A Definition of the New Conservatism and Claremont’s Role In It

Laura Field recently posted a summary of and links to the discussions of Trump by those affiliated with the Claremont Institute. Their unabashed and even enthusiastic support of Trump has perplexed many who were sympathetic to and even supportive of Claremont’s mission prior to their Trumpian term. Why were they supporting a man who seemed so contrary to their prior celebration of and veneration for the American tradition of prudence as represented by someone like Abraham Lincoln? I suppose Lincoln and Trump both believe in America…but what else do they have in common? Why were they defending a man who seemed to have no appreciation for the constitutional tradition that Claremont had spent the prior twenty years trying to defend? Why were people like Charles Kesler and Joe Bessette defending Trump in a way that made it seem as though they had never read Federalist #1? in this essay, Kesler is incredulous as he cites critics who called Trump an “authoritarian populist” as though they couldn’t possibly go together. Had Kesler forgotten Publius: “the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people, commencing demagogues and ending tyrants.”?

I’m tempted to say that the Claremont Trumpist fiasco illustrates well why intellectuals should refrain from involving themselves too much in politics. Taken in by the allure of power and capable of convincing themselves and others with even the most ridiculous arguments, the Claremont people convinced themselves of Trump’s virtues or at least his potentially salutary effects on our regime. Amidst that defense of a man who would otherwise seem indefensible even or especially according to their own principles, they forgot to define with any clarity or consistency what principles led them to his defense. Although they sometimes pretended or, perhaps worse, actually believed that Trump was the new manifestation of Lincoln, their prior principles couldn’t really bear the weight of these absurdities. Despite their protestations, the elections of 2016 and 2020 would not decide the fate of the free world because Trump couldn’t possibly be the man to save it. Even if they were right about the importance of these elections, it made little sense to put Trump on the side of civilization’s victory. All Trump could do is define at a cartoonish level of simplicity the difference between his people (who apparently included racist anti-Semites) and the elites. Understood properly or understood in the way that Claremont had been defining it for the prior thirty years, the American way of life and American greatness shuns all racism and anti-Semitism; Trump’s representation of that way of life seemed to confirm the criticism of America that lie at the bottom of things like the 1619 Project. In other words, by making him the representation of the victory of the American way of life, Claremont seemed to confirm everything that leftist “anti-Americans” had been saying for the last generation. So, rather than advancing the cause of freedom and equality, Trump did more to hurt it. It seemed, at least to me, utterly bizarre to call the struggle between a racist sympathizer and an ordinary Democrat a struggle for the principles of America–unless the struggle were defined in the opposite direction, as in fact it was by many Democrats (it’s one of the grand ironies of the Trump years that, in their opposition to Trump, many liberals took American principles that opposed Trump much more seriously.) By contrast to our supposed existential struggle, the contest between Abraham Lincoln and the Confederacy did decide the fate of the free world because the confederacy was actually that bad and Lincoln’s principles actually that good. The election of 1860 was truly about principle and it was truly a “regime-level struggle.” But it had that character because Lincoln had spent the last ten years defining the nature of the regime and thus defining why so much was at stake. His principles preceded and grounded his politics. Lincoln embodied the principles of the regime he was defending. Trump embodied something but, whatever it was, it didn’t seem to be the principles of the American regime–unless we define that regime as little more than low-class populist bombast.

In their embrace of Trump, Claremont forgot that relationship between principle and practice. It was enough it seemed to attack the liberals and, more importantly, the Progressives. In their fervor to defend Trump, they forgot to define on what basis they were defending him, despite his faults. For those reasons, Arthur Milikh’s recent statement explaining the new “Claremont Institute for the American Way of Life” struck me as a refreshing and much-needed change of direction from Claremont’s recent past. Milikh titled his piece: “A New Conservatism Must Emerge. For better or worse, he makes no reference to Trump. Instead, I think this the best explanation for what Claremont hoped “Trumpism” would or could become. Milikh writes: “The Right needs to reclaim its mental and moral toughness, and that can come only from reviving its purpose — the preservation of the American way of life. The Right must be morally unflinching in refuting the Left’s ideologies. It must speak clearly and confidently about the effects of radical feminism, “antiracism,” and globalism. It must be prepared to protect its children, its property, and its standards from encroachments. And it must ground its efforts firmly in America’s central principle: equal protection under the law, without exception.” Although I think this somewhat overheated, at least Milikh provides a rationale for the extremism that the Claremont conservatives had embraced in Trump: “Mainstream conservatism today cannot reverse these potentially fatal trends and cannot conserve the American way of life because it lacks clear understanding of its own purpose.” It should be noted that this lack of understanding of conservative purpose continued, and perhaps got worse, under Trump. So far from recovering the American way of life, Trump seemed to jeopardize it further by associating it so closely with racism and intolerance. We did not seem closer to Milikh’s “central principle: equal protection under the law.” We seemed instead to be in the grip of a man who didn’t care about the law except insofar as it benefited him. Trump represented more the stupid notions of “independence”and “equality” claimed by the Confederacy. “We’re white and independent and so the North can’t tell us what to do.” It’s no accident that the Confederate flag was almost as prevalent as the American flag during the attack on the capitol.

As do most intellectuals when they enter the political fray, the Claremont Institute simply got it wrong when they supported Trump–I’m almost tempted to say that Milikh implicitly recognized this by never mentioning him. They imagined they could turn him into some version of the principles they wanted. The problem, however, was two-fold. He wasn’t that man and their principles weren’t yet formed.

I think we should be cheered by this apparent turn in the trajectory of the Claremont Institute. Healthy politics depends on a viable and responsible presentation of both sides of the argument. The liberal conception of progress needs to be tempered by the conservative argument for preservation and restoration. Although you might disagree, even disagree vehemently, with Milikh’s characterization of our political situation, it at least has intelligible principles. These principles would lead to a politics centered around the old contest between conservation and change. Under Trump, conservatism lost its bearings, no longer presenting a viable alternative other than a cultish attachment to a cartoonish man. Because conservatives like those at the Claremont Institute gave themselves up to that same cult, they failed to articulate and develop the principles that Milikh lays out here. Although I would still say that Milikh overstates the “regime-level struggle,” he at least defines with much more clarity the nature of that struggle. And although I still agree with Greg Weiner that the nature of politics in America doesn’t actually take place at a regime-level and that we should be extremely cautious about letting it get to that level, at least someone at the Claremont Institute has finally provided an argument, separable from the man who has little to do with these principles. Although Milikh is also engaged in rhetoric about the fate of Western civilization, he has at least not tied that rhetoric to particular elections, especially elections involving someone as unprincipled as Trump. If Claremont is truly engaged in a war for the soul of the country, as they think they are, that war couldn’t possibly depend on either the 2016 or the 2020 elections. Most importantly, when this new conservatism can define itself with the clarity we see in Milikh’s statement and define it in a way that doesn’t invest everything into single elections, it will prevent rather than encourage the kind of neo-Confederate lunacy we saw on January 6th.

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