Unmasking 'Aspirational Fascism'
The late Michael Rogin, a political theorist who taught at the University of California, Berkley, spent his career finding creative approaches to critiquing the intersections of culture and power. His work "foregrounds the patterns of racialized nationalism and spectacle that Trump inherits and revises in resonant and dangerous ways," according to his former students Alyson Cole and George Shulman. They co-wrote an essay for the Spring 2018 issue of the journal Theory & Event examining this perspective. Cole, a Professor of Political Science, Women & Gender Studies, and American Studies at Queens College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York, and Shulman, who teaches political theory and American Studies at the Gallatin School of New York University, joined us for a Q&A about their essay.
How did you two come together to work on this essay?
We are both former students of Michael Rogin, though from different generations. That shared intellectual parentage (we are also students of Hanna Pitkin) created an important foundation for our relationship. Indeed, we met for the first time shortly after Mike's sudden and unexpected death, and that too contributed to our connection.
Rogin was an immensely original theorist and a generous teacher who profoundly influenced us both, as well as generations of students, regarding what the role of political theory can be, what sort of texts are legitimate objects of analysis, and what methods might be used and combined. That legacy combined with our sense of profound indebtedness to the man and his work led us to agree to assemble a book, Derangement and Liberalism: The Political Theory of Michael Paul Rogin, collecting some of his pivotal texts for inclusion the "Innovators in Political Theory" series. While working on that project we had to revisit all of Rogin's work, not just those texts each of us regularly include in our respective syllabi, but all of his other writing, including some remarkably sharp book reviews and op-eds. During that process we came to realize how Rogin’s distinctive approach and insights about American politics -- about race, gender and sexuality, about the presidency and spectacle -- all were missing from current conversations, and that absence was enfeebling our ability to comprehend and critique the United States under Trump. So, while the book lingers in the production cue, we decided to intervene sooner and specifically with respect to our current political moment. We aimed to remind those thinking about these issues about Rogin's legacy and then to consider how with Rogin’s scholarship in mind we might begin framing different questions and thus different responses to Trumpism.
In your introduction, you mention that the essay will "complicate current debates." How important is it to muddy the waters like this in order to stimulate new lines of scholarship?
We think it matters greatly how political theorists and citizens more generally frame political phenomena and events, because how we understand something will govern how we respond to it. In the case of Donald Trump, how scholars and citizens conceive and respond is incredibly consequential. Our intervention was meant to address certain either/or interpretations that simplify the complexity of our current political moment in ways that have real political implications. For example, many of those who see Trump as a regular Republican conservative, do not see the ways in which he is also a threat to the republic, an element of what William Connolly calls an "aspirational fascism." They minimize a real and pressing danger, and seeing Trump as a "normal" Republican, or not, also shapes arguments about how the Democratic Party should counter-attack, in the 2018 midterm elections and beyond. More broadly, in the academic world there is an important argument about the role of racial animus and misogyny in Trump's appeal, and here, too, our explanation matters greatly in how we respond. Of course there is also a historical dimension: we were especially interested in trying to parse out the patterns of rhetoric and politics that Trump draws upon and remakes, while also identifying what is novel or distinctive (and exceptionally dangerous) about this political moment.
What is the value in introducing the work of someone who died more than 15 years ago, especially for younger scholars reading the essay?
15 years ago is very recent by political theory standards! After all, we are still reading Plato. Political theorists read "old" texts because the questions they ask remain crucial to thinking about political life - whether it be questions about human nature and coexistence, the formation of community and governance, the meaning of justice, the function of law, or the causes, uses, and dangers of violence. In the case of Rogin, though, we think his work has been neglected because it fell between so many disciplinary boundaries, whether history or social science, literary studies, political theory, critical race studies, feminist and psychoanalytic theory. We wanted to re-present his work so that people could rediscover its pertinence and value for their scholarship now.
What made Theory & Event the best venue for this article?
Theory & Event is a journal that has broad interdisciplinary reach, and its readership includes more recent generations of political theorists. Moreover, T&E was designed to include reflections on events, and theory that is politically engaged. Rogin's work exemplifies these worthy aspirations precisely, so it seemed the perfect home for our intervention.