Donald Trump’s Brains

The Spirit of Liberty: At Home, In the World

by Thomas O. Melia and Peter Wehner
56 pp., available at

Among the many anomalies of Donald Trump’s presidency has been the near invisibility of institutions that for many years served as a bulwark of Republican policymaking. Though many on the right like to quote Ronald Reagan’s assertion from 1981 that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” his administration in fact began its bold work with a comprehensive playbook—the twenty-volume Mandate for Leadership, published by The Heritage Foundation. It contained a variety of proposals for slashing federal income taxes, boosting defense spending, and rolling back business regulations. It was widely seen as a blueprint for the administration, and Reagan gave a copy to each member of his cabinet. A redacted paperback version even became a best seller. “Of a sudden,” Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan declared, “the GOP has become a party of ideas.”

Claremont Review of Books
The cover of the spring 2016 issue of the Claremont Review of Books

In subsequent years, Heritage and other conservative think tanks continued to formulate sweeping proposals. It is well known that the Affordable Care Act, so reviled by Trump and other Republicans, emerged from a market-based model that was developed by Stuart Butler, the director of Heritage’s Center for Policy Innovation, and adopted in 2006 by Mitt Romney when he was governor of Massachusetts. During the George W. Bush presidency, foreign policy experts at the American Enterprise Institute, such as Richard Perle, a Defense Department official in the Reagan administration, helped shape Bush’s response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, including, most notoriously, the war in Iraq.

Under Trump, however, these institutions are struggling to adjust. Though Heritage has played an important part in recommending nominations to the judiciary, including Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, its actual influence on policy seems negligible, and its members have conflicting views of Trump’s nationalist agenda. Something similar can be said about a number of other conservative think tanks in Washington, including the American Enterprise Institute, which has a number of fellows such as Jonah Goldberg who are highly critical of Trump.1

The result is that many neoconservatives and establishment conservatives—ranging from Eliot A. Cohen, a former adviser to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, to David Frum, author of the new book Trumpocracy, to Stuart Stevens, the campaign strategist for Mitt Romney in 2012—have vociferously united in their loathing for Trump. They see him as a sinister mountebank who is destroying true conservative principles from within the GOP and who, incidentally, threatens to exile them to the political wilderness.

A battle for the future of conservatism is in effect being fought between these anti-Trump conservatives and pro-Trump conservatives associated with the Claremont Institute, a right-wing think tank based in California, which for years has been discussing the Federalist Papers, the dangers of progressivism, and, above all, the wisdom of the German exile and political philosopher…

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