was supposed to be “concession to democratic extortion” or “condescending to submit to democratic extortion.” But maybe “condenscension” should be a word?

    I chortle at the jest.

  9. Rich Puchalsky February 1, 2017 at 11:22 am | #

    “How do you identify” etc. isn’t just wrong because of the stereotyping, ignorance and so on. It’s wrong in a much more basic way. It assumes that this is a policy question with some kind of right as opposed to wrong answer. There are no more policy questions of this type in existence. There are only questions about interest and effect.

    I’m not denying reality by writing this. Policy questions generally have simple answers that are real: should we transition to a non-carbon-based economy: yes; is banning people from a set of countries a good way to do anything: no. But those answers are not part of the political picture at all. There is only “whose interests does this serve”, “what effect was intended by doing this” etc. Arguing the contrary doesn’t make you a brave upholder of truth, it makes you a dupe and a participant in keeping people from getting to the important realities and decisions.

  10. b. February 1, 2017 at 12:41 pm | #


    One particularly educational example: the US eugenics movement. I just recently stumbled over
    Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck
    by Adam Cohen.

    One telling detail: in the US, the citizens have the right to be duly processed, but the concept of justice (let alone equality) has been excised from the beginning. It ain’t called the Statue of Liberty Only for nothing.

    • b. February 1, 2017 at 12:41 pm | #

      One disagreement: you appear to argue that separation of powers, as an “engineering principle” for evolutionary stable, robust institutions, is a primary cause for the “pliability” of the corrupted institutions of the Actually Existing Republic.

      I do not see the evidence, and furthermore, I am not sure what the alternative to power separation and checks and balances would be?

      The Founders, bless their little greedy hearts, might have been wrong in counting on the vanity, ego, and envy of e.g. US Senators to keep the President in check. Certainly, early Trumps like Jackson could not wait to set aside the Supreme Court. In some sense, this Republic appears to have existed in perpetual constitutional crisis for sake of expediency at many if not most times of its history.

      • b. February 1, 2017 at 12:49 pm | #

        The historic record of a Republic in disregard of its own professed principles, in my view, only underscores the need for a separation of powers. As an engineering concept, separation of powers strikes me as being necessary, but not sufficient, to nullify any institution and its leadership “gone rogue”.

        There is a dangerous fallacy that if the majority of The People cannot bring themselves to Do The Right thing, getting the “right” individuals on the Supreme Court, or the “right” person into the White House, that this will somehow fix the problem. At the same time, we are looking to The People to stand up for themselves if not for our professed principles. We can’t have it both ways. No institution can make up for a sovereign that has no sense of right or wrong. As Congress so splendidly illustrates, you do democracy with the representatives that were elected, not the representatives you wanted to vote for – and with the citizens you have, not the ones you wish for.

      • Corey Robin February 1, 2017 at 1:10 pm | #

        “I do not see the evidence.” That’s odd as I link to an article that I have told you in this post provides the whole argument. In the article I provide the evidence for that claim. If you believe the evidence is in error or that I have not interpreted it correctly, please let me know. But if you don’t see the evidence it may be because you haven’t read it.

  11. DJEZ February 1, 2017 at 1:27 pm | #

    This type of analysis is a plague on the left and is itself a form of surplus: you could say of *any moment* in political history that the institutions themselves were the instruments of violent coercion. It’s redundantly true. The fact that you are forced to give as implausible and empty an answer as sheer gratuitousness to the question of why Trump and Bannon are working so diligently to undermine the Constitution and national institutions is indicative of the interpretive poverty of the argument.

    • Dene Karaus February 1, 2017 at 7:21 pm | #

      The same institutions which have been the sources and methods of oppression have, when turned over to the proper leadership at the proper time been the source of correction and freedom from oppression (think Abraham Lincoln, Lyndon Johnson.) The comment regarding redundancy may be true but is gratuitous in that 99.99% of thoughtful people are unaware of them, that Mr. Robin is truly on to something, and it behooves those of us here who are engaged and interested and thoughtful to accord him credit and move ahead in a thoughtful manner.

  12. burritoboy February 1, 2017 at 4:26 pm | #

    “We have in this country legions of intellectuals, journalists, and scholars who are steeped in the knowledge of the American terrible: racism, slavery, imperialism, misogyny.”

    No, that’s not the American terrible. Oh, those things are certainly terrible, and certainly Americans have been quite expert at them. But they aren’t the particularly American terrible. The American terrible is embodied in the following predicament: the USA is the country designed by the Enlightenment that resulted in South Carolina. I say South Carolina because John Locke himself wrote the constitution of South Carolina (and I would argue that South Carolina eventually intellectually conquered the rest of the landmass.)

    What that means is the American terrifying: the Enlightenment was so wrong that when perhaps the greatest of its figures designed a constitution, the result was something far more vicious and evil than could even be conceived of before. That’s why we see such clinging to the American failed state: it is not that Americans love their country, but rather we cannot admit to ourselves that all of our intellectual underpinnings have collapsed.

    That’s the American terrifying precisely because there is literally nothing that the American has besides the Enlightenment. In most other places, there is at least some possible – by now distantly forgotten, but still at least possibly there to be remembered – memories of something beyond the Enlightenment. Not in America – when the Enlightenment collapses, everything in the US will collapse beside it.

  13. Carolyn Doric February 16, 2017 at 9:22 pm | #

    Thank you for this. And thank you for the link to the expanded piece.

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