A Reply to Ken Masugi

Ken Masugi’s response to my criticism of the Claremont Institute says many things, few if any, however, related to what I wrote. Readers of his response might be surprised to learn, for example, that I did not use the words “racism” or “racist.” They might also be surprised to learn that the phrase “the right to discriminate” is Tom West’s. Ken spends most of his response addressing my suggestion that Claremont, which opposed Trump before it supported him, changed its position cynically as Trump won primaries. In all that he wrote about this, Ken neglected to mention that I reported Claremont’s claim that it acted prudently. Yet, he himself supplies evidence to support the suggestion of a cynical turn. Ken reports that it was the success and notoriety of the Journal of American Greatness that induced Claremont to support Trump. JAG was notorious, however, and gaining influence at the expense of Claremont, because Trump was winning primaries. Ken thus proves my point.

As I suggested in my post, however, whether the Institute acted prudently or cynically ultimately depends on its understanding of American politics. We need to know what the Institute thinks is good for America and how it hopes to achieve that good if we are to decide whether it is acting prudently and whether Americans should follow its advice. Ken is right about the key issues in this regard, although not about their avatar, when he writes “Trump is the real defender of the principle of equality and the rule of law and constitutionalism.” 

I used three recent writings of people associated with the Institute to display how it now understands American politics. An article published in the Claremont Review of Books in 2019 by Christopher DeMuth argued that nationalism, Trumpism, and conservatism should be thought of as one, because the successful nation-state “respects and builds upon the parochial loyalties of its constituent tribes of community, locality, and ethnic, racial, and religious identity.” 

In a book published in 2020, Christopher Caldwell, a senior fellow at the Institute, provided a history of American politics since the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that explained what made Trump possible and necessary. Caldwell’s account turns on the fact that the Civil Rights Act outlawed the kind of discrimination that allowed DeMuth’s ethnic, racial, and religious tribes to flourish. This discrimination, he implied, had made America great. Finally, I cited Tom West’s recent book on the founding, which repudiates the understanding of American principles as liberal and argues explicitly for a natural right to discriminate. In brief, West, a Claremont Institute board member, offered a principled argument to justify repairing the damage Caldwell claimed to have documented historically. DeMuth and the Institute, in turn, are attempting to accomplish that repair by supporting Trumpism and repudiating liberalism, even, and especially, the liberal conservatism of Ronald Reagan, Abraham Lincoln, and Harry Jaffa.

Claremont argues that American greatness requires a less liberal, more tribal America. Before we assess that claim, we should ask how Claremont thinks such an illiberal America might be brought about. Ken speaks of the rule of law and constitutionalism. Yet, Ken has associated himself with the Claremont view that constitutionalism “is no longer meaningful in our politics” because progressives replaced the constitution with the rule of the administrative state, with a bureaucracy of experts. If that is so, then in a fundamental sense the rule of law, as an expression of the will of the American people, is no longer possible. Administrative experts turn the general, even vague, wishes of Congress into the rules and regulations that govern Americans.  

If constitutionalism and the rule of law really do not exist in American politics, then anarchy or authoritarianism is the only alternative. In his response to his critics, Michael Anton repudiated as a “malicious lie” the leftist claim that he or conservatives are authoritarians. What he referred to as a lie, however, was the claim that conservatives were responsible for our authoritarian politics. It was the Left, argued Anton, that had changed American politics so that all that was possible was post-constitutional authoritarianism. A recent post on the American Mind repeated the claim of the Left’s responsibility. Still, that is where we were, according to Anton, or one election away from it. 

What does it mean to live in a post-constitutional or authoritarian age? It means that if you lose an election, you lose your rights, and therefore everything else you hold dear. It may take a few years, but it will happen. Anton wrote that he could not “think of a single amendment among the Bill of Rights that is not routinely violated—with the acquiescence and approval of the Left.” If the Left holds power our rights are not safe. (In his response, Ken wrote that the rise of the administrative state is not only the moral equivalent of slavery, but its actual one as well.) And according to Anton, the Left will hold power indefinitely, because it has or soon will have, thanks to immigration, a permanent majority. 

Thus, Anton appears to want those who value freedom and human decency to conclude that electoral politics is useless. You might engage in such politics in hopes of somehow gaining power, but elections and the other trappings of self-government are not to be respected or taken seriously. Since most people do not understand this, one must pretend to take them seriously. But it’s a pretense; remember, self-government, ruling and being ruled in turn, is no longer possible. If somehow an election puts conservatives in power, they are justified in holding on to that power however they can, since the other side is a mortal danger and does not itself believe in self-government anymore. If they lose a governor’s race, they cry “voter suppression!” A memo proposing pseudo-constitutional means to overturn the results of an election conservatives lose makes perfect sense in this view. After all, we live in a post-constitutional age, so why not skirt the Constitution? Holding strictly to constitutional norms that the Left abandoned long ago is foolish. This is especially so when those who voted for the winner are not real Americans.

The Institute appears to be arguing and working for an authoritarian counter to the Left’s authoritarianism. Certainly, neither the Institute nor any of its various associates says this openly. Why would they? But “when we see a lot of framed timbers, different portions of which we know have been gotten out at different times and places and by different workmen . . . and when we see these timbers joined together . . . we find it impossible not to believe that . . . all worked upon a common plan.” If they don’t mean what they seem to be saying, then why speak so irresponsibly?

When those associated with the Claremont Institute speak of Trump supporting the rule of law and constitutionalism, anyone who cares about the republic and pays attention to all the other things the Institute and its associates are saying and doing is justified in dismissing that claim. What the Claremonters seem to mean, to borrow from one of their favorite authors, is that Trump or some future figure will be a “duke of dark corners,” who will use extra-legal (i.e. authoritarian) means to restore decency and constitutionalism in America, as Duke Vincentio did in the corrupt, dissolute, sybaritic Vienna of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure

Even those who agree with the Institute’s criticism of the contemporary Left can find much to disagree with in Claremont’s understanding of where we are and whither we are tending, as well as in its practical advice. But for now, let’s recall the purpose which the Institute’s counter-subversion of electoral politics is meant to serve. The Institute wants a less liberal, more tribal America. 

The issue here is the meaning of equality. In the book of Harry Jaffa’s essays that Ken helped edit, Jaffa argues that any deviation from the full force of the claim that all men are created equal is a step toward justifying slavery and thereby destroying self-government. By arguing for a natural right to discriminate, by arguing that there are grounds in nature to exclude people on principle from full political association because of their gender or skin color, West undermines the full force of the statement that all men are created equal. Therefore, even if Claremont’s analysis of our current political situation were correct, its justification of temporary “restorative” authoritarianism would be in service, not of restored self-government, but of slavery, of the very condition Ken claims the Left has imposed on us. Temporary authoritarianism would become permanent.

Even if—especially if—one finds the Left’s program appalling, one has no reason to find the Claremont alternative any less so.

About David Tucker

David Tucker is a Senior Fellow at the Ashbrook Center. The views expressed here are his alone.

Photo: iStock/Getty Images

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