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Hollow Rebels
Image: American People Series #20: Die, Faith Ringgold (WikiArt)

Hollow Rebels

Robert Kagan's "Rebellion" traces the deep-seated conflict between liberalism and antiliberalism from the inception of the United States to the present day.

Gabriel Schoenfeld
Rebellion: How Antiliberalism Is Tearing America Apart—Again
by Robert Kagan (Knopf, 256 pp., $20.01)

When it comes to the character of the United States, between the idea and the reality a deep shadow has fallen.

The idea was one thing. In the Declaration of Independence, the country’s Founders sought to construct a new order based upon self-evident truths: “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The reality, with chattel slavery practiced across the South and portions of the North, was something else entirely. As the historian Robert Kagan argues in Rebellion, the gap between idea and reality set up a conflict between liberalism and antiliberalism that endures to the present moment.

In this reading of American history, the Trump movement is no “freakish aberration.” Though Trump is unique in key respects, antiliberalism “has always been with us, taking different forms over the decades, occupying first one party, then another, sometimes powerfully influential, other times seemingly weak and disappearing.” With Donald Trump poised to assume the presidency for a second term, we are now at a high watermark, so high that, for the first time since the Civil War, the future of the Republic is at risk.

“The idea that all Americans share a commitment to the nation’s founding principles” is nothing more than a “pleasing myth, or perhaps a noble lie,” writes Kagan. The reality is that significant segments of the population have always rejected the Founders’ claims. The “new radically liberal tradition in America would from the beginning be accompanied by an antiliberal tradition every bit as potent.” The trouble we face today, as it has always been, is “the people and their beliefs.”

Antiliberalism has a long and ugly history. Kagan tells that history—with chapters touching on such key junctures as the Founding, the Civil War, Jim Crow, the McCarthy era, and, of course, the current moment. “The core and beating heart of this dissenting, antiliberal tradition was the slaveholding South.” Slaveholders were “fundamentally and openly antiliberal. They regarded the very idea of universal equal rights as a sham, an absurdity that was contradicted, they insisted, by all of human history.” To the extent that they believed in democracy, it was a White democracy. They were willing to support the new American compact only to the extent that it allowed them to retain human property. “When democracy and electoral politics turned against them in 1860, they simply left.” The result was a ferocious civil war.

One can draw, as Kagan does, a series of straight lines connecting the rebellious South to the MAGA phenomenon and those who staged a violent attack on the seat of American democracy on January 6, 2021. If in the 19th century it was the slaveholders who rejected the key tenets of the American creed, today we have “millions of Americans . . . rebelling against the constitutional order and the liberalism it protects.” Their grievances revolve around the twin neuralgic points of race and religion, with White supremacist attitudes uniting them all.

A key catalyst was America’s first Black President. With Barack Obama, suddenly, writes Kagan, “an open racism not seen in decades reemerged,” with Donald Trump launching the “birther” movement, the basis of his short-lived, exploratory 2012 presidential bid. “When he ran again in 2016, his identity as a White male supremacist was well established.” 

 Tellingly, not economics but immigration, a proxy for concerns about race, was the issue that propelled Trump to victory over Hillary Clinton in 2016. The changing complexion of the country was on the minds of a great many Americans:

Of those voters who said in exit polls that the economy was the most important issue, Clinton won by 11 points, 52 to 41. Of those who said immigration was the most important issue, Trump won by 31 points, 64 to 33. All white groups voted in greater numbers for Trump in 2016 than they had for Bush in 2000: the white working class, white evangelicals, white Catholics, and white Protestants; white men and white women.

A second component of contemporary antiliberalism is the rise of “Christian nationalism.” The Founders may have separated church from state in a decisive and revolutionary way, but, as Kagan notes, significant numbers of Americans today—60 percent according to a Pew survey—believe the opposite, that they intended to establish a Christian nation.

Among other trends, Kagan points to the rise of the “Dominionist” theological movement and to the theologian R.J. Rushdoony who popularized it in the 1960s and 1970s. Dominionists maintain that biblical law is the only true law, that democracy is a “heresy,” and that Christianity and democracy are “inevitably enemies.” It is this radically antiliberal creed that has gained a foothold within the Republican Party, with Senators like Missouri’s Josh Hawley propounding the idea that America is a revolutionary nation “not because of the principles of the Declaration but ‘because we are the heirs of the revolution of the Bible’ that began with the ‘founding of the nation of Israel.’” Comments Kagan, “There could hardly be a statement more at odds with the American founders’ liberal, ecumenical vision, but tens of millions of Americans agree.”

These currents would be troubling enough, but they come bundled together with an extraordinary development: the appearance of a charismatic leader, a “would-be tyrant,” who has wholly captured one of our two major political parties. On the one hand are his unusual personal characteristics that make him a special danger:

His fanatical narcissism, his lack of regard for anyone but himself, his demand for constant adoration, his fury at those who criticize him, and his repeatedly demonstrated willingness to use the power of government for his own personal purposes, including exacting revenge against his enemies.

 On the other hand are his magnetic qualities, which both repel and attract in equally great strength:

Rarely in America has a political figure drawn such adoration and complete loyalty while still alive and politically active. Even the revered Reagan was frequently attacked by conservatives for falling short of their expectations. Trump’s supporters never criticize him or tolerate criticism of him, even on issues on which they disagree with him.

If Trump wins in November, the antiliberal currents in America will have triumphed, perhaps irreversibly. If he loses, there is the strong possibility of a violent reaction. But Kagan is ultimately optimistic about the direction of the country if Trump fails in November, for the greatest danger will then have passed. “Trump’s movement is not unique, but Trump probably is.” With his passing from the stage, “overall long-term prospects for American liberalism are actually bright.” Here Kagan points to the ongoing demographic shifts toward a more multiracial and multiethnic America, making it “impossible for any single ethnoreligious group to dominate American politics and society,” and increasing “the appeal of liberalism as the only means of holding such a society together.” 

It is impossible to do justice to the sweep of Kagan’s Rebellion within the scope of a review. Difficult even to summarize, the book traverses three centuries of American history in the service of a powerfully persuasive argument. At its essence that argument is the contention—Kagan’s central insight—that “Trump was not inevitable. What was inevitable was the clash between liberalism and antiliberalism. It was inevitable because it has never ceased.”

Gabriel Schoenfeld, a contributing editor of American Purpose, is a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center.

Image: American People Series #20: Die,
Faith Ringgold (WikiArt)

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