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The Failure of Pro-Trump Intellectualism

The new American Affairs journal whitewashes the president's politics and aims to hoodwink elite conservatives into believing that he's just like them.

Pool / Getty Images

President Donald Trump doesn’t care much for reading, but he does like magazines—when his face is on the cover. He’s boasted (falsely) about having “the all-time record in the history of Time magazine” for most appearances on the front cover. He keeps multiple copies of periodicals that celebrate his triumphs and hangs framed covers of himself on his office walls. But it’s unlikely Trump will know what to do with American Affairs. An austere intellectual journal, without glossy paper or pictures, American Affairs is the latest effort to turn Trump’s inchoate and sometimes incoherent political musings into a lucid political philosophy. 

The quest to intellectualize Trumpism strikes many people as foolish, if not doomed to failure. As columnist Damon Linker argued in The Week, there are many reasons why American Affairs is a quixotic enterprise. “There is, to begin with, Trump himself, a thoroughly anti-intellectual man who lacks the patience or interest to dabble even superficially in ideas,” he wrote. “Then there’s the fact that some of his closest advisers appear to have ideological commitments that place them in opposition to core liberal democratic ideals. When those tendencies are combined with Trump’s myriad ethical deficiencies and early signs of managerial incompetence, we’re left with the possibility of potentially fruitful ideas for reform (and the journals that promote them) ending up permanently tarnished by their association with such a deeply flawed tribune.”

Linker’s objections are valid, and one could also add that the main agenda of the first issue of American Affairs is not so much articulating Trumpism as making it more palatable. The magazine tries to make Trump’s ideology seem centrist and unobjectionable by recasting it in the blandest possible terms. Thus, University of Notre Dame political science professor Gladden Pappin calls Trump a proponent of “civic friendship” who wants people in economically depressed areas to work together. This is deliberate obfuscation, eliding a polarizing nationalism that Trumps uses to divide the world into good Americans (those who support him) and “bad” people (criminal immigrants, duplicitous foreigners).

Given how American Affairs whitewashes Trump’s actual politics, the journal can also be seen as developing Trumpism less as an ideology than a mythology—one that aims to hoodwink elite conservatives into believing that Trump is just like them.

The origins of American Affairs lie in two websites, the shuttered The Journal of American Greatness and still-active American Greatness, both of which were outgrowths of the Claremont Institute, a California think tank which is a haven for a school of thought known as West Coast Straussianism. Straussians are followers of Leo Strauss, one of the most influential conservative political thinkers of the last century. After he died in 1973, his followers split into two camps, West Coast Straussians (led by the late Claremont McKenna College political science professor Harry Jaffa) and East Coast Straussians (led by the late University of Chicago Professor Allan Bloom). Jaffa and Bloom had been friends while Strauss was alive, even collaborating on the 1964 book Shakespeare’s Politics. (American Affairs editor Julius Krein studied at Harvard under Harvey Mansfield, one of the rare Straussians friendly with both sides of the coastal divide, but the magazine is decidedly oriented towards West Coast Straussianism.)

It’s hard to disentangle the knots of personal, political, and philosophical divisions between the East Coast and West Coast Straussians. Personally, Jaffa was a homophobe while Bloom was a closeted gay man. Politically, Jaffa was aligned with the hard right of the Republican Party running from Barry Goldwater to the Moral Majority to Dinesh D’Souza, while Bloom was a Cold War liberal who supported either conservative Democrats or neoconservative Republicans.

Philosophically, the divisions between Bloom and Jaffa hinged on the question of nationalism. Leo Strauss had taught that ancient philosophy was superior to modern thought, but this left a difficult question for Straussians about what to do with the United States, a nation born in modern times. Bloom, following Strauss himself, believed that America was built on the “low but solid ground” of John Locke’s philosophy, meaning that while the U.S. was far from the ideal society imagined by Plato, it was a workable compromise that created a functioning, prosperous polity.  

For Jaffa, seeing America as a purely modern nation was nihilistic because it meant that the country didn’t live up to the great truths of the ancients. Jaffa’s life work was to show that the U.S. transcended the divisions between the ancients and the moderns because beneath its Lockean system was a deep commitment to ancient truths. For Jaffa, Jefferson and the other founders were both deeply religious and in alignment with ancient philosophy while Abraham Lincoln was the very incarnation of Aristotle’s ideal of the magnanimous man.

By conflating Locke and Aristotle as well as deism with both Christianity and philosophy, Jaffa seemed to be engaged more in creating edifying myths than convincing scholarship. In 1985 in National Review, Thomas Pangle, then a political science professor at the University of Toronto, warned of “the lure of a new mythic Americanism, promulgated by Harry Jaffa and his followers.” 

To Pangle, Jaffa’s vision of American history was a series of beguiling fairytales:

Here we find the American tradition portrayed as the direct heir to classical political philosophy and in particular to the Aristotelian tradition. Dominating the epic is a Lincoln painted in such a way as to obfuscate the historical Lincoln’s clear-sighted commitment to a specifically modern, egalitarian, and individualistic conception of the Rights of Man. Above and behind him looms a Jefferson shorn of his avowed Epicureanism and depicted as if his perfunctory expressions of respect for Cicero and Aristotle ought to be accorded more weight than his strong expressions of admiration for Locke and Bacon.

Jaffa and his followers were, in other words, guilty of creating a “myth” of “America-as-heir-to-classical-philosophy.” In the absence of such a cloaking myth, America would appear naked to the world as a crass, materialistic and even (at heart) godless nation. “If—God forbid—Locke and his great predecessors were predominant sources of American principles, it would follow that American principles are ‘base,’” Pangle wrote. “It is as if to step off the pedestal of Aristotle is to sink irretrievably into muck.”

This is the central philosophical divide between the West Coast and East Coast Straussians. The West Coast Straussians are nationalists who believe the U.S. needs some mythical sense of its own greatness, which explains why they were so quick to jump on the Trump bandwagon. The East Coat Straussians are more cosmopolitan thinkers who believe that such myths are not necessary (or perhaps that more elegant myths are needed), and that politics is more a matter of cultivating wise elites; this is why they have remained wary of Trump. (To put it another way: In The Republic, Plato wrote of “philosopher kings” who rely on “noble lies.” The East Coast Straussians specialize in creating philosopher kings, while the West Coast Straussians are more interested in crafting noble lies.)

It’s noteworthy that the major non-Straussian thinker celebrated in American Affairs is James Burnham, who, in his 1943 book The Machiavellians, used the ideas of George Sorel to argue that cultivating myths is a central task of politics. Given the centrality of both Jaffa and Burnham to the writers of American Affairs, the motives behind the journal become easier to understand. This is not a magazine of ideas but rather a magazine of myths. 

Just as Jaffa tried to make Jefferson and Lincoln compatible with Aristotle, the writers for American Affairs are trying to make Trump compatible with high-minded conservatism.

The actual Trump is heir to a tradition of American right-wing authoritarianism, with elements drawn from Joseph McCarthy, Roy Cohn (as it happens, Trump’s mentor), George Wallace, Richard Nixon, and Pat Buchanan. It was from figures like these that Trump learned a politics of racial demagoguery, polarization, and dominance through insults and lies.

American Affairs ignores these historical roots and instead argues that Trump is the heir to Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. Georgetown professor Joshua Mitchell wrote that Trump’s “covenantal nationalism” has noble precursors: “Listen to Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address of November 19, 1863, and to Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, and you will hear the language of covenantal nationalism.” Another article seeks to ground Trump’s rhetoric on employment in the “a Hegelian approach to robust citizenship.” Michael Anton, a previously pseudonymous pro-Trump author who is now a senior national-security official in the administration, garnishes a justification of Trump’s foreign policy with allusions to Thucydides. This sort of high-minded name-dropping has the feel of post-facto rationalizing, with exalted figures serving as a classy varnish, not unlike Trump’s own gaudy gold-encrusted residence.

There are some admirable aspects to American Affairs. One of the journal’s recurring themes is that economics has to be subservient to politics, a welcome break from conventional conservative exaltation of the “free market” as the final arbiter of all decisions. But this salutary impulse has little to do with Trump, whose cabinet appointments have been conventional Republicans interested in empowering corporate capitalism. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the purpose of the magazine is not to develop ideas, but rather to fashion a disguise, so that the vulgarity and profanity of Trumpism may become acceptable to prissy elitists.