Michael Rogin's relevance in the Age of Trump

tags: Trump, Michael Rogin

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 —”the book that predicted Trump” (The New Yorker)—and Fear: The History of a Political Idea

Facebook post by Lisa Duggan reminds me of the power of Michael Rogin’s book The Intellectuals and McCarthy.

Though it’s less famous and influential than Rogin’s later book Ronald Reagan, The Movie, The Intellectuals and McCarthy was a formative text in my own development. It came at a critical moment in my thinking—either the year before I went to graduate school or in my first year of graduate school—and permanently left its mark.

In his book on McCarthy, Rogin took aim at historians like Richard Hofstadter and social theorists like Daniel Bell who had argued that McCarthyism was essentially a form of irrational mass politics, a midcentury American populism that, though right-wing, was the inheritor of left-wing movements like the Populists or Young Bob LaFollette’s movement in the 1920s and 1930s. What united all these characters, Hofstadter and Bell argued, was a sense of “status anxiety,” the social vertigo induced by modern industrial society, which left men and women without that sense of place that they had in more traditional forms of society. (This is a fairly familiar theme in all modern social thought, from Tocqueville to Durkheim to Arendt, from Talcott Parsons to Robert Putnam. It gets resurrected every seven years or so as if it were some blazing new insight, but it’s been around for centuries.)  LaFollette was a particularly irresistible precedent for Hofstadter and Bell because he, like McCarthy, was from Wisconsin. And it was LaFollette who McCarthy defeated in the infamous 1946 campaign that propelled McCarthy to the Senate.

Through a close analysis of the electoral data, Rogin took the Hofstadter-Bell thesis apart, piece by piece. He showed that McCarthy and LaFollette represented two quite different constituencies, that McCarthyism was much more a function of elite politics than mass politics, and that it was driven by quite specific political and economic grievances and issues—and fairly traditional and conventional fissures of party politics—rather than any exotic motivation or free-floating social psychology. What The Intellectuals and McCarthy taught me above all else is that politics, conventional or traditional politics, matters, particularly at those moments when we think it doesn’t. I had already learned a version of this from Arno Mayer—whose Marxism entailed a close analysis, in the European context, of “history from above,” where high politics and events and contingency mattered just as much as deep social and economic structures—but Rogin provided an excellent model of that kind of analysis for the American scene.

More generally, Rogin’s work stands as a cautionary note to liberals and the left: When it comes to conventional political positions and partisan disagreements, we tend to invoke conventional categories of politics. But when someone like a McCarthy—or a Trump—arises, we forget or toss out everything we know about conventional politics and instantly resort to more far-flung notions and categories (fascism, authoritarianism, and the like). This also applies—especially applies—to how we analyze political phenomena like violence.

As readers of this blog and my various posts on social media will know, I’m dubious about that move. And I’m especially dubious of it in this moment. Not because I don’t think there are psychological or other dimensions of politics; clearly, there are. And not because I don’t think there are some fruitful parallels to be drawn between American conservatism and the European hard right; I wrote a book, after all, making that exact move (much to the chagrin of some), and I’ve made repeated connections between European fascism and everyone from Thomas Jefferson to the neocons.

But I’m suspicious of our opportunistic (in the literal sense) invocation of those categories: how we invoke psychology or fascism in some moments—moments we deem extraordinary—but not others. (Rogin, it should be said, never made that error: in his mature work, he managed to achieve an unparalleled equipoise between a shrewd political realism and an extraordinary sensitivity to the extramural dimensions of politics. That—along with works like Carl Shorske’s Fin-de-Siècle Vienna—has always served as a model for my own work on political fear and the political right.) That is why I have been so maniacally insistent on the boring bread and butter of conventional GOP party politics and policy: debates over Obamacare, rumblings over tax and trade and debt, and all the rest.

I fear that in the sudden discovery of what some of us have been saying for some time—that conservatism is a radical, reactionary mode of politics, and always has been—we somehow believe the rules of ordinary politics don’t apply. I fear that in our rush to pathologize Trump—to think that he’s extraordinary and that only extraordinary categories can help us understand him—we are simply repeating the error that Michael Rogin warned us against so many years ago.

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