Talking Points

What the Claremont Institute failed to learn from Leo Strauss

This week's must-read essay comes from author Laura Field at The Bulwark. "What the Hell Happened to the Claremont Institute?" is a tour de force of critical intellectual journalism, carefully laying out the history of the influential conservative institute and how it has been transformed by its encounter with Donald Trump to become a leading force for the radicalization of the American right. (Full disclosure: I regularly appear on "Beg to Differ," The Bulwark's weekly podcast on current affairs.)

Though Field mentions controversial political philosopher Leo Strauss early on in the essay, he is passed over quickly, described as an important early influence on Harry Jaffa, the leading figure behind the institute and its distinctive approach to understanding American politics and history. This lack of attention to Strauss is justified. Jaffa's single-minded focus on the United States and overriding emphasis on producing hagiographical treatments of Great Statesmen (the American constitutional framers, Abraham Lincoln, and Winston Churchill, above all) place him quite far from Strauss' more philosophical focus and concerns.

Yet there is one respect in which the Strauss connection is highly ironic and worth pondering. Strauss was himself a conservative revolutionary in his youth, supporting the antiliberal right during the era of Germany's Weimar Republic. When the most extreme of the right-wing parties — Adolf Hitler's virulently anti-Semitic National Socialists — rose to power, Strauss (a Jew) fled the country, first to France, then to England, and finally to the United States, where he taught during the 1940s at the New School for Social Research (where Jaffa encountered him) and then, during the 1950s and '60s, at the University of Chicago.

Along the way, Strauss' political views moderated. In fact, his mature position (the one that inspired so many of his American students to become "Straussians") pointed away from political radicalism. On the practical level, liberal democracies like the United States protected freedom of thought and kept alive a commonsense moral idealism that was fertile ground for philosophical reflection on human nature. That made liberal governments worth defending against antiliberal alternatives. And then there was the delusion to which Strauss himself had succumbed as a young man: He had sought a degree of spiritual fulfillment in politics that could only be achieved through either religious piety or philosophical contemplation of truths that lie beyond political attachments.   

That is a lesson that Strauss' devotees at the Claremont Institute, who delight in pouring rhetorical gasoline on the country's many smoldering civic conflicts, have actively unlearned. Unless they failed to grasp the point in the first place. Either way, they've ended up where Strauss's quest for wisdom began, knee-deep in the pestilential swamps of the radical right, as Laura Field's masterful essay amply documents.