There are many think tanks in the United States, across the political spectrum. But few are as worthy of attention, at this moment in time, as the Claremont Institute.
The Claremont Institute, which was founded in 1979, isn’t the most direct pipeline into a job in Congress or national security. It’s not even in Washington DC (it’s based in Upland, California, about 35 miles east of downtown Los Angeles). Yet it is at the heart of many of the most contentious right-wing projects.
The director of Claremont’s Centre for Constitutional Jurisprudence, for example, is John Eastman, who was heavily involved in Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn his defeat in the 2020 presidential election. Congressional investigators were told that it was his idea to get Mike Pence, the vice-president, to overturn the result, which Pence refused to do, and that he argued for obstruction strategies that he admitted would not hold up in court. One of the Claremont Institute’s Lincoln Fellows in 2017 was Christopher Rufo, a right-wing activist who ginned up a national panic over Critical Race Theory and the teaching of “gender ideology” in schools, which has sparked proposed and enacted legislation in states across the country. Trump awarded the institute the National Humanities Medal in 2019. Their online magazine, American Mind, which blasts the “ruling class” and “wokeism”, features contributors such as Michael Anton, Trump’s former deputy national security adviser and a senior fellow at the institute. Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida, was the recipient of the 2021 Claremont Institute Statesmanship Award. Larry Arnn, one of the think tank’s founders, is president of Hillsdale College in Michigan, which is believed to have worked with DeSantis to reshape Florida’s education system by, for example, reviewing textbooks.
“Every generation of the conservative movement” has had its think tanks and institutions, Julian Zelizer, a historian at Princeton University, said. “They’ve been very important. Conservatives have invested a lot in mobilising ideas and promoting policies in a quasi-intellectual realm.”
In recent years there have been significant developments in American politics, and particularly on the American political right, in which the Claremont Institute and those associated with it have clearly played an pivotal role. What makes the institute somewhat different from right-wing think tanks that have come before it, according to Zelizer, is that “they’re more comfortable moving in the direction of the modern Republican Party, away from specific tax policies into the cultural outlook of broader conservativism”. That includes, given Eastman’s work with Trump, election denial and the erosion of democracy.
One strategy in particular has drawn attention in recent weeks: the institute’s Sheriffs Fellowship.
In the US sheriffs are the officials responsible for “keeping the peace” and enforcing the law. In most places across the country it is an elected position. As Jessica Pishko, who is writing a book on sheriffs and democracy, and who obtained a previously unpublished copy of the fellows’ curriculum, has written, the Claremont programme recruits working sheriffs and offers them lectures and course reading on the idea that the law should be enforced for some and not for others – like, say, militia members to whose causes the sheriffs are sympathetic. Sheriffs are also, as Pishko noted, empowered to use violence. Also included in the curriculum were articles suggesting that Derek Chauvin, the officer who killed George Floyd by keeping his knee on his neck for nearly ten minutes, had not acted out of “racial animus”; and lectures on terrorism from an institute analyst who considers Black Lives Matters a threat yet has criticised the Department of Justice for “persecuting” those who stormed the Capitol on 6 January 2020.
A fundraising letter for the fellowship made public in August by the civil rights attorney Sherrilyn Ifill states plainly that these sheriffs are “not beholden to the centralised (and often corrupt) bureaucracies of federal and state governments, nor the vicissitudes of easily pressured city officials”.
A spokesman for the institute defended the programme. He said: “The Claremont Institute’s Sheriffs Fellowship seeks to do what we’ve always done in our educational programming for professionals: teach the principles of the American founding and their application to our political and intellectual disputes today. The insinuations or claims by leftist media outlets that teaching the principles of the American founding is to advocate extralegal, extra-constitutional, or otherwise unjust treatment of our fellow citizens are absurd, anti-American and defamatory.”
It is hard, however, to read the fundraising letter and the curriculum and see this programme as anything but a mission to train law enforcement officials to act independently of the government (or, in Claremont’s parlance, “the justice system by which the revolutionary left seeks to advance its totalitarian agenda”). As graduates of this fellowship programme, these sheriffs seem to be being encouraged to go back to their law enforcement jobs and privilege ideology over the rule of law. Claremont is in the process of recruiting a second class.
Discrimination and unequal enforcement of the law are not new, but recruiting and training a cadre of sheriffs to put the ideology of a right-wing think tank above the law is alarming. Yet this is not the first time a right-wing institution has tried to reshape a US political system.
The most obvious example is the Federalist Society. Founded in 1982, the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies is a right-wing legal organisation that purports to advocate for an “originalist” interpretation of the constitution. Its critics say that this is a ruse, and that it is in fact an organisation working toward right-wing political ends. The Federalist Society begins at universities, recruiting law students and offering them mentorship and networking. It then works to push its recruits up through the legal and judicial world. Leonard Leo, a co-chairman of the society and a fundraiser for the support of conservative judicial nominees, has been described by conservatives as singularly influential in shaping a Supreme Court that would overturn Roe vs Wade, which guaranteed the right to an abortion. (Not content with having done this, Leonard is pushing the theory that state legislatures are not even answerable to the courts in deciding how elections are run.)
There are, of course, differences between the two projects. Judges are not sheriffs. One was a decades-long project; the other has just begun. But the goal of each appears to be to train a new generation to think about things not only conservatively, but in a way that protects power for the American right exclusively. Both provide knowledge and mentorship and a network, and then send them back out not to overthrow the system, but to reshape it entirely.
Given how influential the institute already is, and considering the possibility of a Republican returning to the White House in 2024, there is reason to believe that Claremont will not only have a lasting impact on the American right but on the US itself.