Ross Douthat: Donald Trump and the Romance of Regime Change | Columnists
The figure of John Eastman, constitutional theorist, former law professor and legal adviser to Donald Trump, occupies an increasingly important place in retrospectives on the events of January 6, and for good reason: of all the characters who have walked through the White House in the aftermath of the 2020 election, only Eastman appears to have taken Trump’s continued power seriously.
Other people certainly imagined themselves serious, figures like Sidney Powell and Mike Lindell of MyPillow, but in reality, they inhabited an imaginary world and especially invited Trump to live with them. Then another group of figures – including various White House advisers and US senators – lived in reality while pretending to believe in fantasy, either in the hope of managing the president’s moods until the end. of his mandate, or for cynical political reasons of their own.
Only Eastman seemed to partially bridge the gap. Certainly, his belief that Trump should stay in power depended on many of the same voter fraud speculations — changeable, adaptable, a hypothesis seeking confirmation — that outright fantasies have embraced. But his legal course of action was intended to be as plausible as possible, tied to sweeping but not purely fanciful interpretations of election law and the US Constitution, and designed to exploit points of tension or contradiction where a constitutional crisis could genuinely be forced.
Trump did not have the cooperators or the capabilities to reach that destination. But Eastman, unlike the clowns and the cynics, actually laid out a roadmap to get there, devoting real legal and constitutional knowledge to the goal of putting the American presidential succession in crisis.
In this he embodied in its strongest form a trend shared by others in his intellectual base, the Claremont Institute – a conservative institution with many mansions, but known in recent times for its hospitality to the reactionary Internet and its enthusiasm for crisis politics. .
The “Election of Flight 93”, six years later
This enthusiasm first took shape in the essay “Flight 93 Election,” published in the Claremont Review of Books in 2016, in which future Trump administration official Michael Anton argued that the American Republic was in such dire condition that it would be better to elect a man who could literally crash the plane than allow it to continue in its current course. Eastman’s eagerness for a constitutional crisis was a sort of bookend to this essay, imbued with the same spirit but applied to a presidential transition rather than presidential voting.
This trend has made Claremont an object of particular fascination for hostile interpreters of Trump-era conservatism. At this point, you can read a wide range of critical essays trying to understand how an institution formally dedicated to the genius of the Founding Fathers and the ideals of Abraham Lincoln ended up harboring so much sympathy for a demagogue like Trump.
I have my own interpretation, which goes back to my personal experience as a young “Publius Scholar” at Claremont 20 years ago when, along with a couple of other young right-wing nerds, I took a crash course in been in the thought of Harry Jaffa, Eminence Claremont (then living, now deceased), and his various followers.
The Jaffa school offered an interpretation of American history that could be described as Inception, Consumption and Corruption. Its great consumer was Lincoln, who restored the foundation’s promise by fully establishing the “all men are created equal” absolutism of the Declaration of Independence. Its villains were John C. Calhoun and the early 20th century progressives, the former for championing slavery and inequality, the latter for replacing a constitutional republic with a bureaucratized administrative state, and both for demonstrating of a philosophical and moral relativism which Jaffa despised (and which, as his intellectual quarrels multiplied, he claimed to discern in many of his conservative colleagues as well).
But one thing you noticed hanging out with the folks in Claremont is that while they were obviously interested in the good and bad of every American regime change, from the original (great) foundation to the Lincolnian refoundation (even better) to the progressive refoundations of Woodrow Wilson (their big bad, the “lost cause” sympathizer turned arrogant technocrat) and Franklin Roosevelt, they were also very interested in the idea of founding themselves, when moments of crisis make bring out new orders from the old ones.
At one point, as a break from reading texts from the founding era, we were treated to a screening of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”, John Ford’s great western whose theme is the transition from Far West towards political modernity, moving from the rule of the gun (embodied by John Wayne’s Tom Doniphon) to the rule of law (embodied by Ransom Stoddard of Jimmy Stewart).
In the film, the transition cannot be made without a dose of chaos, a mixture of violence and deception. Lee Marvin’s outlaw Valance challenges peaceful lawyer Stoddard to a duel; Doniphon saves the lawyer by shooting the outlaw from the shadows – then the murder is wrongly attributed to Stewart’s character, who is adored by it and becomes a great New West statesman while the cow -boy and his vigilante code back off.
“Enthused by Chaos”
When I try to figure out what Eastman imagined himself doing serving Donald Trump until the Constitutional Crisis, that’s where my speculation turns. I do not think this is the necessary implication of Claremont’s thought; indeed, you can find in the latest issue of The Claremont Review of Books an essay by William Voegeli criticizing conservatives who seem “enthusiastic about chaos” and too eager to refound rather than conserve. But I think it’s an understandable place for Claremont’s reading of American history at a time when the American republic seems ossified, deadlocked, stalled, and in need of some sort of visible renewal.
Nor is it a coincidence that conservatives in Claremont are moving in this direction at the same time that their opponents on the American left harbor plans to expand the Supreme Court, add new states to the Union and abolition of the Senate and of the Electoral College. The right and the left are reacting, in different ways and with different prescriptions, to the sense of crisis and futility of our politics, to the sense that some kind of revolution or transformation is surely about to occur – that God, in his wisdom, is overdue to send us a Lincoln or a Roosevelt and that the existing standards of our politics are unlikely to survive the change.
The problem — well, on the right, there are three problems.
First, the part of the right that imagines a refoundation cannot agree on the form that its imagined new American regime should take. (Are we tearing down the administrative state or transforming it for conservative ends? Restoring lost freedoms or pursuing the common good? Building a multi-ethnic working-class majority or closing the border to future Democratic voters?) What is the one of the reasons the Trump presidency, infused with these contradictory impulses, ended up being such a shambolic mess.
The second obvious reason it was a mess was simply the character of the president himself. This is where my attempt to imagine my way into Eastman’s crisis mindset falls apart: I simply cannot comprehend the idea that it might be worth plunging our constitutional system into chaos when your candidate to play Lincoln or Roosevelt is Trump.
Voting for Trump as a defensive measure against Hillary Clinton is one thing. But appointing you to play Tom Doniphon in a political shootout so that a decadent order can give way to something new when your candidate to lead the new order is a sybaritic reality star who has gone through his first term. presidential in shambles… No, there my attempt at imaginative sympathy fails.
But finally, deeper than the madness of risking so much for Trump himself is the madness of doing so without democratic legitimacy and without the support of a real majority. In past moments of American revivalism or regime change, leaders of the emerging order have been able to claim a popular mandate for their project. Yes, Lincoln’s case is exceptional: he was plurality president in 1860 and won a large majority in 1864 with the South still in rebellion. But he obviously won both elections, the results weren’t particularly close, and the other transformative presidents in our history, from Andrew Jackson to Roosevelt to Claremont’s beloved Ronald Reagan, won a clear mandate. or resounding for a second term.
No complaints about a rigged election can change the fact that Trump didn’t — that despite plenty of opportunities for political savvy, he never persuaded a majority of Americans to back what his plan was supposed to be.
And this is where the various indictments of Claremont Trumpism draw the most blood. If your intellectual project champions Lincoln rather than Calhoun, but you end up using constitutional sleight of hand to preserve the power of a minority faction against an American majority, then whatever historical role you imagine yourself playing, you betrayed yourself.