The Plotters Against America
Claremont Institute's Tireless Work Against American Democracy
“Do not believe those who preach liberty so fervently, for almost all of them—no, probably all of them—have their own private interests as their goal. And experience often shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that if such people believed they would be better off under an absolute government, they would race in that direction as fast as they could.” — Francesco Guicciardini, Ricordi
If you’re any kind of half-diligent observer of the American Right of the Trump and post-Trump era, you’ll encounter the name “Claremont Institute” regularly. But when you begin to tally up the California think tank’s tanks accomplishments, things start to appear a little eerie: just about every illiberal, anti-democratic, and demagogic project attempted by the Right in the past few years is connected to Claremont in some way. The sheer amount of villainy engaged in by its members and associates—who like to ironically refer to themselves “Claremonsters”—starts to verge on the self-parodic and camp. Without flattering their vanity too much, they can appear at times to be something like SPECTRE, the shadowy organization in the James Bond novels and films that turns out to be behind every crime and calamity in the world. But, more seriously, it’s hard to avoid the impression that the Claremont Institute, rather than being an ivory tower or staid policy shop, constitutes a veritable conspiracy against the American republic.
Let’s look at some of their alumni:
John Eastman is the director of Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence at the Institute. He is also the “brain” behind Trump’s efforts to overturn the election on January 6 and a speaker at the rally that turned into the assault on the Capitol. He essentially acted as theoretician of the coup attempt, but also encouraged state legislators to manipulate vote totals. A federal judge found Eastman likely to be part of a criminal conspiracy to subvert the election.
Michael Anton is a senior fellow at the Institute and the pseudonymous author of the 2016 “Flight 93 Election,” one of the earliest intellectualizations of Trumpism. The essential argument there is that America is so far gone, so decadent and degenerate, that a desperate and perhaps suicidal gamble (Trump) is warranted to save it from permanent rule by imported “Third World foreigners” and their puppet masters in the administrative state. Anton writes, “The possibilities would seem to be: Caesarism, secession/crack-up, collapse, or managerial Davoisie liberalism as far as the eye can see … which, since nothing human lasts forever, at some point will give way to one of the other three. Oh, and, I suppose, for those who like to pour a tall one and dream big, a second American Revolution that restores Constitutionalism, limited government, and a 28% top marginal rate.” (Apparently even in the midst of their most Romantic transports, the tax rate is never far from the conservative mind.) Anton’s belief in an absolutely desperate and exceptional condition of the nation that justifies just about any expedient continues to form the core of the Institute’s politics. The Trump administration rewarded Anton, the would-be anti-bureaucrat, with a senior post in the national security apparatus. He was almost certainly involved with Trump’s trotting out the possibility of ending birthright citizenship, thereby violating the plain meaning of the 14th Amendment. Shortly after his White House tenure, Anton authored an op-ed in the Washington Post, suggesting that Trump should end birthright citizenship by executive fiat, stripping millions of their citizenship: “It falls, then, to Trump. An executive order could specify to federal agencies that the children of noncitizens are not citizens.” In the run-up to January 6th, Anton was a major pusher of “stop the steal” propaganda. Afterwards, Anton hosted Curtis Yarvin, Peter Thiel’s court philosopher, on the Institute’s American Mind podcast, where the two fantasized about what a successful January 6 might look like, replete with arm-banded militia.
Glenn Ellmers is a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute. He is the author of “‘Conservatism’” is no Longer Enough” for the Institute’s American Mind publication, which proposes a “counter-revolution” and suggests that the majority of Americans are not actually citizens: “I don’t just mean the millions of illegal immigrants. Obviously, those foreigners who have bypassed the regular process for entering our country, and probably will never assimilate to our language and culture, are—politically as well as legally—aliens. I’m really referring to the many native-born people—some of whose families have been here since the Mayflower—who may technically be citizens of the United States but are no longer (if they ever were) Americans. They do not believe in, live by, or even like the principles, traditions, and ideals that until recently defined America as a nation and as a people. It is not obvious what we should call these citizen-aliens, these these non-American Americans; but they are something else.” At one point, he refers to such people as “zombies or human [rodents.]”
Not content with the world of high theory and following Jaffa’s admonitions that practical politics were essential, the Institute has brought within its walls the Right’s mob leaders and vulgar demagogues as well. They awarded Jack Posobiec, famous for promoting the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory,” a Lincoln Fellowship in 2019. Christopher Rufo, perhaps America’s most visible neo-McCarthyite and effectively the author of the Critical Race Theory and “groomer” panics, is another recipient of the same fellowship. Darren Beattie, an originator of “stop the steal” theories and who was actually employed by the Trump administration, also was a fellow. As Laura K. Field has pointed out for The Bulwark, the Institute’s publications have published pseudonymous authors from the seamy underbelly of the internet mob, like “Bronze Age Pervert,” including one by someone calling himself “Raw Egg Nationalist,” who also happens to publishes with Antelope Hill, a neo-Nazi publishing house.
With all this activity, you might expect Claremont Institute’s ideological underpinnings to derive from neo-Confederatism or European fascism, but the intellectual sources of its revolt against American democracy are somewhat surprising. The Claremont Institute was founded by students of Harry V. Jaffa (1918-2015), himself a student of Leo Strauss and the American Right’s premier interpreter and defender of Abraham Lincoln.
In the early days of the post-war conservative movement, there was a concerted effort by its intellectuals to come up with a traditional source for its ideals. This posed some difficulty, since the United States is the product of an Enlightenment-era revolution and has always had a strong liberal undercurrent in its economic and social thought. Many of them turned to the heritage of the Old South, with its agrarianism and “paternalism,” as an origin-point of American conservatism. For them, Lincoln’s strong reading of the Declaration of Independence’s contention that “all men are created equal” was where things began to go off the rails and the modern interventionist and administrative state with its egalitarian goals, which culminated in New Deal liberalism and then the Great Society, was born. But not for Jaffa. For him, Lincoln’s reading of the Declaration was correct, and as such, the 16th president was the true “conservative” force. Moreover, the central political principle of the United States was the egalitarianism that Jefferson articulated, and Lincoln re-baptized.
In Jaffa’s book Crisis of the House Divided: an Interpretation of the Issues of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, he provides a striking reading of Lincoln’s political philosophy:
The price of American freedom, of all civil liberty, was fidelity to the faith that “all men are created equal.” Constancy to this was as necessary to the preservation of the paradise of American freedom as the obedience of Adam and Eve to God s single prohibition had been necessary to that other Eden. Both gardens, alas, had their temptations. The existence of Negro slavery and the discovery of vast profits to be made from it led Americans to believe that all men are not created equal, after all, but that some are born to serve and some to be served. But let this conclusion enter, and force and fraud will, in fact, determine who shall serve and who shall be served. The mere existence of slavery, according to Lincoln, was not a fatal transgression, for the American people were not responsible for its introduction. The spirit of the Revolution had placed the institution far along the road toward ultimate extinction; but the spirit of the Revolution had passed, and a new “light” had dawned. In consenting to the extension of slavery the American people had succumbed to serpentine temptation. And now Lincoln, no less than Moses or the prophets, insisted that a time had come when the question had to be answered by every man, “Who is on the Lord's side?”
As you can see, this form of “equality” had an almost metaphysical and certainly a highly religious significance for the national character. In fact, for Jaffa, slavery as an actually-existing institution was less offensive than the turn in the South against the equality in principle with the creation of the Confederacy as a nation explicitly founded on inequality. It then became a violation of the very Being of our nation.
As you might imagine, this was anathema to many in the conservative movement who viewed egalitarianism as the main enemy to their program. To them, Lincoln was a kind of dictator, even a progenitor of the totalitarian egalitarianism that could be then found in the Soviet Union. And a lot of Jaffa’s rhapsodizing about Honest Abe sounded like it could even come from liberals and leftists. In his 1965 review of Jaffa’s book for National Review entitled “Source of American Caesarism,” Wilmoore Kendall wrote, against Jaffa’s contention that Lincoln was an unassuming “anti-Caesar” who saved American democracy, that “the Caesarism we all need to fear is the contemporary liberal movement, dedicated like Lincoln to egalitarian reforms sanctioned by mandates emanating from national majorities, a movement which is Lincoln's legitimate offspring.”
If you’re like me, thus far a lot of what Jaffa has said sounds pretty good—heck, Jaffa even compared the Confederacy and Nazi Germany, something you’re likely to hear from a leftist or liberal today—so what separates the the bog-standard liberal encomiums to Lincoln the Liberator and Jaffa’s mytho-poetics? And what in his doctrines has lead his disciples, these self-appointed high-priests of Lincoln’s democratic faith, to conduct themselves now as agents of American democracy’s destruction? And how on earth did they get from Abraham Lincoln to Donald Trump? I believe it has something to do with the esoteric political theology of American history imagined by Jaffa.
Following Strauss, Jaffa believed Western civilization was governed by the interplay of two traditions and principles: the rationalism of classical civilization, symbolized by Athens or Rome, and the faith of Abrahamic religion, symbolized by Jerusalem. The foundation of America is a truly momentous event in Western civilization: as a civilization it perfectly synthesizes and harmonizes rationalism and faith. Like the medieval Church of Rome, it combines the two sources of the Western tradition into a single, universal body. As Glenn Ellmers in his book on Jaffa, The Soul of Politics, writes “the United States was a reenactment or fulfillment of republican Rome and at the same time a ‘New Jerusalem.’” Ellmers goes on to say:
Jaffa does not explain this fully in any one place, but there are traces of it in almost all of his writings. It is part history, part philosophy, and part poetry—both rational and mysterious—combining necessity, accident, providence, and deliberation. The “argument and action” of America as the universal nation made flesh in the character of its almost chosen people revealed somehow a unique insight into nature, into the whole, and into first philosophy. In trying to assemble the pieces, it is hard to know whether to describe what Jaffa is pointing to as theory, myth, or prophetic vision.
Indeed, reading the reverential and even worshipful tones of his followers when they refer to the master, it’s sometimes hard to know whether or not Jaffa represents to them a political philosopher, some kind of guru, or even a cult leader. It’s also unclear how self-consciously mythological Jaffa’s work is meant to be. One anecdote has him telling a boyhood friend, “I’m inventing a myth and I’ll make people believe it.”
As Jaffa puts it, America is “the best regime.” In his world-view, Lincoln has a prophetic or even messianic role of bringing the nation back to its original principles. But there is also a dark, apocalyptic side to these prophetic visions, incorporating as they do the cyclical conception of regime birth, degeneration, and renewal taken from classical political philosophy. A characteristic remark from Jaffa in this vein: “My feeling is that today we are somewhere near a terminal process in the history of western civilization—not just in the history of this republic—in which a dark night of the soul could very well be the fate of the world if certain cataclysms with which we are threatened come to pass.” When the principles of rationality and faith fail to harmonize, great catastrophes, like the religious wars, are the result. Modern philosophies from Europe—the offspring of Hobbes and Spinoza—that abjure and violate this balance have contaminated the new Rome. America and the West is now in a state of precipitous decline. In 2007, Jaffa wrote we had fallen away from the principles of the Founding:
Today we are faced with an unprecedented threat to the survival of biblical religion, of autonomous human reason, and to the form and substance of political freedom. It is important to understand why the threat to one of these is also the threat to all. It is above all important to understand why this threat is, above all, an internal one, mining and sapping our ancient faith, both in God and in ourselves. The decline of the West is the paramount reality facing us today. Perhaps our most immediate danger comes from the historical pessimism of those who counsel us that this is inevitable and that nothing can be done by taking thought. But this danger is itself a danger only if we believe it. It is precisely by taking thought that this superstition can be dispelled and, with it, the unreasoning fears that it breeds. As we enter this third century of the Constitution, let us renew our ancient faith, the faith of Abraham Lincoln.
For Jaffa, a major sign of the crisis of the West was the acceptance of gay rights, which he felt violated the precepts of “natural law” in the same way slavery once did. In a 1991 review of Richard D. Mohr’s book Gays/Justice, Jaffa writes, “What Mohr says here about morality being independent of opinion is common ground between us. He and I agree that ‘slavery would be wrong even if nearly everyone liked it.’ What he fails to see is that homosexuality is equally wrong — no matter how many say they like it. Slavery is against nature, because it treats human beings like subhuman chattel. Sodomy is against nature, since it treats men as if they were women.”
It’s this theme of Western decline and decadence that can be found repeatedly in the works of Jaffa’s contemporary epigones at Claremont Institute and forms the central justification for their radical political actions. Things are falling apart, or have already so fallen apart, that therefore anything goes: We don’t really live in a democracy or a constitutional republic anymore or even “America” anymore, there’s nothing left to conserve, so out-and-out counter-revolution is the only remedy. Trump, who they admit is not the ideal vessel for their counter-revolution, is at least something. They are both openly cynical and totally delusional here; for them, Trump is just a means to an end or a mere symbolic representation. And if any American citizens don’t agree, they aren’t really citizens. One can see here how all this could create a thick atmosphere of megalomania for the self-appointed high priests. (My simile here is not original, nor even clearly just a metaphor. “Jaffa behaves like a high priest who detects impieties in the proceedings and denounces those involved as heretical,” writes Ken Masugi, a fellow at the Institute. Only Jaffa and his disciples really get the deep meaning of what Masugi calls Lincoln’s “cosmic poetry.”)
Here we begin to get into truly eerie, Orwellian territory. The Claremonters often like to imagine their opponents as a cabal of bureaucrats and intellectuals plotting against American democracy, armed with a tendentious, ideological reading of the American past, allied with the mob, and subverting national institutions for their own power and prestige. But what could better describe their own project today? So far, they have ably used the disorder brought about by Trump’s rise within the GOP to greatly extend their faction’s power and influence, propelling themselves from a fringe sect into the very heart of conservative thought and politics. Perhaps now we can begin to see the deep affinity of their pretensions to high philosophy and their allies in the mob: both are equally involved in a vulgar religion of power and its current primary idol, Trump.
And maybe it’s worth being a bit concerned about the theological significance they give to calamities like the Civil War. On the metaphysical level they, as initiates, apparently have access to, we’re at an even more cataclysmic point than the Civil War itself. In an interview with the Atlantic, Claremont’s President said, “I think we’re more divided now than we were then.” They hope, they wish, and they are working to make it so. Like much else today, it can be difficult to tell where absurdity ends and real danger begins.