On the anniversary of January 6 and other matters

I had two pieces and an interview come out today.

In Politico, I address the anniversary of January 6, arguing that the events of that day have misled us about the real challenges we face. A quick taste:

While scholars warn of fascism on the one side and pundits bicker over wokeness on the other, the larger and longer view reveals how blinkered both of these assessments are. The right’s road to power does not run through street violence, mass rallies, fake news or lawless coups. The left’s weakness has nothing to do with critical race theory and cancel culture. Both claims suffer from the same shortcoming: They focus on the margins rather than the matrix.

Driving the initiatives of the Republicans and the inertia of the Democrats are two forces. The first is the right’s project, decades in the making, to legally limit the scope and reach of democracy. The second is the Constitution, which makes it difficult for the national majority to act and easy for local minorities to rule. What happened on Jan. 6 is far less significant than what happened before Jan. 6 — and what has and has not happened since then.

I also spoke with Masha Gessen on Jane Coaston’s New York Times podcast The Argument. We talked about January 6, what we’ve learned since then, and the future of democracy in America. Masha is one of the most eloquent and intelligent defenders of the thesis about Trump and authoritarianism that I have been arguing against, so it was a great opportunity to engage with their claims.

Last, The Chronicle of Higher Education asked me and a bunch of other scholars what we thought was the best scholarly book of 2021. The choice was easy:

The lifeless biography is a genre with many devoted practitioners. Frances Wilson is not one of them. Dedicated to Keats’s proposition that a “life of any worth is a continual allegory,” Wilson has found, in the owner of the Titanic, moral and psychological mysteries worthy of Joseph Conrad, and, in Dorothy Wordsworth, both the albatross and mariner of Samuel T. Coleridge’s poem.

In Burning Man: The Trials of D.H. Lawrence (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), Wilson turns to D.H. Lawrence and discovers an unexpected vein of autofiction, almost religious in its intensity.

I highly recommend Wilson’s book. There is no other biographer like her out there. You can read more of what I said about the book here.

Happy New Year, all.


  1. jonnybutter January 6, 2022 at 7:08 am | #

    Liked both pieces and the interview too.

    One thing occurred to me about Jan 6 that I haven’t seen elsewhere (maybe it’s too obvious to mention?): the extent to which the storming of the capital was a coup attempt was possibly secondary to its real motivation – or ‘orthogonal to it’ as the kids like to say.. That is to say that it was a perhaps necessarily inchoate explosion, an expression of frustration with the political dysfunction you describe vis vis our constitutional encumberances.

    I think the underwhelming, muted response a lot of ordinary Americans had to that riot was not due to love of Trump, but rather something like tacit sympathy, born of frustration with our elites and especially our government. Most people wouldn’t riot themselves, but if it’s happening anyway…

    No matter who you vote for nothing happens! That is the CW for a large swath of people and it’s 100% correct. I worry that pols in DC don’t really understand quite how angry and frustrated people are. The Dems, as usual, are officially In Denial about it. That’s why they insist on the coup aspect, fascism, etc


    There are plenty of problems, but also good things, about social media, even twitter. For all its faults, academic twitter can be nourishing. Those of us who don’t get to take classes with the many wonderful scholars there get to at least see what they’re reading, which is second best. It’s always educational and just interesting to know what Corey Robin is reading.

    The DH Lawrence bio does look great. A wonderful chunk from the preview:

    “Only David Garnett told the truth about how Lawrence was perceived among the upper-class literati: he was ‘a mongrel terrier among a crowd of Pomeranians and Alsatians’, he looked ‘underbred’, his ‘nose was short and lumpy’, his chin ‘too large and round like a hairpin’, and his ‘bright mud-coloured’ hair was ‘incredibly plebeian’. He was ‘the type of plumber’s mate who goes back to fetch the tools’,

    the weedy runt you find in every gang of workmen, the one who keeps the other men laughing all the time, who makes trouble with the boss and is saucy to the foreman, who gets the sack, who is ‘victimised’, the cause of a strike, the man for whom trades unions exist, who lives on the dole, who hangs round the pubs, whose wife supports him, who bets on football and is always cheeky, cocky and in trouble. He was the type who provokes the most violent class-hatred in this country: the impotent hatred of the upper classes for the lower.

    It is important to hold this description in mind as Lawrence rises in the world.”

    Cheers to all.

    • jonnybutter January 7, 2022 at 8:10 am | #

      Clearer I hope:

      The surreality around our political discourse is undeniable. You are so right about that. And also that in a less counter-majoritarian system the Great Hydraulic Fluids of politics would have to move and re-balance more than they are doing now no matter the details about any political party. In this sense our issue is not Republicans and Democrats. Also, absolutely yes.

      But our proximate problem is indeed Repubs and Dems, because we still have to get from here to somewhere else. It Is What It Is, as the bard said. And the air of unreality is thicker around the Democrats. They are the keystone to the structure, whether they like it or not. And they don’t like it. In fact their leadership doesn’t simply, as you put it, not desire change enough – it doesn’t desire great change at all.

      The point I was trying to make in the comment above is that reverence (for government), now of all times, is not just a wrong thing to expect or appeal to; it’s exactly, precisely wrong. Democrats are in textbook denial, just as with an individual (wherein everyone sees the truth about the individual except the person themselves – a very vulnerable position to be in). I would bet a lot there are many tens of millions of Americans, who indeed don’t care about Republicans and Democrats, who also *do not feel the least bit sorry, and some even secretly not un-glad, that the Capitol was stormed*. And the anti-police protests over the summer were possibly in part an expression of the same fed-up-ness, even though we think of them as opposed. To not sense the steaming hostility and frustration out in the country for our elites and politicians takes a mighty effort.

      Conservatives value hierarchy for its own sake. Liberals tend to value complexity for its own sake – complexity which is often used to conceal a bias toward hierarchy, or at least line of least resistance. Guess which approach wins, politically? A straightforward argument? or burying your intentions, if you even have any, beneath a mountain of chickenshit? To paraphrase political theorist Bill Clinton, Strong and Wrong Wins.

      So, contra Greenwald, conservatives are always the greater enemy, even though liberals often seem more despicable (since they have more ‘moral surface area’). But the fairly resounding ‘meh’ of public opinion about the Jan 6 riot is a pretty serious warning sign to both parties, and complete denial (the Demz) is an extremely dangerous, possibly the most dangerous, reaction to it.

      • John MacLean January 7, 2022 at 9:57 am | #

        The pandemic was a good time to read some new and old books. To your point Jonny, Fromm argues in “Escape From Freedom” that subservience to authorities, and acts of compulsive conformity are a major problem. In reading this, after twenty some years, I was surprised at how simple it was, and how in the grip of the times I couldn’t quite let myself imagine it. A more recent book “The Triumph of Injustice”, by Zucman and Saez, has some passages in it about the struggle to get the income tax amendment into the Constitution, and this seems related to what Corey tells us about Supreme Courts of the past.

        • John MacLean January 7, 2022 at 10:27 am | #

          Zucman and Saez call insurance premiums privatized-poll taxes. “As in the North, there were variations in tax policy among various states, but in general taxes in the South were more regressive. In her masterly book American Taxation, American Slavery, historian Robin Einhorn shows the deep link between this backwardness and slavery. A fear haunted the slaveholders of the South: that non-slaveholding majorities would use taxation to undermine–and eventually abolish–the ‘peculiar institution.’ They particularly feared wealth taxation: at a time when 40% of the population in Southern states was considered property, property taxes were an existential threat for slaveholding planters. They fought such taxes tirelessly, and for two centuries wielded their power to keep taxes and public institutions archaic. How? By stifling democracy.” ~from pg 27 of “The Triumph of Injustice”, by Saez and Zucman

        • Jonnybutter January 7, 2022 at 10:54 am | #

          John, I have not read the Fromm book, but I see it was written in 1941, so it probably had more purchase back then. Unfortunately, blind subservience to authorities is the lost post ww2 paradigm Dem leaders love, and want to believe still obtains. They can’t face the fact that it’s not 1963, and we aren’t all marching ‘shoulder to shoulder’, etc. I think it’s good Americans aren’t as docile and obedient as they were, e.g. in the long 1950s (which includes the early 60s). A ‘country united’ is a scary thing, as we saw both during the Cold War and after 9/11. Unlike, say, a community united.

          I think SCOTUS has nearly always been a force of reaction. I was interested to read recently about how mainstream (relative to now) objections to judicial review used to be, including from A. Lincoln! Also very simple, and I think obvious. Why should Robed Ones be able to nullify any law duly passed and signed? Who reviews the reviewers?

          I do think Corey is right that we have structural problems that really can’t wait – SCOTUS, and Electoral College, and probably most of all, the goddamned Senate. The Politico piece is especially well done. But we seem to be pretty stuck. I blame the party supposed to be in the opposition for that. Denial is a powerful drug

      • Jonnybutter January 14, 2022 at 5:36 am | #

        [irish voice] haven’t I been sayin’ it? Anton Jager plants some flags: https://t.co/mhf8w497Ux

        “On the surface, there would seem to be little that unites the Black Lives Matter protests with QAnon or the 6 January riots in Washington, D.C. Certainly, in moral terms, they are worlds apart — one protesting police brutality and racism, the other fictitious electoral fraud and conspiracy theory. Organisationally, however, the two movements are similar: they do not have membership lists, they have difficulty imposing discipline on their followers, and they do not formalise themselves.”

        And I argue they are similar more than just organizationally, assuming we know what ‘organizational similarity’ really means

        “ The sociologist Paulo Gerbaudo has described the new protest movements as bodies without organs: clenched and muscular, but without a real internal metabolism.”

        I.e. no true mass politics.

        I think the piece ends with a thud – there’s more going on than ‘intense moralism’ thought there’s that too of course. Probably written quickly.

  2. John MacLean January 6, 2022 at 8:02 am | #

    Corey, your article got me thinking of “The Anatomy of Fascism” by Robert Paxton. In writing about the “Romanian Legion of The Archangel Michael” you read that “no insurrectionary coup against an established state has ever so far brought fascists to power. Authoritarian dictatorships have several times crushed such attempts…” A little latter in this chapter, titled “Getting Power”, you read: “In general, well-entrenched conservative regimes of all sorts have provided unfavorable terrain for fascism to reach power.”

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