Why Are Some Conservative Thinkers Falling for Trump?

A few themes emerge among intellectuals on the right about what attracts them to the candidate: his campaign’s energy, his impassioned following, and his eagerness to call out the establishment.

Edmon de Haro

Logically, Donald Trump should have less support among intellectuals than he had a year ago. That’s because over the past year, he has made statements that expose him as both ignorant of public policy and contemptuous of liberal-democratic norms. He has proposed banning Muslims from entering the United States, incited violence against protesters at his rallies, responded to The Washington Post’s critical coverage by warning that its owner is “getting away with murder” on his taxes and “we can’t let him get away with it,” declared a federal judge biased because he’s Mexican American, and twice revealed his unfamiliarity with the term nuclear triad.

Instead, more than a year after Trump announced his presidential bid, his support among intellectuals has grown. Of course, many prominent conservatives—from George Will to William Kristol to David Brooks to Erick Erickson—oppose him militantly. But another cluster of writers and thinkers have declared themselves supportive of, or at least open to supporting, Trump. Among Trump’s critics, the predominant explanation for this openness is opportunism: Supporting the Republican nominee can have professional benefits. But a deeper dynamic is at work. It’s just hard to recognize, because American intellectuals haven’t felt the allure of authoritarian, illiberal politics this strongly in a long time.

In 1953, Czesław Miłosz published The Captive Mind, which described how a series of Polish intellectuals came to embrace Stalinism. Miłosz detailed the role that “coercion” and “personal ambition” played in their ideological transformation. But he stressed that he was concerned “with questions more significant than mere force” or material advancement. “To belong to the masses is the great longing of the ‘alienated’ intellectual,” Miłosz argued. “The gratifications of personal ambition … are merely the outward and visible signs of social usefulness, symbols of a recognition that strengthens the intellectual’s feeling of belonging.”

The book caused a sensation in the United States and Western Europe, in part because Western intellectuals understood the yearning to “belong to the masses” that Miłosz described. Many had felt it themselves. In 1928, the philosopher John Dewey had written enviously that while Western intellectuals’ role was “chiefly critical,” intellectuals in the Soviet Union had a task that was “total and constructive. They are organic members of an organic going movement.” In his 1949 book, The Vital Center, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. observed that “against the loneliness and rootlessness of man in free society,” totalitarianism “promises the security and comradeship of a crusading unity.”

Trumpism is not Marxism, whose supposedly scientific theory of history held particular appeal for intellectuals. Even fascism—which grew out of social Darwinism—had a richer intellectual lineage than Trumpism does. But like the men who led those authoritarian movements, Trump offers intellectuals the chance to speak for the energized masses and thus to make themselves relevant beyond their salons. And now, as then, the desire for such relevance is strong enough to make some intellectuals question liberal democracy itself.

Read the intellectuals who are supporting Trump—or are open to supporting Trump—and you notice a few themes. First, they admire his campaign’s raw, unbridled energy. The Trump movement, according to the Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan, radiates “dynamism.” His supporters “are just about the only cheerful people in politics … They’re having a good time.” Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, an even more unabashed Trump booster, explains, “There is no model here … It is a Donald Trump unique, extraordinary experience. And you have to relax and take it for that kind of a unique experience.”

Next, pro-Trump intellectuals chastise political elites for disrespecting his exuberant, impassioned followers. “Those who oppose Mr. Trump should do it seriously and with respect for his supporters,” Noonan writes. “No one at this point needs your snotty potshots.” In fact, Trump’s intellectuals argue, elites have, due to their own incompetence and corruption, lost all grounds to lecture Trump supporters about individual rights and the rule of law. In his relationship to the Washington “establishmentarians,” says Gingrich, Trump is “like the boy who says the emperor has no clothing.” Noonan adds:

The Beltway intelligentsia of the conservative movement continues to be upset about Mr. Trump’s coming nomination and claim they’d support him but they have to be able to sleep at night. They slept well enough through two unwon wars, the great recession, and the refusal of Republican and Democratic administrations to stop illegal immigration.

This makes no sense. Even if conservative elites were undisturbed by illegal immigration, the financial crisis, and the Iraq and Afghan Wars (as Noonan asserts but makes no effort to prove), why does it follow that they should accede to a presidential candidate who demands torture, a religious test for entry into the United States, and the removal of judges because of their ethnicity? What Noonan is really suggesting is that established politicians and commentators lack the moral standing to oppose Trump, because he can’t be any worse than they are. And besides, the people are with him.

In The Captive Mind, Miłosz argued that Stalinist intellectuals “present[ed] as demons the rather inefficient police and the sluggish judges” of Poland’s pre–World War II regime in order to suggest that Soviet domination could not possibly be worse. By condemning America’s current leaders as predatory and decadent, Trump’s intellectuals are doing something similar. “The natural arc of Obama-style progressivism is always anti-constitutional fascism,” writes Victor Davis Hanson, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a frequent contributor to National Review. Ken Masugi, a former assistant to Clarence Thomas now at the Claremont Institute, a respected conservative think tank, argues that while Trump may not be perfect, he at least champions “the sovereignty of the people,” who are rising up against “American elites [who] have long abandoned the basic principles of constitutional governance.”

Have America’s leaders really “abandoned the basic principles of constitutional governance”? Masugi directs readers desiring amplification to something called the “Journal of American Greatness.” Noonan does too. She calls the journal “a sophisticated, rather brilliant and anonymous website that is using this Trumpian moment to break out of the enforced conservative orthodoxy of the past 15 years.”

That’s one way of describing it. During its four months of life, the “Journal of American Greatness”—which featured a collection of writers with classical pseudonyms and an affinity for the German American political theorist Leo Strauss—made a highbrow case for overthrowing America’s existing political order and replacing it with the raw, dynamic, intoxicating energy of Donald Trump. The journal shuttered itself in June after some of its contributors grew worried that their identities would be exposed. But the conservative author Steven Hayward, who knows several of its authors, predicts that they will continue publishing in other venues. Already, he says, they have received several offers for book contracts.

Edmon de Haro

The “Journal of American Greatness” makes explicit what Noonan, Hanson, and Gingrich imply: that America’s current system of government is illegitimate. One article declares, “The digits of one hand suffice to count all of the truly committed defenders of American sovereignty, liberty, and nationhood in Congress.” A second asserts that the United States is “post-Constitutional.” A third accuses Washington conservatives of a “decadence so deep that it would take some Oliver Cromwell to puncture.”

The hyperbole is telling. Obviously, the United States is not a model liberal democracy. America is less democratic than it might be because the preferences of the ultra-wealthy often outweigh the preferences of everyone else, and because many states make voting hard. America is less liberal than it might be—it does not effectively guarantee individual rights or restrain executive power—because its national-security bureaucracy operates largely in secret, without strong judicial or congressional oversight.

These are serious problems. But they would be exacerbated, not remedied, by electing a candidate who bans journalists from his rallies, slanders federal judges, and says he would order the military to torture. The writers at the “Journal of American Greatness,” however, do not believe America’s political system can be remedied. They want it overthrown by a candidate who truly represents the popular will.

To explain how that might work, “Decius,” one of the journal’s most prolific contributors, employs a Straussian distinction between “tyranny” and “Caesarism.” A tyrant, Strauss argues, takes absolute power by overthrowing a constitutional republic. A Caesar also takes absolute power, but only when a constitutional republic has already collapsed on its own.

Decius says Trump probably isn’t a Caesar, because “he will serve no more than his Constitutionally permissible two terms.” But if he is a Caesar, it might serve America right. “Have we not degenerated to the point that we are ready for Caesar?,” Decius writes. “Caesarism is not tyranny. It is rather a sub-species of absolute monarchy, in which the monarch is not an unjust usurper but the savior of a country with a decayed republican order that can no longer function.” By overthrowing a depraved and unaccountable elite, Trump would reassert “the people’s sovereignty” and “their natural right to rule themselves.”

Why should we care about pseudonymous musings on a now-defunct website? Because the notion that Trump’s role as tribune of the people invests him with a kind of revolutionary authority over the institutions of the old order has echoes throughout pro-Trump commentary. In February, Noonan wrote, “There’s a kind of soft French Revolution going on in America, with the angry and blocked beginning to push hard against an oblivious elite.” In May, she wrote that Trump’s fans want him to be “a human bomb that will explode by timer under a bench in Lafayette Park and take out all the people but leave the monuments standing.” These are ghastly metaphors. Obviously, Noonan is not endorsing revolutionary violence. But she’s writing sympathetically about the people’s supposed desire for it. And she’s doing so on behalf of a candidate who incites actual violence.

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The suggestion that Trump enjoys more legitimacy than the institutions meant to restrain him also shows up in defenses of his attacks on the press. “When he says the media is scum and liars, that’s resonating because most people don’t trust them,” declared Fox News’s Sean Hannity in June, employing the same logic as the “Journal of American Greatness.” Because Trump represents the people and the people distrust the media, which are part of the corrupt ruling class, Trump has the right to slander and impede the media’s work. In Hannity’s words, “They deserve what they get.”

Does any of this matter? It depends on how close Trump comes to winning. If Hillary Clinton routs him, the intellectual argument being constructed on his behalf will fade. It will fade because Trumpism derives its legitimacy from its support among the people.

The threat will come if Trump’s popular support surges. For Trump, popularity equals truth. That’s why, when he’s ahead, he spends so much time citing polls. He understands that in American public discourse, it’s hard to say the people are wrong.

For intellectuals, therefore, the Trump campaign poses two tests. The first is of their ability to push the American political system to address the combustible economic despair of the working-class white men who have powered Trump’s campaign. But the second is of their ability to declare—no matter how many Americans gravitate toward Trump—that his supporters are wrong. America is a democracy because the people’s voices count. But it is a liberal democracy because freedom of the press, independence of the judiciary, and the rule of law are not subject to popular vote.

Miłosz called The Captive Mind “a debate with those of my friends who were yielding, little by little, to the magic influence of the New Faith.” Little by little, some American intellectuals are yielding to their faith in the supporters of Donald Trump. They must be challenged now, before that magic influence grows.