Write what you know, goes the old adage. Tom Wolfe added the exhortation—which dispiritingly few have heeded—that once you’ve written what you know but want to keep writing anyway, go do research and write about what you learn.
But that’s a lot of work. Much easier just to wing it—the preferred method of 2016’s kidlet-pundits.
Jeet Heer’s “The Pro-Trump Intellectuals Who Want to Overthrow America” is truly a disgrace: dishonest and palpably written with malevolent intent. It is notable, though, as a crystal-clear example of the shamelessness of the modern Left. Like so many on the left today, Heer is so confident of his side’s dominance that he can point people to the very pieces he critiques and boldly claim they say what they manifestly do not say, without the slightest fear that his fan club will challenge him or even become aware of challenges made by others.
Heer cannot make even a weak case to justify his headline. (Maybe he could blame his editors at The New Republic for that? I know mine sometimes let me down!) He starts by tut-tutting Charles Kesler’s mention of the “Weimar problem.” Actually, I take slight issue with Kesler’s phraseology here—not the underlying concept of democratic drift and republican rot, but his reference to Weimar. Weimar was a very specific and unusual circumstance, which Kesler uses to signify a broader and deeper concept, namely the cycle of regimes. I do not believe that Weimar is a particularly apt example of the cycle. Weimar was not the end result of the final stage of a long cycle of regimes. Weimar was the product of imposing an inapt, unsuitable democratic regime on a people not fit for it. It was not the degeneration of republicanism over centuries, as we are seeing in the United States and Europe (though the English may finally have stood up). Weimar was in a way a precursor of the neo-con democracy agenda: an outside imposition. It failed within a dozen years. The cycle has never moved that fast. More fundamentally, the cycle presumes an internal dynamic and a lack of outside influence.
Heer of course raises none of these objections—not to suggest that any of them occurred to him. He just wants to point-and-sputter at Kesler for raising the possibility that republics eventually succumb to the cycle of regimes. Heer offers no argument as to why this possibility is untrue and outlandish. Heer’s shamelessness is on full display in the very first paragraph, where he claims that Kesler “implicitly argues” America is Weimer, a mere two sentences after quoting Kesler saying “America is not there yet.” How can anyone take this seriously?
East vs. West Rightly Understood
From there, Heer wanders into the fraught—but very interesting, to some of us!—question of East versus West Coast Straussianism, which he plainly does not understand. First he makes a simple error, easily corrected with a Google search, in saying that the East Coasters “have been” heavily oriented toward establishment Republicans. Actually, politically active Straussians from both camps have been working for establishment Republicans since at least the early 1980s. Heer further betrays his ignorance by calling Paul Wolfowitz a Straussian, when Wolfowitz himself does not so identify. Wolfowitz did his principle graduate work with Albert Wohlstetter, not Leo Strauss (from whom Wolfowitz took only three lecture courses), and in international relations, not political theory. These points may seem nit-picky, but they demonstrate Heer’s ignorance of his subject at every level. He’s no doubt just following—without checking into, or reading any of the rebuttals—the 2003-vintage smear, popularized by James Atlas and Shadia Drury, that Leo Strauss’s ideas were responsible for the Iraq war.
Heer sums up the East-West divide thus:
Is America … grounded in ancient philosophy or was the American founding … built on the low but solid ground of early modern philosophers like Hobbes and Locke? Does the survival of America depend on the virtue of the people, as West Coast Straussians believe, or in the maintenance of constitutional norms, as East Coast Straussians believe?
This has a surface plausibility but is basically wrong.
First, yes, the core or at least the original issue that spurred the divide was over the status of America specifically, but that dispute only pointed to a greater divide over the status of politics generally. For Strauss, the political and philosophic lives are the two highest answers to the fundamental question: How should I live? Strauss argues that the ancient philosophers preferred philosophy (naturally) but also understood that politics is not merely necessary—because philosophy is impossible absent the civilization and order that only sound politics can provide—but also carries an intrinsic dignity, especially for the multitude who are not philosophers. The East Coast school takes for granted that philosophy is the higher way of life and insists that all philosophic concern for politics is merely a matter of self-preservation. The West Coasters find this definitive closure of a question that Strauss and the ancients leave open—to prefer is not to foreclose—unwarranted by evidence and reason and thus ultimately un-philosophic.
Moving from the general to the particular, the West Coasters find much to love in actual politics, actual countries, actual regimes—above all the American regime, because it is their own, and because it has done more for the “safety and happiness” of its people than any regime in history. They see a regime that simultaneously protects freedom of thought (the utmost concern of the philosopher) and the freedoms and rights of the people as a great boon, to be supported in thought, word and deed. Whereas the East Coasters tend to look down on all actual regimes as matters not of serious concern to the true philosopher who, as such, busies himself only with the eternal. He may dabble in politics but he never adopts the life-and-death perspective of the citizen and statesman. Politics is inherently and always a lesser thing.
Heer veers closer to the truth when he attributes to the East Coast school the view that America is “built” on modern philosophy. Actually, their view (at its most extreme) is more radical than that: it is that America is nothing but modern philosophy, a theory set to flesh, Locke acted out on stage. Contra Heer, the West Coast school does not deny the obvious and unquestionable influence of early modern philosophy on the American Founding. But it does insist that America is more than a theory. And it provides evidence that the Founders were influenced by others beyond just Hobbes and Locke. Specifically, there were four intellectual-spiritual bases to the American Founding: ancient political philosophy, early modern political philosophy, the study of (ancient, medieval and modern) historical examples, and Christianity and the Bible.
Also contra Heer, virtue and constitutionalism are not either/or propositions. The two are inextricably intertwined. A virtuous people is better able to maintain constitutional norms which, if they are functioning properly, will help maintain virtue in the people. That’s the West Coast position, anyway. The East Coasters are more likely to say that America was founded on the theory that virtue could be replaced by incentives (“self-interest rightly understood”) backstopped by “institutions with teeth in them.”
‘Regime Change’ Calumny
All this is to say nothing of other important East-West divides, such as the question of whether “Athens and Jerusalem”—Strauss’s highest theme—is ultimately reducible to “philosophy versus poetry,” which, on the surface at least, appears to be an important but lesser theme.
Heer continues: the West Coast Straussians “justify their support for Trump by saying that America is in such deep trouble it needs regime change.” The only thing even partly true in that sentence is that, indeed, some West Coast Straussians have come out in support of Trump. But by no means all. Not even Angelo Codevilla, whom Heer breathlessly quotes in the lead-up to that extraordinarily false claim, has done so—which the very essay that Heer quotes makes abundantly clear. Did Heer finish it? Nor does Heer bother to note that the Claremont Institute—still the spiritual home of West Coast Straussianism—has published precisely two pro-Trump writers: John Marini and myself. Everyone else is either anti-, agnostic, or holding his nose.
Heer’s use of the phrase “regime change” pretty much confirms that everything he “knows” about Strauss he “learned” from the Iraq war brouhaha. It’s true that Strauss liked the word “regime,” because he thought it the best modern approximation of the Greek politeia, which signifies governing arrangements larger than a formal constitution while not encompassing the city (polis) or nation as a whole. But Strauss never used the phrase “regime change.” That was coined by someone in the Bush administration to justify the 2003 war. A war that, I believe, Strauss would have opposed.
Heer fairly characterizes Codevilla as saying that America has already undergone “regime change” of a sort, but he finds that claim outrageous. Really? Who could possibly doubt it? To repeat a point I made in an earlier essay, Progressives and liberals have been shouting for well over a century that the original American regime was flawed, flawed, flawed—racist, sexist, undemocratic; you know the list. The solution: change, change, change! Which they mostly accomplished. It’s funny how, when liberals talk about this, it’s always cited as one of liberalism’s greatest accomplishments. We replaced the rule of dead, white, slave-owning males with a Progressive, Living Constitution! But when anyone on the Right agrees—Yep, you sure did change the regime—the Left fulminates against us as dangerous radicals. This is gaslighting of a very high order.
Heer then says that Codevilla calls for more “regime change” for the United States. Well, sort of. If the regime used to be A, was changed to B, and someone says “Let’s go back to A,” I suppose that is a call for change. But it is more properly termed a wish for restoration, for a return to constitutional principle, to following what the clear meaning of the document actually says. In Heer’s fevered imagination, this would amount to “overthrowing the existing political order.” He even compares it to Southern secessionism. There is, of course, absolutely no likeness. The South sought to break the social compact—to replace ballots with bullets—over a legitimate, constitutional electoral loss. Codevilla is pining for a restoration of the constitutional order that the South tried, but failed, to overthrow—and that the Left succeeded at overthrowing. That’s anathema to Heer, as it is to all on the Left, and they can only demonize anyone who advocates for it. Hence, Codevilla—the Lincoln-loving, West Coast Straussian—is compared to a Confederate. That’s on top of taking a phrase coined to justify the violent overthrow of a foreign regime, and using it to describe a wish for a return to constitutional principle. The slanders of the modern Left pile thick and high.
I say “wish” because Codevilla doesn’t even call for a restoration! Not that he doesn’t want one—I assume he does—but he appears to think such hope is vain. The whole premise of his article is that the regime-change already achieved is likely irreversible, so what do we do now? Heer’s answer: Shut up and go along—or go away.
Strauss vs.Kojève, 2016 Edition
Heer more fully reveals his deep ignorance of all things Strauss when he asks, “Can anything be more absurd that linking Leo Strauss with Donald Trump?” He’s absolutely confident that the answer is “Of course not!” His reasoning hinges on personality to the exclusion of ideas. But once we turn to the latter, the answer must change.
Strauss’s most famous and consequential piece of public rhetoric was his debate with Kojève. I find no reason to believe that Heer ever read it. But others who I’m quite certain have, and who even quote from it, apparently miss the point most relevant to current circumstances. Having just re-read it yet again, I may say with absolute confidence that a core issue in that debate is identical to the core issue of the 2016 U.S. presidential election: globalism versus nationalism, universalism versus particularism, levelling similarity versus genuine diversity, the “universal and homogenous state” versus a heterogeneous community of separate and distinct nations. Strauss clearly sides with the latter. Which is to say, in the context of 2016, with Trump.
Of all the allegedly outrageous things I have written this year, I expect this to generate the most outrage. I await even a half-hearted attempt at refutation.
Smearing Jaffa, Butchering Equality
The essay culminates with yet another serious error. Heer tries to hang his argument on Harry Jaffa’s 1959 book Crisis of the House Divided, but instead of quoting it—or quoting from Jaffa at all—he quotes one of Jaffa’s sharpest critics. Willmoore Kendall was a brilliant man, and one of Jaffa’s best friends despite their considerable disagreements. But it would be only fair of Heer to let Jaffa speak for himself rather than give the last word on Abraham Lincoln to a neo-Confederate. Was there any chance Kendall was going to like that book?
That’s not the error, though; that’s merely bad manners. The error is that Heer apparently does not know that or how Jaffa’s thinking evolved on the differences between Lincoln and the Founders that he claimed in Crisis to have discerned. Beginning in the mid-1970s, Jaffa produced a series of writings—culminating in 2000’s A New Birth of Freedom—rethinking and correcting his original thesis. Jaffa concluded that Lincoln did not, after all, re-found the country (domestic “regime change” in Heer’s parlance). Instead he restored the Founders’ understanding to its rightful, preeminent place in American political life.
Heer’s last sentences make no sense at all, except as slander. He refers to Jaffa and (some of) his followers as “those who oppose equality.” Or does he mean Trump? The wording is not clear. In any event, to even suggest that about Harry V. Jaffa is risible. Equality was and is the lodestar of the man’s entire life, oeuvre and career. So much so that one can make a case that he tried to push equality too far, to make it carry too great a load. Not in the theoretical sense—his account on that score remains unassailable in my view—but in the practical, political sphere.
And what has Trump ever said or done to indicate an opposition to political equality? Heer makes no attempt to illustrate or explain. And so the piece concludes as disgracefully as it had begun.