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The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism
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A “superb” and “ambitious” (New York Times) intellectual and political history of the last century of American conservatism
When most people think of modern conservatism, they think of Ronald Reagan. Yet this narrow view leaves many to question: How did Donald Trump win the presidency? And what is the future of the Republican Party?
In The Right, Matthew Continetti gives a sweeping account of movement conservatism’s evolution, from the Progressive Era through the present. He tells the story of how conservatism began as networks of intellectuals, developing and institutionalizing a vision that grew over time, only to see their creation buckle under new pressures from national populist movements. Drawing out the tensions between the desire for mainstream acceptance and the pull of extremism, Continetti argues that the more one studies conservatism’s past, the more one becomes convinced of its future.
Updated with a new epilogue, The Right is essential reading for anyone looking to understand American conservatism.
1150 Seventeenth Street
ON JULY 6, 2003, THREE MONTHS INTO THE SECOND IRAQ War, I showed up at 1150 Seventeenth Street NW in Washington, DC. I had just turned twenty-two. It was my first day as an editorial assistant at the Weekly Standard.
At the time, 1150 Seventeenth Street was more than an office building. It was an intellectual hub—the frontal cortex of the American Right. The magazine where I was about to begin work was the most influential in the city. Copies of the Standard arrived at the White House each week. A photograph hanging from a wall in the magazine’s office showed President George W. Bush reading an issue. The Standard’s editors appeared regularly on the most important source of information for Republicans and conservatives: the Fox News Channel. But the Standard also had mainstream credibility. One of its senior editors, David Brooks, was a fixture on PBS and NPR. He was about to join the New York Times.
From 1150 Seventeenth Street emanated the ideas that shaped the Republican White House and Congress and then the world. On the same floor as the Standard was the Project for a New American Century (PNAC). It was a small think tank cofounded by the magazine’s editor that since its inception in 1997 had advocated for a defense buildup, containment of China, and regime change in Iraq. The top floors of the building housed the Right’s premier think tank: the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Taxes had been cut, welfare reformed, social programs redesigned, and governments toppled because of the intellection that took place within the walls of 1150 Seventeenth Street.
That morning I was walking into not just a building but an intellectual and political movement. A few years earlier, as an undergraduate at Columbia University, I had stumbled upon American conservatism and the theoretical works that undergird its thought. In the months before and after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, I had read (and only somewhat understood) Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, Leo Strauss’s Natural Right and History, Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences, and Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom. I picked up copies of William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review, Seth Lipsky’s New York Sun, Norman Podhoretz’s Commentary, and the Weekly Standard. In 2004, when John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge wrote The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America, I felt a thrill of recognition when these two British editors of the Economist identified 1150 Seventeenth Street as the center of a rive droit, a “right bank,” a hub of conservative activity that included the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a small think tank next door; the offices of the Public Interest one block away; and the DC branch of the Hoover Institution and its publication, Policy Review, up Connecticut Avenue.1
The rive droit is gone now. The building at 1150 Seventeenth Street was demolished in 2016. AEI moved to a renovated mansion near Dupont Circle. Neither PNAC nor the Standard exists any longer. The George W. Bush administration is a distant memory. The twin projects of 1150 Seventeenth Street—the expansion of democracy abroad and a recommitment to traditional moral values at home—ran aground.
The intellectual community housed within 1150 Seventeenth Street dispersed. Many of the writers, wonks, and scholars who worked there found themselves in a strained relationship with the American Right. The center of gravity of American conservatism drifted toward Capitol Hill, where the Heritage Foundation, the Kirby Center of Hillsdale College, and the Claremont Institute’s Center for the American Way of Life hosted scholars and speakers friendly to the administration of former president Donald Trump. The Right became more populist than it was in 2003. To define oneself as a conservative in the 2020s was to reject the ideas and practices of the “establishment” that 1150 Seventeenth Street had come to represent.
I have spent the last decade thinking about this change. In April 2011 I went to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to follow Donald Trump as he visited the home of the first presidential primary. I watched as he spent a few hours in local diners. He extended the Trump brand, increased his leverage in salary negotiations with his employer, NBC, elevated himself as a celebrity opponent of President Barack Obama, and became the unquestioned leader of the conspiratorial birther movement, which claimed falsely that Obama had not been born inside the United States. It was obvious that Trump was not playing for the validation of established media outlets. Even then, his audience comprised voters who had been forgotten or ignored or dismissed as nuts. Readers of the National Enquirer, his adviser Roger Stone once said, were “the Trump constituency.”2
It was a constituency that 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney must have thought he needed to win. Shortly before that year’s Nevada GOP caucuses, Romney and his wife appeared in Las Vegas alongside Trump and accepted the billionaire’s endorsement. “He’s a warm, smart, tough cookie and that’s what this country needs,” Trump told CNN at the time. Romney won the caucuses but lost the general election. The Right told itself that Romney had failed because he lacked the requisite populist sensibility, fighting spirit, and antagonism toward the powers that be. He was more Fortune than National Enquirer.3
The week before the 2012 election, I had appeared on a panel sponsored by the American University College Republicans. My copanelist was Matthew Boyle of the national populist website Breitbart.com. I presented my case that the race was close but that independents could still carry Romney to the White House. Boyle shook his head. Romney was a loser, he told the small audience. Romney was going down, and an antiestablishment figure such as Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky would take over the GOP and win in 2016. I laughed Boyle off. I would not make the same mistake again.
As Obama began his second term, I began to research the history of the American Right. How, I wondered, had the conservative movement failed to motivate the white voters without college degrees who had comprised Richard Nixon’s “silent majority,” the “Reagan Democrats,” and the “Republican Revolution” of 1994? What explained the gulf between my colleagues in Washington, DC, and conservatives beyond the Beltway? How had matters long thought settled—the importance of markets, the benefits of free trade, the blessings of immigration, the necessity of war—become so hotly contested?
The answers to such questions took me beyond the politics of Barack Obama and George W. Bush. They led to a broader and more extensive study of conservative intellectual and political history. In time, I began teaching the history of American conservatism to college students. One day in the summer of 2017, as that day’s class ended, I asked the students what had surprised them about the course materials. One young man looked at me and said, “I’m surprised that any of this exists.”
That is why I wrote this book. It tells the story of the American conservative movement through the experiences of its participants. It explains how the work of conservative intellectuals has interacted with, influenced, and been influenced by institutions, policies, politics, world events, and politicians. Unlike George H. Nash’s The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 or Patrick Allitt’s The Conservatives, this book is not strictly an intellectual history. Nor is it a work of political sociology that traces the influence of corporations or lobbying or big donors or dark money in the rise of the American Right. All those things have a role in both conservatism and liberalism, but they do not drive ideas.4
My focus is on the writers who set in motion the interplay of ideas and institutions, of ideology and politics. My narrative is less about the details and development of intellectual arguments than about the ways in which those arguments responded and related to events. My study centers on the authors who planted the seeds of activism and political statesmanship. And my interest lies primarily with Americans or émigrés to America. Worthy British and European thinkers such as José Ortega y Gasset, Joseph Schumpeter, Michael Oakeshott, Wilhelm Röpke, and Michel Houellebecq do not factor in the discussion.
My intention is to describe how the varieties of American conservatism differed from another, how big those differences were, why the disagreements began, and what their effect was on American politics. My framework is the 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, economic, social, and cultural institutions—or is it the people? And is the Right even able to answer such a question?
In its quest to change America, the Right has toggled between an elite-driven strategy in both content and constituencies and a populist strategy that meets normal people where they are and is driven by their ambitions, anxieties, and animosities. A successful political movement must incorporate both elites and the people. Only intermittently, however, has the American Right been able to achieve such a synthesis. That is why its victories have been so tenuous—and why its coalition has been so fragile.
YEARS SPENT READING THE BACK ISSUES OF OLD MAGAZINES, acquiring books long out of print, rummaging through Internet archives, and conversing with my peers, mentors, and friends in the conservative movement and Republican Party left me dissatisfied with the stories that both conservatives and liberals tell themselves about the American Right. Conservatives, for example, like to say that their movement began in the wilderness. Then William F. Buckley Jr., the founder of National Review, came along. He led the American Right to political relevance by winning the 1964 Republican nomination for Arizona senator Barry Goldwater.
Goldwater lost that year, and by a considerable margin, but the ashes of his candidacy were fertile soil for Ronald Reagan, who brought conservatives to power in 1980. Since the heights of Reagan’s presidency, conservatives say, the movement has endured setbacks and diversions. But the Right still shapes American democracy through the intellectual institutions and media platforms that give it a voice in public debate and an influence in politics that was unimaginable when the movement began. Conservatives admit that Donald Trump’s June 2015 descent on the escalator in Trump Tower caused friction within the Right. But they also believe he recalibrated the Right along populist and nationalist lines and attracted new constituencies to the movement.
The liberal version of the story is not that different. It also begins slightly after World War II. It also begins with conservatives in exile. But the Left tends to ascribe the rise of the Right not to failures of liberal governance but to a racist backlash against civil rights that has grown only worse with time. While the story that conservatives tell themselves highlights institutions and politicians, left-wingers play up grassroots organizations, big-league financial donors, and psychological motivations. For the Left, the story of American conservatism is the story of American populist reaction. It is a long-running, berserk refusal to submit to the ministrations of liberal rule. For the Left, Trump is not a deviation from American conservatism. He is its end point.
Both stories contain elements of truth. But neither one captures the American Right in its full complexity. The conservative narrative is too neat. The edges of the movement have been smoothed over. Its blemishes have been covered up or ignored. The Left’s narrative, however, overcorrects for the Right’s mistakes. It ends up pathologizing conservatism. It reduces a vast and complex movement to nothing more than the ongoing expression of base prejudices such as sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and Islamophobia. This diagnosis might explain the behavior of some of the men and women who have associated with the conservative movement and voted for Republican candidates. But it does not explain the whole.
Another problem with the conservative and liberal stories is Ronald Reagan. He is too large a presence in each. This is not surprising: the rise of Reagan began not long after the conclusion of World War II, and because both the Right and the Left start their tales around 1945, each has a habit of focusing on the life story and political trajectory of the fortieth president.
Reagan also holds totemic significance for both conservatives and liberals. For conservatives, he is the protagonist in a hero’s journey. He began by weeding Communists out of the Screen Actors Guild and ended up defeating the Evil Empire. For liberals, Reagan is either a befuddled clown or a charming adversary. He either accidentally or slyly manipulated white America into enacting a pro-corporate agenda of tax cuts, reductions in welfare spending, and hostility to labor.
Unlike most other histories of the American Right, however, this book is not just about Ronald Reagan. In these pages, he is one character among many. The reason is that Reagan’s charisma and clarity were something of an exception. His unique political talent led almost every faction of American conservatism to think that he was on its side. To this day, every conservative wants to claim him. The truth is messier. Reagan’s presidency was not the inevitable outcome of the conservative movement. His triumph in 1980 was contingent, unplanned, and unpredictable. It was not until he left office that he acquired mythic status.
Reagan was one alternative among many. There is not one American Right; there are several. Yes, American conservatives are firm believers in the US Constitution. Yes, they oppose state intervention in the structures that lie between the individual and government, such as family, church, neighborhood, voluntary association, and the marketplace. Yes, they resist the totalitarian Communist regimes of the former USSR and the People’s Republic of China.
Go further, however, and differences emerge. Fault lines appear. Conservative writers and thinkers disagree more than they agree. They comprise a movement defined by a lively debate over first principles. They look for deviation and betrayal. And sometimes they form a circular firing squad.
Nor is the Right synonymous with the Republican Party. In the pages that follow, I will try to distinguish between “conservatives,” who are conscious of themselves as defenders of established institutions and as participants in the broad political movement that coalesced in the late 1950s, and the broader category of “the Right,” which includes all of the thinkers and activists who define themselves in opposition to the political Left—and, in some cases, to the conservative movement as well.
Libertarians like Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman valued personal freedom above all. Traditionalists like Russell Kirk thought that freedom had to be balanced with order and justice. Majoritarians like Willmoore Kendall believed that communities had the right and responsibility to exclude ideas and individuals subversive of public order. Cold Warriors like James Burnham argued that the fight against communism was the preeminent issue of the twentieth century. Southern Agrarians such as Richard Weaver wanted to insulate the culture of the South from federal intrusion. Political philosopher Harry Jaffa said that conservatism needed to be anchored in the Declaration of Independence’s proposition that all men are created equal. “Fusionists” like Frank Meyer thought that both libertarians and traditionalists could agree that true virtue is uncoerced. Radical traditionalists such as L. Brent Bozell thought virtue was more important than freedom. Neoconservatives such as Irving Kristol believed in retaining many of the programs of the New Deal and even some of the Great Society. Religious neoconservatives such as Michael Novak said that capitalism and Christianity were not opposed but complementary. New Right activists such as Phyllis Schlafly sought political power to block and reverse liberal social change. Originalist judges like Antonin Scalia gave deference to legislatures based on strict adherence to the constitutional text. Paleoconservatives such as Thomas Fleming blamed neoconservatives for polluting the Right with immigration, free trade, and intervention overseas.
These are only a few of the varieties of conservatism that you will encounter in these pages. These are only a few of the writers who have argued for a century about the relationship between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the place of minority rights in a majoritarian democracy, the tension between a populist desire for liberty and an elitist commitment to institutions, and the choice between isolationist protection and international involvement. Only rarely have all of these different “rights” coexisted peacefully.
This book provides a broader perspective. While it would have been tempting to begin the narrative at the moment when the self-consciously conservative movement began to take shape, I found that beginning in the 1920s, when the Republican Party rejected Progressivism for the philosophy of individualism and economic freedom, brought into view some parallels with our own time. In other words, to understand the American Right in the third decade of the twenty-first century, you have to go back to the third decade of the twentieth century—when the modern Right seemed well entrenched and Presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge identified rapid economic growth with fidelity to limited, constitutional government, American patriotism, and religious piety. You must see how this conservative status quo was delegitimized twice over. First the Great Depression robbed the Right of its claim to prosperity. Then World War II discredited the Right’s noninterventionist foreign policy.
Fierce opposition to communism made postwar American conservatism distinct. Anticommunism became the touchstone for the religious conservatives, economic conservatives, foreign policy realists, and ex-Communists who made up the Cold War Right. To really know conservatism, you have to watch as the bipartisan anti-Communist foreign policy of containment broke down in the jungles of Vietnam. Anti-Communist liberals and the “hard hat” working-class voters of the “silent majority” found themselves driven away from their party and into the GOP.
You have to understand that from 1947 to 1989, national security was the paramount concern of our national life. The Cold War loomed over American culture in ways that are difficult to relate to someone born after 1991. The slaughter of World War II was within living memory. The stakes were higher: nuclear war could end civilization, and political freedom stood on a precipice. The world was less free and less rich than it is today. For most of the men and women I will discuss in this text, there was no greater threat than the prospect of a Communist world. That danger conditioned responses to events. It required compromises. And it could lead to extremes.
The Cold War revived the anti-Communist American Right. It provided the impetus for conservatism’s growing network of intellectual, financial, and political institutions. This book traces the rise of this conservative establishment. It began as a response to New Deal liberalism at home and to Soviet totalitarianism abroad. It grew in strength as crime, inflation, and national humiliation discredited the Democratic Party in the eyes of voters. It culminated in a Republican governing class under the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush.
What happened next came as a shock. The Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991. The Cold War ended. Not a shot had been fired. Deprived of anticommunism as a common denominator for the American Right, the conservative establishment found itself looking for a new purpose. But it could not settle on a unifying mission. And as this establishment wondered what to do with itself, it came under attack from a growing number of right-wing dissidents who objected to its internationalist economic and foreign policies. With the Cold War over, the Right was tempted to return to its pre–World War II state. Isolationism, protectionism, and immigration restrictionism made a comeback.
If the Vietnam War splintered the Democratic coalition, then the 2003 Iraq War fractured the Republican one. Conservatism was never the same after the first improvised explosive device detonated in Baghdad. The public’s rejection of the war, the economic calamity of George W. Bush’s final year in office, and the Republican Party’s continued support for an amnesty of illegal immigrants delegitimized the conservative establishment in the eyes of the populist independents, conservative Democrats, and disaffected voters who had been crucial to GOP victories in years past.
The dissidents were emboldened. The Tea Party became their vehicle to remove pro-war, pro-immigration, pro-trade Republicans from office. Then Donald Trump became their battering ram. The same talk radio, cable news, and digital and social media that conservatives had used to question liberal viewpoints turned inward. Now they undermined the authority of the conservative establishment. By the time the actual demolition crew showed up for work at 1150 Seventeenth Street, the intellectual and policy culture that the building symbolized had already collapsed under pressure from this new, national populist Right.
In its protectionism, immigration restrictionism, religiosity, and antipathy to foreign entanglements, Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again movement resembled the conservatism of the 1920s—but with a significant difference. In the 1920s, the Right was in charge. It was self-confident and prosperous. It saw itself as defending core American institutions. One century later, in the early 2020s, the Right had been driven from power at the federal level. It no longer viewed core American institutions as worth defending. It was apocalyptic in attitude and expression. It resembled more closely the populist Democrats of William Jennings Bryan—who rallied under one banner all those who felt excluded from or dispossessed by the economic, social, and cultural powers of his time—than the business-friendly Republicans of Warren Harding.
THERE HAD BEEN WARNINGS THAT THIS MIGHT HAPPEN. WHEN you study conservatism from the vantage point of the 1920s, you see that every so often the Right has embraced a demagogic leader who pulls it toward the political fringe. From Tom Watson to Henry Ford, Father Coughlin to Charles Lindbergh, Joseph McCarthy to George Wallace, Ross Perot to Pat Buchanan, Ron Paul to Donald Trump, these tribunes of discontent have succumbed to conspiracy theories, racism, and anti-Semitism. They have flirted with violence. They have played footsie with autocracy.
Such a temptation toward extremism is present on both sides of the political spectrum. Indeed, one reason conservatives assumed power in the last quarter of the twentieth century was that the electorate judged the radical Left to have abandoned seriousness and sobriety for its own fanaticisms. Think of the segregation-supporting Southern Democrats (including Wallace himself), the rage-filled bombings of the antiwar, revolutionary Weathermen, the mayhem associated with many of the Black Panthers, the beyond-the-mainstream politics of George McGovern, and the anti-Semitic bigotry of Louis Farrakhan. What matters is the willingness of intellectuals and politicians to confront and suppress the extremes. One way to think about 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.
I am not an entirely disinterested observer of this fight. Bonds of vocation, friendship, sentiment, ideology, and family connect me to many of the figures you will meet in this book. I believe American conservatism’s commitment to the American political tradition of constitutional self-government and individual rights makes it unique. But there is, I think, a certain value in sharing an insider’s perspective on a much-discussed and -debated topic. Since the day I set foot in 1150 Seventeenth Street, the conservative movement has been for me more than an abstraction. It has been my life. The long and winding road on which the various bands of conservatives have traveled over the last century has brought them, at the time of this writing, to a fair amount of political power but also to cultural despair. The Right is confused, uncertain, anxious, and inward looking. The building at 1150 Seventeenth Street and the self-confident conservative ruling class it represented are gone. But the story does not end there. When you study conservatism’s past, you become convinced that it has a future.
NORMALCY AND ITS DISCONTENTS
ON THE COLD AFTERNOON OF MARCH 4, 1921, WARREN Gamaliel Harding swore an oath to preserve, protect, and defend the US Constitution as the twenty-ninth president of the United States of America. His taciturn vice president, former Massachusetts governor Calvin Coolidge, stood nearby on the east side of the Capitol building. A mass of people surrounded them. When Harding spoke to the crowd, his remarks directed at the wounded veterans in the audience drew the biggest applause.
- “A superb work of scholarship and a delight to read. Conservatives will relish the anecdotes, the explanations of half-remembered books; liberals will learn something about their adversaries….invaluable clarity.”—Wall Street Journal, Best Politics Books of 2022
- “Superb….[Continetti] brings an insider’s nuance and a historian’s dispassion to the ambitious task of writing the American right’s biography, and he adds a journalist’s knack for deft portraiture and telling details.” —Jonathan Rauch, New York Times
- “Mr. Continetti captures beautifully the ad hoc, rearguard nature of American conservatism.”—Wall Street Journal
- “The Right is readable and relatable, well-written and engaging. The author’s command of facts is impressive."—The Guardian
- “[A] sturdy account of the many divisions within modern conservatism… Rational, well thought out, and impeccably argued—of interest to all students of politics.”—Kirkus, Starred
- “Matthew Continetti’s The Right is a rich and detailed survey from the 1920s to now.”—Financial Times
- “Thoroughly researched.”—The Economist
- “Continetti’s experiences have given him a valuable perspective on his subject… His description of life in the conservative machine has the feel of an eyewitness account.”—The New Republic
“Matthew Continetti applies what scholars of all persuasions should do with American conservatism, treating it as a complex, contradictory movement, often at war between its populists and its intellectual elite wings… Continetti is skilled in going places and making conclusions other rightists don’t.”
- “An authoritative account of the complex interplay between conservative ideas, politics, and policy over the past century… Continetti is particularly well-positioned to tackle the topic.”—The Public Discourse
- "A compelling analysis..."—City Journal
- “A much more nuanced and satisfying portrait of the American right than is offered by most other journalists and historians.”—Reason
- "Continetti’s perspective is that of a consummate insider… He is, as a result, better attuned than most to the role of elites in the conservative ecosystem, as well as to the limits of their power.”—Unherd
- “Continetti’s book is an excellent primer for understanding key aspects of the last century of American politics, and many of the author’s recommendations are very shrewd. He covers a tremendous amount of ground with lucidity and panache.”—American Purpose
- "Important… Superior to any previous volume on this critical subject."—Quillette
- "Well-researched, lucidly presented, and evenhanded."—Commentary
- “Matthew Continetti has written a superb history of the conservative movement.”—World Magazine
- “[Continetti] skillfully leads us through the pulsing, fractious, improbable story of American conservatism all the way to today’s fractured Republican party…"—Mosaic
- “With The Right, Matthew Continetti has written a fine, comprehensive, and readable narrative of the rip-roaring history of American conservatism with its amazing repertory company of statesmen, philosophers, and eccentrics. It’s a remarkable achievement and a great read…”—Claremont Review of Books
- "A worthy analysis.”—Publishers Weekly
- “Matthew Continetti has earned his luminous reputation as the foremost contemporary chronicler of American conservatism’s path to today’s problematic condition. He traces conservatism’s rich intellectual pedigree, from the founders’ classical liberalism through twentieth-century conservatives’ responses to the challenges of progressivism. The result is a thinking person’s map for the road ahead.”—George F. Will, author of The Conservative Sensibility
- “Matthew Continetti has written an instant classic, sure to become the essential one-volume history of modern American conservatism. Balanced and subtle, it offers an engaging combination of intellectual and political history that makes sense of the immensely complicated story of the Right.”—Yuval Levin, author of A Time to Build
- “Deft and authoritative, Matthew Continetti illuminates conservatism’s present through its long and often tumultuous past. The Right isn’t just an engaging history and incisive analysis of the intra-conservative debate, but an essential contribution to it.”—Rich Lowry, editor in chief of National Review
- “An immensely useful contribution.”—Jonah Goldberg, editor in chief of The Dispatch
- “A brilliant synthesis of political and intellectual history, and it captures several themes essential in this moment.”—Yuval Levin, director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute
- On Sale
- May 23, 2023
- Page Count
- 544 pages
- Basic Books