First lady Michelle Obama, center, hugs former President George W. Bush at the dedication ceremony of the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, Sept 24, 2016.
( Pablo Martinez Monsivais
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On The Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. The end to the Mueller investigation has been wholly unsatisfying for those who see Trump's presidency as an aberrant detour on conservatisms march. I mean, we have democratic socialists and we have far right conservatives, but this presidency, this in your face self dealing, this breakdown in civility, it seems altogether new–of course it's not. But political science professor Corey Robin says that our failure to draw connections between Trump and what came before, continually leads us to misread the present and as part of a larger pattern of forgetting in America's political culture.
COREY ROBIN: I first began noticing it during the run up to the November 2016 presidential campaign, most prominently at the Democratic National Convention where Ronald Reagan was resurrected among Democrats as a kind of hero. Somebody who counterposed against Donald Trump. Since then, that tendency to reinvent conservatives past has grown only stronger.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In your article, you focus on various rehabilitations of history or reassessments or reimaginings. And the most obvious example, for you anyway, was George W. Bush.
COREY ROBIN: Yeah not just for me actually, even Saturday Night Live took notice of this.
[CLIP OF SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE]
WILL FERRELL AS BUSH: So I just wanted to address my fellow Americans tonight and remind you guys that I was really bad.
WILL FERRELL AS BUSH: Like historically, not good. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right. You wrote that when Bush left office in 2009, he was widely loathed. He had an approval rating of 33 percent and today it's 61 percent–and a lot of that comes from Democrats and independents.
COREY ROBIN: And not just Democrats and independents also younger voters who really loathed Bush during the Iraq war and the Bush years, but now look back on him fondly. He seems to represent a kind of different conservatism from the one that we have today. One of the most shocking images to me was a photograph that was taken of Michelle Obama with George W. Bush. And in that she's hugging him and their faces are nuzzling together. And she expresses what seems to be a genuine affection. And it's one thing to read statements and make statements about people, some of whom are no longer with us, it's one thing to welcome somebody into the fold from a long, long time ago, but that wasn't that long ago.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Here's George W. Bush talking about his friendship with Michelle.
GEORGE W. BUSH: That surprised everybody. That's what so weird about society today, you know, that people on opposite sides of the political spectrum could actually like each other. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I mean that's nice, isn't it?
COREY ROBIN: It's not just a personal moment between two individuals. Michelle Obama's leading voice for the Democratic Party. What that is really saying is, 'bygones are bygones, the past is the past.' And meanwhile we live in a country that is still in Iraq. This is a mistake that still lives with us. The veterans who have had limbs blown off, the people of Iraq who have endured what they've had to endure, what does that say to them?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you see this as part of a much broader pattern. You cite Philip Roth who wrote, during the Nixon years, that there was a sense of living in a country with a government morally out of control and wholly in business for itself. And then 10 years later, he wrote about the era that Watergate made life interesting when I wasn't writing but from 9:00 to 5:00 every day I didn't think too much about Nixon or about Vietnam. And now when he compares Trump to Nixon, he says that Nixon wasn't anything like as humanly impoverished as Trump is.
COREY ROBIN: You see two things that are going on there. One is an insistence that whatever you're currently confronting is something we've never seen before, on the one hand. And then on the other hand, the very person who ten years ago you would have been reviling in exactly the same terms suddenly becomes anodyne, human, a man you'd want to hug. There's a relationship between those two things, one makes the other possible.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You were making the point that Trump isn't so different from what happened in the past. And people were really upset with you for normalizing Trump and you found this perplexing until your wife explained it to you.
COREY ROBIN: As my wife explained it to me, people instead heard me saying, 'you know, this guy isn't so bad. We survived the Iraq war, we survived Ronald Reagan, will survive this. Just go on about your business.' And I think people get a sense that when you try to argue for continuity, somehow or another, the message is one of mitigation and diminution. Whereas I think it actually accentuates the task that we have to now confront.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right. You wrote, and I love this, that 'we think the contrast of a burnished past allows us to see the burning present, but all it does is keep the fire going and growing. Confronting the indecent Nixon, Roth imagines a better McCarthy, confronting the indecent Trump, he imagines a better Nixon. At no point does he recognize that he's been fighting the same monster all along–and losing. Roth,' you write, 'doesn't see how the rehabilitation of the last monster allows the frontline to move rightward. The new monster to get closer to the territory being defended.'
COREY ROBIN: American liberals and Democrats have been fighting the Right for a very long time. We've had different iterations of that Right-wing–Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, George W. Bush and now Donald Trump. And at every turn there is an insistence that this is like something we've never seen before. And part of the reason for that insistence is a sense that this is how you rally the base. But even if we vanquish Newt Gingrich or George W. Bush, the terrain on which we're fighting is getting closer and closer to what the right ultimately wants.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is it because liberals and Democrats are constantly making this an issue of an individual rather than a web of ideas.
COREY ROBIN: Absolutely. The comparison that I try to invoke is someone like FDR or Abraham Lincoln. These were realignment presidents. Presidents who don't just run against a candidate, they don't even just run against a party, they run against a whole nexus or a web of ideas and institutions and they really want to take it out entirely and create a different kind of a country. When liberals make the issue, Richard Nixon's individual perfidy or Ronald Reagan's distance from factual reality or George W. Bush's lack of command of the facts and what's going on, they are signaling to everybody, 'just get this guy out and maybe some of his people as well and all will go back to normal.' And I think these are missed opportunities. You could imagine saying that Donald Trump in his treatment of women and his views on Muslims and people of color and his views on taxes, these are not singular aberrations. These are, in fact, connected to a whole set of ideas that have really governed us now going back at least to the 1970s and 1980s. And that he reveals to us everything that has been wrong in this country for an extraordinary long time and that in going after him we are going to go after all of that. And instead he gets cordoned off as this mess of a human being. But we forget to see how that mess is emblematic of just a much, much larger mess that is this country.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I assume that people will run against character because it helps them win elections.
COREY ROBIN: I think it's dawning on a lot of people that it's not enough just to win an election. You have to transform the country in a more fundamental way.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Structural changes, not just a different coat of paint.
COREY ROBIN: Yeah, exactly. One can see the strategic benefits, again, in the short term. But the task of liberalism and the left becomes ever, ever narrower. If America is already great why do you need to increase taxes, redistribute wealth to confront problems of schooling. What do you say about the fact that the United States is now more segregated than it was under Ronald Reagan? All of the factual tasks that are at hand that liberals traditionally would have wanted to take up, suddenly are swept off the table.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Corey, thank you very much.
COREY ROBIN: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Corey Robin is a professor of political science at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. His book is calledThe Reactionary Mind: Conservatism From Edmund Burke To Donald Trump.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER].
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, the president's border wall could be seen as definitively marking the end of American expansionism. This is On The Media.