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Can Conservatism Be Salvaged from Donald Trump?
It’s not a given. But Matthew Continetti’s new history of the American Right offers an excellent guide to the components that could lead to its renewal.
American conservatism at its best is an admirable political philosophy that grounds governmental and societal actions in common sense, the U.S. Constitution, local communities and families, religious traditions, and personal responsibility. It seeks to tone down the excesses of liberalism, check the federal government’s power, and cautions policymakers to watch out for the unintended consequences of its policies and regulations. It looks for a proper balance between private business and public regulation, promotes individual rights and free enterprise as important American values, and argues that less government and more federalism yield better outcomes for people. It backs a strong military, stands up for America internationally, and tries to create global rules that serve our economic and security interests. At its best, American conservatism is a patriotic, measured, and morally grounded tradition that provides important insights into human nature and injects a necessary dose of realism into political debates about how to structure government and the economy to create prosperity.
American conservatism at its worst is Donald Trump—a hot mess of stupidity, prejudice, and incompetence designed to advance the ego of one man and the corrupt fortunes of his family. The evil twin of the good American conservatism produces the unprincipled Republican Party of today filled with lackeys and extremists backing Trump’s election lies and his orchestrated attack on U.S. democracy. It fuels the fantasies of QAnon, anti-vaxxer conspiracies, alliances with the Proud Boys, and authoritarian-loving intellectuals and media celebrities who like Hungary more than America. It continues to threaten free and fair elections with “Stop the Steal” state officials, lawyers who make up constitutional claims to overthrow the government, and cranks like Marjorie Taylor Greene who revel in anti-democratic chaos. Unlike the good American conservatism, the Trump version is unpatriotic, radical, and amoral.
Can these two versions of American conservatism be reconciled? Or must the scourge of Trumpism be defeated for conservatism to have a real future intellectually and electorally?
Journalist Matthew Continetti’s highly engaging new book, The Right: The Hundred Year War for American Conservatism, turns to history to answer these questions concluding that there is a future for conservatism assuming its proponents firmly reject Trump’s anti-democratic tendencies even as they might absorb some of his national populist perspectives on issues like immigration, trade, and China. Continetti is realistic about the obstacles to overcoming Trumpism, particularly within the current Republican Party, but maintains optimism that young conservatives and future leaders will choose a wiser course based on conservatism’s strongest principles.
For America’s sake, let’s hope his version of the Right is right. Liberals may not agree with many of the precepts of contemporary conservatism—or share its libertarian-infused disdain for government and social welfare programs—but they certainly can cheer on Continetti’s attempts to find a new conservatism post-Trump that is consistent with America’s values and committed to America’s success. No one ideological perspective can or should shape America’s democracy and no one party is likely to dominate all the lawmaking and rules of the country. Sound public policies and effective governance are more likely to emerge through respectful back-and-forth between competing ideas and political viewpoints—assuming they fall within the American tradition and don’t act as threats to liberal democracy itself.
Continetti is a keen observer of the intellectual churn within the conservative movement over the past two decades, having written about and participated in many of these developments from the perches of good conservatism at The Weekly Standard (killed off by a Trump-supporting billionaire), Commentary, and the American Enterprise Institute. Building on this experience and deep reading in every nook and cranny within the conservative tradition, his new book lays out the various strands of conservative intellectual thought since the 1920s in a thorough and compelling manner that any general reader of American politics will appreciate. If you’re looking for a one-volume history of the American conservative movement, The Right is as good as any around and far more enjoyable than slogging through other iconic books that you might read in graduate school like The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945.
Continetti concocts a flavorful stew filled with smart and quirky characters in American conservatism duking it out over moral traditionalism versus libertarianism and isolationism versus internationalism, with frequent eruptions from far-right crackpots like Father Coughlin, Joe McCarthy, or George Wallace who hijack their well-laid plans to take on the New Deal and managerial elites by indulging in anti-Semitism, fascist sympathies, racism, and conspiracy theories.
As Continetti acknowledges, American conservatism is somewhat hard to pin down. Is conservatism about preserving religious values, traditional families, and voluntary communities? Or is it about free people and free markets unbounded by either the state or society? Is it a positive Reagan-like vision of American economic growth and anti-totalitarianism or a reactionary movement consumed by hatred of certain people and prone to authoritarian tendencies? Is conservatism America First or the guarantor of freedom and democracy around the world?
Continetti is clear that American conservatism has at times been all these things and offers a nice reconciliation of its internal contradictions that is both sensible and consistent with America’s historical traditions:
This “rediscovery of America” must center on the America’s founding documents, for there would be no American conservatism without the American founding. The Constitution and its twenty-seven amendments anchor conservatives eager to preserve and extend the blessings of liberty that are the birthright of every American. The Constitution grounds conservatives in a uniquely American tradition of political thought that balances individual rights and popular sovereignty through the separation of powers and federalism. The Constitution not only protects human freedom but also creates the space for the deeper satisfactions of family, religion, community, and voluntary association…
The preservation of 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. The Right betrays itself when it forgets this truth.
Why? Because the job of a conservative is to remember.
The good conservatism wins! At the same, Continetti is an honest person and knows that a dark shadow looms over his desired return to conservative normalcy that honors rather than undermines American traditions.
What began in the twentieth century as an elite-driven defense of the classical liberal principles enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution of the United States ended up, in the first quarter of the twenty-first century, as a furious reaction against elites of all stripes. Many on the right embraced a cult of personality and illiberal tropes. The danger was that the alienation from and antagonism toward American culture and society expressed by many on the right could turn into a general opposition to the constitutional order. That temptation had been present in the writings of the Agrarians, in the demagogy of Tom Watson, Huey Long, and Father Charles Coughlin, in the conspiracies of Joseph McCarthy, in the racism of George Wallace, in the radicalism of Triumph, in the sour moments of the paleconservatives, in the cultural despair of the religious Right, and in the rancid anti-Semitism of the alt-right. But it was cabined off. It was contained. That would not be the case forever—as Trump and January 6, 2021, had shown.
Hard but obvious truths. It seems clear to those like Continetti not stuck in Trump’s lunatic bubble that conservatives must move beyond the former president to be more politically palatable. But can they do it, and if so, how?
Continetti argues that people too often associate conservatism with the presidency of Ronald Reagan and lays out a convincing portrait of Reagan that is more complex than the myths established after his time in office. But is there a better hero in the story of the American Right than the conservative president who won 49 states on his way to reelection in 1984? Dwight Eisenhower would probably be the most widely admired figure across generations, but conservatives tend to see him as too moderate. Barry Goldwater enthused the libertarian masses on the right but got stomped electorally. And Calvin Coolidge seemed like a decent chap but probably isn’t star material in a conservative revival story.
So, if conservatism is to get back on track post-Trump, Reagan is clearly the model to shoot for among aspiring politicians on the right. The famous fusion of limited government, traditional values, and anti-Communism that defined Ronald Reagan’s presidency represents the high-water mark of conservatism as both a public philosophy and popular political movement. Reagan embodied all of the contradictions and possibilities within conservatism itself. He railed against Medicare as socialism early in his career but then made compromises as governor and later as president brokered bipartisan deals with Democrats in Congress on taxes and immigration. Reagan’s approach certainly didn’t appeal to liberals, but it worked politically for Republicans. Reagan captured nearly 60 percent of the national popular vote in the 1984 election. Since then, only George W. Bush has successfully won reelection with Republicans losing the national popular vote in 7 of the past 8 presidential elections.
Recreating Ronald Reagan will not be easy for the conservative movement. America is too divided to see electoral landslides anytime soon. The Communist enemy is gone and new threats from Russia and China haven’t yet coalesced into an all-consuming conservative desire to be active in the world. Working-class Republicans today are more skeptical of libertarian prescriptions on taxes and spending, immigration, and globalization. Contemporary media and conservative politics are too fragmented to hold people’s attention long enough to get behind a long-term intellectual and leadership project.
The more immediate concern for Republicans is whether they can take the logical step of forgoing Trump in 2024 to choose a more widely acceptable leader who adheres to the conservative lines smartly outlined in The Right. Although President Biden’s poor marks from voters expose serious reelection vulnerabilities, the one person Biden knows he can beat is Donald Trump. He beat him once and he can do it again.
In contrast, a conservative presidential candidate talented enough to consolidate recent gains among multiracial working-class voters while improving Republican margins among college-educated and suburban voters—through a vision of economic growth and freedom, support for families, cultural normalcy, and a strong defense of American interests and the Constitution—could certainly win the Electoral College and perhaps a national majority. But this rosy scenario can only happen if conservative voters allow it to happen.
Paging Ron DeSantis. You might want to pick up Matt Continetti’s new book.