Trump and the Princeton Tory

Robert Kelner, the attorney for Former-National-Security-Advisor-For-A-Day Michael Flynn, just notified Trump’s people that Flynn will no longer be discussing Mueller’s investigation with them. People are taking this as a sign that Flynn is ready to cooperate with Mueller and tell all.

I hadn’t heard or thought of the name Robert Kelner in over 25 years. But when I checked, I discovered it’s the very same Rob Kelner I graduated with from Princeton in 1989. For some reason, that one “l” in Kelner always stuck with me. Kelner was a wiry, intense little guy, as I recall him, a College Republican who wrote for (and maybe helped found) a right-wing paper called The Sentinel, whose alums include Ramesh Ponnuru.

Kelner was one node in an extended network of Princeton conservatives I sometimes chatted with, one of the less intellectual but no less intelligent nodes, if memory serves. There were some super, self-consciously intellectual types in that crowd, so the competition was stiff. His profile says he won the Atwater Prize, which the Princeton politics faculty awards to the best senior thesis in poli sci. After he graduated Princeton, Kelner worked as Jack Kemp’s speechwriter for a couple of years. Then he did some time in Moscow, back during the early Yeltsin years. He’s now a member of the Federalist Society and teaches legal ethics at Georgetown.

People often ask me why I focus so much on the elite dimensions of conservatism, particularly in the Trump era, and why I insist on the continuities between the conservatism of the Reagan era and that of today. Kelner’s just one of many reasons why.

There’s a fascinating piece from 1989 in the Los Angeles Times on right-wing campus papers. It features a young Kelner, along with a young Marc Thiessen, a senior at Vassar who had graduated from the Taft School and would go on to serve as a speechwriter for George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld, as part of this young, up-and-coming generation of conservatives at elite schools. It gives you a good flavor of their style and substance. Read it and ask yourself how much has changed.



  1. Chris Morlock November 25, 2017 at 3:33 pm | #

    It’s all in the Ivy League family, isn’t it. Playing elitist political games. More Dems push Russia the more they lose, it’s a joke. Maybe writing something about that would be more “intellectual”? Hyping the new red scare is not what progressives do.

  2. Josh K-sky November 25, 2017 at 4:33 pm | #

    See also: Neomi Rao, editor of the Yale Free Press during our time there, clerk to Clarence Thomas, credited with moving Trump’s deceptively effective deregulation agenda.

    Thomas’ influence can also be seen in the work of Neomi Rao, whom the Senate recently confirmed to lead the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Until her appointment as Trump’s regulatory czar, Rao served as a professor at George Mason University’s law school—an institution that, at Rao’s urging, was recently renamed in honor of Antonin Scalia. Rao has devoted her academic career to criticizing the administrative state—the web of agencies and committees that promulgate federal regulations. Her attacks on the government sit at the intersection of two quintessential Thomas principles: an aversion to regulations (especially labor and environmental rules) and a hostility toward limits on executive authority.

  3. Aaron November 25, 2017 at 6:33 pm | #

    Ross Douthat was in my Harvard class and edited the Salient there, which sounds very similar to the Sentinel. He wrote some appalling stuff back then. A lot of these guys get their starts as conservative provocateurs at elite schools!

  4. Aaron Dellutri November 25, 2017 at 11:38 pm | #

    I read the article about college Republicans in 1989, and I agree that it sounds similar in its themes to conservatism today. It’s just a little less extreme than conservatism today.

  5. Roquentin November 27, 2017 at 10:10 pm | #

    For all their bellowing about “snowflakes,” a defining theme in conservatism is blathering on about being some kind of marginalized viewpoint which is always under attack. It was there over and over again in that LA Times article. You find it then, you find it now, you hear about it in “free speech” rallies for Yiannapolous. Perhaps most of it is old fashioned psychological projection, their masculine posturing, this constant emphasis on projecting strength a thin veil covering vulnerability and sensitivity to any sort of criticism.

    When I can force myself to watch more than 5 minutes of national news these days, I mostly just think “so this is what an empire in terminal decline looks like.” Not that Trump is so radically different, just that in this late hour the cat is out of the bag. We’re on the downgrade, no more pretending. When there was a fork in the road and we had a chance to maybe slow down and avert the worst of it, we put the petal to the floor and went straight off a cliff. In 50 years when most of the good real estate on the costs is flooding to regularly to be inhabitable, our children and grandchildren will wonder how we could be so selfish and barbarous. We’ll have no good answer.

  6. Aaron November 28, 2017 at 7:26 pm | #

    Here’s another piece that’s relevant, about Peter Thiel:

  7. Curt Covey December 1, 2017 at 12:53 am | #

    In the MIT Class of 1973 we had our own version of campus conservatism. Nearly all of us–left or right–looked down upon the traditional Ivy League liberal arts schools. Those who were conservative gravitated toward Ayn Rand. Surely pure logic would lead to a libertarian utopia, if only those Harvard students down the street could understand higher mathematics! I recall a campus newspaper called “Ergo” espousing these views.

  8. Lichanos December 2, 2017 at 9:11 pm | #

    “…People often ask me why I focus so much on the elite dimensions of conservatism…”

    Well, it’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it. That’s what you academics are paid for, eh? ?. Better you than I: I find reading their stuff nauseating. Thanks for your good work!

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