Since the crystallization of a self-consciously conservative movement in post–World War II America, conservatives have been wrangling about conservatism’s meaning. The wrangling suggests the futility of the quest for the “true conservatism.” It also points to the benefits of focusing on the balancing of freedom and virtue that unites—despite their frequent failure to realize it—most of those who think of themselves, and deserve to be thought of, as conservatives.
Early on—and despite a shared antipathy to Communism—social conservatives disavowed limited-government conservatives. Sometimes limited-government conservatives agreed to agree, denying that, as classical liberals, they belonged within the conservative movement.
At National Review, William F. Buckley Jr. brokered an uneasy truce. His big tent yielded a synthesis that stressed the mutual dependence of individual freedom secured by limited government and the virtues taught by traditional morality.
Later, the disaffected Cold War liberals who adopted the title “neoconservative” brought to the conservative movement a determination to reform rather than abolish the New Deal social safety net and a confidence that American diplomacy and military power served America’s interests and advanced American ideals. Over the last half-century, the conservative movement has viewed the original neoconservatives and their heirs with suspicion, embraced them as vital allies, and denounced them as traitors to the cause.
Considering this fractious history, one might reasonably suppose that conservatism in America is less a doctrine with clear and distinct premises from which principles and policies can be neatly deduced and more a family of arguments about the inherited beliefs, practices, and institutions that, amid changing circumstances, Americans should make a priority of fortifying and transmitting.
Unfortunately, this big-tent sensibility is not the one chosen by the newest claimants to speak for “true conservatism.” Among the preeminent “national conservatives” and “common-good conservatives” are accomplished scholars, influential intellectuals, and, not least, acerbic polemicists. They show a keen eye for the arrogance, hypocrisy, and rage to control the lives of others that afflict America’s elites—in the media, K–12 education and the universities, large corporations, Hollywood, and the federal bureaucracy. However, contrary to Edmund Burke’s sage warnings, “national conservatives” and “common-good conservatives” tend to define conservatism in terms of a single principle and to comprehend an unruly political reality through the lens of abstract concepts. These tendencies—coupled with their apocalyptic tone, hankering for dramatic change, scorn for wide swaths of their fellow citizens, and determination to purge conservative ranks of those who fail their new litmus tests—promote divisiveness in the face of the urgent need for the variety of conservatives in America to find common ground.
Matthew Continetti provides a better approach. A top commentator on politics and ideas, Continetti accomplishes in his new book what few scholars teaching political science at American universities these days have the training or temperament to pull off: a well-researched, lucidly presented, and evenhanded history of the debates over ideas and policy that have typified conservatism in America from before it became conscious of itself as a movement through to Donald Trump’s presidency.
Continetti stresses that the conflict between populism and elitism that came to the fore with Trump reflects a recurring tension in American conservatism. Indeed, the alliance between conservative intellectuals and ordinary people extends back to Burke. In response to the French Revolution, the great 18th-century British statesman insisted that the ordinary Englishman’s inherited appreciation of freedom, rights, and the moral virtues was superior to, and needed to be protected from, the revolutionary ideas about forcing people to be free emanating from Paris. Conservative intellectuals have made common cause with the people ever since, including limited-government conservative Friedrich Hayek, traditionalist Russell Kirk, synthesizers Buckley and Frank Meyer, and neoconservative Irving Kristol.
The blending of populism and elitism, however, does not reach the heart of the matter.
In the final pages of The Right, Continetti embraces what he calls “an American conservatism.” Yet matters are not so simple as he suggests at the conclusion of his complex book, since the proper interpretation of the American heritage is just what is at issue among conservatives.
Because the conservatism that Continetti favors revolves around “America’s founding documents” and “the American tradition of liberty those charters inaugurated,” it is more precisely called a constitutional conservatism. Such a conservatism focuses not on abstract concepts but on preserving and improving America’s concrete form of limited government and its material and moral preconditions. A constitutional conservatism secures the freedom that individuals, their families, and their communities need to cultivate the virtues and engage in democratic politics.
Peter Berkowitz is the Tad and Dianne Taube Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. From 2019 to 2021, he served as director of the Policy Planning Staff at the U.S. State Department.
One of the rules they teach you in book-reviewing class at the journalism night school is never to use the puffed-up cliché “magisterial” unless you’re reviewing a multivolume work of systematic theology or a tome by Gibbon, who hasn’t released anything fresh in ages. Yet no other word will do to describe Matthew Continetti’s achievement in The Right. He seems to have read everything, digested everything, and pondered everything having to do with 20th-century American conservatism, variously defined. He has gleaned the essential strains and arranged them into the definitive story (another rule: use the word “narrative” only with a gun to your head) of what we’ve come to call the conservative movement. In Continetti’s sure, picturesque style, the story is pushed along by a charming and sometimes horrifying cast of characters: journalists, historians, cranks, scholars, warriors, cranks, social scientists, gentleman farmers, businessmen, philosophers, cranks, economists, divines, publicists, cranks, con artists, and even the occasional visionary. And cranks. There are some cranks in here, too, with a lot of overlap.
For the conservative movement and its fellow travelers—if you’ll forgive the expression—it has always been thus, as Continetti shows. The nutter temptation is perennial. “Every so often the Right embraces a political leader who pulls it to the political fringe,” Continetti warns us at the beginning of the odyssey. “From Tom Watson to Henry Ford, Father Coughlin to Charles Lindbergh, … Ron Paul to Donald Trump, these tribunes of discontent have succumbed to conspiracy theories, racism, and anti-Semitism.”
Tribunes of discontent require discontented followers, needless to say, and the tribunes have found them in abundance, ready and willing, among the ranks of the right. They coexist with, often live in the shadow of, undeniable excellence, even greatness. A political tendency that lionized William F. Buckley Jr. and Tom Wolfe also made room for Pat Buchanan and Westbrook Pegler. Ronald Reagan sprang from the same loam as George C. Wallace. A movement that absorbed the genius of Thomas Sowell and Irving Kristol showered the rewards of mammon on Laura Ingraham and Dinesh D’Souza. High-flown disputes about fusionism at the Philadelphia Society gave way to the combination clown show and confidence game of CPAC. Somehow the bookish people who appreciate Walker Percy fit in the same space, however uneasily, with those pimply-faced boys who thrilled to Ayn Rand. It’s been a big tent.
The tent, Continetti suggests, is now in tatters (though he is too conscientious a historian to predict the scraps will never be sewn together again). Exploring how such a political and cultural movement managed to survive as long as it did raises questions of definition and intellectual genealogy. “The right”—the term, not the book—has always been less a category than a family resemblance. Sometimes the resemblance is remote, the apple falling far, very far from the tree, but the resemblance is real, and it has been essential to conservatism’s political success. All political movements flirt with cranks at the fringes; indeed, it is usually the wild, barely contained energy of activists on the periphery that puts the “move” in “movement.” If the right has failed, consumed by its cranks, then it’s on account of those whose job it was to channel and guide the activist energy into politically plausible and civically healthy forms. Blame them, not the cranks.
Another rule they teach in book-reviewing class is don’t fault the author for not writing the book he didn’t intend to write. Was the decline inevitable? Is there something in the conservative tendency itself—a decadent nostalgia, maybe, or a corrupting cliquishness, or an incurable alienation from the churning of the commercial republic—that contains the seeds of its own political demise? Such questions are beyond the ambit of Continetti’s magisterial (yes!) work of synthesis. But from now on, anyone who dares to address them will need to take The Right as the unavoidable point of departure.
Andrew Ferguson, formerly a Commentary columnist, is the author of Land of Lincoln.
One of the most valuable things Matthew Continetti does in his invaluable book is show how so much of what we see in this chapter of American conservatism is not new. This is fitting. After all, the phrase “there’s nothing new under the sun,” while not literally true, is poetically as close to the essence of the conservative temperament as one can get. And, again, Continetti shows, he doesn’t tell. This follows another conservative insight: “Example is the school of mankind, and he will learn at no other,” declared Edmund Burke.
So, as Continetti shows, American conservatism has internally struggled with and fought over nationalism, populism, demagoguery, elitism, establishmentarianism, racism, theocracy, and the corrupting power of ambition, fame, and political influence, for a very long time. Many of the arguments made from today’s self-styled New Right are, in fact, very old—even if, as is often the case, those arguments are new to those making them. Indeed, there have been many “New Rights”—at least one per generation—since the beginning of Continetti’s tale.
For instance, it remains to be seen whether today’s “post-liberals” are the avant-garde of a movement whose time has come or whether the banner they march under should have a flaming asterisk emblazoned on it as they achieve immortality as yet another footnote to a story they never authored.
Still, while the ideas may be old, the circumstances are new. Continetti, rightly, does not argue that history is repeating itself; it is merely rhyming with different notes we’ve heard before, and with perhaps a bit more populist percussion than is healthy. For Continetti, the past is prologue to the now. He judiciously identifies the echoes of the Joseph McCarthy and George Wallace eras in Donald Trump’s—both in Trump’s political persona but also in the cult of personality that built up around him. But McCarthy and Wallace were never president. And America has never had a president like Donald Trump and hopefully will not have one again.
Continetti’s book is not simply an intellectually literate finger-wagging explanation of “this is how you got Trump.” But The Right does propel the reader in that direction. And that is an immensely useful contribution.
It does, however, leave one wondering, what about when this moment ends? Continetti is a bit like John Hanning Speke tracing different streams and tributaries in his search for the source of the Nile in the form of Donald Trump. And while time may flow like a river, that’s where the metaphor ends. Because Trump is not the end of the story. The present may be the result of the past, but the present often changes the past. For instance, in the 1960s, the most important year of the 20th century was arguably 1917, when the Bolshevik Revolution was born. History, it seemed, was on the USSR’s side. The Soviets launched the first space satellite, put the first man in orbit, and had the first man to walk in space. Leading economics textbooks insisted, well into the 1980s, that the Soviet economy was, if not our equal, then close to it. After 1989, the importance of 1917 shrank in the rearview mirror, and a lot of excellent books were downgraded from works of definitive, even subtly prophetic, history to historical curiosities. Khrushchev’s “We will bury you!” went from frightening plausible prologue to historic hubris almost overnight.
If the next Republican president is not a return of the most recent one, Trump will still loom large in the story of the hundred-year war for American conservatism, but his importance will surely recede. And if that next president is a more traditional conservative, the Trump era may seem more like a fascinating chapter in a very different story, or even a long and peculiar parenthesis in a more familiar story. In other words, it’s possible that The Right will end up as less a definitive history of conservatism and more a definitive history of the events that led to the moment we’re in.
I venture this not in the spirit of criticism but of hope. Continetti cannot be faulted for seeing the past through the prism of the now. Indeed, one of the major points of the book is to remind the reader that the meaning of conservatism was always contested by different factions of intellectuals—and politicians. There was never a single definition of conservatism that bound the various tribes that marched under its flag. Rather, it was always a moveable feast of argumentation, marked mostly by the ebb and flow of partial victories and partial defeats.
That lesson should buoy the spirits of those who fear that what we long knew as conservatism is “over” or “dead.” It should also serve as a caution for those who confidently celebrate this death. The cause will die only when the last of the remnant who hold it dear give up on keeping it alive. As T.S. Eliot said, “if we take the widest and wisest view of a Cause, there is no such thing as a Lost Cause because there is no such thing as a Gained Cause.” It’s arguments for as far as the eye can see.
Jonah Goldberg is editor in chief of The Dispatch.
American conservatives have long internalized a kind of potted history of the modern right. It’s a story so often repeated that its edges have been softened, its creases smoothed, and its tensions turned into familiar plot points. Like so many stories our country now tells itself, it begins in the wake of World War II, reaches its peak around 1990, and paints the past two decades as an era of decline.
That story has many virtues, but strict historical accuracy is not one of them. And by now, as a rising generation on the right struggles to conceive of our society’s future, the story’s deficiencies have become serious practical problems. They mislead some younger conservatives into imagining that the right was largely unaware of its internal tensions until recently, so that its efforts to reconcile classical liberal commitments to individual rights with a traditionalist pursuit of the common good have been futile or naive. This leaves conservatives rejecting their inheritance because they fail to grasp what it offers them.
If the American right is to recover its bearings, it will need a fuller history of itself. And now at last it has one. Matthew Continetti’s The Right is a brilliant synthesis of political and intellectual history, and it captures several themes essential in this moment.
By beginning in the 1920s, and not the 1950s, Continetti highlights the inadequacies of any conception of American conservatism as intended to conserve a mid-century cultural consensus. The right has always been engaged in a more complicated project than that—one that began well before the 1920s, of course, but that comes into sharp relief if you take up its story when the Republican Party decided it would not be a progressive party but a defender of both traditionalism and individualism. Those two causes are often in conflict, but both were (and remain) threatened by progressivism in ways that clarify their deep links and give shape to an American right incessantly rattled by internal convulsions yet also held together by a coherent underlying anthropology.
Telling the story this way also enables Continetti to avoid the other classic pitfall of most histories of the right: His book is not all about Ronald Reagan. The Gipper’s rise and triumphs are well told in The Right, but they are not its primary subject. Reagan was exceptional, and by the sheer force of his personality he managed to subdue for a time the tensions that have otherwise always riled the right. The reemergence of those tensions in his wake has felt like a repudiation of Reagan’s achievements, when really it should illustrate their magnitude. But the post-Reagan right resembles the pre-Reagan right. And by grasping that, Continetti is able to explore crucial continuities, make some sense of the Trump era, and gesture toward potential future paths.
This also lets the reader draw some valuable analogies between our past and present. Above all, it suggests that contemporary conservatives should seek to learn from the 1970s—which in terms of constructive intellectual ferment emerges in this book as the most important decade of the past century for the right.
America entered the ’70s in manic chaos and experienced that decade as a breakdown of social order and national self-confidence. The right was in disarray then, too, and in ways that ring with echoes of our time, right down to bitter feuds between Catholic integralists and libertarians. And yet conservatives emerged from that decade armed with ideas that would revitalize the American project—defeating stagflation, crime, and urban decay at home and relegating an evil empire abroad to the ash heap of history.
We identify those triumphs with Ronald Reagan, too. But though he ultimately embraced the ideas that won some crucial battles, Reagan did not invent them. They emerged from a concerted intellectual effort to resist the despair to which conservatives are always prone and instead approach the country’s future in a confident spirit of repair, making the most of the failures of the left, of converts to the cause of the right, and of the powerful combination of traditionalist communitarianism with the market-minded ethic of competitive trial and error.
Analogies have their limits, of course. And we are not reliving the 1970s. But studying our history can help us see the ways in which our country does sometimes repeat its errors, and so help us seek solutions to new problems that are rooted in timeless truths. That, after all, is how conservatives always work to conserve what matters most.
Yuval Levin is director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
There’s no mistaking the specter haunting Matthew Continetti’s excellent, sweeping new history of American conservatism. Donald Trump gets his first reference on page 3, and his final one on page 414, the next to last of the text.
There’s a natural tendency now to rifle through the conservative past looking for the seedbed of the Trump phenomenon, a little like Richard Weaver locating the ultimate source of the decline of Western civilization in the nominalism of the 14th-century philosopher William of Ockham.
I found myself reading the book with an eye to who was most prescient about the potential power of the party taking a Trump-like turn. Maybe William Rusher, the esteemed late publisher of National Review, pitching a new conservative party in the mid-1970s? As Continetti describes it, this party would find its political base in the Old South, rapidly growing West, and blue-collar areas of the North. “It would conceive of itself,” he writes, “as an oppositional force, antagonistic to all aspects of the eastern establishment, Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative, cultural and economic. It would unify the supporters of Ronald Reagan and George Wallace.”
Or Kevin Phillips, the protean political writer and historian? Writing in a symposium in Commentary in 1976, he set out the different ethos and goals of the New Right. “There are conservatives whose game it is to quote English poetry and utter neo-Madisonian benedictions over the interests and institutions of establishment liberalism,” Phillips wrote. “Then there are other conservatives—many I know—who have more in common with Andrew Jackson than with Edmund Burke. Their hope is to build a cultural siege-cannon out of the populist steel of Idaho, Mississippi, and working-class Milwaukee, and then blast the Eastern liberal establishment to ideo-institutional smithereens.”
Of course, there’s Patrick J. Buchanan himself. He told Fred Barnes in 2006 that if he ran for president again, his message would be: “Secure the borders, stop exporting jobs, and bring the troops home.”
For my money, though, the prize has to go to the radical libertarian Murray Rothbard, who explained his support for Buchanan’s insurgent campaign in 1992 in eerily familiar terms: “The proper strategy for the Right-wing must be what we can call ‘Right-wing populism’: exciting, dynamic, tough, and confrontational, rousing, and inspiring not only the exploited masses, but the often shellshocked Right-wing intellectual cadre as well.” Moreover, Rothbard opined, “we need a dynamic, charismatic leader who has the ability to short-circuit the media elites, and to reach and rouse the masses directly.”
That’s on the nose enough that it’s possible to imagine Rothbard, had he still been around, appearing on CNN as one of the network’s defend-anything pro-Trump pundits during the candidate’s rise in 2015–16.
One of the contributions of Continetti’s book is to remind us that the current divisions on the right are longstanding, indeed go back, as his subtitle has it, a hundred years. “The Right has toggled,” he notes, “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.” What seems so radically new in this moment is that the former tendency—associated with the classical-liberal element of conservatism—has usually been dominant whereas the latter, more populist strand currently has the whip hand.
In National Review terms, the Watergate-era contention between George F. Will, then a young columnist disgusted by the corruption and what he felt was the boobery of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew, and the circle-the-wagons, thoroughly anti-elitist posture of the aforementioned Bill Rusher has been won a few decades later in resounding fashion by Rusher.
As a practical matter, Republican national politics has typically been neither a pure expression of the classical-liberal or populist tendencies. Ronald Reagan had populist appeal; Donald Trump, in many respects, advanced a traditional GOP agenda. Both shared the slogan “make America great again.”
Trump’s worst effect has been to empower something else that also isn’t new: a conspiratorial worldview on the right. This way of thinking—common to the fringes of all political movements—has usually had a subterranean existence, bolstered by kooky politicians and poorly read samizdat. When right-wing conspiricism began to get a much stronger foothold in the late 1950s with the advent of Robert Welch’s John Birch Society, William F. Buckley and Co. famously read the Birchers out of the movement.
This worldview has now been given new life by Donald Trump, who has more power, even now, than Welch could have dreamed of. Trump began his ascent in GOP politics by promoting birtherism and currently is promoting wild-eyed fantasies about the 2020 election. Conspiratorial thinking, often an exaggerated form of distrust of the establishment, is a particular populist temptation. As Continetti writes, clearly mindful of the contemporary parallels, with clear resonance, “Birchers were drawn not only to Welch’s anti-Communist message but also to his description of a world where sinister elites were behind everything that had gone wrong in the country.”
The dual task for conservatives now is to do everything in our power to stop a descent down the rabbit hole of anti-fluoridation-type obsessions in the name of fighting the country’s corrupt elite, while engaging with populists and nationalists who have thoughtful, if excoriating, critiques of the prior conservative consensus. What must be resisted is the impulse to take our ball and go home—the Benedict Option for disheartened conservative intellectuals and writers—because forces on the right that have long been on the losing side of intramural fights are now in the ascendency.
In this, as in much else, there are no permanent victories or defeats. The hundred-year war goes on.
Richard Lowry is editor in chief of National Review.
The last line in Matt Continetti‘s excellent book contains a powerful admonition: “the job of a conservative is to remember.” By recalling the past, those who are despondent about the state of today’s conservative movement will see that much of what conservatism faces has happened before. Previous generations have dealt with bitter internal tensions, the challenging search for synthesis among rival conceptions, the need to expel unsavory elements, untruthful attacks from the mainstream media, rejection by institutional elites, misrepresentation by demagogic politicians, and dismissal of true believers and even mainstream voters as “kooks.” We have also seen new vitality come from converts to the cause—even as they have been distrusted by the existing members of the family.
These elements are part of conservatism in 2022, just as they are part of conservatism’s history over the past century. Implicit in Continetti’s closing words is an optimism that navigating these challenging waters is difficult, but remembering will show that it can be done, and how to do it.
The Right also profiles the leaders who have helped conservatism along the way. Continetti shows how William F. Buckley founded National Review and served as “the Pope,” excommunicating anti-Semites and others whose prejudices betrayed American ideals. He also shows how Irving Kristol led the migration of neoconservatives that brought new energy and ideas into the movement. As Buckley himself noted, the neocons “taught the conservatives—they certainly taught me—methods of the organization of social data, which I wasn’t familiar with.” Beyond the new ideas, Kristol served as the intellectual glue of the movement, mentoring people such as Charles Murray, helping to convert disaffected leftists such as Michael Novak, and constantly promoting new thinkers and their ideas. And of course, Ronald Reagan was able to distill conservative thoughts into a policy platform and remain “mainstream” enough to win popular electoral support.
The 2022 conservative pessimist could counter that after reading Continetti, it’s clear that there are no Reagans, Buckleys, or Irving Kristols today. And that is true, up to a point. But again, looking back at history helps. Reagan, Buckley, and Kristol also present today’s conservatives with models to emulate—and the principles that drove them can still work. Continetti observes that technology has “altered the forms of communication to such a degree that no one editor or journal [has] the ability to establish the definitive conservative position.” This is a disadvantage in some senses, to be sure, but it also presents an opportunity. Conservatives have many more ways to reach people than in the days when National Review was a lonely voice in the wilderness—one that eagerly welcomed Commentary as an ally with a 1971 editorial titled “Come On In, the Water’s Fine.”
Matt Continetti has given conservatives a road map that can lead to success for the movement and great benefits to the nation and the world. He has provided the means to remember. We just need to have the wisdom to follow the path lit by these memories of victories past.
Tevi Troy, a frequent contributor to Commentary, is a presidential historian and former White House aide.
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