the national interest

A Conservative Looks at the History of the Right With Surprising Honesty

Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump at an event in 1990. Photo: Bei/Shutterstock

The conservative intelligentsia greeted the rise of Donald Trump with revulsion that has followed a well-worn script. It laments how the once-grand standards of the conservative movement have fallen into a sorry state. Where William F. Buckley had expelled kooks and bigots from the party, now his heirs were inviting them in.

This was the line Matthew Continetti, editor of the Washington Free Beacon, offered up. “By exiling anti-Semites, Birchers, and anti-American reactionaries from its pages,” he wrote in 2016, National Review had once “determined which conservative arguments were legitimate and which were not,” thus rendering “cranky, conspiratorial, bigoted” conservatives “powerless.”

And it is the interpretation I expected to find in The Right, Continetti’s new history of American conservatism. Instead, Continetti, after studying the intersection of conservative thought and politics over the last century, finds cranks and bigots were there all along, hardly powerless, and frequently working hand in hand with Buckley and other conservatives who had supposedly banished them. “Trump was no alien invader of American conservatism,” he writes, “In his marriage of the policy views of Coolidge with the rabble-rousing of McCarthy, Donald Trump was the return of a repressed memory.”

Photo: Basic Books

Continetti overstates just how “repressed” this memory was, but let’s put that aside for the moment and appreciate how heretical and surprising his book has turned out to be. Continetti is no moderate. He is the author of The Persecution of Sarah Palin, and once inaugurated his slashing partisan organ with a manifesto calling for “Combat Journalism.” But rather than produce another gold-embossed portrait of a legend he has burnished in the past, Continetti instead debunks it.

William F. Buckley, he concedes, harbored a “distrust of the democratic process,” opposed even Eisenhower’s tepid support for civil rights, and believed “efforts to improve the lives of black people carried America along the road to serfdom.” Along with the vast majority of the conservative intelligentsia, Buckley defended Joe McCarthy, whose lies they found a useful cudgel against the liberal establishment.

Indeed Continetti has discovered a slew of apostasies. Among the conclusions the right is generally loath to admit, but which he states, are the following:

  • Conservatives believed well into the 1920s in “Social Darwinism,” a creed that treated the free market as a tool, like natural selection, to sort the fit from the unfit. (When Barack Obama used this term ten years ago to describe laissez-faire extremism, conservatives threw a fit.)
  • There is an inherent “contradiction” between the conservative beliefs in equality and limited government.
  • The American public generally rejects the belief held by critics of the New Deal that what is good for business is good for everybody.
  • The American right often adopts a catastrophizing view of government not found in conservative parties elsewhere.
  • American liberals and even many socialists differed with the right not over the merits of communism, which many of them opposed, but McCarthyism, which conservatives supported. What’s more, conservatives tend to false deny “any difference between American liberalism and European totalitarianism.”
  • George Wallace (who modern conservatives have treated as alien to their movement) was a man of the right who had much in common with, and drew important support from, conservatives.

Continetti is trying to write a history of how Donald Trump happened, but he does draw together the strands in American conservatism that make Trump’s rise explicable, if not inevitable. He synthesizes the plutocratic, populist, and racist strands on the right to show elements of a movement that is unable to come to terms with the political compromises inherent in a multiracial democratic capitalist state.

While discarding the right’s traditional rosy view of Buckley and the 1950s as the birthing point of a serious Republican party, he instead moves that point a decade later. In Continetti’s narrative, the 1960s, not the 1950s, are the moment the conservative movement became serious. The neoconservatives are the heroes of his story who turned the Republican party into a responsible governing force.

This part of Continetti’s argument draws on a self-congratulatory account that has at least some important elements of truth. Unlike the paleoconservatives from National Review who rejected civil rights and the New Deal, the neoconservatives treated both as a fait accompli. Their critique of big government was at least somewhat more specific and empirical. And the timing of their emergence, in the late 1960s, lines up with the Republican party’s rise to majority status from Nixon through Reagan.

The neoconservatives, argues Continetti, seized leadership of the party and brought it to its heights, only for their reign to come crashing down with the failure of the Iraq war. (Continetti thinks the war would have succeeded if conservatives had seen through the occupation, instead of losing their patience with it.) This opened the door for the unreconstructed elements of the right, lurking all along in the shadows, to regain the upper hand.

Continetti’s argument leads him to glorify the heroes in his story. The neoconservatives are apparently devoid of any racist motivation, and their policies on race are purely a response to overreach by the left. One of the heroes in his account is Edward Banfield, who argued in 1970 that the only source of the urban crisis was “present-minded” black people. Continetti, unbelievably, treats this argument as “tough-minded scholar whose research was unassailable but anathema to liberals.” The conservative claim that racism has disappeared is difficult to credit even today; the notion that black people had only themselves to blame in 1970, as if five years of de jure equality had overcome centuries of accumulated social and economic disadvantage, is preposterous.

Continetti likewise treats Ronald Reagan as a veritable saint, a man “extremely sensitive to the charge of racism.” He admits Reagan was recorded sharing racist banter with Richard Nixon in the 1970s — in portions of the White House tapes uncovered in 2019, Reagan mocked African diplomats as “monkeys” to Nixon — but Continetti dismisses it as a one-off: “It is telling that historians have found only a single instance of him making a bigoted remark,” he argues. (It would be quite a coincidence if Reagan’s only private racist diatribe occurred when he happened to be surreptitiously recorded by Nixon’s secret White House taping system!)

He likewise ignores Reagan’s oft-used denunciations of a “welfare queen” or “strapping young buck” using food stamps, as well as the habitual racism of another of his protagonists, Rush Limbaugh, whom he lauds.

His blithe treatment of racism in the party sits uncomfortably alongside his harsh judgment of anti-Semitism. Continetti recounts in detail numerous anti-Semitic affronts committed by various paleoconservatives, leaving the strange impression that, among the Republican elite, bias against Jews is ubiquitous while prejudice against Black people is rare.

He presents the rise of the supply-siders within the party — orchestrated by neoconservative maestro Irving Kristol — as evidence of the party’s seriousness on domestic policy. (Even right-wing economists have conceded the supply-siders consisted of charlatans and cranks.) He credulously quotes Reagan boasting of his economic program, “those who have the least will gain the most,” without noting that, in point of fact, those who had the most gained the most.

There are dissonant facts that flash through Continetti’s story without him pausing to grapple with the challenge they pose to his thesis. If the neoconservatives were the force upholding responsible mainstream governance within the party before the Trumpian madness overtook them, why did the preeminent neoconservative Norman Podhoretz attack Reagan from the right, and then go on to endorse Trump? Why did neoconservatives (including Continetti) usher in the populist Sarah Palin and fall in line behind her?

Here is the larger flaw in his thesis: while he concedes the racist and authoritarian tendencies within the party, he is attempting to stuff them all into a single faction while absolving the rest of the party, even though they worked hand in hand for decades.

Continetti’s argument grows increasingly confused as his historical narrative progresses closer to the present day. Still, it provides a great deal of value and honesty. A clear-eyed reconsideration of the neoconservatives and the Reagan-era party will await another author. In the meantime, Continetti has delivered some bracing honesty about the conservative movement’s origins and true nature.

A Surprising Conservative Look at the History of the Right