Kevin O’Leary’s book “Trump and the Roots of Rage” 2016

Orange County is the last place you’d expect an author of the definitive book on the rise of Donald Trump and the alt-right movement that fuels him, but OC-based journalist Kevin O’Leary has written a book you must read before election day.  “Trump and the Roots of Rage: The Republican Right and the Authoritarian Threat” is an exceptional accomplishment.

Kevin O’Leary is currently a research fellow at the Center for the Study of Democracy at the University of California, Irvine. A graduate of UCLA, he earned his Ph.D. at Yale University and is the author of Saving Democracy: A Plan for Real Representation in America (Stanford UP, 2006, paper), a book that earned praise from The Atlantic’s James Fallows as well as a host of leading political scientists and was the subject of a Brookings Institution panel hosted by E.J. Dionne.  He also teaches political science and honors courses at Chapman University.

As a journalist, Kevin was TIME’s lead reporter on the West Coast and wrote numerous stories about the Great Recession and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, as well as a five-part series on the 2009 California fiscal crisis.  During the 2010 campaign, he reported on gubernatorial and congressional races in the West.  Prior to TIME, he was a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, editor of OC Metro magazine, and editorial page editor of the Pasadena Star-News.  He is a contributor to The American Prospect, which published his article “Trump and the Racial Politics of the South” in its Summer 2016 issue.  http://prospect.org/article/trump-and-racial-politics-south.

There’s high praise for the book too:

“The problem with our politics is not Donald Trump; it is the many who support him.  Kevin O’Leary’s book explainsin great detail and with the clearest of prose, just how this crazy.” — Alan Wolfe, The Future of Liberalism.

“This beautifully written book is deeply disturbing and a must read for all who care about the future of America Democracy.  Kevin O’Leary has written a compelling account of the rise of the right in contemporary American politicsand the threat that is poses to the country’s most basic values,” Erwin Chemerinsky, The Case Against The Supreme Court.

“Kevin O’Leary could not be more timely with his new book…for anyone who can’t understand how the Grand Old Party got to this sorry point, this book will be a guide.” Norman J. Ornstein, co-author, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks.

Buy the book on Amazon at this link.

And as a treat for readers of TheLiberalOC, O’Leary has allowed us to republish his first chapter.  Enjoy:


As a journalist who has reported for TIME and a political scientist educated at Yale, I have been an observer of the political scene for more than 25 years.  By temperament and training, I am respectful of others’ political opinions and the reasons they give for their views.  But when the majority of one political party steps outside the foundational values of American politics it becomes necessary to sound an alarm.

The so-called conservative right that now dominates the Republican Party is, in fact, extreme, radical, and deeply at odds with the American political tradition; it poses a profound threat to the American republic. The assault on liberalism by the right targets not only the New Deal state, but the Constitution and the American political system as well.  Designed by James Madison and the founders, the separation of powers between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches and a Congress consisting of two houses depends on political leaders with the desire and ability to work together and find consensus.  The threat became acute with Newt Gingrich’s speakership in the mid-1990s, escalated with the rise of the Tea Party in 2010 and the GOP’s triumph in the 2014 midterm elections, and grew stronger still with the 2016 presidential candidacies of Ted Cruz and, of course, Donald Trump.  This is a book about Trump and the party that made him possible.

What follows is an example of deep reporting. As a reporter and an editor, I have written about political events on deadline.  But if we are to make sense of the current political crisis, a different type of reporting is necessary – one that combines history, institutional analysis, knowledge of political thought, and a willingness to follow the truth of the matter to conclusions that step beyond the polite journalistic norm of accepting the labels that people and groups give themselves.[1]

The leaders of the right are not Republican “reformers,” as Meet the Press host Chuck Todd referred to Utah Senator and Tea Party leader Mike Lee in a 2015 interview.  No, the ideology of the right – inherited from the class-based, aristocratic, hierarchical, and feudal societies of the Old World – is deeply un-American and morally offensive.  Once a marginal, if constantly visible, outer planet in our political solar system, the right today has exploded into a supernova that dominates the Republican Party.  Let me be clear.  I am not arguing that everyone on the right consciously holds the views outlined in the chapters that follow.  Rather, I bring into clear view the history and ideological currents that animate and power Trump, Cruz, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and the Tea Party right against traditional conservatives and liberals.  While individuals will hold these beliefs to varying degrees, it is critical that the broad public understands the roots and sources of illiberal thinking.

We often speak of the Republican Party as having a strong evangelical contingent and alternatively a freewheeling libertarian wing that wants as few social controls as possible. As a surface understanding of the GOP this has utility.  But with the right leading a vitriolic, reactionary crusade against liberals, the federal government, and every Democratic president it is important to note that the evangelical wing of the Republican Party is predominately white and Southern and holds views strongly connected to an authoritarian racist past.[2]  Similarly, an examination of libertarian thought – which inspires Speaker Ryan, Senator Cruz, and a great many other Republican leaders – reveals an ugly and reactionary side.

The Republican Party of Trump, Cruz, Ryan, and McConnell, powered by xenophobia and Tea Party rage, shoots a wistful reactionary gaze at the Old South, the original Gilded Age when business tycoons such as John D. Rockefeller did as they pleased, and foreign strongmen such as Italy’s Benito Mussolini. Rarely have the differences between the two major political parties been so broad, so clear, and so significant, and a presidential election so consequential. Traditionally, American politics has been consensual, centrist, and moderate; our ideological differences once paled by comparison to other nations. This is no longer the case. Now opponents to the president feel they can shout “liar!” during a State of the Union address and congressional leaders are emboldened to hold a Supreme Court nomination hostage to a future election as if they can pick and choose which elections have consequences and which do not. To make sense of Donald Trump’s success, of the power of the Tea Party in precincts across the nation, of the ferocious disdain with which congressional Republicans reject any and all proposals made by President Obama, this requires us to acknowledge that the continuity of American politics has ruptured. Suddenly, we have sailed into a new, seemingly uncharted ocean.

My argument for liberalism is grounded in the founders’ rejection of the Old World values of privilege, hierarchy, inequality, and exclusion and our quest to build a New World based on liberty, equality, and democracy. This tradition runs back to seventeenth century English philosopher John Locke as well as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Conservatives from Alexander Hamilton to Bob Dole, Mitt Romney, John Kasich, and George F. Will are part of this tradition, which is sometimes referred to as philosophic liberalism. So too are modern liberals and progressives, beginning with Abraham Lincoln and running from Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson to contemporary liberals such as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, and former Congressman Barney Frank.

In defending liberalism against its critics, I have been inspired by Thomas Paine (Common Sense [1776] and Rights of Man, [1791/92]) and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (The Vital Center [1949]). Like their books, mine is a polemic attacking the ill-tempered right while defending liberals and Democrats. Schlesinger wrote The Vital Center to defend twentieth century Cold War liberalism from attacks from both the left and the right.  His primary concern was to demonstrate that New Deal liberalism was stoutly anticommunist and took the threat of Stalin with utmost seriousness.  Today, the danger is domestic in the form of a Republican right filled with zealots and demagogues who have nominated a a political leader with no respect for the Constitution or Gold Star mothers of fallen heroes.  A deep chasm exists between America’s democratic values and the illiberal alternative.  In the current crisis, it is time for liberals to understand who they are, what they believe in, and where their inner conviction and outward passion lie. It is time again for a vindication of liberal ideals and the American political center against an attack by extremists.


The choice in 2016 between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is unlike any presidential campaign in memory. If Trump wins the White House and the Republicans maintain control of the Senate and the House, the consequences could be dire for liberalism, democracy, and America’s future.  Trump and the contemporary Republican Party represent a reactionary threat to American politics not seen since the Civil War.  You may think I exaggerate.  The chapters that follow argue otherwise.


At its core, the right that dominates the Republican Party is the union of the ideological children of the Southern slave aristocracy and the right-wing edge of the capitalist class within a single political party.  This is something new in American politics.  The two most reactionary elements in American politics confronted each other in the Civil War and in the century that followed; today they stand united against the liberal ideals of Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR, and Obama, having excommunicated moderates and classic conservatives from the Republican Party.  The nation’s focus is on the presidential contest between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump, yet the challenge from the right extends far beyond Trump.  Together, Trump, Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz, and Mitch McConnell are the modern equivalent of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – Death, Famine, War, and Conquest.[3]  As leaders of the Republican Party, they are waging all-out war against both liberals and the founders.

Beginning with Speaker Gingrich, the hard right that dominates and steers the Republican Party is characterized by a hatred of modern liberals – such as Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama – and a hostility to the core liberal beliefs of the founders, namely, that America would follow a fundamentally different course than the Old World in regard to hierarchy, social and economic inequality, the exclusion of marginalized groups and individuals, and the preservation of privilege. The assault on liberalism by the right has resulted in a systemic dysfunction that has crippled the federal government and threatens the Constitution.  The Supreme Court fight that exploded following Justice Antonin Scalia’s death is further evidence of the right’s challenge to the Constitution.

The contemporary Republican Party has moved far beyond conservative. The party that produced Dwight Eisenhower, Howard Taft, Richard Nixon, Howard Baker, George H.W. Bush, and Robert Dole is extinct and linguistic confusion adds to our political vertigo.  As President Obama noted in his address to the Democratic National Convention, those in control of the contemporary Republican Party are neither conservative nor Republicans.[4]   Today’s right-wing Republicans are not fascist in the European sense – though Mr. Trump is testing the waters.  Instead, the contemporary right can be best understood as a radical movement to remake America in the image of ungenerous and unlovely ideals.  Unlike liberals and classic conservatives, the right, either implicitly or explicitly, accepts and encourages public policies that enshrine and institutionalize privilege, hierarchy, inequality, and exclusion – particularly for white males and their families.

The powerful post-Reagan right is, indeed, a new political phenomenon and thus, as if a new planet or species, deserves its own distinctive name. This technical name is illiberal, which the Oxford Dictionary defines as being opposed to liberal principles.  Synonyms include intolerant, narrow-minded, reactionary, and fundamentalist.  In the past, the term illiberal typically was reserved to describe authoritarian politics abroad; unfortunately, the American homeland is not as isolated from the political extreme as we once believed.  In the pages that follow I will use illiberal and the right as interchangeable terms for the same phenomenon.  Jonathan Swift counseled “proper words in proper places”; illiberal and the right are the proper words for the contemporary American right.[5]

Liberals and moderates are profoundly puzzled as to why the right hates liberals and the federal government with such passion while supporting an authoritarian demagogue such as Donald Trump. To borrow a line from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, many Americans look at the contemporary Republican Party and ask themselves: “Who are these guys?”  Why has there been such a hue and cry from Republicans over Barack Obama’s presidency and his policy agenda?  Simply put, the base and leaders of the Republican Party have shifted decidedly and devotedly to the right and oppose the principles that have characterize mainstream American politics since 1776.

The Supreme Court: A Three-Way Split

The U.S. Supreme Court is a very visible, easy-to-grasp example of the phenomenon this book explores. Supreme Court watchers think of the high court as divided between conservatives and liberals.  This mistaken notion harkens back to a former era in American politics and jurisprudence.  No, just as American society and politics in general, the legal world is split into three camps – liberal, conservative, and illiberal.  Mirroring the nation at large, while liberals on the Court are united, the right is divided.  The clash is between classic American conservatives – such as Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy – and the radical right that has left the mainstream behind, represented by the late Justice Antonin Scalia and his colleagues on the right, Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas.  Few would deny that Justices Alito and Thomas are closely allied with the illiberal right that steers the Republican Party.

Why the split on the court between Roberts and Kennedy and their more conservative – nay illiberal – colleagues?  Because the radical right of Alito and Thomas – and their brethren who dominate today’s Republican Party – have left the moderate center of American life and marched right to a far outpost on the political spectrum.  In contrast, Justices Roberts and Kennedy remain classic American conservatives and resemble many American voters, but few Republican Party leaders.  A liberal pushes for faster change than does a conservative, but American conservatives do not deny in principle that liberty, equality, and democracy for all are to be valued – not just the liberty of the wealthy.  Conservatives as well as liberals seek a society in which caste and class, inequality and racism, exclusion and the perpetuation of privilege are not embedded in the working order of society.  American conservatives – from Alexander Hamilton to former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, Chief Justice Roberts, Justice Kennedy, and 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney – have different goals but share many of the same values as do modern liberals.[6]  The Court’s landmark Affordable Care Act and marriage equality decisions demonstrated that sometimes America’s institutions converge, in the words of Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, “to accelerate our long, steady movement toward an ever more inclusive equality.”[7]  Such is not the goal or desire of the illiberals who seethe and rage when the privileged position of white males and the business elite comes under scrutiny and attack.

President Reagan versus Speaker Gingrich and His Followers

Another quick way to grasp the dilemma that we face is to think about the differences between President Ronald Reagan and House Speaker Newt Gingrich. President Reagan was one of the founders of the modern right.  Yet in his political career he straddled the liberal/right divide.  The irony of Reagan’s presidency is that while he did more than anyone else to link the Old South to the New Right and thus create the current supercharged illiberal right, he himself remained something of a Lockean liberal.  By the 1960s, intellectually Reagan was a man of the hard right – he read libertarian economists Ludwig von Mises, F.A. Hayek, and Milton Friedman – and, as a General Electric spokesman in the 1950s, he spent time in the segregated South.  But he was not racially prejudiced (his parents raised him to be colorblind) and he worshiped President Franklin Roosevelt for more than half his life.  Reagan continued to admire FDR after he began to question the size and expense of big government.  During the Great Depression, Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration or WPA had employed Reagan’s father and the son identified with the basic Jeffersonian values of liberty, equality, and fair play.  A self-made man, Reagan identified with strivers and entrepreneurs, rather than those born to privilege.  His sunny personality and pragmatism, in terms of taking half a loaf in legislative battles, contrasts sharply with the zealotry of post-Reagan leaders such as Gingrich, Mitch McConnell, Ted Cruz, Scott Walker, or Paul Ryan.  As an elected official and practiced pragmatist, Reagan had no trouble negotiating and cutting deals with progressive Democrats, both as the governor of California and then as president working closely with Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill; he understood the difference between rhetoric and governing as well as the necessity of operating in the liberal framework established by Jefferson, Madison, and the founders, and modernized by Lincoln and FDR.[8]

Reagan was the candidate and champion of the right, but he was not a prisoner of its worst tendencies. An exceptional leader, Reagan both harnessed and tempered the energies of the right; intellectually he was an ideologue, temperamentally he was not. Rhetorically conservative and illiberal, Reagan was a pragmatist in terms of policy and believed in dialogue and compromise, unlike much of the right today.  He worked hard to achieve as much as possible for his strong conservative beliefs, but understood that give-and-take is how public policy gets made.  As governor of California, he learned to negotiate with progressive liberals; he did not consider them terrible people, just elected officials who had a different view of the role government should play.  Reagan followed Pat Brown, a leading example of New Deal activism, as governor.  Conservative Southern California suburbs outside Los Angeles that became “Reagan country” benefited from government spending.  Reagan knew this and did not attack these public achievements as creeping socialism or the leading edge of totalitarianism.  Famously against taxes, he raised them often during his reign as California’s governor.  And while Reagan thought that much of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society was misguided, he had great respect for Roosevelt and the New Deal.  Both as governor and president, Reagan sought to slow the growth of government and curb domestic programs, but his actions belied an intention to seriously reverse or roll back the welfare state.  In the 1980s, when illiberals such as direct mail pioneer Richard Viguerie implored, “Let Reagan be Reagan,” this was understood as a message to James Baker and Michael Deaver in Reagan’s inner circle not to block the president’s illiberal tendencies.  The right wanted to believe that Reagan was a pure illiberal in the way they were.  Fortunately for the rest of the nation, but problematically for the right, he was not.

If Reagan had an illiberal head and a Lockean liberal heart, this has not been true of Speaker Gingrich or the other Republican leaders who have followed him. Among the pyrotechnic gems that shot off Gingrich’s tongue:  “Corrupt liberal bosses cheat, lie, and steal to impose their sick pathetic cynicism and bizarre radical stagnation in order to destroy America.”  More than for his brief House speakership, Gingrich will be remembered for how he changed the political culture of the House of Representatives.  He initiated the politics of character assassination against his liberal opponents and against liberalism as a whole.  As he plotted his rise to power in the 1980s, Gingrich castigated Democrats around the clock and recruited Republican candidates across the country.  Memos to his troops included the vocabulary to use against liberal opponents:  betray bizarre bosses bureaucracy cheat corrupt crisis cynicism decay destroy disgrace impose incompetent liberal lie limit(s) obsolete pathetic radical shame sick stagnation status quo steal taxes they/them threaten traitors unionized waste welfare.[9]

For more than 30 years, the right has followed Gingrich in demonizing not only its opponents, but also the entire federal government. In the Obama era, Majority Leader McConnell and Speaker Ryan sometimes reach across the aisle, but Ryan is dedicated to making radical cuts to the federal budget and McConnell plotted and executed a strategy of rigid obstruction against any and all of President Obama’s initiatives.  In President Obama’s first year in office, McConnell and his GOP Senate caucus launched more filibusters than what occurred during the entire decade of the 1950s, thereby transforming “an extraordinary expression into a routine obstructive tactic.”[10]

Trump in America

Donald Trump, in a weird carnival-hawker way, personifies the powerful illiberal forces driving America’s right – here is a supercapitalist plutocrat (the richest person in the contest) using George Wallace-style appeals to gin up the passions of Anglos angry at immigrants, minorities, the government, liberals, and uppity women. In opposition to the growing civil rights movement, the Alabama governor and candidate for president in the 1960s/70s famously declared, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”  Trump is a gifted demagogue who freely employs racism when it suits his purpose.  He first emerged as a national political figure – as opposed to a rich businessman hosting a reality television show – by becoming the leading spokesman of the “birther movement,” which claimed that President Obama’s birth certificate was falsified and that Obama had no right to be president because he was born outside the United States, possibly in Africa.  Sixty-six percent of Trump’s Republican support nationally continue to believe the right-wing myth that President Obama is a Muslim and 61 percent believe Obama is an illegitimate president because he “was not born in the United States.”[11]  Exit polls of Trump’s South Carolina primary voters were revealing: 33 percent said Islam should be illegal, 32 percent said Japanese internment during World War II was a good thing, and 38 percent said they wished the South had won the Civil War.[12]

Our problem is not Trump, but his supporters. This book explores, explains, and attacks the right-wing ideology that animates and drives the Republican base.  If nothing else, successful politicians are weathervanes.  Trump is a chameleon who panders, like George Wallace before him, to what his audience demands.  We focus too much attention on Donald Trump and Ted Cruz and their ilk.  What matters are the political beliefs and loyalties of the Republican base.  What is disturbing is that a majority of the Republican Party has shifted, profoundly, to the right.  To feed the beast that is the base, the illiberal elite have triggered a governing crisis, rejected the nation’s founding, and launched multiple assaults on the Constitution.  Of course, illiberals such as Donald Trump and Senator Cruz claim they are the ones defending America, as did the late Justice Scalia.  But as the following chapters make clear, having abandoned traditional conservatism to stake out a position on the right, illiberals still find it politically advantageous to clothe a majority of their appeals in liberal and conservative robes.  Do not be fooled.  Today’s war between the establishment and the Tea Party (the pack-journalism narrative) is real, yet beside the point.  The battle for the soul of the Republican Party is over.  The Jacobins of the right – led by the likes of Trump and Cruz – have won.

The right’s victory has been signaled for some time by the actions of establishment figures such as Senator Marco Rubio, Speaker Ryan, and Majority Leader McConnell, who present hard-right positions on most issues with boyish glee, Midwestern earnestness, or sly ruthlessness. It was made even more clear during the 2016 Republican primary contest, in which Trump and Cruz dominated.   And the final test of whether the Republican Party of Lincoln, Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, and Bob Dole would capitulate to the illiberal assault was answered when Republicans quickly rallied around Donald Trump as the GOP’s standard bearer.  As the Republican elite fell in line behind Trump, Robert Kagan penned a Washington Post column titled, “This is how fascism comes to America.”  He began, “The Republican Party’s attempt to treat Donald Trump as a normal political candidate would be laughable were it not so perilous to the republic.”[13]

Chapter One

The Right Against America

Since our founding, the United States has been a liberal nation. Seared into the nation’s soul in the Declaration of Independence, our liberal legacy runs through Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower to Barack Obama.[xiv]  Yet, this philosophy has come under serious attack by the emergence and growth – for the first time in our history – of a classic reactionary politics on American soil.  Today, the two worst parts of the American political psyche – on opposite sides at Gettysburg – lock in a tight embrace.  Early in the marriage between the libertarian business class and the white South, President Ronald Reagan both encouraged and tempered it.  But when Reagan and his lieutenant, George H.W. Bush, left the stage, illiberal purists and demagogues pushing an unrelenting illiberal message – starting with Newt Gingrich and continuing from Sarah Palin to Donald Trump – grabbed the microphone.[xv]  They have not let go.

On the right, either racism, bigotry, and male chauvinism are at the forefront (as with Donald Trump) or a hatred of government and an ideological love of the market leads (as with Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz, and the Tea Party faction). Most illiberals display elements of both, though some such as Speaker Ryan are careful to distance themselves from Trump’s explicit attacks on Muslims and immigrants.  Cruz reveals exclusionary attitudes when he speaks of America as a “Christian nation” and whispers anti-Semitism when speaking about “New York values.”  Preaching racism and xenophobia, Trump offers bread and circuses to the masses; a populist demagogue, he cannot be neatly pigeonholed ideologically.  Unlike many on the right, Trump speaks favorably about preserving Social Security and expanding health care coverage.  But the undercurrent of his rhetoric is that these government programs should go to deserving citizens (Anglo, of course), not minorities, not the poor, not the “moochers” found in Ayn Rand’s libertarian masterpiece, Atlas Shrugged (1957).[xvi]

Strikingly, the Tea Party right that dominates the Republican Party shares three traits with Europe’s radical right parties: a strong commitment to free-market economics, a predisposition to strong father figures and authoritarian norms, and ethnocentric – sometimes racist – messages.[xvii]  A bully with a microphone and a massive Twitter following, Trump – at turns bombastic, childish, vulgar, and derivative – is our Jean-Marie Le Pen, France’s far-right leader of the National Front party, with one crucial difference.  Steering one of the two major parties and possessing much deeper financial and institutional resources than its European cousins, the radical right today is far more powerful in the United States than it is in the Old World.

Like a gang of domestic terrorists, the leaders of the illiberal right have mounted a furious assault on liberalism, the founders, voting rights, the First Amendment, and the Constitution all the while claiming that they are the true disciples. Flouting constitutional commands and democratic norms with abandon, Majority Leader McConnell one day announces the senate will not hold hearings on a Supreme Court vacancy; on another day the Republican presidential nominee decides he dislikes the coverage of one nation’s major organizations – The Washington Post – and bans its reporters from his campaign.  The Post joins a Donald Trump media blacklist that already included Politico, Foreign Policy, Univision, the New Hampshire Union Leader, the Des Moines Register, The Daily Beast, the Huffington Post, Fusion, BuzzFeed News, and Gawker.[xviii]

Why is the right bent on the destruction of America in the name of America? Trump, Cruz, McConnell, Ryan, and their illiberal colleagues in the Tea Party find their torment in our success.[xix]  Together, the New Deal and the civil rights revolution greatly expanded the middle class while ending segregation and second-class citizenship for minorities.  The 1960s gave birth to the second feminist wave, allowing women to follow their dreams in the same way that young men always have been encouraged to do.  Yet for illiberals these were changes they neither desired nor sought.

The right-wing business class, epitomized by the enormous wealth, power, and political ambitions of the Koch brothers, hate the power of the federal government as a counterbalance to their raw economic power and yearn to shrink government in a most radical way.

Southern whites, wounded by the end of Jim Crow white domination, remain resentful of an increasingly cosmopolitan society in which Anglos no longer sit atop a racial caste order designed to cater to their needs and desires.

Illiberal animosity has expanded beyond federal programs designed to assist the working class and the poor (read: “undeserving minorities”) to anger at immigrants (legal and illegal) from Mexico, Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East changing the ethnic makeup of communities across the nation, with politicians in Washington refusing to address the change in the nation’s complexion.

White men, especially of working-class/low-tech white-collar employment, find it convenient to blame their economic troubles on sinister forces and vulnerable people in a changed world which no longer seems to value them as highly as in the past.

The politics of resentment was a specialty of President Nixon; the illiberal revolt goes beyond his presidency in insisting that liberals have so corrupted the nation’s institutions that an illiberal revolution – one that rejects conventional politics, Madisonian compromise, and the idea that the Constitution applies equally to both political parties – is the only way to purify America’s soul. A witches’ brew of antigovernment libertarianism, male patriarchy, and Southern racism, illiberalism is a barbarous philosophy built on cold hearts, hurt feelings, and a great capacity to scapegoat the weak and the vulnerable.


The real contest in American politics is between liberals and traditional conservatives standing on one side of a yawning ideological canyon and the radical right screaming invective on the other side, threatening to pitch anyone not in complete agreement with them into the chasm below – former Speaker John Boehner being a prime example. A hint of the radical nature of today’s right occurred when former Majority Leader Bob Dole spoke out in 2013, warning current party leaders and Tea Party activists that they were positioned far to the right of the nation at large and that both he and former President Reagan would have a hard time recognizing – or being accepted into – the new ideologically hardened GOP.

Donald Trump – a consummate performer and expert at saying the outrageous to attract media attention – relishes the lead in the illiberal opera. The real estate tycoon struts the role of the rich, powerful Anglo envied by his supporters for his ability to freely insult and criticize immigrants, minorities, women, liberals, the media, and the government – as well as Democrats and fellow Republicans – all the while defending his boorish behavior, saying he does not have time for “political correctness.”  Trump’s snarls and bravado are a twist on George Wallace’s illiberal rage and Ayn Rand’s insistence that the rich live by their own rules; in Trump and his supporters, we are witnessing a new stage in the growth of America’s illiberal hysteria.  Trump says he wants to ban Muslims from entering the United States and would round up and deport 11 million illegal immigrants.  He toys with the support of white supremacists and Klu Klux Klan leader David Duke and echoes America’s Nazi sympathizers in the 1930s with his slogan, “America First.”[xx]  Meanwhile, Trump’s supporters display the prejudiced nationalism, authoritarianism, and populism of Europe’s contemporary populist radical right.[xxi]

Trump is dangerous for who he is – a racist, loudmouth egomaniac with little knowledge of government, economic public policy, or national security – and also because his candidacy opens the door to future populist demagogues who may pitch a similar message in a sweeter way. Love him or hate him, the man is an entertainer of the first rank; and that, of course, is precisely the problem.  As Neil Postman warned, the danger to public discourse in the age of show business is that we will amuse ourselves to death.[xxii] An offensive, neofascist media magnet, Trump prides himself on ratings.  And, for many months, the ratings obsession of media executives and their respective corporations, ecstatic that eyeballs were glued to their networks and websites, obscured the true reactionary danger that Trump and the right represents.

Beyond Conservative

Conservative versus liberal, Republican versus Democrat – these traditional labels are a façade, hiding the reality of twenty-first century American politics. It is time to change the terms of debate between liberals/progressives and the right.  Instead of conservative, the right is a more accurate and telling name for the political movement borne by the Goldwater campaign of 1964 and active today in the Trump and Cruz campaigns as well as the Tea Party.  Since the Reagan presidency, the illiberal right has strengthened its hold on the Republican Party.  In the Gingrich-Tea Party era, privilege, hierarchy, inequality, and instances of exclusion and racism have soared as high as the pencil-thin, super-tall condo towers being built for the super-rich above Central Park.

The illiberal right is not simply more conservative; illiberals are something altogether different. The differences between conservatives and illiberals can be specified with some precision:

Conservatives follow Edmund Burke, Alexander Hamilton, and George F. Will in viewing government as a good and essential thing. Illiberals do not.

Conservatives value civility, the give-and-take of politics, and believe in compromise. Illiberals do not.

Illiberals seek a society governed exclusively by contract/the deal/the market and have a fundamentalist (black or white/I’m right, you’re wrong) mentality. Conservatives do not.

Illiberals have qualms about democracy and express misgivings about majority rule if they lose at the ballot box and are in the minority. Conservatives do not.

On each of these measures, conservatives and the right hear a different drumbeat and march in opposite directions.   I defend the understanding of liberal as those with progressive sympathies who strongly believe that institutions and public policies accentuating, extending, and perpetuating privilege, hierarchy, inequality, and exclusion must be challenged and changed. In this understanding of liberalism, liberals and progressives share the same goals.[xxiii]

The right travels a far different road than do either liberals or conservatives and are a distinct political species.[xxiv]  First, illiberals hate government, have a paranoid distrust of the institution, and exhibit a profound contempt for public institutions and democracy.  By contrast, conservatives and liberals believe in both government and markets. Second, illiberals stand for and consistently support public policies that encourage and institutionalize blatant privilege, hierarchy, inequality, and exclusion, either by omission or commission.  Examples abound, ranging from the push to repeal the Affordable Care Act, defund Social Security, and eliminate food stamps, to restricting the voting rights of minorities and the young.  Those on the right prefer a society built on the Old World values of caste and class, as long as they and their families are at the top of the class structure or have a psychological alliance with those above. Third, illiberals can be identified by their zealotry, certitude that their views are the truth, and intolerance of other people’s beliefs.  Living in a narcissistic black and white world, illiberal ideologues are extremists and true believers; in true fundamentalist fashion, they see their task as either to convert or destroy.[xxv]

The change from a prior era when conservatives dominated the Republican Party to today’s illiberal hegemony can be quickly summarized:

Once upon a time, conservatives complained about the cost and wisdom of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs; today, GOP extremists such as Speaker Paul Ryan and Senator Ted Cruz, operating under the cloak of “freedom,” reject as illegitimate the entire New Deal state and the program of liberal reform that began with the institution of personal income tax and the elimination of child labor in the Progressive Era. The goal of illiberals is to profoundly reduce the size and scope of government and to eliminate or starve programs that support the liberal goal of building and maintaining a middle-class society and to demonize programs that assist low-income minority groups. The right’s canard about Social Security being financially unsustainable and therefore must be cut is a prime example. Imagine if President George W. Bush had been successful in his attempt to privatize Social Security in 2005 and have Americans instead invest in the stock market. Fortunately, he failed and Social Security was saved from Wall Street’s 2008 meltdown.

In the past, conservatives from British statesman Edmund Burke to Mitt Romney believed in government as an essential aspect of a good society; today, illiberals choke when asked to say something positive about the public sector and strive to abolish the Affordable Care Act and starve programs – from infrastructure and education, to Medicare and Medicaid, to scientific research, and any and all programs benefiting the working class and the poor.

Before Newt Gingrich, Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, and the Tea Party took center stage, Republicans and Democrats had their differences, but were able to find common ground on which to agree; today, the radical polarization of the right makes the gulf separating the two parties wider than the Pacific. And if, by chance, an island of common ground is found, illiberals storm the beaches.One of the two major parties, the Republicans, has become an insurgent outlier – ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition. When one party moves this far from the center of American politics, it is extremely difficult to enact policies responsive to the country’s most pressing challenges.[xxvii]

Many citizens – as well as clueless reporters – blame both the Democrats and the Republicans for our political difficulties, as if both parties are equally guilty. This is patently false.[xxvi] Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein, two of the nation’s most respected observers of Washington politics, place the blame squarely on Republicans:


In a situation where one party is ideologically extreme and uncompromising in its goals, Madisonian democracy begins to break down. We are experiencing more than a culture war between conservatives and liberals.  We are in the midst of a reactionary insurrection – driven by a Republican Party that has veered to its illiberal extreme in what, partly, is a nativist revolt by whites and a patriarchal reassertion by older men, just as the nation has become more diverse and tolerant.[xxviii]  With American politics mired in a period of prolonged and bitter gridlock, it is important to trace the source of this dysfunction:

Some observers see the stalemate as a result of gerrymandering and congressional seats being largely “safe” instead of “swing.”[xxix] Currently, approximately 10 percent of House elections are competitive in the sense of the winner securing less than 60 percent of the vote.[xxx] Even though demographic trends favor Democrats for the White House and possibly the Senate, the now GOP-dominated House is effectively safe from many mood swings in the electorate.

Others say the political combat we are witnessing in Washington is normal party infighting and jockeying for electoral position, no different than during other periods of divided government.[xxxi]

By contrast, this book argues that the roots of our current political crisis (a crisis that goes well beyond Trump and Trumpism) are to be found in the realm of history and ideas – and the debate over whether the United States is, in fact, a liberal nation in terms of political values and philosophic ideals.

The Second Civil War

Why is “liberal” considered an epithet by those on the right? Why do many on the right believe that modern reform liberalism – which began with Abraham Lincoln freeing the slaves and Woodrow Wilson enacting economic and health reforms such as child labor laws and food safety regulations in the Progressive Era – to be an illegitimate increase in government’s reach and authority?  Why has American politics degenerated to a state in which the past two Democratic presidents – elected by strong majorities for their second terms – have been subjected to harassment by a political opposition, many of whom strongly favored impeachment proceedings?

What has happened is that the post-Reagan illiberal right has stepped outside the liberal narrative that made democracy in America the envy of the world. What has happened is a splintering of American political identity in a way that has occurred only once before – during the Civil War.  Only during the Civil War and in the present day has the illiberal side of America’s political consciousness demonstrated sufficient strength to dominate one of the two major political parties.  Only during the Civil War and today has the illiberal right threatened the future of not only liberalism, but the nation as well.

The post-Reagan right abandoned the American consensus based on Lockean liberalism, and in this intellectual and emotional secession it has fomented a second civil war.

This is Gingrich leading the charge when he was in the House of Representatives: “This is a civil war … only one side will prevail … the other side will be relegated to history. This war has to be fought with the scale and duration and savagery that is only true of civil wars.”[xxxii]

Like the 1860s, this threat too is dramatic and existential. On the one hand, if the illiberal right triumphs over the next several decades – electing a strongly illiberal president while holding the majority in the House and Senate, and packing the Supreme Court with ideological copies of Justices Scalia and Alito – it is highly probable that Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to choose will be overturned and that Social Security, Medicare, and the New Deal safety net will be shredded along with the Affordable Care Act.  Other key investments in society, education, public infrastructure, and scientific research also will be considerably weakened.  Distressing trends will worsen, escalating economic and political inequality, a shrinking middle class, and the exclusion of minorities and women from positions of authority and power and, at some future tipping point, we may lose touch with Tocqueville’s America and join the authoritarian oligarchies of Latin America.  On the other hand, even if the right does not succeed in establishing itself as the clear majority party and control Washington as it did during the first six years of the George W. Bush presidency, the current Republican delegation in Congress has demonstrated that it is fully willing and able to block, obstruct, and nullify with abandon any and all policy measures put forth by a Democratic president, such as Hillary Clinton (should she be elected and take the oath of office in January 2017), and her Democratic allies in Congress.

As the right has escalated its attack against the New Deal state and the norms of Madisonian democracy, they have deserted the conservative tradition of Edmund Burke, the British statesman who famously argued that change must be gradual and commitments to liberty must be balanced with other fundamental values if a society is to function successfully.[xxxiii]  Paradoxically, Democrats and liberals now articulate the principles and values of FDR and Burke, while the radical Republicans play the role of French Revolution leader Maximilien Robespierre (cold, calculating Senator Cruz) and Italian Fascist Benito Mussolini (cult of personality Donald Trump).  Committed to the purity of their political vision and grandiosity of their personal power, the zealots and demagogues of the right appear to be willing to destroy both the government and the society in which they live in order to reach their ideological nirvana and authoritarian dreams.

Kevin’s source materials are documented below:


[1] When I write as a news reporter, I strive to be fair and have been praised for my accuracy and objectivity. For example, after I reported for TIME from Scottsdale, Arizona about a Tea Party protest on the afternoon of Presidents Obama’s 2010 State of the Union Address the Tea Party leader sent me an email commending the accuracy and fairness of my story. Here, I wear a different hat. In this book, I write as a critic of the right and defender of liberalism, the mainstream American political tradition.

[2] See Charles Krauthammer, “Donald Trump: Defender of the Faith,” op-ed, Washington Post, March 3, 2016.  https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/donald-trump-defender-of-the-faith/2016/03/03/33fae7a4-e172-11e5-8d98-4b3d9215ade1_story.html


[3] As described in the last book of the New Testament, Revelation, 6:1-8, and portrayed in the 1887 painting by Viktor Vasnetsov.

[4] President Obama said, “But what we heard in Cleveland last week wasn’t particularly Republican and it sure wasn’t conservative.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/07/27/president-obamas-speech-at-the-democratic-convention/

[5] Jonathan Swift, “A Letter to a Young Gentleman, Lately Entered into Holy Orders,” Jonathan Swift: A Modest Proposal and Other Writings, Edited with an Introduction by Carole Fabricant (New York: Penguin Classics, 2009), p. 110.

[6] Chief Justice Roberts straddles the conservative/illiberal divide sometimes siding with illiberals, as his votes to gut the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder (2013) and his endorsement of inequality in Citizens United, and sometimes with liberals and conservatives, as in his votes to uphold the Affordable Care Act.

[7] E.J. Dionne, “When Change Stops Waiting,” The Washington Post, June 28, 2105


[8] See Chris Matthews, Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014).

[9] George Packer, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), p. 23.

[10] Theda Skocpol, Obama and America’s Political Future (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012).  “Under Barack Obama, Republican obstructionists decided to invoke the supermajority rule on almost every issue small and large … Remarkably, the filibuster was invoked more often during 2009 than during the entire decade of the 1950s,” pp. 26-27.  Skocpol cites Erza Klein, “The Rise of the Filibuster: An Interview with Barbara Sinclair,” The Washington Post, September 26, 2009 and Ben Frumin and Jason Reif, “The Rise of Cloture: How GOP Filibuster Threats Have Changed the Senate,” TalkingPointsMemo blogpost, January 27, 2010.

[11] “Trump Supporters Think Obama is A Muslim Born in Another Country,” Public Policy Polling, September 1, 2015 http://www.publicpolicypolling.com/main/2015/08/trump-supporters-think-obama-is-a-muslim-born-in-another-country.html

[12] “Trump, Clinton Continue to Lead in SC,” Public Policy Polling, February 16, 2016


[13] Robert Kagan, “This is how fascism comes to America,” The Washington Post, May 18, 2016.  https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/this-is-how-fascism-comes-to-america/2016/05/17/c4e32c58-1c47-11e6-8c7b-6931e66333e7_story.html

Chapter One – The Right Against America

[xiv] Philosophic liberals, by definition, are tolerant, willing to listen, willing to compromise.  Liberals possess a middle-class temperament, à la Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America (1830/35), which remains the greatest book ever written about the United States, and Machiavelli in The Discourses.  Most famous for The Prince, in which Machiavelli counseled rulers on the true nature of political power, his finest work is The Discourses. In this extended essay on the nature of political power in the Roman Republic, the Florentine sage grappled with a central question:  Was a democratic republic more at risk from the masses or the elite?  He inquired as to “whose hands it was best to confide the protection of liberty.”  Praising the democratic masses, while warning of the will-to-power of the elite, Machiavelli concluded that the elite of a society “have a great desire to dominate,” while the common people “have only the wish not to be dominated.”  See Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince and the Discourses, with an introduction by Max Lerner (New York: Modern Library, 1950), Ch. V, p. 122.  Emphasis added.  The sensibility that Machiavelli expressed applies to present-day America.  Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and his followers understand that in our democratic republic, the ever-present charge for citizens is to constrain and tame the desire by the economic and social elite for more power.  Given that we live in the most powerful capitalist economy in the world, this is a challenge, indeed.

[xv] Kentucky Senator Rand Paul’s brand of libertarianism allows him to both defend civil liberties and champion a harsh version of unregulated market capitalism.

[xvi] In Mitt Romney’s ill-fated private remarks about the “undeserving 47 percent” during the 2012 presidential contest, he was rifting on Rand. You will not find illiberals criticizing the billionaire class.  Quite the contrary, Trump’s candidacy and Rand’s libertarian prose offer a most strenuous defense of the much maligned 1 percent.

[xvii] See Amanda Taub’s Vox article about social science research on how fear triggers an authoritarian predisposition in some conservative voters.  Amanda Taub, “The Rise of American Authoritarianism: A niche group of political scientists may have uncovered what’s driving Donald Trump’s ascent.  What they found has implications that go well beyond 2016,” Vox, March 1, 2016.  http://www.vox.com/2016/3/1/11127424/trump-authoritarianism

[xviii] See “Donald Trump’s Media Blacklist,” Editorial, The New York Times, June 16, 2016.

[xix] Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell often clashes with the Tea Party, but the conflict is tactical, not substantive.

[xx] Eric Rauchway, “Donald Trump’s new favorite slogan was invented for Nazi sympathizers: ‘America First’ was Charles Lindbergh’s motto in the 1930s

The Washington Post, June 14, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/06/14/donald-trumps-new-favorite-slogan-has-a-nazi-friendly-history/

[xxi] In the week in which former rival and critic New Jersey Governor Chris Christie threw his support to Trump, the billionaire also received endorsements from far-right French leader Jean-Marie Le Pen. See Cas Mudde, “The Trump phenomenon and European populist radical right,” http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2015/08/26/the-trump-phenomenon-and-the-european-populist-radical-right/

[xxii] See Neal Postman’s savage indictment of how television and now 24/7 online news have driven sanity and reasoned discussion out of the serious business of politics.  Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, revised edition (New York: Penguin Books, 2004).  Also see Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (New York: Norton, 2011).

[xxiii] The United States began as a liberal country and has thrived for more than two

centuries as a liberal community. Even though few of us are political junkies and fewer still are political philosophers, people in the United States (as well as around the world) intuitively understand that America is a nation where people are unusually free and equal.

All of American politics starts from the Declaration and it is a liberal document to its core. On the importance of equality in the Declaration, see Danielle Allen, Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality (New York: W.W. Norton, 2014). For some, liberal is shorthand for a market-friendly approach to political economy.[xxiii]  Neo-Marxists often lump together liberals, conservatives, and illiberals as neoliberals, a term that accepts the economic definition of liberal as someone who follows in the school of laissez-faire, free-market capitalism of the nineteenth century.  See David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007); and Desmond King and Stewart Wood, “The Political Economy of Neoliberalism: Britain and the United States in the 1980s,” in Continuity and Change in Contemporary Capitalism, edited by Herbert Kitschelt, Peter Lange, Gary Marks, and John D. Stephens (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 371-397. But to act as if liberalism is synonymous with market capitalism is a profound mistake. Today, many liberals shun the label and have adopted the nomenclature of progressive instead. To a certain extent, this is a healthy expression of progressives wanting to be on the cutting edge of change

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