U.S. Intellectual History Blog

From Palin to Trump: On the Second Edition of The Reactionary Mind

The new edition of Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind marks a leap forward in the scholarly understanding of modern conservatism. This is both because of what Robin has added—long and rich chapters on Edmund Burke’s late-career experimentations with a new theory of value, on the Nietzschean origins of Austrian economics, and on Donald Trump—and to some extent because of what he subtracted—mostly chapters that looked backward to the neoconservative moment of the 2000s. The removal of chapters mainly focused on war didn’t delete a concern with violence and with toxic masculinity: instead, it shifted and refocused it within the frame of the market. The market as war; the captain of finance or real estate as a warrior-prince.

To give a full sense of the new material and the way Robin has refocused on the market as the stronger pole in the world of reaction, I’d like to point you to these two excellent interviews at Dissent (with the brilliant Tim Shenk) and Jacobin. You’ll also enjoy this excerpt from the book’s Trump chapter. But I would like briefly to try to put the book’s changes in contact with some of the historiographic changes that have occurred since the book’s first edition came out in 2011. The Reactionary Mind sparked some of those changes, of course, and so retracing this recent history is to follow something of a helical or dialectical path,  but it also means, I think, that we can look ahead and guess at some of the ways this second edition may come to inform emerging scholarship (and, hopefully, punditry) on conservatism, neoliberalism, and the Republican Party.

The first—though by no means the most important—question I had while reading the second edition of Reactionary Mind was, whither neoconservatism? Robin has been very open and incisive about the way his own intellectual formation shaped the agenda for the first edition:

I started writing about conservatism during the Bush years, when the big questions were questions of warfare, torture, and the American Empire. That vision, which animated neoconservatism, dominated the first edition of the book… Then Occupy happened in response to the financial crisis. I was getting to know a lot of younger journalists, younger academics… who were interested in political economy, socialism, and Marxism. That was different from my intellectual upbringing. When I was in graduate school in the 1990s, a fairly well-known Marxist political theorist at the Yale political science department said, “We don’t really read Marx anymore except for antiquarian purposes.” There was this idea that the real questions of politics were questions of being and belonging—you know, nationalism, multiculturalism, recognition, and so on. That’s the environment in which I came intellectually of age. (from the Dissent interview)

I want to wheel back around in a minute to the way Robin couples those 1990s questions of being and belonging” with the neoconservative years of warfare, torture, and empire, but perhaps the first thing to say is that research on neoconservatism seems to be rather at a standstill. Some of the prominent Bush-era neoconservatives have, at one point or another, been vocally critical of the “new” dispensation of Trumpist conservatism, and scholars will no doubt have to process that and factor it in to the classic narrative of neoconservatism as the great apostasy of disenchanted leftists. For now, perhaps the most likely response will be to carve out a kind of liminal space for neoconservatism within postwar U.S. political history: where, less than a decade ago, it was presumed that neoconservative ideas and power players had grafted themselves into the core of conservatism, from this vantage point, their influence seems more delicate and provisional and their position vis-à-vis other traditional conservative ideological blocs more contingent.

On the other hand, histories of neoconservatism may become more integrated with histories of (neo)liberalism, as Robin’s tacit merging of the ‘90s “questions of belonging” and the neoconservative obsessions with war and empire seem more and more like part of the same conversation. Other scholars have suggested something similar (I wrote about Melissa Cooper’s great book which does so here), but as others fruitfully dig into the (still contested but indispensable) concept of neoliberalism, Robin’s lead here may illuminate a new periodization and a new interpretive paradigm.

To put things more simply, where before scholars heeded the common sense assumption that 9/11 truly had marked a fundamental rupture in U.S. political culture, in 2017 that looks more like a truism that is ripe for a challenge. The administrations of Clinton and George W. Bush look to be more of a piece than does the “post-9/11 world” (i.e., Bush-Obama-Trump) and 2008 seems (for now at least) a much more definitive break in the continuity of the nation’s consciousness. While those “questions of belonging,” of identity, did not go away after 2008, the terms of the debates were set by new, insurgent actors: the Tea Party, Occupy, Black Lives Matter. These interrupters intruded on the stage in a way that no one had since the (re-)emergence of the evangelical movement. To some extent, it feels now like it was mostly the same people talking back and forth to one another through the 16 years of the Clinton and Bush presidencies.

The second edition of The Reactionary Mind helps us think through the ramifications of this new periodization. For instance, the swift eclipsing of Sarah Palin (who was in the first edition’s subtitle) as a synechdoche for conservatism’s latent viciousness and impetuosity is a consequence of placing 2008 as a kind of trench in our political landscape: she falls into the gap between the pre-2008 world and the post-2008 world.

But Palin does not just fall into a sort of historical sinkhole for purely chronological reasons: she also seems in some ways, with her talk of a “real America,” her crass bravado, to be a part of those “questions of belonging” and war that belonged to the neoconservative moment. And it is in re-thinking the thematic core of the “reactionary mind” that I think Robin’s second edition will be most useful to historians and other scholars and students.

One of the major interventions of the first edition that I think has had the most traction was the re-characterization of conservatism as fixated not on order but on domination, and that responded to challenges to hierarchy with a kind of impulsive—but gleeful—violence. But that enjoyment of violence can be thought of too literally, at the cost of overlooking certain kinds of more subtle violence (say, the legislative violence of mandatory transvaginal ultrasounds or of taxing tuition waivers). These forms frequently produce mental rather than physical harm—humiliation or despair, for instance—and have little to do with the state’s monopoly on violence.

What the second edition of The Reactionary Mind stresses is that conservatism’s caprices don’t have to be articulated in a military idiom or executed by physical force. Much of it occurs both symbolically and practically through economic domination. While Robin is smartly alive to the ways these two forms interlock, the second edition’s deeper exploration of the market as a method of creating and enforcing coercive hierarchies connects a whole new range of actions and thinkers to the territory he mapped in his first edition.

Even more, in some places, he suggests that this market-based coercion is not a lighter or less violent form, but simply a more insidious method. A lack of overt militarism, Robin suggests, or rather the transubstantiation of martial valor into economic domination is not a dilution of the relish for impulsive violence which the John Yoos or John Boltons stood in for in the book’s first edition. That is an insight that is both teachable and researchable. Doing so will likely prove very important.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. So much to chew on in this cogent discussion. For instance: “One of the major interventions of the first edition that I think has had the most traction was the re-characterization of conservatism as fixated not on order but on domination, and that responded to challenges to hierarchy with a kind of impulsive—but gleeful—violence. But that enjoyment of violence can be thought of too literally, at the cost of overlooking certain kinds of more subtle violence (say, the legislative violence of mandatory transvaginal ultrasounds or of taxing tuition waivers) …” Reading this I kept flashing on the those Trump rally attendees who looked so keen to give someone a beat-down, and then on the all those measures, some of which you mention, which seem deliberately designed to cause pain. Is it useful, I wonder, to make a distinction between the reactionary and the authoritarian mind?

  2. One of the major interventions of the first edition that I think has had the most traction was the re-characterization of conservatism as fixated not on order but on domination, and that responded to challenges to hierarchy with a kind of impulsive—but gleeful—violence.

    I thought this theme was maybe somewhat overdone in the first edition. It was connected to the argument that conservatives are always or typically responding to challenges, never just sitting around and enjoying what they have. Drawing on Mannheim, C.R. said in the first edition that the ‘traditionalist’ “can take the objects of desire for granted,” but the ‘conservative’ “seeks to enjoy them…as they are being…taken away.” (p.23) Hence these objects of desire “get wrapped in a narrative of loss — in which the revolutionary or reformist plays a necessary part — and presented in a program of recovery.” (23)

    I wonder if anyone bothered to go through an anthology of conservative writings and find passages where someone in the conservative canon is restfully singing the praises of whatever she/he values without worrying about those things “being taken away” by revolutionaries or reformists. Find a couple of such passages and one has laid the ground for a charge of overgeneralization.

    That didn’t bother me; the themes were painted in broad strokes (at least in the intro, which set the themes), and there is a definite place for that. But perhaps not too hard to see why it annoyed certain readers, who — admittedly — would probably have been annoyed by whatever C.R. wrote.

    Haven’t read the second ed. (yet).

  3. Smart discussion, as usual! In “Nietzsche, Hayek, and the Austrians,” Robin says that “the entire point of the Austrian enterprise [was] to transcend the narrow confines of economics…to fashion a genuinely political theory of markets and morals,” which contemporary libertarians are unwilling to acknowledge. He wants to make their economics not only the vehicle but the tenor, the substance, of a politics, a “war by other means,” as Timothy Shenk summarizes; to perform what you call a “transubstantiation of martial valor into economic domination.” One might be fooled by the “economistic” claim that money is “really the best measure of what people care about,” but the core of what’s going on is ultimately political, not economic, as he explains in the Denvir interview.

    Are they then martialists who self-present as marginalists; or marginalists who put getting and spending into martial dress, perhaps at the same time betraying foundational presuppositions, or deep motives? Perhaps both and neither, since the core principle animating the flow of terms across what Weber called the domains of class, status and party is the defense of hierarchy, which finally, legitimized this way or that, is based on violence. Yet violence, as you point out, can take on “subtle” [figurative?] forms. To use a metaphor or two, this might be considered Robin’s Hobbesian turn.

    He doesn’t seem quite sure what terms best express what’s what, and who can blame him? At one point, in “David Ricardo: Machiavelli of the Margin,” 11.13.14, he notes that “classics of modern political economy translate, traduce, transmit, efface, revise, and/or sublimate traditional categories of and concepts in Western political theory…” Transsubstantiate? … sure, why not.

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