Claremont Institute’s descent into Trumpian extremism illustrated in law enforcement strategy

At one time, the California-based Claremont Institute was a fairly normative conservative think tank. But ever since it embraced the politics of Donald Trump in 2016, it has grown increasingly extremist, reflecting Trump’s own politics of conspiracism and cultural war. One of its leading lights, ex-law professor John Eastman, even authored the memo outlining a plan for a Trump coup that would invalidate the election. And in the months since the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection that plan engendered, Claremont and its fellows have doubled down on their antidemocratic agenda: claiming Donald Trump won the election and that the insurrectionists were simply patriotic citizens defending the Republic, while proposing a proto-fascist approach to political discourse reliant on Proud Boys-style street thugs and “real American” patriots. Its most recent initiative, however, is even more insidious: recruiting the support of law enforcement officers throughout the nation into a far-right scheme to spread their extremism on the local level, in the manner of the Oath Keepers and other patriot groups. YouTube Video The program, called the “Sheriffs Fellowship,” directly recruits elected county law officers to become part of “a countervailing network of uncorrupted law enforcement officials” in the face of last year’s civil unrest, COVID-19 restrictions, and “the electoral disaster of 2020.” It’s fundamentally the same idea as the patriot movement’s Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association and the Oath Keepers: seizing far-right control locally by radicalizing American police officers with their extremist ideology. Claremont’s version essentially gives a pseudo-academic veneer to a longstanding far-right recruitment strategy. Claremont’s vision for the program is to create a cadre of sheriffs “not beholden to bureaucratic masters, and whose geographic boundaries, jurisdictional latitude, and—most important—direct connection and responsibility to citizens, places them on the frontlines of the defense of civilization.” In its fundraising letter announcing the program, Claremont explained that “our new Sheriffs Fellows will put their knowledge and relationships to ingenious and cost-effective use to help restore the rule of law and America’s founding principles,” which it then described: The current revolution against the American regime, involving as it does both crime and political malfeasance, requires a coordinated response from patriotic law enforcement officers. Those whose "chain of dependency" is directly to the people of their region—officers not beholden to the centralized (and often corrupt) bureaucracies of federal or state governments, nor the vicissitudes of easily pressured city officials. Sheriffs are appropriate for this response. Since their beginnings as "shire-reeves" ("county watchmen") centuries ago in England, sheriffs have been intimately connected with, and answerable to, the people of their "shires" and therefore the first layer of protection, and last line of defense, for the people's rights. Our project will equip sheriffs with strategic knowledge and end their isolation. Their efforts will be supported, enhanced, and multiplied through a reliable like-minded network of fellow sheriffs and others with complementary areas of expertise and potency. As Charlie Sykes observes: “Think of it as militias with badges, guns, and formal law enforcement powers. Or, if you like, secession-by-sheriff.” In 2018, the Claremont Institute was forced to shut down a listserv chat when two notorious white nationalists, Darren Beattie and Charles Johnson, pleaded for support from other conservatives after the former was fired from his position in the Trump White House. But the organization announced its final descent into antidemocratic Trumpism in 2019 when it named a notorious white nationalist, Jack Posobiec, as one of its Lincoln Fellows—which drew loud protests from establishment conservatives, including those at National Review. However, Claremont’s position as not just a leading source of antidemocratic “thought” but an influential voice in the halls of power was cemented by the relationship John Eastman, the founder of Claremont’s Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence, developed with Trump himself. According to The New York Times, Eastman became a favorite legal adviser during Trump’s final months in office, and ultimately penned the memorandum providing Trump with a roadmap to seize power in a coup by overturning the election results.   Indeed, Eastman spoke at the Jan. 6 “Stop the Steal” rally prior to the insurrection, appearing onstage with Rudy Giuliani, telling the audience that the election had been stolen, and that supposed evidence presented in the courts needed to be addressed. “We no longer live in a self-governing republic if we can’t get the answer to this question!” he said. “This is bigger than President Trump! It is the very essence of our republican form

Claremont Institute’s descent into Trumpian extremism illustrated in law enforcement strategy

At one time, the California-based Claremont Institute was a fairly normative conservative think tank. But ever since it embraced the politics of Donald Trump in 2016, it has grown increasingly extremist, reflecting Trump’s own politics of conspiracism and cultural war. One of its leading lights, ex-law professor John Eastman, even authored the memo outlining a plan for a Trump coup that would invalidate the election.

And in the months since the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection that plan engendered, Claremont and its fellows have doubled down on their antidemocratic agenda: claiming Donald Trump won the election and that the insurrectionists were simply patriotic citizens defending the Republic, while proposing a proto-fascist approach to political discourse reliant on Proud Boys-style street thugs and “real American” patriots. Its most recent initiative, however, is even more insidious: recruiting the support of law enforcement officers throughout the nation into a far-right scheme to spread their extremism on the local level, in the manner of the Oath Keepers and other patriot groups.

The program, called the “Sheriffs Fellowship,” directly recruits elected county law officers to become part of “a countervailing network of uncorrupted law enforcement officials” in the face of last year’s civil unrest, COVID-19 restrictions, and “the electoral disaster of 2020.” It’s fundamentally the same idea as the patriot movement’s Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association and the Oath Keepers: seizing far-right control locally by radicalizing American police officers with their extremist ideology. Claremont’s version essentially gives a pseudo-academic veneer to a longstanding far-right recruitment strategy.

Claremont’s vision for the program is to create a cadre of sheriffs “not beholden to bureaucratic masters, and whose geographic boundaries, jurisdictional latitude, and—most important—direct connection and responsibility to citizens, places them on the frontlines of the defense of civilization.”

In its fundraising letter announcing the program, Claremont explained that “our new Sheriffs Fellows will put their knowledge and relationships to ingenious and cost-effective use to help restore the rule of law and America’s founding principles,” which it then described:

  • The current revolution against the American regime, involving as it does both crime and political malfeasance, requires a coordinated response from patriotic law enforcement officers. Those whose "chain of dependency" is directly to the people of their region—officers not beholden to the centralized (and often corrupt) bureaucracies of federal or state governments, nor the vicissitudes of easily pressured city officials.
  • Sheriffs are appropriate for this response. Since their beginnings as "shire-reeves" ("county watchmen") centuries ago in England, sheriffs have been intimately connected with, and answerable to, the people of their "shires" and therefore the first layer of protection, and last line of defense, for the people's rights.
  • Our project will equip sheriffs with strategic knowledge and end their isolation. Their efforts will be supported, enhanced, and multiplied through a reliable like-minded network of fellow sheriffs and others with complementary areas of expertise and potency.

As Charlie Sykes observes: “Think of it as militias with badges, guns, and formal law enforcement powers. Or, if you like, secession-by-sheriff.”

In 2018, the Claremont Institute was forced to shut down a listserv chat when two notorious white nationalists, Darren Beattie and Charles Johnson, pleaded for support from other conservatives after the former was fired from his position in the Trump White House. But the organization announced its final descent into antidemocratic Trumpism in 2019 when it named a notorious white nationalist, Jack Posobiec, as one of its Lincoln Fellows—which drew loud protests from establishment conservatives, including those at National Review.

However, Claremont’s position as not just a leading source of antidemocratic “thought” but an influential voice in the halls of power was cemented by the relationship John Eastman, the founder of Claremont’s Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence, developed with Trump himself. According to The New York Times, Eastman became a favorite legal adviser during Trump’s final months in office, and ultimately penned the memorandum providing Trump with a roadmap to seize power in a coup by overturning the election results.  

Indeed, Eastman spoke at the Jan. 6 “Stop the Steal” rally prior to the insurrection, appearing onstage with Rudy Giuliani, telling the audience that the election had been stolen, and that supposed evidence presented in the courts needed to be addressed.

“We no longer live in a self-governing republic if we can’t get the answer to this question!” he said. “This is bigger than President Trump! It is the very essence of our republican form of government, and it has to be done! And anybody that is not willing to stand up to do it does not deserve to be in the office! It is that simple!”

In the immediate aftermath of the Capitol siege, Claremont doubled down. That day, Beattie tweeted out a series of posts directed at popular African American figures, telling them to “take a knee to MAGA.” The next day, Claremont president Roy Williams promoted a Beattie video interview on Twitter.

There has been fallout for the think tank for all this. Eastman resigned his position as a law professor at Chapman University amid the public furor over his Jan. 6 speech, including a demand by other faculty members to sanction him. Eastman has apparently been blackballed by the Federalist Society, the conservative legal group where he once was a prominent member. After hundreds of scholars signed a petition to the American Political Science Association declaring that “Eastman has violated our discipline’s professional ethics by participating in the dangerous attempt to overturn the institution of electoral democracy in the United States,” Claremont backed out of participating in the organization’s annual convention, claiming on bogus grounds that it was being censored.

Moreover, Claremont has loudly supported Eastman since. It issued a gaslighting statement claiming that reportage describing the memo was “deliberate misrepresentations of John Eastman’s advice,” arguing that he actually had not urged Pence to overturn the election—though his memo clearly laid out precisely how to do just that.

Along the way, Claremont has continued its embrace of Trumpism, including a none-too-subtle embrace of proto-fascist politics published in its monthly magazine in March. The author, Glenn Elmers, divided the nation into two warring halves: the “real Americans” (who, seemingly, engage in violent seditionist insurrection out of patriotic impulses) and the “not Americans”—i.e., the rest of us. And only the former half deserves to hold the political franchise:

Fewer are willing to take the next step and accept that most people living in the United States today—certainly more than half—are not Americans in any meaningful sense of the term.

I don’t just mean the millions of illegal immigrants. Obviously, those foreigners who have bypassed the regular process for entering our country, and probably will never assimilate to our language and culture, are—politically as well as legally—aliens. I’m really referring to the many native-born people—some of whose families have been here since the Mayflower—who may technically be citizens of the United States but are no longer (if they ever were) Americans. They do not believe in, live by, or even like the principles, traditions, and ideals that until recently defined America as a nation and as a people. It is not obvious what we should call these citizen-aliens, these non-American Americans; but they are something else.

Ellmer explained that his goal “is to show why we must all unite around the one, authentic America, the only one which transcends all the factional navel-gazing and pointless conservababble.” A photo illustrating the piece, showing a muscular man in a tank top wrapping his hands in preparation for a fistfight, suggested what he has in mind: the thuggish street-brawler strategy of the Proud Boys.

Claremont’s antidemocratic agenda was made explicit in a recent interview with Williams in The Atlantic during which he explicated a version of the oft-repeated John Birch Society adage about the nation’s founders: “They set up a republic, not a democracy.”

Not only is the sentiment dangerously wrong, that hostility to democratic institutions is the same deranged mindset that fueled the Jan. 6 insurrection. Claremont’s plan to indoctrinate law enforcement officers in the antidemocratic belief that they represent the real vanguard of American values—at the very moment that the nation, grappling with far-right violence and white nationalism, needs to confront the reality that the most important task they face in doing so involves weeding extremists out of the ranks of our police forces—is similarly dangerous.

Particularly as it becomes crystal clear that the antidemocratic American right responsible for the Jan. 6 attack—an agglomeration of the Patriot movement, white nationalists, conspiracy theorists, and far-right Trumpist Republicans gorged on their disinformation, as well as Fox News pundits and pseudo-academic right-wing think tanks that jam it down their throats—has no intention of backing down and rejoining normative democratic society.