A Review of The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American
Conservatism by Matthew Continetti
‘The right’ is a term that, as we are currently reminded by the travails of Republicans in the US and Tories in Britain, covers a multitude of sinners. And the longer the period under inspection, the bigger the multitude grows. Consider the United States from 1921 to the present—the period covered by Matthew Continetti’s important new book, The Right, which analyzes how American conservatives saw and reacted to political currents in the United States during those years. It is a period that divides neatly into two halves: the years 1921–1989 were essentially the years of America’s rise and dominance; those between 1989 and 2022 were a time of disappointment, crises, and growing internal conflict. A nadir seems to have been reached today, with the ruling national party and most of the nation’s cultural institutions all insisting that America is a racist, sexist, and white supremacist country from bottom to top—and when the principal conservative response is a confused and indignant stupefaction rather than a credible refutation and a confident prescription for recovery.
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A fellow of the American Enterprise Institute and the founding editor of The Washington Free Beacon, Continetti begins his survey in a thriving 1920s America governed by Republicans faithful to a classical liberal view of limited government who had recently repelled the post-war progressive interventionism of Woodrow Wilson. America roared for a decade, but it then foundered on the rocks of the Great Depression. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal introduced a very significant, if initially modest, innovation by making government itself the provider of economic security of last resort. Whatever its later economic failures, the New Deal succeeded politically and—along with immigration restrictions (from 1924 on) and the attack on Pearl Harbor (1941)—ensured that a united country entered the Second World War. Victory in war completed the transformation in what most Americans saw as the legitimate role of government: an activist liberalism responding to essentially conservative social and moral impulses. Overwhelming public support for the G. I. Bill following the war is a perfect example.
Because the United States emerged after 1945 providing the world with 50 per cent of its GDP, it had the power to apply its new activist liberalism to international affairs, which it did with great success, strengthening European economies with the Marshall Plan, establishing global financial and trading institutions that revived the world economy, and forming a powerful anti-Soviet alliance in NATO that shaped a largely stable peace for the duration of the Cold War. By and large these new rules and institutions were good for America and for General Motors. In the 1950s, the country enjoyed rising living standards, wider educational opportunities, the worldwide spread of a healthy American popular culture, a marriage and baby boom, a strong (albeit complacent) national religious culture, diplomatic dominance in international institutions, and a sense of national well-being under a respected war hero’s presidency.
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It was into this world that American conservatism was born, with—to select one significant moment—the founding of National Review. The infant movement immediately looked around itself … and did not in the least like what it saw.
As William F. Buckley, Jr’s founding statement—famously announcing that the magazine would ‘stand athwart history, yelling Stop’—went on to say, its form of conservatism intended to roll back not only international communism but also the ‘effronteries’ of the twentieth century, because ‘in its late maturity America [has] rejected conservatism in favour of radical social experimentation’. It seems an odd response to the sober conformity of the Eisenhower years, but as it turned out, not an absurd one. America’s repressed discontents would break out a decade later in the 1960s. Besides, argues Continetti, how Buckley judged Eisenhower’s America was determined, in part, by his comparison of it with the Harding and Coolidge administrations that boasted of their ‘normalcy’. At least, that comparison becomes the author’s justification for starting his study of conservatism thirty years before the movement actually announced itself. When Buckley brought together the scattered, independent, and mutually incompatible social critics who were the core of his early venture—Whittaker Chambers, Russell Kirk, James Burnham, Frank Meyer among them—he was in effect recruiting them for a crusade to return America to the golden age of normalcy.
But normalcy was a divided kingdom. Though Republicans dominated the politics of the 1920s and early 1930s, they were themselves divided between the bankers and politicians of Wall Street and Washington who ran a respectable regime and a tight fiscal ship, and (very much on the other hand) voting blocs, Continetti wants us to know, that included anti-Semitic college professors, primitive antiDarwinian fundamentalists, and, above all, the nativist, anti-Catholic, and racist yahoos of the Ku Klux Klan. And yet, it is worth recalling that the infamous 1925 Scopes Trial was prosecuted by a former Democratic presidential nominee, and that the Klan, born from the ashes of the defeated Confederacy, was a part of the Democratic, not the Republican, coalition. And here Continetti finds his theme:
[T]he endless competition and occasional collaboration between populism and elitism. Is the American Right the party of insiders or outsiders? Is the Right the elites—the men and women in charge of America’s political, social, economic, and cultural institutions—or is it the people?
These questions were briefly made irrelevant by the right’s collapse in the face of the Depression, a unifying war effort, and twelve years of FDR. But Continetti’s narrative resurrects this divided right with the arrival of Buckley and National Review, traces its turbulent, zigzagging path through the Nixon, Reagan, and both Bush presidencies, and leaves it defeated, discredited, and in his view terminally shamed in the wake of Donald Trump’s ‘insurrection’.
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As the 1950s move into the 1960s, ‘the right’ applies to more and more, sometimes overlapping, factions. Most of the time the term describes ‘movement conservatives’, or the groups brought together by Buckley under the umbrella of ‘fusionism’. Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington, in a 1957 essay in the American Political Science Review, criticized this ‘New Conservatism’ as detached from real political struggles, and predicted that a more rooted, realistic conservatism would emerge when America’s liberal institutions came under fundamental attack.
His prediction was confirmed in two instalments, following the revolutions of the 1960s. Liberal Supreme Court decisions restricting school prayer and liberalizing pornography prompted Christian evangelicals and other social conservatives to found what was called the New Right. This was absorbed into the broader conservative movement relatively easily. At almost the same time, however, a radical revolution inside the pre-eminent liberal institution, the university, drove tough-minded social scientists and moderate liberals rightward into the conservative camp, which they greatly strengthened on such issues as education, affirmative action, the treatment of riots, anti-Soviet politics, and anti-antiCommunism.
These scholars were the first generation of neoconservatives, and their arrival on the right, though welcomed by Buckley and the fusionists, gradually alienated a harder-edged coalition of libertarians, culture warriors, and evangelicals on issues like trade, immigration, school prayer, and (after the defeat of communism) foreign policy. This loose coalition of dissenters, which began as a reaction to neoconservatism, got the confusing name of ‘paleo-conservatism’, as if its adherents had come over on the Mayflower. As politics changed, the different articulate, argumentative factions within the right would fall into disagreement.
Whatever American conservatism’s internal differences at the time, it was united against the dominant liberalism, which became more overreaching under Lyndon Johnson and more anti-American after George McGovern. The calculations of Richard Nixon and the large general appeal of Ronald Reagan, meanwhile, gradually welcomed these different conservatives into the GOP’s large canopy alongside longstanding institutional allies such as corporations, the military, Wall Street banks, and churches, while Ripon Society liberals drifted out of the big tent. Since the 1980s, Republicans as a whole have been synonymous with the right.
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Continetti weaves together the many threads of a complicated history of both philosophical ideas and political struggles without losing any of them. His analysis of serious intellectual disputes—for example, the early battles between Frank Meyer, Russell Kirk, and Brent Bozell over whether the ‘fusionism’ of virtue and liberty could provide a generally agreed-upon philosophical foundation for conservatism—are both accurate and easy to follow. He summarizes major historical controversies such as McCarthyism and the second Gulf War crisply and well. His portraits of the scholars and politicians from Nixon and Buckley to Patrick J. Buchanan and Trump who cooperate, plan, and argue through these debates are largely fair—though it is plain that Continetti is more sympathetic to the elitists than to the populists. And although almost everyone active in the conservative movement in those years gets an appropriate level of attention—a real challenge, to be sure—one exception is M. Stanton Evans, a journalist and editor, as well as a historian with a comprehensive biography of Senator Joe McCarthy to his name, and an extraordinarily popular figure at almost every gathering from the Sharon Statement onward, who more than once united a fractious conference by his wit. (Readers can seek out Steven F. Hayward’s superb new biography, M. Stanton Evans: Conservative Wit, Apostle of Freedom, for more.)
Though the Republican Party is inevitably the main vehicle for centre-right politics in America, it is not a fixed entity. Its character at any one time will be sharply defined by its current leader, qualified to a greater or lesser extent by the character of a successful recent leader. That is probably a general truth about either party in a two-party system. Robin Harris recognized its importance when he gave his brilliant history of the United Kingdom’s Conservative Party the title of The Conservatives, referring less to its mass membership than to its leaders from Robert Peel to Margaret Thatcher. And once the conservative movement got up and running, the various strains on the right (libertarians, traditionalists, neoconservatives, nationalists, etc.) have tried to engage in constant dialogue with whoever happened to be president or party leader—more constant than the latter often wished.
That dialogue never included Dwight Eisenhower—a conservative by temperament whose cold, skilful, non-ideological management of the rising American empire in good times initially appalled Buckley because it appeased the Soviet Union, especially over Hungary in 1956, and prudently accommodated modest advances for domestic liberalism. But James Burnham persuaded Buckley, and through him the conservative movement, to adopt a strategy of generally supporting the most rightward viable candidate in the Republican field. With that, the interests and destiny of movement conservatives became intertwined with those of corporate America, regional and national elites, the US military, conservative Christian and Jewish denominations, and all the other established economic and cultural interests assembled on the right side of American politics.
Omitting those who failed to win elections or to make much impact when they did, I would nominate Nixon, Reagan, Newt Gingrich, and Trump as leaders who significantly shaped the GOP for good or ill, the two Bushes as leaders who led it down dead ends, and Pat Buchanan as a brilliant, wayward outsider who (almost as significantly) failed to lead it in other directions. Continetti is excellent in charting the ways in which all these leaders wooed, won, bedazzled, pleased, and betrayed conservatives over the years. It is the real—or a better—story of his book.
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Stan Evans quipped that he had never really liked Nixon until Watergate, and as president Nixon had certainly given conservatives reasons to be disappointed: his quiet extension of affirmative action, his rapprochement with the Soviet Union, his opening to China, his betrayal of Taiwan, and (Evans notwithstanding) Watergate itself, which gravely weakened the right until Jimmy Carter rescued it by his milquetoast incompetence. As Continetti rightly argues, however, Nixon’s reputation has still not caught up with his achievements, even or especially among conservatives. He contrived a responsible American exit from Vietnam on the basis of continuing US military aid to Saigon (which the Democratic Congress gutted in 1975, dooming America’s ally). He began the long defection of blue-collar workers to the GOP (until lately the unnoticed counterpart to the left’s authoritarian long march through the institutions). His opening to China divided the two communist superpowers, laying one foundation for the West’s victory in the Cold War.
Following the successes of the Reagan Revolution (of which more below), a year into his presidency George H. W. Bush broke the dramatic promise he had made on the campaign trail, ‘Read my lips: no new taxes’, in order to seal a budget deal with the Democrats. Continetti downplays the significance of this decision, even excuses it, judging that ‘within months of assuming the presidency, Bush knew that he would have to’ raise taxes (emphasis added). In fact, the broken pledge had catastrophic effects, splintering the Reagan coalition by abandoning the one broad policy that united all factions, and making some conservatives all but enemies of the president, despite Bush’s effective diplomacy that ensured peaceful and stable ends to the Cold War and the one in Kuwait. And once Democrats had secured the president’s betrayal, they lost all interest in providing the lopsided budget cuts they had promised. Bush duly lost the 1992 election to Bill Clinton.
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When Clinton embarked on a financial and ideological spending spree, the Republican who stepped into the role of leader of the opposition was Congressman Newt Gingrich of Georgia. An oddly futuristic conservative fascinated by new technologies and space travel who had shaped the House Republicans into an aggressive coalition with a positive ‘national’ programme of reform, summed up in the ‘Contract with America’, Gingrich won a historic landslide in the 1994 midterms and as House Speaker set about trying to govern the country alongside the White House. The conventional wisdom is that he failed in an impossible task—an unwelcome message for Republicans hoping for a 2022 midterm victory—and Continetti seems to share that view. To be sure, Gingrich was outmanoeuvred politically by Clinton on occasion, wasted some of his opportunities on secondary issues, and eventually lost the speakership. But he also transformed the House Republicans—previously a lacklustre crew of tourists to Washington—into a strong congressional party that wins more elections than it loses. And Gingrich was also more than half of the reason why Congress and the president brought spending under control in the 1990s and passed a strong, beneficial welfare reform bill that the left has been trying to undo ever since. Continetti acknowledges some of this, but most conservatives either do not know the story or prefer to let Clinton take the credit.
President George W. Bush was blown off his intended political course and ‘humble’ foreign policy by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, to which he responded with the War on Terror and, more significantly, the kind of liberal internationalism conservatives endorse only nervously, and reject if it is pushed too far and too fast. The Iraq War went badly, exaggerating the fear of unwinnable wars, and poisoned Bush’s other key policies. Democracy promotion is something that most Americans approve of in the abstract, but for which they do not wish to make serious sacrifices. Mass immigration was a step beyond that failure because, according to all the polls, most Americans did not want more immigration and conservatives wanted less, while their party leader in the White House was fighting hard for considerably more of it. It says a great deal for the firmness of the conservative coalition’s conviction that it blocked two ‘comprehensive immigration reform’ bills even though they were supported by the president, the congressional leadership of both parties, the media, the universities, and almost every cultural institution in America. The failure of the war, democracy promotion, and immigration reform—much aggravated by the financial crash in 2008—meant that Bush’s presidency ended on a note of bitter regret. Conservatives entered 2009 in an unsettled mood of distress and anxiety while America celebrated its first black president.
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And that is where they stayed for the next few years until Donald Trump came down the escalator and into the Republican primaries. Trump’s immediate impact was due not only to his own extraordinary personality but as much or more to the large gap between the opinions and mood of the conservative half of the country and the official Republican leadership. As interviews at the time showed, many voters intended to support Trump despite their disapproval of his profanity, personal behaviour, and moral character. They felt culturally dispossessed, economically left behind, trapped in an increasingly alien land, patronized, despised, ignored, and completely without hope that the Republican Party they usually backed would rescue them. Trump might not be able to either, but he was a fighter, and he would at least represent their point of view.
Immigration was only one issue on their grievance list, but it was a ‘gateway’ issue to the entire ‘populist’ worldview (a term the book overuses). It gave Trump his early boost and captured his audience. Which made the defiant, rock-solid refusal of all the other Republican primary candidates to pledge to limit or reduce immigration all the more shocking. It was as if I had wandered into some Off-Off Broadway production of a Bertolt Brecht play which showed the capitalist class so imprisoned within its orthodoxy that it literally could not hear the human cries for help across the footlights.
That obdurate, albeit embarrassed resistance was directed to almost all the other populist issues—some of them more intellectual, such as the growth of judicial power that overrides popular majorities and executive authority, but also including de-industrialization, the plight of the underclass, wage stagnation, trade protectionism, illegal and runaway immigration, failure to enforce border controls, contempt for the United States and its symbols, multiculturalism as an alternative to a common culture, racist expressions of contempt for ‘whiteness’, discriminatory racial quotas and ‘goals’, globalist betrayal of American interests, the spread of effectively independent administrative bureaucracies with legal powers, restrictions on free speech and academic freedom in universities, the expansion of the concept of ‘hate speech’, and—most sinister of all—the selective enforcement of the criminal law, even its weaponization, to reward friends, punish enemies, and even to ignore serious crimes. Many of these innovations were either causes or consequences of a legal revolution that, as Christopher Caldwell has shown in his book The Age of Entitlement: America since the Sixties (2020), replaced the official US Constitution with a de facto constitution built on the metastasizing of anti-discrimination law into an all-encompassing structure of bureaucratic power to regulate the minutiae of work and social life.
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Obviously, more conservative Americans were in some sense aware of all these controversies, especially those involving legal reforms, since they had either debated them or even participated in their passage into law. But that participation was not always wise or helpful. Thus, the first President Bush vetoed the 1990 Civil Rights Bill that the Democrats had urgently pushed through to circumvent a rare Supreme Court decision (Wards Cove Packing Company, Inc. v. Atonio) limiting the impact of quotas. Although his veto was welcomed by conservatives, when the bill was presented a second time in a slightly amended form the president signed it because he was worried that support for his earlier veto might have been inspired by racist motives. As it happens, that bill was the first time that ‘disparate impact’ was entrenched by legislation rather than by a court decision. It was a major advance in transforming civil rights law into the bureaucratic tyranny Caldwell describes. It is not that such matters were not discussed in the intellectual journals and magazines among which Continetti has lived his adult life and upon which he rightly places such importance as the heralds of democratic debate. But they were somehow unable to come to terms with these issues’ real significance. Recognizing the need to defend the United States and American patriotism against hostile disillusionment with both, David Brooks in The Weekly Standard proposed to make the case for ‘national greatness’ conservatism. The effort was well meant, but when he set about doing it, Brooks found that either he would have to move into ‘populist’ territory such as multiculturalism, history standards, defence of sovereignty, and immigration, or stick to somewhat anodyne topics such as museums, statues, and appropriate public architecture. Brooks’s campaign dribbled into the sands after a promising start—perhaps sensibly, since he would have run into trouble in the past two years even sticking to statues and museums.
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A central explanation of Trump’s appeal, as Commentary’s former long-time editor Norman Podhoretz has pointed out, is that he is quite untroubled by the kind of doubts and hesitations that restrained Bush, Brooks, and most of us in politics and journalism. He is the id of conservatism or, just perhaps, a brilliant imitation of it (since there seems to be craft as well as instinct in his politics)— and that explains why his impact on US politics has been, despite even Reagan’s unparalleled success, greater than that of any Republican leader since the 1920s. Both in 2016 and 2020, and indeed between both elections, Trump charged into the china shop. Yet important distinctions must be made about that garish picture. Even if his words were often brutal, fiery, and irresponsible, all of his actions as president seem to have been constitutional and legal—which cannot be said of the so-called ‘Resistance’, including judges and national security officials who conspired to obstruct the workings of government and to pervert the course of justice. And it was not until he lost the second election, after four years of frustrated compliance with the rules of a rigged game (no, not the election itself), that Trump broke his bonds, cast off all mental restraints, lived down to his words, and embarked on the self-destructive course of urging that the transfer of power be blocked.
Continetti is not the first person to cry, ‘Gotcha’. But his ‘gotcha’ is addressed to the conservative movement as a whole, not just to Trump personally. He springs the trap concealed in his 100-year framework by linking the events of 6 January all the way back to the 1920s, the anti-Darwinian bigots, the Ku Klux Klan, and the ever-lurking ogre of populism. In the book’s final chapters, he lays out the argument that the permanent battle is between the prudent ‘elites’ of the mainstream right running the show and the wild-eyed ‘populists’ from William Jennings Bryan to Pat Buchanan to Donald Trump waiting to jump from the shadows and urge protectionism, immigration control, isolationism, and—in moments of candour—rioting upon the unwary voter.
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To be sure, battles between elites and populists (or, more precisely, their respective political representatives), both between and within political parties, are plainly important skirmishes in the endless battle of politics. But to see the relationship between them as the permanent central reality of the right side of the spectrum goes too far, ignores too many other factors, and is vulnerable to confusion.
To begin with, it loads the dice. Other things being equal, we are reasonably inclined to think that the elites are likely to be better than the sweaty working man at dealing with complicated issues. But that is not always true. Academic social research suggests that well-educated people may not be more dispassionate judges of public events, merely better at defending their prejudices. The test of what works is better than a well-constructed fallacy.
As a test of political success between left and right elites, there is no contest. Most of the entire period covered by Continetti, though it begins with the eclipse of the Progressive movement, has been a long march through the institutions of political and social power in America by progressives under various labels. As the Eisenhower– Nixon era with its stabilizing comforts and challenges wound down, starting in the late 1960s, conservatives had to contend with a new range of social, economic, racial, and even national discontents (listed above) on which their touch was less sure. What is more, the collapse of communism replaced one foreign enemy with a dozen domestic ones, liberated and energized by their loss of a disreputable patron. Radical leftism went native, and in doing so, it became more successful. If you wish to see a monument to the legacy of progressive activism in Washington, just look around. Half of the official buildings in the city house agencies that combine a highly dubious constitutional foundation with unlimited lawmaking powers. Indeed, if you want a counter-example to the monumental success of progressivism, consider the religious right’s campaign for school prayer, on which it enjoyed overwhelming popular support, but after fifty years has won nothing more than the right of a football coach to say a private prayer on the field—and for which it is depicted by major cultural institutions as a sinister threat to liberty.
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That contrast is a bitter rebuke to the elites who controlled the GOP for most of that time—and more than a rebuke to the GOP’s populist allies within the conservative movement. It was worse than a betrayal; it was an oversight. The party did not treat populist issues as priorities.
How did that happen?
Conservatives never really came to terms with the fact that, by the turn of the twenty-first century, the populists and the elites in the United States had changed places—ordinary Americans were commonsensical and pragmatic, rooted in everyday reality, while the elites were driven by unruly passions that were justified by arcane academic jargon on everything from open borders to cultural appropriation. An anti-American intelligentsia (or perhaps lumpenintelligentsia), miseducated in the very best schools, rose slowly through the major public and private institutions of American life and gradually altered the rules governing that life without gaining meaningful democratic consent to their own new rules, or much caring about it. Their dominance, denied until recently, has now expanded grotesquely into the movement of radical wokeness that threatens the country.
Conservative elites should surely have noticed this earlier and taken stronger political actions to restrain and remedy it. After all, they had been educated in the same institutions and by the same teachers as their liberal and increasingly radical colleagues. Maybe they saw their differences with old classmates across the partisan divide as less serious and more tolerable than did those who obeyed more rules and regulations than they made. Or if not more tolerable, then perhaps more transient. A common reply from conservatives to parents who complain that college has made their children hate them has been: ‘They’ll change when they enter the real world.’ Instead, their children have changed the real world, and they have done so for everybody, including other people’s children in suburbs, slums, and small towns.
Politicians and intellectuals in the ‘populist’ camp, like Pat Buchanan, saw wokeness in embryonic form because they listened to what ordinary people were saying, and did not treat their grievances as material for ‘wedge issues’. As a journalist, Buchanan had to take their complaints seriously because they were the audience for his columns. That is why his writings in the 1980s and 1990s proved a better guide to the politics of the future than most of those who dismissed him.
In short, if we are to take this elite-populist relationship as the key to understanding the right, then we must conclude that each side let the other down: the elites did so over a period of more than thirty years, the populists from between the 2016 primaries and a January afternoon in 2021. Continetti remains worried by populism and tries to exorcise it by discussing why two conservatives he deeply admires, Irving Kristol and Ronald Reagan, took a different view of populism.
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Irving Kristol presents Continetti with the greater problem because he had made an unusual principled case for conservative populism against the elites. Admittedly, Kristol had gone back and forth on the matter:
In the 1970s he fretted over populism’s tendency to devolve into lawless revolt, conspiracy theory, and scapegoating of vulnerable minorities. By the mid-1980s, however, he saw the activism of the populist New Right as ‘an effort to bring our governing elites to their senses’. The events of January 6, 2021 took place more than a decade after Kristol’s death but confirmed his initial reservations. I agree that Kristol would certainly have condemned the events of 6 January as a lawless revolt inspired by conspiracy theory (though it does not seem to Irving Kristol presents Continetti with the greater problem because he had
made an unusual principled case for conservative populism against the elites. Admittedly, Kristol had gone back and forth on the matter: In the 1970s he fretted over populism’s tendency to devolve into lawless revolt, conspiracy theory, and scapegoating of vulnerable minorities. By the mid-1980s, however, he saw the activism of the populist New Right as ‘an effort to bring our governing elites to their senses’. The events of January 6, 2021 took place more than a decade after Kristol’s death but
confirmed his initial reservations.
I agree that Kristol would certainly have condemned the events of 6 January as a lawless revolt inspired by conspiracy theory (though it does not seem to have been directed against any minorities). But would Kristol not also have condemned the events of 2020 across America that destroyed property and lives on a much larger scale, which were encouraged by America’s progressive political, academic, and media elites as justified responses to a supposedly white supremacist America? These went largely uncontrolled, misreported, and unpunished then and later by the police, the mainstream media, and the courts, and were financially supported by leading public and political figures. Surely those events would have confirmed Kristol in his later view of populism as a necessary ‘effort to bring our governing elites to their senses’? It is, at the very least, a plausible conclusion.
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We come now to Continetti’s view of Ronald Reagan, which is in many respects the most interesting and novel passage in the book. Reagan is the single most successful conservative of The Right’s 100 years. He restored America’s pre eminence in world politics, revived its failing economy, won the Cold War, united the various conservative factions into a harmonious coalition, and passed on a Republican dominance in US politics that his successors promptly squandered. What is more, he did so while working within the laws, regulations, principles, and customs of the United States which indeed he venerated. So why is Continetti uneasy about him?
Although an early subscriber to National Review who devoured the arguments of the conservative intellectual movement, Reagan was really at heart a populist, Continetti laments, and therefore a dubious or misleading guide to the future of conservatism. Now, I am not at all sure that Reagan was a populist, unless populism means something anodyne like ‘responsive to the opinions of the voters’ (which is something all democratic politicians have to be). I am even less sure that populism is a useful concept as the word is employed by most political pundits today: namely, as the manifestly bad alternative to ‘liberal democracy’. This usage has been devised mainly to wrong-foot democratic opponents of liberal parties by writing them out of respectable politics. Fortunately, Continetti offers a better definition in his own discussion of populism, when he declares that it had become one element of a right that was ‘unabashedly opposed to liberal elites, sceptical of credentialed experts, and hostile to the established voices of print and cable media’. Reagan made this populism more respectable by injecting ‘the populist rebellion of the late 1970s with his peculiar qualities of optimism, sunniness, humour, and unflappability’. For Continetti, his example subsequently warped our understanding of its dangers.
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Is this fair or reasonable? Surely Reagan’s supposed populism had two features. The first was his unembarrassed celebration of America and American institutions that went deeper than statecraft. The second was that Reagan—while being more than a populist himself—recognized the legitimacy of populist grievances and treated populism’s political leaders respectfully. He fought for their causes with a cheerful bravery, and even when he lost (as over the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court), he conveyed the comforting democratic truth that no cause is ever permanently lost in a free society. In doing so he reconciled populist (and other) constituencies to political realities. His amiable rhetoric treated all fellow Americans—and notably, opponents—as people of goodwill who could be trusted with freedom. In all these ways he strengthened the American regime. On the day he left the White House the United States was unusually stable and at peace with itself, as much as in the Eisenhower years, and far more so than eight years previously. Reagan’s reputation rose steadily between then and his death in 2004, which led to some very rare soul-searching among journalists as to whether they had covered his administration fairly. In short, Reagan’s success was an astonishing achievement—in part, a populist one—because it consisted of governing with the grain of the American character, especially its conservative side, while offering all Americans the reassurance of a unifying patriotic rhetoric and symbolism.
The riot on 6 January occurred thirty-three years after Reagan left office. In the few years on either side of that day, American politics has developed an atmosphere worse perhaps than the 1950s atmosphere surrounding McCarthyism and its opponents, of which conservative poet Peter Viereck wrote, ‘I am against hysteria, but I am also against hysteria about hysteria’. With The Right, Matthew Continetti has written a fine, comprehensive, and readable narrative of the riproaring history of American conservatism with its amazing repertory of statesmen, philosophers, and eccentrics. It is a remarkable achievement and a great read, but one over-influenced by the ‘insurrection’ and the blowback to it that took place when its final pages were being written. Readers like me will look forward to the second edition with an Afterword on populism in the Age of Woke.
This book review of Matthew Continetti’s The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism (New York: Basic Books, 2022) was originally published in the Claremont Review of Books (Summer 2022), https://claremontreviewofbooks.com/ athwart-history/.