Recently, Senior Epoch Times editor Jan Jekielek sat down with columnist, lecturer, and author of the essay Flight 93 Election, Michael Anton, who worked on the National Security Council in the Trump Administration, and serves as a fellow at Hillsdale College and at the Claremont Institute.
We discuss the Mueller investigation and its genesis, and what Anton sees as the administrative state’s (what some people call the deep state’s) threat to democracy. We also explore his approaches to immigration and border security, how concepts of justice differ between left and right, and the future of the Republican party.
Jan Jekielek: So you wrote the famous or infamous, depending on who you ask, essay “The Flight 93 Election.” I want to talk a little bit about the current news of the day—what I’m seeing on our front page—because I feel it’s very relevant to the essay and maybe you can comment on this. So we know now there was no collusion. Special counsel Robert Mueller’s report is out. The Attorney General William Barr found there was no obstruction. Mueller took no issue with this. But on our front page, we have a story about how the Democratic Party leadership right now is attacking the Attorney General. And as I was reading the essay, and again after the fact, it struck me that a lot of what you wrote about in the essay is kind of playing out in front of our eyes. I’m wondering if you could comment on this.
Michael Anton: Well … first of all, I just want to say Mueller did take some exception. He reportedly sent a letter to Barr, the Attorney General, and people around Mueller must have leaked the letter because the letter was published complaining not about the substance of what Barr said, but just saying: Well, you mischaracterized it, and essentially I wish Trump had gotten more negative press coverage out of this. I don’t know how that would be possible, to be honest, but—
Mr. Jekielek: That’s how I read it, too.
Mr. Anton: … So he’s not entirely happy. But, look, what I … among the arguments that I made in “The Flight 93 Election” is that the permanent machinery of the government, what I term borrowing from my teacher John Rainey, the administrative state is in hands that are unfriendly to “small r” and certainly to “capital R” Republican politics, and a Hillary Clinton election would have cemented that hold, I thought. Just because Trump won doesn’t mean that the hold suddenly became loose, but it shook. And it’s more tenuous than it would have been the other way. But what we’re seeing is certainly, I think, I mean why not say it, a vindication in a way of what I wrote. Because all of this … look at what the administrative state … and let me back up a second. When most people say administrative state, if you’ve heard the term, people tend to think of domestic policies—economic regulation, environmental regulation, product regulation, things like that. All true. But there’s another layer to it which is the national security side of the government has an administrative state too, or the administrative state also operates on the national security side. And what we saw, what we now know, what we’re realizing in hindsight as new facts become uncovered, revealed, leaked, whatever [is] that the administrative state was using its powers of surveillance to surveil a rival political campaign presumably for the purposes of ensuring that that campaign did not win the election. That—I don’t think that’s ever happened before. I mean there’ve been a lot of governmental abuses that have been exposed. J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was up to things that nowadays we would find shocking that we’re exposed afterward, and the CIA and the Church Committee. So things tend to come out. … Sometimes it takes a while. I have not yet seen an example of an exposure of the administrative state or the national security state spying on a presidential campaign until now. This seems to be unprecedented. And it’s absolutely … I had no idea. When I wrote “The Flight 93 Election” in August of 2016 this was an operation that was then running. I mean they were listening to people’s phones, and they were sending agents—government agents posing as campaign operatives to the Trump campaign to see what they could get. All that was ongoing at that time I had no idea. But the warning that I made certainly is consistent with that activity.
Mr. Jekielek: I saw in another article … it’s actually what we’ve called Spygate, and you’re calling SetUpGate, I think.
Mr. Anton: Yeah, I did.
Mr. Jekielek: Why SetUpGate, exactly?
Mr. Anton: Because it was clear that there was an attempt to set up the president. They say that: Well, we know we had this evidence of collusion, and so we’ll go look for it. But not really. It’s a set-up in the sense that the evidence turns out to have been this dossier and some other sketchy reported possible crimes that we now know were totally made up and then used as the basis of granting these legal authorities to surveil. So it’s one thing if, you know … The way a normal criminal investigation would work would be: Somebody who makes $100,000 a year or whatever suddenly has $500,000 in his bank account all at once, and the bank maybe says, “I should report this to federal authorities” or something. There’s some evidence, it’s not evidence of a crime but something out of the ordinary that warrants the government looking into it further. So if, in fact, a Trump campaign official had flown to Moscow and met with a Russian known to be a spy or something, and the FBI or the CIA had gotten wind of that and it is a genuine trip, it actually happened, that would be one thing. And they would say: What’s going on there? We should look into that. But none of that happened. So they wanted to, apparently, do it, and some people at least wanted to do an investigation anyway, but they needed a basis for it. And so the basis was created. That’s why I say it was a setup.
Mr. Jekielek: I see now. Fascinating. You know, actually, I was also reading today that two-thirds of Americans, and I think this is a CNN poll, are interested in the origins of the—
Mr. Anton: They should be. Look, because of first, the Cold War and then 9/11 and the war on terror, the American people have granted the federal government—the national security bureaucracies of the federal government—extraordinary powers to surveil people all over the world. And we have done so with the understanding that this will be carefully controlled, constrained by lawful limits, overseen by courts, and not abused. And that the limits among which are you can’t spy on American citizens, except as an incidental matter, and even then you’re not allowed to use the information, except …
Mr. Jekielek: They used foreign spying on Americans …
Mr. Anton: Right, well, so the way it works is that the law defines a U.S. person, and a U.S. person is a number of things. It could be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident no matter where that person is. So if a U.S. citizen happens to go to Russia, just because that person is in Russia doesn’t mean you can spy on them, you know, under the FISA law. A U.S. person could also be just any person who is physically present on U.S. soil at the time. So if a tourist comes in, spends two weeks, you might think they’re spying, the FBI might be able to surveil them for counterintelligence reasons, but you’re not supposed to get it … they are a U.S. person ineligible under a FISA warrant, right? What would happen is if a U.S. person is talking to a foreigner against whom it is legal to collect information, you might catch that person’s half of the confirmation. That’s what intelligent conversations are, right? Called incidental collection. What it looks like happened here, though, is a very sneaky way of getting around that which is to say: I know Joe over here is a U.S. person. I really want to spy on him, but I can’t. But I know he talks to this foreigner, so what I’m going to do is get a warrant on the foreigner and listen to the conversation, not because I’m very much interested in what the foreigners are saying. I want to know what Joe is saying. That’s one of the ways they did it, apparently. But another way they did it [is that] they actually got FISA warrants on U.S. persons by saying, “We have reason to believe this person is a spy.” Well, what was the reason? When you dig down and you find out the reason, it was flimsy stuff. So instead of, you know, 500 grand mysteriously appearing in someone’s bank account or genuine evidence of a crime, you just come up with something, or you know you have somebody give it to you. “Hey look, I have a dossier on this guy that says he’s doing X, Y, Z. Oh, I’ll take that into court.” And we have evidence that the FISA court, the FISA judges were misled about this. Well, what’s the basis of this? Nobody said, “Well, it’s a dossier that was paid for by a political party through an ex-member of a foreign intelligence service who also have close ties to the Russians.” I’d like to think that if you said that to the FISA judge he would’ve said: No, I’m not granting the warrant based on that. All of this is to get back to the original point which is the American people feel like this kind of surveillance is a necessary evil if it’s used legitimately to protect their national security interests. They have every right to know, and they should demand to know if and how it was used illegitimately against its lawful purpose to do other things.
Mr. Jekielek: I saw you’re kind of advocating, as many are, for this investigation. So you know a review of the whole FISA process, presumably, would be part of that.
Mr. Anton: I think fine, but that shouldn’t be the priority. Washington loves to do those kinds of process reviews because it could muddy the waters and obfuscate and make boring something that can be inherently interesting. I’m much more concerned to know exactly how did it happen. How did it happen that the U.S. government decided to spy on a U.S. citizen, Carter Page, on what turns out to be nothing? He was never charged with a crime. All the things he was alleged to have done—go to Moscow, meet with Russians, all of these. I mean, I guess he has been to Moscow on business, but these things that were supposedly going to amount to spying or collusion in some way turned out to be completely baseless. So it seems to me then that the warrant was probably baseless. Let’s find out, how did that start? What was the initial justification for spying on a U.S. citizen? And if it wasn’t people look just The police, national security agencies, they can be wrong. If it’s a good faith error. If, you know, sometimes the police will find evidence of a crime, they will surveil a suspect for a while. They might even get a search warrant or a phone tap or things, do an [investigation], and eventually realize: this guy didn’t do it or we don’t have enough evidence. And sometimes you’re willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. If you believe this was all done in good faith, there was a real belief that there might have been a crime committed, it had to be investigated, and the person was exonerated. That’s what I think we need to know. Was this done in good faith or is it inherently political? And all of the evidentiary reasons proffered for doing the surveillance. Were they flimsy and unserious simply cooked up to gain the political end which is: I just want to spy on this guy. I know I don’t have a criminal reason to do it, so let me find a reason. We need to know that.
Mr. Jekielek: So I’m going to read a little segment—actually the opening of “The Flight 93 Election” because, of course, it’s very compelling, and I think I’ve got a lot of people reading. You wrote, “2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die.” And then, “A Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto. With Trump, at least you can spin the cylinder and take your chances. Now …
Mr. Anton: Of course, I didn’t mean everyone. Well, you know, overheated rhetoric. No one’s going to literally die. OK. No one is going to literally die.
Mr. Jekielek: I didn’t read it that way.
Mr. Anton: What I meant was that … But I certainly call this overheated rhetoric. I completely stand by it. I do think the Republic would’ve died. I do think actual liberal democracy—the same people howling against Trump who always say, “I’m here fighting for constitutionalism and democracy and our republic and all of that.”—it’s a massive case of projection because the exact … everything they talk about now I think would have happened as a matter of certainty had Hillary won the election. It would have cemented the power of administrative state rule—not in perpetuity because nothing lasts forever, but for a very very long time.
Mr. Jekielek: Everything they talk about now …
Mr. Anton: Well, what do you hear? You hear Democratic congressman thundering constantly, “Trump is authoritarian. Trump is antidemocratic. This is a threat to our Constitution. This is a threat to democratic rule.” A Hillary Clinton presidency would have been all that—all of it. It would have been the ascendancy … I think the final ascendancy of the administrative state would have meant that elections would no longer really have any meaning at all except to the and certainly not national elections, except to the extent of deciding who gets to preside over and run the administrative state and live in the big house. But every decision that democracy is supposed to decide by a Democratic vote based on a popular debate, popular will, popular mandate, would just be decided by ruling class opinion and then enforced through its apparatus—the administrative state.
Mr. Jekielek: In light of what you just said, what do you make of the current attacks on the Attorney General?
Mr. Anton: I find them preposterous and political, and just shameless. Look, the Attorney General had nothing to do with this investigation. He’s there because the president lost confidence in Jeff Sessions, ultimately, because of the recusal. Barr came in inheriting an impossible situation. He came in … I don’t know how long was he confirmed before the report was finalized and delivered to him, maybe a month, maybe a little less that, or maybe a little more than that but not much more. So all you can do is take it, read it which is what he did. He summarized it. He is in a damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t position. Imagine the story would if Barr got the report and sat on it for a month and then released it with redactions. Lots of howling, what are you covering up, etcetera. Instead, he tried to give an account of it on the main questions soon as he possibly could, I think in good faith effort. In the famous, I mentioned, Mueller’s letter they had a phone call it was reported. Mueller called him to address a concern, and Barr said, according to the reports, “Is anything in my letter inaccurate?” Mueller reportedly said, “No.” So the letter, the author of the report himself admits the letter accurately characterized the two main findings: We found no evidence of collusion, and, you know, we couldn’t decide the obstruction question either way. But notice they didn’t recommend a charge, and so Barr took it on his own authority, which is, of course, it is his authority as the Attorney General to decide whether it merited the charge. And he said “no” on essentially two factors. One, there was no under … you know, obstruction usually requires an underlying crime. You can’t obstruct justice if you weren’t actually guilty of something in the first place. Not 100 percent true but mostly true. That’s usually the standard. And then he also said something I think that was very important. He said, “Look, I’m making this determination independent of the president’s status as a constitutional officer of the government. In other words, based on the evidence presented, even if President Trump were a private citizen and I read this report, I still wouldn’t charge him with obstruction of justice as a prosecutor. So nobody can say, “Well, this is just presidential immunity, and he’s above the law getting away with it.”
Mr. Jekielek: So Americans spun the cylinder as you describe.
Mr. Anton: Yes.
Mr. Jekielek: And elected President Trump and the Trump administration. And I think I saw you write that he’s now mounting the first in a generation defense of the American Constitution—a true defense of the American Constitution. Is this how you read it?
Mr. Anton: It’s the first real … well, it’s implicit in Trump’s case. Trump is not a movement conservative. He’s not a Ronald Reagan who came up through the movement, you know, at Bill Buckley’s dinner table and reading “National Review” and writing radio commentary … touring the country giving speeches on conservative principle and things like that. And, yet, in his own way he is mounting a defense of the Constitution in a way that, I hate to say it because I worked for him, I don’t think George, except on certain areas of executive power, but George W. Bush didn’t, in a way. Trump is here in large part because he sensed correctly and appealed to a lot of people who believed that the parties had merged and that on important big questions there wasn’t much of a difference. And so, I think, how to interpret the Constitution, how to operate the Constitution is part of that. And the in the extraordinary opposition that he has faced. What he’s facing it is from people, all of the Democratic Party and much, or maybe not most, but much of the Republican Party want to go back to business as usual when the parties were aligned, when the bands of disagreement were narrow, and when frankly, let’s face it, both parties, both houses of Congress have been ignoring constitutional law for a long time. I mean, when was the last time we declared war. I can tell you right now, it was a couple of days after Pearl Harbor in 1941. Yet the Constitution says: Only Congress has the power to declare war. Presidents have been acting unilaterally in that regard for a long time. And this is in part Congress’ fault. Congress does not assert itself or utilize its constitutional powers.
Mr. Jekielek: Fascinating. So, again, when I read “The Flight 93 Election,” which I read, by the way, after the fact and not before, it struck me as this … I don’t know if there’s a nicer way to put it—but like a scathing criticism of conservatism or the effects of conservatism in America.
Mr. Anton: Well, that’s fine, that’s what it was meant to be.
Mr. Jekielek: I find it stunning that given the last two years and know many conservatives, the folks that you were saying would be against the presidency, so to speak, that they might change their minds, given the delivery on all these conservative issues, like The Heritage Foundation is … I forget what their number was, but very high.
Mr. Anton: Right.
Mr. Jekielek: So how is it that right now some or a significant part of the Republican side is still against the presidency? Is that what you’re saying?
Mr. Anton: Well, I mean, just to answer the first part—how is it? It is because … a lot of it’s personal, and a lot of it, as my friend Roger Kimball puts it, is aesthetic. It’s a reaction to Trump style, his tweets, his loquaciousness, and his sort of pugilistic personality that they don’t like. They would rather go back to—and in many ways so would I, I just don’t know that we could, and I certainly wouldn’t trade this for issues that I care about—but they would rather go back to the sort of courtly demeanor of a Reagan or a George H.W. Bush-type figure. And I agree America’s lost something in that we don’t have national leaders of that mode so much anymore. But I also think in times of crisis, which we’re in, we need a fighter, you know, and that’s one of the reasons Trump is here. We had our pick—you don’t have to be mean about it—but we had our pick of gentlemanly losers in 2016 as a party. The one I would not call a gentlemanly loser—I think he would’ve fought, but I still think he would’ve lost—is Ted Cruz. The rest of them were sort of happy to play the McCain or the Romney role—be the good guy and the nice guy and lose with dignity and just say that: Well, I stood for principle. Trump was saying: You can call me as undignified as you want, but I’m going to fight and I’m gonna fight to win. And I think that appealed to a lot of voters—it appealed to me. But my main praise of Trump in 2016 was [that] he was just right on the issues and the rest of the field wasn’t.
Mr. Jekielek: I feel like your criticism, basically, of conservatism is around this area—if people are happy to be gentlemanly losers or kind of relegated into that role. Or were conservatives kind of forced into this role? How did this play out exactly? Presumably, over some decades.
Mr. Anton: I don’t know if they were forced into it. I think they … I’m speculating here. This would require a real archaeologist of conservatism in a way that I am not. I’ve studied it but not in the depth that a lot of others have. I think conservatism fundamentally changed. The last gasp of the old conservatism was a principled opposition to the New Deal. So there was a conservatism that still believed it could roll it back or substantially curtail it.
Mr. Jekielek: A long time ago.
Mr. Anton: … that gave up in the ’50s. The Republican Party and that Old Right said well, you know, Eisenhower essentially told the Old Right: It’s over. You need to go away. A, we’re going to be internationalists now because of the times—the Cold War requires it, and B, we’re never going to roll back the New Deal. And Buckley’s conservatism was an attempt to make peace with that. But if you look at the first decade or so of National Review is far more Old Right conservatism than anything that follows. And conservatism from then on is almost a series of concessions to an ever-leftward-shifting center of gravity in American public opinion. Some of that leftward shift being justified. Some of it not. One of the great ironies of Trump and the conservative opposition to Trump is: Remember their first objection to Trump in the late 2015 when National Review published against Trump and so on was he’s a phony. He’s not a real conservative. He’s not a real Republican. He’s registered as a Democrat of the past. He’s been an independent. He doesn’t check all these boxes.
Mr. Jekielek: These are legitimate concerns …
Mr. Anton: Legitimate. He’s for ethanol and so on. But what Trump’s enemies mostly saw was, and now a lot of the Never Trump conservatives will say, is the exact opposite of that. He’s a dangerous right-wing fascist lunatic. Reality is Trump is trying to move the Republican Party on economic and trade issues back toward a center, a center that was, to borrow the Arthur Schlesinger term, part of the vital center in say the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s, and trade unionism and protection and industrial policy, jobs programs, that kind of thing. So, yes, that is insufficiently conservative by the tenants of Washington think-tank conservatism, but I think necessary, and better for the country. And so if we keep thinking in this kind of stale old-fashioned categories … But then the conservatives, you know, the small-c Washington conservatives, most of them or many of them are appalled by Trump’s stance on immigration because they bought the left line that there can’t be any limits ever and that any such limits are racist and evil, and a person who advocates for them is racist and evil. So in that sense, Trump is more right wing than the Washington conservative. So he’s not a simple person, he’s not a simple politician to stack into little boxes.
Mr. Jekielek: Trump actually ran to some extent on reducing the administrative state, what some called the deep state. How do you feel his scorecard is two years in?
Mr. Anton: Well, it’s not great, but that is not so much a criticism of Trump as it is an acknowledgment of how difficult it is. Once these things are built, it’s all but impossible for one man to come and unbuild them or turn them around. It’s very very difficult.
Mr. Jekielek: So relatively speaking?
Mr. Anton: All of Washington will be against you as all of Washington is against him in this effort. Relatively speaking? Well, he’s done a lot on regulation in terms of administrative state rule. Not so much in part because Congress hasn’t wanted to reassert its legislative making power. It still wants to write vague laws and give them to the executive branch and say: You write the rules and we don’t care. Trump hasn’t—I don’t know that any one person could turn Congress around on that question. Although look, simply bringing these abuses to light will do a lot. And none of this would have come to light … Had Hillary Clinton won the election, I don’t think any of us would have the faintest idea that there was any spying against the Trump campaign going on at all or any of these other abuses. They just wouldn’t have seen the light of day.
And many things that should be investigated, even to this day, still haven’t been investigated because the deep state takes care of its own. We’ll see if any of them come out. I’d like to hope so. I don’t know if I can think so, but I hope so.
Mr. Jekielek: So there’s a fascinating irony to this in the end that because this unprecedented action of spying was taken. Now that it’s going to be investigated it will actually bring to light some of, if I read you correctly, this administrative state reality that is one of the biggest threats to the nation as you argue, right?
Mr. Anton: Well, I mean, a threat to the nation, how? Look, this is not an optimistic thought, but it’s a true thought that the nation in terms of a country with a territory with people and an economy can go on under administrative state rule. It’ll be, you know, you’re going to wake up once administrative state rule is cemented and the Constitution is behind you, and a lot of things are going to look the same—your car is still going to start, you’ll probably still have your job, the money will look the same, and so on. But you will have lost something in terms of your ability to really direct what the government does—any individual citizens or the citizenry collectively. Once the administrative state is firmly in power, we won’t be in any kind of democracy or constitutional government anymore, so that we will have lost if that happens.
Mr. Jekielek: OK. So what’s the counter to this?
Mr. Anton: Well, you mean how do you reverse it? How do you stop it?
Mr. Jekielek: Yeah, well presumably …
Mr. Anton: I mean, hopefully Trump is just the beginning of something—of a movement that either transforms the Republican Party, or if the Republican Party declines to get on board it just withers away and is replaced by a kind of constitutionalist populist worker’s party that … You know Ben Buckley fusion-ism, famously Buckley, what he did is he put together disparate parts into one party—the anti-communist, the religious and traditional conservatives, and the economic libertarians. The future of a new Republican Party will be strong constitutionalists in an anti-administrative state coalition, a worker’s party that is very strongly for things that raise middle- and lower class wages and working-class wages—so immigration restriction, trade barriers, industrial policy infrastructure spending, things like that, and a kind of, for lack of a better term, the foreign policy realists … or just, you know, the foreign policy part is going to have to be built from scratch because there is no … There’s a constituency for doing less in the world to stop trying to take on unrealizable projects, but the existing schools don’t quite meet the bill. It’ll have to be built. But in any event, that will be the third leg. If there’s a new fusion that’ll be the third leg. So to repeat, it will be: the constitutionalism, anti-administrative state, the worker’s party that, you know, which is immigration … the things that tighten the labor market and boost wages—immigration restriction, industrial policy, tariffs, infrastructure spending, that kind of thing. And then the more restrictive focused foreign policy, and you can take that and build a coalition. Either make that the basis for or transform the Republican Party or the basis for a new party. And we have a chance to do some of the stuff that needs to be done. A lot of the people who run the Republican Party right now are definitely not going to want to see that happen because they don’t really care that … They pay lip service to constitutionalism and the administrative state, but they never do anything about it. They’re opposed to immigration reform and any kind of trade restrictions because they are completely allied with big business, Chamber of Commerce type interests who don’t want that. And those are their donors for the most part. And for why some people say there’s a monetary aspect to this, too, I’m less convinced of that, but there’s definitely an ideological aspect of the right which says we need to have an expansionist foreign policy. So the Republican Party as it currently stands is just not … there will be a lot of resistance to reforming it along those lines. Let me put it that way. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done, but it’s not going to be easy.
Mr. Jekielek: Can you chart a course or a few ideas of a course in your mind? Pick one of the pillars, you named three.
Mr. Anton: Well I mean—build a wall. OK? First of all, build a wall. Second of all, reform the existing immigration system.
Mr. Jekielek: When you say build the wall you mean a comprehensive set of …
Mr. Anton: I mean literally build the wall. … Look, I don’t necessarily know that it has to be comprehensive. We hear this argument all the time. Well, there are parts where a wall doesn’t make sense. I say, OK, maybe. The problem is I don’t trust any of the people who say that. When I hear someone say that I immediately think they’re just saying what is a partial truth in order to undermine the case for any wall at all.
Mr. Jekielek: OK.
Mr. Anton: If somebody who I know is firmly for a wall—because they really don’t want a million, whatever it is, hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants coming to the country a year—come to me and say: There’s this 10-mile stretch in this part of New Mexico where you really don’t need a wall because there’s a giant cliff. And then there’s a moat and then there’s alligators and stuff. It’s useless there. I would say, “I believe you.” If Tom Donohue from the Chamber of Commerce comes to me and says, “We don’t need a wall.” I don’t believe you. You just want as many immigrants as you can to pound down wages and to serve as consumers in American society. We’ve tried it your way now for decades. It’s working out for your constituents, meaning big business, and the financial sector is not working out for the working class and the middle class.
Mr. Jekielek: So you have this very, what I thought, convincing argument and thoughtful argument about the need for controlled, measured, thoughtful immigration. Can you expand a bit on that?
Mr. Anton: Well, look, first of all, I mean, there’s a theoretical level and the practical level. I’ll just start with the practical. I don’t even need to go into the theoretical, maybe, but the practical question for any country on immigration should be: Do we need people, and if so, where and to do what? Now, does the United States at population 330,000,000 need more people? I asked that in the Washington Post op-ed, and my answer was: “I don’t think so.” Make a case for why we need more people. Most people would say–those who would make the case is —for jobs Americans won’t do because the labor market is going and begging. To which I respond: Economists will tell you that wages have been stagnating or even falling for decades. Some put the peak American wage as long ago as 1970—almost 50 years ago. You can play with the numbers, maybe say it’s 40 years ago, 35 years ago, but a long time ago. Or to the extent that wages have risen… that wage gain has been completely hollowed out by the rising health care costs. We finally, now, for the first time really since the mid-1990s have a tight labor market that is boosting wages. Now, it’s no wonder, of course, that the Chamber of Commerce types say we need more immigrants than ever because they’re paying more in labor costs. They don’t like to do that. I would say let’s take advantage of the tight labor market to keep on boosting wages for the benefit of American citizens and people already here. I don’t see that we need more people for that purpose or for any other purpose. Long ago, the United States, the original immigration policy of the United States after the founding, was we actually do need more people because the country is so populous, and we’re so thin on the ground, we’re afraid we can’t hold it. And we’re afraid that if we got into a war with a great power we’d have insufficient numbers to field an army that could defend the country. That I understand a case for more people. I don’t understand the case for more people in 2019 population 330 million and rising.
Mr. Anton: You can roll through all the arguments. I’ve done it. I did it in an op-ed, I did it in another piece. People will say: What about Social Security? What about the fact that demographic trends are such that, you know, they were below replacement for the native-born and things like that. All of those have answers. I’ll just give you the second one. How do we know that with … immigration puts upward-downward pressure on wages, upward pressure on housing costs and rent. Right? So, of course, when your wages are falling and your expenses are rising, one would expect birth rates to go down because it becomes too expensive. And marriage rates are, sorry, age of first marriage rises and things like that. You would expect birth rates to go down. Why don’t we see what happens if we took away one of the main drivers of those two factors. That is to say wage suppression, housing cost, inflation, and see if birth rates didn’t go up. I think that’s worth a try. I think that, in fact, should be one of the main, if not, the main focuses of domestic policy … Let’s see if we can get native-born birth rates to go up. People say in surveys: Do you want more kids? Most people say, “I did.” How many did you have? “I had one.” How many did you want? “Three.” Why didn’t you have more? “I couldn’t afford it.” It’s a very common answer in these kinds of surveys. Public policy should be focused on what we can do about that. And I can tell you that in continued mass immigration doesn’t help that, it does the opposite.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, I found it really interesting, one of the arguments that I’ve seen, which I think it’s certainly worth considering, is just like we have it pretty good, and we should share that goodness with others, right? And you seem to argue that unless you have very clear policies that facilitate assimilation and people learning the Constitution and the value of representative government or republican government and so forth, that you’re not going to have that good thing for too long. That’s a very interesting argument.
Mr. Anton: You won’t have a forever, for sure. But also the argument, “We have it good, let’s share it.” I suppose so. But there are other ways to share it than to keep the border open, which we have effectively done. And let’s keep in mind if we were to decide collectively, which we certainly have not done, if we were to have a national debate and decide collectively that America owes it to the world or to humanity or something to reduce its own standard of living, so as to raise the standard of living of others, let’s do that consciously, knowing what we’re doing, and so that it’s clear in the minds of all the people that this is what we’re doing, and we’re doing it because it’s just, and you understand it and you voted for it. That’s not what we’re doing. What we’re doing is we’re lying to people, and saying mass immigration benefits everybody. It benefits the economy which is all good for you. And then we have economic sophists come out and say, “Oh no, no, no. The wage declines of the last 50 years … has nothing to do with the rapid increase in the supply of labor.” That’s kind of a form of gaslighting, to borrow a term from a famous 1940s movie where you essentially lie to someone to convince them that they’re insane. …They’ve heard it for so long that they need you to say, “Yeah, I guess the law of supply and demand doesn’t apply to labor so America could be population 1 billion and that would have no downward pressure on wages, which is of course completely preposterous. So if it’s true that because we have it so good, we owe it to the rest of the world to have it less good, we should be honest with the American people that that’s what we’re doing. You’re voting for … you’re essentially affirmatively voting for a decrease in your standard of living—a lowering of your wages, an upping of your housing costs, and all these attendant costs. Now, do you want that? People will say … and then I’m sure there would be some left-wingers who would—if we were to have an honest debate like that, which we never will—if we were, some left-wingers would hector the American people, as you will see occasionally when they want to be very honest, and say: Of course you should want that, and you’re selfish if you don’t. Why do you need a four-bedroom house with blah, blah, blah? You could be just as happy on much less. And with, you know, in a neighborhood whose density is quadruple what you’re used to now. You’re just selfish because you like this American standard of living from the mid-20th century, which is, you know, an inherently bad thing because it somehow detracts from the rest of the world. They’ll say that. The more honest or angry will say that openly, but few of them do.
Mr. Jekielek: I want to pull out a few interesting lines of things that made me think a bit from “The Flight 93 Election” and some of the writing that you’ve done around that. One of the things that you wrote was that “The professional Right (correctly) fears that a Trump victory will finally make their irrelevance undeniable.” Can you speak a bit … has that played out?
Mr. Anton: Well, if the professional Right had had the influence it thought it had, Trump would never have got the nomination, much less won the election. They wanted to stop and get the nominee.
Mr. Jekielek: Interesting point.
Mr. Anton: They wanted to stop him from winning any primary. They wanted to blow him out early as a humiliated figure, like a clown who sucked up all the oxygen in the second half of 2015. And then when the first time was put to a vote lost humiliatingly and had to slink away. Time and time again they were proved irrelevant. Now, they’re not entirely irrelevant, obviously. Maybe I was a little too sanguine in that Trump has governed as a conventional Republican more so than any of us would have expected and based on the 2016 record. And some of that is owing to the persistent strength of traditional Republicanism in Washington that either doesn’t want to or could not help Trump deliver on his core promises. I think it’s mostly that they didn’t want to and then came to him and said, “Well, the things that you want to do that we want to do, let’s work together on such as judges and tax cuts. And Trump needed ways to hold the caucus together and hold the party together until he was able to deliver on those and many of those things, then the traditional right hand said, “Hallelujah. He’s better than we thought.” But I do think though in the main they have been proven irrelevant because this is just a dying ember of a party and a conservatism that’s never coming back. It doesn’t … Yes, if I could wave a magic wand and make the Trump administration look more like I wanted it to look, it would look a lot more like the 2016 campaign than it does, and that is because of the residual strength of the Republican elected officials, the donor class, and so on is actually stronger than maybe I thought, or even at my most cynical. But I do think it is a fading ember. It’s not coming back. There’s a lot of sentiment in Washington along the lines of: We’ll just wait this out, and it will be over soon, and we can get back to normal. I think that’s wishful thinking on their part. We’re not going back to what they want which is the Party of 2012, 2008, 2004, 2000. The Party may, in fact, die, but it will then be replaced. The party will either become Trumpian or it will be replaced by a Trumpian party. It seems to me.
Mr. Jekielek: So this is a more theoretical question. I’m wondering if you could break this down for our viewers. You mentioned kind of different, let’s call them different models of the concept of justice between the right and the left. And I think that’s just something that a lot of people don’t understand. I don’t think I understood it when I was reading. And I found it fascinating.
Mr. Anton: Well, what I meant was we should believe one thing, and conservatism in fact lost its way in forgetting what it’s supposed to believe or oversimplifying and trivializing what it was supposed to believe. So I tried to summarize the right way to look at that through the lens of the founders and Lincoln and conservatives who actually knew what they were talking about, as opposed to, I think, the majority of Beltway conservatives today. And then I said, “Look, the left is in for something entirely and completely different.” But they do have a theory of justice, and I try to describe what it is. And that theory is a combination of redress of past grievances, zero out the ledger as it were. And I did describe it in generous and unsubtle language at one point as the second pillar. It’s a kind of a revenge plot.
Mr. Jekielek: How so?
Mr. Anton: Well, they say, “My group suffered this in the past. Your group did it to me. Therefore you need to suffer now or in the future.” And that rings very very scary, I think, to a lot of people, to a lot of Americans. You know, slavery above all. So how do you square the ledger for slavery? Well, one way is reparations. OK. That’s a thing now. This is an idea. It’s been very fringy for a long time. Nobody thought it would go anywhere. It gets revived by a famous Atlantic Monthly essay in 2015, not that long ago. But even then was it going to catch on politically? And now you have leading candidates for the Democratic nomination saying that they’re for it. Well, who pays it, and who gets it? This is a big question, right? Reagan paid reparations to Japanese Americans who’ve been … their personal selves have been physically interred. In other words, taken from their homes and put in a camp during World War II because there was a thought they might end up being enemy agents and agents sabotage or something. Nobody did of course. And this is now in hindsight, of course, widely regarded as an injustice, redressed by payments to the people who actually suffered. … There are no people who actually suffered from slavery because I don’t know when the last actual slave died, but it had to be, you know, let’s say you were a little kid in 1865 and you lived to be a ripe old age, you’re looking at still about 50 years ago that the last actual slave died. So we have to extend it out to their descendants and their descendants and their descendants, but then do we extend it out to people such as for instance Barack Obama whose father was African but had never been an American slave because the first time he came to America was in the ’50s to study at an American university. But according to the left-wingers don’t really want to think this part through, they just think in categories of good and bad, and there are certain people who are good and certain people who are bad.
Americans, I think, of a certain stripe hear that, and think: Wait a minute, why do I owe? I never owned a slave. I don’t even have an ancestor who owned a slave. But let’s say you did. Think this through for a second. What if you go to 23andMe or Ancestry.com, and you find out that you are in fact directly descended from a plantation owner who lost everything in 1865 and then died in 1878 and he’s your great-great-great-great grandfather or something like that. Maybe you have always known that, maybe you didn’t know it. But you’d still say that’s four or five generations removed from me. I didn’t do that. I have to pay for that now? Then there are people who will say, “Well, my ancestors fought in the Union Army. Do I have to pay for that.? And then there are people who will say, “My ancestors came through Ellis Island after the Civil War was over,” and then other people will say, “My ancestors came here like in 1975 as a refugee you know from the communist government of Vietnam. Do I have to pay?” There’s a matter of hereditary blood guilt to it that I think is anathema to any sense of justice that I can really think about. But that very much grips the left right now. And it’s almost the opposite of what they used to say they stood for. Now you’re guilty because of who you are, and it’s an inexpungeable thing. That used to be one of liberalism’s bright lines. Nobody is guilty simply because of who they are. In fact, that was one of the things they were most incensed about: the assumption that a category into which you were born not just defines you but defines you especially in a negative way.
Mr. Jekielek: So this came with identity politics presumably?
Mr. Anton: Well, I think there’s an element of that kind of thinking that’s just inherent in human nature. Human nature is somewhat tribal. I mean if you think back to … think about the great intractable conflicts in the human world. You know, the English-Irish dispute, I think, I don’t remember the exact year, but begins sometime in the 12th century, and there’s still a massive amount of bad blood right into the 20th century. I mean, it’s calmer now than it’s been in a long time, but no one would say that the English and the Irish have learned to love one another, especially the Ulster Protestants who are descendants of the English settlers, or call it colonists depending on how you look at it, who came from England and settled in Ireland. And, you know, people can be … you know, there’s a famous story about how certain Scottish clans still hate one another over something that happened in 1710 or something like that. The Hatfield-McCoy-type feud that just goes on unto the generations even though nobody living has any, you know, they only have a genetic connection to an actual wrong, they have no direct connection to have suffered. So that’s part of human nature. That kind of thing does happen. But it used to, I think, be understood by philosophers and preachers and priests and the people who study morality that while this is an aspect of human nature, it’s a destructive bad aspect, and it’s irrational, should be tamped down, not encouraged. Should try to be defused and deflated, not encouraged. And certainly not made the basis of public policy. Well, now we’re doing the opposite, or at least we’re contemplating doing the opposite. Hey, let’s make decade- and even century-old grievances the basis of public policy. I just think that’s very destructive, and we’ll go in destructive directions if it’s enacted.
Mr. Jekielek: So how does the conservative notion of justice, as you see it, contrast?
Mr. Anton: Well, the conservative … whenever you use the word conservative around me you have to distinguish between the one I think is what is actually accurate and true conservatism versus the phony dumbed down version.
Mr. Jekielek: Why don’t you give me both.
Mr. Anton: The phony dumbed down version would say: Yes, reparations are terrible, but they’re completely disarmed to make any kind of moral argument that’s true or at least effective. So what they’ll say is: Look at the harmful effect it would have on the economy. Look at this, this, and this. And in fact, the conservatives are already starting to bend a little bit toward reparations. One of the things I’ve learned about the conservatives, many of them in my time, is … they want to know where the wind is blowing. And if they feel that the whole culture is going in a certain way, “Well this is inevitable,” they want to get ahead of it. So before long you’re going to see somebody write the “Conservative Case for Reparations.” Anytime you see that phrase the “conservative case for …” and then some left-wing thing follows, you know you’re in the presence of one of these faux conservatives, as I would call it.
I think the real conservative case would say, exactly as I said before, in part, generational tribal resentment is a part of human nature. It’s an irrational destructive part, but it’s an ever-present part. However, because it’s irrational and self-destructive and because it’s ever-present we need to tamp it down, not beef it up. And it’s a very foolish and destructive basis on which to make public policy because it destroys real community and the possibility of community in the here and now. It’s inevitably going to stoke resentments. This is leaving aside all of the other economic arguments that one could make—that the conservatives can make reasonably well that are true but that are secondary to this. So they would say we need to treat each individual fairly based on what they have done or do not do. The very basis for morality in both the Bible and Aristotle’s ethics is: What have you done or did not do? Have you met your obligations? Did you know … these are the virtues, these are the things you’re supposed to do. Have you done them? Not …
Mr. Jekielek: The classical liberal case …
Mr. Anton: Not your ancestors did X and Y and therefore you … I mean, look, the one thing I would say you would actually owe is let’s say you are the descendant of a slaveholder who you inherited multigenerational wealth, and all of that wealth is based on some illegitimate source. That’s a case. That’s something separate from just “Well, you have the blood, therefore, you’re guilty,” which is a really dangerous, very dangerous precedent to set.
Oh, and I mean…Let me put it this way. It’s been set in other times and places, and it’s never ended well. I don’t know why we would want to do that here by choice.
Mr. Jekielek: And presumably it’s also you’re either guilty or you’re innocent, right? You’re basically judged based on—
Mr. Anton: More to the point, you’re either a victim or a victimizer by birth, essentially. That’s the way this view of the world inevitably … that’s where it inevitably takes you. I’ll just mention a book from, I think, the late ’50s or early ’60s by a political scientist named Edward Banfield who married a woman from southern Italy. And I think this was his first book. And it’s the kind of book you wonder if it could be published today, especially given the title. It was called “The Moral Basis of a Backwards Society.” Are we allowed to say backward society anymore? …Probably not. And he was talking about southern Italy. So he visits the land of his wife’s birth and homeland, and he says, “Look, people have often asked, why is northern Italy so relatively prosperous?” And Southern And peaceful compared to southern Italy which is the same Italian peninsula. I mean the distance between Naples and Milan is a heck of a lot shorter than the distance between San Francisco and New York. And yet, the wealth gap, and the culture gap seems to be immense. And he said … a part of it is as a kind of clannishness that perpetuates feuds onto the generation, so nobody trusts anybody. Everybody hunkers down. They remember every grievance from the grandparents and the great grandfather’s generation and things like that.
Mr. Jekielek: Fascinating.
Mr. Anton: And people don’t get anywhere, right? They don’t cooperate, or they do much less. And so poverty, but also a higher level of violence persists. And of course, in the moment all these people think that these grievances are very very very important, whereas, you know, the people in the north have kind of moved on, for lack of a better term, and they’re looking forward less than they are looking back. Again, it’s always going to be human nature to look back to some degree. Do you want public policy to encourage what is an irrational and potentially self-destructive part of human nature? Or do you want public policy to try to tamp it down and diffuse it and point human energies in more productive directions? That’s the question for now, for our time.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s a great question and I’ll tell you what some people would say to that: And I’ve actually been asked that and or told that well, that’s fine and dandy, but you know you and I as white guys, we’re kind of at the top of the pyramid, so to speak. If we do it that way then we get to keep enjoying our relative privileges, right?
Mr. Anton: Well, OK. First of all, I debunk the whole notion of white privilege. I think it’s preposterous. So for instance, just the other day, I saw a clip of Joy Behar, who is one of the hosts of “The View.” I don’t know what she earns is a host of an extremely popular, highly viewed long-running daytime television show, but it’s in the millions of dollars a year.
Mr. Jekielek: Certainly.
Mr. Anton: So she’s not low paid. She lives in one of the most expensive cities in the world. It used to be the most expensive city in America. San Francisco, as I think, passed it on a per-square-foot basis. But there are certainly more great and glamorous apartments in New York, simply because of its size, than there are in San Francisco. I don’t know where she lives, but I bet it ain’t in some fifth-floor walkup where she’s paying, you know, and she has to deal with cockroaches. I bet it’s a gorgeous apartment in the heart of Manhattan with dramatic views. And she was saying, essentially, that broke coal miners because they’re white have some kind of privilege. And I’m saying: Joy Behar, you’re one of the most privileged people I can think of off the top of my head. Not only do you have wealth and prestige and power, you have this mass audience through whom you have influenced generations of people over, I don’t know how long she’s been on the air, but 20 years. If you’re not privileged, privilege has no meaning. OK? So, I just reject the premise first and foremost. Second of all, I would say, I don’t know what your background is. My background is all through Ellis Island immigrants who came to the country after the Civil War. In what way am I responsible for it? I don’t see that. I certainly know that I personally am not responsible for it.
I do think, as I think I said in one of my essays, nations do bear collective guilt. This is why nations, because nations mobilize national resources on behalf of policies, that have to make up for, to the extent possible, national sins, national crimes. OK. But we also have to recognize the limits of human power and endeavor that not all crimes and sins can be made up for. As Abraham Lincoln said in the second inaugural: Can you really fully—he didn’t say this exactly, but you can tease this out of one of his thoughts, you know, he refers to 250 years of unrequited toil. How do you pay all that back? Every drop of blood drawn with the lash he says at one point. There’s a limit to what humans can do. And if we make the basis of public policy, well, we can’t move on until it’s all been paid back. We don’t even know how he would define how it’s been paid back. But we do know as a practical effect that we’re not going to do anything productive … until it’s done. We’re going to increase resentment. And, you know, how are they … I don’t know that it’s necessarily—in fact, I’m saying that too softly. I’m pretty sure it’s not good for the supposed recipients of this. You know the lives of former—I was going say former victims, that’s not even accurate. The lives of descendants of former victims, I think, are improved by doing concrete things in the here and now, by their doing concrete things, and by public policy focusing on concrete things in the here and now such as if we could tighten the labor market, we could raise wages, we can improve schools, we can do all of those things that are very hard. They’re hard enough to do. Hard enough to do. I mean some things are easier than others. I think America has been … its record at school reform is mixed, its record at tightening the labor market. We know we know how to do that, we’re just right now choosing not to do it because we’ve essentially done the bidding of wealthy donors and wealthy interest everywhere who don’t want it to happen. And then we allow sophists and others to tell us it’s impossible, can’t be done, so therefore don’t try—when we know it’s possible. I just think all of our energies would be more much more productively spent on those endeavors than in looking back. And especially when if you take the left’s own rhetoric seriously, they will say, and have said, a phrase that gets kicked around is a debt that can never be repaid. In other words, the debt is so vast.
Mr. Jekielek: Right.
Mr. Anton: Well, in that case then that means either you don’t try to repay it. There are two answers to that, you know? Why do we have bankruptcy courts? You go to the bankruptcy judge and say: I borrowed a million dollars to build a shopping mall, the mall went bust. I don’t have the million, I’ll never have the million. There’s no realistic way for me. So you get your debt discharged because you can’t repay it. The other conclusion you can draw from that: Well, I realize you can never pay it all back. That just means you’re just going to keep paying whatever you can forever. That’s where the left’s head is right now. And that’s just a recipe for regression, resentment, stagnation, and a kind of, I think, just a dysfunctional dismal society.
Mr. Jekielek: So in the essay you wrote, “Defending America and the West is thought to be the province of conservatism.” And, certainly, thoughts by conservatives that way. But it still struck me there’s probably a lot of people in America who definitely don’t see themselves as conservatives but who also see defending America and the West as their thing.
Mr. Anton: Right. Well, I don’t know, is that true? Maybe it is, but it’s certainly what conservatives think they’re doing. I think conservatives say this supposedly is our fundamental purpose. We defend America, we defend the West, broadly understood, and we do so on behalf even of people who don’t think about those things who maybe—
Mr. Jekielek: I see.
Mr. Anton: —implicitly love America and the West but are not intellectuals, are not political, who just want to do their jobs, live their lives, and raise their families, and so on, but who, you know, implicitly need a defense, and we try to provide that. What I think, in the mid-20th century, yes, there were a lot of people on the left side of the spectrum who would say we’re defending America in the West, too. It’s much harder to say that about anyone on the left today. I mean, it wasn’t long ago The Washington Post had a headline along the lines of “Defending Western Civilization,” and they put Western civilization in scare quotes, “That’s Racist, too.” So more and more, the left is openly saying: Yes, it’s bad to be pro-American, and it’s bad to be pro-Western because those things are exclusionary and tainted by their evil pasts. So for instance, you know, when Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” triggered so many people, Andrew Cuomo who wanted to run for president in 2020, I think, famously said, you know, “Make America Great Again.” He said, “It was never that great.” And then he went on to list a litany of sins alleged and real. I was heartened by that just in that I thought I really don’t like him, and now he can never be president. So that’s good.
But more and more of them are coming out and being explicit because it’s hard to say to the Democratic base, “America is great,” when what the social justice warriors in the crowd are going to shout back at you. But how could that be: slavery, colonialism, the Indians, child labor, Jim Crow, you know, The Chinese Exclusion Act, and, you know, those are actually fairly far in the past. Some people will say, “Well, what about the way my parents were treated in the ’80s,” or “This neighborhood, you know, lost jobs and was the subject of discrimination by hostile police,” and so they see injustice everywhere. They see America as essentially a catalog of injustice, a collection of injustices. And so to them the phrase “Make America Great Again” is offensive. …That left, which is dominant right now certainly in terms of noise level if not numbers, that left does not see itself as defending America or the West.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, but that’s just it. They’re definitely big in terms of noise. But it strikes me, and I think I’ve seen numbers to back this up, that there’s a lot of people out there that would be voting, essentially, for the left that doesn’t share that viewpoint.
Mr. Anton: Well, noise matters, especially in this environment. I think more so than ever, and … where a handful of media companies have more power than any element of society, governmental or otherwise, has ever had to shape the narrative. Look at what a shock it was that Trump won the 2016 election.
Mr. Jekielek: Yes, it was.
Mr. Anton: What it shows to me is: If you have the commanding heights, if you have all the networks, aside from Fox, and if you know all the major networks on cable and the broadcast. If you have all the Internet companies, you control the universities, if you essentially control all the places where opinion is made and formulated and all the channels via which opinion is transmitted, a numerical minority can have a lot of power. So, yes, I think most Americans still don’t agree with a lot of the things the left agrees with. But they go along with it anyway, if only by default. And because the power of the megaphone is so strong that they become convinced that opposition is illegitimate or that opposition is self-defeating, that opposition will just put a target on your own back. And so go along, to get along.
Mr. Jekielek: So what would your advice be to a rising media company such as the Epoch Times?
Mr. Anton: Be a real alternative. I think … the success of Tucker Carlson show shows that there’s a real hunger for a real alternative. Carlson will like to point out in his generosity to his employer that Fox is the one network on cable and among the major news, even broadcast, that stands out. But he’s selling himself short, I think deliberately, because he even stands out within Fox, right? Fox, yes it stands out from the rest. But still, it’s very traditional Republican in a lot of ways—it’s pro-Trump, broadly speaking, but very traditional in a lot of ways. Tucker is one of the few that takes on ruling class dogma. So we need more of that. You know, there’re bloggers who do it … and they have devoted small audiences. But reaching a big audience there’s too few companies that even try to do that.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.