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Charles Kesler Sees the Light

The Claremont Institute’s intellectual impresario belatedly admits his colleague John Eastman gave Trump bad advice. Here’s what he still can’t bring himself to say.
August 25, 2022
Charles Kesler Sees the Light
Trump walks to Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House August 22, 2017 (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

It only took 1 year, 6 months, and 18 days, but Charles R. Kesler, the intellectual impresario of the Claremont Institute, has finally gone on the record declaring that he does not agree with his colleague John C. Eastman’s discredited legal theories or with Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election.

Kesler is the founding editor of the conservative institute’s flagship publication, the Claremont Review of Books, and he is, as Elisabeth Zerofsky put it in a New York Times Magazine article about Claremont from earlier this month, “widely regarded, at 65, as the institute’s éminence grise.” (He is also a professor at Claremont McKenna College, which has no formal affiliation with the Claremont Institute.)

It is in Zerofsky’s article, and in a Washington Post article by Marc Fisher and Isaac Stanley-Becker, that Kesler at last concedes, after eighteen months of evasion and coyness, that Eastman and Trump were wrong. Here’s what he told the Post reporters about Eastman:

I’m persuaded that John was wrong in the advice he gave Trump. . . . Whether his actions will hurt us or not, I’m not sure. It’s awkward and it raises some questions.

And here’s what Kesler told Zerofsky: “I disagree with John. I think it was a bad idea to give Trump that advice and an even worse idea to speak at the rally” on the morning of January 6th.

Kesler’s declarations of repudiation are welcome. But given all that Eastman and the Claremont Institute have been up to over the last few years, what are Kesler’s belated words about Jan. 6th and the 2020 election really worth?

To answer that question, let’s take a closer look at Kesler’s record over the last year and a half.

In the Winter 2020/21 issue of the Claremont Review, Kesler published a personal reflection on what the events of Jan. 6th might mean for Trump’s legacy. In the piece, Kesler expresses disapproval of the violence, critiques the Trump administration for being unprepared for what unfolded, and evinces mild skepticism about John Eastman’s theory. But as a general matter, Kesler’s essay is an exercise in apologetics: He offers a defense of Trump’s Jan. 6th speech at the Ellipse, a detailed critique of the second impeachment, and a belabored defense of John Eastman.

Kesler’s defense of Trump’s speech at the Ellipse is bullish. “In my judgment,” Kesler writes, “there isn’t a word of ‘incitement of insurrection’ in the speech.” He also renders a truly sophistical account of Trump’s alleged political philosophy: The former president’s suggestion that Pence should be ashamed “throughout history, throughout eternity” for not helping him is not merely Trump’s customary rhetoric of spiteful petulance dialed up to 11; rather, the utterance signified that the former president believes in “a form of right, based not merely in history but in ‘eternity.’” And this Kesler presents as exculpatory: Trump’s final appeal is to the inner moral sense, he argues, and not to anything so real and primed for action as a violent mob.

According to Kesler, “The chief business” of Trump’s Jan. 6th speech “is a long, informative rehearsal of the facts behind the fraud he alleges took place in seven states.” Kesler proceeds to list several of Trump’s arguments along these lines before mocking “Speaker Pelosi and her allies” for calling such claims “baseless.” Memorably, Kesler keeps the door wide open to the possibility that Eastman and Trump’s claims of a stolen election were justified despite the fact that no evidence had been found at the time, and even though plenty of people had been looking (remember the sixty-plus post-election lawsuits Trump lost?). Kesler even appears to make an argument implying that empirical claims can never actually be refuted: “Truth is, of course, that claims are ‘baseless’ only until such time as a base of evidence appears for them.” Call it the Kesler Theory of Perpetual Epistemic Indeterminacy.

Kesler goes on like this at length—playing up counterfactuals, provisionally granting Trump and Eastman’s premises to explore the esoteric implications of their arguments, and so forth—but he eventually concedes that “there is persuasive evidence of a more normal sort” that Trump simply lost. In other words, his ironical mien and elliptical intellectual style aside, Kesler conceded back in January 2021 that the evidence of fraud hadn’t materialized. If only he’d cut to the chase.

When it comes to the specifics of Eastman’s theory—the “coup memo” business—back in January 2021, Kesler did Eastman the favor of ascribing authority to his most plausible claims. In the aftermath of January 6th, Eastman wrote up his argument for the Claremont Institute’s American Mind web magazine, and Kesler, in his own article “After January 6,” repeats Eastman’s argument: “Trump was not asking for Pence to single-handedly reverse the election, but to pause the process of counting long enough for the state legislatures to clarify for whom their states had actually voted.” Eastman’s actual memos explore far more radical possibilities, as does Eastman’s Jan. 6th speech at the Ellipse, where, hollering and gesturing, he said that Mike Pence needed to act

so we get to the bottom of it, so that the American people know whether we have control over the direction of our government or not! 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 who is not willing to stand up and do it does not deserve to be in the office. It is that simple!

The views expressed in Eastman’s memos and his Jan. 6th speech are radical enough that Eastman himself has claimed, bizarrely and unconvincingly, that they do not represent his own beliefs. But before Eastman’s memos were published, Kesler sounded persuaded by his claims to moderation. In “After January 6,” he calls Eastman’s theory “novel” and “complex,” and does not disavow it.

Kesler does, however, double back again—this time by quietly admitting the only thing that has ever really mattered about Eastman’s arguments: “In any event, none of the state legislatures in question had actually filed a formal request to withdraw and reexamine their state’s electoral votes.” And although this admission logically entails that Eastman’s theory lacks a factual basis, Kesler does not grapple with the implications of that truth in his essay.

Kesler’s initial response to Jan. 6th was a master class in evasiveness. He did as much as he could to preserve Trump’s reputation and protect John Eastman while also offering understated concessions to reality: The evidence of fraud didn’t exist; Eastman’s theory had no sound basis in electoral reality; Trump had lost the election. These admissions he framed as matters of personal opinion and relatively inconsequential detail, of course. The overall effect is that he appeared to be accountable to no one on either side.

Fast-forward one year, to early 2022, and Kesler is appearing on Steve Hayward’s Power Line podcast to address “The Claremont Question.” By that point, revelations about John Eastman’s involvement in Trump’s Jan. 6th planning had put the Claremont Institute in the national spotlight.

Kesler’s contribution to the podcast consists primarily of his self-satisfaction over his magazine’s handling of the “very complicated” Eastman issue: The Fall 2021 edition of the CRB contained both a critique of the Eastman memos by Joseph Bessette and a response by Eastman. In Kesler’s view, using the magazine to present both sides was its “service to the community,” since the issues involved “are very complicated.”

When fellow Claremonter and podcast guest John Yoo asks Kesler more directly about what he personally thinks of the Eastman memos, though, Kesler becomes slippery. He speaks in general terms about how awful Jan. 6th was—and how ultimately quixotic its goals were—but does not mention his colleague by name, let alone the theories Eastman articulated in his Ellipse speech and his memos.

Kesler goes further in the remarks he made to the Washington Post and the New York Times in the last few weeks, and he is quoted in both articles admitting directly that he thinks Eastman was wrong and that he has “always thought that Trump lost” the 2020 election, as he said to the Times. Even in this context, however, Kesler remains determined to obscure the connection between Eastman and Trump’s ideas about election fraud and the furor that drove Jan. 6th rioters into the Capitol, as though there was a real possibility that the rioters would have rioted absent claims about fraud and coups. Zerofsky pushes Kesler on this point: Given that he didn’t think Trump had won, she asks, “Wouldn’t running a serious appraisal of Eastman’s legal analysis be opening a Pandora’s box?”

“No, no, I think it’s shutting the Pandora’s box really,” Kesler replies. “In the sense that, I think, the Pandora’s box was opened already.”

Who does he believe to have opened it? As is clear from Kesler’s foregoing interventions, the Claremont Institute itself had its hands on the lid, and Zerofsky shows that the box remains as open as ever: She reports that one of the institute’ founders, Christopher Flannery, recently called Eastman “an American hero.” Flannery stands by his assessment. You can read all about it here.

Thanks to his show of civic responsibility, Kesler easily comes across as the most sensible character in Zerofsky’s article. As a reluctant truth-teller in Trump World, he has come a long way from the skeptical apologetics he practiced in the weeks following Jan. 6th.

But Kesler shouldn’t win any awards for his belated admissions about Eastman and Trump. Even if he is willing to tell the plain truth about the 2020 election now, he is still instrumentalizing that admission on behalf of a political goal, and glossing over other actions for which he and the institute deserve blame.

For one thing, Kesler’s statements suggest that he considers the ongoing disputes at the Claremont Institute to merely be amiable disagreements among old friends; the high stakes of Jan. 6th and the democracy-corroding lies that precipitated it recede into the cigar smoke wafting around in the background, the way he tells the story. This minimization is virtually the only narrative framework available to him, because admitting the larger truth of Jan. 6th—that Trump’s actions on that day were a gross and disqualifying violation of the office of the presidency—would put Kesler and Claremont completely at odds with today’s GOP. Their political influence, that precious commodity, would be lost.

In addition to minimizing the differences between Claremont’s delusional proponents of the Big Lie and those at the institute who never believed it, Kesler also avoids discussing the institute’s considerable involvement in fostering and amplifying lies about the 2020 election in the first place—opening Pandora’s box, as Zerofsky puts it. Publishing a point-counterpoint on Eastman’s theories in the CRB is one thing. But during the lead-up to both the 2020 election and Jan. 6th, the Claremont Institute was an important online nexus for election conspiracism and denialism—and that’s something else entirely.

Michael Anton led that charge, but he was not the only one who ran ahead: Other prominent leaders at the institute who participated include Claremont’s president, Ryan Williams, Arthur Milikh (now the head of Claremont’s Washington, D.C. office), and the then-editors of Claremont’s American Mind, Matthew Peterson and James Poulos. Charles Kesler may eventually have politely distanced himself from John Eastman—but what about everyone else? What about Glenn Ellmers, who wrote an article for the American Mind implying that anyone who voted for Biden isn’t a real American? What about Claremont chairman and chief funder Tom Klingenstein, who continues to defend Donald Trump as a man “born for the current crisis,” which crisis he characterizes as a “life and death struggle against a totalitarian enemy” called “woke communism”? For goodness’ sake, what about Claremont’s embrace and amplification of conspiracy-minded “influencers” such as Jack Murphy, Jack Posobiec, and Darren Beattie?

Is the public supposed to accept Charles Kesler’s patrician silence on these matters?

And, on that note,what are we to make of a similar reticence on the part of the Claremont Institute’s defenders and fellow travelers on the intellectual right—people like Yoram Hazony, Sohrab Ahmari, and Patrick Deneen, who are willing to voice disagreement on other matters, but keep mum about the institute’s conspiracism and overtures to dangerous cranks?

It is not hard to see why Kesler played this long, coy game. The premise of his most recent book, The Crisis of the Two Constitutions, is that America is at a crisis point comparable to the one it faced in 1858. While he may recently have expressed genuine disagreement with John Eastman about the specific question of 2020 election fraud, he is sympathetic to the sorts of ideas that were used to justify Eastman’s actions, and is comfortable expressing them in extreme terms. Kesler’s language may not be as wild as that of Williams, Ellmers, Klingenstein, and others at Claremont, but he is nonetheless ideologically simpatico.

You can read more about Kesler’s book in this tense exchange between Kesler and Shep Melnick, a professor at Boston College. Kesler indignantly denies that his mode of thinking provides cover for extremist action. But if that’s the case, why shouldn’t he call out proponents of extremism at Claremont?

For one thing, for Kesler to speak out against them publicly would put him in flagrant contradiction with the people in charge—people who have brought the institute into a position of greater national influence. This would take courage—not only because he could lose friendships, and his standing among Trumpist intellectuals, and perhaps even his well-compensated position at the institute, but also because he would have to admit his own complicity in something extreme and destructive—a tough psychological proposition for anyone.

One final note: While these days Kesler would like to take credit for closing Pandora’s box, remember that he helped pry open the lid when he published Michael Anton’s widely read pseudonymous essay, “The Flight 93 Election,” in 2016. Anton’s essay made an intellectualized case for electing Trump that equated the possibility of a Hillary Clinton victory with the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Rush Limbaugh seized on the essay and read excerpts on his radio show, which caused it to go viral; its subsequent reception set the stage for the growth of the New Right intellectual movement that has been part of American politics ever since—all the while providing a boon to the Claremont Institute.

It must be said that any late concessions New Right intellectuals want to make to the truth of what happened in the 2020 election and on Jan. 6th are welcome. But what Charles Kesler and his intellectual confreres continue to avoid in their discussions of those events is the role they themselves played in fomenting the unrest that attended them. The consequences continue to buffet the country: Widespread distrust in electoral processes, especially among Republicans; a rise in militant and dehumanizing rhetoric, especially on the right; and the growing threat and reality of right-wing violence.

“A lot of us have now staked our reputations on the claims of election fraud,” wrote John Eastman in an email from late January 2021. Charles Kesler didn’t stake his reputation on claims about election fraud, but he didn’t exactly not do that either. And he did, at least in part, stake his reputation on Anton and Trump back in 2016. He should be held accountable in the public mind for these choices—if not “throughout eternity,” then at least while Claremont is enjoying the national spotlight.

The stakes are too high, and the broader American reality too precarious, for waffling words and easy ways out.

Laura K. Field

Laura K. Field is a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center and a scholar in residence at American University. Twitter: @lkatfield.