THE LEAST INTERESTING MAN IN THE WORLD
by Chris R. Morgan
I have a great idea for a reality show. In which we take a selection of our country’s brightest minds and place them under the employ of a mercurial man who has been given a staggering amount of power. Their objective is to compete for the favor of this man using nothing more than their cerebral faculties. To accomplish this they will be subjected to a number of challenges that will test the limits not only of their ideas but also of their loyalty, integrity, creativity, and moral fortitude. There will be chaos and tension. The stakes will be high but not so high as to stave off backbiting and undermining. Never rule out gratuitous hookups. Of course in the end there can only be one, but the prize will be great, perhaps even timeless. Call it America’s Next Seneca. Sure, this has a small audience, but it is built in and tirelessly dedicated.
Intellectuals love to write about other intellectuals. They love writing about intellectuals they hate. They love even more to write about intellectuals they hate who have come into a position of power apparently through their own intellectual prowess. We who pride ourselves on our sophistication, our intelligence, our eloquence, or anyway our desire to be at “the center of the action,” endure this mindless spectacle again and again. Like the commercials at the Super Bowl, we relish the presentation whether or not we remember what is being sold. It is a practice fueled as much by envy as it is by schadenfreude.
This, anyway, was the vision in my mind when I first saw Michael Anton in the White House pressroom this past week, hunched off to the corner next to his then-boss Ret. Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s former National Security Advisor. If no one had pointed him out he could easily have sunk into Washington DC’s endless sea of bespectacled bipeds. But there he stood with a look that in all likelihood was boredom but struck me as an air of dread somewhere in between an Otto Dix portrait and a house centipede caught in the bathroom light. “From Carl Schmitt to Mike Anton,” William Kristol tweeted last week upon this revelation, “First time tragedy, second time farce.”
In September 2016, Claremont Review of Books published an essay titled “The Flight 93 Election,” named after the fourth plane hijacked in the September 11 attacks. The flight is remembered in particular for failing to reach its intended target. The hostages had rebelled against their captors and crashed the plane themselves away from wider danger. “2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die,” the essay begins. “You may die anyway. You—or the leader of your party—may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees.”
The essay’s byline was “Publius Decius Mus,” a gratingly pretentious style of pseudonym popular among the writers of the Journal of American Greatness, ground zero for the Trumpist intellectuals. Having started as a piecemeal Blogspot, my first suspicion was that JAG was a layered joke. It was only when I heard its contributors were “Claremonsters” that I knew it was very much not. The Claremont Institute, home of the most furious, moralistic, and unsubtle of the Straussians, as I had long feared, found its Redeemer. “The Flight 93 Election,” then, was something of a coming out party for the nü birth of freedom. That Anton was so easily found out speaks to the distinction prose style still fosters in the age of content (and to their credit, West Coast Straussians are very generous, perhaps consciously so, to the lay reader), but the attention he has garnered since, while not exactly unfair, is something of a distraction.
Comparison to Carl Schmitt is loaded and complex; intellectuals love to use it to serve two lines of attack. The frontal attack links any rising brain trustee with the craven, opportunistic legal servant to Hitler’s deepest desires. As the “crown jurist” of the Nazi Party, Schmitt defended emergency powers, the Night of the Long Knives, and the purging of Judaism from all areas of German intellectual life. And he did so with an infernal zeal, though it was never quite as zealous as Himmler and his clique thought it should be.
Then there is the rear attack, which is less of an attack as it is reinforcement. It conjures the Schmitt of Weimar and postwar Germany, the sage whose rigorous and elegant books decimated liberalism at its foundation and also garnered admirers as ideologically various as Leo Strauss, Alexandre Kojève, Raymond Aron, and Jacob Taubes. His work has long outlasted the contexts in which they were written. “In the decade since his death Schmitt has become the most intensely discussed political thinker in Germany,” Mark Lilla wrote. “Hardly a month passes without a book about him or a new edition of his writings appearing there.” The same can be said for the English-speaking world, which keeps multiple titles, however central or extemporaneous to his most well-known thinking, in print.
Schmitt’s betrayal of his own abilities was tragic—albeit later redeemed—while Michael Anton makes a mockery of it by repetition. But the comparison is just as forced as it is loaded.
Michael Anton has a background in national security. He’d served the Bush administration as a proponent of the Iraq War, he’d written speeches for Rudy Giuliani. His most available oeuvre, however, is rooted mostly in cultural criticism featured in several right-wing publications like The Weekly Standard, City Journal, and, of course, Claremont Review of Books. He’s fond of Tom Wolfe as much as he is of Straussianism. He combined those fondnesses into his only book, The Suit: A Machiavellian Approach to Men’s Style, which I cannot judge but suspect is very fun given the sprightly erudition of Anton’s cultural commentary. “I am rather smug about my sauces,” he writes in an essay on line cooking:
I am, for instance, the only person I know who still makes a true demi-glace, which takes three days … . I was once telephoned, through the White House Situation Room by the National Security Advisor, in the middle of this process and told to drop everything and come to the office. Down the drain it all had to go, the wages of divided loyalty. My duck dishes are said by others to be restaurant quality. This is inaccurate but nonetheless gratifying, as flattery often is.
“Flight 93” stands as a definitive articulation of political vision culminating after several years. It is, however, more of a work of agitprop than philosophy, echoing well-tread Claremont bugbears of the “Crisis of the West” with a more overtly populist twist.
Third and most important, the ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty means that the electorate grows more left, more Democratic, less Republican, less republican, and less traditionally American with every cycle. As does, of course, the U.S. population, which only serves to reinforce the two other causes outlined above. This is the core reason why the Left, the Democrats, and the bipartisan junta (categories distinct but very much overlapping) think they are on the cusp of a permanent victory that will forever obviate the need to pretend to respect democratic and constitutional niceties. Because they are.
“Flight 93” is by no means an essay without arguments to make, though they are mostly arguments that could be found anywhere else Trump support, intellectual or otherwise, was likely to emanate. “Flight 93” lives or dies by its tonal poetry, less as an act of persuasion and more a presentation of a state of mind. The aesthete has become the agitator, and his back—our backs—is against the wall:
This is insane. This is the mark of a party, a society, a country, a people, a civilization that wants to die. Trump, alone among candidates for high office in this or in the last seven (at least) cycles, has stood up to say: I want to live. I want my party to live. I want my country to live. I want my people to live. I want to end the insanity.
Reading just the title of “Flight 93” revolted me when I first read the essay. Not as a civil libertarian who always found something objectionable coming out of Claremont, but as a citizen. Specifically a lifelong citizen of the New York metropolitan area, with family and friends spread all throughout the city’s boroughs, as a dependent on Newark Airport, and as one who remembers September 11, 2001, the second day of my senior year in high school, with crystal clarity. There was something unseemly about the use of September 11 as a polemical device. Though it had been done before it had never been done quite with the same wide-eyed urgency and anxiety, as if Scorpio and “Dirty” Harry Callahan somehow got on the wrong sides of his .44 Magnum. This tactic, though cruel and tragic, nonetheless had a point, if not necessarily the one it was meant to make.
The ripples of September 11 are wide and continuous in American society. The rhetorical nod from George W. Bush and others that “everything changed” after the attacks was so frequent as to become hollow by the start of the Iraq War, much like its sibling phrases “never forget” and “mission accomplished.” But I did not disagree. The attacks on September 11 revealed my ignorance about the world and the need for it to be corrected. The optimism pervasive in the 1990s that was taken as granted and solid was in fact much more precarious. This required rethinking how to wield American power in a world of increasing post-Cold War complexity. For me it was a way that favored realism and prudence over the Manichean defiance and utopian patriotism that very quickly ascended.
To an extent, “Flight 93” reflects my call for new thinking in a situation still worsening before it gets better. But in illustrating the point, the essay culls from the more prevalent internalization of the September 11 attacks as an existential event, confirming preexisting prejudices and riling old fears. No one on United Airlines Flight 93 entered the plane with the expectation or desire of having to hurl it to the earth. The horror, desperation, and necessity of that moment of non-consensual sacrifice is impossible to fathom. “Flight 93” speaks less of the moment itself and more of its meaning in a political framework, creating abstraction out of the flesh and steel reality. “Flight 93” recalls, on the one hand, Jean-Paul Sartre’s preface to The Wretched of the Earth. On the other hand, it more readily recalls the Kids on Fire School of Ministry, which depicted in the 2006 documentary Jesus Camp as not so subtly preparing prepubescent evangelical Christians for a final conflict with radical Islam. “This means war,” camp manager Becky Fischer chants to the children. “Are you part of it or not?”
Several people have argued with one another over the pleas and the vision of “The Flight 93 Election.” David Brooks honored it as one of the most significant essays of 2016. To the extent that it made any electoral impression beyond intellectual circles is a matter of speculation, though it is not very likely and it doesn’t really matter. “The Fight 93 Election” is a piece of writing that was always going to be written. That it fell to one author and not another, or that it crested at the exact right moment, isn’t really the point. The essay stands and will remain standing not for its pedigree but for its exhibition of American literary expressionism. It is an essay that feels more conjured than written. Every hex, every malady and aberration plaguing the United States wrung together in a coast-to-coast séance.