Rebellion: How Antiliberalism Is Tearing America Apart — Again

  • By Robert Kagan
  • Knopf
  • 256 pp.

A significant minority has never embraced our founding principles (and never will).

Rebellion: How Antiliberalism Is Tearing America Apart — Again

For those of us who understand our 248-year experiment in democracy is in unique peril this election year but perhaps still wonder, “How has it come to this?” Robert Kagan provides a comprehensive and compelling answer — and fuels our existential dread and sleepless nights — in Rebellion.  

Kagan spends a good amount of time reminding readers of the extent to which illiberalism is baked into America’s founding, and the extent to which the Declaration of Independence itself is marinated in magical thinking. The framers solved one problem — articulating a rationale for separating from England by recognizing certain inherent rights of all humanity — by immediately painting themselves into a hypocritical corner given the ubiquity of slavery within the colonies.

When George Washington, James Madison, et al, dismissed as untenable the establishing of a divided nation, the Southern colonies pressed their advantage to make sure their particular interests were protected — their quid for the quo of signing on. Thus, the seeds of the Civil War were sown into our founding documents when the framers chose the time-honored tradition of closing their eyes, crossing their fingers, and leaving the problem for someone further down the road.

(Thomas Jefferson — the man who owned more fellow human beings than any other founder — hoped, improbably, that slavery would somehow die out on its own in the distant future. Upon his death, his enslaved people were auctioned off to help pay his many debts.)

On the one hand, it’s breathtaking to consider what these men were doing. “Jefferson and his colleagues were proclaiming a theory of government,” writes Kagan, “but one on which no actual government had actually been founded.” The sheer force of will it took to articulate these concepts as a basis of government for the very first time is difficult to comprehend.

On the other hand, there were plenty of people within the colonies and among the framers themselves who held no truck with these concepts of individual rights, human equality, and secular society. They did not accept them then and, as Kagan illustrates, they do not now. The outcome of the Civil War ensured that we maintained the union at gunpoint; the losing side didn’t come along willingly and has, in many ways, simply been biding its time ever since.

Until recently, each political party had its share of anti-liberals; Southern Democrats and Northern Protestant Republicans were evenly matched in their own brands of illiberalism. And many of us are old enough to remember that not so long ago, there really were liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats. For a long time, the liberal-to-moderate Republicans held the national offices, and anti-liberals gave them at best lukewarm support. (Scoff if you will, but George W. Bush was a major supporter of immigration reform. Imagine that today.)

At least for this reader — who has more than once yelled at the cable talking heads, “These people are not ‘conservative’! There is nothing ‘conservative’ about wanting to blow the whole system up!” — Kagan is at his most illuminating in describing the capture of the Republican party by these illiberal forces. Certainly there have been pockets of anti-liberalism at the national level in the likes of Newt Gingrich — who can take credit for launching us on our current destructive path — and Ted Cruz and the Tea Party, but it wasn’t until Donald Trump rode down that escalator and into our nightmares that the anti-liberals finally found their oracle. In the Illiberal Chosen One, they have a figure willing to say or do whatever gets the biggest crowds, the loudest applause, and the most small-dollar donations.

Arguably, Trump’s superpower in the beginning was that he wasn’t actually trying to win, so he would say absolutely anything. His other, more pernicious superpower is that he is utterly without shame and has proven how improbably untouchable this makes him. Those two things together lit a fire across a wide swath of the populace — including the heretofore “missing white voters” — of all stripes. “The issue that carried Trump was race,” writes Kagan, “not economics…not education level.”

Since the mid-1960s passage of the Civil Rights, Voting Rights, and Immigration acts, a majority of whites has never voted for the Democrat in a presidential election, but it was Trump’s overtly granting whites permission to voice their ugliest bigotries that made him part rock star, part messiah. And it was the force of those electrified acolytes that mowed down resistance from the horrified ranks of mainstream Republicans who knew better but embraced MAGA when threatened with the loss of power and even with violence.

“Normie” Republicans now cower in fear of their own voters, while the anti-liberals — Matt Gaetz, Jim Jordan, MTG, and others — wrapped in the mantle of the party, stoke the fires of a rebellion that seeks to throw out the very basis of our liberal democracy. Trump has suggested that, if elected again, he’ll suspend the Constitution, and his followers bellow their approval.

Others who might hold him to account have opted instead for that most discredited of all strategies: appeasement. From the Department of Justice under Merrick Garland — so desperate to appear nonpartisan — to an increasingly anti-liberal SCOTUS, to a media ecosystem cowed into treating the 2024 presidential election like any other, the rest of us have gotten the message: Everyone will defer to you if you threaten loudly enough and command a legion of angry followers.

How many times do we have to see this movie?

Having taken us through all of this, Kagan wraps up quickly. He briefly considers what might happen no matter the outcome in November; it’s not going to be pretty either way. But he offers no specifics on how we might find a path through. It’s clear that Trump’s supporters will not suffer defeat quietly, but history has shown that no good is going to come from the rest of us accepting defeat quietly, either. Still, while one side is well-armed, the other, at least for the moment, holds most of the levers of power.

It seems crazy to suggest that we’re perilously close to another civil war. And yet it’s hard to look at what’s happening and see it any other way.

Jennifer Bort Yacovissi’s debut novel, Up the Hill to Home, tells the story of four generations of a family in Washington, DC, from the Civil War to the Great Depression. Her short fiction has appeared in Gargoyle and Pen-in-Hand. Jenny reviews regularly for the Independent and serves on its board of directors as president. She has served as chair or program director of the Washington Writers Conference since 2017, and for several recent years was president of the Annapolis chapter of the Maryland Writers’ Association. Stop by Jenny’s website for a collection of her reviews and columns, and follow her on Twitter/X at @jbyacovissi.

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