Opinion / Politics

The Man Who Understood the Battle: Angelo Codevilla, RIP

AMAC Exclusive – by David P. Deavel

codevilla
Angelo Codevilla speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md., March 14, 2013. (Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons)

They tell us what to do—and they do what they want. To take a couple of the most recent examples, London Breed, the mayor of San Francisco, who was recently photographed dancing without a mask in defiance of her own mask mandates for the city. She joins a veritable host of politicians and officials who have felt free to take the risks they want while punishing (or allowing to be punished) ordinary people who act similarly. So too in the virtual world we’ve seen evidence that social media platforms have what is called in at least one case a “whitelist” that allows political and entertainment elites to say what they want while ordinary people can be suspended or censored for all sorts of reasons.

The great American battle is not exactly Democrats versus Republicans, rich versus poor, capital versus labor, or even rural versus urban. It is between the Country Class (representing not simply rural people but the rest of the country) and the Ruling Class.

This was the insight of Angelo Codevilla, who died last week at the age of 78 in a car accident. Codevilla, who immigrated to this country from Italy at the age of twelve, had an amazing life of achievement. He had degrees from Rutgers, Notre Dame, and Claremont Graduate School, serving as a U. S. Naval reserve officer while completing his studies. He interrupted an academic career to spend over a decade working in the Foreign Service and then on Capitol Hill. At the latter he served with the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence as well as on presidential transition teams dealing with the CIA and the State Department. In and around this period he spent many years in academic and intellectual life teaching and writing at Georgetown, the Hoover Institution, and Boston University.

In short, Codevilla’s insight about how the American regime works—and how it is far from the intention of the Founders—was derived from many years of experience working in the belly of the governmental and higher educational beasts. He knew from years of experience whereof he spoke when he penned an essay for The American Spectator in 2010 that laid out what he called “America’s Ruling Class.” It was important enough an essay that Rush Limbaugh read it in its entirety on his show and penned an eloquent introduction to it when it was published in book form.     

What is the Ruling Class like? With regard to its properly political nature, Codevilla insisted, it is bipartisan, but Republicans and Democrats are not equal partners in it. Democrats are the senior partners and Republicans are the junior partners. Democrats largely represent this Ruling Class while the Country Class has inconsistent representation at best, given the Republican Party’s tendency to do lip service to its constituency while many (most?) of its politicians spend much of their time, energy, and political capital clinging to their junior partnership.

The problem is that the Ruling Class rules in ways that are often not properly political at all. Much of the power has flowed away from elected representatives, leaving us at the mercy of agencies and czars of all kinds. The Ruling Class’s power is directly exercised most often through the Administrative State (built up in the twentieth century by Franklin Roosevelt and his Progressive heirs to evade any kind of accountability), but is enforced also by the educational establishments public and private, the media, and now big tech and other corporations. The rules that determine our economic behavior (designed to create winners and losers), how much energy we can consume, and what we can say on-line are all largely determined outside of both the Constitution’s authority and outside of electoral accountability.

Membership in the Ruling Class is determined, Codevilla wrote, in much the same way as fraternity membership: “Once an official or professional shows that he shares the manners, the tastes, the interests of the class, gives lip service to its ideals and shibboleths, and is willing to accommodate the interests of its senior members, he can move profitably among our establishment’s parts.” If he does not, he can reliably be labeled as a racist, extremist, or any variety of terms guaranteed to tar the person as unclean and, in the words of Mrs. Clinton, deplorable.

The key ideal—or rather pretension—of the Ruling Class is a belief that those in it are superior beings, despite the fact that money, learning, skill, accomplishment, or professional prominence do not suffice to enlist one in its ranks. “In fact,” Codevilla wrote, “it is possible to be an official of a major corporation or a member of the U.S. Supreme Court (just ask Justice Clarence Thomas), or even president (Ronald Reagan), and not be taken seriously by the ruling class.” We might call it a divine right view of American oligarchy, but the problem is that the divinity guaranteeing the Ruling Class’s privilege is found in their mirrors.

“Because any standard of right and wrong beyond the Ruling Class’ reach challenges its self-conception, its greatest concern has been to denigrate the American people’s devotion to God,” Codevilla wrote, “because the Ruling Class accepts no standard it cannot control.” Like God, the family too represents a challenge to complete rule and must be disrupted. Hence the keen interest in the disruption of and redefining of marriage and familial relations. 

Codevilla’s essay was written in the wake of the Tea Party movement, which itself birthed election waves in 2010 and 2014 pushing back on the Obama Administration’s rather naked uses of power. Though there was nothing fanciful about his conclusion, he showed a guarded optimism that things could be done to push back. By 2016, however, he believed that the Ruling Class revolution had been completed. The title of one Claremont Review of Books essay is indicative: “After the Republic.” Codevilla was no NeverTrump figure, but he also did not believe that a then-merely-possible Trump presidency was capable of defeating the Ruling Class Swamp or revivifying the Republic. The FBI, the CIA, and the Justice Department had all become at their highest levels the tools of the Ruling Class, and their participation in the Russiagate scam during and after the 2016 election vindicated Codevilla’s judgment. 

Codevilla understood that Trump was a kind of focal point for Ruling Class hatred for the country and he applauded Trump’s disdain for the Ruling Class. He also believed that the errors of Trump were largely in not being Trumpy enough. An essay this summer titled “What is Trump to Us?” noted that Trump’s catalyzing disrespect for the Ruling Class was an important move, but lamented that too often the President, having been famous for firing people on his television show, did not do nearly enough of that when in the Oval Office. The leadership our country needs, he wrote, must “become consistent in deed with the insight that vaulted Donald Trump to public attention.” 

There is much more to say about the thought of Codevilla than can be said here. He translated Machiavelli and wrote books on modern France, Switzerland, just war, and the Strategic Defense Initiative (to which he contributed in the development). Perhaps his greatest insights were in foreign policy, where he provided a point of view that did not fall into the traps of liberal or neoconservative idealism or cynical versions of realism. He did not like “isms” but he did believe that sane approaches to politics and foreign policy required a view of reality. That is what I believe his Ruling Class thesis reflects so successfully.

Codevilla was a defender of the Country Class, of ordinary Americans who believed that God, family, community, prosperity, and freedom should not depend on one’s proximity to government or membership in an inner circle. While he never gave up writing and teaching, he spent his later years growing grapes and making wine on his property in California and spending time with his family.

I met him a few years ago when I was a Lincoln Fellow at the Claremont Institute. His lectures and his commentary on other speakers had the same clear, informative, sometimes barbed, and always wise crispness as his prose. I tried to sit with him as much as possible at meals to soak in his wisdom. What I loved most was the fact that during other talks, he would sit with Ann, the mother of his five children and wife of 50-plus years, and listen intently as they held hands. 

Angelo Codevilla knew what the battle was about. He knew what he was fighting against. More importantly, he knew what he was fighting for.

David P. Deavel is editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, co-director of the Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law, and Public Policy, and a visiting professor at the University of St. Thomas (MN). He is the co-host of the Deep Down Things podcast.

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John Koss
2 months ago

I have stated for over 30 years of my life that this type of “Intelligencia”, “The Networked Class”, has existed. I also have spoken that fully 30% maybe more of the “Underclass”, doesn’t give a hoot about the latter and are mired in their own tormented economic morass. “Tale of Two Cities” ring a bell? “Withering Heights”?

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