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200 years of conservative derp

The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump. Corey Robin. Oxford University Press, second edition, 2018.

The last chapter of this book — written, I believe, in 2017 — is about Donald Trump. Corey Robin quotes Tony Schwartz, who was the ghostwriter for Trump’s The Art of the Deal:

“I put lipstick on a pig,” he told The New Yorker in the summer of 2016. “I feel a deep sense of remorse that I contributed to presenting Trump in a way that brought him wider attention and make him more appealing than he is.” Schwartz’s disavowal is perplexing, though. The Art of the Deal is not a flattering or even outsized portrait of Trump. It’s a devastating — if unintentional — deflation of not only Trump the man but also the movement, party, and nation he now leads.”

This book is densely academic, but it’s not wishy-washy. I need to be careful here to distinguish between what I think about conservative intellectual discourse and what Corey Robin as an academic has to say about it. So this is me talking: Conservative discourse for 200 years, from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump, has all been lipstick on pigs, no matter how high-flown it might be. My claim has a simple basis though it has taken me decades, as a liberal, to see it clearly. That is that no justification exists, not on this planet or on any planet in the galaxy, for the perpetuation of systems that sustain the hierarchy of domination and subordination.

Robin starts with Edmund Burke, 1729-1797, an opponent of democracy who expressed great sympathy for Marie Antoinette but who didn’t care a fig for the common people, whom he saw as dangerous without an aristocracy to manage them. From Burke, Robin works his way forward chronologically — Nietzsche, Hobbes, Hayek, Oakeshott, Goldwater, Ayn Rand, Donald Trump.

The conservative derp of, say, William F. Buckley or Bill Kristol, is no longer in the papers. But we still have conservative producers of high-flown derp such as George Will, Thomas Sowell, and Ross Douthat. Douthat is occasionally capable of making a valid point when he is not blinded by his religion. But my claim is that all conservative discourse, whether old or new, if you decompile it, contains an intentional deception, some form of self-deception, some form of fallacy, or some kind of deformity of character, simply because it tries to justify the unjustifiable. I also claim that Robin’s academic analysis supports my non-academic claim. There is always something uncaring and mean in the conservative character. One of the achievements of the Trump era was to make this meanness a public virtue and to make the supposedly Christian virtues of caring, fairness, and help for the poor and weak — now called “wokeness” — an existential threat to be beaten back and beaten down.

Keeping in mind that this book was written in 2017, Robin sees the conservative movement in a state of decline:

“In recent years, the fusion of elitism and populism has grown brittle. Movement elites no longer find in the electoral majority such a wide or ready response to their populist calls. Like many movements struggling to hold onto power, conservative activists and leaders compensate for their dwindling support in the population by doubling down on their program, issuing ever more strident and racist calls for a return to a white, Christian, free-market nation…. Unable to fund its project on the basis of the masses, at least not nearly to the extent it once did, the right increasingly relies on the most anti-democratic elements of the state: not merely the Electoral College and the Supreme Court but also restrictions on the vote.”

This book is about how conservatives use ideas. A bigger concern, which lies outside the scope of this book, is how conservatives use power, when they can get it. Conservative ideas, no matter how much lipstick, are always mean and ugly. But even more ugly is the conservative desperation to hold onto the power to dominate, so recently on display at Trump rallies or the attack on the U.S. Capitol. The conservative mind can’t see the difference between the attack on the U.S. Capitol and a BLM protest that got out of hand. Here’s the difference that I see. It’s the difference between domination and subjugation, and the refusal to be dominated and subjugated. One wants to illegally install a vile and foul-mouthed oligarch in the most powerful office in the world. The other wants justice for the murder of powerless people. That difference is as wide as the galaxy, and there is something badly wrong with a mind that can’t see the difference.

Update: Thomas Edsall’s column in today’s New York Times is about psychopathy in today’s right-wing politics: “You Don’t Negotiate with These Kinds of People”


  1. Dan wrote:

    “The conservative mind can’t see the difference between the attack on the U.S. Capitol and a BLM protest that got out of hand.”

    Regrettably, I recently engaged a conservative in a debate on this topic on Facebook because an Arkansas man was the culprit who put his feet on Pelosi’s desk. They, of course, went with the, “Libtards think it’s good to burn down a Target, but if someone walks into the Capitol, they deserve to be shot.” I doubt they are truly that stupid to correlate those and neglect the context, but the sheer gall to do so is appalling. Also, to simply coin what happened on January 6th as a *walk*, despite pictures of smoke and the desecration that happened inside the building and the deaths because of it, demonstrates how based in bad faith their whole ideology truly is. I’ve tried hard not to engage anyone politically whether online or in person over the past few months. I don’t want to argue with anyone who aligns themselves on the right, especially ones who think Paul Ryan or even Tom Cotton are not far enough to the right for them.

    I guess I can understand why they think how they do if they must think that way. It’s similar to forgiving or rationalizing military miscues under Obama but criticizing them under Bush or Trump. Everyone should be held accountable equally if the premise is to reduce guilt to the administration in charge, but as someone who is educated and generally tries to be honest with myself, I can do that.

    Not even eight months into his term, conservatives came up with the euphemism “Let’s Go, Brandon!” as a way to hide their discontent (real or imagined) with Biden’s time in office. After only eight months, they had already decided that Biden had failed and came up with an immature way to let others know how they feel. Gas prices went up due to inflationary pressures from easy credit that had been reinstituted in response to the pandemic, but Biden was blamed nonetheless. Any armchair economist or casual reader of the WSJ knows presidential administrations have little to do with actual economic changes and market movements unless they are directly interfering in them, i.e. Trump and China, and the right-wing has the monopoly on economic thinking and “logic” due to their stingy misunderstanding of capitalism. Changing their minds is an exercise in futility. Pointing out the obvious or even explaining some basic reasoning for situations doesn’t deter them from clinging on to their ideological perspective. It’s like when Bertrand Russell wrote to Oswald Mosley:

    Dear Sir Oswald,

    Thank you for your letter and for your enclosures. I have given some thought to our recent correspondence. It is always difficult to decide on how to respond to people whose ethos is so alien and, in fact, repellent to one’s own. It is not that I take exception to the general points made by you but that every ounce of my energy has been devoted to an active opposition to cruel bigotry, compulsive violence, and the sadistic persecution which has characterised the philosophy and practice of fascism.

    I feel obliged to say that the emotional universes we inhabit are so distinct, and in deepest ways opposed, that nothing fruitful or sincere could ever emerge from association between us.

    I should like you to understand the intensity of this conviction on my part. It is not out of any attempt to be rude that I say this but because of all that I value in human experience and human achievement.

    Yours sincerely,

    Bertrand Russell

    You might as well politely decline to discuss it with them.

    Tuesday, January 17, 2023 at 4:07 pm | Permalink
  2. Henry Sandigo wrote:

    I thank you both for some insight – to palaver with the idiots that live around me and a brother who believes FOX all the way.
    It is tiresome to hear their same old reprise so that I become exhausted trying to make sense to them.

    Again, thank you both


    Tuesday, January 17, 2023 at 8:08 pm | Permalink
  3. daltoni wrote:

    Hi Dan: I love the letter from Bertrand Russell. Mosley would have understood that Russell was expressing total contempt and disgust in a civil way. Most American deplorables, I’m afraid, don’t have the brainpower to understand a putdown like that. My present hope is that the Republican Party will be crushed at all levels of government in 2024 so that we can simply leave them behind. I am baffled by their politics — crudely alienating 65 percent of the population to kiss the asses of 35 percent. Henry: Hang in there!

    Wednesday, January 18, 2023 at 6:54 am | Permalink

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