How Willmoore Kendall Invented Trumpism
Christopher H. Owen’s Heaven Can Indeed Fall: The Life of Willmoore Kendall offers an insightful portrait of one of the Right’s leading thinkers.
Christopher H. Owen, Heaven Can Indeed Fall: The Life of Willmoore Kendall. (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books). 256 pp., $105.00.
IN 1994, the year that Newt Gingrich formulated the “Contract with America” and Republicans went on to capture the House of Representatives in the midterm elections for the first time in four decades, Alan Brinkley, a professor at Columbia University, published an influential essay in the American Historical Review. It was called “The Problem of American Conservatism.” The problem that Brinkley sought to diagnose was not the rise of conservatism, but what he described as the lack of imagination of American historians who had failed to acknowledge, let alone comprehend, the vitality of the Republican Right. Their implicit endorsement of a kind of Whig interpretation about the inexorable rise of liberalism had occluded the study of conservatism, rendering it “something of an orphan in historical scholarship.” Brinkley concluded that “a recognition of many traditions, including those of the Right” was overdue.
That recognition has taken place in recent decades. Historians such as Geoffrey Kabaservice have explored the ideological transformation of the GOP since the 1950s, from a bastion of establishment Republicans to an insurgent movement. Others have examined the influence of conservative media over the decades, including Eric Alterman in What Liberal Media? and Nicole Hemmer in Messengers of the Right. And in 2020, the Library of America published an anthology of conservative thought in the past century that was edited by Andrew J. Bacevich. But perhaps the most notable development over the past several decades has been the appearance of biographies of charter members of the conservative intelligentsia, including Whittaker Chambers, James Burnham, L. Brent Bozell, William A. Rusher, and Ayn Rand.
CHRISTOPHER H. Owen’s Heaven Can Indeed Fall is the latest entrant to this burgeoning field. Owen, who is a professor of history at Northeastern State University, meticulously chronicles the turbulent life of Willmoore Kendall. Kendall was a Trotskyist in the 1930s who went on to become a staunch conservative, embracing Senator Joseph McCarthy and advising Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo. At Yale, where he taught political theory for a number of years, his mission was to topple liberal elites by creating a conservative vanguard. Kendall, you could say, was the original polarizer. A gifted political theorist and slashing orator, Kendall championed the fusion of conservatism with populism, contending that liberals possessed an “instinctive dislike for the American way of life and for the basic political and social principles presupposed in it.” No one did more to forge the intellectual arsenal of the modern Right than Kendall.
The temerity of this Hephaestus at Yale won him a number of admirers. The political philosopher Leo Strauss, who oversaw the creation of his own Bruderbund at the University of Chicago that was dedicated to returning to the timeless wisdom of the ancients, corresponded for several decades with Kendall, lauding him as “the only man who vindicates the honor of our profession.” But Kendall’s volatility—his philandering, his heavy drinking, his flashy suits, and, above all, his sheer cussedness—also meant that he was as notorious for his temperament as his ideas. As Garry Wills observed, “Willmoore was the one man with the depth, training, and style of presentation to lead a conservative revival; but that his prickliness always got in the way of his abilities as a proselytizer.”
Both William F. Buckley, Jr., who met Kendall as a sophomore at Yale and mimicked his elaborate syntax, and Saul Bellow, who befriended Kendall in Chicago, found him fascinating. In his 1999 novel Redhunter, a defense of Senator Joseph McCarthy, Buckley, whom Kendall recruited into the CIA in 1950, portrays his old professor as Willmoore Sherrill of Columbia University, a mentor to a young aide to McCarthy. Sherrill enjoys nothing more than baiting his liberal colleagues at faculty meetings:
There’s an old colored gentleman who looks after my Fellows suite. He said to me this morning, “Professor, is it true there’s people who want to overthrow the government by force and violence?” I said, “Yes, that’s true Jamieson.” He said, “Well, professor, why don’t we just run them out of town?” Sherrill turned to his distinguished colleagues. “I think Jamieson has a more sophisticated understanding of democratic theory than any of you gentlemen.”
In his short story “Mosby’s Memoirs,” Bellow follows along similar, if more elegant, lines, evoking the consternation that Kendall created among his academic brethren who wanted, in contemporary parlance, to cancel him:
The real, the original Mosby approach brought Mosby hatred, got Mosby fired. Princeton University had offered Mosby a lump sum to retire seven years early. One hundred and forty thousand dollars. Because his mode of discourse was so upsetting to the academic community. Mosby was invited to no television programs. He was like the Guerrilla Mosby of the Civil War. When he galloped in, all were slaughtered.
Indeed, Kendall was a warrior intellectual par excellence who maintained a steady bead on the liberal class enemy—the unelected, unaccountable, and unholy trinity of academics, journalists, and bureaucrats who sought, as far as possible, to distend American democracy for their own elitist ends.
KENDALL, WHO was born on March 5, 1909, grew up in Oklahoma. His Sooner state origins instilled in him a lifelong suspicion of an eastern establishment that he viewed as inimical to the virtues incarnated by the American heartland. Kendall, who was the eldest son of a blind Methodist minister, experienced intense pressure at home to succeed. A child prodigy, he read Hawthorne’s short stories as a four-year-old and entered high school at age nine. Upon graduation at age fourteen, he was already working as a cub reporter for the Tulsa Tribune, a newspaper that had helped to spark the ghastly 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre with the inflammatory headline, “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator.”
Kendall liked to engage in intense debates with his father, a gifted public speaker who traveled widely around Oklahoma and espoused interracial and interreligious harmony, defended Jewish rights, and denounced the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan threatened his father. But in March 1923, on his fourteenth birthday, Willmoore boasted to a friend about his plans to resuscitate a state chapter of the Junior KKK with himself as Grand Wizard. A year later, however, he condemned a Klan offshoot at the University of Oklahoma for bullying students. At age seventeen Kendall, who was fluent in Spanish and French, graduated from Oklahoma with a degree in Romance languages.
In 1931, Kendall won a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Pembroke College. There he sat at the feet of the political theorist R. G. Collingwood whom he described as “the most superior dialectician I have ever known.” Kendall’s father was less impressed. He wrote to apprise Willmoore of his apprehensions that he would end up a “pedantic donkey besotted with excess of philosophical learning.” Actually, it was worse than that. At Oxford, Kendall became the proud convert of his own scholarship, embracing Trotskyism after reading Marx’s Capital, a work that fortified his previous conviction that Franklin D. Roosevelt was much too timorous in combating the twin evils of unemployment and big business. Indeed, by 1935 Kendall regarded the existence of private property itself as tantamount to “an enslaving convention” whose biggest stronghold was in supposedly democratic America. The Pembrokian’s new faith did not go unnoticed back home. “When Willmoore visited Oklahoma in 1935,” Owen writes, “his father expressed dismay that his son had accepted communist dogma.”
After graduating from Oxford, Kendall worked as a journalist for United Press International in Spain. His sympathy for the Left began to diminish as Spain lurched into civil war and anarchy, instilling in Kendall a permanent fear of the violent consequences of sudden social collapse. He returned forthwith to America to occupy a position as an instructor at Louisiana State University and to earn a Ph.D. in political theory at the University of Illinois. At Louisiana, he quickly became friends with Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks, both of whom were former Rhodes scholars, as well as Katherine Anne Porter. Amid what he dubbed a “comfortable pluralism,” Kendall shucked off his Trotskyist views but remained a leftist and an isolationist. His early scholarly essays hailed the wisdom of the common man, attacked judicial review, and castigated efforts to “equate democracy with a particular set of ‘natural rights.’” At bottom, the Bill of Rights, he stated, functioned as a mechanism to perpetuate elite power. As an admirer of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, he advocated majoritarianism. He would end up transferring his populist toolkit from Left to Right. For the rest of his career, he would preach that Congress, not the presidency or the judiciary, came closest to embodying the Rousseauian general will.
According to Owen, “when read closely … these early articles reveal flashes of Kendall’s brilliance, heralding his later intricately construction and inquisitorial style of scholarship.” Exhibit A was his audacious 1940 dissertation, “John Locke and the Doctrine of Majority Rule,” which would later help him land a position at Yale. He divined in Locke’s political theory an escape hatch—a “latent premise”—that permitted Locke to “argue both for individual right and for a right of the majority to define individual rights” because he believed the people “rational and just” enough “never to withdraw a right which the individual ought to have.” “Call me Rabbi,” he telegrammed home after it passed muster.