Angelo Codevilla was a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute. Gage Skidmore
Donald Trump’s election in 2016 caught most intellectuals by surprise — and not least conservative intellectuals.
The right-of-center editors, columnists and think-tankers who had sung hymns to democracy promotion overseas had overlooked what was going on at home: how Big Tech and the HR department had worked around the Bill of Rights; how democracy had been usurped by judges and bureaucrats who, regardless of party affiliation, failed to reverse the assault against family, country and faith; and how nation-building abroad had consumed treasure and blood while whole swaths of America fell into what Trump memorably called “American carnage.”
One rare exception to the general cluelessness of the right-wing intelligentsia was Angelo Codevilla, a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute and former professor of international relations at Boston University who died this week in a car accident, aged 78.
Far from being surprised by the Trump phenomenon, he predicted its broad outlines in a 2010 essay for The American Spectator, read on air by the late Rush Limbaugh. In it, Codevilla observed that Americans could no longer maintain the pretense of being equal citizens. They were now aware of being divided into two classes, rulers and ruled — a court party clustered around universities, urban hubs and the government bureaucracy lording over an unorganized country party attached to habits and regions that history seemed to have passed by.
Protesters dance together outside of the White House on a section of Black Lives Matter Plaza on July 4, 2020.
Codevilla’s language was startling. He insisted that understanding America required speaking of class, a challenge to the long-standing idea that America, unlike the Old World, wasn’t a class-based society. He informed voters who thought of themselves as “conservatives” that they stood on the outside of the established order. Insofar as they opposed the assembly of billionaires, mega-firms, NGOs, universities and government agencies that run the country, they were revolutionaries.
When the essay first appeared, some deemed Codevilla’s analysis too extreme. A radical by nature, he often seemed to go two steps too far. But events usually caught up with him.
Anyone who doubted that America was unfree had only to observe the extraordinary censorship of this newspaper’s reporting on the Hunter Biden Files. Those who disliked the claim that America was divided between the rulers and the ruled had only to observe the way doctors and elected leaders cheered on Black Lives Matter protests as essential to public health while denouncing Orthodox Jewish funerals for spreading COVID.
What explained Codevilla’s farsightedness? Part of it was biography. Born in Italy, Codevilla served in the US Navy and as a foreign-service officer before becoming a staffer for the Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence. On that committee, he observed up-close the workings of what would one day be called the Deep State. This experience, along with his study of Machiavelli, made it difficult to harbor illusions about those who wield power in America.
Angelo Codevilla was not surprised but former President Trump’s rise.
A Catholic, he was disinclined to sympathize with the internationalist, post-WASP ethos of the Central Intelligence Agency. He saw how its biases made it hostile to certain forces at home and abroad, notably conservatives and Israel. He protested the treatment of Jonathan Pollard, a US intelligence analyst who passed secrets to the Israelis. Codevilla acknowledged that Pollard had done wrong, but argued that the sentence — life in prison — was far in excess of what the crime merited. Later, he showed similar independence of mind in questioning the police killing of Ashli Babbitt on Jan. 6.
Codevilla was notable above all for his intellectual courage. Unlike most thinkers on the left and the right, he was willing to go where his logic led him. He was far from the only writer to offer a radical critique of contemporary society, but he was one of the few who were willing to discuss solutions equal to the problems he claimed to see. As he pointed out, leaders of a movement opposed to the power elite must be prepared to do un-conservative things, including “fostering and leading campaigns of civil disobedience.”
Most public intellectuals outlive their influence. They die long after their insights have faded. That wasn’t Angelo Codevilla’s fate. His work, embodied not just in his famous essays, but in many learned books, has never been more relevant. Intellectually, he died in the strength of his years.
Matthew Schmitz is senior editor of First Things.
Twitter: @MatthewSchmitzInternet Explorer Channel Network