WASHINGTON — Sitting in a small office in the West Wing last Friday, White House senior national security staffer Michael Anton lamented that he wants to remain behind the scenes.
“I don’t want to be famous,” Anton said, his expression dripping with contempt.
However, in the first three weeks of President Trump’s administration, Anton’s presence in the White House has already garnered a significant amount of interest. And Anton is likely to get even more attention in the wake of the sudden resignation of Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn. Anton has been working as something of a one-man band in the White House handling communications for national security matters. One White House source described Anton as an “invaluable” member of the small national security team that just lost its chief and is now in the midst of intense scrutiny.
“The spotlight is definitely on this office,” Anton said in a phone call Wednesday night.
Though he’s highly visible and widely seen as something of an intellectual godfather to Trump’s ideology, Anton says he has a fairly limited role in the White House. According to him, his day-to-day business involves managing national security press and some input on speechwriting.
And Anton’s official work is far from the only thing worth talking to him about. He’s a Renaissance man who has developed a following as an expert on bespoke menswear. From 2009-2010, Anton told Yahoo News, he worked in the kitchen of L’Ecole, a now defunct Michelin-recommended French restaurant in Manhattan that was operated by the International Culinary Center cooking school. He has 600 bottles of wine in his personal collection and makes meals at home with Japanese chef’s knives that he sharpens by hand.
Michael Anton is the most interesting man in the White House.
He has previously worked for some of the biggest names in conservative politics. Anton served as a special assistant for national security affairs for President George W. Bush, was a deputy foreign policy adviser on former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s 2008 presidential campaign and worked as a speechwriter for Fox News media mogul Rupert Murdoch. Anton says he was introduced into the orbit of Trump’s Oval Office by “a number of people,” including Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel.
On Feb. 2, the Weekly Standard outed Anton as the man who published a series of essays under the pseudonym Publius Decius Mus during the presidential campaign. These pieces of writing drew upon Anton’s experience analyzing political philosophy in peer-reviewed journals and, even before his identity was known, made him stand out as one of the few authors making an intellectual argument for Trump. Some consider him a key architect of the emerging ideology of Trump. Anton even claims credit for coining the term “Trumpism.” Although there are other, earlier citations, he certainly popularized and helped define it.
Surprisingly, the man dubbed as author of the “source code” for the administration hails from the liberal stronghold of Northern California. Despite his Golden State roots, Anton has an academic lineage that traces back to the founder of the conservative movement, Barry Goldwater. Anton boasts a pair of master’s degrees, including one in political science from the Claremont Graduate University. At that school, Anton says the late Harry Jaffa became his “great teacher.” Jaffa was an adviser on Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign and crafted a pair of lines that led to the candidate being defined as a firebrand: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
Jaffa was a student of the professor Leo Strauss and, after his mentor’s death, he became the founding figure of the school of thought known in academic circles as West Coast Straussianism. Anton has credited Jaffa with teaching him the Straussian method and ideals, which involve close reading of the landmark texts in political philosophy and a strong belief in patriotic pride and American exceptionalism.
Anton describes his personal view of government as being interchangeable with the West Cost Straussian school. He characterizes it as a philosophy where the founding fathers and President Abraham Lincoln are revered for having crafted an almost ideal government that acknowledged a “fixed human nature and moral order.” Anton points to what he describes as Lincoln’s view of “the centrality of the Declaration of Independence to properly interpreting the Constitution.” For the Straussians, Anton says this means the founders created a perfect framework that was updated based on an understanding of the moral code embedded in the original documents, and Straussianism argues that lawmakers should all be following a universal idea of morality. It’s a philosophy that critics call “authoritarian.”
“The good is higher than and supercedes the law,” Anton explained. “A wise legislator makes the law with an eye to the good.”
Armed with these Straussian tools, as “Decius,” Anton crafted an eloquent ideology to undergird Trump’s punchy slogans, “America First” and “Make America Great Again.”
“I don’t think Trump is a perfect representation of West Coast Straussianism, but I think official conservatism got so far from certain core tenets of the founders, and Lincoln’s vision, and the ancients’ vision for that matter, and Trump came along and was a really bracing and kind of exhilarating corrective to that,” said Anton.
Anton points to trade and immigration as areas where mainstream conservatives strayed and Trump is righting the ship. As his teacher once did for Goldwater, Anton articulated justifications for some of the more extreme elements of Trump’s platform. The Decius essays Anton published during the campaign argued that America is facing an existential threat from moral degradation of its core traditional values and from the detrimental cultural and economic effects of unrestricted immigration. Decius cast the election as a choice between Trump’s desire to restrict immigration and certain doom. He argued that Islam is “incompatible with the modern West” and suggested Trump was right to call for blocking migrants from the Middle East even though “America’s ruling and intellectual classes” believe in what he described as “the sacredness of mass immigration.”
For Anton, “orthodox Islam’s” conflict with the values of Western society is a point of fact. He argues that, historically, “in orthodox Islam it does not recognize any distinction between civil and religious law, or as we would put it, separation of church and state.”
“That is incompatible with Western modernity, period, end of story. I’m not saying that no individual Muslim can accept the distinction between the civil and the religious law. I’m just saying that the faith itself does not accept that fact,” Anton said.
In his Decius essays, Anton also railed against what he dubbed “politically correct McCarthyism,” which he implied involved vicious attacks on people who challenged “inanities like 32 ‘genders,’ elective bathrooms, single-payer, Iran sycophancy, ‘Islamophobia’ and Black Lives Matter.” Disdain for the politically correct is baked into Anton’s philosophy. Anton says West Coast Straussians blame progressive academics for committing an original sin of demonizing the founders because of the fact they permitted slavery even though it was blatantly a contradiction of the premise that “all men are created equal.” His defends the founding fathers by saying it would not have been politically feasible for them to abolish slavery at the dawn of the nation. In Anton’s view, they set the course for ending slavery through the moral concepts in the founding documents.
Perhaps most controversially, as Decius, Anton attempted to flank attacks against Trump’s sloganeering by arguing that the America First Committee was “unfairly maligned.” That group, which was founded in 1940 to oppose U.S. involvement in World War II, has long been associated with anti-Semitism.
This rejection of multiculturalism, criticism of Islam, opposition to immigration and support for the America First Committee led some critics to dub Anton a white nationalist and suggest he had “embraced an anti-Semitic past.” Anton vehemently denied those charges in an interview published on Sunday by American Greatness, a website where he served as an editor until last month. In that conversation, Anton acknowledged that “a lot of anti-Semites supported” the America First Committee but disputed that “the group was anti-Semitic and anyone who says anything good about it is an anti-Semite.” Anton pointed to his admiration for Strauss and Jaffa, who were both Jewish, as evidence he couldn’t possibly be anti-Semitic. He also said it was a “lie/smear” to label him a “white nationalist.”
“If I am a nationalist, I am an American nationalist. I am also an American patriot, and I don’t see the difference,” said Anton.
At one point during his conversation with Yahoo News, Anton interrupted one of his discourses on political philosophy to ask a question.
“Could I just ask you bluntly, are you going to, like, repeat any of this bullshit that I’m a white nationalist and anti-Semite?”
To say he’s frustrated with some of the recent coverage would be an understatement. He also points to his Greek, Italian and Lebanese ancestry as evidence those charges are ridiculous.
“According to the actual white nationalists, they would say I’m not even white because I’m Lebanese,“ Anton said.
Anton goes by many names, and Publius Decius Mus is just one of his alter egos. Under the pen name “Nicholas Antongiavanni,” he published “The Suit,” a manual on “how to dress with style, flair, and an eye toward gaining power.” In a Straussian twist, Anton’s book was written in a painstaking copy of the structure of Niccolò Machiavelli’s handbook for ruthless politicians, “The Prince,” and his nom de plume was also a nod to the Italian author.
But Anton may have composed the bulk of his writing on fashion and cuisine as Manton, the alias he used on the website Styleforum, where he wrote over 40,000 posts from 2002 until the day after Trump’s inauguration last month. In his forum postings, Anton discussed his tastes for the finer things in life, including hand-tailored suits, his vast stores of wine and his cooking techniques.
Standing well over 6 feet, dressed in impeccable three-piece suits, and sporting fashionable eyeglasses, Anton cuts an elegant figure in the West Wing. He is soft-spoken, but his words come out with precision and — when he is speaking to the press — sometimes an obvious sense of exasperation. Yet he has given multiple interviews about his fondness for bespoke menswear and, through his books and forum postings, has become a well-known fixture in the world of “Dandyism,” a subculture of men dedicated to dressing well. In a 2008 interview with Humanities magazine, Anton discussed whether or not he sees himself as a “Dandy,” which he indicated was a term of the “highest praise” in his book.
“I have a regular job and a suburban home and all that, but I overdress. I aspire to be a dandy in that sense only,” Anton said.
Now, Anton said, he doesn’t “really” consider himself a dandy since he’s “toned down” his look.
“I don’t know that I ever wore flashy clothes, but they used to be a bit flashier than they are now.”
In his forum posts as Manton, he describes stockpiling bolts of fabric and commissioning suits from world-renowned tailors. Anton also reviewed other posters’ ensembles and gave his assessments of the skill level of various suit makers. However, his message board activity wasn’t all about style.
As Manton he challenged politically correct sensibilities just as he did in his campaign writings. On Nov. 14, 2014, Anton spent hours arguing with fellow Styleforum members about the phrase “tar baby” in a thread that was initially about the work of the Italian tailor Gennaro Paone. While the term is considered by some to be a slur against African-Americans, its original usage was as a metaphor for an inextricable problem. The phrase was popularized in the Uncle Remus stories, a collection of folklore gathered from Southern slave plantations. After a Styleforum poster was criticized for saying “tar baby” in a post, Anton leaped in to defend. He pointed to the word’s origins:
“The origin of ‘Tar-Baby’ is the Uncle Remus stories, published in the US in 1881. It is a doll made of tar that sticks to Br’er Rabbit and the more he fights it to get free, the more he gets entangled. It is a metaphor for ‘intractable problem’ and was meant with no racial connotations whatsoever,” Anton wrote.
Anton went on to argue the fact the term now has “racial connotations” is due to efforts by liberals to shame white Americans. He accused another forum member of participating in this scheme to “guilt trip” white Americans who are proud of their culture.
“It has acquired some, mostly at the hands of the left who like to troll through all of American history and literature looking for things to get outraged over and use as clubs to beat white Americans who self identify as ‘American’ to guilt trip us into being ashamed of our country, our culture and to arm Social Justice Warriors like you who derive satisfaction from white-on-white status games,” Anton wrote.
As the debate raged on, Anton connected it to the attempts to censor Mark Twain’s 1884 novel “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” because it featured racial slurs that were commonplace at the time it was written. He suggested that the forum members unhappy with the use of “tar baby” would like to see “trigger warnings on posts” and might attack people who enjoyed Twain’s book or used words that could be seen as offensive if taken out of context.
“Let’s put trigger warnings on posts. Or better yet, word filters. I read Huck Finn. I liked it. Twain uses the N word. I am a bad person! I once said ‘niggardly’ to mean ‘cheapskate.’ Gulag! I ordered a Negro Modelo at a taco stand. Racist!” wrote Anton.
When another forum member pointed out that the Uncle Remus stories are “full of racially charged symbolism” and are now seen as offensive by some modern audiences, Anton accused them of “blabbering” and attempting to assert their superiority by flaunting “sensitivity.” He then posted a rant in mostly capital letters where he mockingly linked the offense over the phrase “tar baby” to the Black Lives Matter movement and outrage over the deaths of young African-Americans who were killed by police officers.
“I also need to add, of course, that THIS IS THE MOST PRESSING ISSUE IN AMERICA!!!!! MICHAEL BROWN!!!! TRAYVON!!!!! BLACK BODIES DYING IN THE STREETS!!!!! BECAUSE SOMEONE SAID ‘TAR BABY’ WE KNOW HOW RACIST AMERICA IS!!!! THAT’S WHY THEY DIED!!!!!!” Anton wrote.
After a forum user responded by asking Anton “WTF is your problem,” he responded by expressing frustration with political correctness, or as he put it, “officious little busybodies wagging their fingers in our faces and telling us what we can and cannot say.” His post was embedded with links to a pair of T-shirts, including one that said, “I’d rather be lynching.”
“I am tired of the Social Justice Warriors who troll the Internet looking for things to get offended over,” Anton wrote, adding, “I am tired of the default assumption being that all of American life is ‘racist’ and we all need constantly to walk on eggshells because America is so deeply compromised that one out of place word will launch the next lynching.”
Yahoo News asked Anton about the forum argument in the West Wing last Friday. Anton pointed out that in 2006, President George W. Bush’s press secretary, Tony Snow, was attacked for using the term “tar baby” as he described his desire to avoid trying to comment on controversial government surveillance programs.
“He didn’t apologize for it, either,” Anton said of Snow, adding, “I’m not going to.”
It’s clear Anton is frustrated with what he sees as excessive political correctness.
“And so is the president,” Anton pointed out.
Anton also discussed his frustrations with illegal immigration on Styleforum. In a February 2015 post, he railed against the supposed veneration of undocumented immigrants while saying they regularly bothered him at his home.
“I realize that illegal aliens are sanctified beings who can do no wrong, and about whom it is blasphemy to say anything negative, but how’s about if they stop coming and ringing my doorbell incessantly at 6:15 am every time it snows?” Anton asked, adding, “No, I don’t want you to shovel my walk, I will take care of it. Go away and don’t disturb my family. In America, we tend to sleep until at least 7 am on weekends.”
Another forum member asked Anton how he knew the people trying to shovel his walk were undocumented immigrants.
“Did you ask for their papers?” the forum member asked.
“No, I used prosecutorial discretion and let them go,” Anton said. “Better yet, I taxed the rest of the street and gave them money for doing nothing. Except breaking the law in the first place.”
Despite these political discussions, the vast majority of the Manton forum postings that Yahoo News was able to review dealt with style. In fact, Anton’s book and Internet presence helped earn him renown in the “Dandy” community. In 2008, the website “Dandyism.net” cited Anton’s forum postings and said his “obsession with precise measurements led us to dub him ‘the quarter-inch dandy.’” In his book, he assessed the fashion choices of past presidents and even jokingly suggested this contributed to their success or failure.
So what does the White House’s resident dandy think of the president’s look? Trump’s penchant for unbuttoned suits and lengthy ties, and his trademark comb-over have been widely panned by style mavens. However, in his conversation with Yahoo News, Anton suggested Trump has done well by adopting a consistent look he feels good in.
“I think he has a style that he’s very confident with that’s very much his own and that works for him,” Anton said of the president. “When you find what works with you, you should stick with it.”
Anton, who was clad in an impeccable three-piece navy suit, noted that Trump favors “solid Roman tailoring.” He also pointed out that Trump almost always wears white dress shirts and solid-colored satin ties.
“Is he ever not in a white shirt?” Anton asked.
Photos show that Trump manages to keep his ties hanging unusually low by affixing a piece of Scotch tape to hold the short end in place, a fashion faux pas the men’s style bible Esquire described as simply “embarrassing.” Anton said he was unaware of Trump’s tie taping.
“I did not know that,” Anton said with a laugh when Yahoo asked about Tapegate.
Anton was less diplomatic when he was asked about the rest of Washington’s political class. He said too many rely on what he dubbed the “assistant secretary tie” in his book.
“It’s a sort of D.C. staple. It’s not as common as it used to be,” Anton explained. “It’s that sort of striped tie, alternating red, silver, blue. It’s actually a Brooks Brothers pattern. Everybody has that tie.”
Ditching that clichéd tie is Anton’s main sartorial advice for his fellow politicos.
“I would say to people, move beyond that,” Anton said with a laugh.
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