Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Trump’s Idealogues 2: Michael Anton


Trump’s Ideologues 2: Michael Anton

Michael Anton is Trump’s Deputy Assistant for Strategic Communications on the United States National Security Council.  He has been a Republican insider for several decades, serving previously as a speechwriter for President George W. Bush and in a similar role for Rudy Giuliani.  He has also been identified as the one figures in Trump’s inner circle that qualifies as a genuine, non-Alt-Right, conservative intellectual.  But for the neoconservative leader of the Never Trump movement, William Kristol, the intellectual Anton most closely resembles is German political and legal theorist Carl Schmitt, a respected conservative political and legal thinker in 1920s Germany, who joined the Nazi Party in 1933. Kristol tweeted on hearing of Anton’s appointment by Trump: “From Carl Schmitt to Mike Anton: First time tragedy, second time farce.”


The comparison is not without its merits.  (The usual caveats apply: this is not to suggest that history is repeating itself or that the Trump administration is exactly the same, or will do the same, as the murderous Nazi regime.  Making a comparison is a method, not a conclusion in and of itself). 

Schmitt had a complicated legacy beyond his conversion to Nazism (after 1936 he was even denounced as an opportunist and not a true believer by some within the Nazi state apparatus – but, significantly, he was never persecuted).  Schmitt came to prominence because he was a consistent opponent of liberalism and appealed to authoritarianism as potentially being more truly democratic than was liberal democracy.  His rational (as opposed to the fascist anti-rational) critique of liberalism has influenced neoconservative (and even some far left-wing) thinkers to this day.  Moreover, Schmitt had a close connection with Leo Strauss – the most influential intellectual of the neoconservative movement in America – ensuring that his work would come under close (and sympathetic) scrutiny in rightwing intellectual circles.

More to the point of the comparison, in his critique of 1920s German politics found in his Political Theology (1922) and The Concept of the Political (1927), in which he criticized the inability of liberal democracy and its “never ending discussion” to solve Weimar’s problems, Schmitt made an argument in favour of populism led by a charismatic leader.  (This was years before the Nazi movement gained any significant popularity).  Only a decisive popular leader can save people from the dangers of inherent in liberalism.  Schmitt’s stance has been called “decisionism” and posits that sovereign authority actually comes from taking strong action, without necessarily having a plan or achieving positive results, or even following the law.  As he famously began his tract Political Theology: “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception”.  The decisive leader creates order through action: he (and it is clear that Schmitt has only men in mind) rules through various forms of plebiscites, his actions merely ratified by the acclamation of a thankful people.  As he states in his Constitutional Theory (1928): “the natural form for the direct expression of the popular will is the yea-saying and nay-saying shout of the assembled crowd.” (p. 131).  This is, in effect, a conservative application of Rousseau.  In order to attain sovereignty, the decisive political leader must understand that all politics comes down to enemies and friends.  The leader must identify the enemy and mobilize against it: this othering might be of an external or an internal enemy (or both).  Schmitt argues, in fact, that the identification of the enemy and the unifying of friends against that enemy is the very essence of the concept “political”. 

Michael Lind summarized Schmitt’s view of the political world in this way: “Schmitt’s authoritarianism is histrionic and apocalyptic. What is most extreme is most authentic.  The exception is the rule. The emergency is the norm. The nation is constantly on the verge of collapse and threatened by enemies without and within.  Parliament is the problem, not the solution.  The times demand leaders who can take bold and decisive action, not waste time in idle debate.”

It was these sorts of views that Kristol no doubt had in mind when he compared Schmitt's views to those of Michael Anton. 

Anton’s background is that of a rather conventional modern American conservative, trained in one of the two dominant schools of neoconservative thought.  Anton did his undergraduate degree at Berkeley before going on to the Claremont University Graduate School, and its incubator of west-coast neoconservatism, the Claremont Institute.  At Claremont, Anton became an acolyte of the so-called West Coast Straussians.  As Jeet Heer succinctly explains: “The West Coast Straussians are nationalists who believe the U.S. needs some mythical sense of its own greatness” whereas the East Coast Straussians [like Kristol] are more cosmopolitan thinkers who believe that such myths are not necessary (or perhaps that more elegant myths are needed), and that politics is more a matter of cultivating wise elites”.   (As Heer also notes, the West Coast Straussians as a whole have been more sympathetic to Trump than other American conservative intellectuals, and have even started trying to rationally justify Trumpism in the pages of a high-brow conservative journal, American Affairs.)

After completing an MA on Machiavelli, Anton became a speechwriter and press secretary for New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, then took a mid-level job at the National Security Council in the George W. Bush administration.  According to the Weekly Standard, “Anton was part of the team that made the case within the administration and to the public for invading Iraq – and he was enthusiastic about the war.”  Anton left the government in 2005 and became a speechwriter for Rupert Murdoch at News Corp., also wrote speeches for Giuliani’s failed 2008 campaign, followed by communications work at Citigroup, then a year and a half as a managing director at BlackRock asset management firm.

Apparently it was Peter Thiel, the Trump-supporting tech billionaire, and a frequent participant at Claremont Institute symposiums, that introduced Anton to the Trump transition team.  Anton’s credentials were just what the new administration needed given the general lack of enthusiasm for Trump amongst the foreign relations community in Washington: Anton was someone with National Security Council experience, a seasoned conservative speechwriter from the more nationalist wing of neoconservative intellectuals, and perhaps most importantly, had written a series of highly controversial pro-Trump articles prior to the election. 

Using the pen name Publius Decius Mus (after a self-sacrificing Roman consul), Anton had actively promoted Trump’s anti-Islam, anti-immigration platform on fringe websites, particularly the Journal of American Greatness blog, and also in staunchly neoconservative, anti-Trump publications.  One of his most explosive and noteworthy pieces was published in the neoconservative Claremont Institute Review in September 2016 under the title “The Flight 93 Election”.

The piece is out and out apocalyptic in its tone.  It begins:

2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die. You may die anyway. You—or the leader of your party—may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees.

Except one: if you don’t try, death is certain.  To compound the metaphor: a Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto.  With Trump, at least you can spin the cylinder and take your chances.

The reason for this particular crisis in America’s history is made clear by Anton a few paragraphs later:

…the ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty means that the electorate grows more left, more Democratic, less Republican, less republican, and less traditionally American with every cycle.  As does, of course, the U.S. population… This is the core reason why the Left, the Democrats, and the bipartisan junta (categories distinct but very much overlapping) think they are on the cusp of a permanent victory that will forever obviate the need to pretend to respect democratic and constitutional niceties.  Because they are.

The pre-Trump government was, for Anton, simply “the junta.”  The children of immigrants are seen as “ringers to form a permanent electoral majority” and the white Republican base is the only legitimate governing coalition.  For Anton, therefore, “Democratic governments are inherently illegitimate by dint of their racial cast”.  And because of changing demographics, conservatives are therefore fighting an uphill battle and losing.  Trump might not be the neoconservative poster child, but he is better than the Democratic alternative.  Anton posited, like Schmitt, that a decisive populist could save the situation. Moreover, in going against the neocon intellectual consensus (at least of the East Coast Straussians), Anton revealed the place of implicit racial prejudice to many traditional conservatives within the establishment (this will not seem like news to any opponent of the GOP, but it is important to note how fervently neoconservative intellectuals have tried to deny and dampen such claims).

But race is absolutely central to Anton’s views.  The fact that white supremacists support Trump is adduced by him as another reason why conservatives should too: “The Left was calling us Nazis long before any pro-Trumpers tweeted Holocaust denial memes,” he argues. “And how does one deal with a Nazi — that is, with an enemy one is convinced intends your destruction? You don’t compromise with him or leave him alone. You crush him.”  There is an another echo of Schmitt here: the political world is simply divided between absolute friends and absolute enemies.  It is also circular reasoning, of course: since Nazis support Anton’s chosen candidate, the left will crush conservatives like Nazis, therefore his chosen candidate’s triumph is all the more needed.

Kelefa Sanneh wrote in The New Yorker, that Anton’s essay was “the most cogent argument for electing Donald Trump,” even though as it was read mostly by the neoconservative intellectual elite, it probably did not actually affect the election at all.  It did generate critiques by a range of commentators, including Ross Douthat, Michael Gerson and Jonathan Chait. Many neocons, especially in Washington, saw the piece as a betrayal of their views -- hence, again, Kristol's reference to Schmitt, an influential conservative, opportunistically seduced by the allure of fascism.

But “The Flight 93 Election” wasn’t Anton’s only — or even most provocative — defense of Trump during the campaign.  In March 2016, Anton published a longer essay, “Toward a Sensible, Coherent Trumpism,” in the Unz Review, a website that hosts both far-right and far-left commentary.  According to the Huffington Post, pro-Trump blog Journal of American Greatness (closed after the election), republished the 6,000-word article, and Breitbart also ran an excerpt.  The flavor of the piece can be seen in this passage:

[One] source of Trump’s appeal is his willingness — eagerness — gleefulness! — to mock the ridiculous lies we’ve been incessantly force-fed for the past 15 years (at least) and tell the truth.  “Diversity” is not “our strength”; it’s a source of weakness, tension and disunion.  America is not a “nation of immigrants”; we are originally a nation of settlers, who later chose to admit immigrants, and later still not to, and who may justly open or close our doors solely at our own discretion, without deference to forced pieties.  Immigration today is not “good for the economy”; it undercuts American wages, costs Americans jobs, and reduces Americans’ standard of living.  Islam is not a “religion of peace”; it’s a militant faith that exalts conversion by the sword and inspires thousands to acts of terror — and millions more to support and sympathize with terror.

Moreover, Anton devoted 1,000 words of “Coherent Trumpism” to defending Trump’s “America first” slogan, which is clearly reminiscent of the America First Committee, the isolationist movement which at the beginning of World War II had 800,000 members.  Its ranks included socialists, conservatives, and members of some of the most prominent American families, including those who owned Sears-Roebuck and the Chicago Tribune, the future President Ford; Sargent Shriver, who’d go on to lead the Peace Corps; and Potter Stewart, a future U.S. Supreme Court justice.  As was pointed out in a number of articles written during the election, the American First Committee also counted among its ranks the most prominent anti-Semites of the day, including Charles Lindberg, Henry Ford and Avery Brundage.  But as UC Davis historian Eric Rauchway has also made clear, “the slogan actually predates the anti-interventionist committee, and it has a lot more to do with the proto-fascist politics of the publishing magnate and sometime politician William Randolph Hearst.” 

With “AMERICA FIRST” at the center of his newspaper masthead, emblazoned above a stylized eagle clutching a ribbon reading, “AN AMERICAN PAPER FOR THE AMERICAN PEOPLE,” Hearst promoted the virtues of Nazism, whose “great achievement”—and a lesson to all “liberty-loving people”—was the defeat of communism. Hearst now saw communism everywhere—not only in the Roosevelt administration, but among college professors “teaching alien doctrines” and among striking union workers in San Francisco, against whom Hearst’s papers encouraged vigilante violence. In July 1934, during the San Francisco general strike, mobs broke the windows of residents in tradesmen’s neighborhoods, threatened them with violence, and told them to move; “police,” The New York Times drily reported, “said that not all the victims were radicals.” For his part, Hearst responded appreciatively: “Thank God the patriotic citizens of California have shown us the way.”

This was Hearst’s “America First” in the 1930s—a nationalist enthusiasm for crushing the left by hyperbole and violence (invariably involving the use of all-caps).  It’s a discourse familiar to devotees of Trump today (although Trump’s preferred typographic emphasis is the exclamation point). Trump’s campaign has put Nazi symbols on the U.S. flag and quoted white nationalist websites; now it’s using a fascist-friendly slogan.  Like Hearst, Trump may not have thought his commitments through, but he has moved into a nasty intellectual neighborhood, and it shows.

Anton’s arguments are important to understanding the ideology with which Trump (prompted, no doubt, by Steve Bannon) is governing the country.  Anton’s views overlap with the views of the Alt-Right even though he is not from their ranks: indeed, he is from the very establishment that the Bannon/Alt-Right wing hates.  But that very fact makes Anton useful. There are clear strains of Anton’s dark anti-otherness in Trump’s immigration ban, the talk of a border wall and the appeals to evangelical Christians.  Anton’s role in the administration is to intellectualize the right-wing, authoritarian case against democracy and marshal it on behalf of the President.  He is charged with policy prescriptions, but also messaging a palatable form of Trumpism to the wider world of respectable conservatives. 

But just to be clear: more than anything Steve Bannon has written or publicly said in recent years, Anton’s position is not just a product of racism but an actual argument in favour of it.  As Michael Gerson put it:

When you shift through all the hyperbole and insults of “The Flight 93 Election,” you are left with a residue of prejudice.  The author refers to “tribal, sub-Third-World foes” and “the ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty” who are making America “less traditionally American with every cycle.”  Immigrants are typically guilty of “rape, shooting, bombing or machete attack.” Their importation is the sign of “a country, a people, a civilization that wants to die.” Trump, in contrast, would say, “I want my people to live.” Just think on that. Who exactly is “my people”?

It is the brazen sweep of Anton’s views that have made a number of commentators see the parallels between Schmitt’s ideas and those justifying Trump’s presidency.  Quinta Jurecic noted in an essay a few weeks before Trump took the oath of office that the new president “has given us genuine reason for concern that he may actually represent the Schmittian nightmare feared by many on the left and in the civil libertarian community after 9/11.”