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Have the Ideological Labels of the Long 19th Century Outlived their Usefulness?


That’s one of the many interesting issues raised by Kate Antonova—an Associate Professor at Queen’s College, CUNY—in a truly epic tweetstorm. She also storified the tweets and added some commentary.

You should really go read it. There’s a lot of good stuff on the history of various ideological positions and movements, and particularly their connection to the massive transformations unleashed by the industrial revolution. Toward the end, she argues that:

I agree with the underlying argument here. The triumph of Trumpism marks the full takeover of the GOP by the radical right. One can trace this back, for example, to 1994 and the Gingrich “revolution” or further back to the 1960s and 1970s. But the immediate causes of the transformation, it seems to me, involve the confluence of a number of factors over the period from 2006-2012. The implosion of the Bush Administration and the debacle of two sequential “wave” elections—in 2006 and 2008—left the Republican brand in tatters and the party rudderless. The decision by the GOP congressional leadership, in 2009, to adopt a scorched-earth strategy in order to regain power had lasting effects. In essence, they decided to “ride the tiger” in the hope that they could keep control over it.  Of course, the defeat of Mitt Romney in 2012 dashed the possibility of a conservative restoration. Finally, longer-term contextual developments involving the rise of a party-independent right-wing media and the end of the Cold War played an important role.

However, I think the issue of “traditional American values” is much more complex. Trumpism definitely strikes me as contrary to the deep philosophical underpinnings of the American experiment, let alone the positive evolutions of that experiment in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, during the Great Depression and the Second World War, and through the victories of the Civil Rights movement. But my sense is that it taps into a stream of American political discourse that was quite powerful in conservative circles in the 1950s, and which was extremely potent before the 1940s. Yes, we tend to look back at Pearl Harbor, and the subsequent allied victory against Germany and Japan, as discrediting the last movement to proclaim “America First.” But this was always something of a retcon, and it seems increasingly problematic after Trump won with the same slogan.

Indeed, we can declare the potent stew of racial resentment that surrounded Trump’s campaign and permeates his administration contrary to “American values.” As a normative argument, that’s perfectly fine. I agree. But it falls apart as an empirical claim. Racism, and racial politics, are very much part of the tapestry of traditional American values. Explicitly race-centered authoritarianism not only lasted in this country into the 1960s, but it persists in many enclaves. In many states—now backed by the Department of Justice—attempts to restore “softer” versions of it constitute the major vector of democratic backsliding.

That’s why I think it’s more useful to approach these matters as struggles over the meaning of key rhetorical commonplaces—such as freedom, democracy, and liberty—and the terms of political communities—such as the United States and the West. The peddlers of Fascism Lite™ aren’t drawing on an alien tradition, even if success will involve placing their ideas beyond the realm of acceptable political discourse.

Oh, look over here, it’s Tucker Carlson:

TUCKER CARLSON (HOST): Undermine our courage, sap our spirit. ISIS isn’t doing that to us, our elites are — when they tell us to hate ourselves and our culture and our history, when they teach our children to despise the country that produced them, when they claim that percentage point of annual economic growth is more important than the bonds that connect us to each other.

America isn’t falling to foreign invaders, it is rotting from within because the people in charge don’t think it’s worth preserving. You have to love a civilization in order to save it, and they don’t.


We don’t hear it that much, but all of that is true. We are different from other societies. We speak freely, we protect the individual. We do write symphonies. We have no reason to be ashamed. We’ve got a lot of reasons, countless reasons to be proud, and not just of our wealth.

A civilization is not merely the sum of a country’s GDP, it’s a constellation of values, and norms, and traditions, heroes and villains, and yes, even religious beliefs. Ours is the most successful and benevolent in human history, but it is still vulnerable. All civilizations are vulnerable. Rome looked invincible at one point too, it turned out not to be.

This post isn’t really an attempt to answer the question posed in its title, but I invite commentators to weigh in. To the extent that my riffing touches on the question, I suppose that I’m not ready to conclude that we’re in uncharted territory. I would like greater precision in our contemporary ideological terminology—I am, after all, a social scientist—and I do think that we’re seeing reconfigurations and other forms of ideological bricolage. This produces distinctive combinations, but we gain as much from recognizing continuity as change. Which, I think, is a position broadly compatible with Antonova’s.

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