A recent piece in The Atlantic described the influential conservative think tank Claremont Institute as “the intellectual home of America’s Trumpist right.”
That is, of course, one way of putting it.
And, indeed, it’s easy to track the transformation of conservativism by tracing the decline of Claremont into Trumpism. It is a dazzling descent.
Once one of the most prestigious bastions of conservative thought, Claremont now spends its time putting lipstick on the Trumpian wildebeest.
Trumpism is, of course, less an idea or set of principles than it is a cult of personality and series of angry impulses. But even the ugliest movements have their pseudo-philosophers and their rationalizers.
And this where Claremont comes in: It is attempting to put a veneer of intellectual respectability on some of the darkest impulses of the right. It’s not at all surprising that Claremont was at the center of the attempt to overthrow the 2020 election.
The institute is the home base for John Eastman, the founder of Claremont Institute's Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence, and a senior fellow. Eastman is now better known, however, as the author of a detailed six-page memorandum explaining how former Vice President Mike Pence could overturn or delay the counting of electoral votes. In the days before the Jan. 6 insurrection, Eastman was an influential advisor to Trump as the outgoing president schemed to hold onto power; on the day of the Capitol riot, Eastman appeared at the rally with Trump, where he accused election officials of stealing the election. Shouting into the microphone, Eastman declared:
“We no longer live in a self-governing republic if we can’t get the answer to this question! This is bigger than President Trump! It is the very essence of our republican form of government, and it has to be done! And anybody that is not willing to stand up to do it does not deserve to be in the office! It is that simple!”
In the aftermath of the riot , Eastman was forced to resign his faculty position at Chapman University, and the University of Colorado at Boulder stripped him of all of his public outreach duties. (He plans to sue.)
The fallout has continued. Once a prominent member of the conservative Federalist Society, Eastman has apparently been blackballed by the influential group. And Claremont self-exiled itself from the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association after hundreds of scholars signed a petition declaring that “Eastman has violated our discipline’s professional ethics by participating in the dangerous attempt to overturn the institution of electoral democracy in the United States.” (Claremont was also upset when its sponsored panels were moved to "virtual," and accused the APSA of caving to pressure from "the mob.")
But even as Eastman has become a legal pariah, Claremont remains solidly behind him. Just last week, the institute put out a widely derided statement denying that Eastman had actually urged Pence to overturn the election (even though his memo clearly did just that.)
It wasn’t always like this.
Through its various publications, fellowships and seminars, Claremont was once the center of what was known as the "West Coast Straussian" school of thought founded by scholar Harry Jaffa.
But in recent years, Claremont has moved away from its intellectual roots. Its recent list of fellows includes some serious conservative thinkers, but also Fox News host Laura Ingraham, Ben Shapiro, radio host Mark Levin, and Trumpian activists like Charlie Kirk and Mollie Hemingway.
But, as Laura K. Field noted in her comprehensive analysis of Claremont, one of the clearest indications of its evolution was its 2019 decision to name "the conspiracist and 'king of fake news' Jack Michael Posobiec III' one of its Lincoln Fellows. You might know Posobiec for his role in the horrifying Pizzagate hoax and equally gross Seth Rich conspiracy. This year, one of Claremont’s so-called Publius Fellows is a legislative assistant for conspiracy theorist Marjorie Taylor Greene.
Claremont’s drift into racism or authoritarianism has similarly not been subtle.
As Field has noted, Claremont "knowingly provided cover to, and made common cause with, an alleged white supremacist named Darren J. Beattie." Beattie is a former White House staffer who had been fired for consorting with white supremacists. As the attack on the Capitol unfolded on Jan. 6, Beattie sent out a stream of tweets directed at various African Americans — including Sen. Tim Scott, S.C., and Kay Cole James, the president of the conservative Heritage Foundation — telling them they now had to "learn their place" and 'take a knee to MAGA."
Despite the racist tweets, Ryan Williams, the Claremont president, continued to tout Beattie on Twitter the next day. As Field noted, "Other Twitter users brought Beattie’s January 6 tweets to Williams’s attention, but Williams did not explain, retract, or qualify his promotion of Beattie, or apparently distance himself from Beattie in any way; only sometime later did Williams scrub his Twitter account."
Unfortunately, this was not an isolated incident.
Earlier this year, Claremont’s online magazine, The American Mind, published a lengthy piece that declared that there was only one "authentic America" and that others who voted against Trump "do not believe in, live by, or even like the principles, traditions, and ideals that until recently defined America as a nation and as a people."
"It is not obvious what we should call these citizen-aliens," wrote Glenn Ellmers, "these non-American Americans; but they are something else.'
It is clear who he regards as authentically American and who he does not. At one point in his essay, Ellmers offers this advice to his readers: "If you are a zombie or a human rodent who wants a shadow-life of timid conformity, then put away this essay and go memorize the poetry of Amanda Gorman."
What was striking about this essay, wrote John Ganz, was that it was "not a product of the neo-Nazi netherworld." But despite its supposedly respectable platform, the intellectual roots of the essay were obvious. Its "themes of pervading national corruption and decadence, and the need for a counter-revolution and a national rebirth put this text firmly in the radical reactionary or fascist ballpark," Ganz noted.
But in fact, these are constant themes amongst the Claremonters. The infamous "Flight 93 essay" was also a product of Claremont — insisting that failure to elect Trump would be tantamount to allowing terrorists to crash the entire country. In author Michael Anton’s apocalyptic vision, conservatives needed to rush the cockpit, even it risked imminent destruction.
That tone still pervades Claremont’s message — along with its fascination for post-democratic strongmen. In May of this year, Anton spent two hours on his Claremont podcast fantasizing about an "American Caesar," who could seize the reins of power and defeat the radical left.
More recently, Claremont has moved to weaponize "patriotic law enforcement officers" to counter "the perversion of the justice system by which the revolutionary left seeks to advance its totalitarian agenda." In announcing its new "Sheriff’s Fellowship" the institute linked last year’s urban disorders, Covid-19 lockdowns, and Trump’s electoral defeat and insisted that “our nation's conservative movement needs a countervailing network of uncorrupted law enforcement officials.” Claremont also continues to be all-in in its support of Eastman’s role in the coup and its embrace of the big lie about 2020.
A few years ago, this sort of thing would have been confined to the far edges of the right-wing fever swamp. But not anymore. Claremont is committed to normalizing it all.
Last week, Claremont’s president sent out an urgent fund-raising appeal that declared: "Under the excellent leadership of John C. Eastman, our Claremont legal team continues to be the 'point of the spear'" in the war for the nation’s future.
The group’s goal ought to be clear by now: In a second Trump term, Claremont expects to be the most influential think tank in America.
And it may not be wrong.