I’m going to float a series of vast and quick historical generalizations in order to try and get at something that is distinctive about the present moment in US politics.
Beginning in Europe in the 19th century, liberalism has been engaged in an on-again, off-again, two-front war: against the right and against the left. Against the right’s revanchism and the left’s radicalism, liberalism has held itself up as the original Third Way. It is the reasonable and moderate alternative to the extremes, offering men and women the promises and profits of a capitalist, vaguely democratic, modernity but without its revolutionary perils and reactionary mystique.
Though it has on occasion entered into a more productive, albeit tension-filled, front with the left, liberalism has always been uneasy about the left. For a variety of reasons, among them a doubt about the left’s commitments to the rule of law, civil liberties, the norms and procedures of parliamentary democracy, and the institutions of the capitalist market. (Which is ironic since it was the left that historically fought hardest for civil liberties and the right to vote, but I digress.) Liberalism and the left thus have been either uneasy partners or outright antagonists.
While liberalism has often loathed the right, it has not always been sufficiently attuned to developments on the right. Its attentions are too often focused in the other direction. So fraught has been its relationship to the left, it has often ignored or overlooked the shape-shifting power of the right. Till it was too late.
The left has not been entirely blameless in this. It, too, has been engaged in a two-front war: against liberalism and the right. On the ground, and in the streets, the left has understood the power of the right, but up in the more rarefied precincts of political theory, intellectual debate, and elite party argument, the left has often, and catastrophically, construed liberalism to be its greatest and only enemy. Even at a moment like the present in the United States—when liberalism, at least as it has been historically understood in the United States, has been in abeyance, or at best, has played second fiddle—the left has tended to focus on the failures and betrayals of liberalism.
What liberalism and the left have in common, in other words, is an insufficient appreciation of the right. What made that lack of appreciation understandable, historically, was that the left—whether in the form of socialist parties, communist internationals, militant trade unions, social movements, and the like—had some real power and traction on the ground. It was understandable for liberals to be more focused upon—and fearful of—the left, which often seemed ready to march right over the liberal middle. So was it understandable for leftists to be more focused upon—and pissed off at—liberalism, which often seemed ready to betray the left.
But that is not the situation we are in right now. In fact, we haven’t been in that situation for some time.
Since the 1970s, virtually all the political momentum has been on the right. Three elections—of Richard Nixon in 1968, Ronald Reagan in 1980, and George W. Bush in 2000—mark the right’s long march to ascendance, with the Bush tax cuts and the Iraq War signifying its arrival at the peak.
As I have argued, both in my book and in various articles, that peak of power is a perilous position for the right (indeed, for any movement) to be in. From their apex of power, movements can only go in one direction. The only question is: What can they take with them, how much damage can they do, as they plummet from power?
Think of it this way: the landslide election of Lyndon B. Johnson marked the peak of Democratic Party liberalism. It was a moment when the Democrats were able to deliver on their most basic commitments (to the extent that they could): Medicare, civil rights, the War on Poverty. But it was also the moment, we now know, that liberalism and the Democrats began their precipitous descent. Likewise, on the other side, the election of George W. Bush. (Johnson and Bush, incidentally, are classic examples of what Steve Skowronek calls articulation presidents: they radically extend the existing regime’s commitments, but in the course of doing so, set the stage for shattering that regime.)
This does not mean that Republicans or conservatives can’t get elected now. Jimmy Carter got elected in 1976. But his presidency signaled not a resurgence of liberalism but its end: his deregulation was an early warning signal of the morphing of Democratic liberalism into Reaganite neoliberalism; his funding of the Salvadoran regime, building of the MX Missile, and support for the mujahideen in Afghanistan, were the first act of Reagan’s Second Cold War. So will there be elections—perhaps one, maybe more—of Republicans and conservatives that signal not a resurgence of conservatism and the GOP but their end.
Donald Trump, I believe, is a symptom of that Republican free-fall. Should he be the nominee of the Republican Party—and I have every reason to believe that he will be—he will occupy the role, as I have argued, of George McGovern in the 1972 election.
Writing at In These Times, David Moberg gave these concerns a particular historical spin:
Any greatly disruptive protests at the Cleveland Republican Convention would only feed into Trump’s plans. It is worth remembering the protests at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago (where both Katz and I were participants) ended up losing popular support for both the Democratic party and for the protesters. It was a turning point in the eventual unraveling of the New Left.
A repeat of Chicago 1968 outside the Cleveland Republican convention could simply reinforce Trump’s image as the strong man needed to control chaos at home and abroad.
Ultimately, Trump will win or lose through elections. (No putsch seems in the wings.) When people act in the streets they must conceive those actions in terms of how that will hurt him at the polls.
As I said, liberals and leftists have often failed to appreciate the power of the right. The converse of that failure, in the current moment, is that they don’t appreciate the weaknesses and limitations of the right. (Which is ironic, given that Moberg is writing in a publication called “In These Times.”)
That’s an occupational hazard among liberals and leftists of a certain generation—those, like Moberg, who may have participated in the protests at the 1968 DNC Convention or who watched them from afar. Either in support, which they’ve since come to reconsider, or in horror. These are men and women who remember, perhaps too well, the fratricide on the left, and between liberals and the left, and who now fear that they’re seeing a repeat performance, with irresponsible ultra-radicals in the streets antagonizing the virtuous silent majority in the suburbs who will simply run headlong into the arms of the right.
But what these liberals and leftists forget is that the right has been in the driver’s seat for the last four decades. No one—save some on the left—is under the illusion that the left has much if any real power. When there is violence or disruption at a Trump rally, it is not a referendum on a fraying postwar liberal consensus.
It is instead a judgment on the Reagan regime: a regime that is on the ropes, and whose warriors now seem to be the ones who are pushing for violence, who are embracing lawlessness, who seem so disorderly. (Trump’s rivals for the GOP nomination certainly seem to understand this; would that liberals and the left did as well. But the reason Trump’s rivals get it is because they’ve not given the left much thought in recent years. They don’t see us as a threat, and rightly so. One day they will. But we’re not there yet.)
And should something similar happen at the Republican Party convention in Cleveland this summer, it will not be a replay of the Democratic Party convention of 1968—that moment when liberalism, at its greatest point of power, fractured so wildly and perilously. It will be a replay in reverse: as that moment when conservatism, at its greatest point of power, fractures so wildly and perilously. Again, this is something that conservatives of all stripes understand. And why they are so fearful about the future—and are mooting ever more desperate fantasies of escape.
When I tried to make some of these points on Facebook last night, a reader thought I was insane. He pointed out that Republicans are today in control of 31 governorships and 30 state legislatures; have total control (the “trifecta” of the governorship and both houses of the legislature) of 22 state governments (to the Democrats’ 7); and control both branches of Congress (54-44 in the Senate—it’s really 54-46 because the two independent caucus with the Democrats—and 247-188 in the House). How could I possibly think conservatism or the GOP is not a wildly popular banner under which Trump will march into the White House?**
For this simple reason: In 1972*, the Democrats were in control of 31 governorships and 23 state legislatures (to the GOP’s 16; the rest were split); had total control of 17 state governments (to the GOP’s 9); and controlled both branches of Congress (54-44 in the Senate, 255-180 in the House). Not entirely dissimilar from today, only in the opposite direction. And what happened? The largest landslide in American electoral history. In favor of the Republican candidate.
* Much thanks to Phil Klinkner for access to the data and Seth Ackerman for the calculations.
** I made an error about the House numbers in the first published version of this post; thanks to reader Charles Komanoff, I’ve corrected it now.
Reprinted with permission
Corey Robin is a professor of political science at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. He is the author of The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin and Fear: The History of a Political Idea. Robin is an active blogger, both at his eponymous blog and at Crooked Timber. He is a columnist at Salon and a contributing editor at Jacobin. Robin has appeared on NPR, MSNBC, and other media outlets. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, daughter, and too many cats. He can be contacted at email@example.com.