A New History of the Old Right
The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism, by Matthew Continetti, Basic Books, 480 pages, $32
Unlike most accounts of the American conservative movement, Matthew Continetti’s The Right begins in the 1920s, when two Republican presidents returned the country to normalcy after World War I. The ideals of that era’s Republicans were not so different from those espoused by former President Donald Trump today: They believed in cutting taxes, restricting immigration, and protecting American industry through tariffs. But there was one fundamental difference: Presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge rejected the populism of their age. They aimed to preserve American institutions. Trump is more like William Jennings Bryan, riding the coattails of discontent. He represents a time, Continetti argues, when an increasingly apocalyptic conservative movement “no longer viewed core American institutions as worth defending.”
Continetti has worked in many of the most important conservative institutions. As such, he should be praised for addressing the darker side of his movement, a side that many other conservatives have been hesitant to confront. Continetti puts the tension between populism and elitism at the heart of the conflict over conservatism. The result is a much more nuanced and satisfying portrait of the American right than is offered by most other journalists and historians.
The discontent Trump used to propel himself to the White House has always been present on the American right. When Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R–Wis.) began his crusade against “the hidden Communists in America and their liberal Democratic protectors,” for example, he found support in the Republican Party and in the few conservative publications that existed at the time—The American Mercury, Human Events, even the libertarian-leaning Freeman. As McCarthy’s accusations multiplied and “became more outrageous, more galling, and more disconnected from reality,” Continetti writes, conservatives such as William F. Buckley Jr. still backed his crusade. There are similarities in the way Sen. Robert Taft (R–Ohio) responded to McCarthy’s conspiracy theories and the way Sen. Mitch McConnell (R–Ky.) has responded to Trump’s. While McCarthy ultimately undermined himself by launching outrageous accusations against President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Continetti demonstrates just how long conservatives have been tempted to follow aggressive demagogues while they lambaste liberals.
Traditionally, conservative elites have tried to channel populist sentiments into a respectable and successful movement. No one had to grapple with this question more than Buckley, the founder of National Review. The usual conservative narrative says that Buckley legitimized conservatism by being a gatekeeper: In keeping the conspiracism of the John Birch Society and the radical individualism of Ayn Rand at
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