A Peevish Review Misunderstands ‘Claremont Conservatism’

The Bulwark, which has indeed become the last-ditch defense of neoconservative anti-Trumpism and Republican establishmentarianism, published a review last month of Glenn Ellmers’ biography of his teacher Harry V. Jaffa. Looking at the remarks of the reviewer, Thomas Merrill, I had to wonder whether he was commenting on the same biography I had read and reviewed for Chronicles.  Although not exactly a Claremont groupie, I found nothing in Ellmers’ work that struck me as deficient. His study seemed exhaustive and although produced by someone who clearly looked up to his subject, this craftsman-like work was far more factual than adulatory. 

Merrill’s main gripe with the biography, which is stated at the beginning in bold letters, comes in the form of two questions: “Why was the Claremont crowd so distinctly susceptible to Trumpism? Does its intellectual hero bear some responsibility?” One is thereby given the impression that Ellmers never forthrightly deals with what, for The Bulwark’s editors, are ominous issues. Why were Jaffa’s students so deeply attracted to Trumpian populism that they became its most prominent spokesmen? Put another way: Why did Jaffa’s acolytes scorn the course charted by younger neoconservatives and East Coast Straussians, people it would seem who enjoy Merrill’s good will? Perhaps Merrill is disappointed that the Claremonters failed to join in the assault on “The Donald” as a political interloper who dared to challenge the Washington establishment? Although Ellmers does deal with the road from Jaffa to populism, that is not his main focus. Contrary to what Merrill intermittently states, Ellmers is writing a nuts-and-bolts study.   

According to Merrill, Ellmers should have focused more on Jaffa’s early writings, including Crisis of the House Divided. But Jaffa’s biographer certainly does not give short shrift to his most famous scholarly works. He not only discusses Jaffa’s major writings in detail but also provides information from notes that his teacher left behind about the direction of Jaffa’s work and personal relations. Ellmers’ attentiveness to detail is truly remarkable, even if this attentiveness does not always lead in the direction in which Merrill would like it to go.

Merrill correctly suggests that Jaffa and his students have always tended toward the Right on political questions, even if they did not move into a “Trump-sympathetic conservatism” until a few years ago. This tropism toward the Right amazed me even as a paleoconservative nonbeliever writing about the Straussians. Although I often agreed with East Coast Straussians on interpreting certain thinkers, I found myself usually in agreement with their West Coast rivals as soon as the discussion turned to contemporary politics. I typically attributed this to the predominance of devout Catholics among the West Coast Straussians, who seemed cosmologically different from the thinly disguised atheists from large urban centers who seemed more dominant among their East Coast competitors. Although himself Jewish, Jaffa clearly drew his followers from a different cultural environment than did his rivals.  And this may have had something to do with his notion of a sacred “tradition” going back to the ancients and culminating in the American founding and those who took their lead from it.  

Merrill devotes considerable space in his review to telling us about Jaffa’s quarrels with East Coast Straussians. He notes that Jaffa feuded legendarily with Harvey Mansfield about the meaning of the Declaration. Mansfield responded to this disagreement with the biting retort: “You are not even a loose cannon because a loose cannon does some of its harm, or may be all of it, by accident.” On Merrill goes, for several paragraphs, with the intent of letting us know that Jaffa had an uncontrollably belligerent personality and falsely interpreted every censure from other Straussians as a “criticism of his moral character.”

The problem with this critical observation, which Ellmers is scolded for not discussing, is that it ignores the fact that Jaffa was often on the receiving end of nasty attacks by his antagonists, above all from Mansfield and Walter Berns. For full disclosure: I myself was the victim of a gratuitous personal attack by Mansfield in the late 1980s, when I was being considered for a graduate professorship at a university that I prefer not to name. Mansfield’s broadside against me as a “controversialist” sounds remarkably similar to what he said about Jaffa. And yes, the remarks in both cases did pertain to “moral character.” I would also note that when I published a critical work on Strauss’ disciples in 2012, Claremonters offered only mild, polite criticism. East Coast Straussians by contrast commissioned a hit job placed in Perspectives on Political Science that seemed entirely personal and reprised defamatory attacks from 20y years earlier. So much for the supposedly superior manners of Harry Jaffa’s opponents.

Merrill’s cavils about Jaffa’s peccadillos sometimes left me cold. What difference did it make that Jaffa “papered over” his differences with Strauss, who treated Locke as a religious skeptic and philosophical materialist. We all know that Jaffa took a different approach to this natural rights thinker. Perhaps he was motivated by filial pietism when he played down exegetical differences with his master. His differing interpretation is a matter of record.

Although I won’t pretend to accept Jaffa’s attempt to equate the anti-natural rights thinking of John C. Calhoun and G.W.F. Hegel (on this point Merrill seems to get it right), East Coast Straussians strike me as having said even more questionable things. I recall walking into a Liberty Fund conference in the early 1990s and being surrounded by members of a clearly identifiable group who insisted that both Dante and Solzhenitsyn were religious skeptics. Before the conference was over, I learned that “political philosophers” just pretended to believe in a Supreme Being but were too smart to take such a notion seriously. Supposedly one had to interpret their esoteric meaning properly to grasp what the great minds were hiding about their own skepticism. Jaffa, as quoted by Ellmers, saw through this self-important pose. I also find no evidence that any of his East Coast Straussian critics whom Merrill cites wrote anything of the quality of Jaffa’s early writings.  

My differences with Merrill grew truly acute when I reached the last two paragraphs of his discussion. By then his remarks about Ellmers become unnecessarily condescending. We are told for example that Ellmers’ book “implicitly invites us to ask” whether Jaffa “would have supported Trump.” Further: “One need not agree with Jaffa to think that he deserves something different and better than becoming another identity marker.” Supposedly Ellmers misrepresented his mentor because in his “presentism” he is incapable of “having any distance from the present moment.” The review could have been posted without these undeserved sneers. 

Merrill also seems to lack self-awareness when he attaches to the pro-Trump Claremont people a political obsession that more fully characterizes the website for which he is writing. How is William Kristol, Bulwark’s editor-at-large and a worshipful former student of Mansfield, less politically obsessed than Jaffa or Ellmers? If Thomas Merrill maintains that Ellmers is celebrating Jaffa as a “patron saint or guru of a new conservative movement to do battle with the ‘woke’,” what are we to say about East Coast Straussians who have darted to the Left (and even far Left) in their blind hatred of the populist Right? This is true not only of the reborn Leftist Democrat Kristol but of longtime East Coast Straussian acquaintances of mine who are now infatuated with the woke Left. If the Claremont circle has moved into the populist camp, those whom Merrill treats more generously have lunged recklessly in the opposite direction. Or perhaps Merrill hasn’t noticed. 

About Paul Gottfried

Paul Edward Gottfried is the editor of Chronicles. An American paleoconservative philosopher, historian, and columnist, Gottfried is a former Horace Raffensperger Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, as well as a Guggenheim recipient.

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