How the Claremont Institute Became a Nerve Center of the American Right

Some of the most pointed criticisms of Claremont’s recent prominence have come from scholars with similar backgrounds. “I think there’s a story here about the insularity of the conservative world,” says Laura Field, a political philosopher and scholar in residence at American University, who has published several sharp critiques of Claremont over the last year in The Bulwark, a publication started by “Never Trump” conservatives. Claremont has been “pretty much unchallenged by broader academia,” Field told me, as many academics, liberals but also other conservatives, tend to consider political engagement in general, and Claremont’s ideas and public manners in particular, beneath them. In contrast, Claremont scholars “understand the power of a certain kind of approach to politics that’s sensational,” she said. Field pointed me to a recent exception, a small panel discussion in July, in Washington, in which Kesler took part. Kesler defended the upsurge of populism as “pro-constitutional,” and so, he said, “even though it takes an angry form in many cases,” it was difficult to “condemn it simply as an eruption of democratic irrationalism.” Bryan Garsten, a political scientist at Yale, responded that it was very generous to interpret the current populism as “erupting in favor of an older understanding of constitutionalism,” but even if that was partly true, he questioned whether populism could “be expected to generate a new appreciation for constitutionalism” or whether it wouldn’t “do just the reverse.” It is, Garsten said, “a dangerous game to try to ride the tiger.”

Nonetheless, Claremont’s recent successes have made for effective fund-raising. Klingenstein, Claremont’s chairman, who runs a New York investment firm, was, as recently as 2019, Claremont’s largest donor, providing $2.5 million, around half its budget at the time. Claremont’s budget is now around $9 million, and Klingenstein is no longer providing a majority of the funding. “They’re increasingly less reliant on me, and that’s a good thing,” Klingenstein said. (On Steve Bannon’s “War Room” podcast on July 15, he noted that the budget kept going up.) Other big recent donors, according to documents obtained by Rolling Stone, 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 are still supportive of Trump but have also cultivated relationships with other figures of potential future importance, especially Ron DeSantis, perhaps envisioning a day when Trumpist conservatives find a more dependable and effective leader. Arnn, the president of Hillsdale College, which has many Claremont graduates on its faculty and a robust presence in Washington, conducted an event with DeSantis last February at which he called DeSantis “one of the most important people living.” According to The Tampa Bay Times, Hillsdale has helped DeSantis with his efforts to reshape the Florida education system, participating in textbook reviews and a reform of the state’s civics-education standards. But Claremonters are not entirely willing to cast Trump aside. “Trump is loved by a lot of Americans,” Kesler told me, “and you’re not going to succeed in repudiating him and hold the party together, hold the movement together, and win.” He said that the future lay “probably with Trumpism, some version of Trump and his agenda, but not necessarily with Trump himself. And that’s because I don’t know that he could win.” The argument in 2016 was, “We’re taking a chance on this guy, we’re taking a flyer,” Kesler said. “And I just don’t think they’re willing to take a second flyer.”

Harry Jaffa used to ask what it was that American conservatism was conserving. The answer was generally ideological — American conservatism was not about preserving a social structure, as in the old European societies, but rather the American idea, a set of principles laid out in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. What appears unsettled at Claremont is “the foggy question of whether or not a republic is too far gone to be conserved,” William Voegeli, the senior editor, wrote in the spring issue. “Which would be the bigger mistake — to keep fighting to preserve a republic that turns out to be beyond resuscitation or to give up defending one whose vigor might yet be restored?” Voegeli, at 67, comes down on the side of the “central conservative impulse,” which is that “because valuable things are easy to break but hard to replace, every effort should be made to conserve them while they can be conserved.” But he acknowledges that some of his younger colleagues appear ready to “abandon conservatism for counterrevolution,” in order to “re-establish America’s founding principles.” Kesler was sanguine. “We need a kind of revival of the spirit of constitutionalism, which will then have to be fought out, through laws and lawsuits and all the normal daily give and take of politics,” he said. “That’s what I’m in favor of. And it’s moving in the right direction.”

Tom Merrill, of American University, also studied Jaffa’s work and believes there is much in his teachings to 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 messed up in a bunch of ways but we’re mostly pretty good,’ I think that there would be a big middle lane, and it would defuse some of this anger.” The American right at present, Merrill argued, was in need of guidance and leadership that could not come from the traditional establishment, which voters had rejected. “There is a movement out there that isn’t the Republican Party, that needs people to speak for and sort of shape the message,” he said. In the past, that had meant movement conservatives cordoning off the undemocratic, un-American elements on the far right. Claremont could have filled that role, he argued, but “the central challenge facing the right is, Can someone take those themes and articulate them in a grown-up way?”

Some at Claremont have expressed a desire to work with liberals, yet their strategy seems to suggest the opposite. When I asked Williams what Claremont’s ideal future would look like, he cited the deconstruction of the administrative state. He told me recently that the June Supreme Court ruling constraining the E.P.A. is “a step in the right direction,” and he would like to see “Congress get back into the act of legislating” instead of delegating rule making to bureaucracy, a “long-term and complicated process involving legislators learning rules that they haven’t used in 30 years.” Prudence, he added, dictated that change should be incremental. “Though I can anticipate your next question, which is, You guys talk like counterrevolutionaries,” Williams said. “One of the goals of the more polemical stuff is to wake up our fellow conservatives.”

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