One of the more curious features of the current political landscape is the existence of a small class of people who can be called Trump intellectuals. It’s curious not because Trump himself is anti-intellectual in the way that, say, Spiro Agnew was when he expressed disdain for intellectuals as “an effete corps of impudent snobs.” Rather, Trump—ignorant to the marrow of his cranium—lacks even the faintest understanding of what it means to be an intellectual, let alone the wit of an Agnew or a George Wallace, who put down intellectuals as “pointy-head college professors who can’t even park a bicycle straight.”
Still, whatever Trump’s yawning deficits, as the history of the last 100 years demonstrates, intellectuals are drawn to power like moths to a candle. And in this department, Trump, too, has proved to have at least some measure of luminescence, attracting a whisper of the erudite winged creatures. Not surprisingly, the Trump intellectuals are a peculiar bunch; among them one stands out as perhaps their dean.
Michael Anton, for those who don’t remember or never knew, was the spokesman for Donald Trump’s National Security Council up until John Bolton took over as national security adviser last March and shoved him out the White House’s revolving door. But before his brief stint in the Trump administration, Anton was known for something else.
Beginning in 2002, and writing under a pseudonym, Anton contributed a staggering 40,000 posts to the men’s fashion forum Styleforum. His prodigious output culminated in a 2006 pseudonymously authored book titled The Suit: A Machiavellian Approach to Men’s Style. Marketed as “advice on how to dress with style, flair, and an eye toward gaining power,” it was filled with pronouncements of great use to students of haberdashery, such as “There has never been, then, a well-dressed man who has not worn suspenders.”
Following its publication, this work of sartorial profundity, along with Anton himself, dropped into well-deserved obscurity, with the author shuffling around corporate America from one mid-level PR spot to the next. But in 2016, in the heat of the race for the presidency, Anton resurfaced with a very different kind of effort, an essay published concurrently in the Claremont Review of Books and on a blog called American Greatness, yet again written under a pseudonym, which made the case for Donald Trump.
The title of the article, “The Flight 93 Election,” encapsulated its central argument. The United States was facing an existential crisis. Voting for the election of Donald Trump as president was, for the future of the country, akin to the bold action undertaken by the passengers aboard the hijacked flight that crashed into a meadow in Pennsylvania on 9/11: “charge the cockpit or you die. You may die anyway….If you don’t try, death is certain.…a Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto.”
Unsurprisingly, this analysis of the dire stakes in the 2016 election held great appeal in certain precincts on the right. Rush Limbaugh, for one, read the entire article on the air, putting Anton’s article before a wide audience. Especially resonating to the fever swamp readership was the specter of doom that Anton put forward as the inevitable endpoint of America’s “ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners.”
This massive influx of people, a tidal wave of immigrants “with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty,” warned Anton, would inalterably change the composition of the electorate, causing it to grow “more left, more Democratic, less Republican, less republican, and less traditionally American with every cycle.” The consequence, if not immediate, but in the near term, would be a “permanent victory” for the Left and the complacent establishment that would “forever obviate the need to pretend to respect democratic and constitutional niceties.”
If writing about the merits and demerits of double-breasted jackets had not raised Anton’s star, his apocalyptic forecast, ornamented with nativist and racially tinged rhetoric, did the job. Before long, and with Trump’s surprising victory in November, Anton (whose pseudonymous identity was pierced by the reporting of the Weekly Standard) found himself invited to join the administration of the man he regarded as America’s savior, with no less a figure than Steve Bannon lauding him as “one of the most significant intellects in [the] nationalist movement.”
Today, however, having been cast down from the heights of Trump’s National Security Council to a perch as a lecturer at Hillsdale College, Anton is back with a slender volume, titled After the Flight 93 Election. It is comprised of three sections: two of which are his previously published essays, including the notorious original, and the third, on the “foundations of American greatness,” is also a defense of himself from various slings and arrows that have been directed his way.
One arrow that evidently got under Anton’s skin is the charge that, having written the Flight 93 Election under a pseudonym, he lacked the courage of his convictions. Anton here addresses that at extraordinary length, with page after page of a short book devoted to the matter. Professing not to have produced a “philosophical treatise,” Anton nevertheless takes the reader on a lengthy excursion through Machiavelli and Leo Strauss with a brief stopover at Harvey Mansfield, all of which brings him to an iconoclastic and self-congratulatory explanation for concealing his identity:
In 2016, I judged the modes and orders of my time—and especially of conservatism—to be exhausted and imprisoned within an inflexible institutional and intellectual authority. I believed that its conclusions on the most pressing matters were false and pernicious and that its orthodoxy therefore required smashing. I believed that ordinary rhetoric would not suffice.
But in a spirit of candor, Anton does not halt his explanation there. He admits that he declined to reveal his name because he feared losing friends, he feared being hated, and most of all he feared “ending a reasonably successful corporate career with no possibility of it ever being revived.”
Filling out his book, Anton attempts to answer yet another objection to his original essay: that it was “bereft of any positive vision—a vivid jeremiad, perhaps, but all nightmare no dream.” Anton strives to rectify that lacuna here. Along the way, however, a book that is advertised as a defense of Donald Trump—the volume’s subtitle, after all, is “The Vote that Saved America and What We Still Have to Lose”—metamorphoses into something else: a defense of the American political order as Anton conceives of it.
This section begins with an inquiry into “political and moral epistemology” and then proceeds to take up various attacks on the American political model, mentioning along the way Rousseauean romantics, Hegelian historicists, Marxists, fascists, paleoconservatives, and new leftists, before turning more deeply to John C. Calhoun, Progressivism, and John Rawls. I confess I found the going here a slog through molasses, made especially sticky through pretentiousness and replete with the author’s characteristic exaggerations, such as his claim that “the highest moral authority of our time are peer-reviewed articles written by university research professors” or that, thanks to the triumph of progressivism, it “is now impossible for any educated person to say, on the basis of traditional religious faith or a shared understanding of permanent human nature, that anything human can be good or bad.” I happen to know quite a few educated persons who, on the basis of traditional religious faith, would readily contradict Anton on that score.
More centrally, Anton’s effort is short to the vanishing point in justifying the claim, put forward in his book’s subtitle, that the election of Donald Trump somehow “saved America.” Eliding every controversial aspect of the Trump presidency, the best Anton can muster is the assertion that America’s 45th president is someone who, like he himself, stands for “truth, morality, the good, the West, America, constitutionalism, and decency.”
Trump stands for truth, morality, and decency? Finding those words written seriously in a book, I had to laugh out loud.
Can anyone with eyes to see really question that Donald Trump is a font of lies, a paragon of depravity, a nepotistic, venal, corrupt dreg from the gutter of Fifth Avenue? True intellectuals are seekers of truth. Anton has built an elaborate edifice on a foundational falsehood. Whatever is worthwhile in his book—and I strained to find much at all—is discredited by his Trump idolatry.
True intellectuals also, it must be added, affix their name to their words. Anton’s candor about his motives for employing a pseudonym is admirable. But the confession hardly answers the charge of cowardice. In unfree societies across history from Socrates to the present moment, courageous individuals have stepped forward to voice opinions that they knew would bring them imprisonment, torture, or even death. Anton, living in our free and open society, took a different path.
Despicably appropriating the high tragedy of September 11 for the low cause of electing Donald Trump,“The Flight 93 Election” propounds a thesis that can be employed to justify almost any sort of extremist behavior. The choice Anton put before his countrymen, after all, was to act as if national survival was at stake: “charge the cockpit or you die.” But all the while, Anton concealed his identity, evading responsibility for his words and, in true Trumpian fashion, safeguarding his cash flow. In the end, his labors vividly demonstrate yet again why the phrase “Trump intellectual” is everywhere taken as an oxymoron.
Gabriel Schoenfeld, a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center and an opinion columnist for USA TODAY, is the author of Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media, and the Rule of Law.