Podcast: The Deep Roots of GOP Extremism

A conversation with Will Wilkinson about Leo Strauss, Harry Jaffa, and the journey from Lincoln to Trump

  
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Thomas Silver, left, president of the Claremont Institute and Harry Jaffa, right, its founder. (Photo by Iris Schneider/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

A recurring theme of this newsletter is that the Republican turn towards authoritarianism is one of major problems in American politics. Recently, an episode of the superb podcast Know Your Enemies discussed the paradox of the Claremont Institute emerging as the major intellectual stronghold of Trumpism. I say it’s a paradox because the Claremont Institute was founded by Harry Jaffa (1918-2015), a leading student of Leo Strauss. Jaffa has a reputation, based on his genuinely valuable scholarship on Abraham Lincoln, of being among the more democratically inclined conservative thinkers. (Know Your Enemy revisited Jaffa in their latest episode).

That got me thinking that there is much more to say about Jaffa, since the roots of the authoritarian turn in the Claremont Institute can be seen in some of his work. I was lucky enough to have a long conversation of Will Wilkinson, proprietor of the essential Model Citizen newsletter, to talk about this.

This is a conversation about Leo Strauss, Martin Heidegger, Carl Schmitt, the mystique of ancient Greek philosophy among German thinkers, Lincoln, the role of eros in education, the schisms that follow the death of a prophet, homophobia’s not-so-surprising compatibility with intense homosocial relations, East Coast Straussians working with George W. Bush and West Coast Straussians becoming Trump fans, and, well, at least a few other topics.

Some notes:

Golden Lads

I quote at length Harry Jaffa’s striking dedication to The Condition of Freedom (1975). Here is the quoted passage for reference:

Billy Pedersen was one of my students at Claremont Men’s College.We had formed a friendship of the kind that young men and older ones sometimes do form when they are fellow hobbyists or fellow enthusiasts of a sport (bicycling in our case). Many mornings saw the two of us, before dawn, wheeling eastward through the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. When the pace slackened, and when the ride was over, we talked constantly of a wide variety of subjects, most of them political. . . .

Billy Pedersen was a scholar, an athlete, an officer, and a gentleman. He was one of those ‘golden lads’ of whom A. E. Housman wrote, who went to war, not gaily, but without a doubt that freedom and duty spoke with a single voice.

Straussian Fictions

As Will and I discuss, the Straussian movement has generated a striking number of romans à clef. Among the stories and novels worth tracking down are are Saul Bellow’s “Mosby’s Memoirs” and Ravelstein, Alison Lurie’s The War Between the Tates, Joseph Epstein’s “The Count and the Princess,” and Will Wilkinson’s own unpublished but partly excerpted novel. Not a work of fiction but a reflective essay is Werner Dannhauser’s “On The Teaching of Politics Today.” The essay is very useful for understanding the Straussian view that eduction has an erotic component. An excerpt:

A Claremont Reading List

For some idea of what we mean when we talk about Claremont School authoritarianism, I recommend these two essays: “The Flight 93 Election” and “‘Conservatism’ Is No Longer Enough.”

Podcasts and More Podcasts

If you enjoyed this talk, consider listening to previous Morbid Symptoms podcasts. We have two on Philip Roth here and here.

(Podcast produced by Julia Elinore Peterson; text edited by Emily M. Keeler).

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