Once upon a time when I was a graduate student in history, I asked an obviously liberal professor why there were no books examining American conservatism in his syllabus. After all, I argued, there were many assigned books that examined liberalism as a complex, even contradictory ideology. Why weren’t we studying American conservatism in the same manner?
My professor said that was unnecessary since the right was little more than a homogenous backlash against the “sane” liberal mainstream. In short, he indicated American conservatism was an uncomplicated and uncomplex movement, emotive rather than thoughtful.
Such a view equips liberals with comforting rationalizations when conservatives or Republicans win presidential elections, or with other expressions of popularity such as the endless line of cars containing middle- and working-class Americans at Ronald Reagan’s funeral. Their narrative portrays Republicans winning the White House because they appeal to the worst in voters: racism, sexism, and xenophobia. Reagan is so revered not because of his policies, but because, in the words of Clintonista Paul Beglia, Reagan “made America feel good again.”
The same narrative is applied to the election of Trump, like when the liberal Van Jones dismissed Trump’s impressive victory as simply a “whitelash” against eight years of a black president.
In his new book, “The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism,” 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. He pithily captures the liberal mindset with its refusal to treat conservatism as a serious intellectual force.
“The Left sees conservatism as a long-running, berserk refusal to submit to the ministrations of liberal rule,” he writes.
He focuses less on what held the right together — the unifying issue of Cold War anti-communism until the Soviets imploded in 1991 — than on what tears them apart. Like any historian or pundit, he examines the past through the lens of the present. The election of Donald Trump with his “protectionism, immigration restrictionism, religiosity, and antipathy to foreign entanglements” was simply the latest skirmish between right-wing populism and intellectual conservatism.
As such, he resists the liberal urge to equate Trump with the conservatism of the 1920s, an era of conservative rule that today’s liberal historians regard as one of heartless capitalism, wrong-headed isolationism, and racism. But Continetti shows the Trump administration was not comparable to the policies of Republican Presidents Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover, in that the latter saw American institutions as “worth defending.” Trumpists, he claims, see the establishment, even when run by Republicans, as hopelessly corrupt.
Continetti is skilled in going places and making conclusions other rightists don’t. He compares Trump to the progressive William Jennings Bryan, in that Trump appealed to the same dispossessed, cast aside by the elites, as Bryan.
He breaks with other conservative writers and historians in that he doesn’t regard the election of Ronald Reagan as an inevitable reaction to the failures of l960s and 1970s liberalism, best symbolized by the prat-falling, hapless Jimmy Carter. Instead, he makes an impressive case that the Reagan victory “was contingent, unplanned, and unpredictable.”
But he still employs the vantage point of the 1920s to chart the war between populists and conservative elites, showing the lurch of the former to what he calls “extremist demagogues.” Examples are populist support of the radio priest Father Coughlin, who managed to combine anti-New Deal leftism with antisemitism to an eventual drift toward Hitlierism; toward the anti-elitist red-hunting Sen. Joseph McCarthy; the anti-integrationist George Wallace; the protectionist and isolationist Pat Buchanan; and finally to Trump. Thus, cleverly, he takes the conservative narrative about the inevitably of Ronald Reagan and instead applies it to the populist emergence of Trump.
Continetti tries to establish a way out of the wilderness for the American right by chronicling what he calls the “100 Years War” within the right:
The one hundred years 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.
Unlike other conservatives, Continetti doesn’t chart the conservative crackup to the collapse of communism in 1991 but to the 2003 Iraq War conducted by the self-identified conservative President George W. Bush. What Vietnam did to the Democratic Party, fracturing it for a generation, the Iraq War did to conservatives. As the body counts of American forces tripled as in Vietnam, Bush and his neoconservative supporters of staying the course in Iraq, “delegitimized the conservative movement in the eyes of populist independents, conservative Democrats, and disaffected voters crucial to past GOP victories.”
Continetti effectively documents this tug between conservative elites and conservative populists but does not really provide a way for them to come together. Without the “elites,” you don’t have articulated positions and “sweeping narratives” that inspire voters. Without the populists, you don’t have the true energy behind winning campaigns.
Until conservatives can reconcile the two the road ahead, even the fight against lightweights like Joe Biden will be rough.