It is the responsibility of free men to trust and celebrate what is constant – birth, struggle, and death are constant, and so is love, though we may not always think so – and to apprehend the nature of change, to be willing to change. I speak of change not on the surface, but in the depths – change in the sense of renewal. But renewal becomes impossible if one supposes things that can be constant that are not – safety, for example, or money, or power. One clings then to chimeras, by which one can only be betrayed, and the entire hope – the entire possibility – of freedom disappears.– James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
I’ve always shown that protest is the highest form of patriotism. It’s where people demand a country live up to its stated ideals. And I think the pain that came with the murder of George Floyd—but with a long history of this pain—I think people said, I’m tired of mourning. Let me do something besides mourn. Let me challenge a country to live up to its stated ideals. And I think that’s what you’re seeing in the protests.Lonnie Bunch, interview with Adam Serwer for The Atlantic
On June 3, in the thick of the unrest surrounding the killing of George Floyd, and two days after events at Lafayette square, the Claremont Institute released a public statement on American racism. Its title is “America is not racist.” It is an ugly and incoherent statement. On Tuesday, June 23, they released a second set of remarks (“Stand Up, Republicans”) that is toxic and incoherent, and which targets the Black Lives Matter movement more directly.
The Claremont Institute is the right-wing think tank in California that published the infamous “Flight 93 Election” essay back in 2016, and which has given intellectual support to Trumpism ever since. In 2019, Trump awarded the Claremont Institute a National Humanities Medal. The two statements, penned by the Institute’s chairman, Thomas Klingenstein, and president, Ryan P. Williams, were circulated widely across conservative social media.
It is difficult to know how—or whether—to respond to such pronouncements. After all, Trump makes vulgar, dangerous, and racist remarks all the time, as we saw last weekend in Tulsa. But the Claremont statements offer clear representations of the kinds of genteel, publishable arguments that sustain Trumpism (and racism) among more sophisticated members of the GOP. For that reason, I have chosen to respond. I do so knowing that others are better equipped to take this on (I’m a political theorist, not a scholar of race), and so also in a spirit of humility.
The Claremont statements are short and blustery, and play on standard tropes from the reactionary Right like racist fear-mongering, law and order rhetoric, and strident anti-elitism. But the heartbeat of their position is denial. Not only do the authors deny the extent of American racism. They lead with appeals to American idealism, but conclude that there isn’t any real striving left to do. Along the way, they dodge history and deny evidence, and refuse political agency to ordinary actors.
Klingenstein and Williams’ opening gambit is to proclaim that America is not racist thanks to its founding promise of equality: “There is not—and will never be—a greater barrier to racism, or to tyranny in any form, than this American idea.” This might read as an anodyne claim to some, but it is also a charged affront to the truth. Any honest look at American history demands a frank acknowledgement that, for millions of people, for generations, America’s highest ideals provided no barrier to racism, and no barrier to brutal tyranny and oppression. That is why Samuel Johnson would famously ask, near the time of the Revolutionary War, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes”? That is why Cornel West can write of how “the empire trumpets liberty and opportunity for all” while concealing a distinctly American “chamber of horrors.” That is why the founding ideals have also been called the “world’s greatest political contradiction” (Ibram X. Kendi). For so many, for so long, America’s highest ideals have also been cruel hypocrisies.
Furthermore, the transformations that America has seen since the Founding did not just ‘happen’ as a result of ideals having-been set down. As President Obama explains in his 2008 speech on race, “Words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States.” He goes on: “What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part — through protests and struggles, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience, and always at great risk — to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.” In our own time, Nikole Hannah-Jones offers a more pointed assessment: “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true.” She elaborates in the course of her prize-winning work: “despite being violently denied the freedom and justice promised to all, black Americans believed fervently in the American creed. Through centuries of black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals.” Conservatives have expressed much contempt for Hannah-Jones’ 1619 Project. The Claremont documents make yet another powerful case for the necessity and strength of her approach, which, far from being unpatriotic, is clearly grounded in a hope that Americans can do better. More recently, she writes of our “terribly flawed” but also “miraculous” country.
For their part, Klingenstein and Williams display little interest in grounded evidence or new ideas. They do concede that, in political life, “some will abuse their power.” But then they proclaim with assuredness that “any fair-minded review of the available data demonstrates” that police “do not systematically target innocents.” Racism in America has to do with much more than policing. But setting that big problem aside, others have conducted their own fair-minded review of the evidence of racism in the justice system, and have come to a very different conclusion. The challenge for thoughtful citizens is to come to a judgment on their own. With that end in view, it’s worth comparing the evidence trusted by the Claremont gentlemen (they direct us in a Tweet-thread to an article by Heather MacDonald), to the work of Radley Balko. As Balko puts it in the introduction to his own long catalog of the relevant research (a list that includes research used by MacDonald): “after more than a decade covering these issues, it’s pretty clear to me that the evidence of racial bias in our criminal justice system isn’t just convincing – it’s overwhelming.” Lyman Stone, writing at The Public Discourse, also provides a useful summary of the data surrounding police violence and race.
Klingenstein and Williams are satisfied with MacDonald’s tailored answers to the narrower question of racism in policing, and soon pivot to the broader question of public perceptions. If racism is such a non-issue, then what is going on in our country? Their answer here is sad and predictable. It’s also changeable. In the first statement, they claim it’s the fault of liberal elites:
Why is it that so many of our citizens believe that America is racist to its core? Because this lie has been preached by our universities and media like the Gospel for a generation. From there it has traveled throughout society, particularly among the elite. Even most leaders on the Right are unwilling to refute this destructive untruth. In failing to do so, they promote the falsehood, the riots that it has engendered, and ultimately America’s destruction. This is to say, the riots are the handiwork of the elite.
This kind of argument is Republican boilerplate by now, but that doesn’t stop it from being toxic and destructive. For one thing, it assumes that elites are operating in bad faith, rather than from hard-earned experience, learning, and conviction. And it’s tiresome, of course, to see anti-elitism purveyed by the chairman and president of a California think tank.
In this context, however, the argument displays more than thoughtless populism and hypocrisy. By attributing the increased awareness of racism singularly to America’s elites, the Claremont gentlemen infantilize and deny agency to all those who are allegedly under elite sway. The claim that “the riots are the handiwork of the elite” erases the political agency of the protestors. It reduces each of them to peons of the Democratic establishment – and to violent, destructive ones at that. It is fitting that the original statement does not refer to the massive peaceful protests at all, just as it fails to mention George Floyd’s killing. It speaks instead of our “nationwide riot,” of “flames,” and “destruction,” and “evil.” And while the “fair-minded” Claremont men speak in these explosive, racially-charged terms about elite-induced violence, they stay silent about police brutality, and say nothing about the administration’s actions at Lafayette square.
In the second statement, our authors shift their blame away from amorphous elites to target the leaders of Black Lives Matter. We get a cherry-picked parade of some movement members’ most radical claims. Its leaders are depicted as dangerous “captors” of an innocent country. If BLM succeeds, we learn, “it will be fatal to America.” Again, there is no mention of the massive peaceful protests, nor of any brutality on the part of police officers, nor of any missteps by the administration.
It’s hard not to see how malicious this rhetoric is, and how excruciating these silences are.
Klingenstein and Williams conclude their little proclamations with gestures towards the electoral future. They are worried about the choice Americans have to make this election year, just as they were worried back in 2016. But now, as back then, the matter is very simple, in their minds: “the great divide in America is between those who believe that America is evil and needs to be destroyed, and those who believe that America is good and needs to be preserved… The nation has a party devoted to transforming the American way of life; it needs a party devoted to preserving the American way of life.” By their lights, the Democrats and Black Lives Matter seek “transformation” and are therefore trying to destroy the country, whereas Republicans want preservation, and that means not having to change.
The problem is that striving leads to change, just as destruction does, and preservation should be reserved for what is good. What exactly is it that the Claremont intellects want to preserve? In both statements they gesture vaguely towards the “American way of life,” with no acknowledgment that it is a deeply contested notion, and zero recognition that this ideal has ever been anything but a tangible reality for all. In their second set of remarks they point to the Declaration, suggesting that “leaders on the Right” should stand “unflinchingly for the America of 1776—the America of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.” Suffice it to say, it would be good to know the real historical moment the Claremont gentlemen would point to and declare, concerning racial equality or any other of this country’s noblest ideals, “Ok, that was it, good enough, that’s what we want to preserve. No more striving necessary, we get the holding pattern from here on out.”
Under better circumstances, statements as glib, incoherent, and divisive as those put out by the Claremont Institute would not need to take up anyone’s time. They ignore real evidence, deny whole swaths of the citizenry their legitimate agency, use racist rhetoric, and hollow-out the very idea of American aspiration and moral striving. It says a great deal that these are some of the most coherent intellectual voices sustaining the Republican party today. They might speak more clearly than Trump, but the refusal of reason is the same.
This is a sad time for the GOP, and a precarious time for everyone. The massive multiracial George Floyd protests are a beacon for our democracy.