February 12, 2017
Let’s say you are a top official on the National Security Council and Donald Trump requests a memo explaining the purpose of his chaotic presidency. What are the odds you would draft a 4,000-word essay arguing that America is like a doomed aircraft that’s been hijacked by terrorists in which Trump has madly rushed the cockpit and seized the controls but we still might die because he doesn’t know how to fly the plane?
That would be an unusual memo, even if its first paragraph didn’t actually evoke the tragedy of United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania on 9/11 after its passengers tried to wrest control of the jet from its al Qaeda hijackers. Yet a senior member of the NSC named Michael Anton has written precisely that justification of the Trump presidency — not as an NSC memo, but as an anonymous article for an arch-conservative website, published two months before the election, when Anton was still a private citizen.
The article, headlined “The Flight 93 Election,” caused a minor stir when it came out. Conservatives who didn’t like Trump were aghast at its strange endorsement of the brutish candidate, while liberals thought it showed the crackpot essence of the conservative case for the reality TV star. There was also the buzz of a guessing game: Who wrote this incredible thing? Here’s how the article began:
2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die. 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. Except one: if you don’t try, death is certain. To compound the metaphor: a Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto. With Trump, at least you can spin the cylinder and take your chances.
On February 2, the guessing ended when the Weekly Standard revealed Anton as the author. More crucially, the magazine also revealed that Anton had just been hired as the senior director of strategic communications at the NSC and accurately described him as “the leading conservative intellectual to argue for the election of Donald Trump.” This cast Anton’s five-month-old essay, as well as other articles he has written, in a new light — they are virtually the only attempt by a Trump insider to present a holistic explanation of what his presidency stands for and seeks to accomplish. The outing of Anton has inadvertently exposed the intellectual source code of Trumpism.
Of course, Trump and his senior aides have issued a steady outpouring of startling statements and tweets about the administration’s ideas and plans. There’s also been a flurry of radical executive orders and appointments of cabinet officers whose backgrounds — as billionaires or Christian warriors or civil rights opponents — provide alarming data points. A number of officials have written crude and inflammatory books in years past, such as Michael Flynn, the retired general who heads the NSC. And, yes, there’s the case of Steve Bannon, the former Breitbart executive who is Trump’s senior adviser. But nobody in the administration has drawn up a real-time ideological blueprint to explain the intentional chaos of what’s happening under Trump — except, as it now turns out, Michael Anton, whose radical theories have been compared to those of a German philosopher named Carl Schmitt, who helped lay the legal foundations of the Nazi Party.
In the beginning, Anton attended Claremont Graduate College, an incubator for conservative thinkers. He became a speechwriter and press secretary for New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, then took a mid-level job at the NSC in the George W. Bush administration. As the Weekly Standard reported, he was part of the team that pushed for the disastrous invasion of Iraq. Anton left the government in 2005 and became a speechwriter for Rupert Murdoch at News Corp., followed by several years in the communications shop at Citigroup, then a year and a half as a managing director at BlackRock, the asset management firm.
In September, using the pseudonym Publius Decius Mus, a Roman consul who died on the battlefield, Anton published his Flight 93 essay at the Claremont Review of Books and followed it up with additional posts responding to his critics. While those got noticed, he had actually written a far longer article in March that few people had read, and its edges were even sharper. Bearing the title “Toward a Sensible, Coherent Trumpism,” it began by noting that “Trump himself — no man of ideas, to say the least — is unsuited to the task of thinking through what his popularity means or how to build on it. Others will have to do the real work.” In an effort to justify the “America First” slogan that Trump was beginning to use, the article argued that the anti-Semitic “America First Committee” of the early 1940s, which opposed U.S. entry into World War II and was supported by Charles Lindbergh, had been “unfairly maligned” and was just an “alleged stain” on U.S. history. Anton described diversity as “a source of weakness” and one of the “ridiculous lies” that have been foisted on America by its liberal overlords.
The essays had two targets: the liberals who had so deeply degraded America that it might never recover unless there was an insurrection, and the complacent conservatives who abetted it all. (Ironically, Anton was fiercely critical of what he described as “the Davos overclass,” though BlackRock, his employer at the time, was a cornerstone of it.) The liberal establishment didn’t get terribly upset, but some conservatives turned livid over these impolite rants from an anonymous writer hiding behind the 3,000-year-old robes of a Roman consul. This is how Anton described the generation of conservatives whom he deemed insufficiently radical and energetic:
The whole enterprise of Conservatism, Inc., reeks of failure. Its sole recent and ongoing success is its own self-preservation. Conservative intellectuals never tire of praising “entrepreneurs” and “creative destruction.” Dare to fail! they exhort businessmen. Let the market decide! Except, um, not with respect to us. Or is their true market not the political arena, but the fundraising circuit?
One conservative retort, from the writer Ben Shapiro, was bluntly headlined, “The Widely Praised ‘Flight 93 Election’ Essay Is Dishonest and Stupid.” Shapiro described Anton’s essay as “incoherent, mind-numbing horseshit,” faulting him for repeating his noxious points “like a dog licking its own vomit.” Another conservative critique, from Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, described the essay as “a master class in overwriting,” and added, “seldom has a pseudonym been more needful to protect an author’s reputation.”
Gerson’s critique was not all jokiness. One of the most disturbing elements of Anton’s writings is the racism deeply baked into them. In the Flight 93 essay, Anton described the Black Lives Matter movement as one of many “inanities” of America. The election of Hillary Clinton, he warned, could mean “a million more Syrians” getting into the country. (In 2016, the United States accepted 12,587 Syrian refugees, and Clinton proposed raising the number to 65,000.) Muslims who come to America “change us — and not for the better,” Anton wrote. (Anton did not respond to a request for comment.)
The dark value of Anton’s work is that it makes plain the bigotry of Trumpism before Trump and his supporters won the election and became a bit more careful about what they said. There’s nothing that Steve Bannon has written or said in recent years that comes close to the clarifying sweep of Anton’s essays, which are not just a product of racism but an argument for it. Gerson put his finger on this:
When you shift through all the hyperbole and insults of “The Flight 93 Election,” you are left with a residue of prejudice. The author refers to “tribal, sub-Third-World foes” and “the ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty” who are making America “less traditionally American with every cycle.” Immigrants are typically guilty of “rape, shooting, bombing or machete attack.” Their importation is the sign of “a country, a people, a civilization that wants to die.” Trump, in contrast, would say, “I want my people to live.” Just think on that. Who exactly is “my people”?
To save America, Anton proposes a blitz of desperate actions. The point, he argues, is to take exceptional and potentially suicidal steps (the rushing-the-cockpit scenario) because the America that conservatives aspire to preserve faces total elimination. He reveals this in a section of his essay that looks at the intentions of “the Left.” Some of the Left regard conservatives as Nazis, he writes: “How does one deal with a Nazi — that is, with an enemy one is convinced intends your destruction? You don’t compromise with him or leave him alone. You crush him.”
The flip side of believing your enemies want to crush you because you are a Nazi is the belief that you must crush them first. “So what do we have to lose by fighting back?” Anton asks. “The Left, the Democrats, and the bipartisan junta (categories distinct but very much overlapping) think they are on the cusp of permanent victory that will forever obviate the need to pretend to respect democratic and constitutional niceties.” Anton’s ideology has a temporal as well as political edge: It is now-or-neverism.
When the news broke that Anton had been appointed to the NSC, William Kristol posted an acid tweet connecting him to a legal theorist who provided intellectual cover for the Nazi Party: “From Carl Schmitt to Mike Anton: First time tragedy, second time farce.” Kristol is the godfather of contemporary neoconservatism and a leader of the Never Trump movement, so part of Anton’s rant was directed at mandarins of the right like him. Kristol didn’t take it well.
Carl Schmitt was a highly regarded intellectual in Weimar Germany when he joined the Nazi Party in 1933 and became a prominent and enthusiastic supporter of the worst anti-Jewish laws that were soon enacted. His detractors have referred to him as “Hitler’s Crown Jurist,” and after World War II he was held for more than a year at an allied internment camp for Nazis. His intellectual legacy is complicated, and his ideas, which retain influence today, have taken hold on the anti-liberal extremes of both the left and the right.
Schmitt despised liberalism and, as Michael Lind explained in an incisive article two years ago, made a philosophical argument for a type of populism led by “a charismatic leader who saves the people from danger by acting decisively, outside of the law if necessary.” This is sometimes referred to as “decisionism,” in which authority is derived from taking action, strong action, without necessarily having a plan or needing to show positive results or following the law. The opening line of Schmitt’s 1922 book, “Political Theology,” gets at some of this: “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.” One of the most important tasks of leadership, according to Schmitt, is to identify and fight against a common enemy. As he put it in one of his most-cited lines, “The high points of politics are simultaneously the moments in which the enemy is, in concrete reality, recognized as the enemy.” Lind described Schmitt’s view of the political world in this way: “The exception is the rule. The emergency is the norm. The nation is constantly on the verge of collapse and threatened by enemies without and within.”
The echoes between Schmitt’s ideas and Trump’s presidency have been the subject of academic murmurings for a number of months. Quinta Jurecic, an associate editor of the blog Lawfare, noted in an essay a few weeks before Trump took the oath of office that he “has given us genuine reason for concern that he may actually represent the Schmittian nightmare feared by many on the left and in the civil libertarian community after 9/11.” A few weeks later, after Trump had issued his sweeping anti-Muslim travel ban, a professor at George Mason University, Mark Koyama, described the 45th president as “a perfect Schmittian. With the stroke of a pen, he has drawn an arbitrary distinction between friends and enemies of the United States.”
The outing of Anton in the Weekly Standard was accompanied with a picture of him on the sidelines of a press briefing at the White House. He doesn’t look fearsome. He is thin, with large glasses, unfashionably wide tie, and he is holding a green notebook in one hand and two pens in the other. He looks a bit uncertain, very much the image of a middle-aged white intellectual who is more comfortable with books than the spotlight or actual struggle. His mild manner in that picture contrasts with the unforgiving belligerence of his ideas.
In his inaugural address, Trump used the phrase “American carnage” to describe the way things are now. Trump was wrong about the state of our nation, which is not a wasteland from coast to coast. But if Anton’s deadly Flight 93 vision comes true, carnage may well describe our future.