- Interview by
- Daniel Denvir
Embarrassed members of the conservative intelligentsia have long been dismayed by Donald Trump. He’s crude, he’s violent, he’s garish, he has little interest in any contest of ideas. Liberals often feel the same way.
But as Corey Robin — a Jacobin contributing editor and the author of The Reactionary Mind — argues, many things that so many on the Right and center-left see as aberrant about Trump are in fact deeply rooted in the Right’s often contradictory frameworks — frameworks that date back to the movement’s dawn. The bugs you see were meant to be features. It’s just that today, even as conservatives dominate all three branches of the federal government, those features no longer work.
In his new edition of The Reactionary Mind, Robin points to a central tension that has marked conservatism from the get-go, between two conceptions of virtue and nobility: one, defined by political and military distinction, and another, by entrepreneurial acumen and accumulated wealth.
In the following interview — which first appeared on Daniel Denvir’s the Dig and has been edited and condensed — Robin parses how Trump figures into this dynamic history, situating him in relation to seminal right-wing thinkers like Edmund Burke and Friedrich Hayek.
Let’s start with Trump: the core thing you’re looking at is the way he embodies this longstanding tension on the Right between political and economic conceptions of virtue and hierarchy. Explain what you mean by that.
Conservatism has a very complicated attitude toward capitalism. Some people think that conservatism has always been slavishly devoted to the free market, other people think that conservatism up until very recently was hostile to the free market. Neither view is particularly accurate.
There has been within conservatism a split between many camps. One of the camps is those who prize political life, political virtues. This is a very aristocratic view of politics. It sees the highest fulfillment of human existence to be in service to the polity, and it finds its highest fulfillment in acts of state, predominately war and diplomacy.
There is another view that develops fairly early on that prizes activity in the economy. It sees similar kinds of heroic virtues and leadership virtues, but it thinks that those tend to occur within the economic realm.
What Donald Trump represents, in my reading — and I did a really close reading of his writings, as it were — is that he comes from the second camp that really sees heroism in the economic realm. What’s interesting in his writing about this and what makes him new to some degree is that though he prizes great men of the economy — and you see this throughout in his writing in The Art Of The Deal and that was his selling point as a political leader: I know how to make money; I’ve made lots of it; I know how to rise to the top and therefore that’s why you should support me as your political leader — he also has questioned the value of the economy. He can be very corrosive about the value of money, about the value of deals, and about the men who sit at the top of the economy.
So he is on the one hand very legible as a kind of great man of the economy, but on the other hand he also can be very skeptical of that tradition, and is constantly exposing it as a fraud and a deception. That really is at the heart of what makes Donald Trump new and innovative within the conservative movement and the Republican Party.
Before we talk about Trump more, I want to rewind a few hundred years and talk about Edmund Burke. You write about his concern with reconciling market and manner, capitalism on the one hand and the old regime of aristocracy on the other. Explain how Burke dealt with these and tried to mold them into one conservative movement that could take on the upstart revolutionaries on the Left.
This is a very rich and complicated terrain. Before the French Revolution — which is really the crucible in which conservatism is born as an ideology — and throughout the eighteenth century, there is this struggle between conceptions of virtue and commerce.
Burke himself was involved in some of these pre-revolutionary struggles, particularly over the East India Company. He was a scorching critic of some parts of the East India Company, and he often invokes the threat of these new men of money as low men of character who are degrading the political virtues — what they were doing in India, in the British colony, was representative of the threat that money posed to this polity of virtue.
When the French Revolution happens, it throws established hierarchies into question. It shows that hierarchies don’t exist from time immemorial, they’re really created and they’re uncreated. As the counterrevolutionary argument gets going — and Burke is very much part of this counterrevolutionary argument — there is this notion that hierarchies can be recreated. They are not traditional or ancient; they are plastic, they are contingent, they are artificial.
Once the revolution happens, there is also a new round of popular contestation around questions of economics, both in France and Britain. Burke is at the center of debates about what we call today a “living wage.” Burke begins to articulate what we think of as a very modern free-market idea, whereby wages should not be regulated or supplemented by the state but should be settled completely by the free market.
This is interesting for a couple of reasons. One is there’s an awful lot of scholarship and popular understanding of Burke that says that he was always hostile to the free market, money, and what today we’d call libertarianism.
Not based on the passages you quote.
Yeah, that’s just simply not the case. Burke really was in the front of a movement on behalf of very aggressive free-market policies, particularly when it came to labor and wages.
Here is where he begins to lay out a very modern vision: that the men of the market — not the landed aristocracy, not the inherited aristocracy (who he becomes very critical of toward the end of his life) but the men of money in the market, setting the value of things at the market — that this can be a new kind of ruling class that will arise in this new revolutionary age to contest the Jacobins.
Now, as I say in the chapter, he doesn’t ultimately go there — he kind of pulls back from this vision for a lot of different reasons. But I do think you see the beginnings of this vision that I argue is going to find its fulfillment in the twentieth century.
Yeah, it seems like Burke can’t quite bring himself to throw in his lot entirely with the insurgent capitalists when he is trying to reconcile the two into one elite. But it really is remarkable — his conception of value is that capitalists name and create value the way God through his utterances created the Earth. It’s a divine power.
Absolutely, and my argument is that the vision that he articulates there — or the glimmers of that vision, because again, he’s moving forward and pulling back — is oddly enough very indebted to the French Revolution itself.
The revolution throws into question all inherited schemes of value — not just moral value, not just political value, but even economic value. Because remember, the Jacobins are screwing around with prices, with bread prices, all the time, and they’re also changing the value of money. This is happening in real time.
What comes out of that is the sense that value is something that is not objective but is created by men. There is a radical version of this that you see in someone like Babeuf on the radical left. But what’s fascinating about Burke is he imbibes this in a very conservative way and really sees the men of money at the market as the creators of the value.
And beginning in the nineteenth century, we see versions of that argument, and that is fulfilled in the twentieth century.
Could you trace a little of that? It seems that Hayek goes where Burke was heading but couldn’t bring himself to go in terms of fully embracing the men of money as the new aristocracy.
In the 1870s, there is what economic historians call the marginal revolution. There is the notion of the subjective theory of value — that is, that value does not inhere in the object of anything, but that value is something that we as human beings put onto objects, whether those objects are commodities or labor — we ascribe value to those things.
What is important about Hayek is that he picks up on this, but he makes it more aristocratic. And here, I think, he really does fulfill the vision that Burke had. What Hayek argues is that men of wealth, men of property, men of money have the capacity to determine value — not just at the market in an exchange in the way that Burke talked about, but in a much more long-term sense. They start making decisions about taste and preferences and desires. They revolutionize the things that people want.
And it’s not just economic commodities. Hayek in his most far-reaching moment says that these men of wealth and money are able to revolutionize morals as well. Men of great inherited wealth subsidize abolition, and societies for the prevention of cruelty against animals, and other causes. Through money, he believes that they transform the most far-reaching morals and values we have.
This is really the ground zero of the theory. He believes that the most strenuous conception of morals are exhibited by how we spend our money. What Hayek says — along with Ludwig von Mises, another Austrian economist — is that talk is cheap. You can say you believe in x and y, but it is only at the moment of sacrifice that you know that you truly believe that. And the place where that sacrifice happens — the real crucible of where you have to give something up — is when you have to give up money for something. The more money you’re willing to spend, the more it shows you want and believe in that thing.
It’s the way sometimes people talk about the battlefield — there are no atheists in foxholes. You prove what you believe on the battlefield because you’re willing give up your life. These guys take that model of sacrifice, but locate it in the economy, in the space of money.
That’s the big revolution that’s at the heart of neoliberalism. Why do we measure everything according to money? It’s because money is really the best measure of what people care about. Not just what kind of toothpaste you want. Do you want to spend money on health care, education, or defense? Decisions about where you spend your money are how you truly express your deepest, most powerful beliefs.
What I don’t get about that argument is the choice of how one allocates one’s economic resources only reflects someone’s values if there are some constraints on that. Poor people have very different types of restraints on their economic resources than rich people. So how does he account for those different constraints? How does that add up to some universal theory of the allocation of money representing value?
This is a huge problem for them. I would put the way you framed it even more strongly. It seems like there is a real tension because the wealthier you get the less constrained you are, and therefore the less your money expresses your values.
Hayek has, in The Road to Serfdom, this notion that you have a pot of money, and I’ll spend x and y. The outer edge is the margin and the closer and closer you get to the pot of money shrinking, the more and more you’re going to express what really matters to you. The implication of that is the poorer you are, the more you are expressing your values. I do think this is a very hard nut to crack.
The way that he cracks it — and I don’t think it really answers the point — is to say that these men of great wealth, what they’re going to do with their excess, precisely because they’re not constrained, is to support these great moral principles.
Though he also argues that they’re doing this great service as sort of product-testers for everyone else, by buying expensive luxury products and identifying what’s awesome. And when they decide what’s awesome, then manufacturers can make cheaper versions for the rest of us.
Exactly. Look, you probably called me on a cell phone. Back in the 1980s, that was something rich people had — mobile phones, portable phones, they had them in their cars. This is something that they liked, and they subsidized. Now every Joe and Jane in the street has a cell phone.
So that is very much a part of the theory. Libertarians love this: they argue this is why you should allow rich people to have so much money, because in the long run that’s better for all of us.
However, Hayek goes much further because it’s not just about products. It really is, as he puts it, tastes, beliefs, desires, and moral principles. He doesn’t even think products should be thought of as amoral or anti-moral, he thinks it’s all caught up in a moral scheme.
The point is, how do we get values like feminism? Well, it’s because some very wealthy, elite people in the nineteenth century like John Stuart Mills’s wife supported these values. It’s trickle-down morality. They put their money behind it, and they supported suffrage for women, and lo and behold we now have these values which are much more widespread.
Tying this into what we were talking about with Burke, in terms of this tension at the center of conservatism: the way that Hayek does this is by saying that this strenuous market that forces people to show what they really value also shows society who is most valuable, and allows for a new market nobility to emerge. Is that a fair reading?
Absolutely. Joseph Schumpeter has this vision of an economic aristocracy of the entrepreneur who is the maker and breaker of how we do things, and transforms our world. He says that the entrepreneur is the closest to a medieval lord in the modern world. Hayek has a version of this as well: that these are the men who kind of wrestle their way to the top. You know Robert Mercer, who is this very obscure —
Billionaire and very weird, and very Randian. Jane Mayer had this brilliant profile of him. He’s very tied in with Steve Bannon and behind Trump, and is funding these aggressive right-wing causes, and Mayer quotes this guy who says that to Mercer your value as a human being is determined by your market performance. Schoolteachers and people like that are simply worth less than these men of money. They are not just an economic or financial drain, they are also a cultural and moral drain.
I really try to stress this in the book, that this is what makes these guys political thinkers and not just economists. Hayek is very explicit about this. Hayek wants a political theory of the economy, and what that means is that there is an extraordinarily moralistic conception of what economic life is about.
If you know your history of ancient Greece, it used to be that politics was the place where great men found their virtue and their mettle in what they did in the polity. What these guys, these Austrians, have done is to say where you find your contribution is really in the economy, in the market. This is where we make and break empires and dynasties. This is where we find our value.
The Austrians are embraced by libertarians and the authors of the seminal texts of their movement. But what your analysis makes really clear is that their political economy was about re-legitimating the very same sort of hierarchy that existed before capitalism but under capitalism. You note that Pinochet named his 1980 constitution after Hayek’s book The Constitution of Liberty, and that he sent a copy prior to that to the Portuguese dictator Antonio Salazar with a note conveying his hope that the book might assist him “in his endeavor to design a constitution which is proof against the abuses of democracy.”
There are two things going on in what you said. The first is about re-legitimating hierarchies in the capitalist age. The difference where it’s not just traditional — and this is true of all conservatism no matter what its attitude towards capitalism — is that it has a very dynamic, agonistic conception of hierarchy. That is, it’s not just traditional inherited hierarchy. These writers believe in this dynamic turning of the economy in which everybody is proving their mettle fresh every day. We must be attendant to that because it’s not a static vision. So that’s one part of it.
The second part of it is what you touched on in the second part of your question. There is always this tension about how we are going to create this free market order. People on the Left have noted that there seems to be perhaps accidental or contingent state authoritarianism in these libertarian projects, like Pinochet’s Chile. However, if you read the texts it’s not just accidental or contingent, it’s baked into the theory. So Hayek has a whole discussion in one of his books called Law, Legislation, and Liberty on emergency moments when a ruler really needs to step in and create a new constitutional order.
For Hayek, this emergency moment when you need a dictator to come in and create this new order is evidenced in part by what we might call social-democratic creep. That is, social democracy, according to Hayek, slowly undermining the rule of law.
So it’s not the emergency situation where there is anarchy in the streets or a foreign invasion. No, social democracy itself, according to Hayek, could be so corrosive to what he views as the real function of the rule of law that you could justify a dictator stepping in. And, of course, that’s not that far off from what happened in Allende and Pinochet’s Chile.
Fast forwarding to Trump: does he reconcile these tensions in conservatism that we’ve been talking about, or is he an expression of the fact that conservatives are no longer able to reconcile them?
I think it’s the latter. Reading The Art of The Deal, there is very much the great men of the economy stuff. It’s all there. Yet there is this almost poignant repeated set of moments throughout the text where he either comes out and says, “There is nothing there at all,” or suggests it. So he talks about really enjoying coming up against the strongest, toughest guys in the market, but at the same time he says the problem with rich people is that they are not that strong and tough; they are too comfortable.
Conrad Hilton is one of the most important figures in his imagination. Conrad Hilton built this hotel empire. But he has to deal with Hilton’s son a lot, and what he says is that this guy is a joker.
His name of course is Barron, which tells you something strange.
It is very weird. Then he says right up front, deals are my poetry, they’re my art form, and all the rest of it, and everybody always says: the art of the deal, this is Trump. But no one mentions that at the end of that paragraph, he says, in effect, “and if you ask me what they added up to, I don’t really know.” Ronald Reagan would never say have said something like that.
He would say that it adds up to everything.
Trump has none of that at all. There’s no sense of that. He thinks that the people at the top of the market he thinks may really be just not all that. He says the real way that I, Trump, managed to get where I am is that I play the fantasy. Most people are little people, and they dream of big people like me. And I play to that. And he says I call it, “truthful hyperbole.” It’s just a fancy way of saying, “I lie.” That’s at the heart for Trump of what markets are about.
In fact, he says what’s the difference between the New York Stock Exchange and the casino? There is no difference. It’s just that men of the stock exchange wear suits and carry briefcases. We are so used to this from Trump that we forget what a subversive statement that is.
A point that you make frequently that I want to underline here is that it’s not only Trump not making sense or Trump failing to govern or Trump’s incoherence, but you argue that he is much more a symptom, rather than a cause, of more profound contradictions in the Republican Party and the conservative movement as a whole.
Exactly. The way I see this is that Trump has been a total disaster, but he was the best card the Republican Party could play. It was precisely the recklessness, the everyday contradictions, the nudge and the wink — all of the stuff that liberals and the media see as such a scandal — that was the source of his power in the base.
Someone like Cruz would have gotten creamed, likewise Rubio, and certainly Jeb Bush. This is this guy who really does express the best of what they had to offer. I don’t think the Left has really confronted, from a historical point of view just what a disaster he is. I don’t mean just mean he’s a cruel person and he does terrible things, which goes without saying. It really is unprecedented in modern American history to have this kind of a presidency. The inability to move an agenda forward is stunning.
It is a hollowed-out ideological shell. What’s tricky for us to analyze is that they still have a tremendous amount of institutional power. People on the Left look at that and say, “how you can say that’s weak?” People forget that what conservatism is and this goes back to Burke at the beginning; it was supposed to be a process of the re-legitimization of hierarchy. It was supposed to be a moral argument for why the distribution of wealth and power was the way it was.
The fact that conservatism today is so dependent not on the re-legitimization of hierarchy, not on winning arguments in the moral, cultural sphere but on things like gerrymandering and voter suppression is not a sign of conservatism’s strength; that is a sign of conservatism’s weakness.