Category: Political Theory

“It’s Scalias All the Way Down”: Why the very thing that scholars think is the antidote to Trump is in fact the aide-de-Trump

Mike Allen is reporting this morning: Trump was upbeat and brought up a Kim Strassell column in The Wall Street Journal, “Scalias all the way down,” giving the president credit for “remaking the federal judiciary.”‘ I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. While political scientists warn against the norm erosion of the Trump presidency—and dwell on the importance of the courts, the Constitution, and the rule of law as antidotes—the most far-seeing leaders of the conservative movement and the Republican party understand that long after Trump has left the stage, long after the Republican Party has lost its hold over the political discourse and political apparatus, it will be Trump’s judiciary—interpreting the Constitution, applying the rule of law—that […]

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 […]

Philosophers, Politicians, Political Theorists, and Social Media: The Arguments We Make

Some people respond to only the best form of an argument. They tend to be philosophers. Some people respond to only the worst form of an argument. They tend to be politicians. Some people respond to something in between, to the non-best form of an argument. They tend to be political theorists, or at least political theorists like me. The reason being that the non-best is the argument that lives. It’s the argument that has traction and energy. It’s the argument that is truly political: the philosopher and the politician feed off it. Its non-best-ness needs to be understood on its own terms, as a phenomenon in its own right. Then there are people who respond to and critique an […]

Kate Millett, 1934-2017

I just heard, via Lori Marso, the news that Kate Millett has died. I remember the very first time I read Sexual Politics. I’m embarrassed to say it was well into my teaching at Brooklyn College. It was for a course on counterrevolution, some time around 2005 or so, and we were doing a lengthy section on the right-wing backlash against the feminist movement. I was looking for a text that would state the strongest revolutionary argument for feminism, not just substantively but rhetorically. I wanted to give students a sense of the ferocity of the attack—intellectual, political, cultural—that feminism posed in its original incarnation. After reading around a bit, it was obvious that there was only one candidate: Sexual Politics. […]

From Buckley to Bannon: Whither the Scribbler Scrapper of the Right

I have a piece in The Guardian on the meaning of Steve Bannon’s departure from the White House: Once upon a time, conservatives plotted a path that began with the magazines and ended in the White House. With Steve Bannon’s departure from the Trump administration on Friday to head the Breitbart News Network, we seem to be witnessing the reverse: an unspooling of history that begins in power and ends in print. In 1955, William F Buckley launched National Review, declaring war against liberalism and the Democratic party but also, and more immediately, a civil war on the right. … Since Charlottesville, pundits and historians have wondered whether we’re headed for a civil war. With Bannon’s exit, it’s clear that we […]

The very thing that liberals think is imperiled by Trump will be the most potent source of his long-term power and effects

John Harwood has a good piece about Trump’s downward spiral of weakness: Increasingly, federal officials are deciding to simply ignore President Donald Trump. As stunning as that sounds, fresh evidence arrives every day of the government treating the man elected to lead it as someone talking mostly to himself. … “What is most remarkable is the extent to which his senior officials act as if Trump were not the chief executive,” Jack Goldsmith, a top Justice Department official under President George W. Bush, wrote last weekend on lawfareblog.com. “Never has a president been so regularly ignored or contradicted by his own officials,” Goldsmith added. “The president is a figurehead who barks out positions and desires, but his senior subordinates carry on […]

Chelsea and Me: On the politics—or non-politics or pseudo-politics—of engaging a power player on Twitter

Let me preface this post with a disclaimer: I’m probably as embarrassed as you are—in fact, more embarrassed, I’m sure—that I’ve devoted as much thought to this tempest in a teacup as I have. But having poured this much thought into this little tea, I feel that I should share, lest my cup spilleth over. So here goes. I’m finding the pushback—at this blog, on Twitter, and across Facebook—about my exchange with Chelsea Clinton super interesting. One of the leitmotifs of the pushback is that it’s somehow unfair of me to engage Clinton about Arendt. Now that it was an act of almost spectral comedy, if not lunacy, to so engage, I’ll freely admit. Which is mostly why I posted the whole […]

Yesterday, I got into an argument with Chelsea Clinton. On Twitter. About Hannah Arendt.

Yesterday, I got into an argument with Chelsea Clinton. On Twitter. About Hannah Arendt. It began with Clinton tweeting this really upsetting story from the Washington Post about a man who set fire to a LGBT youth center in Phoenix. The headline of the piece read: Man casually empties gas can in Phoenix LGBT youth center, sets it ablaze Here’s what Clinton tweeted, along with that headline. The banality of evil: https://t.co/BbhxhmGl0q — Chelsea Clinton (@ChelseaClinton) July 28, 2017 I didn’t think Clinton was using Arendt’s concept of “the banality of evil” correctly. I retweeted her with some snide commentary. This is what happens when you know something as a cliche or slogan rather than as an idea. Totally the opposite of what Arendt meant. https://t.co/Rh8jT7jlct — corey robin (@CoreyRobin) July […]

Trump: The Profit Unarmed

In the wake of the collapse yesterday of the Republicans’ effort to repeal Obamacare—let’s hope this really is the endgame of that effort—it’s time to re-up, first, this piece I did for the Times, just after the House Republicans’ effort to repeal Obamacare collapsed; and, second, this piece I did for n+1, arguing that Trump’s would be a spectacularly weak and ineffective presidency, along the lines of Jimmy Carter’s. It goes without saying that it’s too early to celebrate, and now that McConnell has declared his intention to pass a simple repeal (rather than repeal and replace), we need to stay on the phones. But there is some reason to think, as Brian Beutler argued yesterday, that even though the House GOP came back […]

Second Edition of The Reactionary Mind now available for order

Sorry for the radio silence. I’ve been hard at work on the manuscript for the second edition of The Reactionary Mind, which I’ve now completed! While the immediate impetus for the second edition was the election of Trump—so there now will be a 13,000-word monster of a concluding chapter on Trump—the new edition has allowed me to confront some nagging concerns I had about the first edition. As I explain in the preface to the new edition: Beyond Trump’s election, I had two reasons for writing this new edition of The Reactionary Mind. First, I’ve long felt that the first edition suffered from an inattention to the economic ideas of the right. While some of the essays dealt with those ideas […]

On liberals, the left, and free speech: Something has changed, and it’s not what you think it is

When I was in college and in graduate school (so the 1980s and 1990s), the dividing line on free speech debates was, for the most part, a pretty conventional liberal/left divide. (I’m excluding the right.) That is, self-defined liberals tended to be absolutists on free speech. Self-defined leftists—from radical feminists to radical democrats to critical race theorists to Marxists—tended to be more critical of the idea of free speech. What’s interesting about the contemporary moment, which I don’t think anyone’s really remarked upon, is that that clean divide has gotten blurry. There were always exceptions to that divide, I know: back in the 1980s and 1990s, some radical feminists were critical of the anti-free speech position within feminism; some liberals, like Cass […]

The Language of Pain, from Virginia Woolf to William Stanley Jevons

Virginia Woolf, On Being Ill: English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver and the headache…The merest schoolgirl, when she falls in love, has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her; but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry. There is nothing ready made for him. He is forced to coin words himself… William Stanley Jevons, The Theory of Political Economy: In this work I have attempted to treat Economy as a Calculus of Pleasure and Pain… I hesitate to say that men will ever have the means of measuring directly the feelings of the […]

Eichmann in Jerusalem is a better guide to Trump Time than is Origins of Totalitarianism

I’ve argued many times that I think Eichmann in Jerusalem is a much better guide to fascism—and, to whatever extent that mode of politics is relevant today, to our times as well—than is Origins of Totalitarianism. There are many reasons I believe this, but three stand out. First, Origins sees totalitarianism as essentially a mass phenomenon, by which Arendt means not only the rise of the mass but also the liquidation of all familiar institutions, established elites, and traditional hierarchies. Eichmann completely dispenses with that view, emphasizing instead how fascism is much more of an elite affair dependent upon long-standing social hierarchies. Second, Origins sees totalitarianism as the liquidation of the individual agent and individual action; even the regime’s leaders, Arendt argues […]

Welfare Reform from Locke to the Clintons

In a draft of his “Essay on the Poor Law,” Locke writes: Now no part of any poor body’s labour should be lost. Things should be so ordered that everyone should work as much as they can. That passage, which Locke ultimately deleted, came right after his complaint that women were staying home with their kids and not working. As a result, he wrote, “their labour is wholly lost.” Locke follows this observation up with a complaint about the existing poor laws in England: the problem with them is that “they are turned only to the maintenance of people in idleness, without at all examining into the lives, abilities, or industry, of those who seek for relief.” That is what […]

Upcoming Talks and Other Things

I’ll be speaking at the following venues this semester. If you’re in the neighborhood, stop by and say hello. Friday, February 24, 5 pm “The Death of American Conservatism.” University of Hawaii, Saunders Hall 624 Friday, March 3, noon “Public Intellectuals: Bringing a Public Into Being.” In conversation with Jedediah Purdy. Duke University, Old Chemistry Building 011 Tuesday, March 28, 5:30 pm “The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump.” Manhattan College, room TBA Wednesday, March 29, 7 pm Harper’s Forum on Trump. With Masha Gessen, Lawrence Jackson, and Sarah Schulman. McNally Jackson Books, 52 Prince Street, New York Friday, April 14/Saturday, April 15 Keynote Address, Princeton Graduate Political Theory Conference Princeton University, room and time TBA In addition to […]

God Is an Accelerationist

At shul today, my eight-year-old daughter Carol asked about the parsha we were reading, from Exodus 10-11, which details the last of the three plagues before Pharaoh lets the Jews go. Up until that final moment, God is “hardening Pharaoh’s heart,” stiffening his tyrannical resolve so that he won’t let the Jews go. Which prompted this exchange: Carol: Why does God harden Pharaoh’s heart? Why doesn’t He soften it? Me: I have no idea. Why do you think? Carol: Maybe if He did, the Jews would get too comfortable and wouldn’t want to go. Me: That’s what people call “heightening the contradictions.”

If Trump is a fascist, he may be the most backassward fascist we’ve ever seen

1. Rousseau thought that in a real democracy, each person would be so concerned with the fate of the republic that at any sign of a problem, she’d “fly to the assemblies” to make things right. Tonight she flew to the airports. 2. It is absolutely too soon to predict anything at all, but Trump’s executive order regarding immigrants and refugees has generated so much protest and pushback that it has already generated cracks in the Republican Party. Trump’s people are not as all-powerful and invulnerable as they seem. Quite the contrary. Remember: Donald Trump wasn’t just rejected by the majority of this country. He was also rejected in the primaries by the majority of his party: 55.1% of the Republican electorate voted […]

Share the Earth

Donald Trump thinks it’s appropriate to leave out any mention of the Jews on Holocaust Remembrance Day. So what happens when we remove any mention of the Jews from Hannah Arendt’s final statement in Eichmann in Jerusalem? And just as you supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with…the people of a number of other nations…we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. We get an apt description of Donald Trump’s executive order regarding immigrants and refugees—and of our revulsion for it, and for him.

David Hume in Defense of Judith Butler’s Writing Style

David Hume—a man who, when he wanted, had little difficulty making himself understood—also had no problem with the notion that public writing should sometimes be difficult, even a tad inaccessible. From his essay “On Commerce“: THE greater part of mankind may be divided into two classes; that of shallow thinkers, who fall short of the truth; and that of abstruse thinkers, who go beyond it. The latter class are by far the most rare: and I may add, by far the most useful and valuable. They suggest hints, at least, and start difficulties, which they want, perhaps, skill to pursue; but which may produce fine discoveries, when handled by men who have a more just way of thinking. At worst, what […]

David Hume on the Inauguration of Donald Trump

This morning I’m reading Hume, who has a thought for us on Trump’s inauguration. If you think your constitution is so excellent—and many of our political commentators do—”then a change of ministry can be no such dreadful event; since it is essential to such a constitution, in every ministry, both to preserve itself from violation and to prevent all enormities in the administration.” If you don’t think your constitution is so excellent, or not so excellent as to relieve you from worry upon a change in the ministry, then you’ve got a much bigger problem: “Public affairs, in such a constitution, must necessarily go to confusion, by whatever hands they are conducted.” In such a situation, Hume goes onto say, […]