Is Discrimination Racist?

Of all the recent attacks on the Claremont Institute, the one to take most seriously is by an old friend of the Institute (and of mine), David Tucker, who is of its founding generation. Unlike many of the other recent attacks, which are maddeningly stupid, Tucker actually knows and admires the Institute and its noble and wise purposes. He is, moreover, a patriot, a bluegrass musician, and a scholar, having published books on Thomas Jefferson (the subject of his dissertation at Claremont Graduate School) and asymmetrical warfare. He served eight years at the Pentagon and taught for 15 years at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, following years in Africa and Paris in the foreign service. 

Tucker states the following truth about the Institute’s intellectual founder, Harry V. Jaffa: “. . . 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 (the self-evident truth that ‘all men are created equal’). 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 historicists in one way or another. 

Whatever we may disagree on, Tucker is right about Jaffa. Thus Tucker’s dissent is not a promotion of The Bulwark and other neo-con jobs. He is no East Coast Straussian, either. He is sui generis, in his career of scholarship, government service, and teaching.

But this laudatory paragraph was preceded by his opening assertion that “what happened at the Claremont Institute reveals what has happened to conservatism and American politics.” How anything with Jaffa as its head could be a parallel with the conservatism Jaffa always denounced is beyond me. His argument, it turns out, is that the Claremont Institute has not appreciated Jaffa enough! On this I am in strong agreement. It’s not that every other article in the Claremont Review of Books or the American Mind needs to be an interpretation of Jaffa, but the thrust of the Institute’s work should reflect his prudence, his theoretical and practical wisdom.

But then Tucker’s argument turns ugly pretty quickly. The essay is titled “The Right to Discriminate?”—indicating a focus on race. Moreover his argument, such as it is, is contrary to the history and obvious meaning of recent events and, besides, turns against Jaffa himself. 

In Tucker’s view, his imagined post-Jaffa Claremont Institute promotes Trump and thereby racism—all for the purpose of avoiding the well-deserved fate of the deceased Weekly Standard and the tottering National Review (both of which I enjoyed writing for, when they displayed better political sense). As Tucker’s and the conventional narrative would have it, but for a few exceptions (see below), the Institute shunned Trump through 2015 and most of 2016, only to turn to him in Michael Anton’s “Flight 93” essay, read in its entirety on air by Rush Limbaugh on Labor Day of 2016. That melted down the Claremont Institute’s website as the first pro-Trump essay it published. 

But this narrative gets some key facts wrong. First, it wasn’t Anton’s article that inaugurated pent-up, pro-Trump arguments on Claremont’s website. That honor belongs chiefly to John Marini, a paleo-Jaffasonian as it were, with his justification for Trump on July 16, 2016. 

In “Donald Trump and the American Crisis” Marini explained why America had become so desperate that it would turn to a reality-show star to shake sense into its corrupt politics. He was responding to Charles Kesler’s critical appreciation of Trump in the Spring 2016 issue of the Claremont Review of Books. There is no shortage of reasons to object to Donald Trump. They range from the aesthetic (that hair!) to the moral, political, and intellectual.” Yet Kesler’s prescient essay hit on numerous triumphs and failures of Trump’s presidency to come, including this moral necessity argument for supporting Trump: “It’s no coincidence that the two loudest, most consequential socio-political forces in America right now are Political Correctness and Donald Trump.”

In a preview of Anton’s “Flight 93” argument, Marini gently upbraided Kesler for not sufficiently appreciating the political crisis that brought Trump to the fore. In Trump’s improbable rise we finally see what the ruling class has been demanding before Obama and what we now see unleashed in Biden: “. . . what is central to politics and elections is the elevation of the status of personal and group identity to something approaching a new kind of civil religion.” Academic Dworkinian theory had become typical practice. The 19th century Democratic Party’s white supremacy has now become 21st-century white supine submission to black radicalism, an evil in itself and presaging worrisome retribution.

All the more should Trump’s appeal to American identity and a common good be applauded, as Marini explains:

Trump is not an academic or an intellectual. He seems to understand politics in an old-fashioned way. He appeals to the people as citizens and Americans, on the assumption that the people establish the legitimacy of parties and elections. He rejects the authority of the professionals and insists that he is interested in unifying the country. He claims to do so by appealing to a common good. Of course, it is not easy to appeal to a common good when so much of the country has come to understand itself in terms of its diversity. In such a time, an appeal to American citizenship is itself almost a revolutionary act, because it requires making a distinction between citizens and all others.

Is old-fashioned patriotism now to be dismissed as racist? Is Tucker living in the land of the “1619 Project”? 

Marini goes on, “This appeal is made difficult by the fact that the administrative state has fragmented, isolated, and infantilized the people by undermining or destroying the institutions of civil society. In these terms, the success of Trump’s campaign will depend upon the American people’s ability to still recognize the existence of a common or public good.” Perhaps it will take the woke Biden Administration to shock Americans into the founders’ thinking.

The fight in front of us is not actually about the new racism; it concerns the academic and political roots of the old racism, and whether we recognize them. “That is not surprising, because positivism and historicism had rejected any understanding of the meaning of a common good,” Marini writes. “Modern American politics had become intelligible only from the perspective of positivist social science and postmodern historicism or progressivism, both of which begin and end with interest-group diversity and individual autonomy.” Do not mistake arguments for diversity and multiculturalism for benign acceptance. They hide a seething malevolence.

Evidently, this high-minded understanding of Trump as an enemy of the political expressions of “positivist social science and postmodern historicism or progressivism” is what Tucker describes as an embrace of racism.

Tucker goes on to defame an essay by Christopher DeMuth in the CRB, as well as Christopher Caldwell’s candid Age of Entitlement as examples of “white nationalism” and “white tribalism.” He claims the Claremont response to “black, female, and gay tribalism” is “a newly declared right to discriminate.” 

But why is this right, subsumed under personal liberty and so scandalizing to Tucker, not an expression of natural right? What about Portia’s rejection of the Prince of Morocco? Should that be legally actionable? Or societally banned?

Of course, Harry Jaffa had long assailed racial preferences and identity politics and the scholarship behind it as a form of racism, for they make natural right unintelligible, as much as “gender fluidity.” And Jaffa himself wrote speeches for Goldwater and supported paleocon Mel Bradford as Ronald Reagan’s chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The principle of equality as the basis for liberty demands stern defenses.

Finally, the other great event Tucker omits is that flash of brilliance, the Journal of American Greatness, a predecessor of this site and its Center for American Greatness. Among others, Michael Anton as Publius Decius Mus wrote penetrating and frequently hilarious essays. Its first post appeared in February 2016 and the website shut itself down four months later. Both the New Yorker on the Left and Peggy Noonan on the Right paid heed to it. Marini wrote for it under the pseudonym, “Cato the Elder.”

The energy and intellectual firepower of JAG competed with official Claremont’s less enthusiastic regard for “Trumpism.” If Claremont reacted in competition it was not out of Hobbesian fear of the fate of the Weekly Standard but rather the Aristotelian admiration of the brilliance of JAG.

Finally, I point to a few pieces I contributed to Claremont that preceded even Kesler and Marini’s laudable essays. On January 25, Claremont Review digital published my defense of Trump’s non-criticism of the notorious ethnic Japanese relocation during World War II. In my own journey from NeverTrump to Trump as champion of the American people, these articles may explain the logic of many conservatives and moderates and those seeking genuine change.

Perhaps this counts as support for racism, in Tucker’s view. Next I wrote an article making the case for Trump that appeared March 22, 2016 at RealClearPolitics. I had derived my arguments about borders, trade, wars, and political honesty from reading JAG, and I identified myself as ”a Senior Fellow at The Claremont Institute. These views are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Claremont Institute.” The disclaimer was unbidden. These defenses of Trump reflected attitudes among others associated with the Institute, including its trustees.

For some reason, Tucker throws in “gender” alongside the racism charge. He asks “Is there a right to discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity, or gender?” But isn’t that the wrong question to pose here? By “discriminate,” doesn’t he simply mean “choose”? Does a man ”discriminate” on the basis of gender when he marries a woman? A woman of a particular race or religion? 

The more political approach Marini poses for these types of issues is the right question to ask about American identity. Thus immigration policies that reinforce a political identity that makes invidious discrimination less likely are in keeping with the Declaration, and as well Alexander Hamilton’s sentiments in Federalist 11 about an America that would teach an arrogant Europe about assuming its superiority over America, Africa, or Asia. It is a better story that rivals the musical’s. 

On “white identity politics,” which is but another form of Progressivism, Tucker is correct that Progressive intellectuals were racists, committed and scholarly ones at that. In fact, the first presidents of the American Political Science Association all held these dubious views. But this is part of their historicism, which preaches the elevated status of further developed human beings over lesser ones. Tucker’s attempt to defend the “principle of essential human equality” as the best defender of freedom fails, because he doesn’t see that equality is actually threatened by latter-day Progressive notions of “equity” and paeans to George Floyd. Isn’t “essential human equality” about self-government? About not being enslaved? And isn’t the rise of the administrative state not only the moral equivalent of slavery but its actual one as well?

What Trump policies or attitudes does Tucker insist support racism? Favorable words for Confederate statues? But do those statues honor the justice of that cause or more their particular virtues, such as courage? The so-called Muslim ban? Do we want to bring in zealots who believe they have a religious obligation to kill those who convert out of Islam? The border wall? Even one with a “beautiful door” in it? Don’t we now see the foolishness in tearing down what little wall we have? As Trump stated plainly, without a border we don’t have a nation. Of course borders, the rule of law, the rules of grammar, and much else all discriminate. Such discrimination is not, in and of itself, a bad thing.

In all of this it is clear that Trump is the real defender of the principle of equality and the rule of law and constitutionalism. Biden and the Democratic Party are their enemies. Take Trump’s official speeches and his results and goals on trade, immigration, foreign policy, and American greatness and his real moderation becomes self-evident.

My personal reaction to alleged racism on the part of Trumpists is to compare them with Biden’s rhetoric about anti-Asian racism. Why does he state the problem, such as it is, in terms that disguise the perpetrators, the largest proportion of which are African-American? (And often enough, the violence comes from other Asians, who are a diverse group.) Biden’s denunciations of this violence never hint at this truth; it is all about shaming whites. No good can come out of such dishonesty and the anti-white racial demagoguery, which excuses the malefactors.

This odd understanding of Jaffa becomes even stranger in Tucker’s thoughtful review of the 2019 collection of Jaffa essays on his  “turn” from Crisis to New Birth of Freedom, which I co-edited with Edward Erler

In my reply to Tucker’s review, “Nationalism Is Not Enough,” I did emphasize a theme that does not come through in his critiques of Claremont and of Thomas West: The Civil Rights Movement’s plea for equality of rights soon turned against its natural rights foundation. And it became clear that the feminism that appropriated the civil rights revolution overthrew the authority of the Declaration, in the following way: “if public opinion no longer held that gender (sic) differences were natural, then it could no longer hold that any distinctions were natural.” This also explains why “Jaffa stoutly resisted such arguments [e.g., “for the acceptance of homosexuality”], referring to homosexuals as sodomites.” Thus, he saw that a moral revolution [in civil rights] he initially favored and advanced as an affirmation of “equality” actually rejected equality as the foundation for political legitimacy and instead came to undermine, in Tucker’s elegant explanation, “the authority of both reason and revelation, eroding the ground of civic friendship.”

And, sadly, “This realization explains why Jaffa came to treat old friends and benefactors as enemies.”

Finally, I feel obligated to add that Tucker used his Ashbrook Center identity when he published his review of the Jaffa book. His other work, which I challenge here, cites his Peoria Project identity. He has benefited the Ashbrook Center enormously with his leadership and management. His work with our friend Peter Schramm, who played vital roles in both that organization and the Claremont Institute, is to be lauded. It is unfortunate that these differences could not be worked out through discussions with our departed and common friend.  

About Ken Masugi

Ken Masugi, Ph.D., is a distinguished fellow of the Center for American Greatness and a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute. He has been a speechwriter for two cabinet members, and a special assistant for Clarence Thomas when he was chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Masugi is co-author, editor, or co-editor of 10 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.

Photo: Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

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