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The Origins of Trump’s Slapdash, Last-Second ‘1776 Report’

It can be understood as the other side of the coin to Michael Anton’s angry ‘Flight 93’ argument.
January 22, 2021
The Origins of Trump’s Slapdash, Last-Second ‘1776 Report’
Former US President Andrew Jackson can be seen with other salvaged busts of former US Presidents at a mulching business where they now reside August 25, 2019, in Williamsburg, Virginia. - Howard Hankins rescued the giant busts of former US Presidents from the closed Presidents Park in Colonial Williamsburg when he was commissioned to destroy them. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

On Monday, a presidential commission that Donald Trump established last year to “promote patriotic education” issued its report.

On Wednesday, the commission was disbanded by Joe Biden and its report wiped from the White House website and re-hosted by the National Archives.

In the 48 hours between, the report was panned by historians and critics—very likely the only people who will take much notice of the blink-and-it’s-gone document.

Ostensibly a rejoinder to the New York Times’s 1619 Project, the 1776 Report asserts the timeless values of the American founding and the exceptional goodness of the American past. Building on Trump’s professed desire to “clear away the twisted web of lies in our schools and classrooms, and teach our children the magnificent truth about our country,” the report’s authors say they believe that “a rediscovery of our shared identity rooted in our founding principles is the path to a renewed American unity and a confident American future.”

The world will little note, nor long remember, the 1776 Report. But before it passes entirely from memory, it is worth taking a moment to examine what it is and how it came to be, not because it is intellectually serious—in fact, it is a self-plagiarized mishmash of sanitized history, high school civics, right-wing gripes, and authoritarian gestures—but because of what it reveals about the rise of a certain strain of conservative ideology: fundamentalist “West Coast Straussianism.”

Authorized History

The 1776 Report is a strange artifact. The main body of the report is a scant twenty pages long, chockablock with pictures and pull quotes. This is followed by four appendices, one being simply a reprint of the Declaration of Independence, the other three being mini-essays about “faith and America’s principles,” identity politics, and civic education. The overall effect is that of an undergraduate paper slapped together quickly by copy-pasting pre-existing text, stitching it together with clichés, and amply padding it to meet the required page count.

The executive order creating the 1776 Report commends “accurate, honest, unifying, inspiring, and ennobling” history. What the report itself actually provides veers between sentimentalism and vagaries. It never grapples with complicated historical facts, instead offering a story of heroes and leftist villains.

To be sure, the report acknowledges that “the American story has its share of missteps, errors, contradictions, and wrongs.” No nation is perfect, but America, dedicated to the principle of equality (properly understood) has strived harder and come closer to perfection.

To propound this authorized history, the 1776 Report doesn’t so much round off the rough edges of history as sandblast them. For starters, it makes no mention of the effects of European colonization on the American Indian population, nor of the U.S. government’s Indian removal policies. In fact, there’s no reference to American Indians at all (aside from in the appendix reprinting the Declaration, which mentions “merciless Indian Savages”). This is, reflexively, a white man’s history.

Slavery is explained away in large part by asserting, with cherry-picked evidence and no real analysis, that the Founders were not “hypocrites” and that they understood that slavery contradicted the Declaration of Independence. The report’s authors could have made this argument in a more intellectually serious way, by correctly pointing out that some of the Founders were staunchly anti-slavery, while forthrightly conceding that others were not, and plainly acknowledging that many of the Founders who were conflicted about it benefited immensely from slave labor and the brutality and horror it entailed. Instead, we hear about the noble principles struggling to overcome the “compromises” that stood in the way of equality, with nothing said about just whom these compromises were with.

Much the same goes for the 170-odd years after the Revolution, the years of slavery, then Reconstruction and Southern Redemption and Jim Crow. These are treated abstractly, without discussing who established the “systems” and “laws” that violently infringed on black freedom and civil rights. At best, the report blames John C. Calhoun and “vigilante groups like the Ku Klux Klan,” as if there were not movements and ideas and publications and leaders involved. The end result is a circular argument: The principles of the founding are true, and they are borne out in history by the fact that Americans believe true principles.

The report’s authors are happy to name names, however, when identifying some enemies. Progressives, fascists, communists, and black and student radicals all attack the founding principles. So does a conspiratorial list of conservative bugbears: Antonio Gramsci, Herbert Marcuse and the Frankfurt School, Pragmatism, and Woodrow Wilson. Imported foreign ideas, the report argues, have divided the nation by undermining the founding.

Straussian Geography

The driving force behind this authorized history is a group of conservative scholars colloquially called West Coast Straussians. Typically right-leaning, Straussians are the students—or, more likely, the students of students—of the German-American scholar Leo Strauss. During the 1970s and 1980s, Straussians divided more or less regionally over how best to understand the United States. Was it a decent regime, built on low but solid foundations, as the East Coasters had it? Or was it “broadly continuous with the classical and Biblical traditions” and in some respects “perfecting those traditions,” as the West Coasters, led by Strauss’s first student, Harry Jaffa, believed?

Jaffa not only celebrated the founding, but treated it as something sacrosanct. He believed the founding’s dedication to the Declaration of Independence, and its completion in the Civil War, made the United States a good regime dedicated to the universally valid principle of equality.

Jaffa was an intellectual streetfighter. He debated—and feuded with—many major conservative intellectuals, including Irving Kristol, Willmoore Kendall, Martin Diamond, Robert Bork, and Antonin Scalia, for not agreeing with his conclusions.

You’d think an emphasis on equality would lead to a gentler conservatism, and some right-wingers worried about this. But where East Coast Straussians, and neoconservatives like Kristol, suggested America was a decent, bourgeois nation, West Coast Straussians possessed more of a millenarian outlook based on an idealized American past.

When Jaffa died in 2015, his student Larry Arnn declared “if we are able to save our country, which we must,” Jaffa’s war against other conservatives would “be there at the foundation of saving it.”

Arnn is president of Hillsdale College, one of the West Coast Straussians’ major centers. Another is the Claremont Institute in southern California, founded in 1979 by Arnn and students of Jaffa to “restore the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life.” Funded by conservative foundations, grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and right-wing donors, it’s now a moderate-sized think tank known for its intellectual output, especially its publications the Claremont Review of Books (launched in 2000) and the American Mind (launched in 2018). Through their graduates, fellowships, publications, and online lectures and classes, Hillsdale and the Claremont Institute have made the West Coast version of American history the dominant one on the right.

The 1776 Commission is dominated by these Straussians. Larry Arnn is its chair. The editor of the Claremont Review of Books, Charles Kesler, is a member. Matthew Spalding, the commission’s executive director, heads and teaches at Hillsdale’s D.C. center. The report lifts whole pages from Spalding’s previously published work. In short, the 1776 Report is simplified West Coast Straussianism with the presidential seal slapped on it.

The Founders Betrayed

If the West Coast Straussian view holds that the United States was founded as a good regime, it also holds that the nation has been betrayed. But the natural right of equality enshrined in the Declaration of Independence demands these violations be swept away. Initially, Jaffa developed this argument about slavery. Over time, he and his followers extended it to include the villains of the 1776 Report—progressives, socialists, black radicals, and third wave feminists. In particular, they excoriate the administrative state: “This shadow government never faces elections and today operates largely without checks and balances. The founders always opposed government unaccountable to the people and without constitutional restraint, yet it continues to grow around us.”

Because they are ideological determinists, the West Coast Straussians struggle to see their opponents on their own terms. They reduce them and their ideas to “nihilistic” successors of John C. Calhoun, one of Jaffa’s punching bags. This is why the 1776 Report goes to such great lengths to connect modern identity politics to that “Marx of the master class,” noting that “there are uncanny similarities between 21st century activists of identity politics and 19th century apologists for slavery.”

Seeing the United States betrayed has turned the West Coast Straussians into counterrevolutionaries. Claremont Review of Books editor Charles Kesler has written that the Claremont Institute’s mission was “to lead a counterrevolution against the ideologized university and to smash the idols by which it had mystified and misled the American public. The idea was to unravel Progressivism, to do what Wilson and Co. had done but in reverse.” The aim, as one president of the Claremont Institute half-joked, was to “overthrow the reigning orthodoxy” by training a “Franklin Roosevelt who will then overthrow the New Deal.”

Despite their decades of sometimes-cloying scholarship about statesmanship and virtue, the West Coast Straussians overwhelmingly chose Donald Trump to restore American greatness. Long before Trump ran for president, some West Coast Straussians had explored ways that  the Founders’ ideas were relevant to what would later come to be called “Trumpism,” as when Thomas G. West—affiliated with both Claremont and Hillsdale—argued in 2007 for immigration restriction on equality grounds. (The Founders, he wrote, would likely have endorsed a “restrictive immigration policy—but as an inference from the equality principle, not from its repudiation.”) West Coast Straussians were among the earliest conservative intellectuals to endorse Trump, first in private discussions, then pseudonymously via the blog “Journal of American Greatness,” and then by signing onto the various public statements of support for the 2016 candidate.

The most vicious statement of Straussian Trumpism came in 2016 when Claremont alum Michael Anton (now a fellow at Hillsdale College’s D.C. center) published “The Flight 93 Election,” first on the old “American Greatness” blog, then in the Claremont Review of Books. Anton warned against mass immigration and a Hillary Clinton presidency that would be “pedal-to-the-metal on the entire Progressive-left agenda, plus items few of us have yet imagined in our darkest moments. Nor is even that the worst. It will be coupled with a level of vindictive persecution against resistance and dissent.” He offered a vote for Trump as the “final test” of “whether there is any virtù left in what used to be the core of the American nation.”

The 1776 Report can be understood as the other side of the coin to Anton’s rage. It’s the positive vision that justifies Trumpian cruelty. By conjuring an idealized and imaginary past, West Coast Straussians—and too many on the right—transform current conflicts into a satanic fall from an American Eden.

The Purpose of History

The American past is rich, complicated, beautiful, and powerful, but also wicked and painful. It needs to be reckoned with. The 1776 Report is the Trumpian and West Coast Straussian response to a prominent recent attempt to reckon with part of that history, the New York Times’s hotly debated 1619 Project.

As history, the 1776 Report is woefully underdone, lacking specialists, citations and evidence. It is a slapdash job for a president who has trafficked his entire life in slapdash products. The three mini-essay appendices in particular are full of PragerU-style sneering and sophistry.

The 1776 Report suffers even in comparison to other Trumpian commissions. For example, the Report of the Commission on Unalienable Rights, written by religious conservatives, treading similar ground and with a particular agenda, nevertheless offers a much more sophisticated assessment of both rights and the nation’s past, acknowledging wrongs and hypocrisies rather than papering over them. “With the eyes of the world upon her, America must show the same honest self-examination and efforts at improvement that she expects of others.” In its moderate tone, that 2020 State Department document comes much closer to the neoconservative vision of the American Revolution that Harry Jaffa blasted, while its commitment to human rights in foreign policy is well removed from Trump’s America First instincts.

Princeton historian Sean Wilentz, a prominent critic of the 1619 Project, dismissed the 1776 Report as “the flip side of those polemics, presented as history, that charge the nation was founded as a slavocracy, and that slavery and white supremacy are the essential themes of American history. It’s basically a political document, not history.”

To see the unscholarly and fundamentally political nature of the report, look at its recommendations. “States and school districts should reject any curriculum that promotes one-sided partisan opinions, activist propaganda, or factional ideologies that demean America’s heritage, dishonor our heroes, or deny our principles,” the report demands without irony. It goes on: “To restore our society, academics must return to their vocation of relentlessly pursuing the truth and engaging in honest scholarship that seeks to understand the world and America’s place in it.” These exhortations are a contradictory mess.

They also amount to calls for propaganda. Political tests to determine whether histories demean the nation or dishonor its heroes on the grounds that foreign doctrines damage the country would not be out of place in Xi’s China.

In the 1980s, an East Coast Straussian, Thomas Pangle, criticized Jaffa and his allies of espousing a “new mythic Americanism” that blurred the line between scholarship and poetry. To Pangle, Jaffa’s sacred vision of America hurt authentic patriotism by failing to engage with a real country and its real past. Trump’s 1776 Report makes the same mistake.

Joshua Tait

Joshua Tait is a historian of American conservatism. He has a Ph.D. in U.S. History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Twitter: @Joshua_A_Tait.