Corey Robin is a political scientist whose expertise is the history of conservative movements and the politics of fear. Sounds like the perfect person to predict whether reactionary strongmen are about to swoop in and destroy the democratic institutions we’ve all enjoyed, right?
The worst, most terrible things that the United States has done have almost never happened through an assault on American institutions; they’ve always happened through American institutions and practices. These are the elements of the American polity that have offered especially potent tools and instruments of intimidation and coercion: federalism, the separation of powers, social pluralism, and the rule of law. All the elements of the American experience that liberals and conservatives have so cherished as bulwarks of American freedom have also been sources and instruments of political fear. In all the cases I looked at, coercion, intimidation, repression, and violence were leveraged through these mechanisms, not in spite of them.
Genocide, slavery, Jim Crow, imperialism, internment camps, crushing unions, mass surveillance, torture, lynching, indefinite detention, extrajudicial murder, and on, and on — Americans have inflicted all of this on other Americans and on the rest of the world, not in the distant past, not as an original sin, but right up to the present day.
Which is not so unusual, for great powers of the world, or even most of the smaller ones. What is exceptional about America, if anything, is we have done all of this without once needing a strongman to do it. As Robin says, it’s been done “through lawyers, genteel men of the Senate with their august traditions and practices, and the Supreme Court.”
This is why people like SCOTUS nominee Neil Gorsuch seem almost comforting next to Trump and his inner circle. They seem so familiar.
This is what the “resilience of American institutions” means.
When it comes to the most terrible kinds of repression and violence, Fear, American Style has worked because it has given so many players a piece of the pie.
The truth of the matter is that Trump and Bannon could get most if not all of what they want—in terms of the revanchism of race, gender, and class, the white Christian nation that they seem to wish for—without strongman politics. American institutions offer more than enough resources for revanchism. That they seem not to know this—that they are willing to make opponents of the military and the security establishment, that they are willing to arouse into opposition and conjure enemies out of potential friends—may be their biggest weakness of all. Or, if they do know this, but seek strongman politics anyway, perhaps because it is a surplus, then they’re willing to put strongman politics above and beyond the project of social revanchism that their base seeks. Which may be their other biggest weakness of all.
In my experience with abusers — and the best working explanation I have found for most of Trump’s behavior is not any exotic psychological disorder or espionage-related intrigue, but that he is a self-confessed, well-documented serial abuser — getting what they want is secondary. The abuse itself, the bullying exercise of power, the maintenance of dominance, is the point. Which is the other way in which all of this feels way too familiar.