Michael Anton’s “The Stakes”: A Review
Michael Anton became the most important conservative intellectual during the Trump years, the only one to give a political explanation of the elections of 2016 and 2020, something intellectuals, voters, politicians could all agree on. His career as a political writer started with the only pamphlet of the decade likely to be remembered. The Flight 93 Election, written under the pseudonym Publius Decius Mus, was a success that broke the Claremont Review of Books website, shortly before the 2016 election (leading to republishing at American Greatness). He was the only intellectual willing to use political dynamite: “A Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto… With Trump, at least you can spin the cylinder and take your chances.” Times are desperate; the Left’s march through our institutions is near complete. If conservatives really believe what they say about what will happen if Leftist policy and ideology come to rule, the bill for decades of decadence and failure is coming due. What do we have to lose?
“Charge the cockpit or you die.”
And manifest signs that our institutions are breaking down exist nearly everywhere. Everything is broken. Economic efficiency is cratering. The economy is not serving the country as a whole. The government — no longer even good at its fundamental tasks — is focused on a bunch of petty tyrannical projects, like forcing cake-bakers to bake the cake, or more pernicious ones, like making Critical Race Theory mandatory education. Immigration, meanwhile, has practically transformed America. Three generations of family decline have got to sap the soul out of the country. The chances for conservatives to act, and for institutions to function properly, shrinks year after year. Yet, despite the evidence, Anton wrote in 2016, conservatives seem unwilling “even to entertain the possibility that America and the West are on the trajectory toward something very bad.”
In the run-up to the 2020 election, he again shaped public debate with The Coming Coup? published on the Claremont Institute’s the American Mind. Anton warned conservatives the ruling elite was “openly talking about staging a coup” against Trump. They would, he predicted, try to engineer a victory in November through harvesting absentee ballots and then rely on the military if ballot harvesting did not prove enough. Trump would appear to win on election day, but new ballots would emerge. Not long after the election, elite minions started boasting of how they had executed the coup in the pages of TIME! This is the most astonishing example of what Anton calls “celebration parallax” — if he says it’s a coup, then he’s a conspiracy theory nut, but if TIME boasts about it, then it’s the very salvation of democracy. Depending on who makes the argument, it’s either holy or unholy, sane or insane, true or false.
Anton’s earlier work exposed the inadequacy of the conservative establishment, but in his new analysis of America, The Stakes: America at the Point on No Return, he performs a full dissection of the Left. The liberal republic is probably over. A new future awaits America and the rest of the world, ruled by the rich oligarchs atop our multi-national corporations, who control or at least manipulate their woke minions, the enforcer arm of oligarchy. The woke are important because in their shameless attacks and demands they reveal the threat the new ruling class poses to the American way of life: “Inequality before the law”, he writes, “based on race, but also on sex and sexual orientation — is the true animating principles of the American regime as it exists and operates now.”
For decades now, we’ve sensed the Overton window narrowing on issue after issue, threatening our deliberation on our way of life. (I certainly have: I write on Feminism and the family!) But the Trump years have caused an acceleration that helps us see how our Oligarchy preempts political competition. Anton daringly claims the culture wars are the way oligarchs deflect attention from themselves. They subsidize the woke who keep the revolution going through the Narrative (the story they tell about historical oppression and history-making anti-racism), but that Narrative can only survive criticism because of the Megaphone (the propaganda media) and the Muzzle (mechanisms for shaming and silencing dissent).
Try and ask whether disparities between blacks and whites in education or crime were traceable to lingering discrimination or problems in the black sub-culture, and see for yourself. You’re a racist! America used to debate; that doesn’t happen anymore. Systematic racism tyrannizes and oppresses American blacks, period. That is the Narrative. The commanding heights of America — from the NBA to Instagram influencers, nearly every commercial and virtue-signaling corporations like, now, Walmart to local school districts — repeat the mantra, and supporting BLM is thus become a moral imperative (the Megaphone). But with it comes the Muzzle — cancel culture and Silicon Valley censorship of dissident voices, so the illusion of consensus or unanimity is created. Now rinse and repeat on every issue — from coronavirus to global warming to transgenderism to the election.
But Anton isn’t obsessed with Wokeness, and he urges that Woke ideology should not distract us from the deeper inequality before the law: The rise of our new technocratic economic oligarchs. The Narrative is an instrument used to distract the population from the real issues. The biggest transfer of wealth ever recorded in human history has happened right before our eyes at the same time the issue of ‘systemic racism’ (death of George Floyd) was occupying every newspaper frontpage. Or take how, at the same time the Occupy Wall Street protests ended in 2011, the identity politics narrative among MSM increased substantially, as Tucker Carlson recently pointed out. None of this is a coincidence: A country distracted by riots and pandemics and walking on eggshells is unlikely to act against the oligarchy. Oligarchs buy off demented politicians to ensure their freedom of action. The ruling class is woke on the outside, but greedy as usual on the inside. That isn’t Wokeness by conviction, but Wokeness ‘by calculation’.
Anton points away from culture wars to a global problem. What oligarchs like Jeff Bezos and Jack Dorsey want is not ‘Progress’, but a world beyond nations: The rise of the “universal and homogenous state.” Early Progressives thought that the nation-state and its political institutions had to be invigorated in order to limit the power of corporations. Today’s oligarchs agree with that logic, but want to hamstring the nation so that multi-national corporations are freed from (some kinds of) political control. This leads to globalized consumerism empowering a few, international mega-corporations. Overlords ruling last men, without God, without a country, without families. When spirited revolts arise (like the recent Game Stop uprising), corporations will collude to protect their own, and unperson anyone who objects.
Trump revealed this by the effect he had on the ruling class: From the moment he came down the escalator, he was treated like an existential threat to their rule. As president, he tried to overturn trade deals that gutted American manufacturing, but with only limited success. He sought restrictions on immigration, yet courts got in the way while his party in Congress refused to help. Travel bans were still quashed and delayed. Meanwhile, the Narrative shifted before our eyes: Detention policies adopted under Obama became unconscionable under Trump. Then mass hysteria soon followed: The Russian hoax! Impeachment! The near-borking of Kavanaugh! Then the media reaction to Covid-19.
This unremitting hysteria was justified by the idea that Trump equals Hitler, an existential threat to Democracy. And so as the 2020 election approached, the Oligarchy, supported by the Democratic Party, always seemed to be able to get its way, no matter how hypocritical or radical their means appeared. And now, with the second impeachment of Citizen Trump and the banning of his most open supporters from polite company or gainful employment, the actions of Trump’s enemies confirm Anton’s thesis: the Left is as ruthless and tyrannical as Anton warned us — and that means a rocky road ahead for the country (not to mention Trump’s supporters).
Do Americans sense a regime change to an oligarchy underway, or do they not? November 2020, for Anton, was not just “the point of no return,” but a referendum for America. While a Trump victory was no guarantee of victory against the oligarchy’s attempted regime change, a Democratic win, similarly to 2016 with Hillary Clinton, would mean that “death is certain.” The oligarchy would add elected office, the presidency above all, to its technological and economic power.
So, where does that leave us? Written prior to George Floyd and the unrests that followed, The Stakes tries its hand at prophecy. If current trends continue, a rump Congress, operating under the forms of the U.S. Constitution will persist, keeping up the illusion of a functioning ‘Republic’. But in reality, the real action will happen elsewhere, as the power to change and shape the country will not remain in Congress, but will be held by a handful of corporations (look no further than the unprecedented, coordinated decision by Silicon Valley to silence Trump while still in office). Perhaps Trump’s supporters will find their Franco, a “Red Caesar”, and re-establish a simulacrum of equal protection of the laws under a different political arrangement. Perhaps a “Blue Caesar” will arise, a Stalin with a happier face, and rule as an oligarch for the oligarchy. Or perhaps the country will inevitably break apart into several competing regional states — some more or less republican; others more or less oligarchic.
Of course, we also need evidence for Anton’s arguments — something like confirmation from an oligarchic insider. I’d like to know, whether our oligarchs are evil masterminds or just conventional people who have stumbled upon great wealth or unprecedented technological control of political speech. Neither Amazon nor Twitter is the result of an old conspiracy, for example. Neither Bezos nor Dorsey is the recruit of the wealthy. And yet they are both attacking conservatives and trying to force a Progressive victory. How do our brand new oligarchs coordinate and influence society? How dangerous are they?
Political thinkers see different threats at different levels and think of different ways of removing them and they have accordingly different virtues and vices. Some are inclined to hysteria, others to indifference. Think of Churchill in the 1930s, when his colleagues thought Hitler was bad but appeasable while he urged to re-occupy parts of Germany to ensure de-militarization. Or think of the Anti-Federalists and Federalists, and how differently they looked at the constitutional crisis of the 1780s. Or Russia after the 1905 Revolution, where some thought an accelerated modernization was necessary to save the regime but where the tsar was complacent. Few saw the road ahead clearly. Anton gives us the strongest version of the threat of regime change — everyone who isn’t Woke has to reckon with it.
The American Right has never looked weaker. Donald Trump, the man of the populist revolt, has lost office and is now canceled. Our people are scattered and often confused about what just happened. The oligarchy arising among us, after all, hurtles us toward a post-liberal world. If Anton is right, and we are past the Point of No Return, where do we go from here? Has the oligarchy corrupted democratic elections? What can we learn from defeat? Anton wants to educate a New Right, so he raises the most shocking regime change questions to figure out future courses of action. He has few rivals among non-Woke intellectuals.
Scott Yenor is a Washington Fellow at the Claremont Institute’s new Center for the American Way of Life and a professor of political science at Boise State University. He’s the author of Recovery of Family Life: Exposing the Limits of Modern Ideologies.
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