How Trumpism Changed the Claremont Institute (and Vice-Versa)Breaking News
tags: conservatism, intellectual history, Claremont Institute, John Eastman
Early in 2016, as Donald Trump’s march toward the Republican presidential nomination gathered the air of inevitability, alumni of a conservative think tank nestled here at the base of Southern California’s San Gabriel Mountains received an email with a tough question: Was it time for supporters of the Claremont Institute to help make Trump president?
“I’d sooner cut off my arm with a rusty spoon!” replied Nathan Harden, an editor at RealClearEducation, an offshoot of the political site RealClearPolitics, according to emails obtained by The Washington Post.
Others were interested, however. “I’m graduating this May and would very much like to get involved,” wrote Darren Beattie, a philosophy graduate student who would later work in Trump’s White House, until he was fired in 2018, after revelations that he had attended a conference with white nationalists. Harden declined to comment. Beattie did not respond to requests for comment.
The next four years would revolutionize the role of the Claremont Institute and a handful of other intellectual institutions that preach an America-first, originalist ideology. The institute — along with its journal, the Claremont Review of Books, as well as related journals such as American Greatness, and allied organizations, including Michigan’s Hillsdale College — gained influence during Trump’s tenure, funneling ideas and personnel to the administration despite Trump’s lifelong suspicion of academics and other experts.
Claremont blossomed under Trump just as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute had during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, adding a Washington office and expanding its recruitment of conservative activists and sheriffs to study its ideas.
But now, as the congressional investigation into the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol reaches its zenith, the role played by one of Claremont’s leaders, John Eastman, has divided its followers and raised some of the same questions posed in that 2016 email: How far should scholars go to put their ideas into action?
Eastman, once a clerk to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, was a mainstay of the institute from its earliest days and an architect of its approach to the Constitution. He argued, against centuries of legal precedent, that Kamala D. Harris was ineligible to serve as vice president because her parents weren’t American citizens when she was born in California. Then, in the final months of 2020, he burst into the national consciousness as he helped lead Trump’s drive to overturn the results of the 2020 election. He wrote confidential memos urging then-Vice President Mike Pence to reject official electoral vote totals and went on former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon’s show to build support for his widely discredited theory. And, on Jan. 6, he rallied Trump supporters at the Ellipse before a mob stormed the Capitol.
For much of the Claremont Institute’s history, the idea of embracing a presidential campaign and placing its people in White House jobs seemed far-fetched. Founded in 1979 by students of conservative political philosopher Harry V. Jaffa, the institute steered clear of policy analysis, preferring to focus on “deeper philosophical developments, the causes of our deep political discontents,” according to Kesler.
But by the 2010s, many at the institute had come to believe that America had fallen into precipitous cultural decline, accelerated, in their view, by the left’s demands for racial and gender equality. The institute “evolved in the direction of impatience,” Kesler said. “We have a legitimacy crisis in America. We’re one nation with two ideas of our Constitution — the conservatives’ view of the Founders’ vision, and the liberal notion of a living, evolving Constitution — and it’s not sustainable to have two constitutions governing one nation.”
Then came Trump.
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