Corey Robin was interviewed by David Johnson for the Boston Review, and at the very end the two of them got to talking about the GOP primary. At first, Robin repeated an argument I’ve heard him make elsewhere and that I think is on-point: the dogmatism and ideological rigidity, exemplified most prominently in the Tea Party, is evidence of the contemporary conservative movement’s decline.
With the mainstream left-of-center in America having embraced so many key tenets of the conservative critique of the welfare state — antipathy to central planning, an embrace of market-based reforms, a conception of the government doing its best work when it serves as a facilitator between markets — the right-of-center has become increasingly dogmatic in turn. But there’s very little room remaining on the right for conservatives to move toward before they find themselves up against the wall of electoral demands, and the closer they come to hitting that end-point, the more vigorously reactionary will their worldview become.
The Tea Party, then, isn’t so much of a rebirth for the right-wing as it is a last gasp.
Where Robin takes this next, however, seems off. My emphasis:
I argue in the book that there’s coherence among the social conservatives, the libertarians, and the national security types. Even so, even where there’s a theoretical coherence, they are obviously different groups who care about different things. And I think all of them feel that the piñata of a final victory is right there in sight, and they all want to have a go at it. The social conservatives are thinking: “You know what? We sat tight through all those years of tax-cutting and didn’t get what we wanted. Well, we’re not going to sit tight anymore, because there’s no need to sit tight; the left is dead. So we’re going to press the social conservative agenda—this contraception agenda—and Santorum is our guy!” Although before that it was Michele Bachmann, and they cycled through them all.…
But Romney can’t find a way to make the three wings of the party come together…and the reason is because there’s just a real fracture in the party, and it’s unclear that anyone can really bring this together. It’s not Romney’s fault, I don’t think. The thing that helped bring the conservative factions together was when you had a real welfare state that was emancipating black people and women and working-class people, and you don’t have that anymore.
Part of me is thinking that Corey is just speaking off-the-cuff here; but I’ll push back a bit just the same.
If we take conservatives at their word — something Robin, to his credit, almost always does — then the truth is almost the diametric opposite of Robin’s theory. Not only do they not think a “final victory” over liberalism in sight, they think the End is coming and coming fast. Not the end of the Republican party, mind you, or the conservative movement. No; this is The End. Of freedom. Of America. Of the world. Here’s a representative sample, as reported by Dave Weigel a few months ago:
“We cannot survive four more years of this!” moaned Kelly Clem-Rickon. She was one of Newt Gingrich’s Hillsborough County co-chairs, assigned to keep a Tampa crowd cheering and cheerful while the candidate made his delayed way over to give a speech. “We will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on Earth, or we will sentence them to take the first step into 1,000 years of darkness!”
In Gettysburg, Pa., on Tuesday night, Rick Santorum stood on the grounds where more lives were lost than in any other Civil War battle, and where Abraham Lincoln issued his stirring call for unity and democracy. Mr. Santorum, who had just lost the Republican primary in Illinois, called the presidential race the “most important election since the election of 1860.”
That 1860 line, in particular, seems popular. (As to why the reelection of Obama sends these guys back 150-odd years, your guess is as good as mine.)
What’s the explanation, then, for the GOP base’s odd mixture of triumphalist absolutism and terror? Because I do think there’s a little of each going on here. On the one hand, they clearly consider the President’s left-neoliberalism to be a profound threat to the very future of self-determination, worldwide. On the other, their blowout victory in 2010 has them emboldened; they see the devil on the ropes. Perhaps they’re worried that if they don’t defeat Obama, and liberalism with him, now, he’ll hide his essence in various horcruxes, dispersed across the elitist coasts.
Or maybe they’re just playing to their psychological type: the end is always nigh for the zealots and fanatics among us. Considering the significant cross-over between Republican diehards and evangelical Christians, it’s not unreasonable to bet that these people are waiting, with baited breath, for the Book of Revelations’ opening act to begin. That, too, is a moment with the intoxicating combination of complete destruction and utter victory. Keeping in mind all the pyrotechnics of that Biblical tale, though, I’d counsel these folks to lower their expectations.
By comparison, even if they win, chances are high that they’ll find it to be something of an anti-climax.