Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

The Claremont Institute, Harry Jaffa, and the Temptation of Theory

Why was the Claremont crowd so distinctly susceptible to Trumpism? Does its intellectual hero bear some responsibility?
November 15, 2021
The Claremont Institute, Harry Jaffa, and the Temptation of Theory
(Photos: GettyImages / Encounter Books)

The Soul of Politics
Harry V. Jaffa and the Fight for America
by Glenn Ellmers
Encounter, 394 pp., $31.99

Would Harry Jaffa have supported Trump? The Claremont Institute, which claims the political theorist as its founding thinker, has been the most prominent set of intellectuals defending the former president, from his candidacy and presidency through the events of January 6 through today. For this reason, it has been easy, too easy perhaps, for commentators to associate Jaffa with the political movement behind Trump. Of course, we have no way of knowing for sure what Jaffa, who died in 2015, would have made of Trump’s candidacy and presidency. (His son Phillip Jaffa tells me that his father would not have supported Trump.) The question is ultimately not a very important one—but observers of our contemporary political scene, from many different political perspectives, may well be curious about this figure, now dead but evidently still a name to conjure with in American politics. For these readers, we now have Glenn Ellmers’s The Soul of Politics: Harry Jaffa and the Fight for America.

Jaffa was a professor, the author of well-regarded books on Abraham Lincoln, and an important figure on the American right. Ellmers studied with Jaffa and other members of the “Claremont school”—the circle of scholars, sometimes called West Coast Straussians, that formed around Jaffa—and writes from that point of view. His book is an introduction to Jaffa’s life and scholarship for a general audience and offers a kind of tour of Jaffa’s thought from Jaffa’s point of view. It must immediately be said, however, that Ellmers’s other writings present an obstacle to this book’s being taken seriously, at least for audiences not already invested in the Claremont worldview. For instance, Ellmers wrote in March of this year that most Americans today are not true Americans, because they do not believe in the principles of the American Founding as Ellmers understands them. Like his Claremont Institute colleague Michael Anton, Ellmers writes out of a desperate sense that America, the “true” America, is being lost before our eyes. And like Anton, he thinks that the political movement associated with Trump is the only thing standing in the way of that calamity.

I agree with Ellmers that Jaffa is worth taking seriously. This opinionated, influential, highly learned and highly problematic man, this student of Leo Strauss and speechwriter for Barry Goldwater, an intimate of and feuder with some of the most important intellectuals on the American right, played a major role on the American scene for much of the last sixty years. His life and work will be of interest to readers of many political persuasions in years to come, as historians and commentators try to figure out where we are. As such, he deserves an impartial treatment, one that does not squint at today’s controversies, much less at Trump.

Ellmers’s book is not that book. Although he has interesting things to say about Jaffa, Ellmers’s intention for the book is ultimately partisan. He appeals to Jaffa as an authority who justifies Ellmers’s particular side in today’s culture wars, and he makes little effort to explain how Jaffa might speak to people on the other side of those disagreements.

Ellmers’s critics may make the same error in reverse: Disliking Ellmers (or Trump or Claremont), they may be tempted to think that Jaffa too was a bad man. In many ways, Ellmers invites this response. But I suspect that an impartial account of Jaffa, as problematic he surely was, would reveal a less familiar, less categorizable, above all more interesting figure than our current partisanship allows us to see. Let’s start then with what’s most interesting in Ellmers’s book, and most interesting about Jaffa, without forgetting the cloud of partisanship hanging over all. Understanding Jaffa more impartially may in the end help us understand Ellmers’s and Claremont’s partisanship better.

So who was Harry Jaffa and why should people care about him? A political theorist, Jaffa was a force in political-intellectual circles from the 1950s until his death six years ago. Born in New York City in 1918, he was one of Leo Strauss’s first students. In his early career he wrote well-regarded books on Thomism and Aristotelianism and on the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Later in life he rejected the view, common among students of Strauss, that modern political thought, unlike ancient political thought, was “low but solid” and argued that the American Founding was much more closely allied with ancient political wisdom than he had thought.

But Jaffa was also inveterately interested in politics. He provided Barry Goldwater’s famous line in his speech accepting the Republican presidential nomination in 1964 that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” and “moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” He was close to William F. Buckley Jr. and a well-known presence in conservative magazines and intellectual life. He was a chronic feuder and a polemicist. He seems to have had significant fallings out with almost all of Strauss’s other students, and he was a sharp and relentless critic of what he regarded as the amorality of the constitutional thought of such conservative jurists as William Rehnquist, Robert Bork, and Antonin Scalia. He was a major influence on the Claremont Institute, which is perhaps the single most important intellectual articulator of and influence on the Trumpist (or Trump-sympathetic) conservative moment, although it would be unfair to hold Jaffa responsible for that. At his best, as in his 1959 classic Crisis of the House Divided, Jaffa is well worth rereading to this day, even if you are on the left; beyond that, he remains a figure whom anyone interested in recent American intellectual life must reckon with.

Ellmers writes from the point of view of a Jaffa student and member of the Claremont school—which is to say, The Soul of Politics is about as a positive an account of Jaffa as one can imagine, something like “Jaffa’s view of Jaffa.” Ellmers gives us a tour of Jaffa’s thought, first placing it in the context of the turmoil of the late 1960s, then going through thematic chapters examining Jaffa’s work on Lincoln, both early and late; Jaffa’s interpretations of Aristotle and Shakespeare; his thoughts on the tasks of statesmanship in our age in the light of his interpretation of Western civilization; Jaffa’s feuds with his fellow Straussians and with conservatives; and finally a discussion of Jaffa’s legacy for America in our current moment.

This book will not be the definitive book on Jaffa; Ellmers is too close to Jaffa, too much the student trying to repeat back what the teacher has said. The book does make some useful contributions, however. Jaffa, especially in his later career, believed that the American regime was in principle the best regime. Ellmers rightly points out that in this respect Jaffa’s theory is quite similar to Hegel’s: With all respect to the differences, Jaffa (like Francis Fukuyama) believes that liberal democracy is the best, final regime, and so that, at least on the intellectual level, history has ended. Jaffa and Fukuyama disagree on exactly what that regime looks like, but this is a clear difference from the other students of Strauss, who tended to take the “ancient” view that all regimes have internal imperfections that will eventually doom them.

Ellmers also usefully spells out Jaffa’s mature understanding of the theological-political history of Western civilization. Many commentators have discussed Jaffa on Lincoln; few have tried to explain or understand Jaffa’s thoughts on this topic. Jaffa famously and controversially claims that the American regime somehow resolves—on the level of practice—the age-old tension between reason and revelation. In today’s America it doesn’t feel as though America has resolved much of anything. But this was clearly one of the important developments in the formation of Jaffa’s later thought and I am glad to have read someone trying to explain it.

As a work of scholarship, Ellmers’s book is flawed. He sells short the achievement of Jaffa’s early Lincoln work and takes too seriously Jaffa’s later, rather grandiose opinions about the history of political philosophy. Crisis of the House Divided is a great book because in it Jaffa stays so close to a concrete political moment, an actual debate, with close attention to circumstances and tactics and political rhetoric. His reconstruction of Stephen Douglas’s thought is a marvel of how a scholar can sympathetically reconstruct the point of view even of someone he disagrees with fundamentally. To read that book is to get a political education. Jaffa’s later pronouncements, on the other hand, need to be taken with a grain of salt if not simply rejected. Take Jaffa’s assertion that Aristotle, had he lived in modern times, “would have written something very closely approximating Locke’s Second Treatise.” I do not know how one could prove such a statement. Jaffa is here indulging in mood affiliation: I like Aristotle and I like Locke, therefore they must agree. It’s a way of trying to claim the authority of Aristotle for Jaffa’s version of Locke (and a way of putting down Jaffa’s fellow students of Strauss). If Jaffa (or Ellmers) wants to make an argument about the compatibility of rights and virtue as a matter of political theory, he should; but this is a not very helpful thing to claim or to spend time debating. Ellmers would have done well for himself if he had had a bit more skepticism toward claims like these. (Ellmers does pass over in silence Jaffa’s truly absurd opinions about homosexuality.)

These flaws are, I think, connected to a deeper flaw in Ellmers’s book. It is at heart a recapitulation of Jaffa’s opinions. But one cannot get at Jaffa’s intellectual trajectory without saying something about his character. Always charismatic and always controversial, Jaffa calls out for an intellectual portrait. One could imagine Jaffa as the main character in a Saul Bellow roman à clef: irascible, vainglorious but clearly very learned and influential, writing endless letters to the leading lights of the conservative intelligentsia to convince them of the errors of their ways. It would at any rate take a writer of Bellow’s psychological insight to capture Jaffa’s complexity. Ellmers is still too much under the spell of Jaffa’s authority—perhaps because he badly wants Jaffa to back him up in today’s politics—to have the critical distance to give us an intellectual biography worthy of Jaffa. But someone should write an intellectual biography of Jaffa—as weird, problematic, and still interesting as he is.

Here are two examples of questions that Ellmers doesn’t adequately confront but that an impartial study of Jaffa would have to. The first is what to make of Jaffa’s longstanding feuds with his peers on the conservative side, but especially with his fellow students of Leo Strauss. The striking thing about those disputes is the extent to which Jaffa and his various interlocutors had different ideas of what these fights were about. Jaffa somehow always seemed to interpret his disputes as coming down to morality versus immorality: the natural right (or natural rights) doctrine of the Declaration of Independence, Locke, and—he would say—Aristotle over against the anti-natural right doctrines of Calhoun, Marx, Machiavelli, and Thrasymachus. (I am not sure if Jaffa’s fans in the Claremont school understand how absurd it sounds to suggest that Calhoun has anything to do with Hegel or Marx. Some of their scholars seem to specialize in simplistically smushing and smearing together various bêtes noires.) Jaffa’s interlocutors, on the other hand, seem to have all thought that Jaffa was badly, perhaps willfully misrepresenting their positions. As far I can tell, they generally thought of themselves as defending some version of the American project by counteracting some bad tendencies of modern democracy, in ways quite parallel to Jaffa’s, and were mystified by his attacks on them as “defectors” from the correct faith.

An example will illustrate the basic dynamic. In 1996, Harry Jaffa and Harvey Mansfield had a public exchange at a conference in California. Jaffa had attacked Mansfield for something he had said about the Declaration of Independence; Mansfield responded by commenting on the pattern of Jaffa’s feuds:

You call yourself an academic scribbler. I wish! You are not even a loose cannon because a loose cannon does some of its harm, or maybe all of its harm, by accident. What you do is stand behind the front lines, and point your weapon at the backs of your friends and shoot! And you’re not looking. There is a battle going on in this country between those, as you say, who want to continue America on the basis of its fundamental and original principles and those who do not. . . . You’re not in the front line. The front line is receiving fire from the enemy. They don’t shoot at you anymore, because you’re not shooting at them.

Jaffa, characteristically, took this as a criticism of his moral character, as though Mansfield were saying that Jaffa was betraying his friends by attacking them when they weren’t looking. But that isn’t what Mansfield meant. He meant (if I read him correctly) that Jaffa was confused—that Jaffa didn’t recognize who his friends were, and so was fighting people who were mostly allied with him as if they were enemies instead of fighting people who mostly disagreed with him and his ideas. This is, I take it, the same point Joseph Cropsey was making when, in a 1984 letter to Jaffa, he said that Jaffa, the best friend of his youth, had become “a pastiche of Don Quixote and Mrs. Grundy.” (Mrs. Grundy was a stock figure of English literature in the nineteenth century and represented a kind of priggish, Puritanical policing of behavior by the standards of conventional wisdom.)

Perhaps someone could make a response to these criticisms on Jaffa’s behalf; but no serious attempt to take Jaffa’s measure can avoid thinking about them. Unlike Steven Hayward, whose 2018 book Patriotism Is Not Enough examines with humor and charm some of these clashes, Ellmers seems uninterested in trying to understand these disputes from the point of view of Jaffa’s critics. One cannot help wondering: What was really at work in these seemingly foolish, almost fratricidal, disputes? A struggle for priority? Personality differences? Genuine differences of opinion? And to what extent did these disputes distract, or even derail, Jaffa from the work that he could have and probably should have been doing—for example finishing A New Birth of Freedom, the sequel that came out four decades after Crisis of the House Divided?

The second question an impartial study of Jaffa would have to confront is less publicly accessible but perhaps more important, at least from Jaffa’s point of view. I mean Jaffa’s relationship with Leo Strauss. Ellmers correctly and helpfully discusses Jaffa’s well-known change of mind about the status of the American Founding. In Crisis of the House Divided, Jaffa had interpreted the political theory of the Declaration of Independence as a doctrine of rights without duties, in accord with Strauss’s interpretation of Locke, and so had seen Lincoln as transcending and correcting that political theory in important ways. By the time of A New Birth of Freedom, Jaffa had concluded that the Founding needed no correction; that the political theory of the Declaration was not what he had thought it was. This is the around the time that Jaffa asserts that he had “concluded long ago” that Aristotle would have agreed with Locke.

Now, this position is easily intelligible as a final response to Jaffa’s critics—a way of putting Walter Berns, Martin Diamond, Harvey Mansfield, etc. in their places. But it has been less commented on that Jaffa’s ultimate difference on this score has to be with Strauss. Jaffa and his defenders often paper over this issue by saying that, even if Strauss was right about Locke’s esoteric meaning—about Locke’s hidden views on rights and human beings and godlessness—the Founders only knew and wholeheartedly believed in Locke’s exoteric meaning: his religion and his natural law teaching. But this avoids the central issue of whether Strauss was right about Locke in the first place.

From one point of view, Strauss seems to prepare the way for the kind of grandiose picture of political-theory-as-civilizational-savior that Jaffa loved. But from another, more accurate, point of view, Strauss undercuts all such heroic portraits of political theory, and his reading of Locke supports such a portrait. Could it be the case that Jaffa was shocked, even repulsed, by what he found or thought he found in Strauss but that he did not want to discuss in public, out of filial piety or for some other reason? And could it be that Jaffa’s feuds with his fellow Strauss students were a kind of proxy for the deeper dispute that Jaffa could not or did not want to raise in public? Could it be that his attacks on his peers covered up the attack on Strauss that, by his own lights, he should have made? (Ellmers refers to Jaffa’s correspondence with Strauss, which is in Jaffa’s archive at Hillsdale, but he does not tell us what that correspondence contains.) However that may be, one wishes that Jaffa’s students and admirers would acknowledge that their position is not Strauss’s; that would at least bring some clarity to the situation.

So far we have been treating The Soul of Politics as an academic book and a contribution to scholarship, which it is. But Ellmers clearly wants this book also to be a rallying cry for a present-day political-cultural movement: Trump-sympathetic conservatism. By presenting the book as a political and a practical statement, not just a scholarly one, Ellmers invites us to offer a political response. This is the most controversial thing and the least likely to result in a productive conversation. On the other hand, our judgment of the book will be incomplete without saying something about this aspect of Ellmers’s argument. Rather than engaging in more polemics, then, let us ask: What more can we say about today’s Claremont school and the political-cultural place they have managed to work themselves into in the light of what we’ve learned about Harry Jaffa? Does Jaffa bear some responsibility for the current condition of the Claremont school?

Ellmers makes clear his political hopes in the opening pages of the book. He says he is addressing “you, spirited moral gentlemen, America’s natural aristoi,” in the hopes of spurring those readers into rising up to confront “the crisis of Western civilization, of civilization itself.” This is a close relative of the argument made in Michael Anton’s infamous “Flight 93 Election” article. Like Anton, Ellmers understands the project of saving Western civilization as above all a partisan project (as this article by Ellmers makes clear). Ellmers calls us, first and foremost, not to reflect or to understand but to act—and he thinks Jaffa can be a kind of patron saint or guru of a new conservative movement to do battle with the “woke.”

The danger in such a project, however, is that instead of being the intellectual leader of the movement, the movement ends up leading you. Rather than articulating the legitimate perspective of a political movement while moderating its foolish and delusional parts, you end up reflecting the delusional parts.

Which is what I think has happened. Although some writers have suggested that the Claremont school is a cause of, or bears some intellectual responsibility for, the current Trumpified conservative movement, I am inclined to think that the relationship is the other way around. The Claremont school is likely more a reflection of the mood of today’s conservatism than a cause of it—a lagging indicator rather than a leading one. (I leave aside John Eastman, who, with his January 6 memos, is in a different category.) Today’s conservative movement is animated by a Manichaean desire to divide the world into friends and enemies and a grandiose belief that the world will be saved or lost in our current moment. The interesting question is not whether the Claremont school caused these characteristic delusions, but rather: Why were members of the Claremont school so distinctly susceptible to them? Why were they so easily carried away by what looks like it will be judged by history as conspiracy theories? Why do they to this day still find it hard to admit that Trump is a bad actor with bad judgment?

In part, the answer lies in the fact that Ellmers and Anton are intellectuals. They have a theory about the world, an overall narrative that shapes their sense of self and their sense of the world. And they think that politics is ultimately about dueling theories of the world—as if politics really were just a grand version of a freshman political theory class. Having a theory is a source of pride. It gives one a suit of armor to go out and do battle in the world. But the pride an intellectual takes in having a theory is a subtle temptation. Its psychological root is a relative of the conspiracy theorist: the pleasure of being “in the know.” That pleasure easily becomes an obstacle to self-knowledge: You might not notice, for example, that you have powerful attachments and desires that subtly shape your “theoretical” commitments.

In other words, the intellectual does not realize that his practical, partisan attachments are actually more important to him than are either trying to uncover and investigate impartially the foundations of one’s beliefs or seeing the practical realities of the world clearly. Perhaps a historical parallel could be found in Tocqueville’s analysis of the French philosophes who, in the years before 1789, egged on what would become the French Revolution, with no sense of the catastrophe around the corner.

Consider again Ellmers’s appeal to the “spirited moral gentlemen, America’s natural aristoi.” This line is obviously flattering to the vanity of Ellmers’s intended audience, but to the rest of us, who don’t believe we are natural aristoi and don’t trust people who think they are, it’s silly. (I seem to remember an American authority saying that “the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.”) This is rhetoric better designed for disaffected young men who want to complain about the modern world than anyone with a well thought out desire to govern. Governing requires an effort to understand people who disagree with you; that’s not the Claremont way or Ellmers’s way.

The characteristic danger of the intellectual is not simply in having a theory of the world. The danger is that you might become so invested in your theory that you can’t see what’s in front of you clearly. Rather than being more reflective about practice, you become more doctrinaire, more likely to allow your partisan attachment to shape your sense of reality. Precisely if you think there is one correct theoretical answer, and if you are moved by the beauty and vulnerability of that answer (and why wouldn’t you be), you will have a strong tendency to place a great deal of weight on lower-level, tactical or factual disagreements. That weight will distort your judgment of those lower-level disagreements. You’ll be prepared to read everything in the world as if it were all part of the same basic story; because for you there’s basically only one story.

In that frame of mind, where others see an incompetent and incoherent establishment, you might see a unified and malevolent force.

In that frame of mind, you might persuade yourself that literally everything rides on a single election.

In that frame of mind, you might persuade yourself that the candidate on “your” side, no matter how unattractive in other respects, is the last hope for the principles for which you stand.

In that frame of mind, you might find it hard to believe that your candidate lost the election, because, if that were the case, it would mean that the “silent majority” is actually not on your side. That would mean that people that you think you are saving don’t want to be saved by you at all.

In that frame of mind, you would think that you were standing up for the true nonpartisan principles of the American regime while to everyone outside your circle, you would look like you were using those principles in the most partisan way possible. You would think that you were standing up for free and fair elections; to the rest of the world, you would look like the sorest of sore losers.

This is the corner into which the Claremont school has painted itself. Do you want to say that your partisan competitors are the regime equivalent of al Qaeda, thereby trying to rule them outside the pale of normal partisan competition with the American regime? Fine, but take note that you are in effect ruling yourself outside the bounds of normal partisan debate within the regime we actually have. Do you want to say, as Ellmers does in his article from March, that more than half of your fellow citizens are Americans in name only, but are in reality traitors to American principles? You might as well go ahead and admit defeat now. Perhaps Ellmers will tell us where in Lincoln he finds the advice for democratic statesmen to start by insulting the people they are trying to persuade. If he knew them better, he might find more in their opinions to appreciate, more common ground. But that would hardly fit with the narrative of Manichaean struggle that the Claremont school has invested so heavily in. There is some foolishness that only intellectuals can talk themselves into.

Given that the current conservative moment is not likely going away, even once Donald Trump leaves the political scene, it would be better for the country if that movement had a responsible public voice. Indeed, it may be the case that the only way to sober up and moderate the movement is to start by giving it a more responsible voice. But the Claremont school is not up to that task. Until they are able to admit, if only in the privacy of their thoughts, that maybe, just maybe, Donald Trump wasn’t good for the things they themselves care about, it’s going to be hard to take them seriously as political analysts. Claremont Review of Books editor Charles Kesler has already signaled that it’s time for his kind of conservatives to look past Trump. But it’s hardly clear that the rest of the Claremont crowd is willing to admit that, and the fact that the leadership of the Claremont Institute is still refusing to put any daylight between the institute and John Eastman strongly suggests that they’re not ready to face up to reality.

So what responsibility does Jaffa bear for the current condition of the Claremont Institute? Clearly some. He had a streak of grandiosity and Manichaeanism in him, especially in his later years, and he had a tendency to see people he disagreed with as not just misguided but as heretics or traitors. It’s an exaggeration, but not entirely wrong, to say that Jaffa thought that everyone who disagreed with him was a follower of John Calhoun. There is a shrillness in the later Jaffa, especially in his dealings with his peers, that bespeaks a real limitation. It’s not hard to see that the Claremont school reflects or imitates this part of Jaffa’s legacy; and perhaps their attachment to their grand theories left them particularly vulnerable to the popular enthusiasms and delusions of the moment. Intellectuals falling under the spell of popular delusions is, after all, an old story.

But this strand is not the only or the best part of Jaffa’s legacy. Again, the brilliance of Jaffa’s best book, Crisis of the House Divided, lay in its marvelous political sense—Jaffa’s ability to understand and articulate Stephen Douglas’s point of view and Abraham Lincoln’s prudential moderation. There are other parts of Jaffa’s legacy that could be useful to us today as well: his resolute anti-racism; his understanding that alongside the doctrine of human equality in the Declaration of Independence, the United States has persistent traditions of racial subordination, traditions that by no means died in 1865; and his recognition of the continuing need for political agency and choice on the part of statesmen and citizens. The current leading lights of the Claremont school offer one reading of the meaning of Jaffa’s legacy. But it would not be hard to imagine a different reading of that legacy, one that would focus not so much on “socialism” and immigration, but on our need to face up to the legacy of slavery and racism as persistent features of the American experience.

So, would Harry Jaffa have supported Trump? This is the question Ellmers’s book implicitly invites us to ask. It is also the question that many of Ellmers’s opponents would ask. For them, because the Claremont Institute is misguided and foolish and because Harry Jaffa is associated with the Claremont Institute, he must be a bad man as well, and for the same reasons.

But asking what Jaffa would have thought about our political dilemmas is the wrong question. It is a form of self-absorption, a product of the belief that everything in the world has to be measured by our collective conversation today. It is presentism, the inability to have any distance from the current moment. Ellmers is guilty of this. But so are many of the rest of us. To think that our opinions about figures in the history of political thought must be determined by our opinions about the partisan disputes of today is a form of insanity. It is to guarantee that we will not have the psychic distance to judge impartially either the historical figures or the present moment. It means that we can only ever have one conversation, the conversation about who is up and who is down today. Not only is this wrong, it makes the world a less interesting place.

One need not agree with Jaffa to think that he deserves something different, and better, than becoming another partisan identity marker. The real Jaffa was problematic and weird and interesting enough to deserve our attention; no squinting at Trump required. That would be more generous to Jaffa; more importantly it would be more generous to ourselves, insofar as it would make us think for ourselves. All appeals to authority (positive or negative) have the effect of puffing us up, allowing us to have a not entirely earned sense of importance. Perhaps by gaining a critical perspective on Jaffa, by not allowing him to be simply identified with this or that faction today, we might be able to gain a little distance, a little perspective on him—and on ourselves.

Thomas W. Merrill

Thomas W. Merrill is an associate professor of political science at American University, the director of the AU’s Lincoln Scholars Program, and the author of Hume and the Politics of Enlightenment (Cambridge, 2015). Twitter: @w_merrill.