Surveying the American Right

Now that it is over, the Trump presidency should prompt soul-searching within every major faction of the American Right. The traditional, mainstream conservative movement should not forget how little the Republican electorate cared about their misgivings with Donald Trump back in 2015 and 2016. These conservatives correctly pointed out that Trump did not care a whit about conservative principles, yet the Republican electorate happily voted for him – and may do so again. The smarter pro-Trump populists have their own reasons for concern. They hoped “Trumpism” could shake the Republican Party and the conservative movement from their commitment to anachronistic policies and Cold War talking points. In substance, Trump mostly governed as a generic Republican, and his presidency was a missed opportunity for needed change. 

Representing the establishment side of conservatism, Matthew Continetti’s book, The Right: The Hundred Year War for American Conservatism, discusses the conservative movement’s history, and in the process explains why he believes responsible conservatives should expunge populism from the movement and the G.O.P. Continetti is among the mainstream conservative movement’s more influential young intellectuals, as a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a former opinion editor at The Weekly Standard, a columnist for Commentary, and the founding editor of The Washington Free Beacon. Based on his resume and other writings, I took it for granted that Continetti wrote this book to settle old and new ideological scores with other elements of the Right, especially Trump and his supporters.

Before even opening The Right, I thought I knew exactly how Continetti would structure his narrative: before WWII, the American Right was terrible; the modern conservative movement, founded by William F. Buckley and his National Review colleagues in the 1950s, had great promise but was still problematic; thanks to Irving Kristol and the neoconservatives, the Right finally became admirable in the 1970s; under Reagan, it became great; things went generally okay after that, but then Donald Trump showed up and wrecked everything, setting the Right back to start.

Upon completing The Right, I can say that my initial intuition was partially correct. Continetti’s story generally conforms to my anticipated outline. His book is nonetheless far better than I predicted. It is a concise yet comprehensive tour through a century of American conservatism. I occasionally disagreed with his understanding of events, but I could not dispute his facts. Continetti is a scrupulous historian. 

Although much of The Right is a straightforward description of events, Continetti does use this book to make an argument. In his view, conservatives have always faced the choice between intransigent, populist reaction, and working within the existing political and cultural framework to enact policies congruent with conservative principles. As Continetti put it, “One way to think of the hundred-year war for the Right is to conceive of it as a battle between the forces of extremism and the conservatives who understood that mainstream acceptance of their ideas was the prerequisite for electoral success and lasting reform.” In Continetti’s formulation, Trump and his followers are in the former category, and it is now time for reasonable conservatives to “forge a new consensus, based on the particularly American idea of individual liberty exercised within a constitutional order, that addresses the challenges of our time.”

Continetti’s argument about the primary fault line within the Right is not novel. As he notes, drawing a sharp line between the responsible Right and populist demagogues, conspiracy theorists, and anti-Semites was one of Buckley’s primary goals. Continetti’s description of American conservatism also aligns with the argument Edmund Fawcett made in his recent, more expansive history of conservatism in Western countries.

As the book’s subtitle suggests, Continetti begins his story in the conservative 1920s, when the Republican Party was dominant. Presidents Harding and Coolidge oversaw widespread prosperity and peace. Limited federal government interference in the economy was taken for granted. The nation embraced isolationism. 

The conservatism that dominated America came to a swift end with the Great Depression and subsequent election of President Franklin Roosevelt. The Republican Party’s laissez-faire approach to the economy was widely viewed as discredited. The GOP experienced mass defections from its electoral coalition, leaving it powerless against the New Deal juggernaut. 

The Right spent the Roosevelt years in exile, either traveling down fascistic dead ends like William Pelley and the Silver Shirts, or sinking into misanthropic despair like Albert Jay Nock. Important developments on the Right nonetheless occurred during this period. Friedrich Hayek and other economists were building up an intellectual arsenal to strike back against socialism and Keynesianism. A number of American communists, such as Whitaker Chambers and Frank Meyer, began to have second thoughts and started their journeys to conservatism. 

Reagan was not described as a paragon of conservative virtue until after he left office.

Continetti’s discussion of the modern conservative movement’s rise in the 1950s and 1960s was competent but without original insights. This is not a major criticism, as many historians have written about this period and there may be little left to say at this point. All the familiar names appeared in this section: Buckley, Meyer, Russell Kirk, Barry Goldwater, Brent Bozell, James Burnham, etc. He reminds readers of the debates between libertarians and traditionalists, as well as the birth of “fusionism,” which attempted to merge the two into a coherent political philosophy. He discusses the movement’s missteps along the way, especially conservative support for Joe McCarthy and for Southern segregationists. Throughout this section he gives an honest account of the movement’s history. 

The chapters on the 1970s focus heavily on the rise of the neoconservatives, with a special emphasis on Irving Kristol. Continetti is now related to Kristol by marriage (his wife is William Kristol’s daughter), and he personally fits within that intellectual tradition, but the decision to focus on the neoconservatives is justifiable. I would have given more text to Paul Weyrich, Phyllis Schlafly, and other leaders associated with the “New Right.” Schafly’s defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment was arguably the most impressive feat of grassroots activism in conservatism’s history, and Weyrich’s genius for turning cultural anxieties into G.O.P. votes has not received the scholarly attention it deserves. Yet the neoconservatives certainly were important, and warrant the attention Continetti gave them.

Continetti’s discussion of the Reagan years was also refreshingly honest, containing none of the chest-thumping we have come to expect from conservatives writing on the era. He notes the many misgivings that conservatives of the period had for the 40th president while he was in office. Foreign policy conservatives insisted Reagan was insufficiently hawkish toward the Soviets. Social conservatives eventually realized Reagan’s “support for the Moral Majority was mostly performative.” Reagan was not described as a paragon of conservative virtue until after he left office. Continetti was also clear-eyed in his discussion of Newt Gingrich and his battles with President Clinton.

The chapter on the George W. Bush years is likewise factually accurate, and he notes that many of the Iraq invasion’s cheerleaders subsequently expressed regret. The chapter nonetheless understates the catastrophic results of that war, which should have permanently discredited all of its influential proponents. Continetti seems primarily bothered that the war undermined “Bush’s vision of an idealistic Republican Party,” opening a path for right-wing populism. 

Throughout most of the text, Continetti provides a dispassionate and accurate description of the major events in conservatism’s history. Even when describing some of the most brutal intra-conservative battles of the late 20th century, such as the ideological war between neo- and paleoconservatives, he offers little personal commentary – though he cannot hide his distaste for Patrick Buchanan. He gives a fair overview of the infamous battle over Mel Bradford and the NEH, for example.  

In the concluding chapters, Continetti transitions from straightforward explanations of events, people, and ideas to offering his judgment on recent headlines. He was, however, less polemical than I expected. Continetti does not like Trump, and considers him a “villain” like George Wallace. He does, however, acknowledge that Trump largely gave the conservative movement everything on its policy wish list that he could reasonably provide. He nonetheless believes Trump and his movement unleashed dangerous, illiberal forces.

Continetti argues that “when historians write about the Trump era, they will do so through the lens of January 6.” I am not convinced. The public reaction to the one-year anniversary of the Capitol riot suggests otherwise. Progressive pundits, and a few of the remaining “Never Trump” conservatives, have treated January 6 as an event analogous to Pearl Harbor or 9-11. I see little evidence that the broader public agrees. The Democrats’ attempts to make subsequent elections a referendum on “The Insurrection” have thus far failed to yield electoral dividends. 

Given current levels of polarization, it strikes me as unlikely that Americans will develop a unified narrative over any major event. For an episode like January 6, which was so clearly partisan, there is no chance a shared understanding that crosses ideological boundaries will take hold. A huge percentage of the country will continue to shrug it off as no big deal. I suspect January 6 will be remembered as an embarrassment, but not as a great national trauma. The death toll, while tragic, was too low to make a lasting impact, and the images of that day were more buffoonish than frightening. 

The Right is unfortunately still without an obvious path forward, and conservatives will continue their internecine sniping for the foreseeable future.

Continetti is correct that there is a tension within conservatism between the populists and the advocates of prudence and constitutional principles. I break with Continetti on the question of whether the Right, the Republican Party, and America more broadly are significantly better off when the “responsible” right has greater influence. For all his problems, the erratic Trump was less disastrous than the more consistent and principled George W. Bush. 

Yet saying Trumpism is less dangerous than neoconservatism is weak praise, and right-wing populism has its own challenges, which Continetti does a good job pointing out. He notes, for example, why populism rarely achieves lasting policy victories, even when it wins elections. The populists’ problem is that they demobilize the instant their preferred candidate enters office: “The paradox was that the same populist sentiments … dissipated once populists found themselves in power. These sudden reversals prevented populists from contemplating seriously how to use the government against which they rebelled.” In that passage, Continetti was discussing the New Right of the Reagan era, but it applies equally well to Trump’s movement.

Trump ran as a populist, but once in power, he mostly stuck to the conservative policy agenda. His populist voters did not seem to mind that he disregarded many of his campaign promises. In a sense, this was the accidental genius of Trumpism. Donald Trump engaged in partisan mudslinging, insulted the media, and generally “owned the libs.” This was apparently all his downscale populist voters really wanted from him. Meanwhile, for the first two years of Trump’s presidency, policy-oriented traditional Republicans in Congress were given a free hand to pursue their own agenda, confident the president would sign whatever they sent him. Most groups on the Right ended up satisfied with his presidency, even those that found his Twitter feed distasteful. Without the COVID-19 pandemic and associated economic contraction, I suspect Trump would have been reelected. 

Although he was politically astute, Trump did little to address the nation’s systemic economic challenges beyond old-fashioned supply-side tax cuts. Under his leadership, we never saw a coherent industrial policy, or a major push for infrastructure investments, or a meaningful struggle against the military-industrial complex. By the end of his presidency, right-wing populism under Trump became a substance-free personality cult. As Continetti notes in his discussion of the January 6 mob, “They stood not for an idea or even a country but for one man.” Can conservative populism thrive without a Trump-like figure? If not, is it worth supporting? These, in my view, are the most important questions populist conservatives should work toward answering.

Continetti will convince few readers that revanchist neoconservatives deserve another shot at power, but his critiques of Trump and his movement are sound, if overstated. The Right is unfortunately still without an obvious path forward, and conservatives will continue their internecine sniping for the foreseeable future. Whatever one thinks of his ideological prejudices, however, Continetti has provided a fair and thorough history of the conservative movement. I hope The Right enjoys a wide readership and prompts much-needed debate and reflection within the American center-right.