A New History of the Old Right

In the American right, populism has always been lurking in the shadows.


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 (ROhio) responded to McCarthy's conspiracy theories and the way Sen. Mitch McConnell (RKy.) 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 arm's length, he made it less likely that conservatives would be labeled extremists. In the case of the John Birch Society, Buckley wrote a 5,000-word essay, "The Question of Robert Welch," that condemned the group's founder, arguing that "the best thing Mr. Welch could do to serve the cause of anticommunism in the United States would be to resign." Buckley's purges are often held up as a great success, but the reality is that Welch did not resign and the John Birch Society continued to have influence.

While Buckley initially aligned his magazine with segregationists in the South, a choice that has marred the movement's reputation ever since, he was resolute in opposing Alabama Gov. George Wallace's particular brand of populism. Wallace, of course, was a strident proponent of segregation in the 1960s. During his second run for president, on a third-party ticket in 1968, the candidate turned heavily to anti-elitist rhetoric. "As he began to attack the federal government and its know-it-all politicians and bureaucrats," Continetti writes, "his support among conservatives grew." Buckley called Wallace "Mr. Evil," "a dangerous man," and a "great phony." He was also taken aback by the "uncouthness that seems to account for his general popularity."

Other conservatives joined the denunciations. Wallace's conservative fans, Frank Meyer wrote, need to recognize that "there are other dangers to conservatism and to the civilization conservatives are defending than the liberal Establishment, and that to fight liberalism without guarding against these dangers runs the risk of ending in a situation as bad as or worse as our present one." In modern parlance: Don't back a man like Wallace to own the libs.

Ultimately, movement conservatives did not embrace Wallace. Ronald Reagan refused to run on his ticket with him (the idea had been floated by some conservative activists), and Wallace ultimately gave way to another Southern Democrat, Jimmy Carter (who Wallace endorsed and campaigned for in both 1976 and 1980). But the fact that he made so many inroads is revealing.

Continetti does not spend much time discussing Reagan. This was deliberate: Reagan often dominates histories of the conservative movement, even though he was just one of many important historical actors. But he remains essential to understanding the American right. His presidential campaigns appealed to the populist impulses of the late 1970s, but they did so in an optimistic way, channeling voters' discontent into a constructive legislative agenda. This made him both the exemplar and the exception.

Continetti's major contribution comes in explaining how conservatism has changed since the end of the Cold War. Here he details the conflict between neoconservatives, such as Bill Kristol, and paleoconservatives, such as Pat Buchanan. With their dedication to the culture war and their opposition to foreign intervention and immigration, the paleoconservatives presaged Trump's electoral success in 2016.

The paleocons lost the political battles of the 1990s and 2000s. But the War on Terror ultimately discredited the neoconservatives, opening the door for populist discontent to capture the Republican Party. The first manifestation of this was the Tea Party movement. While Continetti draws a straight line from this to Trump's election, in reality the Tea Party encompassed several strands of conservatism (all populist in nature) with conflicting conceptions of what 21st century conservatism should entail. Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Marco Rubio of Florida, and Ted Cruz of Texas all rode the Tea Party wave to victory in 201012, and all had very different visions for the future of the nation—and very different visions from Trump's. Nonetheless, the anti-establishment politics that emerged in the wake of the Iraq War and the 2008 financial crisis ultimately brought Trump to power.

It was during this time, from 2010 to 2016, that Continetti believes "the populist American Right [became] less interested in preserving institutions than in tearing them down." One could hardly think of a better instrument for that purpose than Trump. Trump condemned illegal immigration and trade with China, announced "support for a ban on Muslim entry into the United States," and recalibrated "American politics along the axis of national identity." Many conservatives initially condemned him, and National Review even released a special issue titled "Against Trump." One of its contributors called the candidate "a philosophically unmoored political opportunist who would trash the broad conservative ideological consensus within the GOP in favor of a free-floating populism with strong-man overtones." Nonetheless, Trump won.

Now a new generation of right-wing writers is denouncing the American founding and trying to redefine American conservatism. Continetti rejects their project, insisting that "one cannot be an American patriot without reverence for the nation's enabling documents" and "one cannot be an American conservative without regard for the American tradition of liberty those charters inaugurated." The task for conservatives, he writes, is to preserve "the American idea of liberty and the familial, communal, religious, and political institutions that incarnate and sustain it—that is what makes American conservatism distinctly American."

Many Americans, including a lot of conservatives, were shocked when Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016. If Continetti's book had been available before the 2016 election, perhaps we would not have been so surprised. The Right demonstrates that the populism we have seen from the American right over the last five years is not an aberration. It has always been present, lurking in the shadows and sometimes in plain sight, waiting for its moment. Some statesmen, such as Reagan, were able to tame it and channel it into something productive, but for the most part, it was just pushed to the movement's fringes. It is not likely to return to the margins anytime soon.