There’s a sort of ideal figure that conservative intellectuals conjure when they want to argue about the essence of their ideology. This figure is a dreamy quietist of peaceable disposition, who savors apolitical friendship, nurses a skeptical outlook, and looks to an anti-theoretical politics of homey tradition and humane, but chastened, sentiment to guide him. The political scientist Corey Robin argues in his 2012 book, “The Reactionary Mind,” that this ideal is more like a myth. Conservatism, Robin says, is always inherently a politics of reaction—usually also populist, often also violent. From Robin’s argument, we could predict that a conservative party would be unlikely to nominate the idealized conservative as its standard-bearer, but that it would absolutely yoke itself to a populist nut job like Donald Trump.
Robin’s argument about why this happens is a little too sweeping at times, too reliant upon convenient factoids for its historical-theoretical linkages. For example, he dubiously establishes that libertarians are secret heirs to Hobbesian absolutism by noting that the free-market economist Milton Friedman was an adviser to the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. And conservative readers would surely grind their molars on seeing John Calhoun and Ronald Reagan blithely summoned as members of the same political team. By the same token, this bold and maddening connection between a notorious slavery apologist and a beloved Republican provided a polemical charge that was no doubt central in turning the book into an unexpected publishing hit among progressives still energized by the Occupy movement.