by Michael Anton
Teachers, friends, and colleagues of mine from the Claremont-Hillsdale school (or “CHS,” after where most of us were trained, and many now teach) have spent years making a concerted effort to find common ground with fellow travelers on the Right who may be broadly understood as paleoconservatives.
I’m happy to say that, to a large extent, the effort has borne fruit. Many paleoconservatives have been published in the Claremont Review of Books and American Greatness, while many Claremont and Hillsdale scholars (myself included) have written for Modern Age and The American Conservative. There is more cross-pollination and friendly dealing today between the two groups than ever, with each side attending and speaking at the others’ conferences and so on. I think we’ve even learned from each other. I know I have. Exposure to paleo ideas has influenced my thinking on trade, immigration, and foreign policy, among other subjects.
My commitment, however, to the core tenets of the Claremont-Hillsdale school—which I consider to be nothing more (or less) than an attempt to understand Americanism, without any alterations or admixtures—has never shaken. That’s not to deny that I’ve become increasingly dismayed at the way this understanding of Americanism is often deployed, especially by what Charles Haywood of the excellent book review blog The Worthy House calls “the catamite right.” My own preferred term is “Cracker Jack Claremontism,” after the tiny comics that used to come inside the boxes of caramel corn. Too small for anything but a few pictures and words, and meant for little children, they had to convey a simplistic story very briefly.
Over time, a fake, pulpy, distorted, thumbnail version of Claremontism took over large parts of the Right. Kids, and many grown-ups, who never even struggled through Federalist 1, 10, or 51—much less the vast numbers of other essential founding texts—confidently assumed they could summarize the whole thing in a few words and phrases. “Equality,” “liberty, “proposition,” “America is an idea,” “Constitution,” “nation of immigrants”—these were all you needed to know to understand not merely the founding but the whole country.
To the extent that my school (or myself) had anything to do with propagating this garbage—and that extent is not zero—I sincerely apologize. Some of us have been trying to make amends by telling a fuller account of the story, emphasizing those points left out of the Cracker Jack comic, correcting old errors, and making new friends.
A Hill Not Meant to Be Climbed?
Alas, it appears that among those will not be Brion McClanahan or the editors of Chronicles magazine. This was always going to be the hardest hill to climb and I had no illusions about ever making much headway. The rancor of the old fights was too bitter to have cooled completely. I did have some hope, however, that a few factors might at least conduce to a truce: among them, an almost complete cessation of incoming fire from our camp into theirs; genuine, and publicly expressed agreement, on many vitally important matters of policy; and shared desire and interest in seeing Donald Trump win, succeed, and win again.
For my part, I dedicated an entire chapter of my most recent book to finding common ground. I even devoted one section of that chapter to explaining why my explanation that modern “group rights” originated in the thought of Southern statesman John C. Calhoun was not intended to be, and did not amount to, “South bashing.”
Given Chronicles’ evident and longstanding animosity for my school, I shouldn’t be surprised that no one at the magazine read the book. I also suspect that, if they had, their opinions would not have changed one iota. As I put it in that section:
Others . . . insist that the key to everything is to refight the Civil War until no one left alive denies that Lincoln was a tyrant and the father of all evil among us. I once asked such a person whether, with the militant Left coming for both our throats, we could for the time being put aside such fratricide, turn our attentions against our common enemy, and then get back to killing one another over Lincoln after we win. He said no, it was much more important to kill me over Lincoln right now.
I say all this to establish that what comes next is not said out of malice. I would much prefer a truce, and even more, an alliance. I really do agree with the paleo positions on trade, immigration, and war. Moreover, I believe that the American founders did, too, and that their principles provide the strongest possible support for those positions, much stronger than anything Chronicles offers here. Finally, I believe that a tidal wave is coming for the Right, if it hasn’t crested and begun to break already, and we would all be better off if we could find a way to work together.
Alas, in the case of Chronicles, I fear that will be impossible. If so, it will be their choice, not mine.
But it might not be in the case of others of the paleo persuasion. It is for them I write. Nor is the exercise entirely academic, though many of the points surely are. If the American Republic fails, then the question of what follows takes on paramount importance. There will still be people alive on the American continent. How will they organize themselves? According to what understanding and which principles? The same questions with which the founders were forced to wrestle will again be front and center. Before we reject their solutions, we had best know what they were, and then evaluate them against the available alternatives.
Attacking or Defending the Founders?
McClanahan’s attack on the Trump Administration’s 1776 Commission report is never clear on what exactly it’s asserting. Something is said to be terribly wrong, but what? Is it the actual founding or a later interpretation? Were the founding principles wrong? If so, is that because the founders made an honest mistake? That is, were they true to their own self-understanding but nonetheless mistaken in their account of the nature of political things? Or did they not really mean what they plainly said? And if the latter, were they deliberately misleading, using elevated rhetoric to cover more earthly or self-interested motives? Or did they just not understand or think through the implications of what they said, thus unwittingly paving a way for the modern egalitarian catastrophe?
As to that catastrophe, McClanahan couldn’t be clearer that he thinks it is upon us (I agree). But he is much less clear as to what he thinks is the cause. Errors committed by the founders? Misunderstandings of the founders—deliberate or otherwise? Transformation of their vision—aided by misinterpretations of their rhetoric, or entirely grafted on, like an alien plant?
The very grave question of whether the founders blew it or got it right but had their work corrupted matters. We can’t really know where we are without knowing how we got here, nor can we get to a place we want to go without knowing which routes to take and which to avoid. If the founders blew it, we should abandon their ideas. If, however, they got something—anything—right, we still have something to learn from them that may aid us going forward.
But let’s go through McClanahan more closely.
He begins by calling the 1776 Commission report “claptrap” and the “intellectual sibling” of the New York Times’ ferociously anti-American “1619 Project.” His piece continues in the same vein of dismissiveness and name-calling, which is a shame because one would like greater clarity about what McClanahan, the editors of Chronicles, and other paleocons think are the answers to the questions raised above. Alas, one will not find those answers in McClanahan’s piece.
McClanahan further says that placing “the Declaration of Independence and Abraham Lincoln at the center of the American experience” makes the commission’s report “profoundly flawed.” This is an extraordinary claim. Say what one will about Lincoln, it nonetheless remains a fact that he is, and has been almost since his assassination, the most revered of American presidents (or perhaps tied with Washington). The Civil War which he fought and won was certainly, for good or ill, “cent[ral] to the American experience.” Indeed, does not the whole paleoconservative argument hinge on this very claim, that Lincoln and the war fundamentally changed absolutely everything? But now this is blithely dismissed simply because people McClanahan doesn’t like also say it.
This is an example of another phenomenon I described, and tried to name, in my book: the “Celebration Parallax.” The same assertion or fact pattern is either good or bad depending on who says it. When the ruling class says, of immigration, “We can replace them,” that is good because they favor high immigration. When those on the Right speak of replacement, that is a conspiracy theory. A similar dynamic, apparently, applies to Lincoln. When paleos say he’s central to American history, it’s true. When someone from the CHS says it, it’s wrong.
As an aside, I may note that in another little book I published two years ago, I tried to give a non-Cracker Jack, but still concise, summary of the founders’ view of natural right—the claim that right and wrong, good and evil, just and unjust exist not merely by law or convention or tradition but by nature. I joked to a friend at the time that, simply because I said it, our former friends then (as now) in NeverTrump-land would denounce natural right because I praised it. Sure enough, it happened.
At any rate, whatever one thinks of Lincoln’s place in the American experience, it is flatly—almost perversely—ahistorical to deny the centrality of the Declaration of Independence to America. This is literally the document that founded the country, the date of whose adoption is still (for now) celebrated as America’s birthday, the first organic law of the United States, and the most widely quoted and imitated political document in the history of mankind. That’s before one even turns to the importance of that document’s principles to our country’s subsequent history and self-understanding, which the rest of McClanahan’s piece may be said to attempt to cover.
McClanahan next states, rightly, that the 1776 Commission was created to “combat” the aforementioned “1619 Project” which “paints American history as a story of black slavery and white supremacy.” It would seem, then, that to attack the 1776 Commission, McClanahan would have to do one of two things. First, he could argue that America and American history do not deserve a defense against the charges of the “1619 Project” because that project basically got it right: America is racist and evil, hence the 1776 Commission’s defense is false. Or he could defend the founding on the ground that it was just as racist as the “1619 Project” says it was, but assert that the founders’ (alleged) racism is true and just, and that therefore the 1776 Commission defense is false both in the historical sense (untrue to what the founders actually believed) and in the philosophic sense (untrue to the realities of nature).
McClanahan doesn’t say either of things, but neither does he really reject either. The reader is instead left in suspense. Was the founding racist and good? Racist and bad? Not racist but still bad? The one thing we can deduce is that it cannot have been both non-racist and good, because that is precisely what the 1776 Commission report asserts, and if McClanahan is clear about one thing, it’s that the report is very bad.
One wishes to ask McClanahan: does the American founding, and America itself, deserve a defense against the “1619 Project” and other more or less identical attacks that are now ubiquitous from academia, the media, corporations, and every level of government? If it does, on what grounds?
McClanahan name-checks a number of commissioners, to casually impugn their reputations. The sloppiness of these drive-bys may be seen from his characterization of my colleague Matt Spalding’s book We Still Hold These Truths, which McClanahan asserts is “steeped in neoconservative deceit.” He makes no attempt to defend, support, or flesh out this claim. Now, when calling someone a liar, it’s only good manners—and, I would say, a requirement of decency and honor—to spell out, exactly, how the person in question actually lied. McClanahan doesn’t even begin to do that.
McClanahan is either ignorant or deceitful himself when he ascribes “neoconservatism” to the Claremont-Hillsdale school. To support that assertion, he would have to explain first what he thinks neoconservatism is and then explain what views we hold that fit that definition. It would not be enough, though McClanahan doesn’t even attempt this much, to show that many self-identified neocons have adopted CHS or CHS-adjacent arguments. Also required would be an examination of all the many disagreements and their relative importance to the agreements—and that examination, performed honestly, would show that the former outweigh and outnumber the latter. McClanahan apparently doesn’t know any of this and doesn’t care. For him, “neoconservative” is just an epithet, one he knows will conjure the smell of sulfur in certain readers’ nostrils.
McClanahan then offers his own Cracker Jack version of the commission’s report.
The 1776 Report,” viewed the Declaration’s “self-evident” truth that “all men are created equal” as a foundational promise betrayed by bad actors in American history, mostly from the South.
Not to be outdone by King, the 1776 Commission blames John C. Calhoun for modern identity politics, for the distortion of the true founding principles enshrined in the Declaration, and for the deaths of the 600,000 men who perished in the Civil War. If not for Calhoun, “The 1776 Report” authors seem to suggest, the United States would today be a utopia of free-thinking nationalist egalitarians dedicated to the proposition that “all men are created equal.
I suppose if one were distilling the report into a single-page comic for six-year-olds, that might do as well as any other tendentious attempt to take something complicated and reduce it to a slogan. But one expects more from an intellectual journal.
Here I should specify that I speak less on behalf of the report and more in defense or explanation of the Claremont-Hillsdale school. While CHS scholars worked on the report, they were by no means the majority and many other fine scholars no doubt would object to seeing a school to which they do not belong being accorded outsize credit for their work.
Certainly, the CHS holds that “all men are created equal” was (and is) a “foundational promise,” but one betrayed less by “bad actors . . . from the South” than by the enormous difficulty of reconciling the principle of equality with the reality of slavery. Jefferson grasped this from the first; he famously tried to include a condemnation of slavery in the Declaration only to have it excised by other delegates. Moreover, some of his most famous quotes—e.g., “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just”—center precisely on the difficulty of reconciling the fact of slavery with the principles of the nation. Late in life, Jefferson foresaw the breaking of the nation over slavery.
McClanahan later asserts that “Jefferson himself downplayed the importance of the Declaration’s phrase ‘all men are created equal,’” but offers no textual support for this assertion. One could, however, offer to the contrary Jefferson’s late-life correspondence with his comrade-nemesis-friend John Adams in which both take evident pleasure in reminiscing about the glories of ’76 and the meaning of that document. McClanahan continues: “To Jefferson, the last paragraph, not the second, provided the most important language of the Declaration. Most of the founding generation agreed.” Again, there is not even an attempt at substantiation. (It’s worth noting here that, unlike McClanahan’s article, that the book version of the 1776 Commission report is amply sourced and footnoted.)
We Don’t Need No Equality
These assertions come in the midst of a long digression in which McClanahan attempts to establish that the founders didn’t talk much about equality during the Constitution’s ratification phase. But as McClanahan himself tacitly admits, this was because they were busy debating the precise phrases and provisions of the Constitution itself. This is like saying, “They didn’t talk much about X, because that meeting’s agenda was Y and Z; and this proves that X doesn’t matter.” This logical squid ink consumes eight paragraphs.
McClanahan remarks at one point that “none of the founders ever referred to the line ‘all men are created equal’ with religious reverence.” Those last three words render the rest of the sentence meaningless. Who determines the presence or absence of “religious reverence” in this context? Why, McClanahan, of course. But the qualifier serves an important purpose. If McClanahan could say, without fear of correction, that the founders didn’t talk about equality at all, presumably he would have said it. He never does. Nor does he even attempt to assert that they didn’t mean it. He merely says (dubiously) that they later “downplayed” it.
The assertion that equality was, for the founders, little more than a throwaway line is belied by the myriad speeches, sermons, pamphlets, letters in which similar, even identical, language appears. Above all—and most tellingly—there are the founding-era state declarations of rights and constitutions. For instance:
- Virginia: “All men are by nature equally free and independent”
- Pennsylvania, Vermont, New Hampshire and Ohio (identical language): “All men are born equally free and independent”
- Massachusetts: “All men are born free and equal”
- New York, quoting the Declaration of Independence: “all men are created equal”
- Kentucky and Connecticut (again, identical language): “all men, when they form a social compact, are equal”
This sampling demonstrates two things. First is the remarkable consensus from state to state, and region to region, on the fundamental principles of government in the founding era and early republic. If equality was in the Declaration of Independence merely as an afterthought, how is it that it also made it into all these other documents (and many more)? Second, another of McClanahan’s core assertions is that for the founders, equality and “states’ rights” were in conflict, and the latter took precedence. But these quotes (and many others) show that the architects of the state governments did not see the two principles in conflict. On the contrary: they predicated their own state governments on the same principles expounded in the Declaration of Independence!
An important question for McClanahan, Chronicles editors, and all who think like them is (and has long been): If the phrase “all men are created equal” meant so little to the founders, why did they say it?
The most common paleocon answer to this question is that the founders meant only to assert the equal “rights of Englishmen.” But that’s not what the founders said—not in the Declaration, nor in any of those state documents. More importantly, the American founders knew full well, and from bitter experience, that all Englishmen were not considered equal, nor treated equally. The founders were specifically rebelling against England and the English system with its legally enforced order of rank. “All men are created equal” is an attack on aristocracy no less than an assertion of fundamental principle.
To this extent, “all men are created equal” was revolutionary for its time. But in other ways, it expressed only common sense. Men are equal in God-given natural rights but (obviously) unequal in talents, virtues, abilities and other attributes. Equality of rights requires consent for a government to be just. The best or most practicable way to secure consent in a large country is through representative institutions. Hence “no man may rule another without his consent” was, for the founders, just another way of saying “no taxation without representation.” Equality of rights also requires a government of limited powers (one that cannot or may not infringe on unalienable rights) that protects basic freedoms such as association, speech, and the exercise of religion.
McClanahan never defines what he thinks equality meant to the founders; nor does he state what he thinks it means himself; nor does he say whether he thinks any particular understanding of equality is true or false.
But we can presume that the author of this scathing attack on a defense of the founding must at least be a skeptic or else he would not have written what he wrote. I would, if I could, pose to him several questions. I do not expect answers but I hope they will clarify matters for readers.
- Are all men created equal?
- If not, in what specific ways are they not?
- If men are unequal merely in talents and abilities, etc., how does this understanding differ from the founders’? Or Lincoln’s? Or the members of the 1776 Commission report?
- If the founders did not mean equality as equal natural rights (combined with unequal talents), what did they mean?
- Do you believe in the older meaning of inequality, that there is a natural order of rank among men entitling some to rule and consigning others to be ruled?
- If so, how do you distinguish these castes?
- How would you form a government so that such natural castes found their proper place in the lawful order?
- How do you expect to convince the “ruled caste” to accept its (allegedly) natural inferiority with patience and good grace?
I could go on but you get the point (I hope). These questions will matter if and when some reorganization of our politics becomes necessary. I doubt that calls for a “new aristocracy,” which one occasionally hears on the Right, will hold much appeal for anyone not himself expecting to be anointed with holy oil in the new order. For everyone else, being told “I’m a duke but you’re a serf” will not fly. After all, isn’t that (more or less) the objection most on the Right have to the self-anointed Ruling Class of today?
Nor does McClanahan ever present an assessment of the founding itself. Was it flawed from the beginning? Initially good but corrupted later? Flawed in such a way that the later corruption was inevitable?
Specifically, everything hinges on these two questions:
- Is equality true or false?
- Did the founders genuinely believe it or not?
From these we can deduce the following six possibilities:
- The founders believed equality is true and they were right.
- The founders believed equality is true but they were wrong.
- The founders initially believed equality is true but later came to believe they had been wrong, even though in fact they had been right.
- The founders initially believed equality is true but later came to realize they had been wrong, because equality actually is false.
- The founders wrongly believed equality is false but asserted it anyway for other reasons.
- The founders rightly believed equality is false but asserted it anyway for other reasons.
It would seem that any possibility other than the first would require a significant lowering of our assessment of the founders. The second through fifth make them unwise in precisely the enterprise in which they were engaged: founding a new country. The fifth and sixth make them liars—and the fifth makes them stupid liars.
Although McClanahan never clarifies what he actually believes on this score, we can dismiss the first, since that is the view of the 1776 Commission report, which he despises. So it’s got to be one of the other five. But which one?
Can We Admire the Founding?
Whichever, it seems impossible for McClanahan to have any admiration for the founders. He must believe, if he is being consistent, that either they lied or they blew it, or both. We come here to a strange tension in the argument. The principle of equality is asserted at once to have been an inconsequential afterthought but also to have had catastrophic consequences. It thus does little good for what is left of the founders’ reputations to excuse them, as McClanahan seems to try to do, on the ground that they later realized the error of their ways. For in McClanahan’s own telling, equality subsequently ripped through the republic in the same way Anthony Fauci insists COVID imperils the world. If this is true, then just introducing the idea in the first place was an error of horrific, nation-destroying magnitude. Who could respect, much less admire, statesmen who got something so important so catastrophically wrong?
According to the 1776 Commission (and the CHS), the founders’ assertion of equality solved one problem: it established the ground of their revolution’s, and therefore their new government’s, legitimacy. But it also compounded another. Equality is obviously incompatible with slavery, yet the founders had no way to abolish slavery at that time. They did what they could, for instance keeping slavery out of the Northwest Territory and blocking the slave trade, but those measures were necessarily limited. The 1776 Commission defends the founders by citing these and other anti-slavery actions. McClanahan never says what part of this defense is wrong. Does he think the founders were more pro-slavery than the report asserts? Or does he think even these early anti-slavery steps went too far? The latter being, of course, an attack not on the report but on the founders themselves.
Time and again McClanahan accuses the commission of “South bashing” (my phrase). But if the report is as Lincolnian as McClanahan says, it should be no surprise that its language echoes Lincoln in ascribing the injustice of slavery to the whole nation, not just to the South. It is true that the report attributes the deepest theoretical support for slavery and secession to a Southerner, John C. Calhoun. But this is simply a matter of historical fact. If McClanahan thinks that’s wrong, he doesn’t say so, much less attempt to explain why. He just complains that Calhoun is assigned a role in the drama without saying why that role is false or unfair.
A core finding of the 1776 Commission report is that, despite the presence of slavery at the time of the founding, nearly all the founders—including many slaveholders—knew that slavery was unjust but didn’t know how to end it, at least not immediately. Had the consensus around the meaning of equality held through the early republic, the issue might have been resolved peacefully, if not painlessly. But Calhoun’s transformation of slavery-as-injustice-to-be-remedied into slavery-as-positive-good broke that consensus and made conflict, if not inevitable, at least much more likely—and bloodier and more costly when it came. This is, again, a defense of the founding against the blood libel of the “1619 Project.” Does McClanahan have a different defense? If so, he doesn’t offer it.
Throughout his piece, McClanahan dances around the question of slavery. He never defends it but he also declines to condemn it. He seems to know that to assert that slavery is wrong is to admit that the founders’ understanding of equality is right, and vice versa. It is also to beg the question of how best to get rid of that institution, for once one admits it’s wrong, surely one must also wish its abolition, even if the timing and means must be matters of compromise and temporization.
McClanahan clearly hates the way abolition actually happened. How else, and how better, would he have done it? Well, one better way—the only other practicable way I can see—was the founders’ original idea, interrupted by the ascendency in some quarters of Calhoun’s argument, and then revived by Lincoln. And that was: choke it off. Leave it unmolested where it was, but prevent its expansion, and trust or hope that economic modernization in other states (and countries), combined with changing moral attitudes, would eventually make slavery both too unprofitable and too unpopular to continue. At least this strategy would have avoided the Civil War, as Lincoln tried to do.
In perhaps the article’s most misleading paragraph, McClanahan writes:
Antebellum Americans rallied around core tenets of the old republican American tradition: resistance to unconstitutional powers and a proper relationship between state and general governments; strict economy in federal expenditures; opposition to corporate welfare in all its manifestations; sound money and a stable currency; peaceful neutrality and the cultivation of international trade; and more broadly the spirit of personal and political independence.
No doubt some, or even all, of this is true. But it is nonetheless massively untrue in that it ignores the single most important cause of the Civil War: the dispute over the expansion of slavery into the federal territories destined to become states. Most anti-Lincolnites at least bring this up so as to make a pretense of comprehensiveness. Not McClanahan.
1619’s Intellectual Sibling?
Which brings me, finally, to the rhetorical disaster this piece represents. Whether he means to or not, McClanahan gives aid and comfort to those on the Left who hate America, hate the Right, and want to associate both with racism and slavery. By attacking and dismissing the 1776 Commission’s defense of the founders with the claim that the latter didn’t really believe in equality (or did but were wrong, or did but changed their minds, or whatever), McClanahan plays directly into the Left’s hands. Which, ironically, is exactly what he accuses the commission of doing.
But who is really more on the anti-American Left’s side? The Commission that defends the honor of the American founders and the nation they created? Or the Chronicles writer who praises “1619 Project” creator Nikole Hannah-Jones’s superior “consistency” and “correct[ness]” while attacking the commission?
More specifically, by dancing around the question of slavery, and attacking the 1776 Commission’s defense of the founders on exactly this ground, McClanahan leaves the impression that the real founders, or the founders as they should have been, were pro-slavery. If, as McClanahan insists, the 1776 Commission’s defense of the founding is fake, what alternative conclusion are we to draw?
Now, to be fair, McClanahan’s piece is so unclear and confusing that no reader can come away certain that he knows what McClanahan thinks on the core subject. We can, however, be confident that the anti-American Left, which never misses an opportunity for willful misunderstanding to harm an enemy, will take from this piece an implicit admission that the “real” Right is anti-equality and pro-slavery. In a time of ever-increasing anti-American, anti-Right, anti-white hysteria, how can a piece such as this possibly do anything but make things immeasurably worse?
McClanahan notes that Hannah-Jones concedes something he never does: that the United States is a “nation founded on both an ideal and a lie.” For McClanahan, by contrast, the ideal is the lie. In this sense, Hannah-Jones is actually more generous to America, and less anti-American. Is that the impression McClanahan intended to leave?
One, in any case, searches in vain within this article for an overarching sense of patriotism or pride in America. Nor does it ever seem to occur to McClanahan how extraordinary it was that, in this age of near-universal elite anti-patriotism, the United States federal government actually commissioned and published a report explaining and praising the foundations and history of this country. Instead, McClanahan actually praises the Biden Administration for erasing all traces of the report from government websites. This is the same man who has the cheek to accuse the 1776 Commission of being the “intellectual sibling” of the “1619 Project”!
More specifically still, McClanahan consistently muddles up whether his beef is simply with the 1776 Commission report or with the founding itself. At times, he seems to want to defend the founders, but by consistently tracing everything wrong today back to their words and principles (misinterpreted or otherwise), the logical inference from McClanahan’s line of argument must be that the founders were dumb and the founding a mess. If his purpose is to encourage Americans to cherish and respect their country—and it’s far from clear that it is—then his message would seem to be “America is fundamentally flawed; love it!” The 1619 Project’s is at least more consistent: “America is racist and evil; hate it!”
At one point McClanahan refers to Patrick Henry’s (perhaps apocryphal) statement “I smell a rat,” a phrase he says that Henry ascribed to “distortions of the American tradition.” But that is false. In truth, Henry’s “rat” was the United States Constitution itself. Henry, an ardent anti-federalist, thought the Constitution concentrated too much power at the federal level. The point here is not whether Henry was right or wrong. It’s that McClanahan, whether he understands it or not, is implicitly attacking the Constitution. That stance may, again, be right or wrong and McClanahan is free to argue against the Constitution if he wishes. But it’s ridiculous to make any claim of standing up for “American history,” the “American experience” or “the American tradition” in the same breath as attacking a core pillar of the American founding.
McClanahan closes with the observation that “American conservatives today are rethinking their commitment to the Republican Party.” True enough; as well they should. He continues: “Trump’s victory in 2016 cemented an already growing dissatisfaction with the proposition-nation wing of the GOP.” This betrays an extraordinary ignorance, or else is deliberate falsehood borne of malice. True, figures such as Jeb! Bush were Cracker Jack Claremontism fellow travelers (though almost certainly without knowing it).
But fairness also requires giving the CHS credit for understanding the problems with “nation-building” and the post-9/11 wars almost as soon as they started, and for taking the lead in providing deep intellectual support—including through appeals to the principles of both the founders and early Republican Party—for immigration restriction. Unquestionably, the CHS has done more to fight birthright citizenship than any intellectual force on the Right.
More to the point, though, it was CHS scholars who, very early—much earlier than most—saw the promise in what Trump represented, got behind his 2016 campaign, supported his administration, and staunchly supported his reelection. The cheap linkage, then, via the term “proposition-nation wing” to the 1776 Commission Report and the CHS is thus both unfair and false.
Which leaves me to ask, where do we go from here? What was the purpose of McClanahan’s attack, beyond deliberate fratricide? I still hope to gain more paleo friends and help broaden the pro-American populist-nationalist coalition on the Right. I hope this essay serves that end. Clearly, McClanahan and Chronicles won’t be coming along for the ride. But I expect others will.
Whatever happens to America, Americanism will live on in the hearts not just of those on the Right but also the vast majority of middle Americans or Deplorables or whatever you want to call them. They love their country, its history, its foundations, its principles, its Constitution, its great documents and speeches, its symbols, and its heroes. All of these, and more, can and should be used to rally them to fight for a better future. The 1776 Commission’s report is useful in that regard. Brion McClanahan’s attack on it . . . isn’t.
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Michael Anton reports for American Greatness.