One of the strangest developments in the 2016 election has been the spectacle of West Coast Straussians who champion Trump—and lustily denounce his critics—in various forums, including the Claremont Review of Books, a well-written quarterly edited by Charles Kesler, and on Web sites like the Journal of American Greatness, billed as the “first scholarly journal of radical #Trumpism,” since reborn as the Web site American Greatness. Twenty or so Claremonsters are also among the more than a hundred “Scholars and Writers for America” who recently declared Trump “the candidate most likely to restore the promise of America.”
Imperfect though Trump may be, the argument goes, he has all the right enemies: Beltway insiders, academics, “social scientists, media pundits, and policy professionals,” as Clarence Thomas’s tutor John Marini wrote. These are Strauss’s relativists and nihilists, who have perpetrated “regime change” at home, destroying the republic, or trying to. Trump’s redemptive greatness begins in his fearless opposition to political correctness, “a serious and totalist politics, aspiring to open the equivalent of a vast reeducation camp for the millions of defective Americans,” Kesler says. It would seem that reactionaries, while they inhabit our world, are not really of it. “They believe that the only sane response to an apocalypse is to provoke another, in hopes of starting over,” Lilla writes. This, too, is a lesson of Weimar. With luck, we won’t have to learn it in real time.
This engendered a (to me) fascinating argument between some of my favorite intellectual sparring partners on Facebook (including TAC’s editor in chief, Daniel McCarthy), about whether there is any plausible connection between Trump and the American reactionary intellectual tradition which preceded him, and which Lilla traces in his book.
The case against such a connection is that nobody from what I guess you’d have to call the “mainstream” reactionary right was calling for somebody like Trump prior to his emergence. Trump’s “movement” arguably has limited ideological content beyond the glorification of Trump himself, and Trump himself is not only a low huckster but someone with neither knowledge of nor respect for America’s constitutional traditions, something you’d think a west coast Straussian would care rather a lot about. Finally, inasmuch as Trump represents the ascendancy of certain political ideas, those ideas are not the ideas of Harry Jaffa but rather those of Sam Francis. So “blaming” Jaffa (much less Strauss) for Trump seem ridiculous — and if some of Jaffa’s heirs are jumping on the Trump train, then they are just wrong.
All of which is both true and fair enough as far as it goes. But there’s still the problem of explaining why there have been any intellectual defenders of Donald Trump who aren’t coming from the world of the “alt-right.” It’s all well and good to say “these people are ignominiously betraying the intellectual tradition they claim to be upholding” — but one still needs to know why.
I think the likely answer should make someone who wants to defend that “mainstream” reactionary tradition just a little bit uncomfortable.
Apocalypticism has consequences. Reactionary thinkers may genuinely believe that the regime that America has been living under since 1965, or 1937, or 1913, or 1868 — or whatever date a particular reactionary prefers — is fundamentally corrupt, and that we need a radical return to first principles to save our civilization. But if you actually believe that, then it follows that when it comes time to choose a champion, it’s rational to pick not the person you agree with most or who has the character of someone you’d want to see in a leader, but the person most likely to destroy a corrupt system that is beyond reform.
You might, at one point, have convinced yourself that Ronald Reagan or New Gingrich or George W. Bush was someone different, someone who really would restore the Old Republic. But when you think about it, wasn’t that perhaps a purer example of self-delusion than supporting a guy like Trump? Because Trump really could destroy the Empire. And your own ideas imply that such destruction is a precondition to a successful re-founding.
To avoid that kind of logic, you have to have a deep resistance to apocalyptic thinking as such. You have to be reluctant to see civilization on the line in each and every election, to doubt whether it’s ever possible to identify in advance a fatal Rubicon which, once crossed, makes catastrophe inevitable. But if Lilla’s psychology is right, a reactionary can’t really do that.
And if, perhaps, you hadn’t already traveled that road prior to Trump’s emergence, then consider how Trump’s success might change your perspective on the matter. I remain convinced that a major part of the reason why Trump was able to achieve the success he has was his willingness to attack his own party and that party’s ideas in the fiercest, most uncompromising terms, ideas that had only grown more rigid as they proved less effective, both politically and in their empirical result. But in a sense, it doesn’t matter whether I’m right about the reason for his success or not — what matters is that the consequence of Trump’s primary victory makes it impossible to hold to a prior idea.
Specifically, movement conservatives can no longer plausibly claim, to themselves or to anyone, that they speak for the “real” American people. Either that people no longer exists, or it never existed.
So an adjustment is required. One possible adjustment would be towards a kind of deep pessimism, a hunkering down until the arrival of another — doubtless very different — St. Benedict. But another possibility is to come to see that what one always thought isn’t quite what one had thought one did. Perhaps you didn’t initially greet Trump as the long-awaited savior (for any of the manifold reasons you might have for rejecting him). But once he triumphed, you might ask yourself whether you missed something — not necessarily about him as a person, but about what this moment in history was offering. If you really believe that a radical refounding is needed, are you going to reject the most dramatic opportunity to achieve such change, even if it doesn’t look like what you thought you were waiting for? And reject it in favor of a perfect avatar of the status quo?
Ideas do have consequences — but consequences also have ideas, which, in turn, have their own consequences. For a “liberal conservative,” Trump’s triumph has merely forced a reevaluation of the two parties — which is why many of these people will be voting for Hillary Clinton on November 8th whatever they think of her personally and however difficult it will be for them to rest comfortably with their new bedfellows. But for the kinds of people Lilla is talking about, Trump represents a more fundamental challenge. For those who decided that the right response is an adjustment of the sort I describe above, what will be true from now on is that they made that adjustment, and decided that Trump was the bandwagon on which to jump.
And we’ll have to wait to see what ideas emerge as a consequence of that decision.