Last September, the Trumpist outlet American Greatness published an “epitaph” for the War on Terror by the right-wing writer and scholar Angelo Codevilla. Pegged to the twenty-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, it recapitulated the themes that had preoccupied Codevilla throughout the twenty-first century—above all, the misdeeds of a feckless American Ruling Class that had muddied the distinction between war and peace, losing sight of the essential truth that “all war, all political violence, is about whether a body politic lives or dies.” It was the last piece of writing that the seventy-eight-year-old published in his lifetime. A few days later, he died in a car crash driving home to his vineyard in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.
Codevilla’s death was mourned within conservative circles but mostly unnoticed outside of them. Friends and comrades offered tributes at his longtime intellectual home, the Claremont Review of Books: “an inspirational mentor,” per Peter Thiel; “the prophet who foretold the rise of Donald Trump,” per David P. Goldman. A belated New York Times obituary, the only one in the mainstream press, noted that he “both predicted and gave intellectual shape to the populist revolt against the [Republican] party’s establishment that coalesced behind Donald J. Trump.” More intimately, Codevilla’s youngest son offered lore from his father’s impoverished boyhood in postwar northern Italy: stealing fruit from orchards, bathing in a cauldron, lectures on familial duty from his dressmaker mother at his own father’s graveside, a first experience of hot running water on the boat that brought him to America at age twelve.
Codevilla was an idiosyncratic figure: a working-class immigrant son of Fort Lee, New Jersey; a professor, vintner, and rancher; a political theorist of the “West Coast Straussian” school; a Hill intelligence staffer and ultra-hawkish foreign policy analyst; an early adversary of what his allies would eventually call the “deep state”; a translator of Machiavelli; a prominent critic from the right of the Bush administration’s War on Terror; a late-life champion of populist class revolt. Yet despite this idiosyncrasy, there is a case to be made that he was the emblematic intellectual of the twenty-first-century American right—not the most famous or original intellectual, but the one whose individual trajectory most closely signaled that of the broader movement.
Examining Codevilla’s career is particularly useful as a corrective to the pat narratives of sharp discontinuity that dominate punditry about the contemporary right. The typical story goes like this: the post-9/11 era was dominated by the war in Iraq, which served as the central axis of partisan contention throughout George W. Bush’s presidency. (Over 90 percent of Republicans supported the Iraq invasion at its 2003 onset, according to Pew’s polling, and 73 percent stood by that decision at the end of the Bush years.) But the Bush formula, which combined hawkish foreign policy with a qualified acceptance of government intervention at home, came apart as soon as its standard-bearer left office.
The first break, the story goes, came with the Tea Party, publicly justified as a libertarian revolt against big government. The second break came with Trump, whose supporters evoked a muscular America First nationalism that rejected Bush-style foreign adventurism and Tea Party economic libertarianism alike. Trump himself was willing to lie about his support for the Iraq War, declaring the invasion a “big, fat mistake” during a 2016 primary debate in South Carolina, thereby making dissensus on the war permissible. The post-Trump ideologues who gathered under banners like “national conservatism” and “post-liberalism” called for a populist economics that abandoned Reaganite distrust of state power.
This story of discontinuity is also the one that the self-described New Right tells about itself, and media coverage has tended to echo its rendering of conservative history. But there are reasons for skepticism. For instance, the stark ideological contrast between the Tea Party and Trumpism dissolves on closer inspection. Whatever the Tea Partiers’ green-eyeshade public image, concerns about immigration and racial identity were always central to the movement, as analysts like Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson noticed early on. Conversely, Trump’s reversion to GOP orthodoxy on tax cuts and deregulation provoked remarkably little backlash among supporters who claimed to want to smash the Reaganite “dead consensus.” More broadly, if we step back from the right’s various self-presentations and identify its leading participants, we find that the apparent discontinuity of programs has helped disguise a basic continuity of personnel.
Trump’s seventy-four million voters encompassed a wide range of social strata and ideological currents. Viewed more narrowly in terms of its core activists and operatives, however, today’s MAGA right consists largely of people who were Tea Partiers under Obama and War on Terror hawks under Bush. While the Trump era triggered some prominent defections from conservatism—notably among neoconservatives like Bill Kristol and Jennifer Rubin—the reverse kind of defection has been rarer; Trumpist intellectuals and activists have overwhelmingly been drawn from within the conservative movement rather than outside of it. (“We’d like to dislike Bill Kristol,” one attendee at a recent National Conservatism conference explained to David Brooks, “but he got us all jobs.”) How then did yesterday’s Iraq hawks and Tea Partiers come around to a worldview so apparently hostile to everything they once believed?
Angelo Codevilla, whose work prefigures the eventual populist revolt against conservative orthodoxy, gives us the story in microcosm. After 9/11, when nearly all conservative intellectuals (and many liberal ones) were rallying around the Bush administration, Codevilla was an influential and persistent critic of the administration’s waging of the War on Terror. In the wake of the Great Recession, he helped distill the critique of big government and liberal elitism into a language of class revolt in his essay-turned-book The Ruling Class, popularizing the rhetoric that today is fed nightly to viewers of Tucker Carlson’s show and other right-populist media. In 2016, he fatalistically embraced Trump before many other right-wing elites did, warning in his Claremont Review essay “After the Republic” that the old American regime was dead, leaving Trump as the only choice for conservatives to defend themselves in its aftermath.
Yet Codevilla’s critique of Bush’s foreign policy did not challenge the wisdom of regime change in the Middle East. On the contrary, his main complaint was that Bush wasn’t ruthless and wide-ranging enough in pursuing the “exemplary killing of enemy regimes.” Likewise, Codevilla’s attack on “the Ruling Class” stripped the concept of all economic content, providing a language of anti-elitism that could be wielded against any disfavored group, rich or poor. And the paranoia of his final years—culminating in calls for revolt against an “oligarchy” whose malevolent hand was evident in stolen elections, public-health totalitarianism, and racial-justice rioting alike—was not an entirely unexpected denouement.
Codevilla’s intellectual arc was one of continuity more than discontinuity, its apparent twists masking an underlying consistency. In this regard it might stand in for the fortunes of the American right in an era of continuous war—a war whose front lines gradually moved from the Middle East to Middle America.
Codevilla was one of the leading lights of the right-wing faction centered on the Claremont Institute in Southern California. The “Claremonsters” have achieved notoriety as the most vocal and committed group of Trumpist intellectuals since the beginning of the MAGA movement. Their ranks include Michael Anton, whose 2016 screed “The Flight 93 Election” was published in the institute’s journal, the Claremont Review; Larry Arnn, longtime president of Hillsdale College and head of Trump’s 1776 Commission; and John Eastman, legal scholar and architect of Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election. The intellectual godfather of the Claremonsters, however, died a few months before their champion descended the escalator at Trump Tower. This was Harry Jaffa, renegade disciple of the political philosopher Leo Strauss.
There is a case to be made that Angelo Codevilla was the emblematic intellectual of the twenty-first-century American right.
Strauss’s thought was built around a set of stark polarities: between philosophy and religion (“Athens and Jerusalem,” in Straussian parlance) and between ancient and modern politics. Strauss himself inclined toward the first term in each pair. The moderns had built on the “low but solid ground” of material interest, he famously proclaimed, which meant that their states, while enjoying political stability, would never attain the heights of classical antiquity. A German-Jewish émigré who had fled the Nazis, Strauss did not hesitate to take the American side in the Cold War, but his attitude toward his adopted country remained ambivalent and faintly patronizing. And when orthodox Straussians examined the American founding, they tended to treat it as a pragmatic and somewhat cynical endeavor. Sometimes the results were impressive: for instance, Martin Diamond, a prominent first-generation Straussian, showed how Madison and Hamilton had stolen the label “Federalist” to describe the rather centralized and unfederal government they favored, leaving their opponents, the true federalists, known to posterity as “Anti-Federalists.”
Harry Jaffa was Strauss’s first famous protege. His early masterpiece Crisis of the House Divided displayed a certain complexity in its attitude toward America, lionizing Lincoln as the hero needed to correct the genuine flaws of the American founding. After Strauss died in 1973, however, Jaffa embarked on a series of feuds with former comrades (beginning with Martin Diamond) meant to purge the movement of any lingering doubts about the sanctity of the American project. Thus was born the star-spangled Straussian heresy known as West Coast Straussianism, formed in opposition to the more orthodox East Coast branch. Jaffa’s mature doctrine cast the American founding as simply “the best regime,” reconciling reason and revelation, ancients and moderns, Athens and Jerusalem, Aristotle and Locke—all while maintaining a proper hostility to “lesbians, sodomites, abortionists, drug addicts, and pornographers.” His obsessive homophobia (on display in the most famous of his feuds, with the lightly-closeted leading East Coast Straussian Allan Bloom) reflected the tight alliance with movement conservatism and the Christian right into which he and his followers had entered.
Though East Coast Straussians recoiled from the New Left and shared some of the skepticism about Great Society liberalism common in the neoconservative circles in which they often traveled, they had none of the white-knuckle rage against the New Deal order to be found in other segments of the right. As they saw it, American democracy had been a pragmatic enterprise from the beginning; if Madison had stolen a base or two to get it off the ground, it was no tragedy if FDR had stolen another few to keep it going. For West Coast Straussians, by contrast, the perfection of the American founding made subsequent deviations from it all the more intolerable. Casting Woodrow Wilson and his fellow Progressives as the satanic figures who buried American equality beneath an oppressive administrative state, they sought to roll back the pernicious legacy of the whole twentieth century. Jaffa himself, as a speechwriter for Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign, had penned the famous line that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice . . . and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
Angelo Codevilla came to prominence as a foreign policy pundit, but he never left behind his formation as a West Coast Straussian political theorist. He was Jaffa’s student (and briefly Strauss’s as well), receiving a doctorate in political science from the Claremont Graduate University in 1973. His right-wing politics, well-matched with Jaffa’s, seem to have been fully formed by the time he arrived at Claremont in the late 1960s. Codevilla learned English from John Wayne movies and had a grateful immigrant’s uncomplicated American patriotism; each year he celebrated the anniversary of the day (August 8, 1955) that his ship from Italy pulled into New York harbor. His anti-communism dated back to boyhood brawling with communist rivals in the old country, and he sparred in turn with the campus New Left at Claremont. His devout Catholicism was suited to the West Coast Straussians’ unapologetic embrace of Christianity rather than the more ambivalent East Coast attitude. And the basic narrative of U.S. history that he upheld throughout his career was very much the Claremont story: America, which was essentially good and healthy from the Founding onward, lost its way with the coming of twentieth century Progressivism.
But while his Claremont comrades tended to focus on the fortunes of the American regime at home, Codevilla made his mark writing about its conduct abroad. And while most of them shepherded Jaffa’s legacy from their scattered footholds in the universities, Codevilla’s own path included a long detour from the academy.
Loving the Bomb
A stint in the Navy interrupted Codevilla’s academic career, after which he found himself stuck teaching at what he would remember in a 2019 interview with Tablet as “a jerkwater college in Pennsylvania.” Looking for an exit, he joined the Foreign Service, then ended up working for Senator Malcolm Wallop, a Reaganite Republican from Wyoming. As a staffer on the Senate Intelligence Committee, his day-to-day concerns centered less on political theory than on spies, bombs, and budgets. He would later describe poring over the two-foot-tall stack of budget requests for the entire U.S. intelligence community, asking officials some of “Aristotle’s simple questions”—What purpose does this activity serve? By what standards is it judged?—and coming away unimpressed with their answers.
If we step back from the right’s various self-presentations and identify its leading participants, we find that the apparent discontinuity of programs has helped disguise a basic continuity of personnel.
When the Reagan administration took power, Codevilla served on its transition teams for the State Department and the CIA, the two agencies he loathed above all others, and evidently made a vivid impression. (He has a cameo in Veil, Bob Woodward’s 1987 CIA chronicle, as “an extremely conservative fire-thrower” looking to break up the agency.) Through the end of the Cold War he was a hawk’s hawk, a champion of Reagan’s doomed Strategic Defense Initiative—the missile-defense plan nicknamed “Star Wars”—and an opponent of arms control agreements with the USSR.
He joined other right-wing critics of the mainstream intelligence community—Albert Wohlstetter, Richard Pipes, Richard Perle—who charged that the CIA was too sanguine about Soviet good faith and the deterrent effects of mutually assured destruction. In the mid-1970s, this cohort had pushed the “Team B” project, which publicized alarmist and largely inaccurate claims about Soviet military capabilities and belligerent intentions. (Similar concerns in the run-up to the Iraq War led to the formation of the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans, which cherry-picked the most lurid claims about Saddam Hussein’s regime to counter the CIA’s allegedly dovish bias.) Their pet project, missile defense, was intended to render mutually assured destruction obsolete by enabling the United States to fight and win a nuclear exchange with the USSR. For Codevilla it would remain a lifelong fixation: even at the end of his career, when he had become gloomily resigned to America’s slide into a “cold civil war,” he retained a wistful hope that the country’s feuding tribes might manage to “unite around missile defense.”
Codevilla’s sharpest books date from this period. War: Ends and Means, coauthored with the political scientist Paul Seabury, laid out the astringent view of military strategy that would underpin his later foreign policy writings. Effective warmaking, it held, requires a prior understanding of the peace that one hopes to attain, a clear-eyed identification of the enemies who stand in the way of this peace, and a ruthless willingness to dispatch these enemies. In emphasizing the need to sharply distinguish peace and war, and the ultimate primacy of peace, Codevilla claimed inspiration from Augustine: “War is the avenue to peace via the gateway of the enemy’s death or submission,” he would later write, and the whole point of waging wars is to end them.
Informing Statecraft offered an enjoyably acerbic takedown of the U.S. intelligence community in general and the hated CIA in particular. Codevilla’s populist sensibility was on display here, as the proudly plebeian Jersey boy took an evident pleasure in skewering tweedy CIA mandarins with impossibly Waspy names like Sherman Kent and Abbot Smith. But there was a deeper point to his attacks, one shared with other Straussian critiques of the foreign policy establishment like Gary Schmitt and Abram Shulsky’s “Leo Strauss and the World of Intelligence.” The CIA mandarins imagined a value-neutral world in which their rivals were cosmopolitan reflections of themselves, failing to understand that they lived in a world of warring values, of enemies who genuinely believed in the ideals they proclaimed, and of regimes that differed from American democracy in their very essence.
Codevilla left the Hill in 1985 for Stanford’s conservative Hoover Institution (where a young Peter Thiel worked as his research assistant), then moved in 1995 to a professorship at Boston University. Through the end of the twentieth century, there was little differentiating him from the neoconservative defense hawks who blurbed his books and read his articles in Commentary. His criticism of the first Bush administration for leaving Saddam Hussein in power after the Gulf War would soon be shared by many neocons. Nor was his lack of interest in democracy promotion unusual; contrary to the common identification of neoconservatism with democratization, the movement spent the Cold War urging support for friendly “authoritarian” governments of the right against those ostensibly “totalitarian” ones of the left. The Soviet threat had helped paper over a range of underlying differences among American hawks; the splits between them became evident only in the twenty-first century.
There was a distinct Claremont line on the War on Terror, and Codevilla was the person most responsible for formulating it. He acquired his reputation as a foreign policy dissident in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, laying out his indictment in a series of articles in the Claremont Review that were later collected as the book No Victory, No Peace. His willingness to criticize the Bush administration became a central pillar of his later reputation, and his admirers have been happy to encourage the impression that he opposed the Iraq War. (Recent features on the Claremont Institute in both the New York Times and Washington Post have followed the Claremonsters’ own depictions of themselves as Iraq War opponents.) To the contrary, Codevilla emerged after 9/11 as the single most forceful advocate of the invasion.
Codevilla came to prominence as a foreign policy pundit, but he never left behind his formation as a West Coast Straussian political theorist.
Afghanistan was “just a place on the map,” a distraction from the real task at hand. Codevilla had his doubts about the extent of Osama bin Laden’s involvement in 9/11, suspecting that the attacks had actually been “organized by Iraq.” Besides, he saw it as a mistake to focus too much on the precise culpability for any individual attack; the key question, as always, was “who is the enemy whose death brings us peace?” Answering this correctly meant “not bothering much with al-Qaeda,” for the enemy could not be an ill-defined phenomenon like terrorism, or even a transnational terrorist network. The real enemies had to be regimes, that central term of classical as well as Straussian political theory.
Killing regimes entailed not just a formal change of leadership, but the literal killing of the few thousand people who made up the regime’s core.
Yet the Bush administration, Codevilla charged, showed little sign of recognizing this fact. The usual suspects at State and CIA, useless as always, were intent on limiting the war to a police operation against al-Qaeda. The president himself was fatally indecisive—Codevilla nicknamed him “Hamlet.” Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon at least understood that “the path to victory lay in changing hostile Arab regimes,” but even that was not specific enough. What was required was “the exemplary killing of enemy regimes,” not to be confused with democratizing them.
Killing regimes entailed not just a formal change of leadership, but the literal killing of the few thousand people who made up the regime’s core. Not that the United States would have to perform this task by itself: “Fortunately, those regimes whose death would give us peace have enemies who are eager to kill them.” In Iraq, this meant arming the Shiites and Kurds who had been oppressed under Saddam’s Sunni-dominated regime, then leaving them after the invasion to do as they wished. They were unlikely to be careful about “killing only the strictly guilty,” but the regime core would surely be included among the much larger number of slaughtered Sunnis. It mattered little what kind of government ruled Iraq when the dust settled. Anyone would grasp the need to avoid Saddam’s fate by rooting out the sources of anti-American terrorism.
The war would begin in Iraq but could not end there, Codevilla insisted, for there were other terror regimes to be killed. He urged the United States to support an Israeli invasion of occupied Palestine to annihilate the Palestinian Authority. “After Iraq and Palestine, it would be Syria’s turn.” If a palace coup in Damascus failed to materialize, a U.S. invasion of the country would be necessary. (The fallout of empowering a Shiite majority to kill a Sunni regime in Iraq while aiding a Sunni majority to kill an Alawi regime in neighboring Syria was not a U.S. concern.) The Saudi regime would likely collapse of its own accord, after which the one part of the country that mattered—its oil fields—could be placed under the “joint international supervision” of the United States and Russia. With the main terror regimes dead, the United States could turn to smaller matters like Iran.
In any case, Codevilla’s immediate message was the need to attack Iraq—yesterday would have been best, but tomorrow would still do. The war would surely have happened with or without his intervention: contrary to his fretting, the Bush administration seems to have been set on the invasion from early on. But his message was heard, and it was influential. “Codevilla was right. He usually is,” enthused William F. Buckley, aging founder of the modern conservative movement, in a 2002 symposium on Codevilla’s thought. What was he right about? Buckley spelled it out: “Something much larger than bin Laden needed decapitation,” and “a great deal was to be gained by precisely condemning a real enemy—Saddam Hussein, a head of state—to death.”
“America and the world owe George W. Bush a debt of thanks,” Codevilla wrote as the war got underway in spring 2003. He never subsequently wavered in his belief that the invasion was correct. But in later years he came to distinguish between “two Iraq Wars,” the invasion and the subsequent occupation, the latter of which squandered the initial victory in the naive hope of establishing a democratic Iraq. With the passage of time, this could be misread as an antiwar stance, in part because the Iraq War has been conflated in retrospect with democracy promotion. Once the initial war rationale based on weapons of mass destruction collapsed, Bush himself leaned harder on democratization as a justification, most famously in his 2005 second inaugural address. Many critics, particularly on the right, were happy to accept this explanation, which suggested that America’s only sin was to be too good-hearted and optimistic.
The actual arguments made in the run-up to the war tended not to be so philanthropic. Thomas Friedman, perhaps the most prominent liberal promoter of the war in the American press, reflected in a moment of uncharacteristic lucidity that democratization, while the “right reason” for war, wasn’t the “real reason”—which was the need, after 9/11, “to go right into the heart of the Arab world and smash something.” While few pundits were so honest, Codevilla and his allies were not squeamish about owning up to the real reason for war. They were known for a time as the “superhawks”—the nickname that Norman Podhoretz bestowed on Codevilla and his Claremont colleagues Charles Kesler and Mark Helprin—due to their enthusiasm for the use of force combined with their indifference to what befell the countries on the receiving end. Far from being dissenters from post-9/11 war fever, they embodied it in its purest form, stripped of all ideological mystification.
If Codevilla was anything but the war skeptic portrayed by his admirers, his actual position—hawkishness shorn of any pretense of humanitarianism—gives a truer indication of the energies that would come to dominate the right. Genealogies of Trumpism often trace it back to paleoconservatives like Pat Buchanan and Ron Paul, who represent one of the only factions on the right that did oppose the Iraq War. But rather than the paleocons using Trump as a springboard to power, it would be more accurate to say that Trumpism colonized paleoconservatism, feeding on its emotional wellsprings and claiming its voter base while discarding much of its actual program. The leading exponents of MAGA foreign policy, beginning with Trump himself, had far more in common with the superhawks.
Take classicist Victor Davis Hanson, whose call to wage war “hard, long, without guilt, apology, or respite” inspired Dick Cheney in the run-up to Iraq, and who in 2019 hit the bestseller lists with The Case for Trump. Or erstwhile fascism scholar Michael Ledeen, who in 2002 was demanding that America turn the Middle East “into a cauldron, and faster, please,” and who would later become a close collaborator of Trump’s disgraced national security adviser and Stop the Steal deadender Michael Flynn. Or Douglas Macgregor, back then an Army colonel pitching a harebrained scheme to conquer Iraq in a blitzkrieg by fewer than thirty-five thousand troops (over four times smaller than the eventual and inadequate invasion force), later Trump’s failed nominee for ambassador to Germany, and today a frequent purveyor of pro-Kremlin talking points on Tucker Carlson’s show.
Or think of Carlson himself, an enthusiastic Iraq hawk who later soured on the war, concluding that Iraqis were “semiliterate primitive monkeys” unfit for democracy. America remained at war, to be sure, but this time its task was to defend against invasion. There was no point wasting energy abroad when the real enemies—non-white migrants and the Ruling Class that abetted them—were here at home. Carlson was not the only one to make this turn.
The third act of Codevilla’s career began in the summer of 2010, when he published a long article in the American Spectator entitled “America’s Ruling Class.” The essay impressed Rush Limbaugh, still the dominant figure in conservative media, who read it aloud on the air, just as he would later do for Anton’s “The Flight 93 Election.” Limbaugh’s endorsement spurred Codevilla to put out a book later that year, The Ruling Class, which was basically the original essay padded out to justify the purchase price. (A third of its page count was spent reproducing the full text of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution.) Codevilla was hardly the first thinker to appropriate the language of class for the right; the ex-Trotskyist National Review cofounder James Burnham was a notable predecessor. But his suggestion that America had “a bipartisan Ruling Class” of corporate and political elites was novel to Tea Party-era conservatives. Only a dozen years later, this rhetoric is inescapable.
Codevilla used the term “class,” but what did he mean by it? He made clear that it was not about economic position. Wealthy “Texas oilmen or California farmers” were not part of the Ruling Class, whose members were united not by any given level of wealth but by the fact that “their careers and fortunes depend on government.” Thus the Ruling Class was actually quite economically heterogeneous: at the top were the true elites, in the middle were “teachers, consultants, and government employees,” and at the bottom were “those who live on any of America’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. streets,” the government’s dependent clients. That said, political power by itself did not confer membership. Even figures of extraordinary authority like Ronald Reagan and Clarence Thomas did not qualify, since they were not “taken seriously by the Ruling Class.” The ultimate test depended on subjective attitudes. Membership meant sharing “the manners, the tastes, and the interests of the class,” and feeling a “sense of intellectual and social superiority over the common herd.”
Much as Marx had seen the modern bourgeoisie generating the proletariat destined to overthrow it, Codevilla saw the Ruling Class generating a rival Country Class “defined in terms of its lack of connection with government, and above all by attitudes opposite to those of the Ruling Class.” This definition meant that the line between classes could cut through an individual C-suite: one corporate executive, who wants his company “to grow by producing a better product at a lower cost,” is Country Class, while “the fellow in the next office,” who “wants it to grow by moving it as close to the feeding trough as possible,” is Ruling Class. Likewise, since public schools were one of the central bulwarks of the rulers’ power, sending one’s children to private school became legible as an act of class rebellion. The Country Class’s “inherently revolutionary objectives” turned out to be indistinguishable from those of the Tea Party: cutting taxes and welfare programs, dismantling the administrative state, breaking the power of public-sector unions, and striking every blow against the smug superiority of the rulers, rich or poor.
Codevilla’s book did not signal any substantive breakthrough in the right’s thinking about the relationship of state and economy. Rather, it marked a rhetorical breakthrough of sorts—a realization that the language of class revolt was malleable enough to be harnessed to a variety of political programs, very much including the revolt of the exurban gentry against the urban poor. While the GOP may never become a genuine workers’ party, it has certainly learned this rhetorical lesson well enough. Fiery denunciations of “elites” are today de rigeur for every up-and-coming Republican politician, even if none of their policies pose much of a threat to Peter Thiel’s bank account.
Codevilla’s favored presidential candidate in 2016 was Ted Cruz, whose domestic program aimed to pummel the Ruling Class with a heavy barrage of upper-bracket tax cuts, and whose foreign policy pronouncements (“I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out!”) promised a healthy dose of the old ultraviolence. But once Trump’s victory in the primary was evident, Codevilla joined his Claremont comrades in getting behind the nominee. “This election is about whether the Democratic Party, the ruling class’s enforcer, will impose its tastes more strongly and arbitrarily than ever,” he wrote in “After the Republic” in September 2016, “or whether constituencies opposed to that rule will get some ill-defined chance to strike back. Regardless of the election’s outcome, the republic established by America’s Founders is probably gone.” Codevilla never pretended to warm to Trump’s personal qualities, but he stood by the president four years later. “Though reelecting Trump makes the republic’s survival possible,” he argued in autumn 2020, “Trump’s defeat guarantees disaster—like in 2016, only much more so.”
The disaster came, not through a genuine defeat but through “an openly manipulated election.” The final year of Codevilla’s output was not very inspiring—a steady stream of stolen-election accusations, anti-vaccine innuendos, and January 6 apologetics published in American Greatness and American Mind, the repetitively named popular outlets of the Claremont set. To the end, he maintained the same basic orientation toward regimes that had guided his career. America had failed to kill the enemy regimes that stood in its way after 9/11, but its own Ruling Class had mutated into an outright “oligarchy” and had set to work “killing the American regime” itself. Now the country faced an outright war between the ruling oligarchy and the remnants of the old republic. “If we are to avoid becoming the oligarchy’s mere subjects,” he wrote in May 2021, “we can and must treat them as the enemies they are.”
As the police were on the oligarchy’s side, friends of the republic faced the same choice between collaboration and defiance as Germans had in 1938. Their only option was to stockpile arms and prepare to fight back. “Call it self-defense groups, neighborhood protection, vigilantes, friends, anything but ‘militias,’” he instructed. “But the essence is the same: rely on yourself and on people who have known each other for a long time—no infiltrators, please—united and armed to take care of themselves as they think best.” The unfinished war had fully come home.
Codevilla’s final posthumous book, published this past May, is America’s Rise and Fall among Nations: Lessons in Statecraft from John Quincy Adams. The title evokes the standard Claremont narrative of American history—the greatness of the Founding corrupted by Progressivism—that underlay his many previous treatments of U.S. foreign policy. The subtitle might seem more surprising: John Quincy Adams, who proclaimed that America “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy,” namesake of the country’s leading non-interventionist think tank, tends to be a hero to foreign policy doves.
Much as Marx had seen the modern bourgeoisie generating the proletariat destined to overthrow it, Codevilla saw the Ruling Class generating a rival Country Class.
The book quickly dispels any impression that Codevilla turned over a new leaf at the end of his career. Rather, he complains that figures like Adams and George Washington have been appropriated by those seeking “to justify their longstanding preference for diminishing and disarming America,” and aims to restore these statesmen to their proper place as “proud advocates of American greatness.” The book imagines how Adams would respond to the foreign policy challenges of 2022, and the sixth president turns out to be a superhawk in his own right. For instance, “Adams would impose total secondary sanctions on Iran, possibly including blockade—not to democratize its regime, but to kill this enemy for its enmity for America and to do it in exemplary fashion.”
Codevilla was nothing if not consistent. While he always disdained the high-minded ideals with which the American governing class justified its foreign adventurism, his own foreign policy stance, perhaps more modest in the abstract, was even more militaristic when applied to real-world situations. While he always had a populist sensibility and a hatred for elites, he could only understand this group in terms of government power and cultural snobbery, and thus his economics never moved beyond free-market bromides. It was shifting political circumstances, rather than any underlying change in philosophy, that made him look at different points like a Reaganite, a neocon, a Tea Partier, a Trumpist. And however distinctive an individual Codevilla might have been, he was typical in these respects of the broader American conservative movement.
For those who see the story of this movement as one of sharp breaks, Trump looks like a transitional figure. The fact that he maintained a basically hawkish foreign policy and a basically plutocratic domestic policy matters less than his rhetorical gestures at non-interventionism abroad and populism at home, which surely point the way to the future of the right. For those who take such claims of discontinuity with a grain of salt, however, today’s right need not be a bridge to anything markedly different. Invocations of America First that never lead to less war, attacks on “elites” that never touch actual hierarchies of wealth and power—these are longstanding American traditions, stable in their own way.
Readers who know Codevilla only by the policies he advocated are likely to be surprised by the centrality of peace to his thought. War can only be justified as the gateway to peace, he always insisted, and waging war without a plan to finish it is immoral as well as imprudent. He loathed the post-9/11 world of TSA protocols and color-coded terror alerts, perpetual reminders of a war without end. The brutal series of regime killings that he demanded was meant to bring the post-9/11 era to a decisive conclusion, permitting a return to the way things were before. America would live alongside other nations much as its citizens would live alongside one another, seeking only to pursue their own interests without interference.
But neither states nor individuals have neatly delimited spheres of activity; they interfere with one another in ways that vary according to historical circumstances. The relevant question is not whether we should advocate the impossible ideal of non-interference, of leaving others alone to be left alone in turn. The question is how we deal with our inevitable interdependence. Do we accept it in a spirit of reciprocity? Or do we jealously guard our own imagined sphere, treating each intrusion as a threat to be met with force?
The American right might genuinely feel that it seeks peace of a sort, that it wants only to be left alone. But its world is one of intrusions, fears, threats. If peace requires strict fidelity to the legacy of the American founding, it is threatened by the most basic attempts to exert collective control over a capitalist economy and to uproot entrenched racial hierarchy. If it requires untrammeled access to the world’s natural resources, it is threatened by any waning of American hegemony or recognition of impending ecological collapse. These days the list of threats expands dizzyingly: migrants, schoolteachers, masks, birthrates, ballots. Little wonder, then, that Codevilla’s war never ended, and little reason to think that it ever could.