Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Straussians for Trump: The Degradation of Leo Strauss's Legacy


Some of those who claim to be in the tradition of Leo Strauss--the Western Straussians connected to Harry Jaffa and Claremont McKenna College--are now supporting Donald Trump.  I cannot imagine Leo Strauss supporting someone like Trump unless Will Altman was right about Strauss's Jewish Nazism.

The Straussian supporters of Trump are posting their manifestos at the website for the Journal of American Greatness.  According to an article in this week's Weekly Standard by Fred Barnes, Charles Kesler at Claremont McKenna College says that the Journal of American Greatness  is in the "Claremont and Hillsdale orbit," and represents "a subset of Western Straussianism."

In an article at VDARE, Hedley Wight has argued that in contrast to the globalist cosmopolitanism of the East Coast Straussians, the West Coast Straussians love America first, and they are now embracing the ethnic nationalism of the "Alternative Right," which recognizes the potential for Trump to become the leader of an American ethnic nationalist movement to defend the ethnic and racial identity of America.  In doing this, the Trumpist Straussians admit that they are trying to understand Trump better than he understands himself.  Or as one writer at the Journal of American Greatness has written: "we are far more interested in understanding his policy impulses better than he understands them himself, which means situating them within deeper historical and theoretical contexts, even those of which he never speaks and probably is not aware." 

Isn't this exactly what Martin Heidegger did with Hitler in his Rectoral Address and other speeches for the Nazis, in which he tried to exercise "intellectual leadership" by making Nazism philosophically coherent, just as the Trumpian Straussians are now trying to make Trumpism philosophically coherent?

In the spring, 2016, issue of the Claremont Review of Books, one can see the debate among the West Coast Straussians over Trump.  Kesler writes in defense of Trump.  Martha Bayles writes against him.

Kesler speaks of Trump as a "strong leader" in the tradition of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, which is strange given Kesler's critique of Progressivism.  Kesler quotes Wilson's claim that "the President is at liberty to be as big a man as he can," and he quotes Wilson's declaration that "the personal force of the President is perfectly constitutional to any extent which he chooses to exercises it."  Kesler observes: "'Personal force'--not far from Trump's praise of high energy, toughness, and strength in the ideal chief executive."

Kesler praises Trump for taking "a tough position in tough terms."  After all, Kesler observes, "every republic essentially faces what might be called the Weimar problem. Has the national culture, popular and elite, deteriorated so much that the virtues necessary to sustain republican government are no longer viable?"  In such times, the nation needs a "strong leader." Thus, Kesler implies that Trump is doing for the United States what Adolf Hitler did for Germany.  Hitler promised to make Germany great again.  Like Germany, the United States needs someone "to be as big a man as he can."  After all, as Trump has said, in one of his favorite quotations from Mussolini, "it is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep."

Oddly, in affirming the need for a President acting as a "strong leader" who is free "to be as big a man as he can," Kesler, the West-coast Straussian, seems to be agreeing with Harvey Mansfield, the East-coast Straussian, who asserts the need for Presidents who show the "manly nihilism" of "one-man rule"

If this follows from the teaching of Leo Strauss, then Will Altman was right to argue that Strauss was promoting Nazism, because he saw classical liberalism as so decadent that it needed the spirited manliness of Nazism--or Donald Trump--to save it.  One of the writers at the Journal of American Greatness, in an article on "Paleo-Straussianism," has said of Strauss that "the philosophic mind he admired the most belonged to a Nazi."  Altman argues that Strauss's praise for Heidegger and his refusal to repudiate Heidegger's Nazism is good evidence for Strauss's acceptance of Nazism.

Altman cited Strauss's comments about how every healthy society is a "closed society" rather than an "open society."  The Trumpist Straussians seem to conform to this by agreeing with Trump's claim that America must be a closed society not open to Muslims and immigrants from non-European countries.

By contrast, in the same issue of the Clarement Review of Books in which Kesler's essay appears. Martha Bayles disagrees with her "savy political friends" at Claremont who have found Trump "refreshing."  Instead, she sees Trump's success as showing the morally degrading effects of "exhibitionist reality TV" on American political culture.

Can't we imagine that Strauss would have taken her side--in recognizing the vulgar demagoguery of Trump--against the Western Straussians?  In his article in National Review rejecting Trump, Bill Kristol quoted Strauss as saying "a conservative, I take it, is a man who despises vulgarity."  Kristol asked: "Isn't Donald Trump the very epitome of vulgarity?"

Or can some Straussians see the "inner truth and greatness" in Trumpism as a movement for American ethnic nationalism?  If so, then was Altman right to see Strauss as a Jewish Nazi who scorned the openness of cosmopolitan liberalism?

Does this Straussian scorn for classical liberalism explain why the Trumpist Straussians prefer Trump for President over Gary Johnson?  After all, Johnson and the Libertarians support free trade and open borders, which puts them in opposition to American ethnic nationalism.

"We have been given the gift of Trump and Clinton."  That's what one of the libertarians at the Libertarian Party convention said, and he was expressing the thought that pervaded the convention: with the two parties nominating Trump and Clinton, Johnson has an unprecedented opportunity.  If Trump and Clinton each win roughly 30% of the popular vote, Johnson could win with 40%, just as Abraham Lincoln became the first Republican president with less than a majority of the popular vote, because Stephen Douglas and John Breckenridge split the Democratic Party vote.

An alternative possibility is that Johnson wins the electoral votes of a few states (like New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah), while Trump and Clinton evenly split the other states, no one wins a majority in the Electoral College, and the election must be decided by the House of Representatives, with each state delegation having one vote.  If neither Trump nor Clinton can win the majority of the state delegations, and if the Republicans favor Johnson over Clinton, and the Democrats favor Johnson over Trump, Johnson could win. Crazy? Yeah, just as crazy as this whole presidential election year.

Some of my other posts on Strauss, Nazism, and liberalism can be found here, here, herehere., here., and here.

My posts on Mansfield's "manly nihilism" are here, here, here, here, here, and here.

My previous posts on Trump are here, here, here., and here.

A later post on "Trump and the Political Scientists" is here.

My previous post on ethnic nationalism is here.

My posts on the Nazi philosophers are here and here.


Anonymous said...

Anyone who claims that the United States was a Nazi state up until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 has no credibility. It is just using the emotional charge the word "nazi" has to scare people. According to this line of throught, nazism wasn't a just a blip of German history, but every country in the world that controlled its borders and thought that the nation had some duty to protect the distinctiveness of its people was a Nazi state. It turns out that everyone was a Nazi all along, even the people who fought the Nazis! Everyone throughout history who didn't hold to 2016's far-leftist liberalism was actually a nazi!

Anonymous said...

You're blind Arnhart, completely blind. You suffer from the most modern form of blindness; you're blinded by your beloved theory. You're like a communist who can't see the evils of communism because his beloved Marxist theory says it's good. Or an architect who can't see the ugliness of a building because the latest architectural theory says its what buildings should look like. You can't see how someone could be upset if their neighborhood goes from being Irish to being Somalian, or Italian to Chinese. In fact anyone who might try to prevent their neighborhood or country or people from being replaced are the bad guys to you. You can't see that anything has been lost or feel any emotional connection to a people or place because you're beloved classical liberalism can't handle it. Blind.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I have to agree with the spirit of these other comments. This is pure eggheadedness, served with a nice slice of argumentum ad hitlerum.

Kent Guida said...

The Journal of American Greatness has been taken down by its authors. Not clear why, exactly. Perhaps your withering critique was too much for them to handle? I suspect they simply feared their identities were about to be exposed and they were unwilling to face the consequences.

rrh said...

By Apollo, what a demonic excess... I understand why someone would refuse to support Trump, but the fascism-Nazism comparisons are utterly ridiculous. One hardly knows where to begin. Perhaps by considering the claims of scholars such as Hannah Arendt and Mark Mazower that the internationalist Aryan-supremacist Nazis were "nationalist" in only a very ambiguous way? Perhaps by considering that Trump's main policy positions-- limited immigration, realist foreign policy, hard-headed trade policy-- are well within the mainstream of the Republican Party of Lincoln, Coolidge, and Eisenhower? As for Trump's vulgarity... please take some time to read Robert Caro on Lyndon Johnson. Or contemplate the Clinton Presidency. I suppose I agree with those who think that Trump is unfit, as an individual, to be President, mostly due to his lack of experience and knowledge, and his apparently irascible temperament. But he is not a fascist or Nazi in any sense. Dr. Arnhart, please tell us that your reductio ad Hitlerum arguments were meant as satire?

Larry Arnhart said...

In my June 3rd post, I quoted a long passage from Ian Kershaw's biography of Hitler explaining the rise of Hitler to Reich Chancellor on January 30, 1933. I saw similarities with Trump--"aggressive obstinacy," "the support of the nationalist masses," "a few took him at his word, and thought he was dangerous," "the spokesman for the unusually intense fears, resentments, and prejudices of ordinary people," "the personality cult," "one of the greatest demagogues of all time."

Would you say that these are not similarities at all?

rrh said...

Larry Arnhart believes that Darwinism can help us understand politics. Nazis believed that Darwinism can help us understand politics.
Yet, the differences between Nazis and Arnhart are far, far more significant than any superficial similarities....
Does the same hold true for Trump? Yes, in my opinion. The salesman from Queens is really nothing like the crazed Wagnerian Hitler. I do not think Trump plans to create concentration camps, or invade Poland, or end constitutional government, etc. This does not mean I think he would make a good President (even though I agree with Trump about enforcing American laws, and the need to re-think American foreign and trade policy...)
To compare a person to Hitler, or to call someone a fascist, is a serious business. It is equivalent to saying that the person should not be tolerated-- that the person should be met with violent resistance. Do you think that violent attacks on Trump supporters-- of the kind that occurred recently in San Jose-- are justified?
Second question: do you think that open borders would lead to a more liberal/libertarian society in the USA?
Ryan Hurl

Larry Arnhart said...

When Hitler became Reich Chancellor on January 30, 1933, there was no evidence that he had plans to create concentration camps, or invade Poland, or end constitutional government. Many Germans thought that he was going to make Germany great again. He succeeded through a cult of personality and demagogic rhetoric that appealed to the fears and resentments of many Germans and to German ethnic nationalism. Some people said that he was dangerous. But many cultural and intellectual leaders--like Heidegger and other German philosophers--were sure that he would restore the greatness of Germany.

Let's ask ourselves what exactly would President Donald Trump have to do to achieve the ends that he has proclaimed? For example, what exactly would he have to do to expel 11 million undocumented immigrants (and their children who have been born in the U.S.) from the U.S.? Would this require a police state to identify, round up, and expel these people? Would they be held in detention camps? Is Trump considering this when he says that he cannot condemn the detention of Japanese-Americans in World War Two? Can we be sure that President Trump will not set aside the constitutional rights of due process of law and the constitutional provision that all persons born in the United States are citizens of the United States?

Larry Arnhart said...

In a previous post (January 1, 2010) on the Nazi philosophers, I identified (following the analysis of Hans Sluga) four themes in Nazi rhetoric--crisis, nationalism, leadership, and order. Those same four themes dominate Trump's rhetoric, along with Carl Schmitt's Nazi theme of politics as based on the friends and enemies dichotomy and the denial of liberal cosmopolitanism.

rrh said...

The question of whether it was possible to anticipate Hitler's eliminationist anti-semitism, anti-liberal authoritarianism, and militarism in the pre-1933 period is open to some doubt... nevertheless, Mein Kampf is a very different book from The Art of the Deal. You point towards abstractions-- "leadership"-- in order to equate Trump and Hitler. This makes as much sense as comparing Obama and Stalin because they are both concerned with economic inequality. Is it inherently illiberal to address political crises? Is nationalism, leadership, and order necessarily opposed to liberal constitutionalism? What would Lincoln say?

As to enforcing laws-- people respond to incentives. One need not prosecute every speedster on the highway to maintain order, yet it helps if people know that they may be prosecuted. In regards to immigration, for instance, the federal government could enforce laws against employers. Reduce the incentive to hire vulnerable and easily exploited immigrants, and you will eventually have no need to round anyone up. You might even find that employers will be able to hire Americans, whether native born or legal immigrants. Can I be certain that Trump will use this obviously rational, legal, and moral strategy? No. But I do not think that enforcing immigration law is any more difficult or prone to abuse than enforcing tax laws, environmental laws, etc. etc. rh

Larry Arnhart said...

Trump's claim that he as President can forbid Muslims from entering the United States is in itself an unconstitutional assertion of dictatorial powers. Has any president ever claimed the power to deny entry to the United States based upon religious belief?

Larry Arnhart said...

“The immigration laws of the United States give the president powers to suspend entry into the country of any class of persons,” Trump told a small audience at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire. “I will suspend immigration from areas of the world where there is a proven history of terrorism against the United States, Europe or our allies, until we fully understand how to end these threats.”

"I will suspend immigration from . . ." Where does the Constitution give the President such extraordinary powers?

Christian Kopff said...

The US Constitution art. 1, section 8 gives Congress the power "to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the forgoing powers," which includes naturalization. Immigration is explicitly mentioned in the first paragraph of section 9. The US Code 8 USC §1182 says, "Whenever the President finds that the entry of any aliens or of any class of aliens into the United States would be detrimental to the interests of the United States, he may by proclamation, and for such period as he shall deem necessary, suspend the entry of all aliens or any class of aliens as immigrants or non-immigrants, or impose on the entry of aliens any restrictions he may deem to be appropriate.” Trump's statements on presidential power over immigration are constitutional. As Justice Goldberg, echoing Justice Jackson, put it, "while the Constitution protects against invasions of individual rights, it is not a suicide pact." The judicially created rights of anchor babies should not be allowed to trump the right to life of US citizens, whether in San Bernardino, Orlando or elsewhere.

Larry Arnhart said...

Congress is expressly denied the power to make any law prohibiting the free exercise of religion, and therefore it would be unconstitutional for the Congress to authorize the President to deny entry to the country to people of the Islamic faith. The 14th Amendment expressly affirms that all persons born in the United States are citizens of the United States.

Anonymous said...

If it is taken as indisputable that Trump has no coherent governing agenda, let alone a governing philosophy rooted in first or any principles, there is no basis to conclude that his would in any way be better than a Clinton Administration. Trump, a Democrat for most of his life, has been a significant benefactor of the Democrat Party and the Clintons in particular, having praised Bill's service as president and Hillary's service as secretary of state. He has flipped and flopped on nearly every policy position of any significance and repeatedly lies about the positions has conveniently abandoned in the pursuit of public office, or at least fame in that pursuit. One cannot trust that he would appoint a supreme court justice who is pro-life or hostile to the aggrandizement of executive powers. Better put, one cannot trust Trump to do anything or enter into any fight, that might undermine his glory.

Candidates in the past who were branded as conservative extremists, most notably Goldwater and Reagan, articulated a clear and coherent governing agenda. They said what they meant and meant what they said. They understood what they were saying and spoke plainly about the tradeoffs they were asking of the voters in the pursuit of their vision of American greatness. They never promised a free lunch, as Trump does.

Goldwater and Reagan did not need scholars to impute to them a meaning which they could not comprehend.

There is a great deal to be said for laying a philosophical foundation underneath the rambling, idiotic rants of a demagogue who is certain to lose in November. Where there is rhetorical chaos, coherent meaning can be gainfully imputed. But we would be wise to cast distance from the signature Trumpian economic and social policies that threaten any hope of a sustainable governing coalition -- trade and immigration. Returning to the protectionist policies of the 1930s would be a spectacular economic failure and do nothing, or worse, for the white working class voters who flock to Trump in droves, as they once did to Perot. The mass deportation of 11 million human beings is never, ever going to happen and even Trump himself knows this. Remove those two implausible planks of the Trump agenda and you're left with nothing except a blank canvas -- the perfect canvass to rebuild a conservative governing agenda. But before such an agenda can be constructed after his defeat Trump will have caused the collapse of any hope for a truly sustainable governing coalition as he will have driven out of the conservative movement too many women and people of color to win enough elections to carry that conservative agenda into enacted and enforced policy. Trump will have, unless he is thoroughly repudiated by the Republican Party after his landslide defeat -- Virginia is long gone now, Florida is almost long gone, Georgia and Arizona are very much in play for Hillary now and Texas is tightening -- wrought havoc on the Republican Party and disgraced the conservative movement.