How Willmoore Kendall Invented Trumpism

Historians in the News
tags: conservatism, biography, intellectual history, Political theory

Christopher H. Owen, Heaven Can Indeed Fall: The Life of Willmoore Kendall. (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books). 256 pp., $105.00.

IN 1994, the year that Newt Gingrich formulated the “Contract with America” and Republicans went on to capture the House of Representatives in the midterm elections for the first time in four decades, Alan Brinkley, a professor at Columbia University, published an influential essay in the American Historical Review. It was called “The Problem of American Conservatism.” The problem that Brinkley sought to diagnose was not the rise of conservatism, but what he described as the lack of imagination of American historians who had failed to acknowledge, let alone comprehend, the vitality of the Republican Right. Their implicit endorsement of a kind of Whig interpretation about the inexorable rise of liberalism had occluded the study of conservatism, rendering it “something of an orphan in historical scholarship.” Brinkley concluded that “a recognition of many traditions, including those of the Right” was overdue.

That recognition has taken place in recent decades. Historians such as Geoffrey Kabaservice have explored the ideological transformation of the GOP since the 1950s, from a bastion of establishment Republicans to an insurgent movement. Others have examined the influence of conservative media over the decades, including Eric Alterman in What Liberal Media? and Nicole Hemmer in Messengers of the Right. And in 2020, the Library of America published an anthology of conservative thought in the past century that was edited by Andrew J. Bacevich. But perhaps the most notable development over the past several decades has been the appearance of biographies of charter members of the conservative intelligentsia, including Whittaker Chambers, James Burnham, L. Brent Bozell, William A. Rusher, and Ayn Rand.

CHRISTOPHER H. Owen’s Heaven Can Indeed Fall is the latest entrant to this burgeoning field. Owen, who is a professor of history at Northeastern State University, meticulously chronicles the turbulent life of Willmoore Kendall. Kendall was a Trotskyist in the 1930s who went on to become a staunch conservative, embracing Senator Joseph McCarthy and advising Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo. At Yale, where he taught political theory for a number of years, his mission was to topple liberal elites by creating a conservative vanguard. Kendall, you could say, was the original polarizer. A gifted political theorist and slashing orator, Kendall championed the fusion of conservatism with populism, contending that liberals possessed an “instinctive dislike for the American way of life and for the basic political and social principles presupposed in it.” No one did more to forge the intellectual arsenal of the modern Right than Kendall.

The temerity of this Hephaestus at Yale won him a number of admirers. The political philosopher Leo Strauss, who oversaw the creation of his own Bruderbund at the University of Chicago that was dedicated to returning to the timeless wisdom of the ancients, corresponded for several decades with Kendall, lauding him as “the only man who vindicates the honor of our profession.” But Kendall’s volatility—his philandering, his heavy drinking, his flashy suits, and, above all, his sheer cussedness—also meant that he was as notorious for his temperament as his ideas. As Garry Wills observed, “Willmoore was the one man with the depth, training, and style of presentation to lead a conservative revival; but that his prickliness always got in the way of his abilities as a proselytizer.”

Read entire article at National Interest