BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On The Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. This week the House of Representatives voted to block President Trump's national emergency declaration for building a border wall. The latest step towards constitutional crisis, an impotent gesture in the face of gathering authoritarianism. Or was it, as some have concluded, just evidence that Trump the strongman has been a weakling all along.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The public doesn't appear to be with the president. A recent CNN poll found that 65 percent of Americans on average opposed the president's national emergency. He says he's fulfilling an election promise but if he presses ahead with only 32 percent support for this national emergency that could hurt him in 2020, couldn't it? Is this, do you think a sign of weakness on President Trump's part?
MALE CORRESPONDENT: I absolutely think it's a sign of weakness. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: For those of us in the Trump is a threat to democracy community, sounding the alarms for three years about encroaching fascism, this trending notion of impotence sounds almost blasphemous. But it's also deeply rooted in historical analysis, so many, you know, citations and references and precedence. Has a better or more historically informed understanding of Trump-ism changed the narrative? In a recent post for the New York magazine, political theorist Corey Robin says, 'maybe.' But beware of the historovox. A tendency to launder journalistic hot takes through history. He says that something goes missing when pundits look only backward.
COREY ROBIN: What goes missing is captured really well by a famous quote from Orwell that says, 'To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle,' he said 'one thing that helps toward it, that is seeing in front of your nose, is to keep a diary or at any rate to keep some kind of record of one's opinions about important events. Otherwise, when some particularly absurd belief has exploded by events, one may simply forget that one ever held it.' We all have a picture of the world and in the age of the historovox. That picture of the world is provided to us by this nexus of journalists and academics. But that picture seems to change with a kind of an alarming repetity. And we forget that, not so long ago, we had a very different understanding of these things.
BOB GARFIELD: Now there are different ways you can employ history and one obviously is cherry picking. You can advance almost any argument if you choose the historical events that seem to validate your premise and ignore the others that would argue against your premise. Do you see that happening that sort of stacking the historical deck?
COREY ROBIN: I think there's actually something even more pernicious, to be honest with you, than that. Let's take the last couple of years. There were all kinds of historical arguments that were advanced about Trump as a reprise of Mussolini and his fascism.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: I think that Donald Trump's rhetoric of law and order is very Hitler like. [END CLIP]
COREY ROBIN: And the problem, as I saw it, was not so much that people were cherry picking from the past. It was the total indifference and lack of curiosity about what was happening as, Orwell said, right in front of your nose. For the first two years, when the Republicans completely controlled Congress, Trump sent up two budgets. He asked for things like cut off all funding for Planned Parenthood. Twenty five billion dollars for the wall. Billions of dollars more for hundreds of new enforcement officers in ICE. Those budgets were repeatedly rejected by a Republican controlled Congress. The simplest definition of the authoritarian is somebody who substitutes for the rule of law, his will. And yet Trump was singularly incapable of acting upon his will. So the problem here is not cherry picking from the past, the problem is a composite picture from the past that's overlaid on the present that is indifferent to some pretty strong facts.
BOB GARFIELD: The one argument against historovox is that it keeps kind of flip flopping. It's taken on executive power, for example, seems to shift between president and president. The analysis of the Obama administration a little bit different and the Trump administration.
COREY ROBIN: I think that's true. So during the Obama years, the predominant theory of the presidency was that it's an extraordinarily weak institution.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: We have to admit that President Obama can't do much of a concrete plan without Congress getting onboard in some fashion. [END CLIP]
COREY ROBIN: And that its weakness is best expressed in the impotence of presidential rhetoric. People say things like, 'oh the president should use his bully pulpit. And if he says the right words he can rally the republic and get Congress to pass legislation that Congress doesn't want to pass.' It's kind of the West Wing view of the presidency, you might say. And so a lot of political scientists and journalists spent eight years of the Obama years saying, you know, 'this is just not the way the presidency works.'
BOB GARFIELD: The conclusion was that presidential rhetoric, like hypnosis, can't make people do what they otherwise are going to do.
COREY ROBIN: Correct. But then oddly, Trump comes along and it's almost the reverse. There has been this notion that, you know, Trump's tweets are going to turn the republic into a raving hotbed of white nationalism with a racist majority marauding and rampaging throughout the country. Before presidents were viewed as weak and now they're viewed as extraordinarily potent–particularly in their rhetorical capacities. The question to me is not which view is right, I'm more struck by the whiplash. The speed at which one view is junked for another.
BOB GARFIELD: All right Corey now we have talked about journalistic practice but I don't want to end this conversation before considering your own political analysis. The notion that Trump is like most presidents, fundamentally weak, and that in his case it's not just the weakness of the executive but just him battling the other institutions and branches of government–even his own party. Now, if you'll forgive me for historovoxing myself, it seems to me that those are the very conditions that nourish authoritarianism historically–from the Roman Republic to Hitler inciting zealous minorities and abusing democratic mechanisms to subvert democracy. So tell me again why we shouldn't be very very worried about Trump as cornered rat?
COREY ROBIN: There's no doubt that a weak ruler may end up attempting to circumvent restrictions that can result in worrisome activity. I don't think that is really up for debate. The question is whether or not he'll succeed in that regard. Look at what happened. Trump was not able to get funding for his wall. And so the entire election campaign, 'this is a referendum on my immigration policy.'.
PRES. DONALD J. TRUMP: If you want more Caravan's, if you want more crime, vote democrat tomorrow.
CROWD: Boo! [END CLIP]
COREY ROBIN: And he lost catastrophically. Now, the warnings going into those elections were twofold. One Trump could suspend the elections. We might not have midterms elections. This was a prediction that was repeatedly made throughout the last two years. And then the warning was, 'they won't honor the results of the election.' Well low and behold, they did. So now we have a Democratic House. So Trump wants to up the ante again. He engaged in strong arm tactics. He prompts a shutdown. And low and behold, it doesn't work. So now he is going to come out with $1.3 billion and now he's upset again with his state of emergency. First, the House of Representatives votes to rebuke him. The Senate may rebuke him and Trump will then have to veto a bill. You do see a kind of escalation, but what you don't see is Trump actually being able to succeed in gaining his wishes. Weak rulers may attempt authoritarian measures, but precisely because they are weak they will probably fail.
BOB GARFIELD: And the utter dismantling of the regulatory apparatus of government, the damage to our alliances, the cozying up to dictators, those are not actual damage?
COREY ROBIN: So I think we have to be really careful here. The question that's on the table was not can Trump and are Republicans doing damage, but whether or not it's authoritarian? So let's take that apart a little bit. The regulatory apparatus, there is no doubt that Trump is seeking to dismantle the regulatory apparatus. It just so happens to be that that is a longstanding Republican party principle that began under Ronald Reagan and got increasing traction under his regime and then, also I should say, under Bill Clinton's regime and then George W. Bush. If we want to start calling something like that authoritarian, we're really moving in a very different direction. Because deregulation and gutting the regulatory apparatus has been a hallmark of what we called neoliberalism for a very long time. In terms of damage to alliances, Trump from the get go said he was going to pull out of NATO. It actually hasn't really happened. And in terms of cozying up to dictators, of course we have the problem that there's nothing particularly new about American presidents cozying up to dictators. Whether it's Saudi Arabia or Ronald Reagan praising Rios Montt the Guatemalan dictator who presided over a regime of genocide, these are all longstanding problems within the American polity. And here's where the question of historical memory, I think, becomes very important. If we want to recode all of that is authoritarianism or, even frankly, the attempt by a president to evade the will of Congress by using his executive branch authority. I mean Obama had to do that all the time. We're really running the risk of, you know, everything becomes under the rubric of authoritarianism including a lot of previous presidents. So we either go down that road or then we become partisans and say no that was different, Trump is the only one. And I think this is where this historovox complex gets us into a kind of trouble. We either become very partisan and we just deploy categories only against the president's we don't like or we become kind of homogenizer and everything, all presidents are authoritarian because they've done a lot of these things.
BOB GARFIELD: Are you suggesting Corey, and I just--I want to get to the nub of this that I simply submit my resignation now and apologize to my audience? Or would you say that I have a chance at redemption?
COREY ROBIN: I love your show, that's all I'm going to say. And in all seriousness, I think the issues that have been raised by the Trump regime are really profound ones and I think we've had a long overdue conversation on this question of authoritarianism. I suspect that in the remaining two years of, what I hope is his first and only term, that we're going to see even more signs of weakness. And I hope what we do is not just junk the authoritarian discussions and say, 'OK you know now we're onto weakness,' but try to be a little bit, again, mindful of the past not only of what has happened in the past but also how we have thought about the past versus how we think about the present. And not just junk one frame for another but ask ourselves is there some kind of a frame that helps us make sense of the ongoing ness of these elements.
BOB GARFIELD: If this is a question of framing, how should we frame the current moment?
COREY ROBIN: A couple of elements. Number one, rather than representing a break with the right, Trump represents an intensification of longstanding tendencies on the right–particularly with respect to questions about race. Number two, that intensification on the right goes hand in hand with what I think is a steady weakening of the conservative movement. In other words, rather than seeing Trump and conservatism as embodying a new ascendancy, I think that a proper historical reckoning would see everything about the Trump regime as a sign of growing weakness. I sometimes use an analogy from the past. If you were in Britain in the second half of the 1970s, on the left there were a group of Trotskyist and they became increasingly militant. If you were to focus on them, you would think the story of the second half of Britain in the 1970s is the rise of the militant tendency. But of course we know the real story was the rise of Thatcherism. A group can become more radicalized, more extreme precisely in concert with its marginalisation and all the signs are, that compared to somebody like Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, Trump is presiding over a very weak republican presidency. Not because the presidency is weak, but, I would argue, because the conservative movement and the Republican Party have gotten weaker. And that has gone hand in hand with a kind of intensification of certain extreme tendencies on the Republican Party.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: What you seem to be describing is a supernova. Burning brightly with tremendous amount of destructive energy because it's a dying star.
COREY ROBIN: I think that's perfectly put.
BOB GARFIELD: Corey, thank you very much.
COREY ROBIN: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Corey Robin is a professor of political science at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. His New York Magazine post is called Why Has It Taken So Long to See Trump's Weakness?
[MUSIC UP & UNDER].
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If you're the kind of person who gets a chill when the president fires up an arena of believers, you ain't heard nothing yet.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On The Media.