As we approach the one-year anniversary of Donald Trump’s election…

As we approach the one-year anniversary of Trump’s election, I notice an uptick in two types of commentary.

First, there’s a focus on the barrenness of Trump’s legislative record. It really is astonishing, and something we can forget amid the day-to-day sense of crisis, but compared to every modern president, Trump’s achievements in the truly political domains of the presidency—that is, those domains that require the assent, cooperation, or agreement of other politicians and the majority of citizens—have been miniscule. I rarely agree with Nancy Pelosi these days, but with the exception of the Gorsuch nomination (which, truth be told, was McConnell’s achievement, not Trump’s), she’s right:

“We didn’t win the elections, but we’ve won every fight,” she said about the legislative agenda. “We’ve won every fight on the omnibus spending bill — you know the appropriations bills and the rest. You look at everything, they have no victories!”

And as the commentary seems to be coming to realize, that barrenness reflects more than Trump’s ineptitude as a leader; it is the product of deep and perhaps irresolvable divisions within the Republican Party.

Second, there seems to be an increasing awareness of the gap between Trump’s words and his deeds. As the New York Times reports this morning: “Mr. Trump’s expansive language has not been matched by his actions during this opening phase of his presidency.” The Washington Post adds:

“This is not a ‘buck stops here’ president,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University. “His language is Trumanesque — unflinching and ‘Here’s what I’m going to do.’ But it’s just rhetoric. Once he tries to implement it as policy, he backs off. . . . He goes forward in a bully-boy fashion, but he gets his comeuppance.”

It’s not just that there is a gap between Trump’s words and deeds; it’s that his words are astonishingly weak, his rhetoric frequently impotent. Its main effect, often enough, is to get people to think the opposite—and to get others to do the opposite.

To take just one of the many recent examples: Trump was on Twitter Thursday, threatening to pull the plug on Puerto Rico, claiming that it had screwed up its finances and time was running out on helping the US territory and more than 3 million American citizens.

It was vicious, vile stuff, the kind of thing we have come to expect from Trump. What effect did it have? Within hours, the Republican-dominated House voted 353-69 to provide $36.5 billion—nearly $8 billion more than Trump had wanted—in disaster relief for Puerto Rico and other areas hit by hurricanes and wildfire. In this instance, Trump had the assistance of the Heritage Foundation, the powerful Republican lobby, which was strongly pushing Republican lawmakers to vote against the relief bill. To no avail. That’s how powerful Trump’s words can be.

In the coming weeks leading up to the anniversary of the election, expect to see more of this kind of commentary: the thinness of Trump’s first year in power, the gap between his rhetoric and action, the incoherence of the Republican Party and the contradictions of the conservative movement.

I mention all this for two, somewhat self-serving—well, very self-serving—reasons.

First, I’ve been flagging these themes from the beginning of Trump’s presidency. Despite being completely, as in utterly, wrong about the results of the November election, I have been right about what Trump’s regime would look like. Even before Trump’s Inauguration, I was setting out the possibilities of an incoherent, disjunctive presidency, one that could be usefully compared to the presidency of Jimmy Carter. In March, I wrote a piece in the New York Times that saw the healthcare debacle as a window onto the growing “existential crisis” within the GOP. In May, I reminded readers in The Guardian that there is a yawning gap between what Trump says and what he does, and that we had better pay more attention to the latter. And in August, I described the civil war developing within the GOP, which has now come out fully into the open, and why it would not necessarily spell a new round of power for the conservative movement, the way civil wars once did.

(For other commentary on the Trump era, post-election, see these pieces in Harper’s (on the dangers of a left grounding its politics entirely on fear of and opposition to Trump), and in The Guardian (on how institutions are not the antidote to tyranny; on how the real endgame of the Republicans is control of the judiciary, and more on the healthcare debacle as an augury of conservative incoherence.)

None of these positions was obvious or conventional at the time: the day after the election, the fact that an ostensibly united Trumpist GOP had assumed control of all three elected branches of the federal government seemed to virtually everyone, from the left to the right, to be the herald of a new dawn—a new fascist dawn, according to many. But having immersed myself for nearly 20 years in the conservative canon and the conservative movement, I had a different reading of the tea leaves.

Which brings me to my second point.

As many of you know, I have a new book out: The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump. I say it’s a new book, and not a second edition, because as Dan Denvir pointed out to me in an interview on The Dig (soon to be broadcast), it really is a new book! Beyond a lengthy new chapter on Trump, the book is radically different in that, as the estimable Tim Schenck put it to me in this interview, “in the first edition of the book, war was clearly the dominant theme. In the new edition, you spend a lot more time on markets.” The struggle within the right over capitalism is now a major element in the book , animating nearly half the chapters. Trump is the culmination—or, depending on your view, denouement—of that struggle.

You can get a sneak preview of these themes in various venues.

n+1 has published a lengthy excerpt from The Reactionary Mind in its current issue. Here’s a taste:

The cold war allowed — or forced — the right to hold these tensions between the warrior and the businessman in check. Against the backdrop of the struggle against communism abroad and welfare-state liberalism at home, the businessman became a warrior — Robert Welch parlayed his career as a candymaker into a crusade at the John Birch Society — and the warrior a businessman. Caspar Weinberger went from the Office of Management and Budget and the defense contractor Bechtel to the Pentagon and Forbes. His nickname, “Cap the Knife,” captured the unified spirit of the cold-war self: one part accountant, one part killer.

With the end of the cold war, that conflation of roles became difficult to sustain. In one precinct of the right, the market returned to its status as a deadening activity that stifled greatness, whether of the nation or of the elite. American conservatism, Irving Kristol complained in 2000, is “so influenced by business culture and by business modes of thinking that it lacks any political imagination.” The idea of the free market was so simple and small, sighed Bill Buckley, that “it becomes rather boring. You hear it once, you master the idea. The notion of devoting your life to it is horrifying if only because it’s so repetitious. It’s like sex.” But in another precinct, market activities were shorn of anticommunist trappings and revalorized as strictly economic acts of heroism by a class that saw itself and its work as the natural province of greatness and rule. Donald Trump hails from the second precinct, but with a twist: his approach suggests there is no heroism in business — only deals.

Yet there is an unexpected sigh of emptiness, even boredom, at the end of Trump’s celebration of economic combat: “If you ask me exactly what the deals I’m about to describe all add up to in the end, I’m not sure I have a very good answer.” In fact, he has no answer at all. He says hopefully, “I’ve had a very good time making them,” and wonders wistfully, “If it can’t be fun, what’s the point?” But the quest for fun is all he has to offer — a dispiriting narrowness that Max Weber anticipated more than a century ago when he wrote that “in the United States, the pursuit of wealth, stripped of its religious and ethical meaning, tends to become associated with purely mundane passions, which often actually give it the character of sport.” Ronald Reagan could marvel, “You know, there really is something magic about the marketplace when it’s free to operate. As the song says, ‘This could be the start of something big.’” But there is no magic in Trump’s market. Everything — save those buttery leather pants — is a bore.

That admission affords Trump considerable freedom to say things about the moral emptiness of the market that no credible aspirant to the Oval Office from the right could.

TRUMP IS BY NO MEANS the first man of the right to reach that conclusion about capitalism, though he may be the first President to do so, at least since Teddy Roosevelt. A great many neoconservatives found themselves stranded on the same beach after the end of the cold war, as had many conservatives before that. But they always found a redeeming vision in the state. Not the welfare state or the “nanny state,” but the State of high politics, national greatness, imperial leadership, and war; the state of Churchill and Bismarck. Given the menace of Trump’s rhetoric, his fetish for pomp and love of grandeur, this state, too, would seem the natural terminus of his predilections. As his adviser Steve Bannon has said, “A country’s more than an economy. We’re a civic society.” Yet on closer inspection, Trump’s vision of the state looks less like the State than the deals he’s not sure add up to much.

As I mentioned, I did an interview with Tim Shenk at Dissent about the new edition. Tim got into some deep territory—Hayek, Burke, Hannah Arendt, public intellectuals, the “hate-fuck” of the right—and it’s worth listening to the whole thing. Or reading the edited transcript.

I also did an interview with Chuck Mertz of “This Is Hell!” It was a lot of fun and really gets into the nitty-gritty of my argument about Trump and why the Republicans are in the situation they are currently in.

I have more interviews in the works, so stay posted for updates on the blog. There are also reviews, I’m told, coming out, so again, stay posted.

There are two book events that you’ll also want to mark on your calendars.

On Monday, November 13, at 7 pm, I’ll be talking with Keith Gessen about the book at McNally Jackson in Soho. Keith is a novelist, a contributor to The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, and a founding editor of n+1.

On Wednesday, November 15, at 7:30 pm, I’ll be talking with Eddie Glaude about the book at the Brooklyn Public Library in, well, Brooklyn (at Grand Army Plaza). Eddie is a professor of religion and African-American Studies at Princeton, author of several books on pragmatism, African-American thought, and American politics, and one of the most incisive and forceful commentators on contemporary politics and ideas.

Oh, and buy the book!



  1. David Jacobs October 15, 2017 at 11:25 am | #

    There remains the threat of a NeoConfederate consolidation in which additional moves to limit democracy at the state level further obstruct the democratic agenda and facilitate Republican victories and executive actions. Trump’s incompetence leaves plenty of room for mischief and for a tarnishing of democracy itself.

    • Jim October 15, 2017 at 6:00 pm | #

      “…tarnishing of democracy”? American democracy started out very seriously flawed 230 years ago and after centuries and much bloodshed improved significantly. But the modern Republican onslaught against civil, human and voting rights has left American democracy on life support at this point.

  2. Brian A. Graham October 15, 2017 at 11:43 am | #

    Professor Robin, I love your work, but it is clear you are completely missing the point. To be a successful political pundit, it is not necessary for your prognostications be accurate only that they regurgitate the conventional wisdom of the ruling elites. Once you master that you shall be assured a comfortable existence as a very important person.

    It is hard to believe that Stephen Skowronek’s wonderful book on the politics that presidents make is a quarter of a century old.

  3. Deadl E Cheese October 15, 2017 at 12:00 pm | #

    I disagree with your otherwise excellent Dissent interview on one major point: liberalism is in much more of a crisis than you think. We can talk about how it, too, has no real ideas on how to fight looming issues such as imperialism, nuclear proliferation, private debt accumulation, income inequality, and above-all else climate change other than to double down on Clinton-Blairism.

    That’d be bad enough, but I think the real locus of exhaustion is its engagement with the political process, or lack thereof. Not only does post-New Deal liberalism has ineffective policies from the top down (unlike pre-Carter liberalism, which was still vital) but the way it struggles for these policies is even more of a joke. Take your pick of blatant economic corruption, failure to generationally groom a new bench, insistence on following rules and norms its enemies has no intention on reciprocating, having its media and policy apparatus captured by corporatism, a wide mismatch in what its base wants and what the party leaders support, and actively sabotaging its own base by dithering on voting reform, immigration, and mass incarceration.

    • Jim October 15, 2017 at 8:18 pm | #

      Quite aside from your English grammar issues, I think you have hugely exaggerated the issues the Democrats have. First, the local and state Democrats can’t be equated to the national party. Assuming you were referring to the Congressional caucus, the Democrats have been out front on genuine liberal issues for a long time. What the Democrats completely lack is a strategic communications structure (TV, radio, social media, online blogs, dedicated, well-funded think tanks). The GOP completely own the broader media world and for 40 years the messaging has all been a) negative on anything related to civil, human and voting rights and b) divide and conquer on economic, immigration and social issues. Going negative in conservative white America has always worked for 400+ years. That’s the real problem, not Democrats.

      • Ellen Tremper October 15, 2017 at 10:26 pm | #

        GOP is a collective noun, requiring the singular of the verb “own.”

      • Deadl E Cheese October 16, 2017 at 3:25 pm | #

        “First, the local and state Democrats can’t be equated to the national party. Assuming you were referring to the Congressional caucus, the Democrats have been out front on genuine liberal issues for a long time.”

        I don’t doubt that. But here’s the thing: Liberalism itself IS the problem. Not the further corrupted form Berniecrats (correctly) whine about Clintonites and Obamians co-opting, I mean its pure, ideal form embodied by Good Democrats such as FDR and LBJ. Certainly Zombie Truman would’ve taken us into the abyss slower than the Clintons would have, but the destination is ultimately the same.

        Every national Democrat current right now supports the liberal basic platform of meritocracy, technocracy, entrepreneuralism, capitalism with constraints, long-term balanced budgets, urban and academia-centered multiculturalism. job and skills retraining, and Benevolent American Empire. And everything in that list is all BULLSHIT.

        Sure, there might be a few acceptable Dems here and there in the margins such as Nina Turner and Tim Canova. And things may indeed change after 2018. But for the time being, the entire vessel is rotten. This includes the Good Liberal Stalwarts such as Sherrod Brown and Elizabeth Warren.

    • Chris Morlock October 16, 2017 at 1:30 am | #

      I completely agree, and the points Corey is missing in his old and now new book is that Left wing ideology as well as the political structure of the Left in the USA created Trump. It’s the failure of these ideas that caused this awful rift, not reactionary or conservative ideology. The “Reactionaries” are not organized and are in total disarray, even worse than the Dems, after the advent of Trump. All we are seeing is the failure and slow agonizing death of both corporate neo liberalism and neo conservatism.

      The Reagan revolution has ended and crashed and burned, yet this narrative is not displayed anywhere. Corey’s narrative is scholarly and adept and fully worthy of respect, but it is fundamentally re-enforcing the status quo.

      Expect more of the unexpected, including a huge Trump win in 2020 if we can finally stop propping up the failures of the political and economic elites.

  4. jonnybutter October 15, 2017 at 12:01 pm | #

    When is the book coming out?! There was a flurry about it circa 10 days ago, and I idiotically assumed it had been released; I ordered a copy and when it hadn’t arrived several days later, I put my glasses on and looked carefully at my order: “This book has not yet been released”. Still!

    I know release date is not up to the author, but…jeez! We are no longer used to long release times. Please tell your publisher: WE WANT EVERYTHING RIGHT NOW, ALWAYS. Tell Tchaikovsky the news.

  5. jonnybutter October 15, 2017 at 12:35 pm | #

    “liberalism is in much more of a crisis than you think. ‘

    I just read that interview, and I wonder what you mean. Seems to me he was saying that liberalism has a permanent identity crisis, in the sense that it’s incoherent compared to conservatism; that despite antinomian creedal aspects, it can be, and often is, and currently is, a counterrevolutionary force, and that we could be stuck in the mud for decades with the current gormless, pitiful version of it – which even at its best (Sanders or Warren) is embarrassingly inadequate to the moment. Sounds like the description of deep crisis to me.

    • Deadl E Cheese October 15, 2017 at 1:38 pm | #

      Post-New Deal Liberalism has been completely co-opted by capitalism. There’s the source of your crisis.

      New Deal Liberalism made way too many concessions to capitalism to begin with, but by the 90s the rot had taken hold from root to branch. The most obvious expressions of this co-option is the Democratic Party’s obsession with fundraising and market solutions and ‘good billionaires’, but I think the clearest sign of its co-option is how the Democratic Party continually punts on issues that would be solid winners (single-payer, free college, stimulus package, taxing the wealthy) and settles for ‘well, we’re not AS BAD as the Reaganites’. This is bad now, but it will get even worse as climate change, fascism, and strong AI increasingly make capitalism not only political untenable, but existentially threatening.

      I also think the condition is terminal in both the Democratic Party and liberalism itself. There’s just too many incentives for the liberal political apparatus to go along with its co-option, and too many tools to squash even New Deal Reformists, let alone actual anti-capitalists.

  6. jonnybutter October 15, 2017 at 2:21 pm | #

    Post-New Deal Liberalism has been completely co-opted by capitalism.

    And much of pre-New Deal Liberalism too. Liberalism is the “Seinfeld” of political ideologies: it’s not really ‘about nothing’, but that’s not for lack of trying. Snappy!

    Agree that it’s in crisis but don’t know why you thought CR was more sanguine than you think he ought to be.

    • Deadl E Cheese October 15, 2017 at 2:32 pm | #

      Corey Robin is certainly more pessimistic about liberalism vis-à-vis its own vitality than most political scientists (including Skowronek, who seemed baffled that Obama’s Presidency crashed and burned so hard) but I’m claiming that even his position on the bell curve doesn’t go far enough.

      The only way liberalism can survive or reinvent itself is if it makes a clean break with capitalism and nationalism. Not simply Truman/Eisenhower-style aggressive social democracy with a dollop of New Left wokeness, I mean a clean break. If liberalism isn’t at least ready to go as far as the Nordic democracies did in the 70s, it’s not going to work out long-term. Certainly a New Deal 2.0 could win the next elections or even smother Reaganism, but it can’t cope with our current existential crises.

      Since liberalism is not ready to go in that direction and probably will never be ready, it’s doomed to die.

  7. nastywoman October 18, 2017 at 5:40 am | #

    – as the thread at Crooked Timber had run its course and I couldn’t ”unload” my (perhaps?) major point – let me try here?

    The Political Theory of Trumpism is; ”Triebgesteuert” – and as this German word is mainly used for (male) German Teenager who hardly can contain their ”hard ones” – perhaps the best translation would be: ”Driven by (the lowest sexual) instincts” or – as you quoted Trump himself
    “If it can’t be fun, what’s the point?”

    And when you write ”But the quest for fun is all he has to offer”  – or you quote Max Weber –
    that “in the United States, the pursuit of wealth, stripped of its religious and ethical meaning, tends to become associated with purely mundane passions”, –
    That’s it!
    Nothing has become more fun than the ”dispiriting narrowness” of – for example ”brainless shopping” – JUST like ” Ronald Reagan could marvel:
    “You know, there really is something magic about the marketplace when it’s free to operate”.
    Or even better Andy Warhol – when he wrote:
    I asked around 10 or 15 people for suggestion and finally one Lady friend asked the right question: Well, what do you love most?’ That’s how I started painting money.”

    And sometimes I just don’t know if such a ”theory of fun” is really ”political”?

    • uh...clem October 18, 2017 at 8:50 pm | #

      the theory of fun is absolutely political, in the sense that it indirectly addresses our sense of powerlessness which is very widespread today but hardly allowed into consciousness. Unfortunately the “fun” propagated for the past 100 years or so (beginning in the Roaring Twenties) is a kind of pseudo-fun which depends fundamentally on the individual being absolutely divorced from its actual experience. I have no idea how to combat it.

  8. nastywoman October 19, 2017 at 1:58 am | #

    ”I have no idea how to combat it.”

    You combat it by firstly understanding that it is NOT ”political” – as ”political” in the minds of everybody who wants and actually has ”fun” is absolutely NO fun!

  9. Roquentin October 20, 2017 at 8:16 am | #

    Trump’s presidency is turning out a lot like the rest of his career. A whole lot of bragging and bluster, covering up a series of inept decisions and business failures. Trump is and always will be about spraying a thin gilding on the existing state of things. There’s an album by Atmosphere that’s titled “When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint that Shit Gold.” That should be Trump’s motto.

    However, this lack of legislative accomplishment won’t bother his base any. I’m fairly certain of that. They were motivated primarily by a loathing of Hillary, costal elites, etc. It was a movement rooted in spite, so in a perverse way his ineffectiveness actually adds to the appeal. The worse, the better. Liberals should understand this, but they’re too busy trying to paint themselves as the responsible stewards of American capitalism and its imperial interests to notice. They’re still, in this late hour, screaming at everyone “see how much better we run the system, ” when even the political right hates it.

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