New York Magazine


Dissatisfaction with the Establishment doesn’t always force people rightward. The surprisingly successful candidacies of old-school lefties like Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon are evidence of an active contemporary “alt-left”: “alt” as in alternative to the corporate-friendly liberalism of the diminishing center-left (see surging membership in Democratic Socialists of America), “alt” as in irony-fluent, and meme-adept (see the dirtbag-left podcast Chapo Trap House), and “alt” as in dismissive of, if not abjectly cruel toward, any identity politics that doesn’t place class at the center. The alt-left hates nothing more than being called the alt-left.

I MET CHARLES KESLER in March on an idyllic sunny day in Pasadena, California, where he lives. He’s a soft-spoken, thoughtful figure, with a shock of white hair and a bemused smile on his face. He grew up in West Virginia, with a schoolteacher mom and a dad who owned a grocery store. They were, he told me, culturally conservative and politically mixed. He is now a professor at Claremont McKenna, where he focuses on the roots of a specifically American conservatism, exemplified by his reading of the Founding Fathers. (He’s the editor of a very popular edition of The Federalist Papers.) He also edits the Claremont Review of Books, a small conservative version of the New York Review of Books that attracted attention first in its critique of George W. Bush’s Iraq War, and again last year, when it came out in support of Donald Trump just when the entire Republican Establishment was trying to destroy him. Along with The American Conservative and the new quarterly American Affairs, it’s now a central forum for many of the sentiments that helped Trump win the presidency.

What on earth was a professor like Kesler doing backing a man who has barely read a book in his life, seems to think Frederick Douglass is still alive, and who’d last less than a few seconds in a Kesler seminar? He smiled a little defensively. He’s perfectly aware of Trump’s manifest flaws—his “crudity, anger and egotism,” as he has written. He has conceded that Trump was seeking a job “for which everyone—everyone—agrees he is conspicuously unready.” Even when we met, he averred: “I don’t know how serious he is.” And yet he still gambled on a despotic, undisciplined, impulsive former Democrat.

It was an act of desperation, he explained. In classic reactionary fashion, he believes that we are living through a crisis of American democracy. The Claremont consensus (to put a name on this strain of thought) holds that beneath the veneer of constitutional democracy, we are actually governed by a soft despotism of permanent experts, bureaucrats, pundits, and academics who ignore the majority of the American people. This elite has encouraged a divisive social transformation of the country, has led us into disastrous wars, and has created a deepening economic crisis for the middle class. Anyone—anyone—who could challenge this elite’s power was therefore a godsend.

Kesler’s worldview is rooted in the ideas of the 20th-century political philosopher Leo Strauss. Strauss’s idiosyncratic genius defies easy characterization, but you could argue, as Mark Lilla did in his recent book The Shipwrecked Mind, that he was a reactionary in one specific sense: A Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, Strauss viewed modernity as collapsing into nihilism and relativism and barbarism all around him. His response was to go back to the distant past—to the works of Plato, Aristotle, and Maimonides, among others—to see where the West went wrong, and how we could avoid the horrific crimes of the 20th century in the future.

One answer was America, where Strauss eventually found his home at the University of Chicago. Some of his disciples—in particular, the late professor Harry Jaffa—saw the American Declaration of Independence, with its assertion of the self-evident truth of the equality of

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