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What Happened to American Conservatism? Engaging Matthew Continetti’s The Right

It is always valuable to engage the other side. Especially when one finds the other side utterly bewildering.

The other side I am trying to engage is American political conservatism. My guide today is Matthew Continetti, a brilliant conservative policy wonk with all the “right” credentials — a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, columnist for Commentary magazine, and founding editor of the Washington Free Beacon. He began his career at the Weekly Standard.

Continetti’s new book, The Right, is being praised by authoritative conservative voices. I just worked my way through this bulky but fascinating work. I think it helps us understand what is going on in our politics right now.

Continetti tells a comprehensive story, which he subtitles as “The Hundred Year War for American Conservatism.”

He begins his chronicle of conservatism with the 1920s and the administrations of Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover. He describes this first iteration of American conservatism as pro-business, pro-limited government, pro-Constitution, pro-patriotism, pro-religious piety, and isolationist in foreign policy. It also was anti-immigration and supported high tariffs rather than globalized trade.

“Roosevelt’s New Deal was perceived by conservatives as fundamentally changing the nature of government, making it much larger and more centralized than it ever should have been.”

Herbert Hoover, a highly regarded and experienced leader when elected president in 1928, was perceived by the public to have failed in addressing the Great Depression and was swept out of office by Franklin Roosevelt. The Democrats dominated government for decades. Roosevelt’s New Deal was perceived by conservatives as fundamentally changing the nature of government, making it much larger and more centralized than it ever should have been, leaning in the direction of socialism and undercutting free-market principles.

It thus became a permanent goal of conservatives to roll back or privatize as much of the New Deal as possible, to reduce the government social welfare apparatus, and to cut back government regulation of business and government intervention in the economy. Those efforts have failed repeatedly, but in their rhetoric and often in their policy proposals, conservatives have demonstrated that they have never fully accepted the New Deal and the further expansions of federal government power in succeeding years.

Conservative isolationism in foreign policy remained a significant force until it was utterly discredited by Pearl Harbor and went underground during World War II. It remained submerged during the Cold War, when conservatives largely embraced a hawkish anti-Communist, interventionist foreign policy that became Democratic policy too. Anticommunism, says Continetti, held together disparate parts of the conservative movement as long as the Soviet Union lasted. Afterward, especially after the disastrous invasion of Iraq under George W. Bush, the older isolationist strand resurged, although it never was the only conservative approach.

“Anticommunism, says Continetti, held together disparate parts of the conservative movement as long as the Soviet Union lasted.”

Continetti spends considerable ink considering the anti-Communist mole-hunting crusade of Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) in the 1950s. McCarthy is significant not just because of the damage he did in hurling accusations at innocent people. For Continetti, he clearly foreshadows major later trends, apotheosized in but not confined to Donald Trump and his movement: apocalypticism, conspiracy theories, serial mendacity, constant attacks on major American government institutions and leaders, and the ability to mobilize ill-informed populist energies. The John Birch Society, also treated by Continetti, is another example of similar pathologies. Both McCarthyism and the John Birch Society bear a resemblance to today’s QAnon conspiracy thinking as well as the overall irrational, conspiratorial, apocalypticism on the hard right.

For Continetti, the late 1960s marked a collapse of American progressivism/liberalism, symbolized by the chaos of the year 1968: campus riots and takeovers, anti-Vietnam fervor and liberal soft headedness on Communism and nuclear disarmament, the drug culture, the sexual revolution, street violence, race riots, political assassinations and the collapse of the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. The fracturing of the Democratic coalition provided an opening for a Republican return to power, which happened with Richard Nixon’s election in 1968.

George Wallace attempting to block integration at the University of Alabama, confronted by Deputy U.S. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach.
(Warren K. Leffler, U.S. News & World Report)

Continetti also shows, through the rise and fall of Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who ran a popular third-party campaign in 1968, that there was a rather large constituency for race-baiting populism — and not only in the South. Continetti could have said a bit more forthrightly that the Republican successes that developed from this point forward have always involved finding ways to appeal to this constituency and securing it reliably for the GOP.

Ronald Reagan is treated by Continetti as the most effective conservative leader of the entire century he surveys. Reagan was able to bridge the various divides within conservatism with his pro-business, small-government, anti-Communist platform, as well as his skill in bringing the emerging Christian Right to his side through his traditionalist religious and moral values rhetoric, offered in a generally sunny and upbeat manner.

Twenty years later, George W. Bush was less successful. Continetti seems intrigued by Bush’s initial compassionate (Christian) conservatism platform, but his presidency was unexpectedly dominated by 9/11 and its aftermath. Bush’s unprovoked attack on Iraq, followed by a bloody quagmire, divided conservatives (along with other Americans), his social policy agenda went nowhere, and he limped across the finish line with little surviving popularity. This helps us understand why the Bush dynasty proved completely powerless to prevent the rise of a very different kind of conservatism after George W.’s departure to his art studio in Texas.

“This reflects Continetti’s relatively muted treatment of white conservative racism throughout his book, which he largely treats as a fringe problem rather than central to the modern Right.”

The presidency of Barack Obama is painted by Continetti as essentially the ineffectual meandering of a classic liberal academic, one of the elite types increasingly scorned by populist conservatives. Continetti notes and dismisses the birther myth and the conspiracy mongering that went on related to Obama and doesn’t consider the idea that the rise of Donald Trump was deeply connected to white shock over the American election of a Black president. This reflects Continetti’s relatively muted treatment of white conservative racism throughout his book, which he largely treats as a fringe problem rather than central to the modern Right.

Continetti shows that large parts of the conservative punditocracy — people like David Brooks, William Kristol, George Will, and so on — sought to kill Donald Trump’s candidacy during the primaries in 2016. But these heavy hitters proved just as powerless to stop him as were the numerous Republican politicians who ran against him or otherwise opposed him. Trump had the more powerful forces of the talk-radio and Fox News populists with him, along with tens of millions of base voters. He also demonstrated enormous skill in holding everyone’s attention.

Looking back on four years of Trump in the White House, Continetti names several things he considers significant policy wins from a conservative perspective: “restricting immigration, cracking down on China, exerting maximum pressure on Iran, confirming originalist judges, promoting job creation, and resisting socialism and identity politics.” Continetti mainly blames Trump’s election loss on his handling of COVID.

Unfortunately, especially with Trump’s refusal to concede the election and then Jan. 6, says Continetti, the very worst impulses of the populist wing of the American Right, such as “demagoguery, scapegoating, and conspiracy theories’ were unleashed even more fully than they had been before. In the end, a politics of “nihilism” that lacked any real constructive agenda other than Trump himself was all that was left.

Continetti says that previously there had been some guardrails to “contain” or “cabin” fringe elements on the conservative side, like McCarthyism or the Birchers. But with the older stabilizing institutions and figures of conservatism dead, conquered or in disarray, Trump and his movement eventually came to represent all those worst instincts, entirely unrestrained.

“With the older stabilizing institutions and figures of conservatism dead, conquered or in disarray, Trump and his movement eventually came to represent all those worst instincts, entirely unrestrained.”

For Continetti, all this is disastrous for the conservative tradition he reveres, and it is clearly a dead end for the Republican Party — they never can win majorities going down this rabbit hole. But, says Continetti, “not only was the Right unable to get out of the hole; it did not want to.”

As I write on Aug. 12, 2022, the Justice Department appears to be closing in on Trump for taking, holding and possibly sharing top secret U.S. government documents related to nuclear weapons; if true, along with the other investigations closing in on him, this may mean the end for Trump. But Trumpists have won most primary races this summer and appear set to lose very winnable races for Senate seats, governor’s offices and so on. And there are many other ways the disastrous Trump legacy will live on.

Continetti does a lot more than I have been able to summarize here. All major and many minor institutions, leaders, books and events in the conservative world of the last century are described in his book. I urge everyone who wants to understand where we are as a country to read it.

America is an ideologically diverse country. It needs a functioning conservative political party that cares about democracy. People like Matthew Continetti will be needed to help clean up the mess on the right and build something better.

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