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Donald Trump and the Romance of Regime Change

The figure of John Eastman, a constitutional theorist, former law professor and legal adviser to Donald Trump, looms increasingly large in …

Donald Trump and the Romance of Regime Change
25.05.2022 13:57
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The figure of John Eastman, a constitutional theorist, former law professor and legal adviser to Donald Trump, looms increasingly large in retrospectives on the events of Jan. 6, and for good reason: Out of all the characters who floated through the White House in the aftermath of the 2020 election, only Eastman appears to have been fully serious about keeping Trump in office.

Other people certainly imagined themselves to be serious, figures like Sidney Powell and Mike Lindell of MyPillow fame, but really they inhabited a fantasy world and mostly just invited Trump to live there with them. Then another set of figures — including various White House advisers and United States senators — lived in reality while pretending to believe the fantasy, either in the hopes of managing the president’s moods until his term ended or for cynical political reasons of their own.

Only Eastman seemed to partly bridge the divide. True, his belief that Trump ought to remain in office depended on many of the same voter-fraud speculations — mutable, adaptable, an assumption in search of confirmation — that the outright fantasists embraced. But his legal plan of action was intended to be as plausible as possible, linked to interpretations of election law and the U.S. Constitution that were radical but not purely fanciful, and devised to exploit points of tension or contradiction where a constitutional crisis might genuinely be forced.

Trump didn’t have the cooperators or the capacities required to reach that destination. But Eastman, unlike the clowns and cynics, actually drew up a road map for getting there, devoting real legal and constitutional knowledge to the goal of throwing the American presidential succession into crisis.

John Eastman in Colorado in 2021.Credit…Andy Cross/MNG/The Denver Post, via Getty Images

In this, he embodied in the strongest form a tendency shared by others in his intellectual home base, the Claremont Institute — a conservative institution with many mansions, but one known lately for its hospitality to the reactionary internet and its enthusiasm for a politics of crisis.

That enthusiasm first took shape in the “Flight 93 Election” essay, published in the Claremont Review of Books in 2016, in which the future Trump administration official Michael Anton made the case that the American Republic was in such dire shape that it would be preferable to elect a man who might literally crash the plane rather than to allow it to continue in its current course. Eastman’s eagerness for a constitutional crisis was a kind of bookend to that essay, infused with the same spirit but applied to a presidential transition rather than the presidential vote.

This tendency has made Claremont an object of special fascination to hostile interpreters of Trump-era conservatism. At this point, you can read a wide range of critical essays trying to tease out how an institution formally devoted to the genius of the founding fathers and the ideals of Abraham Lincoln ended up harboring so much sympathy for a demagogue like Trump.

I have my own interpretation, which goes back to my personal experience as a youthful “Publius fellow” at Claremont 20 years ago, when along with a brace of other young right-of-center nerds I was given a summer crash course in the thought of Harry Jaffa, the Claremont eminence (then living, now deceased), and his various disciples.

The Jaffa school offered an interpretation of American history that might be described as Inception, Consummation and Corruption. Its Great Consummator was Lincoln, who restored the promise of the founding by fully establishing the “all men are created equal” absolutism of the Declaration of Independence. Its villains were John C. Calhoun and the progressives of the early 20th century, the former for defending slavery and inequality, the latter for replacing a constitutional republic with a bureaucratized administrative state, and both for displaying a philosophical and moral relativism that Jaffa despised (and that, as his intellectual feuds multiplied, he claimed to discern in many of his fellow conservatives as well).

But one thing you noticed hanging around with Claremont folks was that while they were obviously interested in the good and bad of each American regime change, from the original founding (great) to the Lincolnian re-founding (even better) to the progressive re-foundings of Woodrow Wilson (their great villain, the “Lost Cause” sympathizer turned arrogant technocrat) and Franklin Roosevelt, they were also just really interested in the idea of founding itself, when moments of crisis bring new orders out of old ones.

At one point, as a break from reading founding-era texts, we were treated to a screening of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” the great John Ford western whose theme is the Old West’s transition into political modernity, passing from the rule of the gun (embodied by John Wayne’s Tom Doniphon) to the rule of the lawbook (embodied by Jimmy Stewart’s Ransom Stoddard).

In the movie, the transition can’t happen without a dose of chaos, a mixture of violence and deception. Lee Marvin’s outlaw, Valance, challenges the peaceable lawyer Stoddard to a duel; Doniphon saves the lawyer by shooting the outlaw from the shadows — and then the killing is mistakenly attributed to Stewart’s character, who is lionized for it and goes on to be a great statesman of the New West while the cowboy and his vigilante code recede.

The not-so-subtle implication of the Claremont reading of American history is that this kind of fraught transition doesn’t happen once and for all; rather, it happens periodically within the life of any nation or society. Whenever change or crisis overwhelms one political order, one version of (in our case) the American republic, you get a period of instability and rough power politics, until the new era or the new settlement is forged.

But it doesn’t happen without moments like Doniphon shooting Valance — or Lincoln suspending habeas corpus, say, or Roosevelt threatening to pack the Supreme Court — when norms and niceties need to be suspended for the sake of the new system that’s waiting to be born.

When I try to understand what Eastman imagined himself doing in serving Donald Trump even unto constitutional crisis, this is where my speculations turn. I don’t think this is the necessary implication of Claremont thought; indeed, you can find in the latest issue of The Claremont Review of Books an essay by William Voegeli critiquing conservatives who seem “enthused about chaos” and overeager to re-found rather than conserve. But I think it’s an understandable place for the Claremont reading of American history to turn at a time when the American republic does appear sclerotic, stalemated, gridlocked and in need of some kind of conspicuous renewal.

Nor is it a coincidence that Claremont conservatives would turn this way at the same time that their adversaries on the American left nurture plans to expand the Supreme Court, add new states to the Union and abolish the Senate and the Electoral College. Both right and left are reacting, in different ways and with different prescriptions, to the sense of crisis and futility in our politics, the feeling that surely some kind of revolution or transformation is due to come around — that God in his wisdom is overdue to send us a Lincoln or a Roosevelt and that the existing norms of our politics probably won’t survive the change.

What makes this sentiment particularly understandable is that the Claremont history of America’s multiple regime changes is generally correct: Our country really has periodically transformed itself, for better or worse (sometimes both at once), through the actions of strong leaders and strong movements that risked crisis to overturn and transform and even, yes, re-found.

The problem — well, on the right, there are three problems.

First, the part of the right that imagines a re-founding can’t agree on what shape its imagined new American regime should take. (Are we demolishing the administrative state or turning it to conservative ends? Restoring lost liberties or pursuing the common good? Building a multiethnic working-class majority or closing the border against future Democratic voters?) Which is one reason the Trump presidency, infused by these conflicting impulses, ended up being such a shambolic mess.

The second obvious reason it was a mess was just the character of the president himself. It’s here that my attempt to imagine my way into Eastman’s crisis mind-set collapses: I just can’t fathom the idea that it could be worth pushing our constitutional system into chaos when your candidate to play the role of Lincoln or Roosevelt is Donald Trump.

To cast a vote for Trump as a defensive measure against Hillary Clinton is one thing. But to nominate yourself to play Tom Doniphon in a political shootout so that a decadent order can give way to something new, when your candidate to lead the new order is a sybaritic reality-television star who shambled through his first presidential term … no, there my attempt at imaginative sympathy fails.

But then finally, even deeper than the folly of risking so much for Trump himself is the folly of doing so without democratic legitimacy and real majority support. At past moments of American renewal or regime change the leaders of the emergent order have been able to claim a popular mandate for their project. Yes, Lincoln’s case is exceptional: He was a plurality president in 1860 and won a big majority in 1864 with the South still in rebellion. But he obviously won both elections, the outcomes weren’t particularly close, and the other transformative presidents in our history, from Andrew Jackson down through Roosevelt to Claremont’s own beloved Ronald Reagan, won a clear or resounding mandate for a second term.

No complaints about a rigged election can change the fact that Trump did not — that despite ample opportunities for statesmanship, he never persuaded a majority of Americans to support whatever his project was supposed to be.

And this is where the various indictments of Claremont Trumpism draw the most blood. If your intellectual project champions Lincoln over Calhoun, but you end up using constitutional legerdemain to preserve the power of a minority faction against an American majority, then whatever historical part you imagine yourself playing, you have betrayed yourself.

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