The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism by Matthew Continetti
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Continetti’s sweeping history of American conservatism from the 1920’s up through the 2020 election offers important perspective and context for much of contemporary politics. Starting with President Harding and covering the political and intellectual figures of the Right and the conservative moment up through Trump. It’s well-research, balanced, and comprehensive. It is worth a read by anyone interested in the political and intellectual history of the US. Conservatives will find much to learn about the history of the movement they seem themselves apart of. Liberals will find a more nuanced and richer intellectual opponent than they are familiar with.
There are three criticisms I have. First is that the Continetti’s focus is really only on political and intellectual figures. What is missing is a sense of the conservative movement on the street level; how the common person might have understood conservativism and the Right. But that’s a different kind of history so it’s less a criticism than a caveat for readers who might be looking for that perspective. Second, and more substantive, is that Continetti doesn’t do enough to define the differences between conservatism and the Right. He acknowledges that these are not the same thing, but the contours are not always clear and at Continetti slides too easily between these. And this leads to my third criticism that Continetti does not do a good enough job with libertarianism. He treats it largely as just one more thread in the right, but that doesn’t do justice to the intellectual history of libertarianism and its stark differences with much of the rest of the conservative movement.
While this history is not written as guide to trying to understand Trump and the Trump phenomenon, it does have that as kind of sub-theme running through background until the last chapter that focus directly on Trump and the aftermath.
Much of what we might call the content of “Trumpism”: antipathy for immigration; ambivalence, sometimes hostility, about free markets and free trade; isolationism/disengagement; and populism; has always been an element of the Right. It coexisted with the pro-immigration, pro-market, pro-trade, elitist, and projection of American power kinds of conservativism. Continetti traces out the various threads and streams of American conservatism and the American right. These disparate elements are only united by its opposition. Continetti’s starts his history with the Right’s opposition to Wilsonian progressivism. This early conservative movement, highlighted by President’s Harding and Coolidge, saw itself as preserving the principles and ideals of the founding that Wilson and the progressives were looking to reform. The next generation of the Right was united by its opposition to Roosevelt and the New Deal. The Right was then united in the post-war by anti-communism and turning back the New Deal. Things get messy with Nixon for a while, but with Reagan, the Right returns: united again by anti-communism, rejection of big government liberalism, and social issues. The end of the Cold War then leads to the fraying of the broad coalition of the Right. The divergent elements all vie to have their vision be the controlling vision. We are still in this period; as evidenced by the turmoil in the GOP exposed by Trump’s candidacy and presidency.
What Continetti shows is that behind he superficial unified front of the Right, there were also always deep tensions and divisions. So Trump is in many ways just the latest iteration of the line of figures from Lindberg to McCarthy to Wallace to Buchanan that tapped into populist and outsider anger. The MAGA movement often sounds a lot like a contemporary reboot of the Birchers. One optimistic message of Continetti’s book is that the Right survived those and it will survive Trump. The pessimistic undertone is that these elements will also remain a part of the right, since they have always been a part of it.
View all my reviews