Racism and the Paradox of Anti-Democratic Populism

How a little known 20th Century political scientist helped minority rule became the putatively populist position.

The Trumpian right is an ideological chimera: populism by minority-rule. Faced with this, one reasonable response would be to simply decry the Trumpists’ hypocrisy. It’s true, they are hypocrites! But the simple, observable fact doesn’t explain how Trumpists themselves reconcile the contradictory program of speaking for the people while also limiting both the size of the electorate and its ability to effect political change. In politics, it’s crucial to try to understand people as they see themselves, to figure out how and why they can live with their own hypocrisy. 

The Republican party’s ongoing Trumpification, which has intensified after the 2020 election loss, has only sharpened the contradiction. Trump, and the many Republicans who mimic him, present themselves as the voice of the common man rising up against the elites, the establishment, and the Deep State. Missouri Senator Josh Hawley went so far as to claim, “We are a working-class party now.”

Such incantations aligning the party with the will of the everyman are belied by the fact that the current Republican Party is a minoritarian party, both in practice and intent. As opposed the robust GOP of Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan and the two Bushes, Trump is the standard bearer of a party that has given up hope of winning majority strength in most elections. Instead, the party seeks power through the anti-majoritarian features of the American political system (the electoral college, the Senate, the courts) as well as various anti-democratic legerdemain (including voter suppression, gerrymandering, sabotaging the collection of census data). Tellingly, Republicans have won the popular vote at the presidential level only once in the last eight presidential elections (George W. Bush captured 50.7% of the popular vote in 2004). This hasn’t prevented the GOP from maintaining a stranglehold on power and often road-blocking Democratic policy initiatives. 

In trying to understand the riddle (and rise) of the anti-democratic populist, crucial evidence is provided by the checkered career of the 20th century political scientist Willmoore Kendall (1909-1967). Even in his lifetime, Kendall was hardly a famous figure, although the cognoscenti would recognize his formative influence on figures like William F. Buckley and L. Brent Bozell and, through them, the larger American right. 

Despite his lack of name-brand recognition, there is evidence that we’re in the cusp of a Kendall revival. Two biographies are forthcoming (from Christopher Owen and David Frisk). More immediately, Kendall was the subject of a very smart essay by Joshua Tait looking at the origins of the contemporary anti-democratic turn in American politics. The conversation Tait initiated has continued on an episode of the podcast Know Your Enemy (a crucial resource for those studying the American right) and in John Ganz’s newsletter Unpopular Fronts.

A colourfully turbulent and obstreperous man—notorious for his argumentativeness, his skirt-chasing, his loud suits, and his heavy drinking as well as his brilliance—Kendall was memorable enough to show up, lightly fictionalized, as a character in several works of fiction, the best of which is Saul Bellow’s short story “Mosby’s Memoirs” (1968). A lightly disguised version of Kendall can also be found in William F. Buckley’s The Redhunter (1999) and Sidney Zion’s Markers (1990). In Zion’s novel, the main character is a mash-up of Kendall and Roy Cohn, the infamously sleazy lawyer who served Joseph McCarthy and was Donald Trump’s teacher in the way of the scumbag.

Building on these earlier analyses, particularly Tait and Ganz, I want to sketch out a profile of Kendall that both explains his importance and also how he was able to combine to his own satisfaction the claim to be a majority rule democrat while supporting anti-democratic policies like imperialism, segregation and Jim Crow disenfranchisement. 

Spoiler alert: this is a story about racism.


Willmoore Kendall was a prominent mid-century conservative political theorist and a core member of the original National Review circle. Several leading historians – notably Garry Wills, George Nash, and Michael Kazin – have argued that Kendall played a key role in articulating a style of conservative populism that later became part of the essential rhetorical toolkit of the political right. This is true, but requires by way of counterbalance the recognition of Kendall’s populism had a strong dimension of authoritarianism.

Michael Kazin, in his book The Populist Persuasion (1995), sums up the case for Kendall’s importance: “It was Kendall, a little-known political scientist, who taught key thinkers on the right to identify their cause as that of the always-virtuous American majority.” According to Garry Wills in his Confessions of a Conservative (1979), Kendall was ahead of his time as “the only anti-elitist at National Review in the 1950s.” The traditionalist historian John Lukacs lamented that Kendall “advocated a populist majoritarianism that was a half-mad expostulation of what Tocqueville had called the tyranny of the majority into a virtue.” Another traditionalist, Russell Kirk, lamented that Kendall tried to build a conservativism that was closer to the general will of Jean-Jacques Rousseau than the reverence for order of an Edmund Burke. 

Born in 1909 the son of a blind Methodist minister, much of Kendall’s early education came from reading to his father, who Kendall would drive around from parish to parish in the prairie hinterlands. This tight family bond, well-documented in a 1993 collection of Kendall’s letters to his father, undoubtedly contributed to Kendall’s emergence as an intellectual prodigy. By the time he was 14, Kendall was already enrolled as an undergraduate while also working full time as a newspaper reporter.

Even as his prodigious intelligence gained him access to rarefied scholarly circles, Kendall retained a frontier suspicion of the eastern elite for all of his life. Despite being awarded a Rhodes scholarship in 1932, Kendall maintained a hostility towards stuffed shirts and played up his down-home Oklahoma roots even while studying at Oxford. As Wills has it, Kendall played the part of “learned hick, the Okie from Oxford, weaving professorial and hayseed phrases together.” But this “learned hick” pose, Wills clarifies, “was not just a facade. It expressed his basic position (and problem)—the combination of majoritarian populism with a more permanent need for authoritative guidance.” That authoritarian guidance Kendall would one day find in the form of teachers of secret wisdom like Leo Strauss as well as, less abstractly, a commitment to maintaining racial hierarchy.

Like so many young intellectuals in the 1930s, Kendall was radicalized by the Great Depression. During the 1930s, he frequently criticized Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal for being too timid and the Supreme Court for stonewalling popular liberal economic policies. “The whole difficulty is that Roosevelt is a hopeless conservative and will never be aught else,” he complained in a letter to his father in late 1933. In 1935, Kendall went to Spain as a reporter for United Press International. He strongly sympathized with the loyalist alliance fighting against Franco’s forces – until he saw that the loyalists were themselves deeply divided, with the increasingly powerful Stalinist contingent ruthlessly killing anarchists and Trotskyists. Kendall’s experiences in Spain soured him on the left, and he developed a powerful hatred of communism that became the bedrock of his emerging ideas about politics. For Kendall, the central lesson of Spain was that the “open society” championed by liberals was in fact dangerous because it extended tolerance to those whose programs spelled the demise of democracy, notably totalitarians on the right and left.

Spain also convinced Kendall that all functioning societies had to be held together by a strong, shared orthodoxy or they ran the risk of fratricidal self-destruction. The “open society” that tolerates all dissent is a society that opens itself to its own demise. For Kendall, that meant that the consensus of the majority on key issues had to be respected by everybody. In his controversial 1940 doctoral thesis on John Locke, Kendall argued that even within the liberal tradition it was clear that natural rights only existed at the sufferance of the majority, which in a crisis always has the power to limit minority rights. 

Locke, Kendall wrote, had no fear of the tyranny of the majority, because the philosopher trusted the people, in mass, as virtuous. The “latent premise” of Locke’s philosophy, Kendall believed, is that “a ‘safe’ majority of men (thus the ‘average man’) are rational and just.”

In the disguise of the fictional Willis Mosby, Bellow caught this aspect of Kendall: 

Lectured on Locke to show them up. Except by the will of the majority, unambiguously expressed, there was no legitimate power. The only absolute democrat in America (perhaps in the world—although who can know what there is in the world, among so many billions of minds and souls) was Willis Mosby. Notwithstanding his terse, dry, intolerant style of conversation (more precisely, examination), his lank dignity of person, his aristocratic bones.

In his strong defense of majority-rule and the wisdom of the “average man”, Kendall swam against the tide of intellectual life in the early and mid 20th century. Chastened by the rise of totalitarian mass movements, intellectuals on both the left and right during these years increasingly questioned the wisdom of unchecked democracy.

In a 1939 essay for The Southern Review, Kendall attacked the “typical modern intellectual” for wanting to “perpetuate the situation in which political discussion is a monopoly of the scientific elite.” Zeroing in on the class bias inherent in claims of expert knowledge, Kendall argued that “the claims of the majority principal cannot get a fair hearing from an educated minority whose real religion is Science.” In casting the debate as a battle between an arrogant scientific elite fighting against democracy, Kendall laid out the practical implications for his work. His early use of the word elite (and its cousin, “the establishment”) was a crucial linguistic innovation. Along with the conservative James Burnham and radical C. Wright Mills, Kendall was a pioneer in popularizing these sociological terms, thereby giving a new ring to populist language.

In the late 1940s, Kendall widened the focus of his concern from then conservative institutions like the Supreme Court and began to attack the liberal elite that he believed ruled the academy, the federal bureaucracy, and the intelligence community. As a Yale professor and consultant to the Central Intelligence Agency, Kendall worked in the very heart of the Eastern establishment, which he considered predominately liberal. An inherently contrarian man with a lifelong penchant for quarrelling with those around him, Kendall became an outspoken gadfly within this supposedly liberal milieu.

Much of Kendall’s criticism of liberalism grew out of his work in the intelligence field and his feeling that the CIA was dominated by the non-Communist left. The Ivy League blue bloods who ran the CIA struck Kendall as being so committed to the disinterested search for truth that they failed to see the danger posed by Soviet Communism and its international spy network. Kendall’s argument was the CIA’s truth searching was guided by a mere empirical collection of data, whereas they if they started with the premise that a communism was a conspiracy they would be better position to give weight to evidence and see patterns of sinister behavior.

With this hermeneutics of paranoia, it was hardly surprising that Kendall became a big supporter of Joseph McCarthy, a position that cost him his CIA gig. Kendall’s war against the CIA consensus was an important precursor to later right-wing efforts to politicize intelligence gathering, notably the late 1970s Team-B project (which radically over-estimated the Soviet military threat, fraudulent claims about Iraqi WMDs in the Bush/Cheney era, and Trump’s battle with the Deep State (best understood as an attempt to subdue the bureaucracy).

Kendall’s critique of the CIA was part of his larger war on the liberal elite. The running theme of his attacks were that liberal were so committed to the cult of expert knowledge that they lost touch with fundamental democratic values. Dedicated to following the proper legal and bureaucratic procedures, liberals lacked the instinctive knowledge of common folks who knew that America had serious enemies that meant to destroy it. During these years, Kendall was so worried about the supposed Soviet threat that he repeatedly called for the United States to launch a preventive war against the U.S.S.R. – a policy which, had it been enacted, could easily have led to a nuclear holocaust.

During the 1940s, Kendall was politically homeless: he was increasingly hostile to liberals and the left but was uncomfortable with traditional conservatives who disdained mass democracy. Figures like Albert Jay Nock and Russell Kirk openly argued for the need for elite guidance; Kendall rejected that approach.

Doing consultation work for the CIA only strengthened his anti-communism and convinced him that domestic subversion was a danger to the republic. Kendall was very much an odd man out at Yale, where he started teaching in 1947, with many colleagues regarding him as a curiosity, a hyper-learned defender of anti-intellectual causes. It was at Yale that Kendall acquired a circle of young admirers who turned his majority-rule theories into a political movement: L. Brent Bozell, Stanley Parry and William F. Buckley, Jr.

Buckley and Kendall had a very tight relationship throughout the 1950s. Aside from recruiting Buckley to join the CIA, Kendall was also the editor and intellectual inspiration for such early Buckley tomes as God and Man at Yale and McCarthy and His Enemies. (Kendall was so involved with the editing of the last book that he deserves to be listed as a co-author, along with the actual names on the title page, Buckley and L. Brent Bozell). 

Kendall’s stamp marked even Buckley’s famous prose style and debating manner. His legacy can be seen in Buckley’s elegantly elongated syntax, the mixture of the vernacular and the Latinate, the languid drawl and puckish wit. In turn, Buckley brought Kendall on board as one of the founding editors of National Review in 1955. But as his protégé became famous, Kendall began to bristle at “the world of the Buckleys” and the two men would break. Bellow catches this arc in his story: “Mosby's own Right Wing graduate students had disappointed him. Just a lot of television actors. Bad guys for the Susskind interview programs. They had transformed the master's manner of acid elegance, logical tightness, factual punctiliousness, and merciless laceration in debate into a sort of shallow Noël Coward style.”

It was from Kendall that Buckley learned that conservatism could be successfully marketed as a revolt against the elite. Whether railing against the atheist and socialist Yale Professors or defending Joseph McCarthy as a tribune of a healthy nationalism, Buckley cast himself as a defender of an inarticulate majority against an un-American elite. Both Buckley and Kendall did in fact use populist language as an anti-liberal tool, deriding those on the left as part of a nefarious and out-of-touch establishment. In targeting academics, journalists, and other “egg-heads” they took the traditional populist distrust of the wealthy East Coast elite and refashioned it as a cultural struggle against liberal intellectuals.

As the brain-trust of McCarthyism, they made their conservative populism into a national movement. Calling himself an “Appalachians-to-the-Rockies patriot” Kendall had no problem in translating the legacy of radical populism from the left to the right. It was this rhetoric that created the legend of Kendall as a founding father of conservative populism. Yet Kendall’s politics were never without contradiction, and the populist dimension to his thought was counterbalanced by strong tendencies towards elitism. In fact, as he became increasingly conservative, the populist element of his thought became ever more attenuated.

We can see the latent elitism of Kendall’s politics most easily in the tactics he used to promote his ideas: allying himself with up and coming journalists like William Buckley and writing for small intellectual journals. As a best-selling author and eventually a television celebrity, Buckley was certainly a popular figure, but not exactly a man of the people. In fact, everything about Buckley’s biography can be described as marking him off as a quintessential member of the American establishment: he was born the son of a very wealthy oilman, went to preparatory school in England before studying at Yale, was a lifelong yachtsman, possessed a trademark sesquipedalian vocabulary, and eventually became a pillar in New York society circles. This is hardly the best spokesman for conservative populism.

While Kendall occasionally expressed discomfort with “the world of the Buckleys”, it was this wealthy and privileged milieu that gave Kendall’s ideas whatever political currency and impact they had. (In later life Kendall relied on yet another group of reactionaryTexan plutocrats to underwrite his work at the University of Dallas). As should be clear from their style of political organizing and the books they wrote, whatever populist rhetoric they might have used, the goal of Buckley and Kendall was to influence the American elite: to purge the Yale faculty of secularists and Keynesians, to get the CIA to adopt a harder line of anticommunism, to provide a theoretical defense of McCarthyism so that the anticommunist purge could withstand legal challenges.

Beyond the practical nature of Kendall’s politics, he also became increasingly less populist as he became more conservative on a theoretical level. Starting in the early 1950s, Kendall sought to reconcile his political theories with the teachings of Leo Strauss, who was unquestionably one of the most elitist political theorists of modern times. Strauss’s entire hermeneutics of esoteric reading is premised on there being an absolute difference between a few philosophers who can properly read philosophical texts and the vast majority of humanity, who can only glean exoteric meaning. Under the influence of Leo Strauss, Kendall began to appreciate the role of great teachers in educating the public in virtue. 

Kendall’s embrace of elitist theories are especially clear in his writings on race. In 1960, he cited with approval a book by Nathaniel Weyl arguing that “the Negro” suffers from a blighted “biological inheritance.” “Could it be we shall never do justice to the Negroes in our midst, or the Negroes to themselves, save as we all recognize that as a group they may have a lesser capacity than the rest of us for civilizational achievement?” Kendall asked. “When we impose upon them equal responsibility for civilizational achievement we may be doing them not justice but injustice.”

Kendall’s review of Weyl deserves to be quoted at some length:

Weyl's showing, the Negroes, on the average (happily, the propositions can be stated, and should be for Weyl's kind of purpose, without using any such judgmental terms as "inferior"), just plain do chalk up lesser scores on intelligence tests than whites. They just plain do learn less than whites, and with greater difficulty than whites, at school. They just plain do commit fantastically more crimes proportionally, and more violent crimes, than whites. And Weyl believes that these statistical tendencies have—at least at our present stage of knowledge and understanding—to be explained in large part (never mind how often you have been told this can't be) in terms of specifically biological inheritance. In which case, not only do these statistical tendencies apply to the present generation of Negroes, they will be found applying to the next and the next generation incidentally, will be much larger proportionately than the present one).

Using Weyl as an authority, Kendall argued that Black Americans in 1960 (when Jim Crow was in full effect and millions of Black Americans were disenfranchised) were a “privileged class”:

From the standpoint of income, comfort, the means to health, access to the goods of civilization, the present generation of American Negroes is a privileged class—by comparison either with most of the population of the world, or, more importantly, an entire series of "underprivileged" groups in the United States which have responded successfully and fruitfully to the challenge of American life: the Russian Jews, the Chinese and the Japanese, to take only a few of the examples that come most readily to mind.

Kendall tends mainly to be studied by other right-wingers, who have shied away from talking about his racism. (One exception is Edward H.Miller, who in his 2015 book Nut Country rightly sees support of Jim Crow as Kendall’s dominant passion). But that racism is perhaps the one most consistent thread in his thought in his long political journey from the left to the right. Even as a liberal in the early 1930s, Kendall wrote to his father defending British imperial rule of India as a civilizing mission. In the early 1950s, Kendall toyed with the idea of writing a memoir called Confession of an American Imperialist Reactionary. This joke title takes on another meaning when one recalls that as a CIA consultant part of his remit was Latin America.

In a 1963 letter to William F. Buckley, Kendall wrote 

I guess I am, at this point, for segregation of the bulk of the American Negroes, that is, for the status quo ante 1954 in ‘race relations’ in America. At least I’m against desegregation on any of the grounds and by any of the methods I’ve heard of up to now, and, though I myself feel no particular prejudice against Negroes, against desegregation more strongly than I was in, say, 1954 – this partly because of the line my political philosophy has taken as I’ve worked away on my Bill of Rights project, partly because I shudder at the events the Brown decision has brought in its train, partly because of the whole situation reflected in the Negroes current use of the word ‘demands’ (I know there’s a precedent for it in the history of trade unions, but I’ve never liked unions much either, and anyway…) to ‘demand’ things of an employer and quite another to demand them of the political community), but mostly for the sake of the Negro himself and his future in America. 

(I’m grateful to Joshua Tait for supplying this letter).

Kendall’s foreign policy was guided by anti-communism and imperialism, his domestic policy by opposition to Black civil rights. In his 1963 book The Conservative Affirmation, Kendall traces the fundamental fault lines of the war between conservatives and liberals to the 1860s and 1870s, that is to say to the abolition of slavery and the Reconstruction battles over enfranchisement: “My further thesis is that the attacking forces, after driving a big salient into the victims' territory in the 1860's and 1870's (emancipation of the slaves in the name of equality, the post-Civil War ‘equality’ amendments to the Constitution), rolled pretty much to a stop at a certain moment—whether because they ran out of steam, or because they ran out of supplies, or because they ran into stubborn resistance, it is not easy to say.” 

Kendall portrayed Abraham Lincoln as one of the big villains of American history: a proto-Caesar whose advocacy of equality would destroy the true American tradition of white supremacy. As he wrote in a 1959 review in National Review of a pro-Lincoln book: “In this light it would seem that it was the Southerners who were the anti-Caesars of pre-Civil War days, and that Lincoln was the Caesar Lincoln claimed to be trying to prevent; and that the Caesarism we all need to fear is the contemporary Liberal movement, dedicated like Lincoln to egalitarian reforms sanctioned by mandates emanating from national majorities—a movement which is Lincoln's legitimate offspring.”

As John Ganz notes, in discussions of right-wing anti-democratic politics, “Of particular interest here is Kendall, because he’s considered to be one of Conservative’s great majoritarian thinkers. Of course, the composition of said majority is rather peculiar.” Kendall thought he could reconcile conservatism with populism by saying that he believed in the rule of people if they were “virtuous.” The actual cast of his political activism makes clear that the main quality defining virtue was skin color. 

As should be clear, the composition of that majority is white: Kendall was a theorist of white majoritarianism, believing in mass democracy so long as the electorate was safely and overwhelmingly white people. Amid current attempts in the United States to roll back voting rights, who can deny that Kendall has many heirs? 

(Edited by Emily M. Keeler). 

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