Randal Hendrickson is the host of PODOPTICON, a politics, history, & philosophy podcast.
The Claremont Institute, a conservative think tank in southern California, came to prominence during the Trump years. Founded in 1979, the organization aims to deliver high-sounding lessons about America to leaders and to its various fellows, who have included such luminaries as Laura Ingraham, Ben Shapiro, and Pizzagate conspiracy theorist, Jack Posobiec. Its lessons lately are about manliness, or the “masculine virtues,” and that’s what I want to discuss, but first a few words on what we’re dealing with here.
Claremont Institute authors apply a coat of scholarly legitimacy to pronouncements from the top. They tend to be unhistorical, even some of the historians, who write the sort of pablum that Encounter Books might publish. They operate not as thinkers thinking; rather, they work according to a partisan script that has no room for real doubt or deviation. Just have a look at the Claremont Institute’s YouTube channel; read through its publications, American Mind and the Claremont Review of Books. Debate, where it exists, exists in the finer details. I guess it is a think tank, after all.
Intellectuals and academics gather at various Claremont Institute events to preach to the choir and teach participants “how they ought to think about America,” as its president, Ryan Williams, put it in an interview with Michael Anton, whom you might know as the author of the “Flight 93 Election” essay. Anton–seen here bemoaning California’s “anti-masculinity” as he longs for Texas–caused something of a stir when he described the 2016 election as existential crisis. There was no choice then but to charge the cockpit and vote for Trump. Go thymos!
That brings me to the crisis du jour: manliness is said to be under attack at the moment we need it most. The moment? It’s a “cold civil war,” where heroes are pitted against an “enemy” with whom they can’t be reconciled: the “woke communists.” These are terms taken from Thomas Klingenstein, chair of the Claremont Institute’s board and one given to the histrionics that characterize the organization he heads.
In a piece titled “Men and the Future of America,” Klingenstein praises senator Josh Hawley for a speech trumpeting the “masculine virtues.” And what are those? They are, according to Klingenstein, “stoicism, competitiveness, conquest, achievement and aggression.” These are qualities to be managed, not repressed, because repressing them turns them toxic, into “dysfunctional behaviors—crime, drugs, pornography, and the like.” Nothing like some free-wheeling causal reasoning to precede grandiose statements on the nature of politics and the human being.
We see soon enough what all the fuss is about: “woke communists” mean to “destroy traditional sex roles as part of their project to destroy America.” These “woke communists”–who somehow manage to control the Democratic party, run most corporations, and spend billions funding “wokeism,” all while making white men scapegoats for society’s sins and ills–want the wrong kind of equality. They want outcome equality, which should have real Americans suiting up for battle. “For to achieve outcome equality,” he says, the woke “must destroy the American way of life and all that it stands for.” It’s very hard not to read this as a wealthy person worried about taxes and thus going all-in on the culture war hyperbole. I almost hope this to be the case, as the alternative is his believing the American fever dream he describes, a bizarro world where communists run corporations and human nature–but not nature, itself–is under threat.
One has to deduce what Klingenstein means by “the American way of life,” but it’s not that hard to do. Men will be manly and married to women who stay home with the children, which, after all, is the fondest wish of the “feminine soul.” Men will work and “provide,” as their manly impulses, dangerous when suppressed, will be channeled to serve the common good. Another way to put this: let’s preserve a certain hierarchy, where what’s best is male dominance. But that “American way of life” is ever threatened by the Left, which hates America. So naturally the Claremont Institute has created a Center for the American Way of Life in Washington, D.C.. I feel safer already.
One of that center’s speakers, and one among the macho, is Glenn Ellmers. He recently derided Benjamin Kleinerman, editor of The Constitutionalist, for his take on the Declaration of Independence. Kleinerman is a conservative, but not the right kind. What the Claremonsters (as they don’t mind calling themselves) call for is a “counter-revolution” animated by a “new conservatism.” This will not be Kleinerman’s weakling conservatism. The latter is seen in action as Kleinerman dwells on the Declaration, giving it a line-by-line read that manages to add a touch of reverence to its reasoning. What he draws out is the prudence he sees at play in the authorship of the Declaration. But that just won’t do for the Rambos among us.
Ellmers, a frequent contributor to various Claremont Institute media, couldn’t let Kleinerman’s milquetoast take on the Declaration stand. His problem with Kleinerman’s reading of the Declaration seems to be that it includes no car chases or explosions. Kleinerman’s Declaration is “boring.” This much Ellmers writes in a piece at American Greatness, an outlet apt to induce a fatal case of eye-rolling.
Ellmers imports Aristotle’s “great-souled man” (surely the opposite of Kleinerman on this telling) to adduce what the American founders were after in their revolutionary spirit. He’s a sterling example of how one can ape the language of learning to provide cover for a flimsy grasp on the things one purports to know and discuss. Drop an Aristotle quote, add a dash of Madison, and say “first principles” once in a while. You’ll appear lettered, and those in the echo chamber will clap.
What he’s most upset about is Kleinerman’s failure to make the authors of the Declaration into assertive bad asses. There’s little else to say about the piece, as Ellmers doesn’t so much write as hyperventilate. But he has published more, I’m afraid, including a book on Harry Jaffa that I can’t speak to, as I haven’t read it. (Based on the quality of his reasoning elsewhere, I won’t.) It’s published–surprise, surprise–by the partisan press, Encounter Books, with a foreword by Larry Arnn, previous Claremont Institute president and current president of Hillsdale College. I did, however, lose a few minutes to another of Ellmers’s essays, this one titled “’Conservatism’ Is No Longer Enough.” It appears in American Mind, and it’s suffused with the sort of machismo that Klingenstein is looking for.
It’s here that Ellmers calls for that “counter-revolution” and “refounding,” a Machiavellian notion imparted with none of the Florentine’s verve, style, depth, or wit. I’d say it’s unfair to compare an ordinary guy to Machiavelli, but Ellmers invites it by donning the robes of philosophy, as when he opens an essay with “No philosopher, I suspect, ever returned to the cave with greater reluctance than I[.]” What allows someone to cough up such a remark and not wipe it from the table before anyone notices? One yearns for that kind of self-confidence, or confident ignorance. At any rate, why does America need a refounding? Well, don’t forget the “cold civil war” Klingenstein thinks he has identified. Ellmers essentially describes the Klingenstein view without using the term. (As it happens, his preferred term might be “holy war.”)
We need a “refounding” because the “United States has become two nations occupying the same country.” It’s time, then, that we “accept that most people living in the United States today—certainly more than half—are not Americans in any meaningful sense of the term.” Of course, now I’m intrigued: what makes an American in a “meaningful sense of the term”? Ellmers’s reader can read on, but be warned: “If you are a zombie or a human rodent who wants a shadow-life of timid conformity, then put away this essay and go memorize the poetry of Amanda Gorman. Real men and women who love honor and beauty, keep reading.” Despite my feebleness, I read on.
It turns out I didn’t find much, besides the bits of false profundity that seem common to Ellmers’s work. The better part of the thing reads as an advertisement for the Claremont Institute. But it closes with some manly advice for the counter-revolutionaries, as Ellmers offers up a weight-trainer’s aphorism for the studs among us: “Strong people are harder to kill, and more useful generally.” Serious stuff here.
What, then, does embodied manliness look like? It looks like Donald Trump. So says Klingenstein, and so says David Azerrad, Hillsdale professor and author of “Trump’s Manliness,” an American Mind essay whose accompanying image is a pair of boxing gloves–one red, one blue, and both sporting American flag designs. It’s a remarkably shallow piece of writing. To summarize: Trump’s manliness is his courage, especially courage in the face of “political correctness.” In Azerrad’s essay, this boils down to the courage to say ugly things about Mexicans. Manliness as pwning the libs, then. Klingenstein is even more gushing, and somehow more urgent. He takes Azerrad’s “we’re in an all-out bar brawl” with the Left and turns it up a notch to a “war,” as I’ve already said. Trump is the manly man to guide us real Americans through the war against “woke communism.”
In a talk titled “Trump’s Virtues,” Klingenstein makes his view clear. “In war, you must make a stand. For that, we need strong men. Trump is a manly man. When manhood is being stripped of its masculinity, traditional manhood, even when flawed, is absolutely essential.” Like Azerrad, he admires Trump’s “courage” against “political correctness.” Wasn’t it courageous, after all, when Trump called Haiti a “shithole”? Klingenstein thinks so. Trump’s manliness has also “smoked rats out of hiding places,” which sounds cool, but it’s not at all clear what Klingenstein is talking about. Deep state, something, something. Trump shows manly resolve, too, as he “has not let go of the claim that the 2020 election was stolen from him.” You read that correctly. Trump’s big lie is an emblem of his virtue. There’s little need to go on summarizing after that. Klingenstein’s talk amounts to an embarrassing display of admiration for strongman politics.
This is all perfectly in keeping with the Claremont Institute’s more academic output these days. It’s not a place to be taken seriously intellectually, but it’s not a place to be ignored. The Claremont Institute gained influence under Trump, and that influence is worth addressing. But to engage its authors in ordinary debate is to confer some dignity on their position. It has none.
So what’s at stake in all of this? The appeal to manliness insists on a certain hierarchy that’s offensive on its face and positively repressive when made real. How, for instance, should one consider a position that operates on the premise that the aspiration of universal childcare is part of a ploy to destroy America? You might say the right has always needed some potentially oppressive and conniving Left; it has long been a rhetorical strategy. The Claremont Institute takes it to a higher pitch with this manliness discourse. It’s not serious stuff, but it’s not safe. Strongman politics never is. Nor is a call for male dominance, however it dresses itself. While it’s all somehow laughable, we might ignore it at our peril.