Welcome to University of Trump-Los Angeles

Claremont McKenna College
Photo by Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Tina Nguyen
October 19, 2021

In every White House, there’s always a publication that claims to embody the spirit of the sitting president. The New Republic was the in-flight magazine of Air Force One during the Clinton years; the Weekly Standard could be found on coffee tables in George W. Bush’s West Wing; and Barack Obama famously loved the explanatory journalism of Ezra Klein and Paul Krugman. There was no such publication during Donald Trump’s presidency, of course—Trump’s Twitter feed, in conversation with Fox News, was its own sort of sacred text. 

With Trump’s banishment from social media, it is tempting to think that his movement’s intellectual energy, such as it is, has retreated to the hinterlands of Victor Orban fanzines and right-wing blogs. But I’ve been in a contemplative mood in my travels lately, and polled a number of my sources: does a MAGA version of the Weekly Standard exist—something that embodies the thinking person’s argument for Trump’s nationalist-populist and nativist politics?  

The answer pertains not to one journal, to wit, but rather a series of publications in the orbit of Claremont McKenna, the libertarian liberal arts school on the border of L.A. County. There’s The Claremont Review of Books, its official journal, which  published Michael Anton’s infamous Flight 93 essay calling on Republicans to “rush the cockpit or die” by electing Trump over Hillary Clinton, thereby providing some intellectual cover for the Make America Great Again movement. (An elated Rush Limbaugh famously read the entire essay, start to finish, on his radio show.) There’s also the Claremont Institute, the think tank that has molded commentators like Dinesh D’Souza, Laura Ingraham, Ben Shapiro, and Mark Levin, Trump speechwriter Darren Beattie, Senator Tom Cotton, and Pizzagate conspiracy theorist Jack Posobiec. It is perhaps best known, most recently, for employing John Eastman, the legal mind who provided Mike Pence with instructions for overturning the 2020 election result on January 6th.

And then, of course, there’s American Greatness, the unofficial journal of nationalist populism, founded and edited by Claremont alumni, whose columnists have indulged white replacement theory and stolen election fantasies and been agitating for a “national divorce” of red states from blue ones. The American Mind, the Institute’s online journal, has recently featured articles claiming that the Mexican border crisis was orchestrated; comparing “woke” culture to Maoism; diagnosing military leadership with “spiritual rot”; and deriding criticism of Eastman as “censorship.” It also published an an essay headlined “‘Extremist’ Is Not An Insult.”  When I was a student at the school, we had a name for this group: The Claremont Mafia.

The Claremont Institute itself is somewhat more staid, and certainly less well known, than its most notorious acolytes. Founded in 1979 by students of the former Claremont McKenna historian and political philosopher Harry Jaffa, the Institute originally devoted itself to the study of statesmanship, natural rights, and the originalist ideal of limited government, providing a Straussian-inflected counterpoint to modern liberalism. But Jaffa, also a speechwriter for Barry Goldwater who coined the phrase “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice,” was a fierce culture warrior. His strenuously erudite writing—citing Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics in order to rant about “diversity” and “political correctness”—helped establish the model that so many conservative writers would follow: essentially using the literary canon as an ivory-tinted cover for offensive or fringe views.

For the Claremont Institute, it was a largely seamless transition from criticizing immigration, affirmative action, and multiculturalism in obscurity to doing so more popularly in the name of defending Donald Trump. More important, however, was the intellectual framework that Claremont provided to Trumpism as an ethos, if not a governing philosophy. At a time when the Republican Party was still beholden to the orthodoxies of the Tea Party era—reducing government spending, lowering taxes—the Claremont Mafia was already fantasizing about a more authoritarian style of politics, one in which a strongman presidency was essentially required to irrevocably reverse the ravages of globalization and progressivism.

The angry appeal of that vision caught Democrats off-guard in 2016, and continues to mystify Rachel Maddow America. And for the Claremont Mafia, it offered a white-gloved elitist way of partaking in the anti-elite Trumpist movement with one foot storming the Capitol and the other in the ivory tower. It also, naturally, offered a chance for the more provincial Claremont Mafia to vie for relevance over more traditional Beltway hegemons the Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute.

As one recipient of a Claremont Fellowship put it to me, this intellectual pedigree is a useful tool for allowing postdoctoral blabbermouths to manipulate the central issues that enthrall the movement’s 74 million voters. “[Trumpism] is something capable of fooling even very, very smart people of good will,” the fellow summarized it. “It’s not like they’re bad guys or malevolent. But something about it was able to snare people of that caliber, when it’s too easy for the sort of ‘Drumpf’-smirking Twitter center-left to just dismiss Trump voters as knuckle draggers too stupid to catch on to why Trumpism is dumb.”

Out of all the big conservative think tanks with large endowments—Heritage, A.E.I., the Leadership Institute, and so forth—the Claremont Mafia remains obscure, likely due to the fact that it’s based in California; like Trumpism, itself, it’s deliberately as far away from the nation’s capital as possible. The institute’s Inland Empire location, east of Los Angeles, also influenced Claremont’s early fixation on Hollywood decadence and moral decay. “By being in California, they were away from D.C.,” Chris Buskirk, the publisher of American Greatness, a Publius Fellow at Claremont and a fellow Claremont graduate, told me. “But they were also in the state that has, maybe first and foremost, felt the effects of the breakdown of all of the elements of the social contract.” 

California, partly because of its well-stated liberalism, has spawned a conservative counterculture. Stephen Miller and Shapiro are but the latest agitators who viewed lax immigration standards, among other issues, as signs of cultural rot. They weren’t alone. The Claremont Institute’s hard-right turn into populist Trumpism was no shock to Buskirk. “Claremont has a pretty long tradition of doing scholarship on the Progressive Era and sort of fleshing out a line of argument that says, the progressive era was a theoretical and practical break with historical American Constitutional norms,” he said. Starting in the mid-2000s, scholars at Claremont such as John Marini began developing a different line of argumentation than the normal conservative talking points about government being too big and out of control. Conservatism wasn’t radical, Marini offered; it was progressivism that was constitutionally unorthodox. 

In other words, they argued that progressivism, from Woodrow Wilson to Obama, was a “radical” and fundamental rejection of the principles and values established during the Founding that, to put it in modern terms, Made America Great. “Claremont always took America seriously and was unapologetic about loving the country as founded,” said Buskirk. “They thought there was something special about what America had always been, from 1612 and Dale’s Code; 1520, the Mayflower Compact; 1776, the Declaration; all the way through. This is something that is unique and we love this country.” And if Progressivism posed a threat to what they loved, it was time to double down and defend those values.

By 2016, a section of the Claremont Mafia had an intellectual head start on what eventually became Trumpism. With the shift in the economic status of the middle class, many believed it was time to take their arguments out of the theoretical realm and place them within the reality of the global economy. “From the Bush era forward, it was always: free trade is good because it’s free trade. And we read these books in college, and we’re supposed to be free traders because we’re on the right. And that means, hey, export the American middle class to China, it’ll all somehow work out and come out in the wash, and yeah you don’t have a job but you can get a $10 toaster at Walmart, ain’t that great?” But the New Right, as he called it, was patriotic, exceptionalist, and isolationist. “Globalism, and so-called free trade, which isn’t all that free, actually just wants to enrich a very small group of people, both in terms of wealth, but also in terms of power. And everybody else is just a sheep to be sheared.” 

This argument landed fresh on a Republican electorate who felt that they’d been blindsided to the discontents of globalization. Some of the greatest hits of the influential Claremont Mafia from 2016 onwards include Anton’s Flight 93 essay, which tried to articulate the values of Trumpism as a last-ditch effort to save society from progressivism. (Anton would later be named to the National Security Council.) Beattie, the recipient of the Claremont Publius Fellowship, was infamously kicked out of the White House after it emerged that he’d appeared at an event with white nationalists. (He was later reappointed to a role overseeing memorials commemorating the Holocaust.) The 1776 Report, the Trump administration’s official (and largely plagiarized) rebuttal to the New York Times’s 1619 Project, had numerous Claremont-affiliated professors and academics on its board, such as Hillsdale College president Larry Arnn, Claremont Review of Books editor Charles Kesler, and the C.I.’s vice president Matthew Spalding. Notably, around the time he announced the formation of the 1776 Commission, Trump awarded the Claremont Institute with the National Medal of the Humanities.

You can see their influence spreading outside the sphere of Patriotic Education, too: in recent weeks, American Greatness may have single-handedly derailed the possibility of Governor Kristi Noem’s presidential bid by alleging an extramarital affair between her and Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s first campaign manager. (Noem has strenuously denied the charge, but publicly distanced herself from Lewandowski after he was accused of sexually harassing the wife of a G.O.P. donor.) And then there was the Eastman Memo, providing Vice President Pence with a convoluted blueprint through which he might invalidate the 2020 election and declare another term for President Trump. 

Pence ultimately rejected Eastman’s tortured legal justification, but as Bob Woodward and Bob Costa reported in their new book, Pence did take Eastman seriously. In a defense published on the American Mind, the Institute’s official website, the Institute attempted to whitewash Eastman’s association with the events of January 6, recasting his memo as simply “advice on Pence’s legal and constitutional questions.” They then attacked the media and fellow academic institutions, which had rescinded Eastman and the Institute’s involvement in an upcoming lecture series, for their “dangerous escalation in the censorship now threatening American democracy.” Yes, the Claremont Institute is claiming they are being #cancelled.

Buskirk, for his part, shrugged at the suggestion that Claremont was advancing authoritarianism or the downfall of democracy. “In Girardian terms, the traveling circus is always looking for a scapegoat that they can sacrifice before it moves on to the next one,” he said, referring to the French social scientist René Girard. “It’s the only way that it thinks that it can maintain order … you have to do more sacrificial rites in the media now. Right now, Claremont is in the crosshairs and in a couple weeks it’ll be somebody else.”

The self-professed intellectual outsiders surrounding Claremont seem allergic to the notion that American Greatness is the in-flight magazine of anything. (American Affairs, a competing political journal also spun out of Claremont’s orbit, seems more interested in that title.) Several of my more bookish sources suggested that while American Greatness and the Claremont Institute are undoubtedly influential within the America First movement, they are not the intellectual arbiters of national populism in the same way that the Bush-era Weekly Standard helped shape Dick Cheney’s imperial vision. 

“I don’t know if what they’re writing is what members of Congress are reading and talking about, or future Republican presidential candidates,” said MAGA political consultant Ryan Girdusky. “I think there are certain people that are influential [in the movement], but I don’t see that brand as influential. Because at the same time that I would love this intellectual Republican Renaissance to be happening, or smart people are putting ideas and people are talking about them widely, a lot of it is just repeated conversations.” 

And perhaps Girdusky’s right. Trumpism, at its core, is essentially anti-elitist,and that includes academics. Arguably, the real engine of Trumpist policy and ideology are soundbites and memes spun out of internet forums and comments sections, rather than anything packaged in the ivory tower of academia. But the Claremont Mafia has proven adept at taking the rudiments of these conversations and draping them in the rhetorical and philosophical flourish of the academy. Long before it was the subject of an American Greatness essay, the “national divorce” was a concept originating from Houston radio host Jesse Kelly in 2018, formalized by an ex-think tank head in a Substack essay in October 2021, denounced by the editor-at-large of the National Review a few days later, and then elevated to the MAGA rabble by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who put it to a vote on Twitter.  

There isn’t much of a future for Trumpism if it’s contained in the chaotic, uncivilized hinterlands of social media. But if Trumpism survives Trump, it will be in no small part because places like the Claremont Institute have nurtured it beyond the puerility of the president himself. “In the 60s and 70s, there was National Review, which provided the place for theoretical and policy support, effectively, for what became Reaganism,” Buskirk said, recalling the thought process that led to American Greatness. “No National Review, no Reagan in 1980. But what Trump doesn’t have is that same type of support. He gets things at a gut level. And I think he’s right about these things. He’s got great slogans—‘Build the Wall,’ ‘Lock Her Up,’ China, you know, whatever. But there’s nobody building the infrastructure to explain these things, let alone what does that mean, in terms of policy. I said well, like, he could use that.”

Update: An earlier version of this story referred incorrectly to The American Mind, the Claremont Institute’s online journal.