It may not get the attention of the daily outrage cycle in the news, but one of the most striking fractures in the 2016 campaign has been the peeling away of conservative intellectuals from their own party’s candidate—and, in some cases, from the party itself. As Donald Trump’s ascendancy began in the summer of 2015, the thought leaders of the right were among the first Republicans to open up a direct line of attack on the celebrity real estate developer. (“He’s dead to me,” said Bill Kristol, after Trump attacked John McCain’s war service early in his campaign.) And as the race evolved, many of the most resolute statements from the intellectual right have been leveled against a candidate, not for one, as writers like Kristol, Jonah Goldberg, Yuval Levin and Pete Wehner became leading figures in the NeverTrump movement.
In more recent months, however, a schism has developed. The adamant NeverTrumpers have remained so, but a number of conservative intellectuals have started to support the New York billionaire. Some do so grudgingly, some full-throatedly, but it is clear that over time the proudly anti-intellectual Trump has attracted a base of thinkers willing to lend him their support. In May, Fred Barnes documented a handful of early examples in the Weekly Standard, including the historian Victor Davis Hanson, who was willing to give Trump a chance to prove himself; since then, the universe has expanded considerably, most notably in the recent pledge signed by more than 125 conservative scholars and writers backing Trump.
The language of the pledge—“Given our choices in the presidential election, we believe that Donald Trump is the candidate most likely to restore the promise of America, and we urge you to support him as we do”—was not exactly a rousing endorsement of Trump himself, and the two dozen or so submissions by some of the endorsers made clear that the decision was in large part a rejection of Hillary Clinton. But a close examination of the names on the list also suggests that the Trump phenomenon has widened a fissure within the conservative movement that has been growing for years. The epicenter is Trump, to be sure, but the tectonic plates now separating were once covered by overarching principles that may be receding from view and exposing the cracks.
You could call it an East Coast–West Coast feud, an argument about American greatness whose roots lie decades in the past and have threaded themselves through the conservative movement’s long and sometimes-rocky relationship with the Republican Party. Whatever happens on Tuesday, it’s clear that the conservative movement is headed for a period of self-examination and a reckoning with whose ideas are going to drive the party forward. It remains to be seen whether conservatism will once again constitute the unified force it has been for the past three decades of American politics, but a look at this growing group of pro-Trump intellectuals could be helpful in figuring out where both the Republican Party and the conservative movement may be headed—and perhaps to detect a strain of the thinking that could animate a new version of the party.
The Republican Party wasn’t always as intellectually unified as it became after the election of Ronald Reagan. Modern conservatism in America started as a series of disparate movements, and only as they came together did conservatism became the potent force it has been in American politics. The story begins with William F. Buckley and National Review, the influential magazine he founded in 1955 as a way to “stand athwart history, yelling stop.” NR did not stop history, nor even end it—but it did create an intellectual framework that would change the American political landscape.
Buckley got his start objecting to the atheism and collectivism he saw rampant at Yale, where he was an undergraduate, and which he saw growing throughout elite American society. To fight it, he sought to create a conservative counter-establishment, one that both respected tradition and had a legitimate place at the table in 20th-century America. This meant taking on not only the left, but also excluding parts of the right at the time: racists, anti-Semites and the conspiratorial John Birchers, who saw evidence of communist infiltration nearly everywhere in American society. Though many of those groups shared some of Buckley’s concerns about communism or the rise of federal power, he rightly recognized that racists and anti-Semites had no place in a modern political movement. Included in Buckley’s new conservatism were disparate movements that had common goals, namely traditionalists and libertarians. The two groups didn’t necessarily agree: Libertarians opposed big government and were often but not always inclined to atheism, while traditionalists were not only religious but were willing to have government maintain religious and moral standards. But both were invited to the table.
The semi-harmonious weaving together of these different kinds of thinkers was done in large part by Buckley’s associate Frank Meyer. A former Communist turned NR senior editor, Meyer leaned toward libertarianism himself. At a deep level, though, he understood that these different strains of conservatism could peacefully coexist—especially in common cause. He laid this out in a 1962 book, In Defense of Freedom. Conservatives, he argued, should emphasize the importance of individual freedom. Those concerned about freedom could agree about the threat of communism, and have qualms about the growth of the federal government. With the so-called “liberal consensus” committed to expanding government, and with Soviet influence and power on the rise, that was enough to form some bonds of commonality. Such commonality was sufficient for putting out a weekly and then later a biweekly magazine of ideas, which allowed for disagreement within that conservative umbrella.
Buckley’s vision succeeded; as the journalist John Chamberlain put it, Buckley, “more than any single figure … made conservatism a respectable force in American life.” The result was not just a set of ideas but an agreed upon way of debating them. Absent the crude, rude and simplistic (not to mention wrong) arguments of the anti-Semites and the Birchers, conservatism became a dynamic movement in which ideas (even liberal ones) were put forward in their strongest form. This laid the groundwork for future political successes, which came to fruition decades later with the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, whose administration brought conservative intellectuals and conservative ideas into government in large numbers.
In the 1980s, it wasn’t hard for the different factions of conservatism to find common ground under the Reagan umbrella. A strong stance against the Soviet Union, high taxes and out-of-control crime unified libertarians, traditionalists and anti-Communists alike. It was really in the development of the Reagan coalition that the political marriage of the Republican Party and conservative intellectuals was sealed.
By 2016, Reagan, however, has been dead for over a decade. While most everyone in the conservative world still invokes Reagan as an ideal, there are plenty of disagreements over where Reagan would stand today on immigration, on foreign policy in a world with no Soviet Union, and on taxes in an era when many lower-income Americans pay no income taxes. On all of these issues there can be healthy disagreement, which is why over a dozen GOP candidates can get on a debate stage and profess their love of Reagan, and yet disagree on a panoply of issues. Similarly, conservative intellectuals continue to admire Reagan, yet argue over what is the modern manifestation of Reaganism.
It is in this post-Reagan era that the Trump candidacy has come and divided the world of conservative intellectuals. Foreign policy intellectuals are, for the most part, against Trump. Many signed a letter stating that they will unequivocally oppose a candidate whom they view as both unstable and wrongheaded. Another group heavily represented in the NeverTrump world is the neoconservatives, who overlap to a degree with the foreign policy group. Bill Kristol and John Podhoretz, editors of the Weekly Standard and Commentary, are two of the most prominent names on the NeverTrump team; their fathers, Irving and Norman, respectively, were probably the two most prominent or the original neoconservatives. (Irving passed away in 2009, but Norman did say in an interview that he would back Trump, although he did not sign the pro-Trump letter.) Yuval Levin, who edits National Affairs, which is explicitly modeled after Irving Kristol’s late Public Interest, is also a NeverTrumper.
We all know who opposes Trump in the conservative world. But who is in favor of him? A close examination of the Scholars and Writers petition suggests that Trump has highlighted a cleavage little understood outside the most academic conservative circles—a feud between East Coast and the West Coast Straussians, one with origins decades ago, in a split between followers of the University of Chicago political philosopher Leo Strauss.
Strauss was devoted to studying and seeing the wisdom of the ancients—as opposed to moderns like Nietzsche and Heidegger. Although Strauss himself remained largely outside the fray, he had many important students who have become involved in political battles both on campus and in Washington. These students have sought ways to model a society on some of the deeper principles that emerged from his work, such as promoting natural right and criticizing relativism. Many of his students, including Walter Berns, Allan Bloom and Harry Jaffa, became important distillers of much modern conservative thought. They all had long careers in academia and accrued many followers. Berns and Bloom and their disciples became the East Coast school; prominent East Coasters include Bill Kristol and Harvard political philosopher Harvey Mansfield.
Jaffa moved out to Claremont and developed his own disciples, largely around the Claremont Institute, and they became known as the West Coast Straussians. The most prominent West Coasters are probably Claremont’s Charles Kesler, Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn, and Amherst’s Hadley Arkes, showing that the “West Coast” designation is not strictly a geographic delimitation.
Some of the split was simply personality. Jaffa was a brilliant but contentious fellow—William F. Buckley once said, “If you think Harry Jaffa is hard to argue with, try agreeing with him.” Buckley was correct. Although Jaffa was a man of the right, his most prominent disagreements—with Berns, Bloom, Buckley, Robert Bork and even others whose names don’t start with a B—were with people on his own side of the political spectrum. But the split was also driven by substantive disagreements. The debate between the East and West Coast schools is somewhat esoteric, and any attempt to distill it is usually met with derision from one, or both, sides. At a most basic level, however, it centers on the origins of the American founding. West Coasters tend to believe that the founding represent the Aristotelian political ideal. The founders aimed high and hit their goal. The East Coasters, for their part, believed that the founding was a worthy but imperfect attempt at the ideal—“solid but low,” in East Coast phraseology.
The West Coast belief that the American founding represented the Aristotelian ideal could be construed as a manifest belief in American Greatness, and therefore it might make some sense that the Trump slogan “Make America Great Again” might have resonance among West Coasters (though it must be noted that it was an East Coaster, Bill Kristol, who championed an “American Greatness Conservatism” in the 1990s). Another possible reason for the support of Trump may be that the West Coasters are more focused on the threat posed by the administrative state to self-governance, and yet are also more inclined to believe in the power of strong individual leaders in great moments of crisis to shape political life. East Coast Straussians tend to be more protective of the institutional architecture of the Constitution, not only as a manifestation of the general principles of the Declaration of Independence but also as hard-headed constraints on political power and will, because they are more skeptical of the potential of individual statesmen and of the mass public to transform politics. For them, Trump is a manifestation of the democratic despotism Alexis de Tocqueville warned against.
To West Coasters, Trump looks more like a pushback against the administrative state. They see Trump himself as offering, for our times, a parallel to the section of the Declaration of Independence that focuses on outlining George III’s “long train of abuses and usurpations” when Trump challenges political correctness, Obamacare and the overreaching federal bureaucracy. Furthermore, the general remove of West Coasters from East Coast power—and typically from high-profile Republican administration appointments—predisposes them to object to Washington and everyday politics in general. This distinction may also explain why West Coasters are more likely than East Coasters to see a kindred temperament in Trump.
As long as the dispute was on esoteric philosophical questions and the long-ago personality disagreements of some aging forefathers, conservatives of both schools largely got along fine. This does not mean that there were not occasional, if minor, flareups. In 2003, Jody Bottum wrote in the East-Coast Straussian-leaning The Weekly Standard that “the Claremont Institute out in California recently decided to declare war on The Weekly Standard and the rest of the doctrinally impure publications of East-coast conservatism.” He was referring to a piece by Spencer Warren criticizing the “aesthetic relativism” of the Standard‘s movie reviewing. Bottum took a few shots in response to Warren’s critique, but the tone of his entire essay suggested that he did not take the dispute seriously. The Standard further diminished the seriousness of this minor disagreement, and showed it was all in good humor, by subtitling the piece “J. Bottum has fun with Spencer Warren and our friends at the Claremont Institute.”
The Trump disagreement, however, is more serious, and may have longer lasting impact. The ur-document of West Coast pro-Trumpism is not the pledge signed by the 125 scholars and writers but an earlier piece by Kesler in the Claremont Review of Books—a flagship West Coast publication—called “Trump and the Conservative Cause.” It appeared in the spring issue, after Trump had effectively captured the nomination, but it was just soon enough that one might wonder whether he started writing it while other GOP contenders still had a chance.
In the piece, Kesler acknowledged Trump’s imperfections—“a Johnny-come-lately Republican who never enjoyed a deep allegiance to the conservative movement”—but he also had some early praise for the emerging GOP nominee. According to Kesler, while “There is no shortage of reasons to object to Donald Trump,” he also noted that “Trump himself has formidable, late-blooming political talents.” Kesler liked Trump’s opposition to political correctness, as well as “Trump’s praise of high energy, toughness, and strength in the ideal chief executive.” In this, Kesler’s admittedly mixed praise of Trump fit in with the West Coast Straussian predisposition to believe in the great man who can influence politics in critical times.
In addition, and importantly, Kesler noted that the other strains of conservatism were presented to the voters and found wanting: “To abstain in 2016, in hopes of stimulating a recovery of full-throated conservatism in 2020, is sheer desperation, ignoring the weaknesses in the multiple forms of doctrinaire conservatism on offer in this cycle: libertarianism (Paul), social conservatism (Huckabee, Santorum, Carson, Jindal), compassionate conservatism (Bush, Kasich), ‘reform’ (Rubio), neoconservative foreign policy (Graham), self-styled ‘true’ conservatism (Cruz). None succeeded in capturing the Republican imagination.”
All in all, Kesler found, Trump was against political correctness, and merited a look if for no other reason that “It’s the spirited way Donald Trump has defied the P.C. mavens, I think, that’s been the key to his success so far.”
Kesler was early in his reassessment, but he is now not alone. Easily identifiable writers with West Coast affiliations on the recent Scholars and Writers for Trump letter included Jeffrey Anderson, Arkes, Arnn, Roger Beckett, Chris Buskirk, John Eastman, Douglas Jeffrey, Brian Kennedy, Seth Leibsohn, Ken Masugi, Steve Mosher, Daniel Palm, Ronald Pestritto, Dennis Teti, Thomas G. West and J. Eric Wise. In addition, there was a collection of individuals from the University of Dallas and from Hillsdale College—headed by Arnn, a former Claremont Institute president.
Kesler’s June essay was positively ambivalent compared with what this West Coast cohort is writing and saying now. Many of these individuals weigh in at various forums, on the radio, on Twitter, and in their writings about the mixed merits of Trump—but the decidedly unmixed demerits of Hillary Clinton. Arkes wrote that a GOP Congress needs a Republican president to sign legislation, and that “Donald Trump is the only one who can be right now that Republican President.” Radio host Chris Buskirk echoed Churchill when he wrote that “A Trump presidency would not mark the beginning of the end of what promises to be a long struggle to regain constitutional government, but it might mark the end of the beginning.” And Hudson Institute’s Jeff Anderson has looked to specific policies to praise, saying, for example, “In truth, Trump’s immigration proposals are quite logical and sensible. What’s more, his emphasis on those who overstay their visas is subtly shrewd.”
When the dust settles after this election, we may find that the Trump phenomenon has erased two generations of conservative consensus. This is not all Trump’s fault, to be sure. Long periods of exile often lead to intramural warfare—see the Democrats’ internal struggles after their third consecutive presidential loss in 1988. The Democrats emerged from that crucible to win four out of six elections, and seem on the verge of going five for seven. But it’s clear that the conservative intellectuals will have a battle on their hands after Election Day, and the splits over Trump will make that fight nastier than it would have been otherwise. This fight between pro-Trump and anti-Trump, and in particular the disagreement between East and West, may foreshadow the battle lines that will emerge.
Should Trump lose, there will be recriminations on both sides of the aisle. NeverTrumpers will be accused of contributing to his defeat, while pro-Trumpers will be accused of sullying conservatism by associating it with such a shallow, blustery celebrity candidate. But these differences may dissipate as all conservatives, even those who reluctantly backed Hillary, coalesce against Hillary and her agenda. Should there be a 2020 nominee with strong rhetorical skills and a Reaganite vision who can bring the party back together—and opposition to Hillary’s first-term agenda will likely prove a unifying banner—these differences might once again recede in the interest of pursuing a shared agenda.
Should Trump win, however, the differences could intensify. The NeverTrump faction would be on the alert for deviations from conservative principles, likely digging in against them and even rooting for failure, and a chance to say “I told you so” to misguided peers. The pro-Trumpers would circle the wagons around a Republican president, angered by the disloyalty toward a Republican in the White House. A conservative challenger to an incumbent Trump in 2020 would further exacerbate these differences. Whatever happens on Election Day, a new Republican party could emerge in the aftermath of these struggles, with some of the groups described above no longer part of the picture—and, in the case of a Trump win, a conservatism very remote from Washington possibly in the ascendant. It is hard to imagine the East Coasters or the West Coasters saluting and coming on board with a movement that went strongly in one direction or the other. And even among the intelligentsia, it is far from clear what policies would form the consensus approach that could bind them together once again—and what set of principles would define a party whose banner is currently carried by such an unpredictable candidate.