Meet the Obscure Think Tank Powering Trump’s Biggest Lies

The Claremont Institute is a training ground for modern conservatism and the source of Trump’s Jan. 6 plans. Now, it's going to war for Trumpism.

Nov 4 2021, 5:37pm

As Vice President Mike Pence and his team hid in the basement of the Capitol from rioters chanting “Hang Mike Pence” on Jan. 6, President Donald Trump’s attorney John Eastman emailed one of Pence’s staffers to blame him for the violence.

“The ‘siege’ is because YOU and your boss did not do what was necessary to allow this to be aired in a public way so that the American people can see for themselves what happened,” Eastman told Pence adviser Greg Jacob.

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The insurrection came after Trump, with Eastman’s help, tried to bully Pence into blocking Congress from certifying President-elect Joe Biden’s election win—what Jacob called “bullshit” legal advice that had left them “under siege”—then whipped his supporters into a frenzy that led to the violent ransacking of the U.S. Capitol. 

Eastman, the director of the Claremont Institute’s Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence, is also the man who wrote the memo that said Pence should try to block Biden’s election certification. 

And he wasn’t the only Claremont Institute leader involved in that harrowing episode—and in subsequent efforts to undermine democracy. 

“Have been on Capitol Hill all day. We are in a constitutional crisis and also in a revolutionary moment,” Brian Kennedy, the president emeritus and senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, tweeted on Jan. 5. “We must embrace the spirit of the American Revolution to stop this communist revolution. #HoldTheLine.” 

Claremont Institute leaders’ actions leading up to, during, and after Jan. 6 are the culmination of five years of increasingly alarmist rhetoric and calls to action from the think tank, whose embrace of Trump and Trumpism have helped mainstream fringe views into the Republican Party ecosystem by positioning themselves as the vanguard in an existential “cold civil war” between true Americans and anti-American progressives.

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As Claremont Institute President Ryan Williams sums it up: “The mission of the Claremont Institute is to save Western civilization.” 

“They’re making the existential conflict true. They’re fueling those flames.”

“It’s incredibly concerning. They’re desperate to take on the role of leading the charge in terms of providing arguments for the anti-democratic populism of Trump. They really want to do everything they can to keep Republicans in power, even if it means manipulating through bad-faith measures the levers of power,” said Laura K. Field, a political theorist at the Niskanen Center and American University. 

The extremism rhetoric espoused by some at the institute now also makes some former affiliates cringe. One warned the ongoing attacks on Americans’ trust in elections “could lead to more distrust and division and skepticism about various institutions in the medium-to-long run.”

Another lamented that “Claremont has bought in hard with this program of catastrophization—and that was an abrupt shift that happened the same time as the Trumpward shift.”

It’s unclear exactly what the Claremont Institute’s leaders are up to now—Eastman, Kennedy, and Williams didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment for this story. But it appears they have been deeply involved in ongoing state-level efforts to install Republicans who believe the election was stolen in positions of power and change the rules before the next election.

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“They’re making the existential conflict true,” Field warned. “They’re fueling those flames.” 

Shortly before Trump spoke on Jan. 6, Rudy Giuliani brought Eastman onstage, introducing him as “one of the preeminent constitutional scholars in the United States.”

Eastman began lying immediately. He claimed “dead people voted” and “machines contributed to that fraud” by “unloading the ballots from the secret folder,” a reference to the debunked conspiracy theory that Dominion voting machines were rigged against Trump.

“All we are demanding of Vice President Pence is this afternoon at 1 o’clock he let the legislators of the state look into this so we get to the bottom of it and the American people know whether we have control of the direction of our government or not,” Eastman thundered. “We no longer live in a self-governing republic if we can’t get the answer to this question. This is bigger than President Trump. It is the very essence of our republican form of government and it has to be done. And anybody that is not willing to stand up and do it does not deserve to be in the office.”

“It is the very essence of our republican form of government and it has to be done.”

Eastman didn’t mention that day that he’d crafted a scheme for Pence to do just that, with his now-infamous pair of memos to the vice president. Eastman, the former dean of Chapman University’s law school who had once clerked on the Supreme Court for Justice Clarence Thomas, claimed it was “fact” that the vice president was the “ultimate arbiter” of the Electoral College count and should reject the votes of a number of states in an attempt to throw the election to Trump. Or, at least, give Republicans in the swing states Trump lost one last chance to nominate alternate slates of electors that could have led to the same final result—and a constitutional crisis. 

Eastman was a late addition to Trump’s final inner circle of strategists, huddling day after day at the Willard Hotel with Giuliani, former White House Chief of Staff Steve Bannon, and others. On Jan. 2, he participated in a call with Trump and Republican state lawmakers to try to convince them to overturn their states’ election results.

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When they balked, he turned to Pence to buy them time. Pence refused; Eastman complained that the vice president was “an establishment guy” who wanted Trump to fail. According to Eastman, the Jan. 6 riots were instigated by “FBI plants” and the best way forward for the country would be to defeat all the Republican lawmakers who didn’t fight for Trump. Kennedy made a similar claim: On Jan. 7, Kennedy falsely said the rally was “hijacked by ANTIFA.” 

The institute’s Trump supporters have remained busy since the election. Williams, the president of the institute, recently told an undercover Democratic activist that Eastman is “still very involved with a lot of the state legislators.”

“John’s point has always been, look, unless we get right what happened in 2020, there’s no moving on. They’re just going to steal every subsequent election,” Williams said.

Eastman seemed to confirm Williams’ statement: “My role is to identify as fully as we can what went on in order to prevent it from happening again,” he told the same undercover activist.

Kennedy has been active as well.

At a recent QAnon conference, Nevada secretary of state candidate Jim Marchant said Kennedy had been at the first meeting of a new “coalition” of like-minded candidates to “control the election system” by winning secretary of state offices in key states. Also present were wealthy, conspiracy theory–funding MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell and Overstock.com founder Patrick Byrne, both of whom had encouraged Trump to declare martial law and have spent millions pushing “audits” since the election. Two Trump-endorsed candidates have since joined the effort.

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In a recent interview on his podcast, Bannon described Kennedy as “one of the architects” of Arizona’s deeply partisan and flawed pseudo-audit of Maricopa County’s electors, before asking him what should be done.

“It’s clear in Arizona that that election should have never been certified. I think you’re going to find the same thing in Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, and elsewhere,” Kennedy replied. “If we keep at it and don’t back up and keep finding and explaining to people all those illegal votes, the only logical thing for the legislature to do is to decertify the election. That’s the just thing to do.”

Michael Anton, a Claremont Institute senior fellow and a former senior staffer on Trump’s National Security Council, also played a key role in mainstreaming the conspiracy theory that Democrats were planning to steal the election last fall. 

He argued in September that Democrats were “openly talking about staging a coup,” claiming that a bipartisan group who’d met to game out what might happen if Trump refused to leave office was really planning a coup against Trump themselves. That conspiracy theory had floated around on far-right websites for weeks, but Anton supercharged and mainstreamed it: His essay was seen on Facebook almost 5 million times, and it was quickly parroted on larger right-wing outlets.

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The day after Trump lost, Anton falsely claimed that key swing states had “stopped the count” of votes to rig things against Trump. And after the Capitol riots, Anton blamed Jan. 6 on “the ruling class’s decades-long betrayal and despoliation of what would eventually come to be called Red or Deplorable or Flyover America.” He pushed Trump’s big lie, claiming, “There are reasons to doubt” the election, and blamed the “one-party oligarchy” that was “the nemesis of the Trump presidency” for not listening to the patriots who had valid concerns about “a country flooded with immigration for more than half a century, padding the votes of the other party, driving down wages, and enriching oligarchs.”

He went even further in May, holding a two-hour conversation on his podcast with a neo-monarchist Curtis Yarvin about whether the United States needs an “American Caesar” to seize power. Anton didn’t endorse Yarvin’s push, but he didn’t exactly condemn it either.

The work Eastman, Kennedy, Anton, and their compatriots are undertaking is far removed from the origin of their academic think tank—though there are some ideological through-lines.

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The Claremont Institute was created in 1979 in suburban Los Angeles by Claremont McKenna College professor Harry Jaffa, a former speechwriter for 1964 Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater, student of the political philosopher Leo Strauss, and author of a well-respected book on the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Jaffa wrote Goldwater’s famous convention line, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”

Jaffa’s influence is wide and deep in conservatism—he was a close friend of and influence on National Review founder William F. Buckley, and influenced heavy-hitters including Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who regularly quotes Jaffa.

A major part of the Claremont Institute is its fellowship programs, including Lincoln Fellowships for young professionals and Publius Fellowships for recent college graduates, who’ve gone on to play a major role in modern conservatism. Alumni include establishment-minded conservatives like former George W. Bush administration official Tevi Troy, University of New Hampshire professor Dante Scala, and right-leaning journalists like New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, Washington Free Beacon Editor-in-Chief and Politico alum Eliana Johnson, along with more activist shit-stirrers like right-wing provocateur and filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza, whose jail sentence for campaign finance violations was shortened by a pardon from Trump.

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(The Claremont Institute has no direct ties to Claremont McKenna College, the Claremont Graduate University, or any of the other Claremont schools. Full disclosure: I graduated from CMC and knew some of those involved in the institute.)

Many former fellows have gone on to be major influences in the GOP—including Fox News host and anti-immigration culture warrior Laura Ingraham and Daily Wire founder and former Breitbart editor Ben Shapiro.

Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton, a 1997 Lincoln Fellow and potential presidential aspirant, used his keynote address at their 2018 gala to blast the “cosmopolitan elite” for putting “its own interests and the interests of foreigners above the national interest” by supporting immigration—familiar themes for the think tank.

But the Claremont Institute’s recent fellowships have largely gone to a new breed of right-wingers. Those include conservative provocateur Jack Posobiec, a key booster of the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory, other QAnon-adjacent views, and white genocide conspiracy theories; Turning Point USA and Students for Trump founder Charlie Kirk, who’s pushed lies about about the 2020 election results and COVID-19 and who recently told an activist not to start killing liberals because it would be “playing into all their plans”; Jon Schweppe of the American Principles Project, which bills itself as “The NRA for Families,” and is currently leading the charge against transgender rights; and multiple former Trump administration officials, including Scott Glabe, who cut his teeth with controversial California Rep. Devin Nunes, and Adam Korzeniewski, who worked on the Census and at the Treasury Department after working for racist comedy provocateur Joey Saladino.

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Its recent crop of Publius Fellows, a three-week fellowship for younger professionals and recent college grads, includes junior staffers for combative and conspiracy-minded Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley, who led the charge against certifying Biden’s election win in the Senate.

The Claremont Institute’s recent fellowships have largely gone to a new breed of right-wingers.

The institute is debuting a new Sheriffs Fellowship in 2021, where officers will study topics including natural law, progressivism, and “the roots of radical leftist ideology.”

What’s clear is that the institute’s leaders, and their traditional focus, has changed. 

Multiple former scholars say that turn happened quickly as Trump locked up the Republican nomination in the spring of 2016. But it got wider notice late that summer when an anonymous author going by the pseudonym “Publius” issued an essay titled “The Flight 93 Election.” 

“Charge the cockpit or you die,” the essay proclaimed, warning “We are headed off a cliff” due to “a tidal wave of dysfunction, immorality, and corruption” from the left as well as “the ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty.” 

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Rush Limbaugh read the piece in its entirety on his show, and it quickly went viral on the right. It was later revealed that the piece was written by Anton, a former speechwriter for Giuliani and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who by then was working in the Trump administration.

Some former Claremont Institute allies are aghast at what they see as a departure from Jaffa’s vision and a shift toward authoritarianism and demagoguery.

Two former contributors to the Claremont Review of Books, the institute’s flagship publication, told VICE News that they decided to stop writing for it after the institute took its sudden pro-Trump turn in mid-2016.

One former Claremont Institute Lincoln Fellow told VICE News that watching the staid academic institute, which they’d once so admired, suddenly morph into an organization bent on defending Trumpism and fanning the flames of civilizational alarmism at the expense of all else “was like ‘The Invasion of the Body Snatchers.’”

"The Claremont Institute spent 36 years as a resolutely anti-populist institution, [and] preached rightly that norms and institutions were hard to build and easy to destroy, so to watch them suddenly embrace Trump in May 2016 was like if PETA suddenly published a barbecue cookbook,” that fellow told VICE News.

Jaffa wasn’t exactly an exemplar of temperate rhetoric, however. He and other West Coast Straussians long argued that America is facing a “progressive revolt against the founding” starting with President Woodrow Wilson’s “administrative state” (a precursor to worries about the “deep state”). 

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“They see America as fragile in a way that other Straussians don’t,” another former Claremont Institute Lincoln Fellow told VICE News.

Jaffa argued global environmentalism was akin to socialism, said political correctness was “the blind and willful insistence upon the fulfillment of the goals of revolutionary Marxism/Leninism,” and was deeply homophobic, regularly referring to gay people as “sodomites.”

But even those polemics are milquetoast when compared to the Claremont Institute’s current leaders.

"The Claremont Institute spent 36 years as a resolutely anti-populist institution, [and] preached rightly that norms and institutions were hard to build and easy to destroy, so to watch them suddenly embrace Trump in May 2016 was like if PETA suddenly published a barbecue cookbook.”

Williams, the institute’s president, recently told the Atlantic that “the Constitution is really only fit for a Christian people.” And while he said a civil war should be “the thing we try to avoid almost at all costs,” he made clear that a peaceful defeat wasn’t acceptable—while laying out the Claremont Institute’s endgame.

“The ideal endgame would be to effect a realignment of our politics and take control of all three branches of government for a generation or two,” he said.

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Arthur Milikh, the executive director of the Claremont Institute’s D.C.-based Center for the American Way of Life, recently argued that America is in the middle of “a regime-level struggle” between “the American way of life” and “identity politics.”

The chairman of the board of the Claremont Institute, investment banker Thomas Klingenstein, has in recent years become a major Republican donor. He gave $3 million to the Trump-aligned group the Club for Growth and another $500,000 to the hard-right American Principles Project in 2020 alone, on top of max-out donations to a bevy of GOP House and Senate candidates. He’s already donated another half-million dollars to the Club for Growth this year as well as more than $100,000 to candidates—most of them ardent Trump supporters.

Klingenstein argued in a recent speech that America has entered a “cold civil war” between true patriots and “woke communists” who are hellbent on the “destruction of the American way of life.” He claimed that the real “big lie” is that America is racist, and says that the 2020 elections were marred by “enough evidence of fraud” that he doesn’t trust their results.

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“There simply can be no peace between woke communism and America,” he said. “The essential thing I've tried to stress is for Republicans to understand we are in a war and then act accordingly. War is not a time for too much civility, compromise, or for imputing good motives to the enemy. Our generals must fight as if the choice was between liberty and death.”

That “cold civil war” framing seems to have been coined in 2017 by Angelo Codevilla, a Claremont Institute senior fellow and major figure at Claremont until his death in September. He was an early intellectual enemy of what he called the “ruling class”—rhetoric embraced by conservative heavyweights like Limbaugh that presaged Trumpism by years.

Shortly before the last election, Codevilla said conservatives should form armed “self-defense groups” and give police “lively reasons to fear you.”

Capitol rioter Ashli Babbitt’s death from a Capitol policeman’s bullet made her an immediate martyr in neo-Nazi and QAnon circles, but Codevilla was one of the first reputable conservatives to paint her as a victim, writing in May that her killing was “an obviously indefensible act.”

A few weeks later, Arizona Republican Rep. Paul Gosar, who has ties to white supremacist groups, made headlines with the claim that the Capitol officer “appeared to be hiding, lying in wait and then gave no warning before killing her.” Soon afterward, Trump publicly adopted her as a martyr to his movement—a key aspect of the right-wing rewriting of the history of Jan. 6.

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When the Claremont Institute held its annual gala last week, Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, arguably the most popular leader in the GOP besides Trump, name-checked Codevilla to applause, then framed his speech around attacking the “ruling class” that Codevilla spent his late career railing against, while attendees cheered him on at the $400-a-plate event.

The Jan. 6 memos weren’t the first time Trump took his cues from the Claremont Institute. 

“Many Claremonsters have the ear of this administration and may help Trump take what he feels in his gut and migrate it to his head,” Klingenstein, the chairman of the board, boasted in a 2017 speech introducing Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito. 

Eastman reportedly first got on Trump’s radar in 2019 with a Fox News appearance where he lambasted the Russia investigation. Trump soon invited him to the White House, and not long after that, set up a meeting between Eastman and Attorney General Bill Barr so Eastman could lay out his claim that Trump could unilaterally limit birthright citizenship.

For years, Eastman has argued that the 14th Amendment doesn’t actually guarantee citizenship to “All persons born or naturalized in the United States,” as the amendment clearly states, but only those born here to parents who are citizens or legal permanent residents. His first salvo on this came back in 2006, and he and other Claremont scholars, including Anton, have championed the argument ever since.

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Eastman’s claim was embraced by Trump in 2018, who told Axios he was considering an executive order to end birthright citizenship for immigrants. 

Eastman took this one step further in 2020, arguing that then-Sen. Kamala Harris might not be eligible to be vice president if her parents weren’t lawful permanent residents at the time of her birth. 

“Many Claremonsters have the ear of this administration and may help Trump take what he feels in his gut and migrate it to his head.”

Trump amplified that message, questioning Harris’ citizenship and cited the “very highly qualified” Eastman to back up his point.

Others affiliated with the Claremont Institute also had Trump’s ear: The institute’s last president, Michael Pack, is a close ally and collaborator of Bannon’s whom Trump appointed to head the U.S. Agency for Global Media. Pack spent much of his seven months in office trying to turn Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and the agency’s other international news outlets into pro-Trump propaganda operations by firing longtime senior officials at the organizations, pushing pro-Trump administration editorials, bad-mouthing employees to conservative media outlets, and seeking political control over reporters’ coverage. Pack returned to the Claremont Institute as a senior fellow after Trump left office.

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Former Lincoln Fellow Darren Beattie was a Trump White House speechwriter—until he was fired for speaking at a white nationalist conference. 

When Beattie asked for help in lobbying to his defense on a Claremont Institute listserv, he got it from former Claremont Institute fellow Charles Johnson, a Holocaust denier and one-time protegé of Bannon’s who has ties with a number of Republican congressmen in Trump’s orbit.

“Beattie’s offense is that he spoke at an event where—gasp!—there were white nationalists afoot!” Johnson emailed the group. “Heaven forbid that some thinkers—like the American founders who favored our country be majority white—think that the U.S. of A should stay majority white! Perish the thought. Can’t have that.”

Johnson has since broken with the Claremont Institute. “ I am horrified by the kind of Claremont caesarism that encouraged those rioters to descend upon the Capitol,” Johnson wrote in October, calling the institute’s ideas “both dangerous and contemptuous” and arguing Eastman “all but provided the arguments for an American putsch.”

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Beattie worked for a stint with Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz. As rioters hit the Capitol on Jan. 6 he tweeted that various Black leaders needed to “learn their place” and “take a knee to MAGA.” Williams touted Beattie’s work the next day in a since-deleted tweet

Beattie has also played a key role in promoting the conspiracy theory that the Jan. 6 attacks were a false flag operation orchestrated by the FBI. He’s been on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show multiple times to push that debunked theory, and claims the deep state is “coming after half the country” in Carlson’s new “documentary” about Jan. 6.

Just weeks after George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer set off a national wave of protest, the Claremont Institute put out an official statement from Klingenstein and Williams that called the Black Lives Matter movement a “revolutionary and totalitarian movement” bent on “the destruction of the American way of life.” They went further, calling the protests a “nationwide riot” that were the “handiwork of the elite.” 

The Trump administration responded by commissioning the 1776 Commission—a rebuke of the New York Times’ 1619 Project—a work that received heavy input from people connected to the Claremont Institute. The commission’s chairman, Larry Arnn, is vice chairman of the Claremont Institute's board of directors and former president of the institute as well as president of the conservative Hillsdale College; the program’s executive director, Matthew Spalding, is another Claremont Institute fellow and Hillsdale professor. Claremont McKenna Review of Books editor and Claremont McKenna College professor Charles Kesler was one of its main authors.

Former President Donald Trump shakes hands with Ryan Williams, president of the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship & Political Philosophy, who accepted the National Humanities Medal on behalf of the institute on Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019. (Alex Wroblewski / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Around the time the 1776 Commission’s report was released, Trump awarded the Claremont Institute with the prestigious National Humanities Medal, where Williams was honored alongside actor Jon Voight, musician Allison Krauss, and author James Patterson.

“One of America’s leading think tanks, the Claremont Institute has made invaluable contributions to the history of American conservative thought,” Trump said. “Claremont educates, reminds, and informs Americans about the founding principles that have made our country the greatest nation anywhere on Earth. Through publications, seminars, and scholarship, they fight to ‘recover the American idea.’ I know it well.”

Trump, of course, isn’t going anywhere. He’s signaled he’ll run again in 2024, and is working to strong-arm the GOP into embracing and centering his election lies by endorsing lackeys and threatening dissidents, while increasingly defending the rioters he sicced on Congress on Jan. 6. 

“The insurrection took place on November 3, Election Day. January 6 was the Protest!” Trump declared last week.

These beliefs have bled into the GOP mainstream. Almost one-third of Republicans agreed that “Because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country” in a recent PRRI poll, including 40% who most trust far-right news. More than two-thirds of Republicans say the election was stolen from Trump.

Eastman has faced some blowback—Chapman University, where he was a tenured professor and former dean of the law school, pressured him into retiring. The University of Colorado-Boulder, where he was a visiting scholar, canceled his classes (he’s planning to sue them in response). The powerful conservative Federalist Society has also seemingly sidelined Eastman; he didn’t get a speaking slot at their annual conference like he has in past years, which the Claremont Institute whined was “a dangerous escalation in the censorship now threatening American democracy.”

The American Political Science Association decided to convert the Claremont Institute’s planned panels at their September conference from in-person to online because of concerns about safety, spurring the institute to cancel them altogether. The Claremont Institute is now threatening to sue.

And Eastman’s facing a potentially more serious problem: The House select committee investigating Jan. 6 plans to subpoena him.

But other mainstream conservatives are still happy to embrace the institute.

Williams, Anton, Klingenstein, and other Claremont Institute figures all spoke at this week at NatCon, a major gathering of conservative intellectuals in Orlando that was headlined by Hawley, Cruz, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio—all potential future presidential aspirants.

Anton remains a talking head in good stead on the right—Laura Ingraham, another former Claremont fellow, had him on her Fox News show just a few weeks ago to discuss his view that there’s a cultural and economic “war between the states.”

“Overturning the existing post-American order, and re-establishing America’s ancient principles in practice, is a sort of counter-revolution, and the only road forward.”

Last spring, Tucker Carlson brought on Claremont Institute Senior Fellow Glenn Ellmers to talk about an article where he claimed “most people living in the United States today—certainly more than half—are not Americans in any meaningful sense of the term.”

Ellmers argued in the piece that “the U.S. Constitution no longer works,” called his foes “citizen-aliens” and “non-American Americans,” and compared those that don’t agree with him to a “zombie or a human rodent.”

And he neatly summed up the role that many at the Claremont Institute seem to see for themselves going forward.

“Paradoxically, the organization that has been uniquely devoted to understanding and teaching the principles of the American founding now sees with special clarity why ‘conserving’ that legacy is a dead end,” he wrote. “Overturning the existing post-American order, and re-establishing America’s ancient principles in practice, is a sort of counter-revolution, and the only road forward.”

And Eastman, Kennedy, Anton, Klingenstein, Williams, and the rest of the Claremont Institute seem ready to wage that fight. 

This piece has been updated to clarify that former Claremont Institute fellow Charles Johnson has separated from group.

Tagged:

Trump, GOP, Republicans, pence, January 6, Capitol riots, big lie, John Eastman, claremont institute

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