Charles R. Kessler, Crisis of the Two Constitutions: The Rise, Decline and Recovery of American Greatness (New York, NY: Encounter Books). 488 pp; $29.95.
When woke mobs spun the outrage at George Floyd’s killing in late May into carte blanche for widespread lawlessness, Charles Kessler took to the New York Post calling out the “1619 Riots.” Would labeling as a “1776 Riot” the Capitol storming on January 6 overdo the cynicism?
Nikole Hannah-Jones, in all fairness, owned up to inciting more than the spray-painting of “1619” on Confederate monuments. The eponymous New York Times project’s lead writer tweeted her delight at Kessler’s implicating headline (“it’d be an honor”), resting all lawbreaking by Antifa and BLM on the high moral ground of just redress. Kessler and the so-called “West Coast Straussians” at the Claremont Institute, on the defensive mission of “Recovering the American Idea,” have instead everything to lose from a descent into right-wing violence. Their embrace of Donald Trump as a nuclear option to reaffirm America’s Founding in the face of woke revisionism is looking increasingly like the gambit Kessler himself reckons it to be in Crisis of the Two Constitutions (2021). Whether he woke on January 7 to pangs of compunction depends on the line drawn between the anti-establishment instincts he happily egged on in Trump and his presidency’s insurrectionary last gasp. One toll, though, is beyond contest—the nationalistic celebration of the Founders’ statesmanship that Claremont exists to impart is, for more Americans than pre-2016, stained by radicalism and tribalization.
Kessler founded Claremont on the eve of Ronald Reagan’s 1980 landslide to keep alive the thought of Leo Strauss—thus the arcane epithet. Yet the Institute’s parallel crusade to vindicate the Founding from 1619-type indictments only became a conservative brand name in 2016. It’s a brand synonymous with a bet that Trump’s populist Americanism—as famously schemed in the “Flight 93 Election” essay by Kessler’s colleague Michael Anton—could provide a once-in-a-lifetime impetus to uphold the Constitution and the fundamental goodness of our country, inspiring a bulwark presidency against the administrative state and the woke rewriting of history. Since January 7, Trumpism’s liberal executors in the media have been searching for mob inciter fingertips, predictably. But for even some of its East Coast allies, the bill for Claremont’s 2016 gamble is coming due, with Joe Biden’s victory hiking the interest. The “healing presidency’s” day-one woke pandering has smacked of retribution, with collateral damage including the 1776 Commission on patriotic education that Kessler advised and Biden has since disbanded.
Kessler has anthologized his life’s key essays in the sweeping fashion of a magnum opus, but the book’s rollout in Trump’s aftermath is eerily apposite. The result is an authoritatively sober assessment of America’s interlocked constitutional ills from a Claremonster’s viewpoint and, right until his futile contestation of the November result, of Trump’s own significance for the Right, which the author blames for ducking the hard cultural and constitutional questions that propelled his 2016 run. Yet the dead angles that Kessler indicts in mainstream conservatism are not the usual. Beyond realigning away from libertarian economics and neoconservative foreign policy, the cultural deplorables of Trumpian imagery, he diagnoses, cried out for an almost romantic, wrapped-in-the-flag patriotism, uncompromising with the elite post-nationalism of even some mainstream Republicans. Before Trump’s primary win sent GOP worthies on a dizzying soul-search, Claremont was reputed as the solitary rock that progressives’ march through the liberal arts couldn’t wash away, a nucleus of academic counterculture in the Californian wilderness. It has since been joined by other thriving bastions—Hillsdale, run by the 1776 Commission’s President and Claremont founder Larry P. Arnn, and Claes Ryn’s Center for the Study of Statesmanship at Catholic University, to name just two. Yet Claremont remains its own species in Conservative Inc., synonymous with a purist suspicion of fellow scholars who deserted the sinking ship of academia for comfortable think-tank jobs supplying spreadsheets and boilerplate journalese for the policy fight du jour. Kessler’s mission all along has been “keeping the tablets,” as biblically metaphorized in another compendium co-authored with William F. Buckley, Jr. on Reagan’s last year in office.
Granted, august credentials were first wed to coherent Trump endorsements in the pages of the Claremont Review. Yet equating Kessler’s journal with “intellectual Trumpism,” as some press reports have done, overlooks its longer record of taboo-breaking on issues such as immigration and multiculturalism. It also misses the Right’s larger travails to anchor its ongoing realignment on firm footing. “Trumpian academics” would come closer, though another post-2016 new normal is the blurred boundaries between run-of-the-mill punditry and highbrow specialism. Beyond the Claremont-compatible American Greatness, The American Conservative, and the NatCons, a mosaic of scholarly outlets has stepped into the heterodox space first cleared by Kessler & co. These include American Affairs, Julius Krein’s journal-type effort to wrestle the monopoly of sound trade, state aid and immigration policy from Reaganite pieties, and American Compass, a media-savvy, think-tank type version of the same led by Oren Cass. The common creed of these emerging cliques is a looser approach to state power in the service of partisan ends, yet Claremonsters are cut from a special cloth, their unique persuasion built around how those ends are built. While not dismissive of policy arguments—some cut their teeth as Reagan aides—their relevance is in the Claremonster’s mind dwarfed by the context of constitutional decay in which they occur. Focusing on them exclusively as the republic’s foundations shift underfoot amounts to another form of disconnect with the base, akin to what Hillsdale’s David Azerrad decries as “fiddling while Rome burns.”
In this view, out-of-tune policies are at worst—symptoms of a deeper straying across the intertwined whole of American law, sentiment, and imagination, away from an originalist understanding of the Founders’ institutional legacy, underpinned by a robust communitarian, didactic and religious ethic. Fine-tuning a given consensus will at best amount to a band-aid, with the deeper constitutional bullet wound likely to manifest itself elsewhere. This emphasis on regime politics—the pursuit of ends towards which the American experiment itself is ordered—is Kessler’s wake-up call to the post-Trump Right, one where the wonk-sage chasm palpable between Claremont and the Kreins and Casses of the world is shaping up to be a realignment within the realignment. Newer voices, some even calling for a new national-populist vehicle to dislodge the GOP, have rallied onto Kessler’s premise that a conservatism fit for conquering and keeping power needs more than occasional policy wins on the margin—that snatching the Republic from the throes of its progressive assaulters and dismounting the myopic hacks on the party’s front-seat are of equal importance. Once niches so diverse as Adrian Vermeule’s common-good constitutionalism and the Catholic integralists he has inspired, to name just two, have been sucked into the post-Trump vortex by this heightening of the stakes. Yet these aren’t factions battling for the Trumpian soul so much as persuasions vying to leave an imprint on its afterlife, still up for grabs by a partisan figurehead. Though a poster child of Trump’s cultural and educational agenda—earning the National Humanities Medal in 2019—Claremont seems in fact resigned to political orphanage. Its crusade against constitutional decay synthesizes the warring spirit of the GOP’s crop of new leaders—Senators Tom Cotton, Marco Rubio, Josh Hawley—and the old guard’s constitutional sensibilities—Senators Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, Ben Sasse—but the events of early January have further deepened the gulf between these two groups.
So down to what comes the constitutional rot that so bedevils Claremont? Here again, much of the Right’s future is gleaned from spotting Claremont’s uniqueness not in its diagnosis of the status quo—otherwise identical to the standard Republican one since Barry Goldwater—but in their belligerence in seeking to reverse it. As a first impression, the Institute’s aloof stature amongst conservative mortals can mislead, its sincerity borne out by considerable investments in high-flying fellowships for constitutionalist jurists and pundits. For Claremont, the self-evident truths of natural equality of rights and government’s just role in securing them isn’t stump language, but a binding faith that should articulate all public life, lest its ultimate replacement by progressives’ competing philosophy of government ends the American experiment as we know it. Let alone the larger populace, these highbrow predicates may strike even Trump’s base as abstract in an almost out-of-touch way, to say nothing of the instruction required to grasp their comparative significance—Kessler was Harvey C. Mansfield’s doctoral student at Harvard’s government department in the early 1980s. Yet their erosion, Kessler’s warning goes, is ultimately channeled in one form or another into normal politics, making Claremont’s educational mission around the Founding principles a more defensively vital enterprise than the corporatist entre-soi of the Federalist Society, for instance.
If unaddressed, this philosophischer Kampf comes back to bite, also. That is Kessler’s read of the connection between constitutional negligence and the Progressive waves spanning the twentieth century that threatens to accelerate in the twenty-first century, producing the altogether parallel constitutional culture alluded to by another Claremonster’s broadside last year, Chris Caldwell’s The Age of Entitlement (2020). The role given to government in regulating American life since Woodrow Wilson, besides running roughshod over the Constitution, desensitizes Americans to its meaning, in turn feeding a vicious cycle of further assaults. When a Chronicle of Higher Education reporter asked for a one-sentence summation of Claremont’s philosophy, Senior Fellow William Voegeli rung good-naturedly patronizing—“we just happen to believe that government’s just powers only stem from the consent of the governed.”. Heightened woke morality and the credentialed expertise of unelected rulemakers, in this sense, have merely seized the vacuum of meaning left by the constitutionalist retreat diagnosed by Claremont—but the threat to the republic’s long-term viability is worse this time. The conservative habit of praising the Founding principles for little more than applause lines has spent their inner force, leaving us disarmed against the high moral ground of wokeism and the professed benevolence of the administrative state. The philosophical uprooting that both enemies thrive on is also fertile ground for cancel culture against old-fashioned patriotism, precisely enabling Trump to compensate his philistine ignorance of the Constitution with hard-edged bellicoseness à la Claremont. His instinctive Americanism—not out of some abiding faith in the Founders’ truths but a self-interested reading of cultural tectonics—made him neither better nor worse in Claremont’s eyes than the fifteen other Republicans on that debate stage, but it did enlarge the toolkit. The stakes had never been higher, so the constitutional restorationists cheerfully rode the Trumpian Trojan horse.
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