U.S. President Donald Trump doesn’t pretend to be an intellectual — he freely admits that he doesn’t have time to read books — so nobody expected him to translate his unorthodox “America First” instincts into a coherent narrative after entering the White House. That responsibility has fallen instead to a small group that includes Michael Anton, the communications director for Trump’s National Security Council.
After Anton’s first year on the job, the narrative is now clear (even if it’s not always coherent): Trump’s foreign policy is driven by the idea that America’s alliances and economic relationships should more clearly benefit the country first and its culture must be protected against alien forces.
Anton came to his job not as a policy wonk but as a theorist. As a student at Claremont Graduate University, he studied political philosophy from Aristotle to Niccolò Machiavelli. Anton later served in George W. Bush’s administration as a speechwriter on the National Security Council at a time when it and the rest of the administration were focused almost exclusively on the “war on terror.”
By the 2016 presidential election, however, Anton had grown disillusioned with traditional Republicans. In September of that year, after much of the establishment (both left and right) had denounced Trump as a threat to the republic, Anton published (under a Roman pseudonym, Publius Decius Mus) a polemic titled “The Flight 93 Election.” In it, Anton portrayed Trump as America’s last chance at redemption. He compared Hillary Clinton’s potential election to the hijacking of an airplane by suicidal terrorists. Only by storming the cockpit — electing Trump — could voters rescue the country. The article went viral and set off an intense debate on the right. Republican critics of Trump condemned the piece as poisonous hyperbole and labeled the author a traitor to the conservative cause. But other right-wing voices embraced Anton’s argument, including talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, who read out lengthy passages of the article on air and called it a “shot between the eyes of conservative intellectuals who say that Trump is beneath them.”
In interviews, Anton has defended the president’s agenda less as a radical intervention than an overdue course correction. According to Anton, Trump’s goals are to rewrite flawed trade agreements, cancel unfavorable diplomatic deals, and avoid wars that America isn’t in a position to win. If those policies lead to tensions with allies, so much the better, Anton argues. While Trump’s complaints about NATO members failing to pay their fair share may have ruffled some feathers, for example, Anton argues that they also succeeded in pushing America’s transatlantic partners to spend more on defense.
Anton has always savored the cut and thrust of ideological debate. “At the end of the day, he’s all about ideas. He likes argument,” says David Reaboi, a friend and fellow early Trump supporter. But in his current job as a White House staffer, Anton has had to give up punditry and polemics and focus on producing prosaic press releases and talking points instead. He lacks the free rein Ben Rhodes, his predecessor in the Barack Obama administration, enjoyed. Anton’s job may be to communicate Trump’s foreign-policy preferences, but he still reports to National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, a much more cautious official.
Anton’s ongoing attempts to construct an intellectual framework for Trumpism have also been complicated by the president himself, whose unscripted remarks and tweets are often inconsistent.
Yet Anton has still succeeded by making himself “invaluable to the people around him,” says Charles Kesler, a former professor of Anton’s who edits the Claremont Review of Books, which published the “The Flight 93 Election” essay. “He didn’t know McMaster going in. McMaster didn’t know him. They’re very close now and work very well together.”
Conservatives opposed to Trump have accused Anton of giving the president intellectual cover for his ugly xenophobia. Citing Anton’s references to the “ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners” as a sign of “a country, a people, a civilization that wants to die,” Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for Bush, wrote that “The Flight 93 Election” essay evokes a “residue of prejudice.”
Despite such criticisms, Anton has a chance to shape perceptions of Trump’s presidency and his foreign policy. And he may ultimately prove a more effective spokesman for Trumpism than Trump himself, at least judging by the speech the president delivered in Poland in July. “The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive,” Trump said in the Warsaw speech. “Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders?”
It was a return to a favorite theme, of Anton’s and Trump’s alike: the portrait of a civilization on the brink — and of a president determined to protect it at all costs.
Dan De Luce is chief national security correspondent at Foreign Policy.
Under the nom de plume Nicholas Antongiavanni, Anton published The Suit: A Machiavellian Approach to Men’s Style in 2006. “What the book does is take Machiavelli’s methods, his literary devices, his writing style and his way of approaching a subject, and it applies that to clothes the same way he applied it to politics,” Anton said.