In her essay, What the hell happenned to Claremont Institute (https://thebulwark.com/what-the-hell-happened-to-the-claremont-institute/) Laura Field has done an excellent job analysing Kesler’s, Anton’s, and Ellmer’s writing. Her work though focuses on the symptoms and less on the causes because she did not talk to anyone inside Claremont or familar with any of the prinicpals. I will attempt to provide a tentative answer to her question based on having attended Claremont Graduate School between 1991 and 1996 where I took classes from Kesler and wehre I was a classmate with Michael Anton and Glenn Ellmers.
The following are an initial, therefore brief, response to her question. The answers are offered in no particular order or priority.
- Trump. Trump gave Claremont Institute members and affiliates a chance at power, to be in governmnet if not in the White House. Once you realize that Claremont has always been at the fringe of the GOP, not only intellectually but also politically, you understand the hunger, the yearning to be taken seriously, to be accepted into the centre of power, but most important of all the appearance of being able to exercise power not simply write or talk about it. Even now, though, when they would think they are mainstream of Trump’s cultic GOP, they remain on the fringe. On the fringe, they are forced to review books like the Bronze Age Mindset to show some “relevance” for the “youff” culture. The Claremont Review of Books gave serious attention to a crank book that reads like warmed over intellectual vomit. Harry Neumann is laughing! Strauss had Machiavelli. Jaffa had Lincoln. Anton has the Bronze Age Pervert. It about sums up what the Claremont Institute has become. Even as Trump gave them the chance to make their mark and be taken seriously, to live the dream of going to Syracuse, they sacrificed their intellectual honour, their self-respect, and worst of all Harry Jaffa’s legacy. (The Claremont Institute used to claim that it studied Statesmanship but Trump’s lack thereof means it becomes impossible to recover their reputation. How can they convince a student that they are serious about the study of statesmanship when they supported a man who could only demonstrate statesmanship by its absence. Not only that, when Donald Trump declared he was as great if not greater than Lincoln, none of Jaffa’s students spoke up to criticize Trump. (https://today.yougov.com/topics/politics/articles-reports/2019/12/02/greatest-republican-president) Anyone who knows anything about Harry Jaffa would know there is no way he would have let Trump, or any President, say something like that without subjecting them to a scorching attack. Jaffa used to write to Justice Clarence Thomas criticizing his use of Aquinas and Natural Law theory so I do not think he would have any qualms nor lack the courage to peel the bark off of Donald Trump for saying such nonsense about Lincoln. Instead of Jaffa’s courage, his students, and those who a scant few years ago praised his legacy, sat back timidly and said nothing.) In return for sacrificing their intellectual reputation, Claremont gained nothing significant.
- Harry Jaffa died. It is impossible to overstate how important this was for freeing the Claremont crowd to join Trump. Were Jaffa alive and in good health none of them would have done this and Kesler would never have thought of publishing something as poorly thought out and anti-American as the Flight 93 essay or associating himself with Trump even indirectly. Jaffa’s legacy is what sustains Claremont and his status and stature used to restrain these base urges especially towards white supremacy. What Field does not realize, since she appears to base her research on superficial analysis provided by a podcast (https://know-your-enemy-1682b684.simplecast.com/episodes/teaser-the-1776-project) is that Jaffa represented the belief in equality as a conservative principle. In this he was nearly alone within conservativism. Kesler edited with Buckley a booked called Keeping the Tablets and several of the selections praised inequality with the one by Richard Weaver going so far as to say that slavery was an ethically superior system! “It will seem to many anomalous that a slaveholding society like the South should be presented as ethically superior. Yet the endeavour to grade men by their moral and intellectual worthy maysuggest a more sensitive conscience than proscription of individual differences. I do not claim that the South did this successfully, but the great intellectual effort established some conclusions not yet entirely refuted.” (p. 65) Jaffa’s essay on equality was the only reference to it in the work and his essay was outnumbered by those of Kirk, Weaver, and Kendall who were given more space to promote and defend, the Southern ethos as if the Lost Cause was somehow an honourable experience becacuse it encouraged a false aristocracy that only existed because of White Supremacy. The space given to the arguments for white supremacy exceeds that given to equality by 3 to 1. With Jaffa gone, who will speak for equality? Kesler? Anton? Ellmers? No one is left who can speak of equality and that is what West Coast Straussianism, such as it is, meant and it is now dead.
- Harry Neumann died. If few people heard of Jaffa, than only people who attended Claremont know who Harry Neumman was or why he is important to understanding what has gone wronge at Claremont. As the last living nihilist, Neumann cut an important and underappreciated figure within Claremont. He was not so much a figure within the Claremont Institute, as he was too philosophical for it, as friendly towards it because his friend Harry Jaffa. What Neumann did, and this is very much inside baseball, was to keep the Claremont crowd on the straight and narrow by challenging them constantly to disavow nihilism (belief in something rather than the nothing that Neumann argued) and white supremacy (the implicit belief in supremacy and aristocracy in contradistinction to Lincoln’s (Jaffa’s) call to equality). Neumann never confronted those students or professors directly only indirectly since he would engage those students who would disavow Jaffa’s (Lincoln’s) path towards equality as either pursuing supremacy, or not believing in anything except the will to power. Yet, with Neumann gone, they have been freed of his criticism. There is no one to hold them to account as they embrace the Will to Power that Trump embodies. As someone once remarked Neumann bayonetted the nihilist deserters from Jaffa’s Natural Rights army. To put it directly, Harry Neumann would have ridiculed Anton and Ellmers for their loyalty to Trump despite his flaws. He would have pointed out they were no different from Rudolf Hess, except that Hess had the courage, the thymos to admit it, while Anton and Elmers do not have the courage or thymos to face up to their nihilism. Instead, they cling to the fig leaf that they follow the DOI and the USCON and work from a belief in natural right which crumble once their Hess defense is unmasked.
“To those emphasizing Hitler’s faults and weaknesses, Hess answered, “I know! I know! Hitler too has faults and weaknesses. But if you had understood me correctly you would not have raised that objection. It depends upon us whether we show the world his merits or his faults.” Harry Neumann POLITICS OR NOTHING! NAZISM’S ORIGIN IN SCIENTIFIC CONTEMPT FOR POLITICS * The Journal of Value Inquiry 19:225 234 (1985). p228
Anton and Ellmers, among many, will never speak of Trump’s flaws or his translegal desires so they instead focus on telling the world he must be embraced simply for what he represents or what must be avoided not whether he is instrincally worthy of such loyalty. Churchill for all his flaws is a great man, a magnanimous man, a great souled man was a man who deserved loyalty. Lincoln was such a statesman. Trump would never be confused with a great souled man, yet, Anton and Ellmers cannot, dare not, admit that because loyalty above all to Trump and his cause, is too important, it is more important than truth, intellectually probity, or decency. Neumann would remark laconically that Anton and Ellmers are too cowardly to even admit their nihilism or their cowardice in the face of Trump supporters. It is for this reason they both stayed far from him at Claremont.
- Claremont is dying (intellectually) if you look at the people who are on the masthead none of them present any serious scholarship. Who is coming to the institute with ideas or a vision for America? Are they coming for the white supremacy light? The natural rights masking nihilism? What we do have a focus on culture war topics with the fear Claremont is being surpassed by more extreme sites in much the same way Fox News has had to contend with OAN and NewsMax. Hey kids, read the Bronze Age Mindset and you are now in the intellectual vanguard of the conservativism as understood by Claremont Review of Books. Who is the next Jaffa? Elmers? Anton? One would have expected a better rhetorical defence of the founding from the Claremont Institute and a better rhetorical rebuttal to the 1619 project. In its defence, the CRB continues to publish good book reviews, but mainly by external reviewers, but beyond that it presents nothing meaningful for shaping the country’s intellectual life. Like Isocrates of old, it seems more intent on ideologues who are trained in political rhetoric without any depth or meaning since they lack an education for they have taken the shorter path, someone has given them talking points, instead of taking the long way, to obtain political knowledge. The Lincoln Fellows and the Publius Fellows now appear more of a conservative madrasah, that must make Steve Bannon jealous, than a place of serious scholarship. They can be glib and clever but they are superficial as they do not know anything of substance about politics. Their education, such as it is, is incomplete. How are they going to attract anyone to this bonfire of intellectual probity?
As I said at the start, these are tentative reasons for Claremont’s decline, so they should ly be seen as a starting point for further investigation. One thing I have left out is money. How the Claremont Institute is funded and what it has been forced to do to obtain and sustain that funding needs someone with a deeper knowledge of its finances. I do know that the Claremont Instiute, like any think tank, was always seeking funding and rarely had enough to sustain its then intellectual wealth. One could say it has sold its intellectual wealth for financial wealth. The deal has not served them well and it is not one they are likely to be able to reverse.
In the end, Jaffa is dead and the Claremont Institute is adrift in the fading light from his (and Strauss’s) legacy.