The Strange History of American Conservatism
The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism
By Matthew Continetti
MAGA preceded Donald Trump. It created him at least as much as the other way around. My own first glimpse of it came at a Tea Party convention in downtown Phoenix in February 2011.
The Tea Party, in its early days, was anything but MAGA-like. Dominated by white, college-educated professionals and small-business owners who were fed up with politicians’ broken promises to shrink government, it was the first grass-roots movement to take reducing federal spending seriously. In Phoenix, at what they billed as their first national policy conference, Tea Partiers gathered for seminars on topics like the Constitution’s Ninth Amendment and the gold standard. Sure, some of their ideas were screwy, but they were striving earnestly to restore what they thought was the vision of the founders.
Another faction, however, was vying for control. It was interested in cutting immigration, not the budget. It was more focused on America’s complexion than its Constitution. At a plenary session in an acre-wide convention hall, I watched as the Republican president of the Arizona State Senate, a demagogue named Russell Pearce, galvanized the crowd with a lacerating attack on the illegal migrants who, he said, were breaking into our country and stealing it.
Pearce, who would go on to support the sterilization of Medicaid recipients, lost his seat later that year in a recall election. But he was an augury, not an outlier. Though his rhetoric shocked me at the time, it was mild compared with “rapists” and “criminals”, calves like cantaloupes, Muslim bans and more that followed. His faction swamped and then subsumed first the Tea Party, then the Republican Party and at last the conservative movement. A decade after Pearce’s stemwinder, as Matthew Continetti writes in “The Right,” his superb new history of modern American conservatism, President Trump would leave the White House “with the Republican Party out of power, conservatism in disarray and the right in the same hole it had dug with Charles Lindbergh, Joe McCarthy, the John Birch Society, George Wallace and Pat Buchanan. Not only was the right unable to get out of the hole, it did not want to.”
A journalist and senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, Continetti is a career conservative. The movement, he writes, “has been my life.” He 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. (Franklin Roosevelt was “wily, boisterous and charming”; Milton Friedman, “elfin, mischievous, implacable.”) His accuracy is impressive, too; in his 400-plus pages spanning 100 years, I found no claims to cavil with.
From his account a dramatic arc emerges, and it is a tragic one. In the early 20th century, conservatism was a loose bundle of temperaments and policies, not a philosophy or a movement. “The Republican Party of the 1920s stood for a popular mix of untrammeled commerce, high tariffs, disarmament, foreign policy restraint and devotion to the constitutional foundation of American policy.” Then came the Depression, the New Deal and the war. Alarmed by what they saw as Roosevelt’s socialism and the prospect of being dragged into Europe’s blood bath, the right veered toward isolationism, nostalgia and irrelevance. The Republican Party “tended to adopt an adversarial and catastrophizing attitude toward the government that it never quite shook off.” By the end of the 1940s, liberals had every reason to dismiss the right as the preserve of “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas” (as Lionel Trilling wisecracked in 1950).
And then, beginning in the Eisenhower era, came a Cambrian explosion of ideas. Much of it centered on William F. Buckley, the founder of National Review. Though not a great thinker, Buckley had a sharp pen, a magnetic personality, an eye for talent and a vision of conservatism as more than the sum of dyspeptic parts. Around Buckley swirled fearless and far-reaching debates involving intellectuals like Russell Kirk and Frank Meyer, Whittaker Chambers and James Burnham. Everything was discussed, everything was tried, and even failures, like Barry Goldwater’s wipeout in the 1964 presidential election, were learned from. By the time Daniel Patrick Moynihan declared, in 1981, “Of a sudden, the G.O.P. has become the party of ideas,” the right had assembled a three-pillared edifice of strong defense, traditional values and growth-oriented economics.
That was the right I encountered when I first came to Washington as a journalism intern in the summer of 1981. There was not a desk in the city that did not boast an open copy of the Heritage Foundation’s magnum opus, “Mandate for Leadership,” a phone-book-thick compendium of conservative policy proposals, many of which inspired legislation. David Stockman, the wunderkind budget director under Ronald Reagan, was electrifying the capital with reforms culled from years of policy wonkery in journals like Irving Kristol’s The Public Interest. Bestriding the scene was President Reagan himself, a visionary whose optimism and confidence overthrew the gloom that had afflicted conservatism since the time of Calvin Coolidge.
Or so it seemed. We did not then know that Reagan’s triumph was also a culmination. The Cold War’s end dissolved the conservative coalition’s glue, Buckley’s sparkling generation receded, Kristol’s journal closed, Rush Limbaugh ascended. George W. Bush’s efforts to frame an activist, idealistic conservatism never took hold. Cheered on by the inflammatory rhetoric of conservative media and confrontation entrepreneurs like Newt Gingrich, the base steered straight for the abyss of pessimism, authoritarianism, nativism and grievance that Buckley and Reagan had labored so hard to escape.
As if cued in a screenplay, a celebrity demagogue arrived to complete the tragic arc. “Trump was the return of a repressed memory,” Continetti writes. He “looked to the past. His American right resembled conservatism before the Cold War.” Even Trump’s achievements, like his court appointments, his China and Middle East policies, and his elevation of working-class concerns, were overshadowed by his refusal to concede an election he lost — a lawless choice that, Continetti correctly says, consigns him to “the ranks of American villains.”
So here we are. The work of two conservative generations lies in rubble. “What began as an elite-driven defense of the classical liberal principles enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution of the United States ended up, in the first quarter of the 21st century, as a furious reaction against elites of all stripes,” Continetti writes. “Many on the right embraced a cult of personality and illiberal tropes. The danger was that the alienation from and antagonism toward American culture and society expressed by many on the right could turn into a general opposition to the constitutional order.” Some of us would say this is a fact, not a danger.
Continetti believes that de-Trumpifying the G.O.P. is not sufficient to restore constitutional conservatism, but it is necessary. “Untangling the Republican Party and conservative movement from Donald Trump won’t be easy,” he says. “But a conservatism anchored to Trump the man will face insurmountable obstacles in attaining policy coherence, government competence and intellectual credibility.”
Post-Trump, can conservatism reassemble and reinvent itself as it did once before, 70 years ago? We’ll see. On the strength of this authoritative and entertaining book, I hope Continetti will be around to write the next volume.