Does Trump Still Believe in Trumpism?

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He’s been called “the leading conservative intellectual to make the case for Donald Trump,” his work dubbed “the intellectual source code for Trumpism,” and many other names besides.

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During the 2016 campaign, Michael Anton was an anonymous pamphleteer making an inflammatory case for electing Trump, as a way, he said, of blowing up a complacent and failing system, where both parties were complicit in a foreign policy that had flopped and a domestic situation so perilous America was “headed over the cliff.” It was, he wrote, “The Flight 93 election,” and the times were so dire that Americans had no choice but to charge the cockpit under Trump’s unconventional banner, even if the plane crashed.

Now unmasked as the author of those polemics, Anton today is head of strategic communications for the National Security Council in Trump’s White House, a provocateur turned policymaker with a front-row seat in the ideological fight underway to define Trump’s presidency.

It’s been a confusing few weeks. Republican neocons and Democratic human rights types disillusioned with President Barack Obama are cheering Trump’s Tomahawk missile strike on Syria in response to a murderous chemical weapons attack on civilians. Tensions are rising with Russia, building the wall with Mexico isn’t mentioned much anymore, and NATO, Trump says, is no longer “obsolete.” The pragmatic Wall Street wing is reported ascendant in the White House’s increasingly vicious internecine struggles.

So is the president still the America Firster of the campaign, determined to avoid Middle East quagmires, make nice with Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, take on Chinese currency manipulators, and blow up trade deals?

Does Donald Trump, in other words, still subscribe to the version of Trumpism that Anton and others have articulated?

Absolutely, Anton tells me in a new interview for The Global POLITICO, our weekly podcast on world affairs in the Trump era. Not only that, but Anton’s intellectual hero Machiavelli would approve of the president’s keep-them-guessing foreign policy. “The only thing maybe predictable about his foreign policy is that he says to the world, I’m going to be unpredictable,” Anton says, in a wide-ranging conversation that covers everything from Anton’s choice of pseudonym to the possibility of a military strike in North Korea. “I think he relishes that, to keep adversaries, competitors alike, sort of off balance.”

Anton, who notes that he was present for most of the president’s meetings over whether to launch the Syria airstrike and is shown seated in the Mar-a-Lago photograph of Trump and Co. when the decision was made, argues that the foreign policy commentariat—he refers dismissively to the national security “priesthood” of both parties in his writings—has overinterpreted Trump’s early international moves, mistakenly seeing them as a course correction.

Not so, he says; they are, in fact, signs of the deal-making flexibility and muscular response to challenges Trump promised on the campaign trail as an antidote to what he viewed as Obama’s “weak” leadership in the world.

Bottom line? Trump, he says, “doesn’t intend to use the U.S. military to effect regime change in Syria, which is completely consistent with everything he said during the course of his campaign, not just about Syria, but about other countries.” The president, Anton tells me, is also still eager to pursue reconciliation with Russia despite the current tough words over Russian backing of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad and thinks “that he can even build a positive relationship with Vladimir Putin.”

“A lot of this comes down to people misinterpreting the president’s campaign rhetoric. He never campaigned as someone who would not use military power in any circumstance—U.S. military power. In fact, he said quite the opposite.

"He made it plain that he was willing to use U.S. military power in instances when he thought it was in the national interest. And this is an instance in which he determined it was in the national interest,” Anton says. “So, the people who think that this was some, either a pleasant, or a disastrous, surprise—I leave pleasant or disastrous to their own interpretation, but surprise—I have to say, is maybe a matter of fact, and it didn’t surprise me. So, I don’t know why it surprised so many others.”

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When Michael Anton started writing in obscure journals last year in support of Donald Trump, he had never met the blustery billionaire and saw his advocacy for the decidedly unintellectual candidate as a risky move for a Republican with a safe corporate communications job at the New York asset management giant BlackRock. “It was a very unpopular stance among any kind of mainstream Republican, and certainly any kind of intellectual, even a conservative intellectual, to be pro-Trump,” Anton says.

Enter Publius Decius Mus, the name of a Roman general who sacrificed himself in battle and whose name Anton chose as his pen name. His controversial essays soon went viral. Steve Bannon, Trump’s embattled chief strategist and leader of the White House’s populist nationalist wing, has called Anton’s anonymous Flight 93 article last year “a seminal moment, when Trumpism really started to get an intellectual basis.”

In our conversation, Anton calls his heated rhetoric on Trump’s behalf “Tom Paine-esque, a barbaric yawp” of advocacy for a guy trying to blow up the system. “My argument was and remains that the two-party system had kind of ossified into an almost de facto one-party system, where the letters after people’s names changed, but the ideology didn’t really change, the ideology didn’t really change, and elections didn’t do much to change the government. And then candidate, now-President Trump was the first to really challenge the system, which explains why there was so much opposition, even within his own party, because he was so different than the entire rest of his own party.”

But other commentators, among them both conservatives and liberals, have dinged Anton for justifying everything from neo-isolationism to immigrant-bashing to authoritarianism or even thinly veiled anti-Semitism in making his case for Trump. Not long after he started work at the White House, Anton found himself outed as the Flight 93 author in the Weekly Standard and, he tells me, he stands by the piece and strongly rejects the criticism of his writing as intolerant or worse. “I’ve been called a lot of bad names for what I wrote. A lot of conservatives who used to think relatively well of me, or at least not hate me, they really don’t like me now,” says Anton, who clearly anticipated some of the blowback: He says he picked Decius as his pen name at least in part because of what he had in common with Machiavelli, who “has a bad reputation because of all these outrageous things that he said.”

Now ensconced inside Trump’s tumultuous White House, Anton cuts an unlikely figure to cause such controversy. A dandy compared to the famously rumpled Bannon who tells me presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner is the White House’s best-dressed aide in a skinny-tie-sort of way, Anton even wrote a book about Machiavelli and fashion; he’s a true-believing Trumper who is also an expert on fine wines. He sprinkles his conversation with words like “tautological,” offers a long explanation of the Battle of Vesuvius by way of explaining his pseudonym, and is better known for contributing to the Claremont Review of Books than for appearing on CNN.

In our interview, Anton self-deprecatingly calls himself nothing more than a glorified “flack” in his new job, though Democratic predecessor Ben Rhodes had the same title while assembling an expansive foreign policy portfolio and “mind melding” with Obama. While he never quite answers my question about his exact role as overseer of “strategic communications” in a White House where policy is often seemingly set by presidential tweets, the interview offers a rare on-the-record glimpse inside Trump’s tumultuous NSC, where initial national security adviser Michael Flynn was dumped after a record-short 24-day tenure.

I ask Anton whether it’s really like “Game of Thrones” inside the Trump White House, with staff quarrels played out in real-time news stories and no one sure who will be next to lose the president’s confidence. No, he says, or at least “it’s not an issue in day-to-day work here. You don’t see this stuff going on; you don’t hear about it; it’s not talked about.” As for reports that Bannon, now dumped from his official seat on the NSC Principals Committee after widespread complaints that a political adviser to the president didn’t belong among his top national security advisers, might be on the outs altogether, Anton argues that’s overplayed too. “He still goes to the meetings,” Anton says. “He’s still a close adviser.”

Still, he says, new national security adviser H.R. McMaster has “definitely put his own stamp on the institution,” soothing professional staff who complained bitterly they were frozen out by Flynn by calling an “all-hands” meeting and soliciting feedback on handwritten index cards.

Early in his career, after a stint as a graduate student at conservative Claremont in California, Anton served as a speechwriter on George W. Bush’s National Security Council, where he advocated for the Iraq War he now calls a mistake. What’s the difference between the two White Houses, I ask?

Trump’s is “more freewheeling. It’s exciting, maybe because you really feel like things are changing here,” Anton says. “There’s a real possibility … of a real realignment, that history is being made. Obviously, history was made in the Bush administration too, but I get the feeling that maybe history is really being made here in a way that it hasn’t been made in a long time.”

***

We finish the conversation with Machiavelli, the Italian Renaissance thinker Anton is so obsessed with he refers to him as “Nick.”

“I think he would like the president’s unpredictability. I think he certainly would like his focus on putting the citizens of his own country first; he would like his small-r republican spirit,” Anton says.

We finish the conversation with Machiavelli, the Italian Renaissance thinker Anton is so obsessed with he refers to him as “Nick.”

But he knows this is perilous turf. Long before Trump’s inflammatory early-morning tweets were a thing, Machiavelli was famous for intellectual discourse that shocked the sensibilities. He used outrage as a weapon and has a 500-year-old bad reputation as a justifier of tyrannical rule to go along with it.

“So when I say that he might be pleased with some of President Trump’s actions, I hope no one interprets that as saying that the murderous Machiavelli, as Shakespeare’s Richard III calls him, is the one I see approving of President Trump’s actions.”

His Machiavelli, Michael Anton hastens to add, is “the great mind” Machiavelli, the humanist and provocateur who “revived Western philosophy in the 16th century.”

It’s a nuanced point, and one I’m not at all convinced Trump himself would have any patience for.

But then again, Machiavelli’s renown and pithy quotes have survived down through the ages. And that kind of pitch to history is just the sort of aspiration that both the shock-jock president and his in-house intellectual can agree on.

Source Politico