Romancing Reactionaries: Andrew Sullivan, the Left, and Not Getting It

By | 2017-07-12T14:58:29+00:00 May 19th, 2017|
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Donald Trump is not being reasonable…. But, then, man does not live by reason alone, fortunately. Trump, who believes that excess can be a virtue, is as American as Manhattan’s skyline, which expresses the Republic’s erupting energies. He says the skyscraper is necessary because it is unnecessary. He believes architectural exuberance is good for us [and] he may have a point. Brashness, zest and elan are part of this country’s character.” George Will, as quoted in Donald Trump, The Art of the Deal, 1987 (2015), p. 341.

Trump prefaced that quotation with this observation: “My favorite reaction to the world’s tallest building came from columnist George Will. I’ve always liked Will, in part because he’s not afraid to challenge fashion.”

2016 saw political fashions overthrown not by the likes of George Will but instead by Donald J. Trump. The collateral damage included regard for conservative punditry as fostered by Will and other conservative intellectuals over the course of decades. In their place arose pro-Trump upstarts such as the short-lived but hugely influential Journal of American Greatness and its intellectual successors American Greatness and the journal American Affairs.

Recent commentary on this transformation comes from venerable pundit Andrew Sullivan, the former editor of The New Republic who is now writing at New York magazine. With a Ph.D. in government from Harvard (his dissertation was on conservative political theorist Michael Oakeshott) he is also a  prominent gay rights advocate. Unlike many other critics of Trump, Sullivan finds much to praise in recent pro-Trump writing, finding in their authors what the younger George Will appreciated as the “[b]rashness, zest and elan [that] are part of this country’s character.”

In “The Reactionary Temptation,” Sullivan focuses on three pro-Trump intellectuals, Charles Kesler, the editor of the Claremont Review of Books; Michael Anton, “the most interesting intellectual behind Trumpism”; and blogger Curtis Yarvin (a.k.a. Mencius Moldbug).

Rather than repeat his summary of their pro-Trump views, I will focus on the most interesting/provocative parts of his lengthy essay and in particular what he says about Kesler and Anton, whose work I have long admired and know better than that of Yarvin. In a review more about style or aesthetics than logos, Sullivan praises his subjects in the following manner,

I met Charles Kesler in March on an idyllic sunny day in Pasadena, California, where he lives. He’s a soft-spoken, thoughtful figure, with a shock of white hair and a bemused smile on his face.

What on earth was a professor like Kesler doing backing a man who has barely read a book in his life, seems to think Frederick Douglass is still alive, and who’d last less than a few seconds in a Kesler seminar? He smiled a little defensively….

Sullivan praises Kesler as one of a few “serious reactionary writers,” rooted in the ideas of Leo Strauss, who “are much more in tune with the current global mood than today’s conservatives, liberals, and progressives.”

The Claremont consensus (to put a name on this strain of thought) holds that beneath the veneer of constitutional democracy, we are actually governed by a soft despotism of permanent experts, bureaucrats, pundits, and academics who ignore the majority of the American people. This elite has encouraged a divisive social transformation of the country, has led us into disastrous wars, and has created a deepening economic crisis for the middle class. Anyone—anyone—who could challenge this elite’s power was therefore a godsend.

Sullivan here attempts to summarize the administrative state, apparently missing that it now practices hard as well as soft despotism, as we see today in targeting of conservatives by the IRS, heavy financial penalties for florists, bakers, and wedding planners with orthodox beliefs, and now severe consequences for supporters of Donald Trump (or even those who allow supposed supporters to gather and be heard).

Contrast this respect for the sober, talented Kesler, a “classic reactionary,” with Sullivan’s apparent eros for Kesler’s former graduate student Anton:

Anton is the most interesting intellectual behind Trumpism, today’s American version of reactionism. He’s the suave, credentialed foil to Steve Bannon’s rumpled autodidact, a Trump official who just published a paper on Machiavelli [and one on Xenophon, too] in an academic journal. I recently met him for dinner near the White House. An immensely tall man, of piercing intelligence and meticulous attire, Anton is a product of post-hippie California….

Sullivan sees daylight between Anton and his mentor Kesler: “The Claremont critique of the administrative state and the liberal elite does not appear to be enough for Anton. His aim is at what he calls, rather wickedly, “the Party of Davos,” or the “Davoisie.” This is the administrative state gone global.”

Anton is author of “The Flight 93 Election,” the single most important pro-Trump publication of 2016. Rush Limbaugh read the entire September 9 essay on his radio show. “Charge the cockpit or you die. You may die anyway. You—or the leader of your party—may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees. Except one: if you don’t try, death is certain.” This denunciation of Hillary Clinton and all she stands for is scarcely a positive case for Trump, but Anton has made positive arguments as well, as Sullivan notes:

The Davoisie were too busy lifting foreigners out of poverty and celebrating the latest disruptive tech invention to cast a glance toward, say, the beleaguered inhabitants of Kansas or Michigan. Anton admired Trump, he wrote last year, largely because “he’s single-handedly revived talking about government serving its own citizens first.”

Anton under the pseudonym Decius was also a major contributor to “a now-defunct group blog the Journal of American Greatness. The blog had a madcap feel to it, bristling with almost tongue-in-cheek assaults on the modern world, on stuffy career conservatives, and risible “social justice warriors.””

With a keen eye, Sullivan appreciates the surface. But he exaggerates in order to make his point, and he apparently ignores a lot of what he sees as he reports. As Sullivan’s own portrait reveals, Kesler is scarcely a pro-Trump enthusiast. In fact, the print issue of the Claremont Review of Books has never published what might be called a pro-Trump essay or review; notwithstanding Kesler’s valuable contributions to understanding Trump, they are at most anti-anti-Trump―with the laudable exception of Christopher Caldwell’s recent and brilliant “Sanctimony Cities.”

The most significant Claremont essay favorable to Trump was by John Marini, finally published in July 2016 on the Claremont Review’s less publicized (and somewhat difficult to access) website. While Marini is scarcely a famous public intellectual, he has had enormous influence in creating the “Claremont consensus” against the administrative state. Last year Justice Clarence Thomas described him (and me) as early mentors of his thinking on the American founding and political principles.

Anton as well has often acknowledged his influence. Among other writings, Marini followed up this article with an illuminating Hillsdale College-sponsored Constitution Day lecture/debate on the 2016 campaign.

Even by consulting only these sources (but there are others for the more ambitious student), one can draw from Marini a few points against Sullivan’s take on intellectual Trumpism.  Marini notes the left’s embrace of “identity politics”—thus privileging ethnic, racial, and gender identity groups (a criticism with which Sullivan might well be sympathetic). But Marini goes further than Sullivan seems to realize, expanding this criticism to cover the whole intellectual class as an interest group or faction. The media is the most visible face of the intelligentsia, but its roots are ultimately in the academy, the source of right as well as left intellectuals. Even more seriously, Marini observes that identity politics, by definition, cannot produce a common good; the partial goods are everything. The administrative state wants to will such a monster into being.

While there are differences among different academics or opinion journals, they are united in their opposition to Trump. Trump’s plain talk (or even crudity) and his rejection of political correctness encourages his supporters even as it condemns him in the eyes of intellectuals, including Sullivan.

One doesn’t need an elite education to appreciate Orwell’s saying about ideas so stupid that only an intellectual could believe them. Thus, the established right as well as the established left denounce as racist his support for a temporary Muslim immigration ban, his criticism of the Khans at the Democratic Convention, or his charge of bias against a “Mexican” judge. The elite cannot see this Trump as a supporter of the common good. They see someone ignoring their concerns and advice and instead impetuously defining political success in radically different terms than those that make them comfortable. Trump speaks as a builder and doer, not as a talker. He is a man who expects to see results, not ponderous statements of subtle complexity.  But truth to tell, haven’t intellectuals’ influence in politics—with some noble exceptions—been the cause of our major ills in foreign and domestic policy?

These Marini arguments are not ones Sullivan wants to confront. Needless to say, he would not spend any time on Marini’s wardrobe.

Instead, turning on “neo-reactionary” Kesler and Anton, Sullivan flees to the familiar last refuge of a leftist scoundrel: “Isn’t all this just code for white nationalism?” Long, long before leftist pundits seized on Claremont as the font of intellectual Trumpism it was really the font for the revival of the Declaration of Independence, led by the scholarship of Harry V. Jaffa.

Sullivan builds up intellectual Trumpism (the only kind of building he can do?) for the cat-like purpose of knocking it down, even quoting at length from Lincoln’s Temperance Address (to Jaffa students!) in frustration.

Only in a media world which reports on “Saturday Night Live sketches” can such fantasy be taken seriously.

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About the Author:

Ken Masugi
Ken Masugi, Ph.D., is a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute. He has been a speechwriter for two cabinet members, as well as for Clarence Thomas when he was chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Masugi is co-author, editor, or co-editor of seven books on American politics. He has taught at the U.S. Air Force Academy, where he was Olin Distinguished Visiting Professor; James Madison College of Michigan State University; the Ashbrook Center of Ashland University; and Princeton University.