An Attack on Founding Principles at the Claremont Institute

The think tank is ostensibly dedicated to fusing conservatism with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Why is it flirting with alt-right authoritarianism?

Mark Makela / Reuters

When historians look back at the decline and fall of the conservative movement, a chapter should cover the Claremont Institute’s compromising attempts to tap populist energy.

The latest object is Donald Trump. The think tank, ostensibly dedicated to restoring the principles of the American founding to preeminence in national life, has just published an essay, “The Flight 93 Election,” so at odds with the conservative tradition, or any coherent attempt to fuse it with the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence, that one wonders if the enterprise now shares more premises with conservatism’s flagship publication National Review or the leftist journal Jacobin.

The essay is an attempt to change the minds of conservatives who refuse to support the GOP nominee. It doubles as a barely disguised rejection of conservatism itself, stoking panic in hopes that conservatives embrace what is essentially right-leaning authoritarianism. And it begins with an overwrought metaphor about the passengers on one of the planes hijacked during the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

“2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die,” the pseudonymous author, Publius Decius Mus, begins. “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. To compound the metaphor: a Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto. With Trump, at least you can spin the cylinder and take your chances.”

Decius grants that “this sounds histrionic.”

Indeed, if Hillary Clinton is elected, midterm elections will be held in two years, a Presidential election will be held two years after that, impeachment will be available to punish high crimes and misdemeanors, and Clinton will be checked and balanced by two branches of government specifically designed to thwart bad presidents.

So it is worth dwelling on the fact that the metaphor is histrionic, false, and absurd. “We have reached a point where otherwise intelligent people are suggesting that if you don't vote for the narcissistic, power-mad, uncontrollable, spoiled, dangerous, non-conservative, blowhard liar, that democracy is dead,” Ben Howe observed at Red State. “We're being told that it's important to ignore your reservations, ignore your genuine concerns, shut up and vote for a guy you may legitimately be concerned isn't mentally stable or trustworthy with nuclear codes.”

But as significant, given the venue, is the way that the essay, from its opening metaphor to its last lines, utterly rejects premises of the Claremont Institute and Constitutional conservatism with the false choices that it attempts to foist on readers.

“Those are stark choices indeed,” political scientist Greg Weiner observes in one of the best retorts to the essay, “and one of two possibilities is available. Either they are wholly detached from reality, in which case Decius has rejected prudence as the conservative virtue par excellence, or they are true, in which case Decius accepts the anticonstitutional and thus anticonservative proposition that the President straddles the Constitution like the Colossus stood astride the harbor at Rhodes.”

Early on, the essay is careful to avoid making its radical anti-conservatism too plain. After all, Decius is trying to persuade through an institution that is mostly followed and funded by conservatives or folks who like to think of themselves as conservatives.

“Let us back up,” Decius begins, forecasting the sort of rhetorical approach that hides as much as it lays bare. “One of the paradoxes...of conservative thought over the last decade at least is the unwillingness even to entertain the possibility,” he writes, “that America and the West are on a trajectory toward something very bad.”

In fact, conservatives have constantly entertained that possibility, as Decius well knows. The essay itself soon admits as much. “On the one hand, conservatives routinely present a litany of ills plaguing the body politic,” the author grants. But they don’t then act like they really believe in their own doom-and-gloom predictions, Decius argues: “These same conservatives are, at root, keepers of the status quo. Sure, they want some things to change. They want their pet ideas adopted—tax deductions for having more babies and the like. Many of them are even good ideas. But are any of them truly fundamental? Do they get to the heart of our problems?”

The misdirection is evident.

There is actually no contradiction in insisting “that our liberal-left present reality and future direction is incompatible with human nature and must undermine society,” on one hand, and that “that things can go on more or less the way they are going, ideally but not necessarily with some conservative tinkering here and there,” on the other, when societies change over decades and we’re talking about four years.

Nor is it inconsistent to believe that the status quo guarantees a gradual decline, but that rash trajectories guided by majestic hands and wispy golden hair would be worse.

Conservatives are keepers of the status quo by definition. They believe in safeguarding valuable parts of the status quo even when other parts are so damaged that change is essential. They pursue change with care, caution, and circumspection.

They do not throw babies out with bathwater.

The author is not actually criticizing conservatives for behaving in un-conservative ways. He is implicitly but unmistakably saying that American conservatism is inadequate and doomed. Don’t take my word for it. Here’s Rush Limbaugh summarizing the essay as he understood it for his audience: “The point of this whole piece is that Donald Trump's the only hope, that conservatism no longer applies.” Regular readers will not be surprised that Limbaugh basically agrees.

But Decius is never quite so direct. He claims to be a conservative––perhaps he is confused––and the essay proceeds with flattery of conservatives, like this sneaky passage:

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.

But it’s quite obvious that conservatives don’t believe any such thing, that they feel no such sense of urgency, of an immediate necessity to change course and avoid the cliff.

The rhetorical strategy is to persuade conservatives that what they’ve always believed, rather than a radical, new outlook, should impel them to support Donald Trump. He is the only way to avoid a cliff conservatives must avoid if they really believe in the values they’ve always touted and have the courage of their convictions.

That is flagrant sophistry that should embarrass The Claremont Institute. What were they thinking? The author would have Claremont Institute readers believe that the only way to safeguard virtue, morality, religious faith, stability, and character is to be led by an erratic reality TV host best known for his greed and crassness!

They hosted Decius’ argument that the only way to proceed as if virtue, morality, religious faith, stability, and character really matter to conservatives is to energetically elevate a man who goes on Howard Stern to brag about his serial adultery; who swindles his creditors with strategic bankruptcies; who praises Vladimir Putin as a good leader; who fleeced working class Americans credulous enough to attend Trump University; who eagerly puts his name in big letters atop gambling dens; who displays his erratic temperament and historically narcissistic personality daily; who might take any position under the sun on any number of issues; who is as ignorant of religion and dismissive of Judeo-Christian ethics as they come.

Strip away the clever writing and this is idiocy. But Decius is not an idiot. He has ingeniously smuggled a radically anti-conservative agenda into a conservative think tank.

Wittingly or not, the Claremont Institute has published an essay that wants to persuade conservatives of a major alt-right premise. As a reader sympathetic to that movement put it, the alt-right “rejects the procedural fetishism of parliamentary and representative democracies.” It rejects “the ideas of blank slate human nature, proposition nationalism, the dominance of economic thinking, and a society built off Enlightenment-era social engineering. You might then refer to the Alt-Right as the Illiberal Right. It is essentially a rejection of the entire ideology of Liberalism, including the idea that ‘all men are created equal’ is self evident in any way.”

The Decius essay argues from the same premise: that conservatism grounded in the principles of the Founding, in the Declaration and the Constitution, should be abandoned. The essay would be more honest if it forthrightly declared its belief that conservatives are wrong and should wake up to their mistake––that the right must abandon cultural, economic, and political conservatism to rally around an authoritarian, because that’s the only way to stop what the essayist regards as what’s most important.

Can anyone guess what that is? Extra credit if you foresaw its grounding in fear of immigrants:

...most important, the ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty means that the electorate grows more left, more Democratic, less Republican, less republican, and less traditionally American with every cycle. As does, of course, the U.S. population, which only serves to reinforce the two other causes outlined above. This is the core reason why the Left, the Democrats, and the bipartisan junta (categories distinct but very much overlapping) think they are on the cusp of a permanent victory that will forever obviate the need to pretend to respect democratic and constitutional niceties.

Because they are.

...Do [conservatives] honestly believe that the right enterprise zone or charter school policy will arouse 50.01% of our newer voters to finally reveal their “natural conservatism” at the ballot box? It hasn’t happened anywhere yet and shows no signs that it ever will. But that doesn’t stop the Republican refrain: more, more, more! No matter how many elections they lose, how many districts tip forever blue, how rarely (if ever) their immigrant vote cracks 40%, the answer is always the same. Just like Angela Merkel after yet another rape, shooting, bombing, or machete attack.

More, more, more!

This is insane.

This is the mark of a party, a society, a country, a people, a civilization that wants to die. Trump, alone among candidates for high office in this or in the last seven (at least) cycles, has stood up to say: I want to live. I want my party to live. I want my country to live. I want my people to live.

That passage is worth unpacking. Notice how it refers to much of the political spectrum as a bipartisan “junta,” as if the country has already been taken by force from immigration restrictionists to whom it for some reason belonged; as if the right would only be responding in kind if it were to install its own authoritarian. Notice the equally hysterical prediction that if Hillary Clinton wins it will spell “permanent victory” for Democrats and the left, who will no longer be bound by future elections or the Constitution. Notice how “my people” is defined: non-immigrants.

This style of xenophobia is familiar to students of American history.

And the immigrant blaming is particularly curious given that Decius believes the next most important issues, the other policies that threaten America, are war and trade. No American military intervention since the Gulf War of 1991 has resulted in a strategic victory, he writes, and we “long ago passed the point of diminishing returns” with respect to free trade. Who urged and prosecuted the several failed wars that came after 1991? Who put NAFTA in place? Not “Third World foreigners” or pols under pressure from newly minted citizens. Neither foreign nor trade policy shifted due to immigrants. Nor is America plagued by immigrant crime. Many more “Third World foreigners” reside here now than did decades ago when crime rates were much higher.

This is not to dismiss the concerns of conservatives who believe, like David Frum and Rich Lowry, that a more restrictive immigration policy would raise domestic wages, or decrease spending on social services,  or help America to better assimilate newcomers. It is to observe how much farther Decius goes on immigration than conservative restrictionists. For Decius, what he calls immigration policy, and what boils down to the ethnic composition of the country, is reason enough to consider American democracy nearly dead. Little wonder he believes it should be enough to make conservatives abandon their philosophy and values.

Put so plainly, that hysterical proposition would be rejected by most conservatives, who are not so worried about immigration as to rethink their entire world view. Thus the emotionally manipulative claims about a Flight 93 moment. The rhetorical excess serves its usual purpose, as Greg Weiner understood with clarity:

Who benefits from exaggerating the sense of catastrophe?

Consider: Decius warns that “the tsunami of leftism that still engulfs our every—literal and figurative—shore has receded not a bit but indeed has grown.” This is absurd. The Speaker of the House is a thoughtful conservative with an operating majority. The Senate is in Republican hands. Several major countries have governments somewhere right of center.

Similarly, Hillary Clinton—she who is under attack from the Bernie Sanders crowd as insufficiently Progressive, she who stands accused of residing in the pocket of financial interests who fund her family foundation, who is widely thought to be running too cautious a campaign—is probably not, could we please face this, spending her nights concocting a “Progressive-left agenda” that includes “items few of us have yet imagined in our darkest moments.” The motive of such inflationary rhetoric is often the accumulation of power. Its result always is. Note well the monomaniacal formulation of Trump: “I am your voice . . . I alone can fix it.” There is a bizarre detachment of conservatism from conservation here. All is change, oriented toward future ends. This requires power above all else: The power of He Alone Who Can Fix It.

Consequently, even granting arguendo that the cliff awaits, the essential question Trump presents is whether injecting an already inflamed presidency with political growth hormone is the answer. If that is the answer, the Constitution of the United States is not. It divides authority among three branches of government, led by a deliberative Congress whose will the President executes. Decius, apparently, would deepen the corruption of that regime by handing it to a strongman whose devotion to the Constitution stops at its phantom Article XII.  Decius’ Constitution is thus far more Wilsonian and Progressive than the original.

Here is how Weiner reframes the actual test conservatives should be trying to pass:

There are, of course, thoughtful people who find Trump distasteful but Clinton unacceptable. But all of them should beware the rhetoric of crisis. “The election 2016 is a test—in my view, the final test,” Decius warns by way of conclusion, “of whether there is any virtù left in what used to be the core of the American nation.” Yes, it is a test. The test is whether we have the constitutional virtue—not the Machiavellian kind—remaining to resist the apocalyptic rhetoric of those who want us to believe it is the last one.

The Claremont Institute is hardly alone in failing that test.

Hugh Hewitt has argued that “if Hillary Clinton wins, the Left gavels in a solid, lasting, almost certainly permanent majority on the Supreme Court. Every political issue has a theoretical path to SCOTUS, and only self-imposed judicial restraint has checked the Court's appetite and reach for two centuries.That restraint will be gone when HRC's first appointee is sworn in. Finished.This is not hyperbole.”

Talk radio host Dennis Prager writes that if Hillary Clinton wins the presidency, “I do not believe that the country will surely survive as the country it was founded to be. In that regard we are at the most perilous tipping point of American history.”

Easy thought experiments assist us in seeing through these claims.

If you’re a conservative, would you make a trade whereby Hillary Clinton gets to fill Supreme Court vacancies for the next four years, but thereafter, for 20 years between 2020 and 2040, conservatives get to fill all the vacancies on the Supreme Court? If Hugh Hewitt is correct, you ought to reject that deal. What do you say?

And if Hillary Clinton does win, does any conservative believe that Hewitt and Prager are going to cede permanent defeat, consistent with their rhetoric, there being no point in future political engagement, because they’ve already lost forever? Or do conservatives suppose that Hewitt will keep working to sway judicial nominations in a conservative direction, that Prager will keep advocating for conservative outcomes in elections, as if he believes that America survived after all?

I believe that both men will continue their radio shows much as before. I believe that they will insist circa 2018 that the midterm elections are very important. I believe they will argue that it is very important for voters to elect the Republican nominee in 2020.

And I believe conservatives know deep down that supporting Trump is antithetical to what they purport to believe––that hysteria and hyperbole in forecasts about putting a Clinton is back in the White House for four years is more a function of the indefensibility of Trump than any actual threat his opponent represents. For some, partisan loyalty manifests whatever is necessary to justify it.

Even so, the apocalyptic rhetoric of Hewitt and Prager is forgivable in comparison to the more dangerous ideas put forth by Decius and elevated by the Claremont Institute. Decius is rejecting the adequacy of a Constitutional framework that survived a British invasion, slavery, the Civil War, the Great War, the rise of fascism and Communism, Jim Crow––and that will obviously survive four years of Hillary Clinton.

To return to his own preferred metaphor, Decius is, in fact, like a man trying to rally those around him to rush the cockpit of an airplane… but unlike Flight 93, there are no terrorists aboard the flight. Decius is the one who represents a threat to passengers.

It is as if this sketch was made to parody Decius:

The most radical, least conservative people in American politics right now are the so-called conservatives who are imprudently counseling the abandon of core values and norms to avoid a point-of-no-return that is a figment of their imagination, often with rhetorical excesses that threaten the peaceful transition of power at the core of America’s success insofar as the excesses are taken seriously.

To behave this way in service of any authoritarian candidate would be abhorrent.

Trump enthusiasts make their turn against Constitutional conservatism especially easy to reject because rather than rallying around a modern day Napoleon, they’ve been taken in by a lying buffoon who breaks his word constantly, has no core values, is unlikely to both stick to and effectively advance their agenda if he is elected, and shows every possible warning sign of incompetence.

“A lesson I took from 2003-2008 is that a failed/unpopular president can do far more damage to his side than the rival party ever could,” Ross Douthat writes. “And also that you can't escape decadence just by doing something that feels world-historical without risking, you know, a debacle. There are no good reasons to think that Trump, right though he may be on some important issues, would be a successful president. There are good reasons to think that he could blunder into worse disasters than George W. Bush. Also, you know, he's a corrupt buffoon. So while I agree that policy journals and articles about welfare reform won't save cultural conservatism from a long defeat... I also see no plausible scenario in which a figure like Trump might save it, and many many many in which he hastens it to the grave.”

Ben Howe agrees.

He thinks conservatives should face up to the incoherence of believing that an agenda can be saved at one moment, by one man, but will be lost forever if he loses, because afterward demographic trends will not allow conservatives to win. If the right can’t win on an issue starting in 2020, why would winning in 2016 save them? The embrace of demographic determinism is self-defeating: it causes the right to cease any attempt to do the hard work of persuasion and winning new voters.

“Every 4 years this hyperbole gets worse, and now the base is so whipped up into a frenzy that it has legitimized and elevated some of the most paranoid, xenophobic and, if not racist, at least ethnically fearful group of Americans I've ever seen,” Howe writes at Red State. “But they don't represent the majority of Americans. Instead, they are just more and more coming to represent the Republican Party.”

The result, he says, is that the right must choose between “embracing that madness for the sake of winning the next election, or taking a stand and saying ENOUGH.”

To embrace Trump, he adds, is a signal to the American people “that there is simply no line of decency, no expectation of principles, no standard of common sense that exceeds the desire to retain power.” If you're worried about losing Supreme Court nominees between 2016 and 2020, “How about losing them from 2016 to 2028?” he asks. “”Is that a better or a worse scenario? The world will not end if we lose this election… The only real question is if we lose with an opportunity to recover, or if we lose in a panic, embracing the worst parts of us as we go down.”

#Never Trump is ultimately the least bad option for conservatives.

Trump is the best option for anti-conservatives on the alt-right who believe, to quote my reader again, that “conservatism such as what we have in America has failed to conserve anything of value,” because Enlightenment liberalism is straightforwardly inferior to illiberalism. “The Alt-Right is unafraid to say that the freedom America offers to publish Gawker magazine is less meaningful than the freedom Singapore offers to walk the streets at 3:00AM pretty much anywhere with zero fear of crime,” he wrote. “The Alt-Right is unafraid to say that Greece and Spain had full employment with strongmen like Papadopoulos and Franco while suffering double digit unemployment thanks to tax and spend democratic incompetence.”

The Claremont Institute should take more care to avoid becoming “useful idiots” for that agenda––or else level with its readers and donors that they no longer believe that Constitutional conservatism is a viable way forward for the American project.

I’ll leave you with the man some see as a savior from Clintonism: