2016 Election • America • American Conservatism • Americanism • Center for American Greatness • Conservatives • Defense of the West • Donald Trump • Greatness Agenda • Michael Anton • political philosophy • Post

What We Still Have to Lose

In September 2016, the Claremont Review of Books published Michael Anton’s essay, “The Flight 93 Election,” which became one of the most controversial and discussed essays of that most extraordinary election year. This month, Encounter Books published After the Flight 93 Election: The Vote that Saved America and What We Still Have to Lose. The book is a reconsideration of that argument and a look at where we go from here.

American Greatness is happy to publish, with kind permission of Encounter, an excerpt of this important book.

This volume contains two previously published essays, preceded by one new one. The central piece—“The Flight 93 Election”—is, so to speak, the reason we’re here. It was written in two days in August 2016 and published online by the Claremont Review of Books on September 5, 2016—Labor Day. At first, it received little notice, in line with my expectations. It was (somewhat infamously) published pseudonymously. I assumed—and still believe—that half the reason anyone reads anything is because of who wrote it. Conceal an author’s identity, lose half your potential readers. Second, those few who recognized my pseudonym (“Publius Decius Mus”) would have been readers of a by-then defunct blog, the Journal of American Greatness, to which I contributed under the nom de net “Decius.” Such readers, I further assumed, would consider (as I did) the new piece to be little more than a rehash of my old JAG posts.

Two days went by without a peep. Then on September 7, Rush Limbaugh read “The Flight 93 Election” in its entirety on the air. The CRB’s website instantly crashed—as did that of American Greatness (a successor of sorts to JAG), which published the piece concurrently with the CRB.

My intent in writing “The Flight 93 Election” was to impress upon those who consider themselves principled conservatives the urgency of the moment and the stakes of the 2016 election, not just for conservatism but for the country. I cannot say to what extent I succeeded, except to note that numerous people have contacted me in the intervening two years to tell me that the piece changed their vote or steeled their resolve. Many others have told me that it “woke them up” to the dangers that militant leftism poses to our country and our civilization. To all those who have thanked me for writing it and wished me well, I here return your thanks.

Of course, “The Flight 93 Election” was (and still is) attacked far more than praised. The substance of those attacks crystallized immediately as the piece gained fame, and I responded to them in a follow-up, entitled “Restatement on Flight 93,” published on the CRB website on September 13, 2016 (and here republished as the final part of this volume). While the criticism keeps coming, very little is beyond the scope of that initial response. Most of it echoes charges already made during the hectic first few days of the original essay’s viral notoriety.

Most, but not all. Over time, a deeper criticism (friendly and otherwise) has emerged. “The Flight 93 Election” is accused of being bereft of any positive vision—a vivid jeremiad, perhaps, but all nightmare, no dream.

In fact, “The Flight 93 Election” was inspired and informed by exactly such a positive vision—or, more precisely, by an account of America, how and why it is good, whence that goodness derives, and why it deserves to be conserved. I feared that this account—and a fortiori the underlying principles and institutions of which it gives account—were at grave risk from the relentless malevolence of their enemies and the fecklessness and errors of their supposed defenders. That fear has abated but little.

Defending America and the West is thought to be the province of “conservatism.” Yet the behavior of conservatism’s leading spokesmen in 2016 and beyond has cast significant doubt on whether it or they are capable of fulfilling that mission. Certainly, one must wonder what understanding of conservatism would make its adherents so willing to hand our country over to conservatism’s, and to America’s (at least as we have known her), avowed enemies.

In my view, the urgent task in September 2016 was to demonstrate the folly of that position and shine a spotlight on what we needed to prevent. Going forward, we will also need a clearer statement of what we are for—and a better awareness of the specific ways it is threatened. In this spirit of positivity, I here offer a “Pre-Statement on Flight 93.” This new essay is placed first for what Aristotle might call its “ontological priority.” Though written last (in August 2018, substantially revised in October), it comes first in the logical order of the argument.

Its first two-thirds say nothing I have not believed for at least two decades. But the last third reflects a growing alarm at the Left’s intensifying radicalization. I wrote the first draft after President Trump nominated Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court but before the Democrats and the Left launched their disgraceful calumnies against him, aiming not merely to sink his nomination but to destroy his good name. I always expect the Left to behave badly—very badly—but their treatment of this fine man shocked even me. “The Flight 93 Election” was and continues to be widely ridiculed for its alleged apocalypticism. The following passage struck many as particularly overwrought:

A Hillary presidency will be pedal-to-the-metal on the entire progressive-Left agenda, plus items few of us have yet imagined in our darkest moments. Nor is even that the worst. It will be coupled with a level of vindictive persecution against resistance and dissent hitherto seen in the supposedly liberal West only in the most “advanced” Scandinavian countries and the most leftist corners of Germany and England. We see this already in the censorship practiced by the Davoisie’s social media enablers; in the shameless propaganda tidal wave of the mainstream media; and in the personal destruction campaigns—operated through the former and aided by the latter—of the social justice warriors. We see it in Obama’s flagrant use of the IRS to torment political opponents, the gaslighting denial by the media, and the collective shrug by everyone else.

It’s absurd to assume that any of this would stop or slow—would do anything other than massively intensify— in a Hillary administration. It’s even more ridiculous to expect that hitherto useless conservative opposition would suddenly become effective. For two generations at least, the Left has been calling everyone to their right Nazis. This trend has accelerated exponentially in the last few years, helped along by some on the right who really do seem to merit—and even relish—the label. There is nothing the modern conservative fears more than being called “racist,” so alt-right pocket Nazis are manna from heaven for the Left. But also wholly unnecessary: sauce for the goose. The Left was calling us Nazis long before any pro-Trumpers tweeted Holocaust denial memes. And how does one deal with a Nazi—that is, with an enemy one is convinced intends your destruction? You don’t compromise with him or leave him alone. You crush him.

Given what the Left has done—and pledges to continue to do—to Justice Kavanaugh, and indeed to anyone who stands in the way of their lust for unchecked power, can anyone seriously argue that this assessment was wrong? To answer a different question that I’m still occasionally asked: no, I don’t regret a word.

These are dangerous times. The Left has made them so and insists on increasing the danger. Leftists hold virtually every commanding height in our society—financial, intellectual, educational, cultural, administrative—and yet they affect the posture of an oppressed and besieged “resistance.”

Nonsense. The real resistance is led by President Trump. It is resistance to the Left’s all-consuming drive for absolute power, its hostility to all American and Western norms—constitutional, moral, prudential—and its boundless destructive enmity. If I have been persuaded by any criticism of “The Flight 93 Election,” it is that I was ungenerous to Trump. The president stands clearly and firmly against these virulent attacks on America and firmly for the protection of life and liberty, and the promotion of the good life for the American people. Those are the core responsibilities of any American president. May President Trump continue to fulfill them until the end of his constitutionally won second term.

What the Kavanaugh affair has made clearer to me than ever is that the Left will not stop until all opposition is totally destroyed. The harm they do to people, institutions, mores, and traditions is, in their view, not regrettable though unavoidable collateral damage; it is rather an essential element of the project. It’s a bit rich to be accused by nihilists of lacking a positive vision. But such is life in 2018. To stand up for truth, morality, the good, the West, America, constitutionalism, and decency is to summon the furies.

America cannot long go on like this. Something’s gotta give, and something will. What that “something” will be depends in no small part on the actions of men and women of good character, good judgment, and goodwill. Among the most heartening things I’ve seen in my lifetime was the way the president, the Republican establishment, and most of the conservative movement stood together in the face of what a few took to calling “the Flight 93 Confirmation.” In that instance, justice was done. Many more tests are coming. Victory will require not just spirit and spine but the right arguments that explicate the right principles.

For all that lies ahead, let us fortify ourselves with a keener awareness of what we still have left to lose. Which is exactly what inspired me to write “The Flight 93 Election” in the first place.

America • American Conservatism • Americanism • Conservatives • Declaration of Independence • Michael Anton • Post

Social Compact, American Style

And the “debate” rages on. Mostly in nitpicky and unproductive directions. But a new attack by Robert Tracinski raises the grave and misunderstood question of the social compact, and so provides an opportunity to reorient ourselves around a true understanding of first principles.

But first, to Tracinski’s lesser points. He accuses me of “doctor[ing’]” a quote on the debate on the 14th Amendment without explaining why [I] previously failed to note the change in the quote or to explain it.”

In fact, I did note the change. That’s what brackets mean. If you see these two little symbols in a quote——it means that the words, letters, or punctuation marks within them do not appear in the quote exactly as written. I thought that everyone who knows how to read English knew this elementary rule of punctuation. Apparently not.

As for not “explain[ing]” the purpose of the change, the charge is laughable. I explained at great length the meaning of the change. Indeed, most of the criticism of my response has been along the lines of “TL;DR.” So it’s rich now to be accused of not explaining.

Tracinski references a “series of other quotes” that I cited but he does not analyze any of them. Instead, he simply accuses me of forcing on them an “idiosyncratic interpretation.” He does not explain what is “idiosyncratic” about demonstrating, through quotations, that plain words which all say the same thing also mean the same thing. We should not be surprised that he does not do so because it would be hard to do.

To demonstrate that I am wrong, one would have to show either that all the quotes I cited either do not mean what they plainly mean, or else show that they were superseded by some later, different understanding. Tracinski does not even attempt either of these tasks. Nor do any of the rest of my critics, as far as I have been able to find . . . Read the rest at the Claremont Institute.

America • Democrats • Greatness Agenda • Identity Politics • Immigration • Michael Anton • Post • Republicans • The Left • The Media

Why Do We Need More People in This Country, Anyway?

As Capitol Hill Republicans attempt for—what, the eighth? ninth?—time in the past two decades to jam through an amnesty that their voters have explicitly, loudly and repeatedly said they do not want, it’s worth asking a question that is rarely raised:

Does the United States—population 320 million and rising—need more people? If so, why?

To most ears, the question sounds blasphemous, which illustrates the rottenness of our immigration debate. Actually, “debate” is far too generous. One side has made sure that there is no debate. Good people want more immigration, and bad people object or raise questions. An inherently political issue has been effectively rendered religious, with the righteous on one side, sinners on the other.

Who Benefits?
The basic question remains. The pat answer over the past 20 years—“to do the jobs Americans just won’t do”—may seem to have some salience with a 3.9 percent official unemployment rate. But that only further raises the question. After at least two decades of wage stagnation and even decline, now that we’ve finally reached the nirvana of “full employment” (and who knows how long it will last), why not take advantage of this tight labor market to raise wages across the board? Especially for the working and middle classes that got nowhere or even lost ground during the housing, finance, and tech booms of recent years?

Just about everyone knows the answer: because the business community does not like tight labor markets and the concomitant necessity to raise wages. That’s bad for the bottom line. The solution? More workers! And so the Chamber of Commerce annex—a.k.a. Capitol Hill Republicans—dutifully attempt to do their donors’ bidding at the expense of their voters’ interests.

Economists in league with big business got good at torturing data to “show” that immigration benefits the economy. But as demonstrated by Harvard University’s George Borjas, one of the nation’s leading economists on the topic, immigration is a net economic benefit to immigrants and to their employers. To workers already here, not so much.

An Endless Influx of Cheap Labor
No matter, because the Democrats are no longer the party of labor. Back when they were—in the prelapsarian Clinton years—they sought tight labor markets precisely for their efficacy in boosting lower-end wages. But today’s Democrats are the party of high class, high tech, and high capital.

This glamour coalition is not big enough by itself to win elections. So the Left has hoodwinked some (but, as the 2016 election shows, by no means all) low-income voters into thinking that their interests align with those of Wall Street and Silicon Valley oligarchs.

It’s clear what the oligarchs get out of an endless influx of cheap labor. What the Democratic Party gets is also clear: more voters, and with them the tantalizing possibility of turning the country as irreversibly blue as Democratic policies have already done to New York, California, and many other states.

Democrats used to be coy about this. The 2002 blockbuster The Emerging Democratic Majority, by John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira, presented demographic change as an inevitability, not a deliberate plot to rig elections. But now, for the first time facing real pushback from those whose interests more immigration does not serve, the left is more open in exhorting their side and demonizing the other. Hence this year’s How Democracies Die, by Steven Levitsky, states openly that immigration favors Democrats, so the more the better. It also construes any opposition as (of course) racist.

The Foremost Consideration
Another argument for more people is to point to falling birthrates among the native-born. In fact, the United States remains near the top of birthrates in the developed world. Regardless, consider that immigration not only lowers wages but also raises housing prices by increasing demand and stresses public schools by adding non-English-speaking students. And as such factors worsen, research suggests that people are putting off marriage—which reduces birthrates.

Related is the claim that more people are necessary to solve our looming entitlement crisis. This quickly falls apart once you think it through. In 1967, future Nobel laureate Paul Samuelson favorably compared Social Security to a Ponzi scheme, arguing that it will be sustainable because younger people will always outnumber retirees. But does anyone really believe the United States—or any country—is capable of sustaining population growth without end? Somehow, the United States needs to find a way to meet its fiscal commitments without stuffing the land beyond the bursting point.

So again: Why do we need more people? For the extra traffic congestion? More crowded classrooms? Longer emergency room and Transportation Security Administration lines? Higher greenhouse-gas emissions?

We know how more immigration benefits big business and the Democratic Party. No one has yet convincingly explained how it benefits the American people as a whole. That’s the foremost consideration that should drive our immigration debate, and that’s what should determine our immigration policy.

This article first appeared in the Washington Post. Reprinted by permission.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

Michael Anton • Podcast

Michael Anton on a Fusionism for Our Time

Michael Anton was a senior contributing editor at American Greatness from July 2016 until January 2017 when he became deputy assistant to the president for strategic communications on the National Security Council. The author of the seminal essay about the 2016 election, “The Flight 93 Election,” Anton recently left the administration to return to political writing, as well as teaching at Hillsdale College’s Kirby Center in Washington, D.C., where he will be a fellow. Today he joined AG‘s publisher, Chris Buskirk, on the Seth and Chris Show to discuss the things he has learned from his time in the administration, what he thinks about the origins and the drift of the modern American conservative movement, and his thoughts on the direction of the country going forward. You can listen to the interview at the link below:

America • American Conservatism • Americanism • Conservatives • Deep State • Defense of the West • Donald Trump • Foreign Policy • Greatness Agenda • Michael Anton • Post • The Left • the Presidency • Trump White House

Michael Anton Addresses His Critics, Affirms Support for Trump

Michael Anton was a senior contributing editor of American Greatness from July 2016 until January 2017 when he became deputy assistant to the president for strategic communications on the National Security Council. Anton last week announced his plans to leave the administration and return to political writing, as well as teaching at Hillsdale College’s Kirby Center in Washington, D.C., where he will be a fellow.

Anton, of course, was the writer known as Publius Decius Mus in the lead up to the 2016 election. He wrote “The Flight 93 Election,” among a great many other things for this website.

This weekend, Anton sat down for an interview with the editors of American Greatness, Ben Boychuk, Chris Buskirk, and Julie Ponzi.

How does it feel to be on the outside?


Certainly, I will miss the president and my many friends in the administration. I never wore my country’s uniform, so take this with a grain of salt. But working in the White House is, I speculate, the nearest that an office job can come to producing the intense camaraderie described in books like Band of Brothers. I will always miss that.

But it’s exhausting. I lasted about four years the last time, when I was a lot younger, didn’t have kids, and the media environment was much simpler.

Plus, I am happy to be, in a sense, “going home” to old friends and my first love, which is the intellectual defense of the West, of America, and of our Constitution. Hillsdale College becomes more of an intellectual powerhouse every year, and I am overjoyed to become a part of it.

Larry Arnn says our mission is to “save the republic.” What could be a nobler endeavor than that?

Several unnamed critics said you “flipped” and became former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster’s “guy.” In other words, you abandoned the Trump base for McMaster. What do you say to that?

It’s both sad and hilarious that people who consider themselves President Trump’s biggest supporters would make this charge, because it’s really a huge insult to the president.

Think it through. The charge only makes sense if you remove agency and responsibility from the president. The implicit assumption is that a staff member, not the president, was making national security decisions throughout the past year. That the administration’s policies and decisions—which I explained and defended—were not the president’s, but were someone else’s. That’s nuts. And, as I said, it’s a huge insult and disservice to the commander-in-chief.

It’s also just not true. I was in the room for nearly every national security decision the president made for the first 15 months of the administration. And let me tell you, there is absolutely no doubt who is in command: President Donald J. Trump.

What’s behind this charge, anyway? How exactly did McMaster or I betray the president or his base? The complainers never say. The unspoken undercurrent seems to be that Trump promised some form of neo-isolationism and hasn’t delivered, because he has been beguiled by staff. But this is hogwash. I studied Donald Trump’s campaign speeches with care. As president, in foreign policy, he has acted exactly as he promised he would. Just last Friday night, the president ordered a strike on Syria. H.R. McMaster wasn’t there. That was all Trump. That action represents who he really is and what he really believes.

In any case, whatever the specific complaints may be, they would be criticisms of the president’s policies—no one else’s. So if we’re going to have that debate, I’ll be on President Trump’s side—as I was when I worked for him. My allegedly pro-Trump critics will have to argue openly against the president. I await that with bated breath.

My job was to communicate the president’s vision, his ideas, and his decisions. I was happy to explain his actions, both because I agreed with them (and still do), and because that was my job. It’s laughable to suggest that going out, explaining and defending the actual policies and decisions of President Trump was in any way disloyal.

I suspect what’s really behind the charge is some bitterness and disappointment on the part of some people who hoped I would misuse my position to knife McMaster (or others). I actively worked against those efforts and pushed back on reporters who came to me with vague and unsupported claims fishing for salacious stories. I’m proud of my record and am certain I did the right thing. The job is to support the president and those whom he chooses to serve him. And then, when he chooses someone else, support that person.

Remember, I was on the transition and came in with Mike Flynn. I was heartbroken by what happened to General Flynn. I am saddened in part that he never got a chance to show what he could have done for the president and for the country. He told a lot of inconvenient truths to the Obama Administration that officials didn’t want to hear, and they punished him for it. I think, given the chance, he could have corrected many mistakes and helped chart us on a better path.

I did not know General McMaster before he was hired, but several people I respect in the national security world immediately told me that they held him in high regard. Also, McMaster was recommended to the president by Senator Tom Cotton, who is—in the estimation of many of my friends, including me—a legislator who best understands the grave political and constitutional challenges facing our country.

So, yes, I supported McMaster, just as I had supported Flynn—and just as I would have supported anyone the president chose to replace Flynn. That’s the job. Criticizing me for that is, in effect, arguing that I should have been actively disloyal to the president’s National Security Advisor while serving as the NSC spokesman.

I can’t take that seriously and I don’t see how anyone could. How does being an internal backstabber against any member of the president’s team possibly help the president? If you feel strongly that someone you work with or for shouldn’t be there, give the president—in private—your candid advice. If he chooses not to follow it, then either salute and get in line or resign. Those are the only honorable courses.

But I don’t want to imply that I only supported McMaster because that was my job. I also think he is an outstanding strategic thinker who loyally served his boss and effectively served his country. The president praised McMaster throughout his tenure (and, admittedly, sometimes criticized him, too). When McMaster left, President Trump praised him for having done an “outstanding job.” I agree.

That same faction seems to be accusing you as a suspected leaker, in particular of the “DO NOT CONGRATULATE” warning over Putin. How do you respond to that?

This is slander pure and simple. It’s outrageous to be put in a position where you’re forced to deny a completely scurrilous charge. The people making this charge must have abysmally bad character. Seriously, what kind of person casually, falsely—and anonymously—accuses another person, by name, of a federal crime, without evidence? And in my case, there can be no evidence because I absolutely didn’t do it.

What interest could I possibly have had in doing this thing? My name and reputation will forever be linked to President Trump. So how could I possibly benefit from leaks intended to embarrass him? To believe this, you’d have to believe that I was secret mole all along. It’s preposterous.

Once again, I know where this is coming from. Throughout my tenure, a few not-very-credible media outlets—all of them believing themselves to be strongly pro-Trump—came to me with allegations that this person or that person was a leaker. It was always anonymously sourced and there was never any evidence. Now, we’re talking about people’s lives, careers, and reputations here. I take that very seriously even if certain of these “reporters” don’t.

So I pushed back. I challenged them for evidence. I asked them how they could possibly run such a story without proof? How can you in good conscience allege potentially defamatory things against someone that you don’t know are true?

The people trying to plant those stories appeared to have no problem with it, and no doubt some of the reporters resented me for pushing back and in some cases killing their stories. I suppose they’re peddling the same charge against me as a form of payback.

Apparently, NeverTrumpers are also levying this charge against me. I am, as ever, fortunate in my enemies.

Let me be clear here: that leak, and others, were outrageous, and betrayals not just of the president but also of the nation. The people responsible should be found and punished. For reasons I can’t go into, that’s much harder to do than many assume.

Is the Trump Administration being undermined by “holdovers”?

Democrats are the party of government, no question. Given that, any Republican Administration begins from a huge disadvantage. You’re taking over an apparatus of enormous size that has institutional interests of its own that diverge from the Republican agenda, and that is staffed largely, if not totally, by people who don’t agree with that agenda. This is why some of us have been sounding the alarm for years about the “administrative state.” It’s a problem so large as to be almost intractable.

The NSC has a very small budget for hiring personnel directly. This is by design. The NSC relies on agencies to send over people “on detail” for assignments that last typically one year, sometimes a bit longer. These “detailees” come from the military, the foreign service, the civil service, intelligence agencies, etc. This is around 85 percent of the entire NSC staff.

The idea behind this is twofold. First, they bring expertise and relationships from the interagency into the NSC, thereby strengthening the organization. The NSC is a coordinating body which has to make all the agencies work toward a common goal. So having people with experience and relationships at those other agencies is thought to be a plus. Second, detailing helps build the careers of national security professionals by giving them White House stints.

Not that I am the closest longtime observer of the NSC, but I do follow it somewhat and I have never seen an administration challenge this model. They just haven’t done it. They take for granted the constraints and live with them. If you wanted to change this model, you’d have to ask Congress to multiply the NSC’s budget at least tenfold, and to my knowledge no administration has ever asked for that.

On the question of “holdovers” specifically, you have to distinguish between two types. First, there is a cadre of direct-hire civil servants at the NSC. These are typically not people in policy roles, but folks who do the administrative work: executive assistants, human resources, facilities, and so forth. These people sometimes work at the organization for decades. They are always there.

The second are detailees who happen to be in place when an administration turns over. This is inevitable given the nature of detailing and the constitutional presidential term. The presumption, or polite fiction you might say, is that everyone who works for the federal government in a nonpolitical position is a neutral, nonpartisan civil servant, or at least someone who keeps his politics out of his job. Certainly that is true of many people. But is it credible to believe that it’s true of all or even most? Given the direction we’ve seen the administrative state go over the last several decades?

Now, if you were a detailee “holdover” on January 20, 2017, chances are you began your detail in Spring 2016 or later. That means you made an affirmative choice to work in the Obama White House. Chances are, like the rest of Washington, you assumed Hillary Clinton would be the next president. Chances are you thought that was a good thing (D.C. went 90.9 percent for Hillary, remember). So you accepted your detail assuming, and maybe even hoping, that Hillary Clinton would be the next president.

Several people who were at the NSC on Inauguration Day ended their details early and went back to their home agencies. They simply didn’t want to work for Trump. I think that was the right thing for them to do. The wrong thing to do would have been to stick around in order to undermine the new administration. Unfortunately, some people thought the wrong thing was the right thing.

As 2017 ended, details ended on schedule and staff cycled out of the organization. They were replaced by people who knew what they were signing up for, who knew they would be going to work for the Trump White House. The self-selection process, in other words, was working in a different direction.

All that said, I’m someone who’s long been on the record arguing that administrative state control of government is a threat to liberty and inconsistent with American constitutionalism. I think there ought to be more, not less, political control over the American government. I’d like to see the power of the bureaucracy reduced and power of the political branches of government increased. That includes increasing executive branch control and influence over personnel in the executive departments. But doing so is a major reform project requiring many things, not least bigger budgets—something conservatives generally oppose.

But all that said—and this is sure to inflame my critics, but my conscience requires me to say it—I take people as I find them. I came across many civil servants who—at least from what I could see—really did act like the nonpartisan professionals they are supposed to be.

Bottom line: the problems with the American government are deep and have been growing for years. The potential for and evidence of mischief within our government is real. Even so, blaming “holdovers” in one small coordinating body with a couple hundred people doesn’t even come close to getting to the core of our most serious problems.

Is it true that you sometimes used salty language with reporters?

Alas, guilty.

I won’t offer a defense, but I will make some excuses.

Some of the people I had to deal with really were, and are, outright enemies of the president, his administration, and his agenda. Their bad faith was palpable, yet they would get moralistic with me when I challenged them. That was exasperating. I lost my cool on occasion.

And dealing with people trying to destroy others without evidence—yeah, that spiked my blood pressure.

But if the worst thing anyone can justly say about me is that I could sometimes be a pit bull in defense of those I worked for and with, I can live with that.

Also, another charge against me is that I was too cozy with reporters. That’s a funny criticism of a flak. The job is in part to build good relations with credible, trustworthy reporters to help their reporting accurately reflect the president’s thinking and intentions. Leaving aside the tension between these two charges, the claim that I had good relations with the credible press is a compliment, not a criticism.

Have your positions evolved since you joined the administration? Have you betrayed the “America-First” nationalist populist base?

I don’t think my positions have evolved on anything, though it’s been a while since I have had time to think through any new positions!

The last time my positions “evolved” was in 2015-2016—and that was because of Donald Trump!

I had long been an immigration restrictionist and a believer in immigration reform, so that’s what first attracted me to Trump’s candidacy. I had been drifting away from what a friend calls “naïvecon” foreign policy for years. Trump was offering a clear alternative there.

Trade was the one issue where I was conflicted. I had always been a traditional conservative free trader. Trump prompted me to rethink that. I went back to the old books, the old arguments, and took a fresh look. I’ve always considered myself a Lincolnian—and Lincoln was a tariff guy. Over a period of months, I came Trump’s way on trade.

Not that I think tariffs are always good. Circumstances matter. The United States benefited from tariffs in the post-Civil War industrial revolution, and from more liberal trade policies after World War II. But lately free trade had become an orthodoxy and its advocates are more like priests. Trump was, and is, right that the United States is being taken advantage of. Our country has to do something about that—and he’s doing it.

The slogan I used throughout 2016 was to define “Trumpism” as “secure borders, economic nationalism, and America first foreign policy.” I still support that agenda 100 percent.

I’m not sure what a nationalist-populist is, exactly. I’m a patriot for sure and I don’t think nationalism is a dirty word, as some do. I’m just not entirely clear on what the difference is. I have no problem being called an American nationalist, though.

I also don’t know what a populist is supposed to be now, except that it’s supposed to be bad. I think there are two fundamental reasons why that is, in the current context. First, obviously, is that the word is just a cudgel to use against President Trump. “Populist” has long had a negative connotation—though nobody can quite articulate why—and so the president’s enemies use that negativity against him. Trump is bad, populism is bad, Trump is a populist. QED.

The other reason is unspoken—and unspeakable. Populism is implicitly held to be bad because any popular reaction against the elite-Left-sellout-Right agenda is a threat to the ruling class. So all kinds of perfectly just claims and complaints get slandered and dismissed as “populist.” The purpose is to perpetuate the status quo.

Anyway, if “populism” means actually listening to what the people want and pursuing policies that benefit the majority, even if that is in some ways at the expense of the elite, then I am a populist. The country has to work for all of us. The United States of America was not designed or intended to be an oligarchy.

Fundamentally, I believe in the eternal truths of political philosophy, and that the Founding principles of the United States, as fulfilled via the post-Civil War amendments, are the true ground for just and legitimate government in the modern world.

Some of your friends have suggested that these charges are not worth answering, that your accusers lack credibility. What do you say to that?

I appreciate the sentiment and I agree that my accusers lack credibility. Hell, they even lack identity! Most, if not all, are anonymous.

But I don’t really understand the argument. If people are making easily answerable accusations, why not answer them? Why let mendacious, anonymous cranks have the last word? In the immortally wise words of Sam Spade, “Why should I sit around here and let people come in and stick me up?”

What do you think of John Bolton?

I have written in praise of Ambassador Bolton in the past. I wish him well as he works to enact President Trump’s agenda.

Is this Flight 93 still aloft?


What’s next for you?

Spiritual warfare. That, and teaching. What I was, if not born to do, then at least trained to do.

Administrative State • America • American Conservatism • Americanism • Center for American Greatness • civic culture/friendship • Conservatives • Cultural Marxism • Donald Trump • Elections • Michael Anton • Post • Religion and Society • statesmanship

The Lord Helps Evangelicals Who Help Themselves

Michael Gerson, former chief speechwriter for George W. Bush, writes ruefully in the pages of The Atlantic about “The Last Temptation” of evangelical Christians. Over the course of an excruciating 7,000 words, Gerson laments “how so many evangelicals lost their interest in decency, and how a religious tradition called by grace became defined by resentment.” The essay is essentially an extended whine about what a darn shame it is that more Christians are not content to be pliant door mats under a militant progressivism’s boot. It’s also an entreaty for those same Christians to be more down with “social justice.”

The evangelicalism of yesteryear, Gerson tells us, was a combination of faith and “the Social Gospel—a postmillennialism drained of the miraculous, with social reform taking the place of the Second Coming.” Believing rube: Gerson, graduate of Wheaton College (“the Harvard of evangelical Protestantism”!), wants you to know and never forget that a UNICEF-cum-therapy-group-with-some-hymns Christianity, a Christianity with neither Christ nor His Cross, is the key to converting an existentially exhausted culture enthralled with secularism to Christ.

Beyond its cringe-inducing sanctimony, the piece has at least three problems. First, Gerson misunderstands the moment in which we find ourselves. As Michael Anton argued in the “The Flight 93 Election,” the 2016 election was a defining moment for the country, at least according to many conservatives who made a living out of railing impotently against progressivism in the pages of increasingly insular publications—when they were not fulminating, just as impotently, in the pages of the “respectable” press, or eventually capitulating entirely. (Hi, Bret Stephens!)

Gerson alleges that evangelicals now conceive of themselves as a “besieged and disrespected minority” and as “an interest group in need of protection and preferences.” The Obama Administration brought forth into the country various incarnations of social justice, developments nobody in their wildest dreams considered to be possible or, alternatively, swore were not desired … until they suddenly became the next civil rights cause célèbre: forcing Christian businesses to be complicit in same-sex wedding ceremonies, suing nuns into oblivion when they refused to violate a core tenet of their Catholic faith by providing birth control under ObamaCare, and reinterpreting “sex” in the 1964 Civil Rights Act to mean “gender” for the purpose of yet more extreme social engineering.

Are we to believe Hillary Clinton would have let off the gas? That she would have let up on the Democrats’ hard, leftward charge? It is impossible to imagine. Was it not then entirely rational for evangelicals—given the horrors, both known and unknown, that awaited them under another Democratic president—to latch, as a voting bloc (much as minorities do for the Democrats with little fanfare), onto the one person who could stop a Clinton Administration from all but destroying them?

Second, Gerson places too much value in a president’s personal rectitude. The reality is, we live in a system that has become comfortable with rule by imperial executives. Were we to live in the fever dream of Twitter “trad Caths”—an integralist dyarchy, where the Catholic Church and the State would both wield one sword, but the State would be subordinate to the Church—it probably would be very important to have “secular” leaders with unquestioned and impeccable morality. But in our own liberal constitutional republic, where religion so often has been undermined as a coordinating force and source of shared moral imagination? Not so much.

What matters here and now is securing a president who will achieve positive results, regardless of his personal foibles. If President Trump is achieving goals evangelicals find desirable (and that conservatives should find desirable), why ought they to care overmuch about his personal failings, whatever they be? Trump was elected president of the United States—not pope or saint-in-chief.

In any case, Trump has done what is probably the most important thing a president can do in the immediate term given the importance federal courts have come to play in our system of governance: appoint solid federal judges and one Supreme Court justice, Neil Gorsuch, who will interpret the Constitution as originalists, who will exercise “neither force nor will, but merely judgment.” Because of the outsized, though regrettable, power the judiciary now wields (in large part because of the vacuum left by an atrophied Congress), these excellent lifetime appointment are huge wins for constitutional government.

In addition, Trump has gone to work dismantling Leviathan: the administrative state. And his administration has achieved much else besides. What more could a conservative—or evangelical, for that matter—ask for?

Gerson’s appeal to “norms” is his essay’s third (and probably largest) problem. “Whatever Trump’s policy legacy ends up being,” he writes, “his presidency has been a disaster in the realm of norms.” Why? Because it has and will have by its end “coarsened our culture, given permission for bullying, complicated the moral formation of children, undermined standards of public integrity, and encouraged cynicism about the political enterprise.”

I would ask Gerson, What sort of norms is Trump destroying that evangelicals should want to protect? The norm that a sitting senator, Harry Reid, can call a presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, a criminal from the Senate floor and not even pretend to express regret? The norm of siccing the IRS on Tea Party groups to aid a president in his reelection bid, as Barack Obama did in 2012? The norm of everyone’s pretending that leftist “intersectionality” is anything but an excuse to be a vile racist? The norm of jailing a filmmaker when Islamic jihadists kill four Americans in a consulate in Benghazi because an administration needed a convenient scapegoat? The norm of the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, then asking, without a shred of self-awareness or shame, “At this point, what difference does it make?” The norm of obliterating in an unprecedented and heretofore unmatched-in-viciousness manner an eminently qualified scholar and candidate for the Supreme Court, Robert Bork?

Such norms (and there are others) serve no purpose except systematically to disadvantage Republicans and the Right, to the detriment of the entire country. What Trump has done is show the Right how to take the fight to the media, to Hollywood, to the progressive centers of power. He has shown us how to be louder than what Anton aptly called “The Megaphone.” He has turned the weapons of the Left on itself. He has restored a bit of nerve to the GOP. What the party chooses to do with that gift is up to the party. I for one hope it does not squander it because its members are afraid of being called racist or sexist or xenophobic or whatever other mindless slur will eventually be conjured up by the Left—because the GOP will be so smeared no matter what it does, no matter how housebroken it becomes, no matter to what extent it deforms into a “conservative-lite” party in a hopeless effort to appease the Left.

Gerson pines for a civil, dignified evangelicalism. He might reflect on precisely what forced evangelicals—“like sheep among wolves” as they are in many ways today in modern America—to decide that their very survival depended and continues to depend on President Trump. To act as though there is no basis for such an initial decision and its continued ratification is lazy thinking in the extreme. Evangelicals have latched onto Christ’s command to be “as shrewd”—and one might add “as tough” or “as ruthless”—“as snakes” with good reason. Whether such a move ultimately cashes out in their favor remains to be seen.

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Meet the ‘Oligogues’

The favorite pastime of our oligarchy is to harp on endlessly about the supposed faults of the people who elected Donald Trump president. According to the anointed, the American people—in their untutored stupidity—chose a strong man who is shredding the Constitution, along with every last vestige of character and decency.

NeverTrumper Matt K. Lewis summed up the attitude in a recent Daily Beast column, subtly headlined, “Dear Trump Voters: You’re A Bunch of Idiots.” “The masses, it turns out, sometimes are asses,” he wrote.

The ongoing effort to peddle this narrative is why the term “populism” remains prominent in our current political moment. Discussions of populism between members of our establishmentarian class are not about honestly assessing the rise of Trump or of any kind of world-wide movement away from the overreach of globalism.

Instead, it’s the fancy people’s way to insult you with a word, the nasty implications of which only the select are supposed to understand. As Roger Kimball correctly notes in his new edited volume, Vox Populi: The Perils and Promises of Populism, populism has become “a handy negative epithet, a weapon” which “means little more than ‘I don’t like this person or this policy.’”

The same goes for “demagogue” and “vulgar”—words shorn of their original meaning and weaponized on behalf of the elites’ struggle to maintain their hold on the seats of power. These and other nebulous phrases are used as terms of derision to attack the people and undermine their authority. These words are soubriquets meant to shame those who dare to disagree with the establishment consensus and suggest that there is something backward and deficient in their thinking. The idea is to treat the nonconformists as lepers unfit for civilized society.

The successes of Trump and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the primaries—and also in the general election in Trump’s case—attest to the people’s sensible conclusion that the D.C. establishment doesn’t give a damn about securing their interests. However unsophisticated the ruling class thinks the people are, they were smart enough to figure that out and powerful enough to act on it. You’d think the time had come for the smart guys to start asking different questions and search for different answers to reflecting the old ones. But that hasn’t happened.

The inability of elections to change the fundamental character of government the past few decades—the “normality” Trump is attempting to overturn—was a clear signal to the people that a radical change was necessary to have any hope of reclaiming control over a government that was founded on the basis of their sovereign consent and created to secure their safety and happiness. It turns out that the people still believe that they are the best judges about who and what will secure those things it is their right to seek.

Contrary to what you may hear in the editorial meetings at the New York Times or in the halls of the American Enterprise Institute, our current political danger is not due to the people elevating tin pot dictators in fits of pure passion.

Rather, the real problem lies with those who flatter the elites and keep the ruling class oligarchy in power. The term for this phenomenon, coined recently by Michael Anton, is “oligoguery.”

Literally translated, “oligoguery” means “a group of people flattering the elites propping up the current oligarchy.” Our modern-day oligogues protect the interests of our ruling class oligarchs by constantly running interference for them. On the Right and Left, they work nonstop to keep to the status quo intact.

Though our oligogues may have occasional differences of emphasis (mainly, which branch of the oligarchy to whom their loyalty is owed) there is little real political difference between them. They serve the interests of a global elite. Those people, we must come to understand, are better than us and ought to be our real sovereigns. When we differ with them, they insist, we don’t just disagree or wish to serve different (and perfectly legitimate) interests. We are “incorrect.”

When Americans question our policy of virtually open borders, our oligogues talk instead about deporting Americans from the working class they deem insufficiently obedient to the doctrine of propositional nationhood.

When the working class dares to wonder whether trade deals that rival the size and scope of Obamacare have been beneficial to our country, they are told to pack up the U-Haul and move because their current communities “deserve to die.”

And when we have the nerve to question the recent track record of a political movement founded to beat back the administrative state and liberalism more broadly, we are derided as “vulgarians” and “scowling primitives whose irritable gestures lack mental ingredients.”

Though the people are the true aim of the oligogues’ endless barrage, Trump takes the most direct hits because he is on the front lines of the people’s counter attack.

Take the recent ad hominem attacks by the serial fabulist Michael Wolff in his new book. Wolff claims Trump is a barely literate fool who is either crazy or in the early stages of dementia. The president’s physician says otherwise. This type of character assassination against those who are a threat to the ruling oligarchy is nothing new.

As Daniel McCarthy has pointed out recently, anti-establishment Republicans from Barry Goldwater to Ronald Reagan are cast invariably as extreme, crazy, reckless, untrustworthy, trigger-happy, and simply unfit for the office of the presidency.

Our oligogues, unsurprisingly, have made the same critiques of Trump.

Oligogue-Senator Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) this week took to the floor of the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body and compared the president of the United States to Joseph Stalin. Flake denies doing so, but he surely did compare Donald Trump to one of history’s worst monsters, a tyrant who orchestrated the mass murder of millions of his countrymen through forced famines and a vast archipelago of gulags.

In case you were wondering, the inability to make serious political or moral distinctions is a key trait of our oligogue class.

Ever since Trump’s victory, our oligogues have been spinning fever dreams about how to remove the president from office.

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, for example, wrote a piece early last year in which he advocated Congress invoke the 25th Amendment to force Trump out. (Douthat appeared to walk back this option in a recent op-ed, but a close read indicates it’s only a change in tactics and not a renunciation of the principle.)

Douthat is so captured by the oligogue mindset that he would risk vindicating the people’s suspicions that their government really is in the hands of an elite who care nothing for them or their interests. Only for an oligogue is fomenting a coup against the regime preferable to abiding by the lawful exercise of the people’s power to choose their president.

Another clear example of our oligogues in action is the outrage generated by the president’s alleged comments that Haiti, El Salvador, and unnamed countries in Africa are “shitholes.”

Liberal oligogues such as the dreadful hack Jeffrey Toobin, a legal analyst for CNN, and CNN host Don Lemon predictably called Trump a racist for pointing out that third-world countries exist. “Comedian” Stephen Colbert argued by implication that the U.S. is actually a shithole country since Trump is our president. What a patriot!

On the ostensible Right, the reactions mirrored the Left so closely in tone and content, you wouldn’t be remiss if you thought they came from the ultra-liberal website ThinkProgress. Noah Rothman of Commentary Magazine contended that Trump’s comments were “naked racial agitation.” The oligogue Erick Erickson said that Trump’s “remarks come from bigotry against the poor and not bigotry based on race,” though he helpfully added that those who “cheer on the President’s remarks view his statement as about race.”

There are too many examples like this to include them all in one article. But this exercise shows that our habitual thinking about American politics in terms of a Left/Right spectrum needs to be cast aside.

The prevalence of oligogues in American politics demonstrates that the true and meaningful distinction today is between those who side with the people and those who side with the amorphous ruling class/uniparty/establishment blob.

In his “A Time for Choosing” speech, Ronald Reagan laid out the stakes quite vividly:

You and I are told increasingly that we have to choose between a left or right, but I would like to suggest that there is no such thing as a left or right. There is only an up or down — up to a man’s age-old dream, the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order — or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism, and regardless of their sincerity, their humanitarian motives, those who would trade our freedom for security have embarked on this downward course.

Oligoguery, just as demagoguery, lies on the road to totalitarianism.

It is high time that the danger of oligoguery is exposed and our oligogues are treated with the scorn and contempt they deserve.

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How to Win Our (Un)Civil War

Ken Masugi, whom I have known and respected since we met while studying under the late Harry Jaffa during President Reagan’s first term, thinks my recent articles betray a lack of understanding of the current crisis. In “The Rescue of Flight 93,” Masugi contends America is at an existential moment, what Jaffa would have called “a crisis of the regime,” wherein its very existence as a genuinely liberal democracy is under assault. The only principled and spirited response, he says, is to fight. He supports Donald Trump primarily because Trump is a fighter and opposes, or at least seems to oppose, those who seek to destroy American values. He fears that my recent writings for American Greatness do not convey a similar understanding of what is at stake.

I think Masugi misunderstands my argument. I did not take issue with his assessment of the moment we are in. Recognizing the seriousness of that moment, however, should also entail a serious examination of the nature of existential conflicts and crafting a serious plan for victory. My pieces were meant to draw attention to both issues.

Existential conflicts always involve a choice between uncompromisable alternatives. To use the Civil War conflict as an example, slavery was either wrong, and thus inconsistent with an American regime founded upon the idea that all men are created equal, or it was right, and hence the idea of human equality was not an essential feature of America. The smartest warriors in this battle, Lincoln and Calhoun, understood this and argued in those terms.

This argument could be settled only by the elimination of the other within the context of democratic argumentation. Calhoun’s ablest descendant, Stephen Douglas, sought to do this by making democratic choice—”popular sovereignty”—the lodestar of the regime. By making choice a higher principle than equality, Douglas thought he could gain sufficient public support in the North to place abolitionist sentiment on the course of ultimate extinction, thereby preserving the Union and maintaining slavery. Lincoln sought to deny this, contending that democratic choice could only be right if understood against the backdrop of human equality, a belief which meant that slavery must be considered to be immoral.

Lincoln sought to avoid war, in part, by tolerating and even sometimes speaking to what is now considered to be race prejudice, seeming to agree that there was something intolerable, for example, in miscegenation—particularly when his audience was of the sort that was vocal about such racial prejudice. He also sought to assuage the South by reminding them that the Constitution prevented a democratic majority from abolishing slavery where it existed without a constitutional amendment. Given the fact that amendments require ratification by three-fourths of the states, that effectively meant that it could only be abolished with the South’s own consent. But once the expansion of slavery was halted by a popular majority, it would be clear that slavery had been placed on the course of ultimate extinction and hence increasingly ambitious politicians from the South would cease to make slavery agitation a part of their political platforms

I believe that supporters of the Flight 93, “we are at war” narrative have failed to grasp the logical consequences of that stance. War means war, and victory in war means one’s opponents can no longer contest the field of battle. To win in a democratic sense, as Lincoln and Douglas sought to do, one must define one’s argument in such a way so that the victory one achieves is both total and lasting. That in turn means creating a coalition broader than those who already agree with all, or even most, of your own principles. Lincoln and Douglas both sought to do that. I do not see advocates of the Flight 93 position always arguing in ways that demonstrate they are cognizant of that fact.

Both Lincoln and Douglas strove to attract the votes of men who did not see the existential nature of the conflict and sought, instead, to avoid it. Similarly, there are many Americans who do not see our politics as a fight between good and evil. Their votes will determine which side, progressives or conservatives, wins the conflict. If we are in a Flight 93 moment, if we do need to fight to preserve American ideals, then it behooves conservatives to try to attract those people’s votes rather than to denigrate them as “squishes” or as other sorts of undesirables whose company we deign to keep. That requires more than shouting our own principles more loudly and more clearly. It means speaking in such a way that can appeal to these voters and invite them to be a part of our coalition.

That does not mean abandoning principle. It does mean understanding how to talk with and attract people who do not necessarily share your core premises. That in turn requires some degree of toleration, some degree of kindness, some degree of inclusion. Is your neighbor who thinks abortion ought to be legal in the first trimester but not thereafter, your enemy or a potential ally? Is your co-worker who thinks everyone should have decent health coverage but doesn’t think the government should run the health care system a squish or a potential convert? These are the questions I want us to ask and answer, as I think these are the questions that answering can help determine victory or defeat.

The alternative is more frightening. A political minority (and ours is a minority) can win an existential battle, but only by recourse to legal means to suppress one’s opponents’ basic rights. That is the specter I sought to raise in my essay The Flight 93 Decade. If you do not want to win by creating a new democratic supermajority, then political victory will require eliminating one’s opponents’ ability to politically organize. That in turn means the proscription of certain types of speech, the removal of certain political disputes from the political process, and, when challenged, the arrest of people who defy these edicts. This is what happens in cities and in nations who cannot resolve existential disputes peacefully. One cannot avoid this conclusion if one is serious about waging a war over existential questions.

The Civil War’s aftermath shows us how this transpires. The South’s decision to secede and Lincoln’s decision to go to war to maintain the Union meant America’s existential question would be settled on the battlefield, with bullets and not with ballots. The South’s defeat was followed by Reconstruction, which prevented white Southern majorities from re-entering the Union with full political rights until they had sworn fealty to the new political order. The three Reconstruction Era amendments permanently removed the question of slavery from political debate. The North won the existential conflict by forcibly destroying the ability of its foes to contest the field of democratic battle.

I do not think that Masugi or most advocates of the Flight 93 viewpoint want to do this and most understand that the battles, if they are to be won, will be won through through democratic politics. This will require the skill of a Lincoln not just to mobilize the 30 percent of Americans who do see conservative and American values under assault, but to add to them another 25 to 30 percent who may not see this conflict clearly but can see their values more clearly upheld by a conservative supermajority than by a progressive one.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt remade America by doing exactly this. He cunningly crafted a public New Deal that told conservative Democrats and once-Republican working-class voters that he was simply restoring the republic they always had supported. They believed him and gave him sweeping landslides in the 1932 and 1936 elections. After those elections, every ambitious politician knew that to relitigate the question of federal power was to court political annihilation. To this day even the most conservative politicians, such as Texas Senator Ted Cruz, will deny they seek to undermine the core regulatory and spending programs that the New Deal and its aftermath ushered into existence. That’s how you win an existential conflict through democratic means: even opponents who in their hearts might seek to overturn your order cannot say so openly.

I am an American and a conservative. I believe that all men, meaning all human beings, are created equal. I believe that this means all people ought to be able to live lives of their own choice, subject to the requirements that they do so of their own effort so far as possible and so long as they do not deny the rights of others so empowered and so limited to do likewise. I believe that the freedoms of the first amendment—the freedom to speak what you believe, to print what you believe, to worship God according to the dictates of your conscience, to organize politically to advance your views, and the right to petition your elected representatives to enact laws based on such views—are fundamental to a regime dedicated to freedom and human equality. I stand ready to fight to preserve that regime and those ideals for so long as I live. Everything I write should be understood against these fundamental beliefs.

Aristotle begins his classic work the Nicomachean Ethics by noting that every act aims at some good, and that the aim of strategy is victory. I hope by my writings to help Americans and conservatives to craft a strategy that not only aims at victory but achieves it. And I view Ken Masugi as I hope he views me, an ally in that battle.

Content created by the Center for American Greatness, Inc. is available without charge to any eligible news publisher that can provide a significant audience. For licensing opportunities for our original content, please contact licensing@centerforamericangreatness.com.

2016 Election • Administrative State • America • American Conservatism • Americanism • civic culture/friendship • Conservatives • Democrats • Donald Trump • Greatness Agenda • Michael Anton • Post • The Left • the Presidency • Trump White House

Flight 93 Has Not Landed

Like many readers of American Greatness, I have watched the unfolding debate over what can only be called “the Flight 93 question” with equal parts interest and annoyance.

Observers like Henry Olsen fret about the potential for a protracted apocalyptic conflict between an ascendant Trumpian Right and a vengeance-obsessed Social Justice Left, and question whether it might be time to consider how to negotiate a truce and head off that eventuality.

But Ken Masugi gently points out that any meaningful truce would be possible only once President Trump has put us in a position to deal from strength, and perhaps reacquainted America with Jeffersonian and Lincolnian principles along the way, presumably in 280 Twitter character bursts. Meanwhile, some in the comments sections seem to hold the opinion that, having wrested the proverbial cockpit from the terrorists, we should keep the plane in crisis mode by flying around a little longer just to spite them.

I think the whole debate is getting far ahead of itself. As I recall, the ultimate thesis of the essay that started it all went as follows: “2016 is the Flight 93 election: 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.”

Not to further butcher what was an otherwise very clever metaphor, but if this is Flight 93, we just got control of the cockpit, and Trump—the proverbial pilot—seems to have taken the past year figuring out how to fly. Even the most optimistic observer, I think, would have trouble arguing that Trump could land the plane in less than his first full term, and a more realistic take would assume he’d need two full terms (almost the decade Olsen fears) to even get us close to the ground.

Now, when I say “Trump hasn’t landed the plane yet,” I don’t mean that he’s failed to meet an abstract, ideological goal of the sort that I suspect Olsen and Masugi would both favor. By that standard, Trump will never land the plane, but will at best keep it hovering at altitude.

Brent Bozell Jr. once called the Founding Fathers “the only group of men in modern history to have set their minds to the task of constructing a commonwealth on the basis of prudence, and therefore free from ideology,” an assessment that I’m sure many writers for this site would hotly dispute. Without opining about the accuracy of Bozell’s description as it applies to the Founders, I will say that I think it applies spotlessly to how Donald Trump sees the job of reconstructing the commonwealth—that is, of making America great again. This is not an ideological president, and I believe it will bring only grief to expect him to bring ideological results. To the extent President Trump has an ideology, it consists of specific results he wants to achieve, and in many cases has promised to achieve.

Which is why, when I say Trump hasn’t “landed the plane,” I mean that he has not yet managed to meet multiple, tangible goals that I believe are essential to the process of removing America from its Leftism-induced crisis state, at least for the moment. In some cases, this is due to the short time he has been in office. In others, it is due to the steep learning curve any non-politician will face when assuming such a difficult political job. In others, I believe it is due to accepting help from the wrong people, whose influence will hopefully be temporary. Nevertheless, these are all goals that I believe a fully empowered President Trump can and will meet, given his titanic work ethic, as well as the right political climate, the right advisers, and just a tiny spot of luck. Here, in no particular order, are my top 10 such goals:

  1. President Trump has not yet built his famed Wall across the Southern border, though he may yet be able to, if he plays his cards right in the DACA negotiations.
  2. President Trump has not yet forced North Korea to halt its nuclear program, though he may be able to squeeze China into inducing them to do so.
  3. President Trump has not yet wiped ISIS completely off the map, though at this point, it’s obviously only a matter of time.
  4. President Trump has not yet ended Obamacare, though he has made good strides with the individual mandate.
  5. President Trump has not yet signed an infrastructure bill.
  6. President Trump has not yet signed a bill putting America’s entitlements back on the path to solvency.
  7. President Trump’s administration has not yet taken steps to halt the wide-scale attempt by Silicon Valley’s Snowflake Barons to censor the political Right from the Internet, or to directly challenge their frightening monopoly powers, though his FCC has chipped away at their power by ending Net Neutrality, and has forced them into politically unsustainable territory as a result.
  8. President Trump has not yet presided over a lowering of prescription drug prices, though Congress has several good measures aimed at this end working their way through both chambers.
  9. President Trump has not yet ended the opioid crisis.
  10. President Trump has not yet fully curbed the rampant attacks on freedom of speech, assembly, and on due process on America’s college campuses, though his administration is to be commended for repudiating the Obama administration’s “Dear Colleague letter” establishing Rape Star Chambers

Your own list of such “plane-landing” items may differ from mine. Whatever your list may be, until a majority of the items on it are completed, any talk of retreating from the Flight 93 posture of crisis is at best premature and at worst an invitation to allow charging the proverbial cockpit to be for naught.

To Henry Olsen, I say with the greatest respect: Until the plane is on the ground, I have no interest in finding middle ground with the hijackers, even if it might avert future cockpit charges.

To Ken Masugi, I say also with the greatest respect: Let’s land this plane, now, before we try to get everyone to accept general principles that would prevent any and all future hijackings.

In short, yes, the Flight 93 election went our way, and the Flight 93 presidency may also. We got control of the plane. We just learned how to fly it. We have still to learn how to land it. And, as a certain wise man once observed, “There are no guarantees.”

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

“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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2016 Election • America • Americanism • Black Lives Matter • Cultural Marxism • Defense of the West • Greatness Agenda • Identity Politics • Immigration • Law and Order • Michael Anton • race • Steve Bannon • The Constitution • The Culture • The Left • The Resistance (Snicker) • Trump White House

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Ridiculous ‘100 Days’ Report

The Southern Poverty Law Center is at it again.

At the hundred-day mark of President Trump’s administration, the center has released a report that purports to expose the rampant “white nationalism” the president and his “alt-right” advisors have unleashed upon the nation.

Instead of judging President Trump’s actual record, the report rehashes left-wing conspiracy theories and tired Democratic National Committee talking points. Dressed up in somber but hilariously misplaced language, the report reads more like an article from The Onion than anything of actual substance. It is replete with lies, overstatements, calumnies against upstanding Americans, Soros-approved talking points, smears, and a militant close-mindedness typically found on elite college campuses. The report is a testament to the depths to which anti-Trump forces have sunk to try to overrule the will of the people who put Trump into office.

The SPLC’s report opens by speaking of the “themes of a campaign that had electrified” white nationalists across the nation. We are led to believe that it is racist to have discussions about our crumbling infrastructure, one-sided “free trade” deals, rising crime in major cities, mass acceptance of unassimilable numbers of illegal immigrants, lack of attention to American interests abroad, and a political class that couldn’t care less about the common good of their fellow citizens. Apparently, the nearly 63 million Americans who found cause to vote for and continue to support Donald Trump are white nationalists because no other explanation makes sense to the geniuses at the SPLC.

This is the pathetic nature of the “arguments” found in this piece. And the more one digs in, the worse it gets.

The report slanders individuals such as Steven Bannon, Michael Flynn, Stephen Miller, Sebastian Gorka, and Michael Anton. Their claims regarding Gorka are borderline libelous, as they engage in the baseless calumny that he is “associated with Neo-Nazis in his native Hungary.” This reductio ad Hitlerum gained traction in the fever swamps of the Left because Gorka wore a medal during the inauguration called the Order of Vitéz (or Vitézi Rend), which had been awarded to his father (and many other Hungarian nationalists) for fighting communism. Sorry to break it to the SPLC, but this award represents something far bigger than the person Vitézi Rend, a Hungarian who was associated with the Nazis during World War II.

Readers are expected to believe the Trump administration’s effort to deport “undocumented immigrations [sic] charged ‘with any criminal offense’ or who ‘pose a risk to public safety or national security’” is evidence of “white nationalist” policies. Readers are supposed to be appalled because the administration now publishes “a weekly list of crimes committed by immigrants.” But in issuing such commonplace orders (also known as enforcing the law or doing his job), Trump has simply taken a cue from President Bill Clinton, who in his 1995 State of the Union said:

All Americans, not only in the states most heavily affected but in every place in this country, are rightly disturbed by the large numbers of illegal aliens entering our country. The jobs they hold might otherwise be held by citizens or legal immigrants. The public service they use impose burdens on our taxpayers. That’s why our administration has moved aggressively to secure our borders more by hiring a record number of new border guards, by deporting twice as many criminal aliens as ever before, by cracking down on illegal hiring, by barring welfare benefits to illegal aliens. In the budget I will present to you, we will try to do more to speed the deportation of illegal aliens who are arrested for crimes, to better identify illegal aliens in the workplace as recommended by the commission headed by former Congresswoman Barbara Jordan. We are a nation of immigrants. But we are also a nation of laws. It is wrong and ultimately self-defeating for a nation of immigrants to permit the kind of abuse of our immigration laws we have seen in recent years, and we must do more to stop it.

Under the SPLC’s rubric, Clinton would qualify as a stone-cold white nationalist. And so would at least 59 percent of Americans who, in a recent Gallup poll, say they worry a “fair” or “great” amount about illegal immigration.

If the vast majority of Americans are  irredeemably racist, why would so many foreigners want to come here? Wouldn’t it be unjust to invite more immigrants to suffer racial discord and institutional oppression? The SPLC is silent about this and other basic logical inconsistencies.

Laughably, the SPLC routinely trots out its “Hate Map,” which tracks actual Neo-Nazi organizations along with mainstream conservative groups, such as  the Family Research Council, as purported evidence for the claims that litter the new  report. What’s wrong with the Federation for American Immigration Reform and the Center for Immigration Studies according to the SPLC? Their opposition to unrestricted immigration earned them a place on SPLC’s list of “hate groups.” In other words, the proof that FRC, FAIR, and CIS are “hate groups” is that the SPLC says they are. This is the extent of their reasoning skills.

Though it might put a damper on fundraising, the SPLC would do well to heed the advice of former President Obama, who during a recent interview cautioned against labeling supporters of restricting immigration as automatically racist.

The SPLC’s report cites actual white nationalists such as Richard Spencer and David Duke, who generally approve of Trump, and judges the president guilty by association. But like Ronald Reagan, Trump has repeatedly denounced the support of that infinitesimally small group of individuals (see here, here, here, here, and here). Only an organization with a tunnel vision focus on taking the president down at all costs would continue to make such spurious assertions.

Laughably, the SPLC routinely trots out its “Hate Map,” which tracks actual Neo-Nazi organizations along with mainstream conservative groups, such as  the Family Research Council, as purported evidence for the claims that litter the new  report. What’s wrong with the Federation for American Immigration Reform and the Center for Immigration Studies according to the SPLC? Their opposition to unrestricted immigration earned them a place on SPLC’s list of “hate groups.” In other words, the proof that FRC, FAIR, and CIS are “hate groups” is that the SPLC says they are. This is the extent of their reasoning skills.

The SPLC also finds evidence of latent white nationalism in accusations that mainstream media outlets peddle “fake news”—a claim that President Trump has used to great effect prior to his election and throughout the early days of his administration. But the SPLC might be shocked to learn that Americans trust Trump’s White House more than the national media, by a margin of 37 percent to 29 percent. In fact, 48 percent of Americans think the media has been unduly hard on Trump compared with its treatment of previous (liberal) administrations. Is the SPLC really willing to argue that these Americans, many of whom also voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, are secretly white nationalists as well?

“100 Days in Trump’s America” is Exhibit A of Trump Derangement Syndrome. Launching wild accusations and using scare tactics, the SPLC has found it profitable to widen the divide between Americans by inciting hatred and violence among citizens. Morris Dees, the SPLC’s founder, lives a lavish lifestyle and and the coffers of the SPLC are flush with cash.

Fortunately, Americans have had it with the bullying tactics of hard-Left organizations like the SPLC. They know that Trump’s first 100 days—to the extent that such a measurement even matters—have been an overwhelming success. He has issued a vast array of executive orders that have overturned much of Barack Obama’s legacy, nominated now-Justice Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, begun enforcing immigration laws, which has already put a major dent in the number of illegal immigrants coming across our border, put forward an ambitious tax plan, expanded offshore oil drilling, and strategically deployed American power in Syria and Afghanistan that has shown the world that America will not hesitate to secure its interests.

Let’s hope that the next 100 days are even better.


American Conservatism • Conservatives • Deep State • Donald Trump • Greatness Agenda • Michael Anton • Steve Bannon • The Media • Trump White House

A Potty-Mouthed Legacy Journalist

The malignity is easy to read. “Oh, Mike Anton, I recognize your quotes and so will Jared,” tweeted the hard-line NeverTrumper John Podhoretz yesterday morning.

John is the scion of two extraordinarily gifted writers, Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter. They were liberals in the old-fashioned sense, and the intellectual founders of the neoconservative movement. Norman publicly endorsed Donald Trump as the preferred alternative to Hillary Clinton. “Many of the younger—they’re not so young anymore—neoconservatives have gone over to the Never Trump movement. And they are extremely angry with anybody who doesn’t share their view,” he told the Times of Israel.

John became one of those not-so-young men who were “extremely angry with anybody who doesn’t share their view.” So angry, in fact, that he all but endorsed the woman whose repellent values churned the stomachs of most Republicans, and not a few Democrats.

Podhoretz’s potty-mouthed tweets reek of malignity.

So angry, that he’s now trying to destroy the Trump presidency. So angry, that he’s trying to destroy even the life and livelihood of a brilliant young academic, Michael Anton. Anton’s a 47-year-old married man and father of two young children, who gave up a lucrative job in banking to join the Trump team. He’s also my friend. Long a Trump supporter, he now serves as the deputy assistant to the president for strategic communications on the National Security Council.

So why’s Podhoretz trying to destroy him by tweeting that he’s responsible for leaking anti-Jared Kushner information to The Washington Free Beacon? Hotair.com printed Podhoretz’s story in an article suggesting that Anton was part of a cabal trying to get Jared Kushner fired. As if that could happen.

It seems that the extremely angry not-so-young men see a battle for Trump’s soul unfolding in the Administration between the pro-Bannon and the pro-Kushner camps. They want a winner to emerge and they want the Kushner camp to win.

But that’s not how Trump operates. I know this for a fact as I was an informal and unpaid advisor to the Trump campaign in its early days, along with my husband, Frank Buckley. Trump would solicit viewpoints on a subject from a wide variety of people whose views spanned the spectrum of possible positions. From these divergent views Trump would craft his own speeches. They were always 100 percent Trump.

When Trump told the New York Post that he was his own strategist, he wasn’t dissing Bannon. He was stating a fact. He wants to hear from different voices, just as Ronald Reagan did with regard to the Soviet Union when he had two teams—one for and one against détente—advise him.

The New York Times correctly acknowledges that, as he has done throughout his career, “Mr. Trump plays advisers off one another, encouraging a sort of free-for-all competition for influence and ideas within his circle, so long as everyone demonstrates loyalty to him.” Trump has spoken dismissively of Jared’s recent Iraq trip and his newly-created office to overhaul the government. And he’s curtly told Bannon that his presence at certain meetings was unnecessary.

One doesn’t know in advance whose side Trump will take when all of the viewpoints have been considered. Jared wanted Trump to get involved in Syria. Bannon not. And Trump got involved. As the president, it’s Trump and only Trump who’s charged with making policy decisions. Everyone else must carry out what the president decides.

Unfortunately, what works for the president, doesn’t work for the extremely angry not-so-young men who get upset by “anyone who doesn’t share their view.” The people who don’t share the views of these angry old men must be drummed out of the Administration by any means possible. And that is why John Podhoretz has put a target on Michael Anton.

Anton is alleged to have leaked to The Washington Free Beacon, and Podhoretz’s tweet refers specifically to an article that yet again is covering the perceived “civil war” between Kushner and Bannon. Yet the article says that its anti-Kushner material comes from “sources both inside and outside the White House.” So what’s with fingering Anton as the person responsible for the anti-Jared comments? And after the article was published, a White House spokesperson told the Beacon that the article was inaccurate: “The NSC is running beautifully under the leadership of General McMaster who has installed an exceptional team to execute on behalf of the president.” This can’t sit very well with the not-so-young angry men of the right who want to destroy the Trump presidency if they cannot bend it to their will.

Podhoretz’s potty-mouthed tweets reek of malignity. They further no one’s interest but his own. He is the Chelsea Clinton of the conservative commentariat, a legacy figure devoid of interest save for his parents. I cannot imagine that his parents are very proud of him.

*A previous version of this article contained a typo in which the names of Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner were reversed, reading that Bannon supported the Syria bombing and Kushner did not.  We regret the error and have corrected it.


America • American Conservatism • Americanism • Declaration of Independence • Defense of the West • Harry Jaffa • Leo Strauss • Lincoln • Michael Anton • political philosophy • Section 1 • The Constitution • The Culture

Rod Dreher, Meet Leo Strauss and Friends

Leo Strauss

Rod Dreher has discovered an exotic tribe known as the Straussians.

Dreher, in case you’re not aware, is a blogger at The American Conservative and is the author of several books, including his newest and much-hyped The Benedict Option. Prior to landing his own blog at TAC, he worked at National Review, was an editor and columnist at The Dallas Morning News, and then worked at the John Templeton Foundation outside of Philadelphia as its publications director.

Dreher’s discovery, and a sudden onset of severe Straussophobia, occurred after a recent talk at Benedictine College where he encountered a student of the late Harry Jaffa, Susan Traffas. (Traffas wrote her PhD dissertation under Jaffa’s tutelage, which was later published as Jerusalem and Athens: Reason and Revelation in the Works of Leo Strauss.) Professor Traffas, says Dreher, was very critical of the Benedict Option concept and described herself as “a die-hard Straussian.” Dreher copped to not “know[ing] a lot about political theory,” and to therefore being unfamiliar with Straussians. But, never fear. He did some digging. After apparently taking a whole fifteen minutes to read through an essay on a website of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute about how different groups of conservatives view the American Founding, he came up with this sweeping claim:

Assuming that this is an accurate characterization of the Straussian view, it explains in part why so many politically oriented conservatives (not only those who affirmatively identify as Straussian) react strongly against the Benedict Option. America is not a state so much as it is a religion. To give up on the liberalism that created this creedal nation is, to use New Testament language about the Church, to allow the gates of Hell to prevail against America. It would invalidate their political religion. Therefore, they cannot admit the possibility that the American experiment might be failing, or can fail.

There is so much to be said about these and so many other casual assertions that Dreher makes in this piece, I am not sure where to begin.

East vs. West Revisited

First, Dreher misses a crucial distinction apparent even in the ISI essay he claims to have studied. It is West Coast Straussians, and not necessarily Straussians in general, who tend to view the American Founding as a high achievement both politically and philosophically. But before delving into particulars, we must back up a bit to get a larger view of the Straussian genealogy.

As a quick primer, the term “Straussian” refers to students and admirers of Leo Strauss, the German émigré who revived the teaching of political philosophy in the twentieth century. Whatever their differences, Straussians see that the study of political philosophy is still possible because great questions such as “Who rules?” and “What is the purpose of a just regime?” are always relevant to political life. The lessons of the great texts of philosophy such as Aristotle’s Ethics or John Locke’s Two Treatises on Government are always available to us because the truth of an idea does not hinge upon when or where or by whom it was first articulated. This is because truth, right and wrong, just and unjust, exist by nature—which Strauss opposed to the reigning orthodoxies of his day: historicism, positivism, and nihilism (hence the title of his most famous work, Natural Right And History).

A split emerged between Strauss’s students in the 1970s specifically over how the American Founding should be viewed, which stems from a more general disagreement about how to understand the relationship between politics and philosophy. The camps were dubbed East and West since they mostly broke down geographically, with West Coasters based mainly in California and East Coasters based in metropolises like New York, Washington, D.C., and Toronto. Today, the monikers East and West are less helpful since many East Coasters reside on the West Coast and vice-versa. As Charles Kesler once remarked in National Review, the “distinction is more a state of mind than of geography.”

West Coast Straussians are students of Harry Jaffa, his students, or his students’ students and can be found at places like the Claremont Institute and Hillsdale College. To generalize for the sake of clarity, West Coasters believe that America is a high and noble regime (Jaffa argued that it was the best regime in the history of Western civilization) because it is concerned ultimately with securing the highest ends of political life, the safety and happiness of its citizens. The American Founders combined the best elements of classical and early modern philosophy, along with biblical revelation, to form a coherent political theory that served the cause of liberty. The cornerstone of the American regime for West Coasters is the Declaration of Independence—especially the principle that “all men are created equal.” Though they see the principles of the Founding as theoretically sound, the Founding in practice was incomplete until the conclusion of the Civil War because of the stain of chattel slavery, which was in clear contradiction with the principle of natural human equality.

In contrast, East Coast Straussians tend to see the American Founding as, in Leo Strauss’s words (quoting Winston Churchill), “low but solid.” Some of the more famous East Coasters are Harvey C. Mansfield, Thomas Pangle, and the late Allan Bloom. America, in their view, is a modern commercial republic that is based upon the utilitarian virtue of acquiring wealth and property rather than more noble virtues or caring for the souls of its citizens. It is a country born of the modern mind of John Locke, whose philosophy was primarily founded upon sheer self-interest and a doctrine of individual rights that lowers the importance of the duties one owes to one’s family, country, and religion. Though lower in its aims, and perhaps even in spite of them, America became a great and prosperous country. Since natural rights are a dubious foundation for the perpetuation of a republic over the span of generations, the touchstone for East Coasters is the Constitution and the institutional constraints it imposes, which act as a stabilizing force against the rights revolution the Founders helped unleash in 1776.

Thomas G. West’s essay on the West-East division, “Jaffa vs. Mansfield,” is essential reading for those interested in a more detailed examination of the fault lines between these groups.

It’s also important to note that ISI is a traditionalist conservative organization that is far more amenable to the views of the East Coasters than West Coasters. Before branding them as heretics, Dreher should check out the Claremont Institute and American Greatness (especially the essays of Michael Anton “Decius”) and get a clear understanding of how West Coast Straussians understand themselves.

Deifying the State?

Dreher intimates that “Straussians” (he means West Coast Straussians) have an “idolatrous faith in the American ideal.” “America,” in the eyes of the West Coasters supposedly, “is not a state so much as it is a religion.”

What counts as “idolatrous” in Dreher’s mind you may ask? According to the section of the ISI website he quotes, it seems to be the idea that “the Declaration is the statement of the fundamental principles on which the regime is founded.” Furthermore, it’s the “special emphasis” West Coasters put “on the second paragraph in which Jefferson declares that ‘all men are created equal.’”

But if looking favorably upon the Declaration and the principle of equality is a sin against God, then America has been corrupt in the worldly sense from the very beginning. Many Americans apart from those who inhabit the fairly small circle of West Coast Straussians have considered the Declaration and the ideas it espouses—especially that of equality—as the bedrock foundation of the American political tradition.

To get clear on terms, equality in the Founders’ sense means simply this: Unlike a colony of bees in which a queen rules her drones by nature, there are no natural rulers of men. As it is expressed in the Declaration, the principle of equality recognizes that regardless of race, sex, ethnicity, or religion, human beings are free to order their lives as they see fit.

Abraham Lincoln described the place of equality in the American mind this way:

Public opinion, on any subject, always has a “central idea,” from which all its minor thoughts radiate. That “central idea” in our political public opinion, at the beginning was, and until recently has continued to be, “the equality of men.”

In the Founding era, the importance of the Declaration and equality rightly understood is found virtually at every turn. Eight state constitutions written and ratified in the 1770s and 80s feature language that paraphrase “all men are created equal.” For example, the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, which was written by future president John Adams, states in Article I, “All men are born free and equal.” Similarly, the Constitution of Virginia of 1776 contends that “all men are by nature equally free and independent.”

Jefferson, writing to George Washington in 1784, argued that “the foundation on which all [the state constitutions] are built is the natural equality of man.” In a letter to Elbridge Gerry, a signer of the Declaration who would later serve as James Madison’s Vice President, John Adams called equality “our first principle.”

Regarding the importance of the Declaration, at the top of a list of foundational core documents for the curriculum of a proposed law school, James Madison named the Declaration of Independence as among the “best guides” on the “distinctive principles of the Government of [Virginia], and that of the United States.” Frederick Douglass called the Declaration the “ring-bolt to the chain of [the] nation’s destiny” and argued that the “principles contained in that instrument are saving principles.” President Calvin Coolidge noted in his speech on the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration that it laid out “immortal truths” which would “liberate America” and “ennoble humanity.”

It’s difficult to understand how seeing the Declaration as the cornerstone of the American regime and its pronouncement of natural human equality as important to the meaning of America is somehow beyond the bounds of proper patriotism. Dreher, admittedly, isn’t too familiar with the Founders’ political theory (in his 2006 book Crunchy Cons, he butchers the Founders on religion and mangles a John Adams quote all in the span of two pages) so perhaps it’s not surprising he thinks along these lines.

Rod Dreher, Meet Decius

Dreher’s argument that West Coast Straussians would be aghast at conceding “that the American experiment might be failing, or can fail” is quite frankly absurd.

The irony in Dreher’s blind broadside against West Coasters in this instance is that West Coast-influenced places such as The Journal of American Greatness, American Greatness, and the newly established journal American Affairs all share a clear-eyed view of the current degraded state of our regime. In fact, it’s the very concern that “the American experiment might be failing” that served as the foundation of many West Coasters’ arguments for why Americans should elect Donald Trump.

If Dreher had read the writings of Michael Anton with care—especially his famous “Flight 93” essay (which I know Dreher read because he offered a critique of it)—he would know that they are replete with sober acknowledgements of how far we have descended from the Founders’ regime.

Here are some examples from Anton’s many writings that prove this point beyond a shadow of a doubt:

  • The Flight 93 Election” – “If conservatives are right about the importance of virtue, morality, religious faith, stability, character and so on in the individual; if they are right about sexual morality or what came to be termed ‘family values’; if they are right about the importance of education to inculcate good character and to teach the fundamentals that have defined knowledge in the West for millennia; if they are right about societal norms and public order; if they are right about the centrality of initiative, enterprise, industry, and thrift to a sound economy and a healthy society; if they are right about the soul-sapping effects of paternalistic Big Government and its cannibalization of civil society and religious institutions; if they are right about the necessity of a strong defense and prudent statesmanship in the international sphere—if they are right about the importance of all this to national health and even survival, then they must believe—mustn’t they?—that we are headed off a cliff.”
  • Restatement on Flight 93” – “I would also be overjoyed to be persuaded that the country into which I was born, which I have always loved instinctively, and which I was taught to love at the deepest theoretical level, is not in grave peril. Or if it is, that it can be saved even after eight more years of ‘fundamental transformation’—which means administrative state consolidation and managerial class entrenchment.”
  • Not ‘Reactionary’ But Right” – “I believe these are corrupt times and that America is on the downslope of the cycle. I don’t think the situation is yet irredeemable. But it soon may be.”
  • The Telos Crisis” – “My point here is not that we should cease to love America, our home, but simply that the sickness that has overtaken our country, a sickness that has stolen our sense of common national purpose, is quite possibly a sickness unto death.”

Actually, the last point was from a recent blog post written by none other than Rod Dreher. They sound remarkably similar, don’t they?

In fact just last September, Dreher argued that he wasn’t “remotely persuaded by [“The Flight 93 Election”] either, except in its contention that we are at a critical moment in the life of the Republic.” Why Dreher now thinks that West Coast Straussians would never admit that our country is balancing precariously on a precipice is a mystery that would take Sherlock Holmes to solve.

An Argument Between Citizens

Lastly, Dreher’s deeply immoderate rhetorical strategy seems to be to make hasty generalizations based on one-sided information and immediately hurl accusations rather than take part in reasoned reflection and dialogue. To paraphrase his arguments, “I’ve barely ever heard of Leo Strauss, and I hardly have any idea of who West Coast Straussians are, but they are committing heresy against God by deifying the state until someone proves otherwise” is probably not the best way to engage an audience who might actually sympathize with your arguments. This inquisitorial tactic is better at home with the modern approach of launching all-out rhetorical war against one’s political opponents, whereby individuals are said to be “DESTROYED” by the sniping of late night talk show hosts (yet, somehow, the individuals “annihilated” remain on earth to be targeted for future utterances that violate the ruling class’s god of political correctness).

Differences of opinion are, of course, welcome, and one need not accept the positions of West Coast Straussians in order to be counted among the learned. But, to quote Lincoln one last time, marking your opponent to be “shunned and despised” will cause him to “retreat within himself” and “close all the avenues to his head and his heart.” For not even “Herculean force and precision” will “be able to pierce him;” it would be akin to “penetrat[ing] the hard shell of a tortoise with a rye straw.”
Instead of immediately launching accusations that wither under the most cursory of examinations, Dreher should take some time to familiarize himself with the writings of Harry Jaffa, John Marini, Charles Kesler, William Voegeli, Thomas West, Ronald Pestritto, and others from which he would benefit greatly, even if he may ultimately disagree with their arguments. His regular readers would likely find such a dialogue to be very much worth their while. And those among the Straussian orbit would certainly find his opinions more compelling.

America • American Conservatism • Americanism • Conservatives • Deep State • Defense of the West • Donald Trump • Economy • Foreign Policy • Michael Anton • political philosophy • Republicans • The Culture • The Left • Trade • Trump White House

Conservatism: What is it Good For?

Paul Mirengoff of PowerLine has been kind enough to reply to my recent essay on the state of modern conservatism. To get the brown-nosing out of the way, I have been an avid reader of PowerLine for years. I thank Mirengoff for taking the time to comment on some of the problems I brought to the fore in my piece and I thank PowerLine for featuring my article in the “Picks” section most of the day Tuesday.

Mirengoff sets up a dichotomy between my argument and one made by Michael Anton (Decius) in a wonderful essay in the inaugural issue of American Affairs. He thinks that examining this dialectic reveals a problem in my argument.

Mirengoff correctly notes that Anton argues upholding the “liberal international order” is “largely instrumental—a means to” the end of serving “American foreign policy interests—peace, prestige, and prosperity.” Similarly, he says I argue “that conservatism too is a means to ends, and must be evaluated based on its ability to deliver.”


So far, so good. The LIO, Mirengoff claims, “has largely succeeded in meeting its ends, but needs restructuring in light of changed circumstances.” (He glosses over the problems caused by neoconservatives purportedly acting in the name of maintaining the LIO but, for current purposes, I will leave that to the side.) In contrast, Mirengoff notes that I made the opposite argument: modern conservatism has ultimately failed to achieve its goal of securing the common good of Americans.

Oddly, he doesn’t say here if I’m right about this. (Later, he suggests I’m incorrect but fails to say why.) He quickly turns to a discussion of what conservatism is. But this is a strange omission, because my entire argument hinges on the following syllogism: if conservatism did not do its job, then it should be jettisoned for something else.

For at least the last 16 years, conservatives have largely been content with administering purity tests and ideological one-upmanship instead of gaining a constituency outside of true believers. The presidential campaign of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), the beau ideal of a modern conservative statesman, showed this in spades. For example, Cruz lost to Trump in primaries across the South—primaries that, demographically speaking, should have been very favorable to his campaign. Instead, Cruz got crushed on his own turf. This is all the more damning because it shows that conservatism failed even within its own constituency. In other words, conservatives themselves noticed the failure of conservatism to conserve anything of value and, reasonably, decided to make a different choice.

Mirengoff argues that conservatism is about believing in “ordered liberty and economic freedom.” (As an aside, “ordered liberty” is a redundancy; rightly understood, order is contained within the very definition of liberty.) I agree that conservatives “believe” these things—but what have they done to secure these ideas in practice? And they are only partial goods in any event. The common good of all Americans—the “safety and happiness” of all Americans about which the Declaration speaks—is the central good to which these are subsumed. They should not be seen as separate competing goods, each vying for our attention.

Mirengoff then contends that conservatives believe in “free markets and free men,” which he contrasts to statist policies such as “public works programs, and the erection of major barriers to trade.” He asks rhetorically: “Has that view been rendered obsolete by events?”

The problem is, what have passed for “free markets” are nothing of the sort. Actual free markets, as scholar Thomas G. West has pointed out, feature three main principles: the ability of anyone to sell anything at any price; equal enforcement of contracts by the government; and equal access to public roads and bridges for economic activity. By any measure, the United States today falls far short of at least the first two requirements by a wide margin. For example, in the 2017 “Index of Economic Freedom,” published by the Heritage Foundation, the United States ranks 17th in the world, behind bastions of economic liberty such as Lithuania and Georgia.

And what many conservatives call “free trade” is nothing of the sort, either. “Free trade” agreements such as the now-defunct Trans-Pacific Partnership that are thousands of pages long and filled with countless loopholes and carve-outs are not free trade. Labeling cronyism “free trade” and elevating it to a doctrine of natural right hasn’t been too helpful for many Americans.

As a policy, actual unrestricted free trade was certainly beneficial for the United States at one time, but that was right after World War II, when we were the world’s sole superpower and the only major exporter of goods.

As Michael Anton posits in his essay in American Affairs:

[T]he world economy has changed significantly since 1945, to state the obvious. In certain cases, at least, the conditions underlying that period’s commercial policy orientation (and the theoretical impulses behind it) no longer apply. The Trump administration is right to be skeptical of free trade ideology and to revisit trade policy based on core interests and commercial realities.

Also, I wonder what Mirengoff means by likening “the erection of major barriers to trade” to statist policy? What does he consider “major barriers”? Does he think tariff-supporting statesmen such as Hamilton, Clay, Lincoln, and Coolidge were statists? Mirengoff seems to implicitly assume that free trade is conservative. But why? Tariffs were used for a majority of American history. Even Ronald Reagan deployed tariffs from time to time, which garnered heated denunciations from ideological free-traders at places like the libertarian Cato Institute. How is it conservative to reject our traditions?

In any event, this isn’t to argue that Pat Buchanan-style protectionism—which is just as rigidly ideological as current “free trade” orthodoxy—is the answer to today’s ills. It is instead to argue that, whether it be free trade, tariffs, or some other policy, U.S. economic policy should benefit the citizens of our country above all else. Conservatism was unable to adapt to these changing economic circumstances. It should be retired from the field and something else should lead the charge onward.

Mirengoff points out that Anton and I have different views regarding different things. Anton views the LIO as a means to achieving “peace, prestige, and prosperity” for the United States. Mirengoff then says conservatism in his understanding, as opposed to my own evidently, seeks to conserve “liberty and economic freedom” which “are ends, not just means to other ends.” But I agree that conservatism seeks to secure ends—ends far broader than the two he mentions and the end of “putting bread on the table” of middle class families which he attributes to me (in fact, Sen. Mike Lee argued that was his kind of conservatism, and I don’t disagree with him).

And, to point out the obvious, which too often gets lost in conservative rhetoric, these ends are for the benefit of flesh and blood human beings. This is not just some theoretical exercise being acted out by test subjects in a controlled environment.

Ultimately, I don’t understand how Mirengoff and I differ here other than the scope of the ends conservatism attempted, and failed, to secure.

He goes on: “Trumpians would err grievously if, as Hagen seems to do, they dismissed conservative ends as cliches and slogans and assumed that conservatism now offers ‘nothing’ when it comes to accomplishing material ends.” I never said that the ends which conservatism professed to conserve are “clichés and slogans.” Instead, I noted that conservative rhetoric has largely become nothing more than “clichés and slogans” that are abstracted from reality. Conservatism had nothing to say to anyone who isn’t already a True Conservative™. Evan McMullin’s vapid pronouncements on “equality and liberty” during his preposterous presidential campaign makes this state of decay crystal clear.

To Mirengoff’s second point, what has conservatism accomplished since Reagan left office in 1989 that makes him think it is blasphemous to argue conservatism didn’t work? I agree that many of conservatism’s pet projects—“tax reform, regulatory reform, and other conservative policies that expand freedom”—are all well and good. I would like to see many of them enacted by this Congress. But why haven’t any substantial gains been made on these policies in decades? Why was there no national constituency for these plans for decades prior to Trump—a man who ran explicitly rejecting the mantle of “movement conservative?”

In replying to Mirengoff, I speak of conservatism in the past tense, because its usefulness has long since ended. No matter what comes next—and whatever name it takes—that political movement must focus on countering the threats to the people’s sovereignty and clearing the way so that their common good can be achieved.

Movement conservatism, as Mirengoff admits, was just means to this end. It failed. Let’s try something else and refocus.

2016 Election • Administrative State • America • Donald Trump • Michael Anton • political philosophy • Steve Bannon • The Constitution • Trump White House

Bannon Vindicates John Marini

Even before Michael Anton (writing as Publius Decius Mus) published the most famous essay of the 2016 campaign season, “The Flight 93 Election,”—indeed, even before Donald Trump was considered a serious presidential contender—John Marini was formulating the arguments that would culminate in what remains the most powerful and the best affirmative case for Trump.

Marini’s essay, “Donald Trump and the American Crisis” focused on the ways in which the modern administrative state has worked to subvert and circumvent the sovereignty of the American people by torturing the concept of consent of the governed and blurring all plausible lines between that consent and the general operations of our government.

The massive and out-of-control bureaucracy that many conservatives are happy to criticize as “inefficient” or “ridiculous” or “picayune” is, in fact, a far more serious problem than most of them appear to realize. And it’s bigger, even, than a question of constitutionalism. Marini’s scholarship over several decades has pioneered the philosophical argument against the modern administrative state on the grounds of its political illegitimacy and its injustice.

In his essay last summer, Marini showed he understood what Trump appears to have recognized in the American people. Their plaintive cries of disgust with their government and with conventional politicians were in reaction to these fundamental facts: The people were being ignored and, what’s more, they were awakening to it.

Marini saw in Trump a politician who, more than any of the other conventional candidates, was willing to consider what the people were saying and, in so doing, possibly consider what justice there was to their anger. Given that that anger was legitimate, it seemed reasonable to believe that self-interest and Trump’s willingness to listen to the people (if not some high-toned philosophical reflection) might lead to the correct answers for helping to right this situation.

Marini argued that by attempting to restore political questions to the political realm and reminding Americans of their sovereignty, Trump would have gone a long way toward dismantling the administrative state and restoring the American constitutional order and rule of law.

Friendly critics of this view called Marini’s thesis “wishing” rather than thinking. They suggested that Marini and those who supported his argument were reading something into Trump that wasn’t there but they wished was there. Unfriendly critics echoed the Left and were indignant, insisting that Trump’s brusque manners and unconventional methods hinted at an authoritarian streak.

Now comes this:

Steve Bannon’s words at CPAC yesterday could not have been more clear:

the way the progressive Left runs, is if they can’t get it passed, they’re just gonna put in some sort of regulation in—in an agency.

That’s all gonna be deconstructed and I think that that’s why this regulatory thing is so important.

There it is. They really do mean to “deconstruct the administrative state.” Marini called it. I just reported it and believed it. Now it’s up to Americans of goodwill—including friendly critics—to help ensure that they can get it done.

A word of caution, though, for those just waking up to the fact that Trump is serious in wanting to be enlisted in this fight against the administrative state: there won’t be any doing this if we mean to do it with pure gentility.

If you think they’re going to give you your country back without a fight, you are sadly mistaken,” Bannon said. “Every day—every day, it is going to be a fight. And that is what I’m proudest about Donald Trump. All the opportunities he had to waiver off this; all the people who have come to him and said, ‘Oh, you’ve got to moderate.’ Every day in the Oval Office, he tells Reince and I, ‘I committed this to the American people; I promised this when I ran; and I’m going to deliver on this.’

Apologies are not necessary. That’s all water under the bridge and beside the point. But some chastening of the inclination to dismiss Trump and some appreciation, at least for what he intends to do?  That would be welcome and, even, helpful.