Charles Kesler, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and the editor of the Claremont Review of Books, wrote in the spring issue of the journal that America may be facing “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? America is not there yet, although when 40% of children are born out of wedlock it is not too early to wonder.” It’s no accident that this question is raised in an essay making case that Donald Trump isn’t as terrible as mainstream conservatives like William Kristol fear he is. If you live in the Weimar Republic, Kesler implicitly argues, a figure like Trump could come as a relief.
A similar mood of crisis was voiced by Angelo Codevilla, a retired professor of international relations, in a recent online essay for the Review. Codevilla argues that regime change of a terrible kind has already occurred, with the American elite destroying what was great about the country. By this account, America needs a new revolution. Codevilla supports Trump but fears that he’s not up to the task of revolutionary change required:
In fact, the United States of America was great because of a whole bunch of things that now are gone. Yes, the ruling class led the way in personal corruption, cheating on tests, lowering of professional standards, abandoning churches and synagogues for the Playboy Philosophy and lifestyle, disregarding law, basing economic life on gaming the administrative state, basing politics on conflicting identities, and much more. But much of the rest of the country followed. What would it take to make America great again—or indeed to make any of the changes that Trump’s voters demand? Replacing the current ruling class would be only the beginning.
Kesler and Codevilla are West Coast Straussians, one of two rival factions of intellectuals who revere Leo Strauss, the German-born political philosopher who died in 1973. Whereas East Coast Straussians have been heavily oriented towards establishment Republicans like George W. Bush, and thus tend to be #NeverTrump—Kristol’s Weekly Standard has been sharply anti-Trump and Paul Wolfowitz has said he might vote for Hillary Clinton—there’s considerable support for Trump among West Coast Straussians. They justify their support of Trump by saying that America is in such deep trouble it needs regime change. To borrow a Trumpian phrase: “What do you have to lose?”
In these West Coast Straussians we see the emergence, for the first time since the Southern secessionists of the 1850s, of a group of conservative American intellectuals who advocate overthrowing the existing political order. Under Bush, Americans saw what Straussian ideas of regime change could do abroad. Under Trump, we might see the same urge for regime change applied to America itself.
Can anything be more absurd than linking Leo Strauss with Donald Trump? Strauss devoted most of his life to closely argued and eccentric exegeses of classic texts by writers like Plato, Maimonides, Machiavelli, and Hobbes. His characteristic method of esoteric reading demanded spending hours pouring over a few key books in ancient, hard-won languages. In his personal life, Strauss was diffident and shy; he shunned the limelight. In other words, he was the human opposite of Trump.
And yet, for all of Strauss’s deliberate obscurity, he’s been a shaping force on American conservatism ever since he found refuge in the U.S. in 1937. Through his hundreds of students, many of whom went on to become distinguished scholars of their own, he created the most robust right-leaning school of thought in the American academy. During the early years of this century, there was considerable journalistic and scholarly hullabaloo about the fact that many key advocates for George W. Bush’s foreign policy (notably Wolfowitz and Kristol) had a Straussian intellectual lineage.
And today, while Trump hasn’t received much support from scholars and intellectuals, his most outspoken advocates in the academy are a group of Straussians clustered institutionally around Claremont McKenna College and its theoretical organs, the Claremont Review of Books and the website American Greatness. Among the Straussians supporting Trump are Kesler, Codevilla, Larry P. Arnn (president of Hillsdale College), and Ken Masugi (a legal scholar at Johns Hopkins University).
To understand the emergence of Trump-supporting Straussianism, it’s important to realize that this group is very different than the Straussians who were influential during the Bush administration. After Leo Strauss died in 1973, his followers divided into two factions, creating the infamous “Crisis of the Strauss Divided.” And the best way to understand the divide between West Coast and East Coast Straussians is through the quarrel between Harry Jaffa and Allan Bloom, who were the respective heads of the rival schools.
Strauss encouraged his students to form tight relationships since frank and intimate conversation among friends was the heart of philosophy. Jaffa and Bloom were very close in the 1950s and early 1960s. In 1964 they co-wrote a book, Shakespeare’s Politics, dedicated “to Leo Strauss our teacher.” But over time Jaffa became involved in grassroots activism in the Republican Party, authoring the famous lines that Barry Goldwater uttered in 1964, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” As he became involved in right-wing activism, Jaffa gravitated towards social conservatism, praising the religious right, appearing on Pat Robertson’s show, and emerging as vocal homophobe (he argued in 1990 that “sodomy is, in the decisive respect, as morally offensive as incest and rape”). This put him in collision with his former friend Bloom, who was a closeted gay man. In a nasty review of Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind (1987) published in the Straussian journal Interpretation, Jaffa wrote that through AIDS “God and nature have exacted terrible retribution” on gays. Bloom died a few years after Jaffa wrote those vile words. Some friends, notably the novelist Saul Bellow, claimed that Bloom had died of AIDS, although this is disputed. What is undeniable is that Jaffa put a homophobic jab in his review with the intent to hurt his former friend.
The disputes between Jaffa’s West Coast Straussianism and Bloom’s East Coast Straussianism can be discussed along philosophic lines: Is America, as Jaffa believes, grounded in ancient philosophy or was the American founding, as Bloom would have it, built on the low but solid ground of early modern philosophers like Hobbes and Locke? Does the survival of America depend on the virtue of the people, as West Coast Straussians believe, or in the maintenance of constitutional norms, as East Coast Straussians believe? But the dispute can also more easily be understood in terms of the familiar social divide in the Republican Party. West Coast Straussians are the grassroots activists, grounded in social conservatism and ultra-nationalist in foreign policy. Sociologically, East Coast Straussians are more aligned with the party elite, and tend to be found in Washington think tanks and serving as career bureaucrats.
Another way to frame the divide is on the issue of regime change. Strauss, like Plato, was fascinated by the founding of regimes, and his students clearly believe that the key to politics is to have power at the moment of creation. For the East Coast Straussians, regime change is a matter of foreign policy, as witness the failed attempt to democratize the Middle East by force under Bush. For the West Coast Straussians—perhaps shaped by Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided, a seminal and brilliant work on Abraham Lincoln as a revolutionary thinker—regime change begins at home.
In a 1959 critique of the book in National Review, Willmoore Kendall prophetically argued that Jaffa’s celebration of Lincoln could give license to celebrations of new Caesars who claim to be avatars of the popular will. Readers of Jaffa’s book, Kendall warned, needed to be wary...
...lest Jaffa launch them, and with them the nation, upon a political future the very thought of which is hair-raising: a future made up of an endless series of Abraham Lincolns, each persuaded that he is superior in wisdom and virtue to the Fathers, each prepared to insist that those who oppose this or that new application of the equality standard are denying the possibility of self-government, each ultimately willing to plunge America into civil war rather than concede his point.
Kendall was wrong on one point. He feared that an America too beholden to the ideal of equality would see a rise in political extremism. But with West Coast Straussians supporting Trump, we see that Jaffa’s license to political extremism can be used just as easily by those who oppose equality—and Kendall’s warning of a new Caesarism has been fulfilled.