Last February, an anonymous cohort of conservative writers, their bylines purloined from antiquity, started a group blog they described as the “first scholarly journal of radical #Trumpism.” Its title—the Journal of American Greatness, diminutively JAG—advertised the project as something of a lark, and it wasn’t clear how seriously the authors believed in Trump’s viability as a candidate. They did agree broadly with some of his program—economic nationalism, border controls, and an “America First” foreign policy—but for the most part what excited them about Trump was his attitude toward the plummy elitism of what they called “Conservatism, Inc.” Favorable attention from Peggy Noonan and Breitbart drove an enormous amount of traffic to the site, but just as it reached the height of its popularity, JAG disappeared. Its splash page explained that the whole thing had been to a large extent an “inside joke.”
Some of the contributors went on to write for such long-standing conservative venues as the Claremont Review of Books; others seemed to retrench. When Trump actually won the election, the JAG contingent found themselves in a peculiar position: While they had delighted in his willingness to troll the Republican Party peerage, his persistence could only be perceived as an inconvenience. They’d welcomed his appearance on the political scene as a kind of moral disheveler, a figure like the unnamed Visitor in Pasolini’s Teorema, who shows up on the doorstep of an uptight haut-bourgeois Milanese family, fornicates indiscriminately, and then leaves, exposing them to their own hypocrisy.
But now that Trump was president, their endgame wasn’t clear: What would it even mean to form an intellectual vanguard in the service of his ideas? On the one hand, with Trump in power, they presumably felt they might be able to exert some influence. On the other hand, Trump was inconsistent, impetuous, and bragged that he didn’t read. Plus, he came with a set of rather déclassé associates—Steve Bannon, Kellyanne Conway, Sebastian Gorka—who seemed likely, in their coarseness, to dishonor a set of policies that they believed might otherwise seem reasonable.
The very notion that a coherent way of political thinking might be distilled from Donald Trump was quixotic, to say the least, though not enough to prevent a set of JAG veterans—Julius Krein, Gladden Pappin, and James Poulos—to found a successor magazine, American Affairs, with Krein installed as editor. The masthead was institutionally presentable: Krein, a native of South Dakota, was a recent Harvard graduate and a disciple of Harvey Mansfield; Pappin was a political scientist at Notre Dame; and Poulos was the author of The Art of Being Free, a new book on “how Alexis de Tocqueville can save us from ourselves.” They had also recruited several better-known names for their advisory board, including Michael Lind and Yoram Hazony.
But it wasn’t American Affairs’ credentials that made its launch event an irresistible attraction so much as the improbability of the whole enterprise. Guests were invited for an evening cocktail hour at the Harvard Club, followed by a discussion between venture capitalist Peter Thiel and the president of the New America foundation, Anne-Marie Slaughter. Name tags were set out for (among others) Bill Kristol, Sam Tanenhaus, Peggy Noonan, Mark Lilla, Andrew Sullivan, and Rebekah Mercer, one of Trump’s key backers.