Why Is This Happening? Tracking the conservative movement with Corey Robin: podcast & transcript

Is President Trump a conservative? Corey Robin tells Chris Hayes if you trace conservatism back to its origins, Trump makes perfect sense.
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Is President Donald Trump a conservative? While other contemporary writers and thinkers may be quick to write the President off as an anomaly to the conservative movement, Corey Robin has another theory.

He argues that if you trace conservatism back through the centuries to understand what the movement is really truly about, then Donald Trump makes perfect sense. Corey Robin, author of “The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump”, is the guy who can explain why this is happening.


Chris Hayes: They won. They won all the supply side fights. They privatized everything that could be privatized. They de-regulated everything they could de-regulate. And now here we are, and it's like, what is your project? The only project they have left is to cut corporate taxes. There's nothing left for them to do. They have picked every cherry off the tree, and it stands there bare.

Corey Robin: My argument is that the reason why the right is so weak today is because-

Chris Hayes: Is because they won.

Corey Robin: They won. It's because they won.

Chris Hayes: Welcome to Why Is This Happening? With me, your host, Chris Hayes. I think it's fair to say that Donald Trump confuses a lot of people. Maybe confuse is a weird word, but bear with me here. I think he confuses people because it doesn't make sense that he's able to do what he does. And he doesn't fit into a lot of the preconceived notions people have about what a politician is, and particularly what a conservative is. You've seen this rhetoric around him fro the very first moment that he comes down the escalator through after winning the election, through all the way through that first year, of all kinds of people wrestling with what is Donald Trump politically? Is he really conservative? He's not really conservative.

You see conservatives trying to write him out of the conservative movement, the Never Trumpers saying, "No, no, no, no, you don't understand. We're the good conservatives. We're the people who have these principles. That guy over there, Donald Trump, who just happens to helm the conservative coalition in America, he's just an accident. He's a fluke. He has nothing to do with us." And you see a lot of analysts, writers, observers, wrestling with this all the time. And it feels, a lot of times, like they're trying to jam this square peg into a round hole to make sense of who Donald Trump is.

So today I'm gonna talk to someone who has made sense of Donald Trump from the very beginning, who's got an entire theory, a total apparatus for understanding conservatism stretching back through the centuries in which Donald Trump makes perfect sense. If you read his book about conservatism that stretches all the way back to Edmund Burke, who I'll talk about in a second, you already knew that Donald Trump was conservative. You understood why he was a conservative. Corey Robin's a professor of political science, and he's someone who wrote this book called The Reactionary Mind, about conservatism. Originally it was about conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, which was kind of a cheeky title. Like oh, Sarah Palin, Edmund Burke, Edmund Burke, this elevated philosopher, Sarah Palin this ridiculous figure, the point of the subtitle is no, no, no, no, there's a through line there.

They reissued the book with the subtitle Edmund Burke to Donald Trump, and he's a scholar. He does close readings of text. And he talks about Edmund Burke who's someone that gets invoked more than he gets read, and thought about as the sort of father of modern conservatism, someone who opposed the French Revolution, who basically was a kind of upstanding dude who just liked things to be orderly. Corey Robin shows that's not really case with Edmund Burke. In fact, he was kind of more Trumpian than anyone remembers, that really he liked to kind of F shit up, if that makes sense. Can I say that on the podcast? I think I can say that on the podcast.

So Corey Robin's point is that conservatism, from the very beginning, hasn't been about limited government, hasn't been about individual liberty, hasn't been about freedom, hasn't been about restraint, hasn't been about prudential approaches to risk. It's been about fundamental opposition to movements that seek to restructure who has power in a society, particularly from the bottom up. It has been a reaction to movements of liberation that seek to undo hierarchy. And if you understand conservatism in that way, if you go all the way back and then race all the way forward, and you look at conservatism from Edmund Burke and the French Revolution to the slave holding class in the South during the Civil War, up through the modern republican part, up through Richard Nixon, up to Ronald Regan, up to Donald Trump, what you see is continuity. You see a very clear picture of what the movement is, what its ideological precepts are, what its political position is, and why Donald Trump makes absolutely perfect sense as a conservative.

Also, getting inside Corey's head I think makes a lot of sense at this political moment, about whether conservatism is actually strong right now, or, as he argues, weirdly weak. It also helps make sense of the resistance to that movement, what it needs to do, what it's failing to do now. And this is a really unique perspective. What I really like about Corey is he is approaching the moment we live in with this vast and deep historical knowledge. This is a guy who's taken the time to sit down and read page after page, chapter after chapter, book after book, of a long lien of thinkers that allows him to offer unique and penetrating insights on a man I don't think any of us would really call a thinker, per se, the current President of the United States.

So here's why I think this is interesting, your writing on conservatives. One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you today. There's this thing that happens where Donald Trump gets elected, where a lot of people write their pieces about, I was wrong about conservatism, or is Donald Trump a conservative? And my reading of your book, Reactionary Mind, and there's a new version out with a part on Donald Trump, is that he slots in perfectly to what you had already established before Donald Trump. So what was your theory such that Donald Trump was able to fit into it?

Corey Robin: Well, so the first thing is the idea that conservatism is fundamentally reactionary. That it is hostile, first and foremost, to the emancipation of the subordinates of society. Who those subordinates are changes across time. Most recently it was black people and women. In that sense, Donald Trump fits very much with the patterns of reaction on the right that we've seen going back to the very beginning, but most recently going back to the 1960s and the 1970s.

Chris Hayes: But what's the beginning? Because one of the things I love about the book is that it identifies a point at which conservatism in the sort of modern sense we'd think of it comes to be born, which is that it can't come to be born until there's this real movement against those hierarchies.

Corey Robin: Yeah. So the beginning is the French Revolution. That's the first great democratic revolution that seeks to emancipate a class of people who are at the bottom of society, who say, "We have the right to govern ourselves. We are opposed to the fact of subordination." And the first great thinker on the right is Edmund Burke. And I argue that he's been consistently misunderstood by a lot of people. The typical Burke that you get and you learn about in your college classes, and on the op-ed pages of the New York Times, is somebody who was traditional and cared about prudential reasoning, who was against extravagance, who was against ideology.

Chris Hayes: I feel like the shortcut for this is always small C conservative, that's the weird cliché about it. It's like, oh, he's a small C conservative. And it's almost meant to be not just philosophical, but just won't spend more than he has, and wants things to be in their proper place. A kind of prim and ...

Corey Robin: Exactly. Exactly. And that's the way he's often narrated. And what I did was to go back and I did this crazy thing of actually reading him, and found that he was anything but that.

Chris Hayes: Hella crazy. No, but super, really into blood and guts. Real into violence. Real into disorder, actually.

Corey Robin: Right. Very much so. He saw that, all those things that you just mentioned, as part of a political project. He thought that this was what was necessary in order to counter this cataclysm that he saw developing in Europe, in France, which he thought was continental. He thought it was a civilizational crisis. So that's the really important thing about conservatism, is that it is a defense of hierarchy, but we've had defenses of hierarchy going back to Plato and Aristotle. There's nothing new about that. It's the way they defend hierarchy, in this extravagant language that very often mimics, in a really unsettling way, the very revolution that it's opposing.

Chris Hayes: And more specifically, and here's this emotional core of the book that connects to our own times, speaks to loss. You talk about this a lot, right? So if you have privileges ... If you were on top of a hierarchy, and then from one day to the next you're on the bottom of it, that's a loss. That's an actual loss. And that feels terrible. And the feeling of that is essentially the emotional core of what you say conservatism is.

Corey Robin: Absolutely. And just to add one part to that, they connect that feeling of loss, which I think is a fairly universal feeling.

Chris Hayes: Absolutely, yeah.

Corey Robin: People up and down the social order as we are seeing right now, and have seen, can experience real losses. And I think the left makes a big mistake when it tries to dismiss that, or say they're not real, or they're a figment of people's imagination. You wouldn't have a right if that experience weren't real.

Chris Hayes: And you see it in Dunkin Donuts conversations around the Me Too movement, right? You see over here men being like, "This is ... " And these are not men who, in a broad sense, are elites. In a broad sense have huge amounts of privilege, right? Might even be men of color, or poor men of color, but this ... I don't know, it just feels like it's going too far and you can't say anything anymore. You can't say anything anymore. And you can't say anything anymore is the perfect encapsulation of the sensation of loss.

Corey Robin: Yeah. And it shows that what conservatism has been always very good at is tapping into this sort of democracy of loss.

Chris Hayes: That's a great phrase.

Corey Robin: It does begin at a very elite level, and I think it's important always to hold on to this. It doesn't bubble up from the bottom, it begins at the top. The case that I always was struck by are the slave holders in the South. The way they were able to thread that needle. I mean slave holders were a fairly exclusive category. All white men were not slave owners-

Chris Hayes: They were tiny. They were a tiny percentage of Southern ... the whites.

Corey Robin: Yeah. But the genius of the slave hold, the master class, was to be able to connect their experience at the very highest reaches of power and society, with people who were at very ... not quite at total bottom, which were slaves, but white people who were really had no chance of being slave holders themselves. But it was really John C. Calhoun, who was the Vice President under Andrew Jackson, and the real theoretician of the old South who said, "Ultimately it's the privilege of a white skin." I mean this is long before [crosstalk 00:10:54]-

Chris Hayes: He just comes out and says it. He knows it. They know what they're doing.

Corey Robin: He says it very clearly. He says, "Within our society, the rich and the poor are really white and black. And it's enough to have a white skin to make you part of the master class. So we are all in this together." And so then when you start divesting white people of those privileges, you're taking something away from them.

Chris Hayes: So I wanted to do ... This is sort of like a prologue there, because we sort of started with Donald Trump. So why can you slot him into this tradition where other people didn't ... So to come back around, right? Now that you've got that as a kind of ground work. So if you're say, "Well, no, conservatism's about ... Oh, I'm conservative, I don't cheat on my wife, and I always balance my books, and I don't take undue risks," which is the way that it weirdly gets characterized, as if that's what Edmund Burke was all about and that's a tradition. Well yeah, Donald Trump makes no sense because he has none of those qualities. At all.

But if you see a reaction to loss, and crucially the vision of the world as zero sum, because those two ideas are so inextricably bound, right? And sometimes they're true. White disposition in the South post Civil War was zero sum. Give up that land. Give up those possessions. That's coming out of your pocket. But if you look at it as the experience of loss and the view of the world as zero sum, which is your theory, well then you've just described Donald Trump.

Corey Robin: Yeah. There's a difference. I mean there's a lot of differences, but yes, I think that's the ground zero of which Donald Trump is part of the right. And is part of a long tradition, and is reacting to it, and really reflects ... And particularly, you mentioned, all of those things about Trump that liberals go crazy about, his absolute indifference to fact and to truth, his complete willingness to contradict himself without a hint of shame or embarrassment, and I include myself, we sit there and it's mind boggling. And you try to wrap your mind ... And you think he's signed his ... Every night on your network they're saying, "He's signing his death warrant," and it doesn't affect him.

And there's a reason for that. It's not about Trump and it's not about our moment, it's that the whole apparatus of conservatism has always been oriented around that hostility to reason, that hostility to factual fidelity, because that was the whole apparatus of counter-revolutionary thought. That we are gonna turn the world the way it is now, we're gonna turn it back up. You turned it upside down, we're gonna turn it right back up. And so there's always been a real hostility to the world as it is, no, we the right are going to imagine a different world and create it.

I mean Carl Rove, he said that. Remember? In that famous interview. Your journalists-

Chris Hayes: Reality based community.

Corey Robin: Right. You described it. We create the world as it will be. And so there's always been a hostility to factuality and to the world as it is. And Trump is kind of just the vulgarized, almost id version of that.

Chris Hayes: So then that gets to this question of ... the this is not normal question.

Corey Robin: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: Right? And I am torn on this question. So one level I wanna say, "We underplay at our peril the continuity between, say, George W. Bush and Donald Trump. The ideological affinity between Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and Donald Trump. That there's continuity there. Important continuity." And, in fact, I will sometimes do this riff for people that are younger, where I'll say, "You weren't around then, or you were too young, but we had this guy back in the day who won all those red counties and was looked down upon by the elitist liberals in the blue dots on the coasts who said he was an incurious dolt who was not up to the job, and only who he was because of his father's name. And we got called unpatriotic, and then he was a total disaster. It turned out we were right." And that's the last guy. That's George W. Bush, right? And all those same scripts.

So at one level there's this continuity there you wanna talk about, but then at the same time it drives me a little crazy a certain portion of the left ...

Corey Robin: Me.

Chris Hayes: Yes.

Corey Robin: People like me.

Chris Hayes: People like you who ... There's a certain portion of the left that seems, to me, a little weirdly fixated on this continuity question in sacrifice of things that we see on their face that really are genuinely anomalous, and distinct, and abnormal.

Corey Robin:There are things that anomalous about Trump, and I think we ought to recognize them. Unfortunately, I tend to think we fixate on the things that we call anomalous but are, in fact, very continuous. So, for instance, the hostility to reason and the hostility to fact based ... That is very continuous with George W. Bush. That I don't see as new, but what I do think is new, and what I talk about in the book, is that for many, many years the kind of, the racial dog whistles that we set, that really was enough to bridge the kind of gap between the elites and the masses of the right. You did it with a wink, and not in a wink, and it's become very clear at some point that that was no longer the case. That you needed more in order to rally the base. And Trump is that more.

But the question is what does that tell us? And I think what that tells us is that conservatism is actually weaker than it has ever been. And I know this is a very counter intuitive idea, it seems to go against everything we believe, and we-

Chris Hayes: I mean it's counter intuitive, although sort of surprisingly comforting.

Corey Robin: Yeah, and I don't mean it as comforting. Because we-

Chris Hayes: No, no, we will die in a nuclear war born of the weakness of conservatism.

Corey Robin:Well, it's true. Weak movements can be dangerous movements.

Chris Hayes:That's my point.

Corey Robin: Yeah, exactly. But I do think that all the things that we ... I mean Regan, it was enough to go to Neshoba County, and just talk about states' rights. That was-

Chris Hayes: Neshoba County's in Mississippi where the three Civil Rights Workers had been murdered that make up the film of Mississippi Burning.

Corey Robin: Exactly. And that's where Reagan launches his 1980 Presidential Campaign. It was a very deliberate move, he knew exactly what he was doing. But at some point that became not enough. And the reason it becomes not enough, and you see this, I mean to back to Nixon. Look at those presidential electoral returns, right? Nixon wins re-election with 64, 65% of the vote. Reagan wins re-election, Mourning in America with 58% of the vote. George W. Bush wins re-election with 52% of the vote. It's going down. Or look at George W. Bush, his tax cuts. Now those tax cuts happened before 9/11. People forget that. That was before 9/11. And he got something like 67 votes, 66 votes, for those tax cuts. He didn't have to use reconciliation for his tax cuts. Trump got them by the ... It wasn't even Trump, it was, of course, McConnell and Ryan, they got them by the skin of their teeth.

So I think there's lots of different measures we could look at electorally, public opinion wise, institution building. The radical right, the republican right that began really with Barry Goldwater, they built these institutions, these very powerful sort of policy electoral apparatuses. The Christian Right, all those think tanks in D.C., the Heritage Foundation, all that kind of stuff. They built that infrastructure that has been able to deliver for them over, and over, and over again. What infrastructure has Donald Trump or the contemporary Republican Party manage ... the conservative movement managed to build that's comparable? I don't see it.

Chris Hayes: Okay. So that brings us ... So there's two trends, right? That you're sort of identifying here. So this kind of weakness, so apex of strength in '80 in Reagan, and weakening down to the 46% that Donald Trump wins to get him elected president, with three million fewer votes than his opponent, which is remarkable. At the same time as that strength comes down, the whisper becoming a shout. The dog whistle becoming a human exhortation. There's an ideological project that Reagan embodies. Where we draw the line's between what the market does and what the state does. And it is part of a global revolution that's represented by various figures, from Deng Xiaoping in China, to Margaret Thatcher in Britain, to Pinochet in Chile. It's called a lot of things, neo-liberalism, etc., but there's a revolution that happens right around that period during a crisis for global capitalism, in which profits have gone down, in which you have high levels of inflation and stagnation, and there's a series of things that the right says that are part of this ideological project. Margaret Thatcher says, "The British state shouldn't be running a coal mining operation. Why are we doing that? That's something the market should do." And that's not a ridiculous view.

That intellectual project won, and is now bankrupt. There's nothing ... They won. They privatized everything that could be privatized. They de-regulated everything they could de-regulate. And now here we are, and it's like, what is your project? The only project they have left is to cut corporate taxes. There's nothing left for them to do. They have picked every cherry off the tree, and it stands there bare.

Corey Robin: Yeah. And I mean that's exactly my argument, is that the reason why the right is so weak today is because-

Chris Hayes: Is because they won.

Corey Robin: They won. It's because they won. I mean that's really important for people to ... I mean especially people who are newer to ... That Trump was sort of their awakening to this monster on the right. If you look back at what was the project, and it's not just about economics, but that was a huge one. And that really goes back to The New Deal. I mean all those arguments you're talking about were all forged in the 1930s and the 1940s.

Chris Hayes: Kim Phillips-Fein's great book, Invisible Hands.

Corey Robin: Yes. Fantastic.

Chris Hayes: It's her intellectual history of this, which is great.

Corey Robin: But they also won, I would argue, to a large degree, on the second phase of the project, which is the black freedom struggle. We forget, what was the originating demand of the black freedom struggle? Desegregation. And those vicious, vicious, violent battles. Read Rick Perlstein book on Nixonland, and you see ... I mean every day it was a bombing. It was just ... In Boston, with the busing battles. Where is your kid going to school? Who is sitting next to your kid at school? These were very intimate questions, and again, the right won that battle.

Chris Hayes: But then that brings us to this question about kind of white identity grievance, right? Because what we're seeing is the sort of economic agenda is just bankrupt at this point, and one of the things we see with Trump is just sort of giving up on that rhetorically and really embracing just the white racial grievance politics, which makes you wonder about what the future of Trumpian conservatism looks like. Alex Pareene wrote this really scary piece where he basically says, "The future of college republicans are going to be KKK people. The future is going to be Richard Spencers and white nationalists. That is the kind of people that is gonna be the vanguard of young, conservative republican politics."

Corey Robin: Right. I disagree with that, and I think it's because look at what has happened to Richard Spencer. He has had to give up his college tour. I listened to it, it was 25 minute Facebook announcement, or YouTube [crosstalk 00:22:46].

Chris Hayes: Glutton for punishment.

Corey Robin: No, you gotta pay attention to the-

Chris Hayes: Oh, I have had as much Richard Spencer content for nine lifetimes at this point.

Corey Robin: I'm sure you have. I'm sure you, no, I'm sure you have. But what was interesting there was he talked about the anti fa, these leftists who are anti-racists, and he said, "They're violent, and we just wanted to have fun, and I wanted to talk about idea ... " And it's just very clear that whatever his ideas and his politics are, the kind of mettle, M E T T L E, that used to be in the right, is just ... it's-

Chris Hayes: That's a bizarre and perverse thing to say, though. You're basically saying he's no Pinochet.

Corey Robin: Yeah, I am saying that.

Chris Hayes: Right, which is-

Corey Robin: But he's also no shock troops of the sort.

Chris Hayes: Well thank God. I'm not complaining.

Corey Robin: But this is when I say they're weak, this is what I'm talking about.

Chris Hayes: Well, but wait. Hold on a second. Let's zoom in on that. Because that is equating weakness with essentially willingness to do violence. I mean that's equating weakness and strength with that-

Corey Robin: Well, okay. But that's important to ... I mean remember, this is what we were told was the brave new future of the right, was that willingness. And the fact of the matter is, compared to what we saw, forget Pinochet and all ... In the 1960s, with the white supremacist right, what they were willing to do, it's actually quite different. I mean it's not the same.

Chris Hayes: It's interesting you say that because it reminds me of something a Turkish sort of dissident said to me after Trump's election that I've always thought of. She says ... 'Cause there was all this question, right? Did we just elect our own Erdoğan, right? Is this an authority? She said, "Erdoğan is a hard man. He did time in prison, he's been a dissident on the wrong side of the state. Vladimir Putin is a hard man. Vladimir Putin has probably killed people, he's had people killed. Donald Trump's a soft man." Basically it was like, this is not the guy with the M E T T L E mettle to do the kinds of things that these other people in the comparison set that you're worried about have done.

Corey Robin: And let me say two things about that. Number one, Donald Trump made that very clear in his various campaign statements. So all that stuff, we're gonna take the oil, that got people really scared, and all the America first. If you actually read just kind of the next sentence that comes after that, how does he propose to do any of that stuff? It's always, we're gonna take them to the world court. We're gonna slap a this on them. There's never ... I mean there's this kind of ambient violence.

Chris Hayes: Well there's bomb the shit out of them.

Corey Robin: For the most part, it's these kind of very legalistic maneuver ... I mean this is a guy, according to David K. Johnston, the one thing this guy knows how to do is file a lawsuit.

Chris Hayes: Is sue and be sued.

Corey Robin: Yeah. Exactly. Something like 4,000 lawsuits he was a part of. So who does that? That's not Erdoğan. That's not Putin.

Chris Hayes: Right, right.

Corey Robin: That's somebody who comes from the New York state real estate market. And so that's the one thing I would say, but let me say one other thing. Let's take this out of the realm of violence. Let's just talk about it in terms of kind of political mettle, the will to power. Someone like Ronald Reagan, who was always underestimated by ... This is a guy who worked his way through those arguments. It's not that he was such a smart man, he had to work his way into those positions.

Chris Hayes: And he could tell you them because he felt it in his bones.

Corey Robin: Absolutely. The fact that Trump kind of saddles into this thing without any ... And in a way, this is the way he's like Paul Ryan. Paul Ryan didn't have to work his way into these arguments. They were handed to him on a silver platter. So I think Trump, in that sense, is very representative of the right as a whole, which is the ones who have conviction, like Paul Ryan, it's a conviction of inheritance. Reagan built those ideas. He really had to work at them. And I think that's the kind of disciplinary crucible by which you come to those ideas in the 1950s and the 1960s, when you're the intellectual minority-

Chris Hayes: Right, when you're in opposition. I mean this is the-

Corey Robin: When you're in opposition.

Chris Hayes: Here's my worst fear when you look at the center left. They're in retreat, they are being destroyed, it's like watching an army bayoneted as they fall back. If you look at the center left in the Netherlands, and in France, and in Italy, they're wiped out. They're essentially on their way to extinction.

Corey Robin: Germany, yeah.

Chris Hayes: Germany as well. That basically the vacuum will be filled by, essentially, some 21st century version of fascism. Of racial grievance as a unifying attack, that instead embraces something like hersenvocht democracy. The Polish right, which is cutting checks to every family that has kids. This kind of embrace of a kind of social democratic state for people like us. That's my fear. And Steve Bannon's going around your ... basically saying the future belongs to us, pun intended.

Steve Bannon: You argue for sovereignty and they call you a nativist. You argue for your freedom and they call you a xenophobe. You argue for your country and they call you a racist. But the days of that smear are over. Let them call you xenophobes, let them call you nativists. Wear it like a badge of honor.

Corey Robin: I don't see Bannon's lap around Europe as a sign of kind of a brave new order. I mean I'll speak less about Europe, which [crosstalk 00:27:58], but about the United States. That's what Trump promised, was to kind of mix it up in this kind of white economic nationalist sort of way. He's delivered somewhat on the white nationalism, although it's telling that he hasn't been able to get a single immigration bill through Congress. I mean back during the shut down there was a whole series of compromises that were voted on, and his bill, the Trump bill, the Miller bill, Steven Miller, got the least number of votes.

So I agree with you about the center left, I mean that's true, and we're sort of seeing that in the United States as well. What it means for the future, I can't answer. But I don't think it means, at least in this country, that the right has the purchase on that. And I think that's what they're really scrambling to deal with. They know how to do one thing well, which is to cut taxes. It is hilarious, actually, that it was ... And that was the other part of the funny riff about George W. Bush, where it's like ...

Chris Hayes: Yeah, like this is what they do. This is what they got. What do you want, you want some tax cuts?

Corey Robin: Yeah. So you have that problem of how do you transform that kind of a party into an economic populous party. It's very difficult to do. Now it could be spelled the end of the republican party, I mean I don't know about that. I think absent to kind of left movement of the sorts that we saw in the past. And I think it's really important to ... And whether it was the French Revolution, the abolitionist movement, the labor movement, or the black freedom struggle, we don't have that kind of movement yet. We see inklings of it all over the place-

Chris Hayes: And, in fact, one of the things that would come up at Trump rallies is people would talk about Black Lives Matter a lot. Michelle Goldberg has this great line where she's like, "People at Trump rallies never talk to me about trade, but they did talk about political correctness." They knew why they were there, what they were saying by being there, and why they're invested. It was not NAFTA.

Corey Robin: Yeah. I mean and Lauren Berlant, who's a scholar at the University of Chicago, she had a great piece in The New Inquiry about how political correctness really was ... how important that was. But I think that tells you something, also, about the limitations and the weaknesses. You can't build a whole political movement around what's going on in the Ivy League. I mean it's nice, it's good, I mean whatever.

Chris Hayes: I mean you can build an entire op-ed page around what's going on in the Ivy League.

Corey Robin: Not really, though. Look what's happening to Breitbart. They're crashing and burning.

Chris Hayes: I mean we would joke about this, the early days of the show that's on at 8:00 on Trump TV, we would do the news that day and I'd say in the control room, "What are they doing over there?" And they'd be like, "Yeah, he's got some 19 year old from Kenya who burned a flag on. He's just completely owning him." No, that's not even an exaggeration. Literally a freshman who burned a flat would be the lead of a show.

Corey Robin: I believe it.

Chris Hayes: And it's like, there's lots of stuff happening out there in the big, bad world.

Corey Robin: But here's the thing about that. I mean it's funny, but it also ... Ronald Reagan spent a lot of time talking about students of UC Berkeley. He did.

Chris Hayes: Oh, that was ... Right.

Corey Robin: But he could connect that to a whole crisis of a…

Chris Hayes: Global communism.

Corey Robin: Well not just that, but it was this is the welfare state. These are people who are products of the welfare state who have lived of the fat of the land, and who've gotten every benefit our society could give them. And so what are we gonna do? We're gonna clamp down on education, but we're gonna cut taxes ... I mean it was a whole-

Chris Hayes: He had a project.

Corey Robin: It was a project. And this was an emblematic story in a project. Now it's just a story.

Chris Hayes: That's right. And the project has become liberal tears, and pwning the libs, and, to some total of the project, so what you get is you get this real ideological bankruptcy, which is ... One thing that I find fascinating is in the weird tendencies of our times, it's the people that are the most likely to be the Never Trumpers are the neocons. Have you noticed this? It's a really interesting thing. So Jennifer Rubin, who's a very neocon-ish person who ... I think her politics have actually substantively changed quite a bit, she's not just a Never Trumper but she's changed quite a bit in her views. Bill Kristol, Max Boot, the people that were the neocons, they're the ones who tend to find Trump the most odious. And I wonder why is that. What's the sort of ideological continuity there?

Corey Robin: Well, neoconservativism was the last sort of serious gasp of conservatism, and what's interesting is that, I mean in my reading of neoconservativism as it became a project in the '90s and the aughts not in its original '60s and '70s version, but-

Chris Hayes: The first generation Kristol, etc. Right

Corey Robin: Right. But their fixation on imperial war, and American standing, the Project for a New American Century. It was all about the crisis of capitalism, that they felt like American capitalist society post Cold War was a decadent society. That we had produced a ... And you see this in Brooks, you see this in all of these guys. It's very clear, and it's very powerful.

Chris Hayes: One place you really see this is in late '90s literature.

Corey Robin: Oh yeah, absolutely.

Chris Hayes: It's incredible acute in late '90s literature, which I know for essay I wrote about sort of the War on Terror and World War II nostalgia, 'cause it manifests itself in that. All that World War II nostalgia you see in the late 1990's is-

Corey Robin: Saving Private Ryan, yeah.

Chris Hayes: It's all about that ... what are we doing here? We got an impeachment over a consensual sexual affair, and what are we doing? We used to be involved in a civilizational struggle against the communists, or against the Nazis, and now, what we have pets.com? What's the point of this whole thing?

Corey Robin: Irving Kristol, before he died, I interviewed him. And he said, "Look at this republican party." This was just after the 2000 RNC convention. "There they are, arguing about prescription drugs. Give 'em the goddamn drugs!" He said, "Just give it to them! This is an ... " He literally said this to me, "This isn't Athens, this isn't Rome." So it was a sense that we were supposed to produce this great civilization-

Chris Hayes: And instead we were quibbling over Medicare Part D.

Corey Robin: Yeah. And then after 9/11, David Brooks said, in the '90s, "What were we talking about? We were talking about Bill Clinton, we were talking about how we're gonna redesign our sinks," I mean the contempt they have for kind of the culture of capitalism is very, very strong. And for them, imperial warfare was the answer. And so in a way, Trump, to them, is the essence of a lot of what they-

Chris Hayes: The decadence.

Corey Robin: The decadence. He is decadent.

Chris Hayes: Yeah, that's a great point. The other thing I wanted to ask you about, there's a kind of interesting inversion right now, I feel, where usually I've been in different parts of the political spectrum at different parts of my career and have been around people with different politics. And generally, the more sort of further you get towards sort of the radical parts of that spectrum, the more savage people are. The more grandiose their rhetoric about the status quo is. And the more you move towards the center. And there's a kind of inversion, I feel like, with Trump.

Corey Robin: Interesting.

Chris Hayes: So that the people that are kind of mainstream democratic party folks, people that voted for Hillary Clinton have ... our center left, they probably self-identify as liberals, the language they use about Trump, the way they feel about Trump, is way more this day might be our last existentially engaged than the people that are further out in the political spectrum who are more radical. And I just find that inversion really interesting.

Corey Robin: I mean the way I would look at it is that I think, at least the people I talk to, and I think I'm on that radical end of the left that you're talking about. And the people that I talk to, I think we see the crisis as much more systemic and deeply rooted, and also see much more of an opportunity here. I said this from the beginning when Trump got the nomination, that this was an opportunity ... I didn't believe it was gonna happen 'cause I didn't see it in the Clinton campaign at all, but it's an opportunity to engage in the kind of talk of realignment.

People should go back to the kind of the speeches that Abraham Lincoln gave in 1860. Likewise FDR. Likewise Regan. Poor Jimmy Carter, right? Jimmy Carter actually came in to kind of bury The New Deal, and Reagan says no, he's the caretaker of the new deal, and he doesn't just run against Jimmy Carter. And he doesn't just run against the democratic party. He runs against the entire liberal welfare state. And the problem I see with the fixation on Trump is that it just misses the target. I mean think of what a different kind of political language could do. This is a guy whose real claim to power ... What is his ... I'm a business man. If we had a left that said, "This is what they've been promising to us for 40 years, we're gonna run America like a business," now we are. And look at what it is. It's time to destroy this order that he is the caretaker.

Chris Hayes: The culmination of.

Corey Robin: Yeah, the culmination or the caretaker of. And instead, I think what I see in a lot of sort of more center left, is just get rid of him. And what? Go back to what? I'm not against emotional ... I mean, look, Trump is nauseating. I get it. It's not like I think, oh, more of the same, but this could be an opportunity to see in that something much, much deeper, and a much more profound crisis. We could be here in 10 years time and it would just be the same back and forth of this kind of awful-

Chris Hayes: 50/50 tug of war, essentially.

Corey Robin: Yeah. And I see this. People say, "All we need to do in the democrats is get those voters in Pennsylvania, and this that and the other," and it's like, okay. We could do that. But in four years we'll be right back to where we are. We need a different kind of language.

Chris Hayes:Corey Robin is a professor of political science at Brooklyn College. He is the author of The Reactionary Mind from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump, which was originally The Reactionary Mind from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, which was very cheeky at the time. And then Donald Trump came along to supplant Sarah Palin at the end of that.

This was fantastic, Corey, thanks for joining.

Corey Robin: Thanks for having me.

Chris Hayes: Why Is This Happening? Is presented by MSNBC and NBC News THINK, produced by the All In Team, with music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more from Corey right now with his new piece on NBC News THINK. Visit think.nbcnews.com to read it.

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