Michael Anton speaks at Hillsdale College’s Kirby Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship in Washington on March 12, 2019. (screenshot/Hillsdale College)
WASHINGTON—A former Trump administration official laid out a comprehensive critique not only of the Left but of conventional conservatism, warning if the Republican Party failed to follow the president’s lead, it might ultimately find itself ousted from power for good.
In a public forum in the nation’s capital, former Trump Deputy Assistant to the President for Strategic Communications Michael Anton, now a lecturer and research fellow at Hillsdale College, told the story of his groundbreaking but intensely controversial essay, “The Flight 93 Election.”
According to Anton, “when Donald J. Trump announced that he was running for President, I didn’t take it seriously.” It was the third time Trump had flirted with a presidential bid, and Anton did not believe the now-president would follow through.
“He kept saying, ‘I’m in it for real this time,’” Anton said, so ultimately he decided, “I’ll try to take it seriously.”
As he did, he began to acknowledge Trump’s platform made more sense to him than others in the field.
The conservative establishment didn’t agree—but there was “something intellectually about modern conservatism that wasn’t quite right,” Anton charged.
Conservatives once focused on policies advancing founding principles, but gradually began to see policies as ends in themselves. Take immigration, trade, and war, said Anton, on which over time, conservative think tanks had drifted into an “inflexible Chamber of Commerce position.”
Anton noted Republican pundits would repeatedly react with revulsion as Trump blasphemed. “He’s finally done it now,” they would assert each time, Anton said, “He’s toast.”
For instance, support for the second Iraq War became a “sacrosanct position,” Anton suggested, leaving its critics “ostracized from the Republican Party.”
Yet, Anton said, as a George W. Bush staffer, “I have to say forthrightly that the Bush Administration was wrong.”
When Trump came out against the Iraq War in South Carolina in February 2016, conservative establishmentarians once again wrote him off.
Once again, they were wrong. On Feb. 19, Trump won the state.
For Anton at least, “Trade was harder because I hadn’t really studied it.”
Conservatives argued “Trump was bad” because he did not support trade at all costs.
But Anton went home one night and pulled out Adam Smith’s “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations,” David Ricardo’s “On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation,” and Aristotle’s “Politics,” looking for any argument that free trade was inherently moral.
He found the opposite: Smith, for example, argued repeatedly a country must put the national interest first.
Anton’s startled reaction: “I learned something from Donald Trump. He was right and I was wrong.”
‘The Flight 93 Election’
He asked for permission to write a piece defending Trump for the Claremont Review of Books. He wrote the piece, entitled “Towards a Sensible, Coherent Trumpism”—but it was rejected, and he had to place it elsewhere.
An Anton ally had likewise written a rejected piece on Trump, and the two discussed a publication to carry pieces like them. His ally’s attitude was, “We’re going to start a blog and take ‘em all down,” Anton recalls. In less than 24 hours, the conversation led to the launch of the Journal of American Greatness.
On June 2, 2016, the Wall Street Journal’s Pulitzer-prize-winning Peggy Noonan featured the blog in her column. As the critique of Conservative, Inc. gained altitude, the Claremont Review of Books reentered the fray, publishing “The Flight 93 Election” on Sept. 5, 2016.
The piece’s introduction explains its title:
2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die …
A Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto. With Trump, at least you can spin the cylinder and take your chances.
Anton saw a trend that stretched back to the Progressive era, traced best by Claremont Senior Fellow John Marini, whom Anton describes as the inspiration for his essay “in more ways than one.”
Marini’s work describes a metastasizing administrative state granted ever-wider powers by Congress, signed off on by an interpretivist judicial system.
To Anton, it seemed preposterous in an era of increasing radicalization of the American Left, after eight years of an Obama presidency, that a Hillary Clinton presidency would not have followed with another eight, cementing the administrative state in place.
As Anton relates it, the online publication Powerline found the Flight 93 Election essay and started to talk about it. The Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan wrote a column on it.
The Wednesday after the piece’s publication, Anton was working from home when his wife asked him, “Do you want the bad news or good news?”
Anton opted for the bad news first.
Rush Limbaugh is reading from your piece live on the air, she told him.
(The good news: in the New York market, Rush was preempted by the Mets.)
The piece was criticized as “all nightmare and no dream,” Anton noted, referencing Myron Magnet’s The Dream and the Nightmare: The Sixties’ Legacy to the Underclass (2000).
He was only arguing “it’s better not to step off a cliff than to step off a cliff,” Anton riposted.
Another charge: the piece “was exhorting people to do dangerous, reckless things.”
Yet in Anton’s view, “The dangerous, reckless thing is to vote. All I’m saying is to vote”—for Trump, that is.
What did Anton make of never-Trump critics on the Right such as Washington Post columnist Max Boot, and Bill Kristol, founder and former editor-at-large of the now-defunct magazine The Weekly Standard?
Anton deadpanned, “It’s a little generous to call them the Right.”
New York Times opinion columnist David Brooks, for instance, just came out for reparations.
“I think they’re minstrels for the anti-Trump media,” Anton summed up, and when Trump leaves the scene, the never-Trumpers’ relevance will “dry up and blow away.”
That is especially so, Anton argues, given the increasing radicalization of the Left.
According to him, the New Left originally didn’t have a theory. “It was just id,” he claimed, a reference to Freud’s concept of the primitive and instinctual part of the mind.
Consequently, that New Left was “not nearly just the spinning out of the Progressives,” Anton argued.
Still, the movement can’t be adequately characterized as nihilist, said Anton, given that “They don’t believe [in] nothing.” They have a theory of justice, Anton claimed, namely a desire for redress—“the not-nice way” to describe it would be revenge.
This movement divides its world into those who have sinned and those against whom they have sinned, according to Anton. Moreover, “they think that this is hereditary.”
The proof, said Anton: Multiple Democratic presidential candidates have come out for slavery reparations so far.
Such a position is emblematic of “the spiritual sickness infect[ing] the West,” he said. The Left insists everyone belongs to an oppressor group or an oppressed group, and charges the former wield “institutional privilege” over the latter.
All this in the middle of what Tom Wolfe once called a “happiness explosion,” Anton pointed out, a giant economic boom, in which residents of the West have accreted such freedom that they can use it to imagine themselves imprisoned.
Not only do members of the Left still want to say they’re still oppressed, according to Anton, but by now “they’ve gotten everybody else to buy it.”
Anton selected the example of Jussie Smollett, marveling, “You make a lot of money. You’re on a hit TV show,” yet Smollett still wants to say he is oppressed—and all too many believe it.
Moreover, observed Anton, even those who “find it preposterous” understand “If I raise my hand and say that, the hand’s going to come off.”
Such combined victimology and venality characterize today’s “intersectional progressivism.”
In this environment, the inquisition into now-Justice Brett Kavanaugh should have constituted a wakeup call for conservatives of all stripes, says Anton.
The idea that Kavanaugh was a “drunken Viking serial rapist” was “so utterly preposterous” anyone who claimed to support strict constructionist judges especially should have found it a slam dunk to back him.
“Anyone who couldn’t stand up for Brett Kavanaugh,” Anton said, forfeited their claim to such support. Yet establishment “conservatives were so doctrinal … they couldn’t even do that.”
As the forum drew to a close, an audience member asked Anton, “Do you think that Trumpism is a blip?”
He responded, “It’s not a blip.” Anton granted the Trump movement was “weaker politically in terms of its number of adherents” than prior analogous coalitions, but insisted, “It’s not a blip in that we can go back.”
“Trump is a disruptive figure,” Anton claimed, and thus the president needs to be followed by a party that continues to secure the border and reorient foreign policy.
If it doesn’t, Anton said, the Republican Party might outlive its usefulness. Was Abraham Lincoln sad to see the Whig Party go, Anton asked?
Likewise, if the GOP went the way of the Whigs, “Other people can cry over it; I won’t,” Anton concluded.
The forum, at Hillsdale College’s Kirby Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship on March 12, 2019, promoted Anton’s new book, “After the Flight 93 Election: The Vote that Saved America and What We Still Have to Lose,” including the Flight 93 Election essay, a reply to its critics, and a prequel essay.