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The intellectual case for Trump: A debate

A leading pro-Trump scholar and I argue about Trump’s appeal, the future of right-wing populism, and who’s to blame for a polarized America.

Donald Trump at a rally wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat.
Donald Trump holds a rally to address his supporters in Miami, Florida, on November 2, 2020.
Eva Marie Uzcategui Trinkl/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

If Trumpism had an intellectual home, it would be the Claremont Institute.

Claremont is a small but influential conservative think tank, tucked away in Southern California. It publishes the Claremont Review of Books, a leading journal of right-wing intellectuals, particularly those influenced by the 20th-century philosopher Leo Strauss.

You might recall an infamous viral essay from 2016 comparing America to Flight 93, a reference to the hijacked plane on 9/11 in which passengers stormed the cockpit. That piece, published by Claremont, told readers they faced a choice in November 2016: “charge the cockpit or you die.” In other words, vote for Donald Trump or watch the republic burn.

The “Flight 93” essay is the most well-known thing Claremont has published, and probably the most provocative, but it’s also aligned with the institution’s broader mission. Over the past four years, Claremont has tried to put intellectual meat on the bones of Trumpism. They may not like Trump, the guy, but they’ve worked hard to provide a theoretical framework for his politics.

The editor of the Claremont Review, and really the face of the institution, is Charles Kesler. A professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College (which is unaffiliated with the Claremont Institute), Kesler is what I’d call a measured thinker. He supported Trump but was always very careful about how he expressed it.

Kesler is out with a new book, called Crisis of the Two Constitutions, so I reached out to him to talk about the appeal of Trump. There was nothing mystifying about the popularity of Trump among the conservative base. He was a godsend to anyone who lived to see the libs triggered. But Kesler and the authors at Claremont are different. They saw in Trump an opportunity, perhaps the last opportunity, to turn the country around.

In this conversation, I press Kesler to explain what, exactly, he saw. Does he think the country is in mortal peril? And if so, why was Trump the solution? Kesler is a serious person, and at times, this is a frustrating exchange. But I believe it offers some insight into what the intellectuals who backed Trumpism are thinking, and why the American right is where it is now.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

The tone of your book is not reactionary, but it did strike me as the lament of a reactionary, someone who really does believe that the country is on the brink. Is that how you feel?

Charles Kesler

I guess it depends on what you mean by “on the brink.” I don’t think we’re on the brink of anything immediately. The trends are certainly bad, and I don’t see a lot of healthy influences. But I don’t think anything’s inevitable in politics. I’m definitely worried about my country, if that’s what you mean.

Sean Illing

No, that’s not really what I mean. We’re all worried. But there are many who think we’re in an actual political emergency.

Charles Kesler

I wouldn’t say we’re in an emergency now. We’re approaching a crisis unless things happen in between. I begin the book by pointing out that our politics could change considerably if some extraneous event happens, if a major war breaks out, or if the little green men land from outer space. There could be a game reset if the conditions really were to change suddenly.

But Covid-19 was a pretty big extraneous factor, and it seemed to make very little difference in our politics. It was easily absorbed into the ongoing disagreements. We just had more things to disagree about. We could argue about masks, and shutdowns, and opening up, and all the things that we have been arguing about in addition to the usual stuff from the past year.

Sean Illing

I’ll be honest: I think you think we’re in a political emergency, but you don’t seem quite willing to say that — at least not in the book.

There are lots of familiar conservative arguments in there about cultural decline, and, frankly, I’m sympathetic to some of it, but my sense is that you’re hesitant to signal your genuine alarm. And this is most clear when it comes to Trump, whom you never fully endorse but you’re obviously not not endorsing him. For someone like you, a serious person with a real grounding in history, even a muted openness to Trump feels like an act of desperation.

Charles Kesler

An act of desperation?

Sean Illing

I mean someone like you understands what Trump is, what he represents, and supporting him suggests you think things are sufficiently bad that the system has to be blown up in order to be saved.

Charles Kesler

I did, in fact, vote for Trump. And I published Michael Anton’s infamous “Flight 93” essay back in 2016. So I can’t be exonerated of Trump. But I honestly don’t think there’s an emergency.

I wrote my dissertation on Cicero, so I know something about Roman republican politics. And in that case, you had essentially 100 years of civil war, off and on, before what we would now recognize as the end of the republic. And it’s not clear that at any moment in that process, you could’ve said, “This is it. This is the last spiral, the last hundred years of republic. We’re doomed.” I think it’s very hard to read that. And we’re far from having pre-civil war conditions.

I don’t agree with Ross Douthat’s account of America as a decadent society, though. His argument is that our decadence is more fundamental than our polarization, and that we could have many more centuries of continued rich decadence, and of being a superpower, without any impending catastrophe to worry about.

But that analysis doesn’t recognize that America, as you say, has always been a contentious and fractious polity. We’ve had a lot of diversity in American history and American politics. And that’s why we should be concerned about challenges to unity, because our unity is a constructed political thing, and it takes more maintenance and inspiration than people may believe.

Sean Illing

How could someone worried about American “unity” look at a guy like Trump and think that’s a solution to our problems?

Charles Kesler

Well, I think he had a chance. His message, his policies, could have been very helpful in carving out a new middle in American politics. The problem was his tone, his affect, his showmanship and egotism, whatever you want to call it exactly, undercut that political attempt, and it left him in the strange position of governing a country in which 60 percent of the people in one poll said that they were better off now than they were four years before, and yet 20 percent of those people voted against him.

So he turned out a lot of pro-Trump voters, but he also turned out a lot of anti-Trump voters. He threw away whatever chance he had to be a unifying figure. And if you look at some of the micro-results, he did better among some Black voters and Hispanic voters in various places. So the simple story of Donald Trump the racist can’t be entirely true. Despite his personality, or maybe because of his personality, he gave them some hope. That’s why I think it might have been a winnable election for Trump, if he had just been a little less Trump-like in his personality.

Sean Illing

This is where you drive me nuts, Charles. It’s true that Trump did surprisingly well among some Black and Hispanic voters, and there are some interesting potential reasons for that, but the idea that Trump was ever going to be a unifying figure is just absurd.

You’re smart enough to recognize the nationalist game Trump was playing. You know the appeals he made to white voters were racially tinged, you know he lunged into national politics by embracing the racist “birther” conspiracy about Obama, but in your book you talk about “Make America Great Again” as an innocent slogan from a man who just loves his country like a little boy loves his mommy and that it was the “PC liberals” who got it all wrong.

Look, you can be a nationalist without being a racist, and plenty of non-racist people voted for Trump, but your account of Trump’s naive nationalist pitch is charitable to a degree that is frankly hard to believe.

Charles Kesler

I mean it sincerely. There are parts of Trump that I’ve long disassociated myself from, like the birtherism. I wrote a book about Obama back in 2012, and I made a point in the beginning to say that I don’t believe this. I never had any tolerance for this stuff. And there are things Trump said and did that were crude and regrettable and I don’t want to hear it again.

But he did stand up for the traditional, patriotic civic culture. And he was one of the very few Republican politicians who had really any interest in tackling political correctness, or the eventual toppling of monuments and statues, which I think was very defensible on civic or nationalist grounds. This is part of what made Trump so attractive to a lot of voters.

Sean Illing

There’s a lot there, but I’m going to circle back to the point I was driving at earlier. I think there are right-wing intellectuals who have concluded that democracy has produced the wrong outcomes (culturally and politically) and therefore they believe it has to be rejected, or at least no longer considered inherently good.

Do you think that’s true?

Charles Kesler

No, I think you’re right. I must say, I read more about them than I read of them. Because a lot of them are on the web. If they remain on the fringe, I don’t think it’s an imminent problem. But it could be a long-term problem on the right among a certain kind of disillusioned young male.

Sean Illing

I’m not talking about alienated 20-somethings posting Pepe the Frog memes. I’m talking about conservative intellectuals, people like Michael Anton, whose “Flight 93” essay you published. I mean, that essay told readers that the stakes of the 2016 election were literally existential, that they had to “charge the cockpit or you die.” I suppose you could argue that Anton thinks he’s defending the republic there, but I also think he’s saying that democracy has veered so far off the tracks that we need to explode it in order to revive it.

Charles Kesler

I would say in defense of Michael that the only action he’s asking a reader to take is to vote for Trump. The metaphor he uses is histrionic, as he himself has admitted. In fact, I think he admitted that in the original piece itself. But it was designed to shake conservative voters out of a certain kind of lethargy that had come over them because of their discontent with Trump and with the whole process that started with 17 candidates and somehow, in the end, boiled down to Donald Trump. He feared apathy on the right, so he countered that with a dynamic and explosive image.

Sean Illing

I think telling people to “charge the cockpit” or die is doing a little more than saying, “Just go out and vote,” but I’ll leave Anton aside. You refer to something called the “Weimar problem” in your book that seems relevant here. You write: “Every republic eventually faces what might be called the Weimar problem. Has the national culture, popular and elite, deteriorated so much that the virtues necessary to sustain republican government are no longer viable?” You hedge on this, but honestly, do you think this is basically where we are?

Charles Kesler

No, but I do fear that’s where we’re headed. It’s a more comprehensive list than I gave there. It would also include doubt about the goodness of the republic. And the grounds of the goodness of the republic is a major part of our ambivalence. It’s a major part of our moral and psychological disarray right now.

But it’s also economic dislocations and what has happened to the middle class and to the working class in America. I don’t think any of that is irrecoverable, though. And I think we can do better. But I do think that, yeah, in some ways, I fear we’re hollowing out the republic. You have two adamant parties that increasingly deplore each other, and which of these parties has the time to take up the banner of the original republic? Which party cares about individual rights, about natural rights, about limited government, about a whole set of constitutional ideas that we were once so proud of but which figure only at the margins of our constitutional and political arguments?

Sean Illing

There’s some both-sidesism in that answer, but you clearly think the progressive left is the driving force of decay, right?

Charles Kesler

I do lay a fair amount of blame at the feet of progressives, that’s true. I think progressivism imported a whole new conception of political science and human nature, and really a new conception of the purpose of politics, which has turned government into a rights-creation industry. We’re not in politics to defend our natural rights, or our God-given moral dignity, or whatever you want to call it. We’re in politics to create rights. And the only rights we ever have are those that we humans create for one another.

Now, there are worse ways of looking at politics than that, to be sure. But I think it’s very demoralizing for a democracy. Although it tries to avoid this, it still undermines the restraint on human will in politics. It opens the vista of very great creativity in the making of rights, which can also mean the unmaking of rights, which can also be done very creatively. And it removes any authority above our will from rights, from the democratic process, from the safety and happiness of the people, all of these notions which were close to the heart of what I call the founders’ Constitution.

I try to be fair to the progressives in each of their versions as they make history in the 20th century. They’re really out to save America, as they understand it, from the burden of an antiquated Constitution and the inefficiencies of the machinery of the Constitution, but also what they regard as the immorality of the ideas behind the machinery. I think they sincerely believe that. And they did accomplish some good things in the 20th century, but I think the reasons they give for what they do tend to undermine the goodness of those accomplishments.

Sean Illing

This is one place where we just have a philosophical disagreement, because whatever one thinks of God, I do believe that rights only exist because human beings have decided they should, and because we’ve agreed to continually reaffirm them. But this is a point we can’t argue here. Most of your ire in the book is directed at the “woke” left and what you call its “abandonment of truth-seeking.” Is relativism really a bigger problem on the left today than it is on the right?

Charles Kesler

That’s a good question. I think it’s more of a problem on the left. You could say many of the moral revolutionaries on the left, whether on the gender front or the anti-racist front, a lot of that does seem to be wrapped up with the notion of anti-foundationalism, or the idea that there’s no foundation for any of our concepts other than human will. That tendency is more advanced on the left than on the right.

Sean Illing

I’m not here to defend everything that falls under the banner of “wokeness,” and I’ve been pretty open about my issues with a lot of it, but your book is conspicuously uninterested in the “post-truth” politics on the right. I mean, the vast majority of the Republican Party believes the 2020 election was fraudulent, a claim without any basis in fact whatsoever.

Does that kind of epistemological pluralism bother you as much as some of the stuff you’re seeing on the left?

Charles Kesler

No, it does concern me, and in the winter issue of the Claremont Review of Books, I ran three pieces that were critical of the hypothesis that the election had been stolen. I think it’s much more likely the election was won fair and square, or more or less fair and square with some cheating, but not the whole thing being stolen by Joe Biden. I think any political scientist would have to read the evidence that way.

Now, at the same time, there are complicating factors here. One is that the battle over the election came at the end of a series of battles about the truth of things like Russian collusion or Ukrainian intervention. After two or three years of every establishment organ assuring us that there was no doubt that the guy was guilty, it turns out he wasn’t. So I think that contributed to the plausibility of Trump’s story that this was the latest deception in a series of deceptions.

Sean Illing

Okay, that’s fine, and while I think that’s a simplistic account of the Russia story, I’ll avoid debating it and instead push on my previous point a little more. We’re not in this situation merely because the left or because the media overplayed its hands on Russia, though I’d concede that’s part of the story.

A lot of conservatives believe these lies because right-wing commentators and politicians and intellectuals have cynically indulged them. I just heard your colleague Michael Anton on Andrew Sullivan’s podcast playing this exact game. He won’t say outright that the election was stolen, but when pressed for evidence, he says he’s just practicing “epistemological humility.” I mean, come on!

This is why I think people in your camp, sometimes called “West Coast Straussians,” are doing something very deliberate. One of the ideas of Strauss is that the philosopher, especially in times of crisis, may have to be a little deceptive, or tell lies in service of some higher goal, like saving the republic.

Honestly, is that part of what’s going on here?

Charles Kesler

No, not at all. I would consider intentional deception about the election an especially despicable use of the “noble lie” excuse. As I say, I think that Trump lost. I’ve published two essays on that very question, and my own, in the last issue, which more or less assumed the truth of that. I think Trump won a close election in 2016, and he lost a fairly close election in 2020. And there’s nothing that really ought to be surprising about that.

But it’s true that Trump took advantage of what might have been, among reasonable people, some doubt about particular elections, and blew it up into a whole theory, a whole excuse, for losing the election. That is regrettable, and it is damaging.

Sean Illing

You’re very careful in the book to say we haven’t reached the point of no return, so I’ll ask you here: Where’s that line? And what happens when we cross it?

Charles Kesler

It’s hard to say exactly. But it could be the result of a Supreme Court decision that a majority of the states refuse to enforce. It could be an abortion ruling or a guns ruling. But it could be sufficiently polarizing that people essentially say, “I don’t want to be in the same community with the people on the other side of this issue.” And that would start by saying, “We’re not going to allow federal marshals to enforce the law in our state.” But of course, for reasons that are familiar in history, that can escalate into something much bigger than anyone anticipated. I don’t think that is necessarily going to happen, and, of course, I’m hopeful that it doesn’t happen.

But that’s a mechanical answer to your question. I think a more philosophical answer would be that we’ve crossed that line when it’s clear that we really don’t understand “All men are created equal” in the same way, or when we understand it in incompatible and even mutually impossible ways. If that happens, we’ve reached the limits of moral community, which helped to set the limits of political community. And that’s when you have a real problem.