The Populist Nationalist on Trump's National Security Council

Michael Anton actively courts controversy with his extreme views. But how much influence does he have in the White House?

Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

Michael Anton warned last year that 2016 was the Flight 93 election: “Charge the cockpit or you die.”

Americans charged. Donald Trump became president of the United States. And Anton, the author of that now-notorious essay, is helping to fly the plane—running communications for the National Security Council.

Anton cuts a curious figure through the Trump White House. A thoroughly educated dandy, his writings are at the core of an effort to construct an intellectual framework around the movement that elected a president who has shown no inclination to read books and who speaks in an unpretentious New York vernacular.

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"I’m a huge admirer,” White House chief strategist Steve Bannon said. “I think Michael is one of the most significant intellects in this nationalist movement.”

And like that movement itself, he’s been repeatedly accused of advancing bigoted views. “Trump Aide Derided Islam, Immigration And Diversity, Embraced An Anti-Semitic Past,” reads the headline of a Huffington Post profile, citing a 2016 essay. “‘Diversity’ is not ‘our strength’; it’s a source of weakness, tension and disunion,” Anton wrote, adding later, “Islam is not a “religion of peace”; it’s a militant faith that exalts conversion by the sword and inspires thousands to acts of terror—and millions more to support and sympathize with terror.” Michael Gerson, George W. Bush’s chief speechwriter, charges that Anton’s best known work is tainted by “a residue of prejudice.”

But press coverage has focused at least as much on Anton’s refined tastes and hobbies. It’s unusual, after all, for a high-ranking National Security Council official to have written a book about men’s fashion modeled on Machiavelli’s The Prince, or to have left thousands of comments on a men’s style forum about clothing and fine wines. After writing pro-Donald Trump essays under a pseudonym throughout the campaign, Anton was unmasked by The Weekly Standard earlier this year. Yahoo quickly labeled him the “most interesting man in the White House,” conjuring those Dos Equis ads. Vanity Fair suggested that he was the new Ben Rhodes, the Obama administration’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications who famously boasted of creating an “echo chamber” to promote the Iran deal.

But maybe the most remarkable thing about Anton is not Anton himself, but how not unusual he is in a White House that is populated by a heterodox set of figures with clashing ideologies, opaque motives, and non-traditional backgrounds.

“I’m a flack,” Anton told me over dinner last month. Of course, as the person in charge of strategic communications at the NSC, he’s more than that. Rather, he could be. After the crisis over former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia resulted in Flynn’s unceremonious ouster from the administration, those still at the NSC are now able to turn their attention to, well, the actual work of national security. Flynn’s replacement, H.R. McMaster, is beginning to leave his own mark on the council. But some of those associated with Flynn remain, their presence a reminder of an earlier, rougher period of the administration.

Whereas the Obama White House displayed the kind of ideological and political uniformity that enabled Rhodes to be a player by channeling the president’s point of view, the Trump White House is a tangle of competing interests and factions. How do you make an echo chamber when it’s not clear what’s supposed to echo? What use is it to be the leading voice of intellectual Trumpism if, at the end of the day, you’re a comms guy, and the strategy and vision are being mapped out elsewhere?

To use a metaphor close to Anton’s heart: The Roman consul he chose for his pseudonym, Publius Decius Mus, sacrificed himself to inspire his army. Which army is ready to follow Anton?

“If Trump empowered Anton the way Obama empowered Rhodes he could do really great things,” said national security consultant David Reaboi, a friend of Anton’s and Claremont fellow. “It’s only a question of, ‘Is this guy empowered enough by the administration to actually do this stuff?’ The answer is, not yet.”

Reaboi argued that Anton is one of the few in the White House who could effectively channel Trump’s own views. “Trump empowering Anton in that position is something akin to empowering himself, and the ideas that he articulated during the campaign,” Reaboi said. “He is one of only a handful of administration officials who really understand and agree with Trump's own vision of foreign policy.” But the tricky thing about this particular White House is that it’s unclear how much Trump himself subscribes to any particular set of theories.

“President Obama had a very well developed worldview and I understood what he wanted to say,” Rhodes told me. “Therefore there was clarity in what the message was … It’s difficult to execute that kind of role if the president doesn’t have a clear and consistent message.”

“[Anton] came into a very difficult situation and created a functioning press shop,” said Victoria Coates, Anton’s deputy. “It’s apples and oranges,” Coates said of the Rhodes comparison. “It’s not the same position. And I think you can look at other positions in the Trump administration that would be the equivalent of Ben Rhodes’s position, but his one isn’t it.”

Bannon had another explanation for why Anton won’t become a second Rhodes: The NSC is different under Trump.

"I'm not trying to disparage Ben Rhodes but I always viewed Ben Rhodes as more operational,” Bannon said. In his view, the Obama administration had "operationalized the NSC.”

“What President Trump and General McMaster have done is go in the opposite direction, getting the NSC back to its proper role and function,” Bannon said.

Anton has a "very precise understanding of the processes of communications,” Bannon said, remarking that it was rare in Washington or New York to have a "comms person who is also a deep intellect."

* * *

Trim and handsome at 47, married with two children, Anton spent the previous decade in relative obscurity. After a few years as a speechwriter in the Bush administration’s National Security Council, Anton had a series of corporate jobs and wrote on the side. His subjects ranged far and wide, from cooking—in an essay that describes his brief stint working as a line cook in a French restaurant to learn more about the craft—to Tom Wolfe, whom he considers a friend, to the Beach Boys, to Napa Valley.

Anton’s writing became more topical as the campaign progressed. Fearful of losing his corporate job, with the financial-services firm BlackRock, he chose a pseudonym: Publius Decius Mus, after the Roman consul who sacrificed his life at the Battle of Vesuvius. Under the Decius byline, Anton offered forceful defenses of Trump and aggressive broadsides against those on the right who opposed him.

Anton gave me a long explanation for his nom de plume, including a point-by-point rundown of the battle of Vesuvius as described by Roman historian Livy, as well as an exegesis of the showdown between Hannibal and Fabius Maximus Cunctator at the Battle of Cannae. But it boils down to this: Anton sees in Decius the embodiment of the ideals of Machiavelli, the thinker who has been his lodestar.

“There was no way to break authority’s hold over philosophy without shock therapy,” Anton said of Machiavelli. “He delivered the shock therapy by all the pungent, obnoxious, outrageous things he says in his books, which makes him forever after known as an evil schemer, the devil incarnate, and so on. He knew that would be his fate. He knew that would be what most people would think of him for all of eternity. He did it anyway. He accepted upon himself the opprobrium of the world, in order to assess what he thought was necessary in the liberation of thought from under the thumb of authority. In that sense, he is decent. He didn’t sacrifice his body, his wealth, his life; but he sacrificed his reputation.”

Anton’s views were shaped in California, at the Claremont Graduate University and the Claremont Institute, which went on to become the hotbed of academic Trumpism. His essay on “The Flight 93 Election” delivered instant, albeit pseudonymous, notoriety by expanding on these themes. It argued that the country was headed for certain disaster if Hillary Clinton won, and compared the choice facing voters to that of the passengers on the plane that was hijacked and crashed in Pennsylvania on 9/11.

“To compound the metaphor: a Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto,” Anton wrote. “With Trump, at least you can spin the cylinder and take your chances.”

The essay provoked fierce criticism from the very movement conservatives Anton savages in the piece as “keepers of the status quo.” (Some of their anger has not tempered with time; the former Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, who has known Anton for years and whose magazine has repeatedly published his work, recently compared Anton to the Nazi political theorist Carl Schmitt.) But for Anton and his allies, this only proved the point.

"I think everybody that was really paying attention to this realized that the Republican orthodoxy and a lot of the conservative movement had gone in this intellectual cul de sac ... many of these hacks had really become disconnected to what America really is and where the American people really are,” White House chief strategist Steve Bannon told me. “I thought it was incredibly powerful" and a "seminal moment" where Trumpism "really started to get an intellectual basis,” Bannon said.

Peter Thiel recommended Anton to Bannon, who in turn recommended him to Flynn. According to Anton, Thiel figured out he was Decius after asking around.

"This Trump movement is not going away, this populist nationalist movement,” Bannon said. “I realize the Permanent Political Class (Republican Division)—those people on Capitol Hill—wish it would go away.”

* * *

In the Palm Court ballroom at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington last Thursday, the Claremonsters gathered.

The Claremont Institute was holding an event: “Conservatism in the Trump Era,” reception to follow. Around four o’clock, a procession of suits filed into the ballroom, some on grey-haired academic types, some on sharply-coiffed young guys with the look of congressional staffers or K Streeters on the make. The White House official Sebastian Gorka, under fire that day for reported ties to a Hungarian far-right group, showed up about halfway through and was surrounded by well-wishers.

The Claremont event could have been any stuffy think-tank klatsch in Washington; an older crowd, mostly white, listening to scholars expound on ideas. But the cognitive dissonance of this kind of high minded event as applied to freewheeling, proudly anti-intellectual Trumpism was hard to shake.

It’s Claremont, though, that has led the charge in applying an intellectual and historical context to Trump—and Claremont that found a middle road between anti-Trump thinkers elsewhere in the conservative movement, and the aggressive populist nationalism of the Breitbart universe. The community of academics, writers, and think tankers who have emerged from Claremont Graduate University and nearby Institute have made efforts to meld Trump’s aggressive nationalism with traditional conservatism, and in doing so have made themselves arguably more relevant than the anti-Trump conservatives still holding out at National Review or The Weekly Standard. And the Claremont Review of Books, in particular, has provided a platform, especially since publishing “The Flight 93 Election.” (Bannon is a fan of the publication: “It commands your attention and respect,” he said, calling it The New York Review of Books for the right.)

“We’ve been for a long time trying to figure out what American conservatism is and Trump is just a natural evolution in our long term interest in conservatism and conservative politics and conservative politicians,” said Charles Kesler, editor of the Claremont Review of Books and a former professor of Anton’s.

Kesler compared “The Flight 93 Election” to Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense.” “American politics often is galvanized by a sweeping journalistic charge ahead of public opinion and ahead even of political opinion,” he said, “that warns about the direction that the country is taking.”

“The Claremont project as relates to Trump is not to give Trump an intellectual background for what he’s saying, but to try to explain to intellectuals what Trump is trying to do,” said Brian Kennedy, a former president of Claremont who has known Anton since the 1990s.

Claremont, and Anton, are shaped by the peculiar politics of California, a state buffeted by competing cultural and political forces in the postwar era; immigration, the tech boom, and decades of mostly liberal governance. They see themselves as part of the West Coast branch of devotees of the political philosopher Leo Strauss, distinguishing themselves from the East Coast branch, more closely associated with the neoconservative movement.

“The promise of California has soured,” Kesler told me. Anton “doesn’t want California to be the harbinger of what happens to America.”

“Claremont back then was trying to apply Strauss’s appreciation of philosophy to the modern political setting, especially in California,” Kennedy said. “If you could win California back for the cause of limited government, if you could get California right, then the country could follow. I won’t say we failed, but it was a much bigger task than anybody could have imagined.”

The project is high-minded, and Claremont’s scholarly image potentially alienating. Too alienating for some.

“You’ve got to have some middlebrow expression of Trumpism,” said one Washington conservative who speaks regularly with Trump. “Until People magazine or more precisely Time magazine can do some Nancy Gibbs cover story on what Trumpism is, there’s a problem. It can’t just be the vulgar dumbness of Breitbart or the kind of Aeschylus-quoting weirdness of Michael Anton.”

Even some at the Claremont event voiced doubts about the viability of Trumpism as an ideology.

“We don’t know much about his reading habits. Let’s face it, he has not shown much interest in turning himself into an ‘ism,’” said Kesler, during a panel on “Recovering American Conservatism. “Steve Bannon and other people around him may be interested in creating a Trumpism, and that is certainly true of many of our friends who wrote vigorously in defense of Trump during the campaign, were looking to find the Trumpism in Trump. And there may be something there, but I don’t think there’s much evidence of it so far.”

The Claremont Institute has always remained proudly outside of Washington, as far away as one can get within the contiguous United States. But it’s beginning to make inroads here. It recently opened a small office in Washington.

But even with Anton ensconced in the West Wing, it has a long way to go. “Saying that the Claremont crowd is powerful in DC is a type of wishcasting,” Reaboi said. “It’s still an arduous slog because everything is very entrenched.”

* * *

When I had dinner with Anton in February, it had been about a week since Flynn left the administration in disgrace over his contacts with the Russian ambassador and for having subsequently mislead Vice President Mike Pence.

I found Anton waiting for me at the bar of the Hotel Dupont, wearing a sharply tailored suit and looking impatient. We started going through the biographical questions—he was born in Sacramento because his parents were in law school there; his parents divorced, and he ended up in Santa Cruz as a child; he attended Berkeley and UC Davis as an undergraduate; and got his graduate degrees from St. John’s and from Claremont. He spent three months working for Arianna Huffington, a gig Andrew Breitbart was next to hold. After that, speechwriting for former California governor Pete Wilson. Then for Rudy Giuliani. Then the Bush administration.

A glass broke right next to us. “That’s on the record,” Anton said. He took a call from a reporter. Then had to call another White House official. (Reporters, he said later, “call me all the fucking time. They call and call and call.”)

Anton says he likes the gig. “This is like sport for me,” he told me at the bar at the Hotel Dupont. “I enjoy this. I have fun with it … it’s like working in a restaurant. It’s like working the line.”

Later in the night, over dinner, Anton acknowledged that this was a very different job than what he was doing before, writing as Decius.

“I don’t even wage spiritual war on behalf of the Trump administration in the way Decius, in the Machiavellian sense—the way I was doing it before,” Anton said.

Anton’s story of political conversion is a classic tale on the right: one of disgust with overzealous campus leftists.

“I mean, you’ve got to understand, Berkeley is insane,” Anton said. “There was a window-smashing riot right down Telegraph Avenue the first month I was there. Still don’t know what the cause of it was. Nobody knows. It just happened. People treated it like a tornado: ‘Oh yeah, just a weather front that passed through.’ It’s what happened, here.”

As a College Republican in the 1987-1988 school year, Anton said he watched students walking by the group’s table out in the plaza and saying “Sieg Heil.” The incident stuck in his craw. More recently, Anton has come under fire in the press for his writings questioning diversity and defending the America First Committee.

“What other card does the left have to play?” Anton said. “Everybody’s a Nazi. Everywhere you look there’s a Nazi. Is America a giant Nuremberg rally to these people? It’s so trivial. It’s like the whole world is becoming Berkeley.”

Anton was a Republican by 1988 and cast his first-ever presidential ballot for George H.W. Bush. Within two or three years, he began reading Leo Strauss, the political philosopher who had deeply influenced many on the American right, particularly the neoconservative movement.

He arrived at Claremont in the mid-1990s, quickly gaining a reputation as a dandy for his tastes in food and clothing. “Most graduate students are not well dressed and interested in wines and food and cooking,” Kesler said. “He took a lot of ribbing.” Anton became a disciple of the Straussian thinker Harry Jaffa, who taught at Claremont.

In 1995, he described his wish for a “conservative bohemia” in The Weekly Standard:

Restaurants and cafes are only the beginning. We'll need a few bars. But our bars will be different--they won't be places where screeching bands destroy patrons' hearing, where people whose haircuts suggest that their heads have been caught in threshing machines sit on their duffs and throw around words like "oppression" and "hegemony." The bars of conservative bohemia will have names like "Churchill's" and inside, people will drink Sam Adams and crusted port while the gentle cadences of Brahms and the ethereal voice of Ella Fitzgerald sooth their savage breasts. Imagine what the conversations would be like: Instead of familiar bohemia assaults on the System, one would hear something like this: "So, you see, poverty programs are a prime culprit in the disintegration of the family" or “I suppose Richard II is good on the problem of tyranny, but I think Macbeth gets much closer to the heart of it. Another round of Coors?"

“It didn’t work out,” Anton told me of his utopian vision. “Claremont grad school was in a way a kind of conservative bohemia, but it was too far out in the suburbs to really matter in that way and we were all too damn busy. We had all these courses to take, books to read, papers to write, exams and stuff just to sit around and scribble.”

Still, they had fun. Anton and a few other guys lived in a house dubbed the “Strauss House,” since only Straussians lived therein. Anton considers himself a West Coast Straussian, though he rejects the idea that it’s an ideology. (“Ideology is just—and I get this from Strauss—an invention of Hegel.”) Kesler recalled Anton helping his wife cook dinner for 37 people once, making some of the food at his own apartment when a burner on Kesler’s stove went out.

We were joined for drinks and dinner by Chris Buskirk, a friend of Anton’s and fellow Claremonster. Buskirk edits American Greatness, the publication that arose after The Journal of American Greatness, which Anton as Decius had also written for, became defunct. Buskirk, who is based in Arizona and hosts a talk-radio show, was in town for the Conservative Political Action Conference, and was fresh off a party in New York the previous night for the launch party for the American Affairs Journal, a new publication founded by pro-Trump intellectuals Julius Krein and Gladden Pappin.

“Kristol was there, right?” Anton asked.

“Briefly, briefly,” Buskirk said.

“Did he like, freak out or anything?”

“Not there,” Buskirk said.

Over the course of the evening, Anton relaxed. Buskirk and I shared the burrata, while Anton ordered his own appetizer (“I have to get the pig cheeks”) and made a fuss with the waiter about whether we would be able to send back a specific bottle of white wine free of charge if it had oxidized. Machiavelli wrote: “This is the way things are: whenever one tries to escape one danger one runs into another. Prudence consists in being able to assess the nature of a particular threat and in accepting the lesser evil.” Anton, having assessed the risks, decided they were too great. We went with a different bottle.

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