Charles Kesler, a professor of political science at Claremont McKenna College, was recently ranked No. 29 on Politico’s list of “50 Ideas Blowing Up American Politics (and the People Behind Them).” Kesler is a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, a prominent conservative think tank, and the editor of their quarterly political publication, the Claremont Review of Books. TSL spoke with Kesler soon after his Politico recognition to discuss the current White House administration, his experience as a conservative professor on a largely liberal campus, and all things Trumpism.
TSL: When did you begin to get into politics? What drove your interest in American government?
Charles Kesler: As a child, I was interested in politics. I went to high school and college in the 1970s, so I was growing up politically at the end of the 1960s, which was a very turbulent time in American politics, and if you were conscious it was hard not to be interested in what was going on. That interest grew when I discovered William F. Buckley Jr – I became a subscriber to The National Review, and I read every Buckley book. And then when I was a senior in high school, I met him and interviewed him for the school newspaper. We ultimately became friends. I subsequently did a book with him, and worked briefly at The National Review, and I knew him for the next 35 years or so.
TSL: How would you define your personal politics?
CK: Well, I’m a conservative, obviously, and I guess I would call myself an American conservative, by which I mean I adhere to the conservatism rooted in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and the statesmanship practiced by people like Lincoln and others who have tried to preserve and to transmit that legacy.
TSL: How do you reconcile being a conservative professor in an area considered a “liberal bubble” by many? Do you find that people are eager to engage with a variety of opinions? Has there been a shift in the perception of free speech in the wake of the election?
CK: Claremont McKenna College has always been perceived as the most conservative of the five colleges, and I think that reputation still holds, but the percentage of both professors and students who self-identify as conservative has been decreasing steadily but slowly. We don’t have a particularly conservative student body, but there are definitely conservatives within it; CMC has always been a very civilized place in the sense that there’s civility between all political opinions, and students expect to meet people they disagree with, and they figure out how to disagree amicably.
That has remained true at CMC, although I would say it is a little less true than it was, yet at the other colleges, I am worried. I think that political correctness is very strong in some of them, and pretty strong at the others, and such intolerance and impatience of people with whom you disagree is not good for a liberal arts education.
TSL: What do you perceive as “political correctness?”
CK: When I think of political correctness I think of the kind of political shortcuts that people make when they treat all views except their own as heresy, and want to suppress differing views rather than engage with them. It’s bad enough when that sentiment is held by some faculty members, but in some ways, it’s even worse when a considerable part of the undergraduate population holds that opinion. This was noticeable in the demonstrations at Claremont McKenna last spring – that was a massive eruption of political correctness. There’s all the difference in the world between saying “I disagree with you, and here is my argument” and saying “I’m offended by what you’ve said – please shut up.”
TSL: Politico discussed how many believed that Trump was the “uninhibited ID of American politics.” What was your role in the election, and do you believe Trump represents the emergence of a new movement?
CK: In the magazine I edit, we published arguments for Trump, against Trump, and even arguments that were anti-anti-Trump: they weren’t really for Trump, but they disagreed with his opponents. What I was trying to do in the magazine, during the election cycle, was to get the best arguments possible on all sides of the Trump question, because it seemed to me that the really interesting question was how we should define Trump.
In many ways, he was a phenomenon in American politics. In that sense, the magazine was sympathetic to Trump, in the sense that we took him seriously, and didn’t simply dismiss his as a fraud or a vulgarian, as many of the established conservative publications did. I was interested in Trump – I predicted early that he would win the primary elections, and that he had a very good shot at winning the presidency.
But is there a Trumpism? That is a more difficult question, I think. I don’t think there is a Trumpism yet: not every president needs to have an “ism” – there are very few presidents that get an “ism,” and I don’t believe it’s necessary to be a successful and respected president. Trump had a kind of manifest desire to “Make America Great Again”: he wanted to speak to citizens as citizens, as equals, and not to abide by the politically correct categories of ethnic, racial, gender, and other stereotypes that so many in politics love to use.
TSL: Do you agree with Trump’s sentiment of “Make America Great Again” in the way you described?
CK: Yes, I think in a way what he’s trying to do is restore to American citizens control of their own government. There’s a side of him that is sort of like Andrew Jackson, in being a sort of populist rebel against a Washington establishment of both parties, but there’s also a part of him that harks back to an earlier kind of conservatism, an earlier kind of Republicanism.
I wrote a piece for the magazine and for The New York Times arguing that there are a lot of resemblances between Trump’s brand of conservatism and Calvin Coolidge, and William McKinley, and even before that, Abraham Lincoln. In a way he represents a kind of attempt to fuse some of those older sentiments with the post-Cold War conservative movement.
TSL: Is there a “golden age” of American democracy you believe Trump is referring to, or that you would like to return to?
CK: I don’t necessarily believe in golden ages, in the sense that there was a period of American democracy that was perfect. A famous historian once said that the Jackson era was probably the period in which Americans were happiest, and I don’t know why he said that. I would say that any era of American history that you pick has serious problems, especially socially: if you think of the Jacksonian period, you’re talking about a time when slavery was legal, for example. I think that Trump’s conservatism harks back in a way to post World War II America, in an attempt to recapture the sentiment of national unity and national pride – with all of its problems – the 50s and the early 60s had. I wouldn’t go so far as to call that the “greatest era of American history” or anything – I think it’s true that it had some social virtues that we’ve increasingly lost touch with.
TSL: Politico’s article mentioned that you want to use the Claremont Review of Books – of which you are the editor – to keep Trump accountable. How do you think students at the Claremont Colleges can continue to keep this current administration and future presidents accountable?
CK: I don’t know if I have an original answer to that. You ought to follow politics, and you ought to study politics. The easiest thing to do is obviously to follow the mainstream liberal opinions and to dismiss Trump as a “creature from the lagoon” – someone who has forced his way into American politics but is completely foreign to it. I think that the more you know about American government, the easier it is to understand Trump, and to come to terms with him. It doesn’t mean you have to approve of him, but I think if you know something about Lyndon Johnson, and you know something about Andrew Jackson, and you know something about Teddy Roosevelt, then it would be easier to understand Trump’s agenda and why he won the 2016 presidential election.