Curt Mills

2020 Lincoln Fellow

What is your current position?
I am senior correspondent at The American Conservative, a magazine founded in Washington, D.C. in 2002, in opposition to the war in Iraq.

What inspired you to choose this career path?
I feared I couldn’t do anything else. Everything else seemed slow, and I was a bonafide news junkie. Like any addict, what of course was required was escalation. In my mid-twenties, at least, I think I would have floundered just reading the net all day at some law office. I also made a contrarian bet that media, despite its financial shakiness, was about to take on an even more outsized cultural power. I got into the game in early 2015 and a well-known New York mogul declared for president that June.   

What are you currently working on?
I am focusing on the reality of the Biden transition, and preparing to pivot back hard on foreign policy in ‘21. U.S. foreign policy generally takes something of a pause in presidential campaign years, and this wicked year was no real exception. The challenge with Beijing for “mastery of the century,” as my friend Janan Ganesh at the Financial Times puts it, is the main event, regardless of who is president. 

Still, American presidential elections are becoming close to the “1b” event in world affairs, after great power competition. Who takes the commanding heights in Washington of course matters deeply. So, I am considering a new book on the race to succeed Trump in leading opposition to the Democrats: the contest in 2024. 

People this year lost far more than I did, but I had planned to travel the country and cover the race. Better late than never.

How did you hear about the Claremont Institute?
I suppose Michael Anton’s pseudonymous “Flight 93” really put the institution on the map for me, like it did for so many other people. I had followed his earlier work, again at this point underground (the basement tapes, if you will) with Julius Krein— at the now-defunct Journal of American Greatness. Despise him or revere him, Trump was so obviously an underrated pure, political commodity (an unpopular view, to say the least, in Washington journalism in 2015-2016) that anyone providing cogency to the moment I thought was an essential read. 

I had also considered Claremont McKenna College for undergraduate work (but the financial crisis in 2008 compelled me to stay closer to home). I was an indifferent undergraduate student. But in 2019, I was urged to look into the Institute’s programming; Publius is a crash course for working professionals. I got in. 

At the time, I was editing a magazine based in London, and living in California, negotiating with my minders in Britain. The coursework, and dealing with the Brits in the California sunshine, would reinforce anyone’s reverence for the Founding.   

What is your fondest memory of the Claremont Institute?
I liked that it was a world apart. It was a group of relatively young people in a (beautiful, certainly) place just hashing it out with some readings, and yes, instructors, but no final exams. It was the academy, perhaps, in its original form, or so I’m imagining. I made some strong friendships and contacts: That’s number one.

There are all sorts of educational programs out there for current and rising conservative professionals.  What do you think makes the Claremont Institute’s Fellowships unique?
Not to be prickly but I never know what “conservative” is supposed to mean. So far as I’m concerned, Claremont helps provide the only meaningful definition, that is, that this country’s Founding was good, and that the conservation and building on of those ideals is also good. 

If so, such clarity, such rootedness is the “killer app” of the institution. Personally, I would include the Farewell Address by George Washington as a key facet of the  Founding. The country’s first and best president warned his “friends and fellow-citizens” that the bar for both partisanship as well as “permanent inveterate antipathies against particular Nations” should be extremely high, words as useful today as any time in our shared history.

Who would you hope the individual would be, if you could sit down and enjoy a meal with an American Founder or any great thinker?  What would you discuss?  Where would you like to meet?  What would you order to eat/drink?  
I have to defend my Virginia roots, and I say the Founding’s pre-eminent intellectual: Mr. Jefferson. I would ask him what he thought now about the Industrial Revolution, something he didn’t truly anticipate, and I would ask about the relative permanence of our nation’s laws, something he flirted with opposing outright. 

With each passing week, I appreciate Abraham Lincoln more, and concur with the Claremont reading of his rise, but my hedonism and, I suppose, homerism compels me to select dinner with Thomas Jefferson at his Monticello. We at least know who had the superior wine cellar.   

What would the artifact be, if you could hold one piece of history from the early founding of our country?  Why?
I’m not much of an artifact man, but I have a friend who is an avid coin collector, and I think I’d hook him up. Oh, and I’d see if any of TJ’s Madeiras still tasted good. 

In which one of the original 13 colonies, looking back on history, would you have wanted to live?  Why?
I think I’ve answered this, but yeah, the Old Dominion so far as I’m concerned was the peerless intellectual and military bastion of the early Republic. I’ve got connections, it would be a little like requesting a trade from the Yankees: why? Though, if you had to, you might go to their direct rival, and get in early at being a Boston Brahmin. I’ve heard worse ideas. 

Who was more important for their time, George Washington or Abraham Lincoln?  Why?
It’s tough. If Washington was a more flawless leader, but I think it’s fair to say that Lincoln was the more essential, or important figure. Washington basically got it all right (though if you read critical histories of Alexander Hamilton, such as William Hogeland’s provocative Whiskey Rebellion, you might blanche at the retired general’s empowerment of our nation’s first Treasury secretary). 

But Lincoln was from nowhere, and existed at a time when the nation wasn’t exactly fielding an all-star team of moral courage combined with strategic brilliance. That, I think, while noting significant failures (slavery, misogny), was the story of the Founders. If Lincoln hadn’t existed, the union might well have actually collapsed, dooming the propositional nation, a liberal democracy, from ever attaining world power, and vindicating the international faith in autocracy.

How do you think our founding fathers would respond to this current election crisis, if they were alive today?
I think they would acknowledge the president’s right to examine the vote in the courts, but if defeated, as he has been, to then honor the peaceful transition of power that is the hallmark of our democracy. 

What do you see as the biggest challenge in attempting to reach and convince a large percentage of millennials the nation’s founding principles are still relevant and must be preserved?
Show them some alternatives.

What qualities will make outstanding statesmen/women in this century?
Honesty, empathy, open-mindedness, discipline, but above all courage. 

What do you believe is one of the biggest challenges facing the United States in terms of diplomatic relations with Russia?
There is a view that the Russia matter is just intractable. Maybe it is. Russia is famously European, but not Western (while Japan is Western, but not European). The added tumult of recent years is twinned with Russia’s plain desire to remain a world power, at all costs. I think the smart consensus is that Washington should be clear-eyed about a nuclear adversary with discordant values, but that more importantly, that the U.S. should keep its eye on the ball, even if that were to mean perhaps additional pragmatism with Moscow. Russia has a neighbor next door poised for global dominance, almost by default, if we don’t get our act together,

What do you think has been the major contributor to the demise of our country’s lack of political civility?
I mean, where to start? A high tide lifts all boats, and the waters in America seem quite low these days. Does it matter that America was Christian, and now, is far less so? Yes, it was a unifying force. But I think a collapse of civil religion is not a fait accompli with the decline of traditional religion. The Founders were hardly traditionally pious, for instance. It can be done. But in my lifetime, I think we have seen the limits of assuming that belief in the original ideals will happen by osmosis— or that secularism explains everything, or nourishes everyone. More recently, I think we have seen the clear damage done by, in quite a few cases, systematically teaching young minds to hate this country, equating the United States with some of the most barbarous civilizations in history. It’s not true.

What do you think has been the major contributor to the redefinition of our culture in the 21st century?
Oh, I’m not sure it’s redefined yet. I think we’re far from catharsis. We’re not that lucky.

What do you see is the biggest challenge facing educators?
Showing, not telling. 

What do you believe is the biggest challenge facing students?
More ancient: especially when young, not letting their schooling get in the way of their education.

What regimen do you follow when writing a book?
When I know, you’ll know.

What books are you currently reading?
A Man in Full, by Tom Wolfe, The German High Command at War: Hindenberg and Ludendorff and the First World War, by Robert Asprey and Station Eleven, by Emily St. John 

What book, movie, or speech has left a lasting impression with you? Why?
Well, I’d say the last one that left an impression was the last television show I watched, “Roadkill,” a BBC production that depicts Hugh Laurie (of “House” fame) as a Tony Blair-cum-Nigel Farage character who rises to become prime minister. 

The showrunner has said in interviews that he views Britain as a deeply conservative country, which clashes with the general conception nowadays— that is, of Europe as center-left, and America its center-right offspring. Historically speaking, it’s actually been the other way around, this would be something of a reversion to the mean, if America’s recent left turn has any staying power. 

I also recently watched Richard Nixon’s farewell address to White House staff. It was a little different occasion than Washington’s farewell address, but man, what strikes one is his sincerity and intelligence, which only compounds the tragedy. Nixon was the most Shakespearean, English-speaking character I’m aware of in the twentieth century. 

Do you have a favorite quote and if so would you share?
“[F]or when you get in love you are made all over again. The person who loves you has picked you out of the great mass of uncreated clay which is humanity to make something out of, and the poor lumpish clay which is you wants to find out what it has been made into. But at the same time, you, in the act of loving somebody, become real, cease to be a part of the continuum of the uncreated clay and get the breath of life in you and rise up. So you create yourself by creating another person,” 

All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren.

What is the most distinctive attribute/character of the people in the state where you grew up that you genuinely admire?
I was born in Maryland, spent my adolescence in Virginia, and now live in the District of Columbia, so I’m as much a D.C. creature as most any. D.C. (and the surrounding area) gets a sort of bum rep. I would say the case for it, is why do people flock to it? It’s probably not for the weather. Given government salaries (to say nothing of campaigns or magazines), it’s probably not for the money. Then again, it’s warmer than Boston. Then again, I can walk outside my apartment, and see Jeff Bezos’ mansion in Kalorama (and that being, or the homeless encampment nearby). 

But I think, succinctly, what distinguishes D.C. from most of the major U.S. cities young people head to is it’s not just about fun, or a payoff: people can slag on it, but they come, at least at first, to help change the world. Now, I’ve got old pals working as community activists in Los Angeles, or indebted entrepreneurs in SF, but I do think Washington has a certain critical mass of this personality type that should be respected, and celebrated.      

What is your favorite cultural/recreational pastime (or hobby)? Why?
If you can walk, you should walk.