Decius Out of the Darkness: A Q&A with Michael Anton

Michael Anton takes questions from reporters in the West Wing.

The Huffington Post on Thursday published a story by foreign affairs reporter Jessica Schulberg highlighting the work of Michael Anton, also known as Publius Decius Mus. Headlined “Trump Aide Derided Islam, Immigration And Diversity, Embraced An Anti-Semitic Past,” Schulberg’s story examines Anton’s older writings and make some shocking claims about his view of the world, breathlessly reporting how he “promoted Trump’s anti-Islam, anti-immigration platform on fringe websites.” (Ahem.)

Then on Sunday, The Intercept published a piece by Peter Maass titled, “Dark Essays By White House Are the Intellectual Source Code of Trumpism.”

“Nobody in the administration has drawn up a real-time ideological blueprint to explain the intentional chaos of what’s happening under Trump,” writes Maass, “except, as it now turns out, Michael Anton, whose radical theories have been compared to those of a German philosopher named Carl Schmitt, who helped lay the legal foundations of the Nazi Party.”

Are these stories’ claims true? We asked our friend Michael, who was a senior contributing editor of American Greatness before taking a post with the National Security Council, to shed some light on the matter.

HuffPo and The Intercept basically say you’re an anti-semite, or something close to it. What do you say to that?

It’s completely outrageous but sadly typical of the slander culture perfected by the modern Left. They can’t debate ideas anymore and don’t even want to try. They just look for any way to connect their enemies—that’s what I am to them, an enemy—to some scurrilous person or outlook. Once that taint is on you, they then work to make it impossible to scrub out.

What’s especially risible about this is that I’m a Straussian. It’s metaphysically impossible to be an anti-Semitic Straussian. My great teacher, Harry Jaffa—a man I revere more than any other I’ve ever known—was Jewish. I will go to my grave with my two greatest intellectual influences, the two people who more than any others formed my mind, being Jewish. Anti-semite? Give me a break.

But that’s the modern Left for you. They will turn that around and say, “Oh that’s just the old ‘some of my best friends are Jewish’ line.” Which in my case, happens to be true. The point is, nothing you can say is considered a valid defense. Once they have the chance to smear you, they will do it and continue the smear because it serves their interests. The human damage that they cause, the destruction of reputations—they don’t care about that. Actually, they do care, but they see it as a positive. Enemies are to be destroyed by any means necessary.

Has your position on Iraq changed over the years and if so how and why?

It’s just plain that the 2003 invasion was a mistake. Not a crime. And no, I don’t believe the Bush administration lied about it. I was there and I supported it at the time, and I can say with absolute certainty that all of us, from the president on down, believed every word we said. It’s just insane to think that any president would knowingly invade a country, knowing that his claims for why the action would be necessary would be discredited by that very action! That would be like Geraldo Rivera knowing in advance there was nothing in Al Capone’s secret vault and still broadcasting the opening live anyway.

But the plain fact is that the action was a mistake. Given the aftermath and the outcome, I don’t see how it’s possible to argue otherwise. That said, I stand by prior arguments that I’ve made, that the surge was both the right thing to do and a strategic victory for the United States, and that the 2011 bugout was a colossal strategic mistake.

Please clarify what mean when you wrote the America First Committee had been “unfairly maligned.”

President Trump often used the phrase “America First” on the campaign trail and still uses it as president, including in his inaugural. For him, it obviously means something so simple and uncontroversial it’s almost tautological: the purpose of the American government is to serve the American people. Not foreign people, not the world’s people, the American people. That is the purpose of any and every government: to serve the people who enact and consent to that government.

Trump’s enemies try to make this into a big scandal because the phrase “America First” was the name of a famous committee in the late 1930s and early 1940s that wanted to keep the United States out of World War II. It was primarily an isolationist movement, but there were anti-semitic elements that supported it. What the Left has tried to do—with much success, unfortunately—is retcon the committee as primarily an anti-Jewish group when that’s not what it was. It’s classic guilt by association: here is this group that a lot of anti-semites supported, therefore the group was anti-semitic and anyone who says anything good about it is an anti-semite.

Now, I disagree with the America First committee’s isolationist stance. But that’s easy for me to do in hindsight. However, to the average American in 1940, it was not obvious why the United States should get involved in another European war. It took great strategic vision and foresight to see that clearly, and most just didn’t see it. FDR, who did see it, was very constrained in what he could do for the Allies before Pearl Harbor. Even after Pearl Harbor, absent Hitler’s mystifyingly idiotic declaration of war on the United States, public opinion probably would not have supported U.S. operations in Europe. In fact, in fighting the war, FDR prioritized the European theater over the Pacific against U.S. public opinion, and had to downplay the fact that he was doing so.

The point here is, the wish to stay out of World War II was the animating cause of the America First Committee and that wish was perfectly respectable and reasonable, if ultimately wrong-headed. That’s why I say it was unfairly maligned.

So what does “America First” mean in the current context?

It means prioritizing American interests in our foreign policy and the American people in our domestic policy. Which is what every state—at least every government that is acting as it should—tries to do.

This is such a “well, duh” statement and idea that the fact it would be super controversial shows how corrupt our intellectual discourse has become.

But there’s another layer here, too. There is now, and has been for some time, a broad consensus from the center-right all the way to the far left that America’s only legitimate role is to be a kind of savior of and refuge for the world. It’s not a country with citizens and a government that serves those citizens. It belongs to everyone. Everyone has a right to come here, work here, live here, reap America’s bounty. We have no legitimate parochial interests. Rather America exists for others. This standard does not seem to be held to any other country, although one sees it increasingly rising in Europe.

So Donald Trump’s forthright stance against that, insisting that this country is ours, belongs to us, and demands that we prioritize our own interests, sounds like the most horrible blasphemy against this universalist consensus. I think that explains so much of the freakout against his presidency and the travel executive order, for instance. People ask, “How can he do that? Doesn’t he realize that America belongs to the whole world?” And Trump’s response is: “Don’t be silly, of course it doesn’t. It’s ours and we must do what’s best for us.” No prominent leader has said that or acted on that in ages. So the reassertion of basic common sense sounds shocking.

What about the broad charge of “white nationalism”?

Just another lie/smear. Though I cop to “nationalism,” but I do wonder what is the difference between nationalism and patriotism? I am open to being educated on that point if someone wants to make a case why “nationalism” is so awful but “patriotism” is OK. If I am a nationalist, I am an American nationalist. I am also an American patriot and I don’t see the difference.

As for the “white” part, where do people get that? It’s just a convenient way to destroy and smear and not have to deal with the argument.

Actually, one of my great hopes for a Trump Administration and Trump economic policy is that he will build class solidarity among the working classes of all races. I think that would be good for the country and put salutary pressure on the political system. That sounds sort of Marxist of me, but I can live with that.

I know there are people who call themselves “white nationalists” but they strike me as a fringe. I don’t think “white nationalism” per se is actually possible or viable. The root of “nationalism” is “nation.” A race is not a nation. Nations come together and cohere in various ways. There is the French nation, the Chinese nation, the Navajo nation and so on. Nationalism exists on that basis, of “peoplehood” for lack of a better term. This goes back to the ancient distinction between friend and enemy, citizen and foreigner. This is the way humanity organizes itself and always has. Individual nations do not exist by nature but the impulse to form nations is natural. There will always be nations, but it has never been done on a racial basis—that is, by trying to unite an entire race into one nation—and I don’t think ever could be.

In any event, American nationalism is transracial because the American people are multiracial.

Do you really argue, as Schulberg asserts, that “immigration inevitably hurts the U.S.”?

Of course not. Immigration, like most policies, is contextual, tactical. There times and circumstances when it benefits the country and times when it doesn’t. Machiavelli lays out the case that early republican Rome could not have survived without massive immigration. But that also later, massive immigration into the empire was very bad for Rome.

The same is true in the United States. There have been times when immigration was an enormous net positive for the American people—that is, the people already here. And there have been times when it was not. My view is that we long ago passed the point of diminishing returns and high immigration is no longer a net benefit to the existing American citizenry.

What’s happened in the meantime is that immigration became something of an absolute for that center-right-to-far-left consensus. Immigration is good—full stop. It’s “who we are.” How dare you question that! Racist! And so forth.

The fact is that America benefited enormously from the Ellis Island wave—my ancestors were part of that—but also benefitted from the post World War I restrictions, which vastly aided and speeded assimilation and forged a coherent national identity out of these recent arrivals. Doing that again would do enormous good in my view.

What is the proper basis for this country—or any country—to decide its immigration policy?

The proper basis is what is best for the existing citizenry—period, full stop. It’s also important to note that the existing citizenry is entitled to base its judgement on whatever considerations it wants. That is to say, the existing citizenry is free to be “wrong” in the eyes of expert or elite opinion.

Expert and elite opinion definitely wants high immigration and views opposition as “inaccurate” or “in error” and therefore illegitimate. This is true not just of immigration but of a whole range of policies that a majority of ordinary citizens don’t want but that the elites want. The elites then make an elaborate case for why their preferences are “correct” and any opposition is based on simple ignorance, not a legitimate, political difference. This is a much larger topic, that I explored in my previous writings, but that’s the heart of administrative state rule. Your wishes don’t count. Right and wrong are replaced by correct and incorrect and political government by the people is replaced by administrative rule by experts.

Did the analogy of “The Flight 93 Election” mean to imply that Hillary Clinton was a terrorist, as Schulberg seems to think, or that continuing the policies of the progressive Left would continue to undermine self-government, that the country had reached a tipping point?

The latter, of course. I really don’t know how I could have made that any clearer. The country was on a bad course, in my view. Administrative state control was growing and the speed of that growth was accelerating. There is massive bipartisan support for administrative state rule. The major exception in the last generation was the Trump candidacy.

Now, my judgement may have been wrong that 2016 was the last chance to turn things around. Obviously I don’t think it was wrong or else I wouldn’t have written that but one can’t rule it out.

My objections to a Hillary Clinton presidency were explained in detail and there’s no need to repeat them here. They did not include any notion that she is a “terrorist.”

Bill Kristol of The Weekly Standard on Twitter compared you to Carl Schmitt. Explain the difference between the limited government constitutionalism you have advocated and Carl Schmitt’s defense of the Nazi Party.

Well, on the one hand I’m flattered because Schmitt was a brilliant man who had the respect of Leo Strauss. But, of course, that’s not what Bill meant. He meant to insinuate that I am a Nazi. I’ve known Bill for more than 20 years and always liked and respected him. That was about the lowest blow I’ve ever taken from a “friend,” however, and I don’t know what to make of it.

So, I read Concept of the Political once, in grad school, and that was a long time ago. I also read Heinrich Meier’s great book, Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss: The Hidden Dialogue, which shows how Strauss, in private correspondence, demonstrated to Schmitt the shortcomings of his argument and how Schmitt in response revised the book and made it better.

But in the end, Strauss is still right and Schmitt is still wrong. What Schmitt gets right is the irreducible nature of the friend-enemy distinction in politics. This is the Polemarchus argument in Book I of Plato’s Republic. Remember there are three initial definitions of justice and Socrates refutes them all. But of the three, only the middle one—help friends and harm enemies—survives in any form at all in the elucidation that follows in the rest of the dialogue.

As Strauss notes, the political community as such is closed. There is no possibility of a universal state, or certainly no possibility of one that is not a universal tyranny. He and Schmitt agree on this. Where they disagree is what gives the political—the state—its moral standing. Strauss identifies in Schmitt a kind of implicit indifference to this question. It doesn’t matter what the people agree on so long as they coalesce around something.

For Strauss—and the ancients, and the American founders—this is the vital question. What is the moral basis of the state? Only a government dedicated to just ends, to the good, is truly legitimate. The Declaration of Independence, for instance, refers to the “just powers” of government. Harry Jaffa always pointed students to the vital importance of that qualifier.  The government may not legitimately do anything it wants, for the same reason that the people cannot rightly do anything they want: because right and wrong, good and evil, just and unjust exist by nature.  And the proper role of government is promote the good and prevent, resist and mitigate the bad.

Limited, constitutional government is, in the modern context, the best form of government through which a free people can secure the human good. The good is real. It’s not just a preference. It’s higher than our preference. It’s our duty to seek the good. That’s what government properly does. Schmitt, in Strauss’s reading, doesn’t see that and that’s why he could take his core legitimate insight—the centrality of the political—and go so far off into the darkness. On this question, as on so many others, I am with Strauss.

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