What Michael Rogin means to me, particularly in the Age of Trump: Traditional politics matters!

A Facebook post by Lisa Duggan reminds me of the power of Michael Rogin’s book The Intellectuals and McCarthy.

Though it’s less famous and influential than Rogin’s later book Ronald Reagan, The MovieThe Intellectuals and McCarthy was a formative text in my own development. It came at a critical moment in my thinking—either the year before I went to graduate school or in my first year of graduate school—and permanently left its mark.

In his book on McCarthy, Rogin took aim at historians like Richard Hofstadter and social theorists like Daniel Bell who had argued that McCarthyism was essentially a form of irrational mass politics, a midcentury American populism that, though right-wing, was the inheritor of left-wing movements like the Populists or Young Bob LaFollette’s movement in the 1920s and 1930s early part of the 20th century. What united all these characters, Hofstadter and Bell argued, was a sense of “status anxiety,” the social vertigo induced by modern industrial society, which left men and women without that sense of place that they had in more traditional forms of society. (This is a fairly familiar theme in all modern social thought, from Tocqueville to Durkheim to Arendt, from Talcott Parsons to Robert Putnam. It gets resurrected every seven years or so as if it were some blazing new insight, but it’s been around for centuries.)  LaFollette was a particularly irresistible precedent for Hofstadter and Bell because he, like McCarthy, was from Wisconsin. And it was LaFollette’s son, Young Bob LaFollette, who McCarthy defeated in the infamous 1946 campaign that propelled McCarthy to the Senate.

Through a close analysis of the electoral data, Rogin took the Hofstadter-Bell thesis apart, piece by piece. He showed that McCarthy and LaFollette represented two quite different constituencies, that McCarthyism was much more a function of elite politics than mass politics, and that it was driven by quite specific political and economic grievances and issues—and fairly traditional and conventional fissures of party politics—rather than any exotic motivation or free-floating social psychology. What The Intellectuals and McCarthy taught me above all else is that politics, conventional or traditional politics, matters, particularly at those moments when we think it doesn’t. I had already learned a version of this from Arno Mayer—whose Marxism entailed a close analysis, in the European context, of “history from above,” where high politics and events and contingency mattered just as much as deep social and economic structures—but Rogin provided an excellent model of that kind of analysis for the American scene.

More generally, Rogin’s work stands as a cautionary note to liberals and the left: When it comes to conventional political positions and partisan disagreements, we tend to invoke conventional categories of politics. But when someone like a McCarthy—or a Trump—arises, we forget or toss out everything we know about conventional politics and instantly resort to more far-flung notions and categories (fascism, authoritarianism, and the like). This also applies—especially applies—to how we analyze political phenomena like violence.

As readers of this blog and my various posts on social media will know, I’m dubious about that move. And I’m especially dubious of it in this moment. Not because I don’t think there are psychological or other dimensions of politics; clearly, there are. And not because I don’t think there are some fruitful parallels to be drawn between American conservatism and the European hard right; I wrote a book, after all, making that exact move (much to the chagrin of some), and I’ve made repeated connections between European fascism and everyone from Thomas Jefferson to the neocons.

But I’m suspicious of our opportunistic (in the literal sense) invocation of those categories: how we invoke psychology or fascism in some moments—moments we deem extraordinary—but not others. (Rogin, it should be said, never made that error: in his mature work, he managed to achieve an unparalleled equipoise between a shrewd political realism and an extraordinary sensitivity to the extramural dimensions of politics. That—along with works like Carl Shorske’s Fin-de-Siècle Vienna—has always served as a model for my own work on political fear and the political right.) That is why I have been so maniacally insistent on the boring bread and butter of conventional GOP party politics and policy: debates over Obamacare, rumblings over tax and trade and debt, and all the rest.

I fear that in the sudden discovery of what some of us have been saying for some time—that conservatism is a radical, reactionary mode of politics, and always has been—we somehow believe the rules of ordinary politics don’t apply. I fear that in our rush to pathologize Trump—to think that he’s extraordinary and that only extraordinary categories can help us understand him—we are simply repeating the error that Michael Rogin warned us against so many years ago.


  1. Tom DUmm March 16, 2017 at 1:42 pm | #

    Hi Corey,

    It is always great to see Michael Rogin being thought about in times like this. But …

    Gonna respectfully disagree with you on your persistence regarding the strength of our ordinary institutions. Partly because the organizing principles of party politics in the US have devolved further than I think you have yet appreciated over the past twenty years or so, and partly because, like when radio became a form of mass information dissemination in the era of Hitler and Roosevelt (I’m not calling Trump Hitler, please… nor Roosevelt for that matter) the shock to the system of political dialogue and debate has been profound, allowing fringe elements to seep into the more general political discourse (on this I would refer to Bill Connolly’s book on Capitalism and Christianity, American Style, especially his chapter on the Fox news/fundamentalist resonance machine). Of course, we have historical parallels to the present from the past, but our crisis is of now, occurring at a moment when the pillars of continuity in American politics — the Democratic and Republican parties — are collapsing. We have had crises like this in the past, and have dodged them, but it doesn’t mean we will now.

    I was recently asked to speak on Ted Lowi and his heritage at the Arendt Center at Bard College (later this March(Ted was one of my teachers and mentors at Cornell)). The invitation has given me occasion reread his second edition of The End of the Republican Era. There, in the epilogue to the new edition, he was Cassandra-like, worrying that the emergence of someone not unlike Trump, someone who would incite the moraline absolutists of the Christian/capitalist Right, would overcome small”d” democrats, were there not a large enough coalition in place to support the rule of law. (I checked recently, and did some simple math out stats provided of websites like Five-Thirty-Eight and RealClear Politics — out of Trump’s total vote, 44% came from white evangelical voters, folks like Mike Pence, who says of himself that he is a Christian first, conservative second, and Republican third.) That, combined with the white nationalism at the heart of Trump’s administration, is toxic and explicitly anti-democratic, working at the heart of power, a phenomenon I can’t recall having ever occurred before in my lifetime in the US. I hope that the more ordinary structures of politics you invoke have the capacity to resist this latest development, but fear that they don’t. Where that leaves me is demanding resistance to Trump on every possible front, seeking a re-building of a Democrat party from the bottom up, and pressing from outside the Democratic party, on the streets as need be, when the authoritarian hammer comes down, as it already is starting to, through his executive orders.

    In solidarity, Tom

    • Corey Robin March 16, 2017 at 2:45 pm | #

      Hi Tim. I think you may be misreading me here. My point is not that traditional institutions will resist Trump or that they are our salvation. It’s almost exactly the opposite: the worst things in America, as I’ve argued, worst as in far worse than Trump (slavery, Jim Crow, Japanese internment, and so on), have always been perpetrated *through* traditional institutions. You don’t need to consider extra-institutional factors to understand a McCarthy or a Trump; those institutions provide more than enough resources to malignant social forces to do their damage. That is what Rogin taught us, and I think there is an unacknowledged sentimentality and exceptionalism at work in the claim that somehow or another you have to look outside of institutions to understand Trump. Again, something Rogin taught us. Anyway, I wrote about this issue here.


      • Tom DUmm March 16, 2017 at 3:03 pm | #

        Well, I hope I stand corrected (though i’m not quite sure, perhaps subject to a longer discussion). Not normatively, but analytically, the institutional question doesn’t for me concern what American ordinary institutions have both permitted and encouraged, so much as what a current departure — if there is one — from them, may portend for the future of the US. Maybe that is nub of the question.

  2. max March 16, 2017 at 1:52 pm | #

    that conservatism is a radical, reactionary mode of politics, and always has been

    Hrmm. How about ‘When conservatism rules domestic politics, it’s a repressive dominant ideology, but since the 1930’s it has assumed the form of reactionary radicalism?’

    Versailles wasn’t radical, but when it was overthrown the right became radical about bringing it back.

    [‘What else can they do given their priors.’]

  3. John Maher March 16, 2017 at 1:56 pm | #

    This post is trending towards an enactivist cultural assembly of political configuration and should be expanded to include Gramsci and Bates among others. Posts such as this show Corey is truly worthy of the Public Intellectual term.

    • benjoya March 16, 2017 at 8:05 pm | #

      This post is trending towards an enactivist cultural assembly of political configuration

      That’s what she said.

  4. David Jacobs March 16, 2017 at 2:31 pm | #

    Michael Rogin was the son of distinguished labor educator Larry Rogin, who played a critical role in CIO organizing and Brookwood Labor College, as I recall.

  5. brodix March 16, 2017 at 10:37 pm | #

    We evolved in a thermodynamic environment. Politics, to me, seems to be cycles of expansion and consolidation. Liberalism being socially expansionary(Neoliberalism being economically expansionary) and conservatism being cultural and civil consolidation. It is only when it goes to extremes that problems really start to happen.
    As is, humanity has been expanding throughout history and long before, 400, 4000, 40,000, 400,000, 4,000,000, depending where on the curve you want to start.
    The last 40 has been powered by exponential debt and a consolidation phase is coming.
    What the left needs to focus on is broadcasting the fact that a publicly supported currency is a public utility and needs to be regulated as such.
    The current economic circulation system is akin to private government, aka monarchy and needs to evolve.

  6. Kevin Walters March 17, 2017 at 12:58 pm | #

    You make some great points, but a couple quick corrections: Robert M. “Fighting Bob” La Follette died in 1925. He was first elected Wisconsin Governor in 1900 and became a U.S. Senator in 1906. So his movement was 10s and 20s not 20s and 30s. It was his son, Bob Jr. that McCarthy defeated in 1946 at a time when the Wisconsin Progressive Party was sharply in decline (Bob Jr’s brother Phil had lost a re-election bid to Governor in 1938 and neither held elected office after ’46).

    • Corey Robin March 17, 2017 at 2:34 pm | #

      I know that: that’s why I said “Young Bob” LaFollette who was the son, the Jr., rather than the Sr. But I just checked and you’re right that Rogin focused on Sr., not Jr. Will fix.

  7. David Green March 18, 2017 at 12:33 pm | #

    Rogin’s work is a stellar example of quantitative analysis combined with analytical/categorical precision. Everyone one who lazily and pretentiously invokes Hofstadter’s essay on the “paranoid style” should be sentenced to reading Rogin’s work. And Hofstadter’s assertion about populism and anti-Semitism, from the Age of Reform through the Paranoid Style, can be seen as foreshadowing the liberal exploitation of anti-Semitism that came to full flower after the 1967 Israeli-Arab war, as well as in the midst of New Left politics (“new politics”) that among many other things displeased the Old Left and the emerging Neocons.

  8. Billikin March 19, 2017 at 4:47 pm | #

    Pardon my ignorance, but I don’t see how authoritarianism is not ordinary politics. Milgram’s experiments and the Stanford prison experiment showed how close to the surface authoritarianism is to ordinary social, and hence, political, life. The political implications of Milgram’s work were part of the public consciousness. An article about it in Esquire in 1970 had the provocative title, “If Hitler asked You to Electrocute a Stranger, would you?” His machismo is no small part of Trump’s appeal.

    Racism is also part of Trump’s appeal. But how can you understand US politics without taking racism into account? That is not a far flung idea, either.

  9. Billikin March 19, 2017 at 5:10 pm | #

    Please excuse me for a stylistic nit. The “Age of Trump”??? He might not last 1,000 days.

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