Tuesday, December 15, 2020

The Trumping of the American Mind: Michelle Goldberg vs. Corey Robin

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Probably no one understands American conservatism and the European conservatism it grew out of better than Corey Robin, author of The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin. Goodreads summarizes:

Tracing conservatism back to its roots in the reaction against the French Revolution, Robin argues that the right is fundamentally inspired by a hostility to emancipating the lower orders. Some conservatives endorse the free market, others oppose it. Some criticize the state, others celebrate it. Underlying these differences is the impulse to defend power and privilege against movements demanding freedom and equality.

When it comes to Trump, however, Robin seems to be a classic case of a scholar blinkered by his own knowledge. In an interview with David Klion, he said:

Compared to the Republican presidencies of Nixon, Reagan, and George W. Bush, Trump’s was significantly less transformational, and its legacy is far less assured. Next to “law and order” and “the silent majority” (which Nixon made part of our political grammar), next to “the era of big government is over” (which Reagan bequeathed to Clinton as the ruling doctrine of the age), next to Bush’s war on terror and the Department of Homeland Security and the Patriot Act, none of Trump’s attempts to permanently transform the political climate—not of the Republican Party but of the whole political culture—seems even remotely comparable. With the exception of the tax cuts, Trump was hardly able to get much legislation through Congress; many of his executive orders will be undone by Biden; the only custodian of his legacy, ironically, will be the courts, which many had seen as the antidote to Trumpism and caretaker of the rule of law.

That conclusion is fed by a structural analysis that's interesting in itself: conservatism is essentially reactionary, and so "When the left is defeated or disappears, the right’s power ebbs. That is what has happened in the US."  That may be a long-term pattern, but still, Robin is missing something fundamental -- or many things fundamental -- about Trump's impact.  Here's how I responded when someone near and dear sent me the Robin interview as I was falling asleep:

he is a kind of structuralist, so focused on institutional forces and constraints that he downplays what's happened in media, the building of alternative reality. He'd say the right's always been like that, but I don't think 47% of the population has. Trump may not have done much legislatively but he's undermined shared facts, faith in vote...and Robin ignores what he's done on immigration, done to immigrants. He downplays the soft stuff, changes in culture.  Coincidentally he was just arguing his take on Trump on Twitter w Michelle Goldberg [zzz]

Yes, Goldberg did engage with Robin on Twitter, and now she's spun a column out of the thread that offers what seems to me a definitive response: 

The damage he’s done, however, may be irreversible. On Twitter, Robin argued, correctly, that George W. Bush, far more than Trump, changed the shape of government, leaving behind the Patriot Act and the Department of Homeland Security. Most of Trump’s legacy, by contrast, is destruction — of even the pretense that the law should apply equally to ruler and ruled, of large parts of the Civil Service, of America’s standing in the world. (If mainstream liberals are more deeply horrified by Trump than some leftists, it could be because they maintain greater romantic attachments to the institutions he’s defiled.)

Most consequentially, Trump has eviscerated in America any common conception of reality. Other presidents sneered at the truth; a senior Bush official, widely believed to be Karl Rove, famously derided the “reality-based community” to the journalist Ron Suskind.

But Trump’s ability to envelop his followers in a cocoon of lies is unparalleled. The Bush administration deceived the country to go to war in Iraq. It did not insist, after the invasion, that weapons of mass destruction had been found when they obviously were not. That’s why the country was able to reach a consensus that the war was a disaster.

No such consensus will be possible about Trump — not about his abuses of power, his calamitous response to the coronavirus, or his electoral defeat. He leaves behind a nation deranged.

The postmodern blood libel of QAnon will have adherents in Congress. Kyle Rittenhouse, a young man charged with killing Black Lives Matter protesters, is a right-wing folk hero. The Republican Party has become more hostile to democracy than ever. Both the Trump and Bush presidencies concluded with America a smoking ruin. Only Trump has ensured that nearly half the country doesn’t see it.

For this entire year I watched Trump's aggregate approval rating on 538, tweeting periodically, "Will I live to see 39%?" I didn't, this year. Trump scraped that floor on July 9, then, in late summer, started rising again, peaking just shy of 45% shortly before the election. This was while the pandemic, which Trump mismanaged in ways not previously imaginable and constantly on graphic display, killed 230,000 Americans by election day. By contrast, consider the lowest Gallup final-year approval ratings of presidents who presided over recessions or other disasters: George W. Bush, 25%, October 2008; George H.W. Bush, 29%, July 1992; Jimmy Carter, 28%, June 1979; Richard Nixon, 24%, August 1974; Harry Truman, 22%, February 1952. Trump, per Gallup, was at 43% this November; his nadir, in December 2017, was 35%. 

In November, Obama stated the problem simply enough: "If we do not have the capacity to distinguish what’s true from what’s false, then by definition the marketplace of ideas doesn’t work. And by definition our democracy doesn’t work. We are entering into an epistemological crisis." Trump didn't create the alt-reality media and mindset. But he metastasized it.

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