The Right Side of History

REVIEW: 'The Right: The Hundred Year War for American Conservatism' by Matthew Continetti

'The Right: The Hundred Year War for American Conservatism' by Matthew Continetti / Basic Books
April 17, 2022

The act of fusion involves the merging of two or more things and making them one. It became a metaphor for the 1960s political project of Frank Meyer, a senior editor at National Review who sought to unite the conservative movement's factions of traditionalists, libertarians, and national-security hawks. Yet this founding father of fusionism also called for diffusion: "Populism is the radical opposite of conservatism," he once wrote, at a time when he worried about the allure of George Wallace. Meyer wanted to exclude the demagogic Democrat and his populist appeal from American conservatism.

Matthew Continetti seeks to bring the populists into the conservative movement—or at least to import them into the stories that conservatives tell about themselves. "The conservative narrative is too neat," writes Continetti in the opening pages of The Right. "The edges of the movement have been smoothed over. Its blemishes have been covered up or ignored." Until recently, this too-neat narrative has tended to feature Ronald Reagan as its star character, Reagan's rise to the presidency as its dramatic arc, and the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union as its climax. For a while, this made sense. As Reagan and the Cold War have receded into history, however, this simple tale has become obsolete—and its conventional versions fail to explain the emergence of Donald Trump.

The shock of 2016 was so profound for many conservatives that they could not see past their revulsion of a man who challenged and disrupted the tenets of Meyer's fusionism. Their instinct was to oppose him, often ferociously, as he chased the Republican presidential nomination, captured it, and went on to an unexpected general-election victory. Continetti takes a different approach. A chronicler rather than a combatant, he seeks to understand Trump and the pull of his populism—and to interpret the 45th president not as an alarming aberration from conservative orthodoxy, but as the logical product of a movement that always has wrestled with populist urges in a lineage that includes Joseph McCarthy, the John Birch Society, Reagan Democrats, Pat Buchanan, and others.

Continetti blends intellectual and political history to reimagine the mainsprings of conservative success, with populism serving as a source of energy for conservatives as well as a threat to the high principles that many of them hold dear. His engaging history moves at a brisk pace, presenting brief portraits of key figures and connecting them to major events and trends. With a combination of workmanlike prose and fresh thinking, Continetti has written what could become one of the great books of conservative self-definition, deserving shelf space beside the likes of The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America by George H. Nash and The Conservative Sensibility by George F. Will.

"I am not an entirely disinterested observer of this fight," confesses Continetti, referring to his two-decade career in conservative journalism. This may be the place to say that I'm not a disinterested reviewer, nor is the Washington Free Beacon a disinterested publication. Many moons ago, when I worked full time for National Review, Continetti was my summer intern. It would be nice to say that he owes everything to my mentorship, but you could tell back then from his curiosity, intelligence, and work ethic that the kid was going places. He became the founding editor of the Washington Free Beacon, and today he is an influential political commentator, via his columns for Commentary and National Review and from his perch at the American Enterprise Institute.

Continetti starts The Right by turning back the clock, to borrow a cliché of liberals who would rather condemn conservatism than think about it. In the hands of Continetti, turning back the clock is not the worn-out habit of a reactionary but an innovation. Whereas histories of conservatism tend to begin shortly after World War II, Continetti starts in an earlier postwar period, on the day 101 years ago when Warren Harding took the oath of office. As the United States moved beyond the wartime presidency of Woodrow Wilson, Republicans such as Harding and his successor Calvin Coolidge both absorbed and rejected elements of the Progressivism that had dominated American politics for a generation. They didn't call themselves "conservative," but their devotion to constitutional norms, limited government, and economic growth makes them the recognizable forerunners of what eventually followed.

In these early days, however, their inchoate movement contained multitudes, including the "nostalgia, melancholy, and pessimism" of the eccentric writer Albert Jay Nock and the antimodernism of Southern Agrarians as well as the isolationism of Charles Lindbergh and the original America First crowd. Continetti also assimilates a couple of economic populists into the deep history of conservatism—the Catholic radio firebrand Charles Coughlin and the Louisiana pol Huey Long—for their attacks on Progressive elites in the 1930s.

Republicans were out of power during the long presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal era, but in 1946—the year of Trump's birth—they captured Congress. They were widely favored to take the White House in 1948, only to watch their nominee Thomas Dewey suffer a surprise defeat to the incumbent, Harry S. Truman. Liberal historians generally have credited Truman's liberalism with making the difference, but Continetti suggests that the real cause resides in the "me-tooism" of Dewey, who failed both to distinguish himself from liberal elites and to inspire right-leaning populists. In Continetti's telling, Republican fortunes in future years often would hinge on the ability of candidates to win the loyalty of populists who didn't see politics as a conflict between left and right but as a battle between up and down—a clash between coastal elites and the American folk.

Conservatives have had their own elites, of course, and their political challenge has been to tap into populist energies without surrendering to populist delusions. The case of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s is instructive. At a time when conservatives worried about Communist espionage in the United States—and feared that liberals didn't take it seriously enough—many of them applauded the red-hunting efforts of McCarthy. Yet the senator's sloppy tactics were a scandal. "None of us were his enemies," wrote Whittaker Chambers, "but all of us, to one degree or another, have slowly come to question his judgment and to fear acutely that his flair for the sensational, his inaccuracies and distortions, his tendency to sacrifice the greater objective for the momentary effect, will lead him and us into trouble."

These words from the past of course describe exactly how many of today's conservatives feel about Trump.

And that’s the value of The Right: Continetti reorients the history of conservatism so that it can explain more than the fusionist triumph of Reagan in the 1980s, without ever descending into the Bircher-to-Birther narrative of liberal scolds. Again and again, we see preludes to Trump's populism. In 1965, following the rout of Barry Goldwater's presidential bid, William F. Buckley Jr. launched a quixotic campaign for mayor of New York City. He lost, but the patrician founder of National Review, writes Continetti, was "an ambivalent populist" who "uncovered, quite by accident, the future electoral base of the Republican Party: white voters without college degrees, who belonged to traditional blue-collar unions, resented liberal snobbery, and disliked the results of liberal governance."

Successful Republicans took advantage of this insight. "There are conservatives whose game it is to quote English poetry and utter neo-Madisonian benedictions over the interests and institutions of establishment liberalism," wrote Kevin Phillips, a strategist who helped Richard Nixon win the presidential election in 1968. "Then there are other conservatives—many I know—who have more in common with Andrew Jackson than 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." This marked an alternative course for conservatives, writes Continetti: "Phillips repudiated the cornerstone of Burkean conservatism—the protection of established order against radical change—in favor of upheaval, demolition, and power."

Populism also contributed to Reagan's victory in 1980. "Watch Reagan win in November by a landslide—because he is a conservative populist where Goldwater was a conservative elitist," wrote supply-side guru Jude Wanniski. Continetti points out that even as Reagan welcomed immigration from Mexico and called for free trade in North America, he ran a campaign ad with a prophetic slogan: "Let's make America great again." According to Continetti, populism became "the X factor that could make or break GOP presidencies." It also could form congressional majorities: In 1994, Newt Gingrich smashed the Democrats' 40-year grip on the House of Representatives in part because he targeted elite corruption and "marched under a populist banner." And although George W. Bush will be remembered as a war-on-terror internationalist, Continetti attributes his initial success to a pre-9/11 agenda of domestic reform.

When Continetti's account finally arrives at the phenomenon of Trump, readers will be ready for it. In 2016, Trump's mix of conservatism and populism may have seemed exotic. On these pages, it feels like the result of ordinary evolution. Continetti never argues that Trump was inevitable, and much of Trump's success has depended on his unique strengths and peculiarities. Yet Continetti does show that his achievement was more plausible than it might have seemed at the time.

What comes next is anyone's guess, whether it's fusion, diffusion, or something else. Continetti avoids predictions but he's surely right about one thing: "When you study conservatism's past, you become convinced that it has a future."

The Right: The Hundred Year War for American Conservatism
By Matthew Continetti
Basic Books, 496 pp., $32

John J. Miller is director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College as well as a writer and podcaster for National Review. His book A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America recently came out in paperback.