The Political Theory of the American Founding: Natural Rights, Public Policy, and the Moral Conditions of Freedom
American Greatness: How Conservatism Inc. Missed the 2016 Election and What the D.C. Establishment Needs to Learn
by Charles J. Sykes, St. Martin’s, 267 pp., $27.99
The Spirit of Liberty: At Home, In the World
Among the many anomalies of Donald Trump’s presidency has been the near invisibility of institutions that for many years served as a bulwark of Republican policymaking. Though many on the right like to quote Ronald Reagan’s assertion from 1981 that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” his administration in fact began its bold work with a comprehensive playbook—the twenty-volume Mandate for Leadership, published by The Heritage Foundation. It contained a variety of proposals for slashing federal income taxes, boosting defense spending, and rolling back business regulations. It was widely seen as a blueprint for the administration, and Reagan gave a copy to each member of his cabinet. A redacted paperback version even became a best seller. “Of a sudden,” Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan declared, “the GOP has become a party of ideas.”
In subsequent years, Heritage and other conservative think tanks continued to formulate sweeping proposals. It is well known that the Affordable Care Act, so reviled by Trump and other Republicans, emerged from a market-based model that was developed by Stuart Butler, the director of Heritage’s Center for Policy Innovation, and adopted in 2006 by Mitt Romney when he was governor of Massachusetts. During the George W. Bush presidency, foreign policy experts at the American Enterprise Institute, such as Richard Perle, a Defense Department official in the Reagan administration, helped shape Bush’s response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, including, most notoriously, the war in Iraq.
Under Trump, however, these institutions are struggling to adjust. Though Heritage has played an important part in recommending nominations to the judiciary, including Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, its actual influence on policy seems negligible, and its members have conflicting views of Trump’s nationalist agenda. Something similar can be said about a number of other conservative think tanks in Washington, including the American Enterprise Institute, which has a number of fellows such as Jonah Goldberg who are highly critical of Trump.1
The result is that many neoconservatives and establishment conservatives—ranging from Eliot A. Cohen, a former adviser to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, to David Frum, author of the new book Trumpocracy, to Stuart Stevens, the campaign strategist for Mitt Romney in 2012—have vociferously united in their loathing for Trump. They see him as a sinister mountebank who is destroying true conservative principles from within the GOP and who, incidentally, threatens to exile them to the political wilderness.
A battle for the future of conservatism is in effect being fought between these anti-Trump conservatives and pro-Trump conservatives associated with the Claremont Institute, a right-wing think tank based in California, which for years has been discussing the Federalist Papers, the dangers of progressivism, and, above all, the wisdom of the German exile and political philosopher Leo Strauss, who taught for several decades at the University of Chicago. For some both in and out of government, the Trump presidency is a deliverance—or at least offers tantalizing promises of an audacious new conservative era in domestic and foreign policy.
In late October, on a sunny Saturday afternoon, I got a glimpse of this optimism at a gathering of about fifty fellows of the Claremont Institute. The occasion for this alumni retreat at a private club in Georgetown was the publication of a book called The Political Theory of the American Founding by Thomas G. West, a former student of Strauss who taught for years at the University of Dallas before heading to the conservative Hillsdale College in Michigan. The gathering included a number of people either serving in the Trump administration or sympathetic to it. These conservative revivalists had come to discuss a possible restoration of the old American republic as well as to celebrate the Trump presidency.
Until recently, the Claremont Institute had been seen as an outlier in the conservative firmament. For decades, the guiding spirit of Claremont was a brilliant and querulous scholar named Harry Jaffa. In 1964, Jaffa, who had been Strauss’s first disciple at the New School for Social Research and had followed him to Chicago as a student, worked on Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign as a speechwriter, and soon after joined Claremont McKenna College in California. There he cultivated what became known as “West Coast Straussians,” in opposition to “East Coast Straussians.”
His main antagonist was Allan Bloom at the University of Chicago, author of the 1987 best seller The Closing of the American Mind. A number of Bloom’s students went on to become prominent academics or government officials, including Paul Wolfowitz and Francis Fukuyama. Other East Coast Straussians include William Kristol, who studied with the conservative political philosopher Harvey C. Mansfield at Harvard, and Yuval Levin, the editor of National Affairs and the champion of the “reformicon” movement, which attempts to appeal to the middle class rather than focusing on tax cuts for the wealthy.
Over the past few decades, the East Coast Straussians have enjoyed an easy dominance over their West Coast brethren. In the Trump era, however, Claremont’s reputation has been growing, as has its influence. Julius Krein, a former Claremont fellow who founded the journal American Affairs to promote a Trump agenda but promptly denounced the president after the violence in Charlottesville, told me, “The Claremonters have managed to convince themselves that Trump equals West Coast Straussianism. It’s a fascinating group. They’re enjoying their moment.”4
For decades, Claremont acolytes have insisted that Washington return the country to its founding principles. In their view these principles have been debased by over a century of big government and loose constitutional interpretation, beginning with Woodrow Wilson. Since then, progressive thought and policies have steadily eviscerated the moral and legal foundations of America, creating a dangerous class of shiftless idlers and illegal immigrants sponging off the federal government. A muscular foreign policy, a crackdown on immigration, a rollback of the welfare state, an end to political correctness, and, above all, an appreciation of the titans who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are essential to a fresh era of national greatness.
One of the early signs of Claremont’s fealty to Trump came with an open letter touting him as “the candidate most likely to restore the promise of America,” signed on September 28, 2016, by more than 125 scholars and public figures. Another was Claremont’s publication on its Claremont Review of Books website of an essay called “The Flight 93 Election,” whose author was listed as Publius Decius Mus. The essay argued that the presidential election was the political equivalent of Flight 93—“Charge the cockpit [i.e., support Trump over Hillary Clinton],” it warned, “or you die.” After Rush Limbaugh hailed it in September 2016 on his radio show, the essay became a cause célèbre among Trump supporters. It had in fact been written by Michael Anton, a graduate of Claremont Graduate University who went on to a career on the East Coast. He was a speechwriter for George W. Bush’s National Security Council, among other things.
More recently, Chris Buskirk, a former Claremont fellow and the author of American Greatness: How Conservatism, Inc. Missed the 2016 Election and What the D.C. Establishment Needs to Learn, has overseen the metamorphosis of the defunct Journal of American Greatness into a new website called American Greatness. Buskirk ran an editorial on October 21 titled “How the State Department Is Undermining Trump’s Agenda.” It warns that leading officials are trying to sabotage an America First foreign policy. The culprits are said to include Brian Hook, a neoconservative who runs the Policy Planning Staff, and David Feith, an assistant to Hook and former Wall Street Journal editorial writer whose father is Douglas J. Feith, a promoter of the Iraq War in the Bush Defense Department.
At a gala dinner in February featuring Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito, the institute’s board chairman, Thomas D. Klingenstein, told some five hundred supporters, “Many Claremonsters [as they like to call themselves] have the ear of this administration and may help Trump take what he feels in his gut and migrate it to his head.” He may be right. Former Claremont fellows in the Trump administration include Michael Anton, now a senior national security official; Marc Short, the director of legislative affairs; Brian Callanan, the deputy general counsel of the Treasury Department; and Steven Stafford, the chief speechwriter for Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Ryan Williams, the president of the Claremont Institute, also cited to me the appointment of Neomi Rao, who spoke at a Claremont event just before the 2016 election, as a sign that the administration was committed to regulatory reform. This doesn’t mean that Claremont is setting administration policy. But it suggests that Claremont has made substantial inroads into the conservative movement by helping to create youthful cadres and by crystallizing the bellicose populist mood on the right.
The Claremont Institute’s house organ, the Claremont Review of Books, which describes itself as a quarterly review of politics and statesmanship and features conservative journalists and scholars, was termed the “bible of highbrow Trumpism” in a profile in The New York Times of its editor, Charles R. Kesler.5 Kesler, who is now a Senior Fellow at the institute in addition to editing its journal, has developed a liturgy centered on the belief that Woodrow Wilson created a voracious “administrative state” that led directly to the iniquities of the New Deal. Though Steve Bannon has popularized the epithet, it originated in the work of West Coast Straussians dating back as far as the 1970s.
“I think we’ve been pretty good talent spotters,” Kesler told me. This is not idle boasting. And it reaches outside of the administration, too. Some of the most prominent media activists on the right, including Mark Levin, the late Andrew Breitbart, and Dinesh D’Souza, have been fellows. Under Trump, Claremont’s reach has extended further—and higher. Prominent figures in and around the administration have attended Claremont’s seminars at one time or another. They include Arkansas senator Tom Cotton, a Mansfield student at Harvard who spent a year at Claremont upon graduation. Cotton is cosponsoring a bill to slash legal immigration, regularly talks to Trump, and is rumored to be a candidate for CIA director if Mike Pompeo should become secretary of state. Kesler also pointed to the popular radio commentator Laura Ingraham, who has just landed a show at Fox News in the coveted 10 PM slot. Her new book in praise of Trump, Billionaire at the Barricades, comes recommended by Patrick J. Buchanan, the godfather of Trumpism.
For many years, neoconservatives and establishment Republicans set the intellectual agenda for the right. They included Washington Post columnists George F. Will, Michael Gerson, and Charles Krauthammer; National Review writers such as Ramesh Ponnuru and Rich Lowry; former Weekly Standard editor William Kristol and contributors such as David Frum and Max Boot. These thinkers always viewed a return of the pre-war isolationist right with antipathy.6 Today neocons such as Boot often liken Trump to Charles Lindbergh or Mussolini and form the core of the NeverTrump movement.
Right at the beginning of the Claremont gathering in October, Ryan Williams attacked the neocons and established Washington conservatives in a lunchtime address. “I thought I’d take aim at our two largest conservative think tanks just across town,” he said, adding that he hoped the Heritage Foundation would “reflect intelligently on its reason for being and adjust accordingly in the coming months.”
But he reserved his ire for the American Enterprise Institute, noting that he had attended its annual dinner a few days earlier and was distressed by the condemnations of nationalism that he had heard. The notion that America should focus on helping others and on exporting its values to the rest of the globe, he said, was sheer tomfoolery: “I would like to suggest we have a more urgent task at home. We must focus, and with a sense of urgency, on saving free, republican, and limited governments at home. We have over the last hundred years been heading down the slippery slope of despotism—even if an often benign and administrative despotism.”
It was after lunch, however, that the real fireworks got going. The focus of the afternoon’s two panels was Thomas West’s book, The Political Theory of the American Founding. In it, West declares that the founders had no hesitation about promoting what he calls the moral laws of nature: “Government made use of divine revelation, rational insight, laws with coercive force, and promotion of a healthy ‘law of private censure’ in the minds of citizens.” He also asserts that the writings of the founders indicate that there is “no natural right to become a citizen of a society that refuses to accept you” and that “the right to discriminate is nothing more than the right to liberty itself.”
The second panel, which was titled “Can We Restore the Founders’ Theory and Practice Today?,” featured Michael Anton, who lauded West’s acumen. Anton stepped away from the lectern and began carving sine waves in the air as he talked about what he called “the cycle of regimes,” alluding to Plato, Polybius, and Leo Strauss’s Thoughts on Machiavelli. He insisted that the hedonism and decadence of America, coupled with previous immigration policies, might not only make it impossible to return to the founders’ vision of America but ultimately result in the collapse of the American government itself. The idea seemed to be that true American character—rough and ready—has been submerged underneath steady inundations of political correctness, illegal immigration, imperious judicial rulings, and a lax educational system. “In the name of diversity,” West declared, “you’re going to get crushed.” It almost seemed as though in their preoccupation with identity politics, the Claremont set has become a mirror image of the tenured radicals it likes to denounce. Maybe the Claremonters have become the new tenured radicals.
While Claremont has been strengthening its hold on the Trump administration, establishment figures have been strengthening their opposition, particularly in response to the recrudescence of nationalist sentiments that Trump has inspired. It began with Senator John McCain, who was awarded the Liberty Medal at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia on October 16. In his acceptance speech McCain took direct aim at Trump: “We live in a land made of ideals, not blood and soil,” he said. Two days later, former president George W. Bush gave a speech in New York, at an event for his institute, in which he condemned “nationalism distorted into nativism” and said that “the intensity of support for democracy itself has waned.”
But rolling back Trumpism is a tall order, at least at this point. It’s true that Republicans such as Senators Bob Corker and Jeff Flake have joined the attack, but neither is seeking reelection. Even the recent GOP defeats in state elections in Virginia and elsewhere aren’t sapping the ardor for Trump among his followers; rather, it’s sharpening the debate between the pro- and anti-Trump forces inside the GOP. The NeverTrumpers point to the president as an albatross around the neck of the GOP, while his adherents argue that Republicans fared poorly because they did not embrace him enough.
The neocons’ hold on the GOP was in any case never as secure as it appeared, and that prompted them to engage in a series of compromises. William Kristol worked as chief of staff for Vice President Dan Quayle during the George H.W. Bush administration and advertised himself, sotto voce, as “Quayle’s brain.” Next Kristol backed Sarah Palin, in retrospect a precursor of Trump. In the end, Kristol himself helped to dismantle the GOP’s early warning system about callow and incompetent candidates.
Lacking an electoral base in the GOP, the best the neocons could ever do was to attempt to perform a tutelary role. As long ago as August 2003, shortly after the Iraq invasion, Kristol’s father, Irving Kristol, the godfather of neoconservatism, observed in The Weekly Standard that “the historical task and political purpose of neoconservatism would seem to be this: to convert the Republican party, and American conservatism in general, against their respective wills, into a new kind of conservative politics suitable to governing a modern democracy.” What Kristol meant was that the GOP should forget about old school Republican strictures such as balancing the budget; rather, it should focus on nostrums such as supply-side economics that claimed tax cuts would more than pay for themselves. Add an interventionist foreign policy and you had a wholesale repudiation of the caution, if not outright isolationism, that earlier generations of GOP leaders had espoused.
Irving Kristol went on to say that Republican grandees such as Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Dwight Eisenhower, and Barry Goldwater should be “politely overlooked.” Conservatives weren’t supposed to be gloomy Gusses; the true heroes were TR, FDR, and Ronald Reagan.7 These were all presidents who exuded optimism about America’s future, in contrast to penny-pinching types like Coolidge or Goldwater.
Today, Kristol’s ebullient view of neocon influence on the GOP seems to belong to a vanished age. The neocons are starting to come full circle. Once upon a time they left the Democrats to become Republicans. Now they are looking askance at a GOP that is returning to an America First doctrine. William Kristol, himself now an elder, told me that in theory “maybe you do have a moment when a third party emerges, and the moderate wing of the Democratic party is as open to people like me as it was to people like my father. I’m very uncertain where we’ll even be a year from now.” It’s possible that Ohio governor John Kasich, who is reportedly mulling a presidential campaign as an independent in 2020, would be receptive to this prospect. Kristol and others could also back a primary challenge to Trump, perhaps by Senator Ben Sasse, who has been an outspoken critic of the president.
A turning point for Kristol came after the neo-Nazi march and violence in Charlottesville. He first thought that Republicans might reconsider their enthusiasm for Trump. It didn’t happen. Instead, the old right, once limited to “earnest ideologues” like Buchanan or the former libertarian congressman Ron Paul, had at last found in Trump “a demagogue who can sell” the program. Even Buchanan, Kristol told me, was more moderate than Trump: “Buchanan is more old-fashioned, in a more constitutional system of government way.”
But when it comes to congressional Republicans, he said, “They’re more determined to accommodate, they’ve internalized the sense that their fate is tied to Trump, or they’re intimidated by Trump.” Earlier that day Kristol had sent me an editorial he had coauthored in The Weekly Standard titled “The Surrender,” in which he wrote:
The great bulk of elected Republicans have surrendered to the forces of Donald J. Trump. And they didn’t even put up much of a fight. Has a hostile takeover of a historic institution ever been accomplished with less resistance? The flag of surrender went up before many blows were even landed.
If Kristol sounds embattled, Peter Wehner, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush and a fellow at the neocon-leaning Ethics and Public Policy Center, wants to go on the offensive. “The establishment has not really made an effort to fight back,” he told me in an interview. “I think the so-called establishment have been caught flatfooted. This is a battle for the soul of the GOP.” The view of Trump as indestructible, Wehner says, is bogus. “The idea that the fight is over and he’s won is premature.”
Wehner’s contribution to the resistance is a fifty-page document called “The Spirit of Liberty: At Home, In the World” that he cowrote with Thomas O. Melia, a fellow at the George W. Bush Institute. In his speech in New York, Bush drew on this document, which enunciates the neocon credo: Americans must “go forth in the world to lead the democracies with confidence and purpose.”
At the moment, Trump’s detractors in the conservative movement can do little more than engage in handwringing about what they have helped to bring about. Another apostate, the former radio show host Charles J. Sykes, observes in his new book, How the Right Lost Its Mind, that “perhaps even more cringeworthy has been the rise of a new class of pro-Trump ‘intellectuals’ who attempt to impose some coherence and substance on Trumpism. Often they strained to attribute to Trump an ideological lucidity that seems little more than a projection of their own wishful thinking.” For now, however, it is the pro-Trump intellectuals who are enjoying the spoils that were denied them for decades by the neocons. As I left the Claremont gathering in October, the assembled fellows were preparing for a gala dinner. For all the talk of decline that afternoon, the day’s events affirmed that when it comes to the right, it’s the pro-Trump intellectuals who appear to be rising.
- 1See Bari Weiss, “The Trump Debate Inside Conservative Citadels,” The New York Times, November 2, 2017. ↩
- 2See Jon Baskin, “The Academic Home of Trumpism,” Chronicle of Higher Education, March 17, 2017. ↩
- 3Sam Tanenhaus has noted that “in the fifties, Jaffa distilled Straussian textual analysis into a pioneering book, ‘Crisis of the House Divided,’ which ingeniously reframed the Lincoln-Douglas debates as a nineteenth century Platonic dialogue.” See “Rise of the Reactionaries,” The New Yorker, October 24, 2016. ↩
- 4See “I Voted For Trump. And I Sorely Regret It,” The New York Times, August 17, 2017. ↩
- 5Jennifer Schuessler, “‘Charge the Cockpit or You Die’: Behind an Incendiary Case for Trump,” The New York Times, February 20, 2017. ↩
- 6See Dan Himmelfarb, “Conservative Splits,” Commentary, May 1988. Also see David Frum, “Unpatriotic Conservatives,” National Review, March 25, 2003. ↩
- 7Irving Kristol, “The Neoconservative Persuasion”