It took just 80 minutes after racially incendiary emails started flying for the Claremont Institute, a conservative think tank, to shut down an email Listserv connecting hundreds of high-profile conservatives.
The emails that sparked the controversy began ricocheting midday Tuesday in response to a plea from Darren Beattie, a recently fired speechwriter for President Donald Trump, for “those on this list with media influence” to come to his defense. The White House over the weekend dismissed Beattie after CNN revealed that he had spoken alongside white nationalists at a conference in 2016.
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Charles Johnson, an alt-right provocateur and Trump loyalist, was the first to respond.
“Beattie’s offense is that he spoke at an event where — gasp! — there were white nationalists afoot!” Johnson wrote the group. “Heaven forbid that some thinkers — like the American founders who favored our country be majority white — think that the U.S. of A should stay majority white! Perish the thought. Can’t have that.”
A little more than an hour later, as senior administration officials and white-shoe lawyers asked to be removed from the list, the Claremont Institute had scuttled it entirely.
On Wednesday night, Beattie told POLITICO: “In 2008 I had the privilege of being a Claremont Publius Fellow. I sent what I intended to be a private email to the broader Claremont network to apprise them of the disgusting smear campaign against me by CNN. As with any big email list, I had no control over what replies I received, whether well or ill intentioned, or whether people on that list desperate for attention and relevance would use the injustice against me for their own purposes, whatever they may be.”
The episode provides a window into the challenges facing the Trump-friendly right as it has struggled to build an intellectual movement that can outlast Trump — and to rid itself of bigots and fringe elements who have glommed on to some of the president’s immigration rhetoric.
Claremont Institute’s president, Ryan Williams, injected himself into the discussion on Tuesday after one participant asked “why we allow this garbage on it,” referring to Johnson’s note. Others asked to be removed from the Listserv (to which this reporter subscribed). “I’ll save everyone the trouble of responding in kind and I’ll shutter the group entirely,” Williams wrote.
“When Charles Johnson, one of our more than 650 alumni, began using a private email group to espouse views that are incompatible with the principles of the Founding Fathers and Claremont’s mission,” Williams said in a statement, “I thought it best to spare the others unwanted spam and acrimony and close the group. We host many forums for civil discourse, and the unmoderated Listserv had ceased to serve our alumni community well.”
Founded in 1979 by students of the late political scientist Harry Jaffa, a professor emeritus at Claremont McKenna College and the Claremont Graduate University, the Claremont Institute is home to a coterie of right-leaning scholars who have helped make the case for a Trump presidency. The organization, which has no affiliation with any of the Claremont Colleges, was an early defender of candidate Trump, publishing Michael Anton’s controversial essay, “The Flight 93 Election,” in the Claremont Review of Books in the closing months of the 2016 campaign. Anton would go on to become a spokesman for Trump’s National Security Council.
The Claremont Institute is not the only organization on the right to grapple with how to build a populist conservative movement without inviting white nationalists, racists or those who associate with them into the fold.
In the news media, Fox News has weathered controversies involving on-air guests and its own hosts. Prime-time host Laura Ingraham was forced to clarify remarks she made on her show earlier this month when she argued that “massive demographic changes have been foisted upon the American people and they’re changes that none of us ever voted for and most of us don’t like.” After liberals and white nationalists alike seized on her remarks, she told viewers the following evening that they “had nothing to do with race or ethnicity, but rather a shared goal of keeping America safe, and her citizens safe and prosperous.”
Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott has pressed the network’s producers to intervene with their hosts and on-air guests when racially divisive remarks hit the airwaves, particularly about children held in border-detention centers, which Ingraham had likened to summer camps. “You are responsible for protecting the talent at the brand,” Scott told Fox News’ executive producers in June, as POLITICO reported last month.
The White House, too, has struggled with the issue.
Trump created an uproar last year with his equivocal response to the rally staged by white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia, that resulted in the death of a woman who was protesting the gathering. The president’s assertion that there were “some very fine people on both sides” drew particular condemnation.
Beattie, the former speechwriter, was fired last weekend after CNN reported that he had delivered academic remarks at a 2016 conference of the H.L. Mencken Club alongside alt-righters like Jared Taylor and Peter Brimelow, the founder of VDare.com, a web platform for white nationalists. Trump’s top economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, was forced to answer for inviting Brimelow to a birthday party he hosted at his home last weekend.
“I’ve known Peter all these years as a financial journalist and he was a good one,” Kudlow told POLITICO. “He was a senior editor at Forbes for 20 years. I had no idea about this other side of him. If I knew, I wouldn’t have invited him, and I’m very sad and disappointed by it.”
On Brimelow’s website, meanwhile, writers were flaying the president for dismissing Beattie — an act one contributor to the website said demonstrated that the president isn’t as loyal to his supporters as they are to him.
“President Trump’s own supporters have stood by him even after President Trump actually said things that are far more controversial,” Kirkpatrick wrote on Monday. “If President Trump does not begin returning such loyalty, he will find himself politically isolated — and powerless to resist the drive for impeachment being agitated for by the Main Stream Media.”
In an interview on Wednesday, Johnson echoed those views. “I think it’s rather ridiculous and outrageous that the media is picking and choosing which of our people serve in government, and if Trump doesn’t get right on this, there are going to be repercussions.”
Johnson has been affiliated with the Claremont Institute since his undergraduate years at Claremont McKenna College, from which he graduated in 2010. He is the author of a biography of Calvin Coolidge, published in 2013, for which a Claremont Institute senior fellow and Johnson’s undergraduate mentor, Charles Kesler, wrote the foreword. Since then, he has entertained and espoused a number of controversial racial views and increasingly associated himself with white nationalists, who he says helped Trump win the election.
His statements caused alarm within the Claremont Institute community, according to one of its members, and several of the organization’s scholars criticized him and counseled him, in private conversations, to cease his affiliation with and promotion of fringe groups. Those concerns reached an apex in 2015 when Johnson appeared on the neo-Nazi podcast “Fash the People” remarking on the “neurotic” tendencies of the Jewish people and warning that they “should be on tap but really never on top of a lot of decision making.” Ultimately, though, the organization, never officially disavowed him.
Johnson says that when it comes to Beattie, Kudlow and himself, he opposes guilt by association. “Am I supposed to know the views of everybody who comes over to my house for dinner?” he asked. “I’ve always been against guilt by association.”
He added, “I am disappointed that Claremont didn’t want to have a discussion on this topic and that it doesn’t do its best to protect its members who are serving in the administration and throughout the country.”
Ben White contributed to this report.