Not your average scholar. / Gage Skidmore

Trump’s Willing Scholars

Presenting American Affairs, the only antidote to elitism

Not your average scholar. / Gage Skidmore
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Welcome to This American Carnage, your weekly slice of life from the country of Trump.

Trump’s rise has been described as “anti-intellectual” in nature, but that hasn’t stopped a new intellectual movement from feeding off his momentum.

Enter American Affairs, a boldly-titled journal that made its debut at the end of February. While outlets with similar leanings—such as the Claremont Review of Books and American Greatness—have existed on the fringes for some time, American Affairs is truly a product of the election. It’s not Trump’s vulgarity that the journal seeks to borrow, or even his swagger. It’s his knack for convincing people that he is staunchly anti-elite, even as he surrounds himself with tokens of prestige.

Run by a group of wannabe disruptors (the editor is Julius Krein, described by Politico as a “30-year-old conservative wunderkind”), American Affairs promises to throw out “conventional dogmas” and take aim at complacent elites. The best way to do that, as everyone knows, is to write a plodding seven-thousand-word essay and call it “The Anxieties of Conservatism,” as Gladden Pappin did for the journal’s first issue

Pappin, a research assistant professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame and the journal’s deputy editor, attempts to mount an outsider’s critique on behalf of those left behind by conservative orthodoxy. Tapping into the atmosphere of angst hanging over conservatism, he highlights some of the underlying weaknesses spotted by fellow intellectual Trumpists—including Publius Decius Mus (a.k.a. Michael Anton, who’s now working in the White House)—in the mainstream GOP.

Pappin identifies fusionism as a particularly noxious aspect of mainstream conservative thought. This “patchwork ideology” has transformed the conservative movement into “a checklist of incongruent planks” of free market worship, managerialism, and social conservatism. According to Pappin, these insurmountable ideological flaws have meant that orthodox conservatives failed to provide “basic aspects of sovereignty, security, and equality that the American polity was formed to preserve.” As Joshua Mitchell, a political theory professor at Georgetown, stresses elsewhere in the issue, what arose as a result was “a revolt in the name of national sovereignty.” Trump embodied this revolutionary impulse.

There’s some truth to Pappin’s critique. American conservatism is, as he says, “incongruent.” What Pappin and other American Affairs authors willfully ignore is that instead of repudiating the long arc of conservatism, Trump is the natural outcome of the GOP’s tradition of moral bankruptcy. And even if Trump were the disruptor these new conservative intellectuals wanted him to be, his particular grab-bag of policies is eclectic at best.

So what should we make of these Trump-loving intellectuals, eager to hold the high ground of outsiderism? Like many of his fellow American Affairs contributors, Pappin is an unlikely candidate for trumpeting the anxieties of working-class Americans. A graduate of Harvard College and the university’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, this “promising young conservative”—in the words of Daniel McCarthy of The American Conservative—is probably best known in certain circles for an ill-advised rant against his alma mater. In 2002, Pappin took to the pages of The Harvard Crimson to berate the college for apologizing for its expulsion of homosexual students in 1920. Not only should we acknowledge that homosexual “activities are . . . perverted and unnatural,” he wrote in a letter to the editor, we ought to refrain from giving too much attention to “lifestyles [that are] better ignored and repressed by all of us.” (His opinion was—surprise!—not well received.)

After all, nothing screams “revolt against the elites” like pining after the elites of yore.

Hannah Gais is The Baffler’s audience development associate and a curmudgeonly freelance writer. Her work has appeared in Pacific Standard, Commonweal, Outline, Al Jazeera America, U.S. News and World Report, First Things, and many more outlets that she’s too lazy to name. 

You can find her on Twitter @hannahgais.

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