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Review: Matthew Continetti’s “The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism”

“It is to Continetti’s credit that he develops his narrative after this with fair-minded even-handedness for the most part, even if he lets his own views bleed through in the chapters concerning President Trump’s rise and fall, as well as the mix of grift and genuine intellectual ferment that he dragged in his orange wake.”

Americans have become accustomed to the fractious and combative nature of their national politics as a whole, as well as to the cracks and crevasses in each of the national parties. One has frequently heard the lament, increasing in pitch and intensity these last few years, that “our politics has never been this divided,” and that “if we don’t sort out our differences and unite, the other side (unified and whole) will win.” Each side thinks it is witnessing unique, unprecedented levels of division, with purists screeching louder and louder, while normal people—who are nevertheless politically active—go quiet.

It is tempting to see all of this as new, but the advantage of the historical perspective is that one can measure and compare his own time against the past for rhymes and similarities. Matthew Continetti does this in his truly excellent book The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism, demonstrating that, as ever, what is new is old, and while different periods have their own pathologies, there is more that binds them together than one would expect, if ignorant of what has gone before.

The Right in America has been in a state of flux for years. Former President Donald Trump was a cause of the present turmoil, but he was also a symptom of a deeper division within the Republican Party, and his candidacy and presidency revealed the cracks that had been widening for a long time. Calling the book “The Right” is a smart move on Continetti’s part, as it speaks to the cleavage between the small, ideological “conservative movement” and its various institutions and the larger, more diverse American right. President Trump initially drew his support and built his base in the Right and not in the conservative movement, the latter of which initially repudiated him.

This central theme of Continetti’s history sets it apart from the laudatory classic The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America by George H. Nash, as well as the condemnatory 1993 polemic by Justin Raimondo Reclaiming the American Right. Because his perspective is wider than the rather insular American conservative movement and takes in the machinations of national rightist politics, Continetti expands beyond the interesting but internecine intellectual debates and fights that take up so much of the conservative movement’s time. Continetti considers both those who spend time thinking and governing.

The cleavage between elite institutions and the activist and voting base, the “endless competition and occasional collaboration between populism and elitism,” with American conservatism lurching “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” is illustrated from the beginning. Continetti begins his narrative with a short autobiographical sketch, recounting his induction into the elitist American conservative movement. As he writes, the building on 1150 17th St NW in Washington D.C. that he pitched up at was “an intellectual hub—the frontal cortex of the American Right.” This building housed the neoconservative magazine The Weekly Standard, along with the “the Project for a New American Century (PNAC),” which “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).”

The tightly aligned nature of American conservatism points to its aforementioned insularity. This insularity was ill-prepared for the populist explosion in 2015-16. As metaphors go, it is a slightly brutal one that “The building at 1150 Seventeenth Street was demolished in 2016.” As a result, “AEI moved to a renovated mansion near Dupont Circle. Neither PNAC nor the Standard exists any longer.” Meanwhile, “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.”

It is to Continetti’s credit that he develops his narrative after this with fair-minded even-handedness for the most part, even if he lets his own views bleed through in the chapters concerning President Trump’s rise and fall, as well as the mix of grift and genuine intellectual ferment that he dragged in his orange wake. The early historical chapters are fascinating, especially for the non-American reader like myself, who is interested in how ideological coalitions developed through the combination of chance and cultivation.

The laissez-faire conservatism of the previous decades died the death it partly deserved for its lack of restraint of the markets and the banks.

The American Right in the pre-World War II years was a mix of middle-class oriented “100% American” patriotic republicanism and economic liberality, embodied by former Presidents Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover. There was the foreign policy restraint of Senator Robert Taft, “Mr Republican,” who spoke for many in his wish to avoid American entanglements, particularly on the blood-soaked European continent. From a rightist perspective, there was plenty to be disconsolate about during the ensuing Depression and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ascendency to the presidency, enjoying dictatorial levels of power for years, through which he expanded government size, power, and control beyond anything seen before. The laissez-faire conservatism of the previous decades died the death it partly deserved for its lack of restraint of the markets and the banks. The Right struggled to come to terms with its own role in its own demise, seeing a falling away of support, both popular and elite.

There, developed an elitist intellectual sphere and a demagogic populist underworld. The intellectual elite was populated by those like the New Humanist Irving Babbitt and the 19th century liberal in the 20th century, Albert Jay Nock. Nock coined the term “The Remnant,” in reference to a more elevated form of intellectual pursuit and philosophical outlook, demonstrating the American conservative tendency toward the melancholic love of last-man-standing opposition to a country going down the tubes. The demagoguery was epitomised by Father Coughlin’s radio broadcasts and the fascistic Silver Shirts. A more substantive and respectable (and potentially mainstream) critique of New Deal Keynesianism was nurtured by F.A. Hayek, Ludwig von Mises and other economists, while those like Whittaker Chambers and James Burnham felt their disillusionment with the Soviet Union grow.

The 1940s saw more divides, with the key one being whether to enter the war against Germany or not. In one of many interesting asides that mark the book, Continetti describes those who supported Charles Lindberg’s America First Committee: “Its founders included graduates of some of the nation’s elite educational institutions, and it drew support from Republicans, Democrats, Progressives, conservatives, and even figures within President Roosevelt’s government. Former President Hoover was a member. One of the chief organizers was former President Gerald R. Ford, who was a Yale Law student at the time. Former President and Harvard student, John F. Kennedy, also contributed a $100 check. The Buckleys, a wealthy oil family living in Sharon, Connecticut, named one of their sailboats Sweet Isolation.”

As George Hawley writes in his review, the account of American post-war conservatism during the 1950s and 1960s is not exactly ground-breaking but is well written, nevertheless. The usual suspects are here: William F. Buckley, Jr, Frank Meyer, Russell Kirk, Brent Bozell, and the rest, as well as magazines such as National Review, Modern Age, etc. This period saw the birth of what Meyer dubbed the conservative-libertarian “fusion,” the three-legged conservative stool of social traditionalism, laissez-faire economics, and Cold-War hawkishness. The problem, as ably dissected by Yoram Hazony and others, was that the economics and foreign policy took priority, with scraps being thrown the traditionalists’ way from time to time to keep them happy.

Meyer argued that virtue must be freely chosen or else it is not virtue at all, ignoring the role of politics in defining the communal bounds to vice and erecting the guardrails of social norms essential to ordered freedom’s cultivation. As Continetti writes, Meyer did not “address the possibility that emphasizing individual freedom over these social formations might inhibit one’s ability to choose virtue or even to know what it is.” This has been an incoherence at the heart of post-war American conservatism that continues to undermine it today.

In one of the echoes of the past in the present, the debate between Bozell and Meyer on virtue through freedom or direction presages that between Sohrab Ahmari and David French. As Ahmari argued in his 2019 piece “Against David Frenchism,” Bozell also saw that “If freedom is the ‘first principle’ of the search for virtue…if as Meyer writes at another point, it is ‘the precondition of a good society,’ then, by definition, there is no superior principle that can be invoked, at any stage, against the effort to maximize freedom—there is no point at which men are entitled to stop hauling down the ‘props’ which every rational society in history has erected to promote a virtuous citizenry.” In order to know what is good to choose, limits to freedom are inevitable and moral. Buckley did his part to attempt to solve the riddle but also to entrench it at the heart of the movement through his role as kingmaker and movement doorman. One of the issues the movement has now is that there is no longer a central authority figure to act as the disciplinarian over the recalcitrant participants.

Buckley is often given stick by modern rightists and those at ideological odds with his vision, but the contemporary American Right still owes him a debt many would feel affronted to even admit. For example, there is much talk of the “deep state,” “administrative state,” “managerialism,” “regime,” and the Yarvinite “Cathedral.” All of these signify the reality of a permanent bureaucracy in the non-elected state, interwoven with the corporate world and the media realm—less a concerted conspiracy and more an emergent phenomenon of liberal interests. There is a slight thrill when discussing this subject, the feeling of revolutionary rhetoric.

The only thing is, Buckley got there first, as Continetti shows. The mowing down of the ill-fated Goldwater candidacy by the massed political guns of the Lyndon Johnson-run state “enraged” conservative activists. Everything right-wingers howled about over Donald Trump’s candidacy and presidency was employed against Senator Barry Goldwater: “LBJ used his vast resources and bully pulpit to realize the ambition of Rockefeller aide Stu Spencer: ‘Destroy Barry Goldwater as a member of the human race.’ The press corps had LBJ’s back. Goldwater was tarred as a Nazi. A group of psychiatrists announced that he was psychologically unfit for the presidency. Goldwater was held up as proof of anti-intellectualism in American life, of what Richard Hofstadter deemed the paranoid style in American politics. The infamous ‘Daisy’ television ad, aired only once, implied that the election of Goldwater would result in a nuclear holocaust.” As a result, “The dishonest fury of what Buckley had called the liberal ‘Apparatus’ [emphasis mine] enraged conservatives. ‘The mass communication network,’ wrote Meyer, ‘solidly in Liberal hands, is even more formidable an opponent than conservatives had thought’.”

This theme of the hostility of the administrative state-corporate-media industrial complex, so commented on and hated by today’s conservatives was played out in that supposed paragon of journalistic integrity, Walter Kronkite, in relation to President Kennedy’s assassination. Continetti writes that “Walter Cronkite of CBS lied outright: he reported that Goldwater’s reaction to JFK’s death was ‘no comment’,” thus making the already apparent extremist seem like a cold-hearted bastard to boot. But “in fact, Goldwater had been stricken with grief,” which is what one would expect considering that Senator Goldwater and President Kennedy were very good friends. This media bias and narrativization under the guise of objectivity provided rocket fuel both to the intellectual, conservative elite but also to the more, at times, conspiracy-prone base.

This leads into another way in which today’s American Right grew out of the old. There has been much talk over the last few years of the so-called New Right, which emerged toward the end of President Trump’s time in office. The New Right as described by Continetti was a grassroots, networked coalition of individuals and organizations campaigning against “lax divorce and abortion laws, the gay rights movement, ERA, school busing, tax increases, media bias, the return of the Panama Canal to Panama, threats to the nonprofit status of churches and religious institutions, and other perceived misdeeds of the establishment.” Figures such as Richard Viguerie, Paul Weyrich, Phyllis Schlafly—among others—utilized mailing lists and campaign drives around specific issues to achieve tangible results.

Continetti cites analyst Kevin Phillips:

“The New Right, Phillips wrote, was different from both National Review and the neoconservatism of The Public Interest, Commentary, and The Wall Street Journal editorial pages. Their New York–based writers were too removed from Middle America. They were too academic, too upper-middle-class, too closely associated with the Republican Party to be trusted. The conservative intellectuals, Phillips believed, were too interested in maintaining respectability among liberals. The New Right did not care about elite validation. It wanted results…The enemies of the New Right were compromise, gradualism, and acquiescence in a corrupt system. Partisan identification had little to do with the antagonisms of New Right activists. William F. Buckley Jr. and George Will were just as much targets of their criticism as CBS and The New York Times. To the New Right, conservatives and Republicans with Ivy League degrees were sellouts. They were weak. ‘We’re interested in ideology,’ said [activist Terry] Dolan. ‘We’re not interested in respectability’.”

The New Right label is one of the consistencies between different generations of the Right. The New Right today is pretty much everything the “old” New Right was but with email and social media instead of mailing lists and phone campaigns. They share the same interest in ideology, the same dissatisfaction with the conservative establishment as emblematic of the ruling class, the same combative style and fiery rhetoric (“The New Right believed in aggressive political combat”). Again, much that is new is old. When Buckley et al. appeared, it was dubbed ‘The New Conservatism,” then along came the New Right to unseat them.

Now, today’s New Right has risen to defenestrate the now calcified and sclerotic thing the previous New Right has become: the fact that the Heritage Foundation arose out of this period but since took money from the technology oligarchy is an encapsulation of the decadence of so much of the institutional machinery of American conservatism. As Continetti writes, “The New Right embraced the rhetoric of combat over conciliation, disruption over stability. ‘The New Right does not want to conserve, we want to change,’ Weyrich told Viguerie. ‘We are the forces of change’.” It is telling that this form of right-wing politics was one form of synthesis between the elite strand of American right-wing politics and its populist analogue. None of the New Right leaders were hicks, after all, and were well educated and experienced. The difference came in pursuing the concrete over the abstract, aiming for real political achievement over writing essays at each other until they died, to paraphrase Saurabh Sharma. The centrality of the paleoconservative writer and ideologist Samuel Francis to the New Right, old and new, with his focus on the post-bourgeois Middle American Radicals that comprise today’s Deplorables, is testament to the revolutionary form of right-wing politics that both New Rights represent. Francis—in his racialist identitarian turn later in his career—also represents a warning against the dark road this kind of  ideological vision can go.

Of course, Continetti is not exactly supportive of this New Right, more populist scene, given his own position in the neoconservative wing of the Right. One does get the sense that he views this upsurge in political rancorousness as uncouth and distasteful, the plebs getting ideas above their station, with their resentments being fed and inflamed by chancers and grifters. On the other hand, Continetti is honest about some of the reasons for why this sort of upsurge happened then, and has happened now. For example, while he is as praiseworthy as one would expect of the sainted former President Ronald Reagan, he also admits that “Social conservatives had more reasons to be disappointed in Reagan than either the supply-siders or the anti-Communists. His support for the Moral Majority was mostly performative…And yet, even as many religious conservatives found themselves excluded from the corridors of power in the Reagan administration, religious neoconservatives began to play an increasingly important part in American intellectual life and policymaking.”

One gets the impression from Continetti that because President Reagan’s energy was “depleted,” his policy ideas were farmed out to those like the religious and foreign policy neoconservatives. This of course contributed to the battles between the paleos and the neos, with the paleos thwarted in their attempt to have M.E. Bradford confirmed as head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the post instead going to the less well qualified but more politically palatable James Bennett. The rush of money into Washington in the 1980s, when “the locus of conservative life became the Beltway. Think tanks, journals, wonks, judges, and politicians made up a conservative version of the ‘Iron Triangle’ of lobbyists, bureaucrats, and Congress,” redounded to the neoconservatives’ benefit. The paleos were left in the cold, and this fed into the paleocon resentment at the neocons’ success and their war against the paleocon position on policy matters.

These vignettes are interesting, and conflicts like that between the paleocons and neocons matter because of who got to direct the institutions and networks that influence the thrust of government when the Right is in power. What was more interesting, and which bore close reading for today’s fractious conservatives, were the chapters dealing with the violence that ended the 1960s fever dream, former President Richard Nixon’s victories, and the rise of the original neoconservatives. Continetti gives a good sense of a country spinning out of control, as America went up in flames at home in the streets and on various college campuses, while it sank into quagmire abroad in Vietnam. Crime rose, order fell; prices rose, wages fell. Against this backdrop, again bearing echoes of our own time, it is not surprising that Richard Nixon won the presidency with his emphasis on bringing law and order back to the United States, governing in the interests of the Silent Majority who spoke at the ballot box. President Nixon’s own political outlook gives a clue as to why he was successful.

As Continetti writes, “Nixon’s conservatism was more flexible and less doctrinaire than the theoreticians at National Review might have liked. He carefully studied his four-volume edition of Edmund Burke’s parliamentary speeches. He read everything by Winston Churchill. But he also drew lessons from the careers of European conservatives who believed that a capable state could ward off revolution from below. He owned a well-worn copy of the memoirs of Charles de Gaulle, who in conversation first introduced Nixon to the term ‘détente’ to describe a policy of balance-of-power negotiations with the Soviet Union. Nixon also enjoyed A. J. P. Taylor’s biography of Otto von Bismarck.” The fact that President Nixon’s conservatism went against the doctrinaire theoreticians of National Review sounds uncannily like that of President Trump. Unfortunately, both presidents then discredited themselves through their alleged criminality.

The fact is that the situation created at home and abroad by the policies pursued by those in the building on 1150 Seventeenth street created the conditions for someone like President Trump.

But this brand of conservatism may suggest that the synthesis Continetti calls for lies in a quite different place to the “conserving liberalism” kind of conservatism that he remains invested in. When Continetti writes that “Donald Trump was the latest manifestation of a recurring antiestablishment spirit in America…he was a populist like Andrew Jackson, William Jennings Bryan, Huey Long, Father Charles Coughlin, Joseph McCarthy, George Wallace, Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan, and Sarah Palin. He represented a rejection of the way in which America had been run since the turn of the century,” he claims too much, as Declan Leary writes, and lumps too many disparate people in together, risking a misdiagnosis of what caused President Trump’s rise. The fact is that the situation created at home and abroad by the policies pursued by those in the building on 1150 Seventeenth street created the conditions for someone like President Trump. Those conditions represent something different than America at the time of Harding to Hoover, Eisenhower to Kennedy, or Reagan to Clinton.

It seems inane to say that President Trump is bad and that the solution is to reprise the very philosophy and style of government that brought him about. And yet it is perhaps unsurprising, given Continetti’s investment in the second-generation neoconservative vision of spreading democracy by bombs and bullets. One gets the feeling from his chapters on former President George W. Bush and his foreign adventurism that Continetti’s reservations are more to do with the execution of such follies as Iraq, rather than the fact that such insanities were conceptually flawed to begin with.

For someone who seems so attuned to the different currents of American rightist thinking and politicking as he is, Continetti’s warnings about the more “post-liberal” and national populist strands of post-Cold War American conservatism found toward the end of the book are not entirely satisfactory. He writes that these groupings “believed that the nation-state was the core unit of geopolitics. They thought that national sovereignty and independence were more important than global flows of capital, labor, and commodities. They reacted, in different ways, to perceived failures, whether of William F. Buckley Jr.’s conservatism, President Bush’s presidency, or the inability of the conservative movement to stop same-sex marriage and the growth of the administrative state.” The fact that many, even if not all, of these concerns might be perfectly legitimate is not really given much credence. Instead, they are described as having “followed the trail Patrick Buchanan had blazed two decades earlier.”

Those like the magazine American Affairs are treated with a sort of bemusement, as though they do not even make sense. How on earth could it be that “every issue of American Affairs diagnosed and sought to combat liberalism itself: the political philosophy of individual rights and consensual government developed by Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Montesquieu, and the American Founders”? Continetti writes that “Four thinkers led the postliberal turn within conservative intellectual circles: First Things editor R. R. Reno and Israeli political philosopher Yoram Hazony …political philosopher Patrick Deneen, and Harvard Law School professor Adrian Vermeule.”

All four are very scary, and their ideas are very bad. The fact that Reno and Hazony (both national conservatives) are often at philosophical and ideological odds with Deneen and Vermeule (both Catholic—one a Tocquevillian localist, the other a Catholic integralist) is ignored. Instead, the phenomenon is boiled down to this: “the ‘postliberal’ trend was nevertheless important because it revealed both the revulsion of religious conservatives at the direction of American society and the willingness of the rising generation of conservative intellectuals to abandon the ideas of political and economic freedom that had been so important to the movement since its beginnings.” The fact that conservatism changes to stay the same and must do so as a result of empirical observations of changed circumstances, is apparently not the case. And what many of the post-liberal figures argue for is not completely unknown in American history. After all, one might argue that President Nixon’s use of the state to pursue conservative ends presaged the very aims and means that today’s post-liberal right is interested in.

But to achieve this, what today’s New Right, National Conservatives, and post-liberals must grapple with, is the need to both build institutions and to nurture the talent to occupy the branches of the American state. The forces of populism are inchoate and diminish after victory. Continetti writes that, “The paradox was that the same populist sentiments animating the New Right dissipated once populists found themselves in power. These sudden reversals prevented populists from contemplating seriously how to use the government against which they rebelled. These sudden reversals prevented populists from contemplating seriously how to use the government against which they rebelled.”

Continetti could be writing about President Trump’s victory in 2016, when he failed to staff the administrative state with like-minded people actually to give shape to and implement his putative vision. As Hawley writes, “Trump did little to address the nation’s systemic economic challenges beyond old-fashioned supply-side tax cuts. Under his leadership, we never saw a coherent industrial policy, or a major push for infrastructure investments, or a meaningful struggle against the military-industrial complex. By the end of his presidency, right-wing populism under Trump became a substance-free personality cult.”

To implement effectively their vision, to reprise President Nixon’s state-conservatism for the present, NatCons and/or post-liberals need to create the counter-elite to run the institutions of state. Personnel is policy, faction is more important than philosophical purism; and as Michael Lind puts it, “In the real world of American government, one effective United States trade representative is worth a thousand progressive or conservative trade activists, one competent leader of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) in the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is worth 10,000 grassroots organizers, and one national security adviser with the ear of the president is worth a million podcasters, Substackers, radio shock jocks, and TV talking heads.”

Consequently, those who provide perhaps the best lesson are the dreaded neoconservatives (ducks as things start being thrown). As Continetti writes, “while neoconservatives came from modest circumstances, they spoke from within prestigious academic and journalistic institutions.” The neoconservative approach was academically rigorous, empirically grounded, and took an institutional approach to solving problems through policy prescription. One need not agree with the neoconservative perspective to appreciate their effectiveness at preventing America from imploding with their ideas on crime, social order, and much else.

These institutional means must serve better ends than Continetti’s “conservation of liberalism.” Patrick Deneen’s “Aristopopulism”—where the populous and the elite engage in a mutually reinforcing and beneficial dialectic—is grounded in a solidarity of common concern between the elite and those they govern, each enriching the other in service to the common good, provides a possible roadmap to follow. Given the fact that elites and non-elites are facts of political life, this provides a much more convincing ideal to strive toward, pursued through the means demonstrated by the neoconservatives. One might say that this entails neoconservative means, combined with New Right energy, for common good conservative ends. This just might work—and could produce a Right more conducive to conserving America herself. After all, what is the point of conservatism otherwise?

Continetti’s book, therefore, provides both an engaging, if at times overly detailed, history of the American conservative movement, as well as the wider American right. But his book is also useful in providing lessons of what not to do. Just not quite the way he intends. It would be a delicious irony if this book—which aims to recover and restore the “true conservatism” of classical liberalism—instead ended up being a means to post-liberal hegemony. That story is still to be written.

Henry George is a writer from the United Kingdom, focusing on politics, political philosophy, and culture. He has also written at Quillette, UnHerd, Arc Digital, The University Bookman, and Intercollegiate Review. 

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