Beneath the Claremont Institute’s turn to Trumpism lie yet more troubling turns
Why should we care about a remote think tank of which most people know nothing? Because what happened at the Claremont Institute reveals what has happened to conservatism and American politics.
The Institute arose in the 1980s out of the teaching of Harry Jaffa, who in his remarkable Crisis of the House Divided (1959) gave American politics a rational ground by resurrecting Abraham Lincoln’s reputation as the single greatest theoretical and practical defender of the claim that “all men are created equal.” Then a Democrat, Jaffa became a conservative Republican in the 1960s, not because he changed his views, as he explained, but because the Democratic party moved left. So it happened that in giving American politics a rational ground he gave conservatism in America that same place to stand, rooted in the most American principle of all. This distinguished Jaffa’s (and originally the Institute’s) conservatism from that of traditionalists (including neo-confederates), neo-conservatives, mere libertarians, and others. According to Jaffa, they were all historicist in one way or another.
When Trump began his campaign for president the Institute initially rejected his political program. Trump was no Lincoln, not even a Ford, to borrow a former president’s self-deprecating self-description. The Institute declined to publish an article defending Trump by Michael Anton in their flagship journal, The Claremont Review of Books. As Trump won primaries and his popularity grew, however, the Institute discovered a strange new respect for Trump. It eventually published Anton’s piece, “The Flight 93 Election,” in September 2016. Rush Limbaugh subsequently read large portions of it on his show. The Institute began to glow with pleasure at its unaccustomed celebrity. After Trump’s election, journalists seeking to make sense of what had happened turned to the Institute. The Institute was happy to be known as the intellectual backbone of Trumpism.
One could dismiss the transformation of the Institute from the heart of “rational” conservatism to the backbone of Trumpism as a cynical maneuver intended to prevent the Claremont Review of Books and the Institute itself from suffering the fate that later befell National Review and The Weekly Standard, which badly hurt themselves (the latter disappeared) by their principled opposition to Trump. What the Institute did was cynical (though its defenders claim it was prudent), but there was more involved than mere cynicism. As articles in its Review and by its Fellows show, the Institute had an argument to make.
Those trying to give some substance to Trumpism settled on using the term “conservative nationalism” to distinguish it from the dead consensus of the old Reaganite conservatism, which was, according to the “nationalists,” too internationalist, too committed to free trade, immigration, and other forms of free exchange across borders. In 2019, Christopher DeMuth published “Trumpism, Nationalism, and Conservatism” in the Claremont Review of Books. DeMuth claimed that conservative nationalism was the inner truth of Trumpism. He also insisted that Trump was not a white nationalist, and that conservative nationalism was not white nationalism. As for Trump, this is almost certainly true, since to be a white nationalist would require understanding of and attachment to a
DeMuth wrote that the successful nation-state “respects and builds upon the parochial loyalties of its constituent tribes of community, locality, and ethnic, racial, and religious identity.” This statement prompts us to ask, What tribe is the principle constituent of the new conservative nationalism? Progressives privilege the disadvantaged or powerless—women, blacks, Hispanics, the variously gendered, etc. The old conservatism favored wealthy globalists, along with those who aspired to join them or had the skills to prosper in their world. Who is left? Whites, especially poor white males, the women who love them, and others, particularly some Hispanics, who do not like being classified as powerless victims. By a process of elimination, DeMuth’s account implied that conservative nationalism is white nationalism.
What DeMuth implied, Christopher Caldwell confirmed. Caldwell, a Senior Fellow at the Institute, argued in The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties (2020) that the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as interpreted by the courts, destroyed the right of Americans to discriminate among those who would join their clubs and patronize their businesses. When Americans had had this freedom, they had formed “subcommunities”—the “tribes” DeMuth valorized—organized on ethnic and religious identities: yeshivas, parochial schools, clubs, and lodges, along with their festivals, charitable enterprises, and more. Effective participation in American life, as well as a sense of belonging and dignity, resided in such subcommunities. The Civil Rights Act destroyed the social structure that gave meaning to the lives of many Americans. In the decades after the passage of the Act, this damage was compounded by Reaganite devotion to free trade and globalization. This further diminished the lives and prospects of many Americans, especially working-class white Americans. Caldwell chronicles their ongoing reaction: support for George Wallace, then Patrick Buchanan, and eventually Trump.
Conservative nationalism is in fact white tribalism. It is a response to black, female, and gay tribalism and is justified by a newly declared right to discriminate. But is there such a right? Yes, argued Thomas West, another Senior Fellow at the Institute, in The Political Theory of the American Founding (2017). West claimed to find a right to discriminate in one of the most fundamental principles in American politics: consent. Because humans are equal, subordination—that is, government—forms legitimately only by consent. But when forming a government we are in fact free, among all those who might be our fellow citizens, to choose the ones we prefer—to, in other words, discriminate. West concludes that “the right to discriminate is nothing more than the right to liberty itself.” (In the course of his book, West repudiates liberalism, and gratuitously repeats arguments for the intellectual inferiority of Africans and the political incapacity of women.)
Is West right? It is certainly true that without choice, there is no liberty, and that choice requires discriminating among alternatives. However, the issue is not discrimination but the grounds of discrimination. Is there a right to discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity, or gender?
On the premise of a state of nature and the requirement for consent, which West accepts, there is no such right. In identifying liberty and the right to discriminate, West repudiates Jaffa’s argument that both derive from the fundamental principle of human equality. Equality no more gives us a right to discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity, or gender than it gave Americans a right to consent to the enslavement of others. Consent to either discrimination or enslavement contradicts the equality upon which consent depends. (Elsewhere I offer a longer version of this argument.) By making consent and discrimination fundamental, West’s argument becomes a version of the argument for popular sovereignty Stephen Douglas made, which Jaffa, in Crisis of the House Divided, shows Lincoln had refuted.
West argues as he does to counter progressivism. As West notes in his book, and has subsequently detailed, modern progressivism is based on understanding equality as equal treatment (understood as equal outcomes). This “requires redistribution . . . not only to those who are disadvantaged but also to those at the top,” those who justify their power and profiteering by promoting redistribution to the disadvantaged. To fight this harmful interpretation of the claim that “all men are created equal,” West advances a contrary (and equally erroneous) interpretation of equality as creating a right to discriminate.
The irony in the current Claremont position is that its new version of equality makes the Institute indistinguishable from its progressive enemies. It advocates a (white) racial view of politics and thus another form of identity politics. In effect, it justifies whatever power and profit it has because it is the protector of the least advantaged: working-class whites.
The consequences of this agreement between the new left and the new right should concern all those who care for liberty. Harry Jaffa, the teacher West now repudiates, was notorious for his combative insistence that any deviation from the principle of equality opens the way to tyranny. In taking this position, Jaffa followed his great teacher, Abraham Lincoln, who understood that only by rejecting accidental differences among humans and maintaining unswerving devotion to the principle of essential human equality can we preserve freedom.
David Tucker is a Senior Fellow at the Ashbrook Center. He received his Ph.D. in history at the Claremont Graduate School. His most recent book is United States Special Operations Forces (Columbia University Press, 2020).