How the Claremont Institute became a nerve center for the American right

Some of the most perspicacious criticisms of Claremont’s recent notoriety have come from scholars with similar backgrounds. “I think there’s a story here about the seclusion of the conservative world,” says Laura Field, a political philosopher and visiting scholar at American University who has published several harsh reviews of Claremont in The Bulwark over the past year, a publication that started by “Never Trump” conservatives. Claremont was “virtually unchallenged by the wider academic world,” Field told me, because many academics, liberals as well as other conservatives, tend to view political engagement in general and Claremont’s ideas and public behavior in particular as secondary. In contrast, “Claremont scholars understand the power of a certain type of political approach that is sensational,” she said. Field pointed out a recent exception, a small panel discussion in Washington in July that Kesler attended. Kesler defended the rise of populism as “constitutional” and so, “although in many cases it takes an angry form,” it is difficult to “condemn it simply as an outburst of democratic irrationalism.” Bryan Garsten, a political scientist at Yale, responded that it was very generous to interpret current populism as “an outburst in favor of an older understanding of constitutionalism,” but even if that were partly true, he questioned whether populism “is expected to be could”. generate a new appreciation for constitutionalism” or whether it would not “do exactly the opposite”. According to Garsten, it is “a dangerous game to ride the tiger”.

Nonetheless, Claremont’s recent successes have resulted in effective fundraising. Klingenstein, the chairman of Claremont, who runs a New York investment firm, was Claremont’s biggest donor as recently as 2019, providing $2.5 million, about half of its budget at the time. Claremont’s budget is now around $9 million, and Klingenstein no longer provides most of the funding. “They rely on me less and less, and that’s a good thing,” said Klingenstein. (In Steve Bannon’s July 15 “War Room” podcast, he noted that the budget kept growing.) Other major recent donors include the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation and the Bradley Foundation, two of the most prominent conservative family foundations in the country.

Many Claremont scholars still support Trump, but have also nurtured relationships with other figures of potential future importance, most notably Ron DeSantis, and perhaps envision a day when Trumpist conservatives find a more reliable and effective leader. Arnn, the president of Hillsdale College, which has many Claremont grads on its faculty and has a strong Washington presence, hosted an event with DeSantis last February where he called DeSantis “one of the most important people alive.” According to The Tampa Bay Times, Hillsdale has helped DeSantis in his efforts to transform Florida’s education system by participating in textbook reviews and a reform of state civic education standards. But Claremonters aren’t quite ready to brush Trump aside. “Trump is loved by a lot of Americans,” Kesler told me, “and you’re not going to be able to reject him and keep the party together, keep the movement together and win.” He said the future was “probably in Trumpism, any version by Trump and his agenda, but not necessarily by Trump himself. And that’s because I don’t know if he could win.” The argument in 2016 was, “We’re taking a chance on this guy, we’re taking a flyer.” said Kesler. “And I just don’t think they’re ready to take a second flyer.”

Harry Jaffa used to ask what conserved American conservatism. The answer was generally ideological – American conservatism was not about preserving a social structure like that of old European societies, but about the American idea, a set of principles enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. What seems unresolved at Claremont is “the misty question of whether a republic is too advanced to be preserved,” wrote William Voegeli, the senior editor, in the Spring issue. “What would be the bigger mistake – to continue fighting to preserve a republic that is proving impossible to revive, or to give up defending a republic whose vigor may have been restored?” Voegeli, 67, sides with the “central conservative impulse ‘ which reads: ‘Because valuable things are easy to break but difficult to replace, everything should be done to preserve them while they can be preserved.’ But he concedes that some of his younger colleagues seem ready to “abandon conservatism in favor of counter-revolution” to “restore America’s founding principles”. Kesler was confident. “We need some kind of revival of the spirit of constitutionalism, which then has to be fought out, through laws and lawsuits and all the normal day-to-day give and take of politics,” he said. “I’m for that. And it’s going in the right direction.”

American University’s Tom Merrill also studied Jaffa’s work and believes his teachings appeal to both liberals and conservatives. “I think the country is so divided right now that if you had a Republican candidate who was like, ‘You know, we screwed up in a lot of ways, but we’re pretty good mostly,’ I think it would be give big mid lane and it would defuse some of that anger. The American right now needs leadership, Merrill argued, and leadership that cannot come from the traditional establishment, which voters have rejected. “There’s a movement out there that isn’t the Republican Party that needs people to speak for and shape its message in some way,” he said. In the past, this has meant conservatives sealing off the undemocratic, un-American elements of the far right. Claremont could have filled that role, he argued, but “the central challenge for the right is: Can someone take these issues and articulate them in a grown-up way?”

Some in Claremont have expressed a desire to work with Liberals, but their strategy seems to suggest the opposite. When I asked Williams what Claremont’s ideal future would be like, he cited the deconstruction of the administrative state. He recently told me that the Supreme Court’s June ruling restricting the EPA was “a step in the right direction,” and he would like to see “Congress get back into the legislative act” rather than rulemaking delegating bureaucracy, a “long, drawn out and complicated process in which lawmakers learn rules they haven’t used in 30 years.” Prudence, he added, dictates that change should be incremental. “Although I can anticipate your next question, which is: You guys talk like counter-revolutionaries,” Williams said. “One of the aims of the more polemical stuff is to wake up our fellow conservatives.”

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