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The philosophers and the mob


John Ganz — how is it that I just discovered this guy? — takes readers down the twisted roads that end at the Claremont Institute and the Trump presidency. Claremont is the home of John “I can overthrow it for you wholesale” Eastman, Glenn “People Who Don’t Believe in Reactionary Ethno-Nationalism Aren’t Even Citizens” Ellmers, Michael “Flight 93 Election” Anton, and various other thought leaders of our revenant fascism.

Ganz points out behind all of Claremont’s feverish apocalyptic visions of an America being destroyed by multiculturalist bureaucrats manipulating Those People stands the cult-like figure of Harry Jaffa:

For Jaffa, a major sign of the crisis of the West was the acceptance of gay rights, which he felt violated the precepts of “natural law” in the same way slavery once did. In a 1991 review of Richard D. Mohr’s book Gays/Justice, Jaffa writes, “What Mohr says here about morality being independent of opinion is common ground between us. He and I agree that ‘slavery would be wrong even if nearly everyone liked it.’ What he fails to see is that homosexuality is equally wrong — no matter how many say they like it. Slavery is against nature, because it treats human beings like subhuman chattel. Sodomy is against nature, since it treats men as if they were women.”

I’m just a lowly law professor, not an initiate into the secret temple of Leo Strauss’s esoteric interpretation of Western Civilization, so I’m going to insist on some legal technicalities here.

As a matter of criminal law handed down to America from Merrie Olde Ynglande, “sodomy” always meant any of a number of common sexual practices that were inherently non-procreative — use your imagination — whether or not the couple (let’s not get too esoteric) engaging in these practices were of the same or opposite sexes. In other words, heterosexual sodomy was always just as much of a crime as the homosexual variety, as I’m sure Matthew Hale would have been glad to explain to you at length if he could be revivified, Sammy the Papal Bull Alito-style.

Indeed you have to get all the way to 1969 before you can find an American jurisdiction that legalized straight — as it were — sodomy, while keeping the gay version criminal. (This is the issue that was litigated in the infamous Bowers v. Hardwick case way way back in — checks notes — 1986).

In sum, it’s pretty annoying that these defenders of Western Civ and Natural Law in all their glory indulge constantly in Orwellian rewrites of the histories of both things, in order to make the prejudices of their particular time and social class sound like some sort of grand tradition, as opposed to the prejudices of their particular time and social class.

Moving right along:

It’s this theme of Western decline and decadence that can be found repeatedly in the works of Jaffa’s contemporary epigones at Claremont Institute and forms the central justification for their radical political actions. Things are falling apart, or have already so fallen apart, that therefore anything goes: We don’t really live in a democracy or a constitutional republic anymore or even “America” anymore, there’s nothing left to conserve, so out-and-out counter-revolution is the only remedy. Trump, who they admit is not the ideal vessel for their counter-revolution, is at least something. They are both openly cynical and totally delusional here; for them, Trump is just a means to an end or a mere symbolic representation. And if any American citizens don’t agree, they aren’t really citizens. One can see here how all this could create a thick atmosphere of megalomania for the self-appointed high priests. (My simile here is not original, nor even clearly just a metaphor. “Jaffa behaves like a high priest who detects impieties in the proceedings and denounces those involved as heretical,” writes Ken Masugi, a fellow at the Institute. Only Jaffa and his disciples really get the deep meaning of what Masugi calls Lincoln’s “cosmic poetry.”)

Here we begin to get into truly eerie, Orwellian territory. The Claremonters often like to imagine their opponents as a cabal of bureaucrats and intellectuals plotting against American democracy, armed with a tendentious, ideological reading of the American past, allied with the mob, and subverting national institutions for their own power and prestige. But what could better describe their own project today? So far, they have ably used the disorder brought about by Trump’s rise within the GOP to greatly extend their faction’s power and influence, propelling themselves from a fringe sect into the very heart of conservative thought and politics. Perhaps now we can begin to see the deep affinity of their pretensions to high philosophy and their allies in the mob: both are equally involved in a vulgar religion of power and its current primary idol, Trump.

And maybe it’s worth being a bit concerned about the theological significance they give to calamities like the Civil War. On the metaphysical level they, as initiates, apparently have access to, we’re at an even more cataclysmic point than the Civil War itself. In an interview with the Atlantic, Claremont’s President said, “I think we’re more divided now than we were then.” They hope, they wish, and they are working to make it so. Like much else today, it can be difficult to tell where absurdity ends and real danger begins.


Shortly after Trump descended to the presidency, I asked a made man in the conservative movement where Trump’s intellectual rationalizers were to be found, and he sent me directly to these guys. This was a couple of years before my own university hired John Eastman as a Distinguished Professor of Conservative Thought, giving him a sinecure from which he could launch his legal and very extra-legal assault on the 2020 election (And is there an interesting story about how exactly that happened? Yes there is).

One of the many ironies here is that a gaggle of worshipers of the Western Tradition in its most reactionary Straussian garb have turned out to be nothing but a bunch of off-brand Leninists.

O tempora, o mores!

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