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The Right’s Side of History
A review of "The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism" by Matthew Continetti
Basic Books, 496, 2022
Studying conservatism’s past, declares Matthew Continetti in the introduction to his new history of the conservative movement, The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism, is enough to convince one “that it has a future.” After reading the rest of it, I’m inclined to agree. Yet having done so, I can’t help but wonder if the reason it does is because conservatism’s future has so often been a matter of reliving its past.
The K-Pg Boundary
The conflict between the establishment and the rank and file seems to be the defining feature of conservative politics at the moment. But as Continetti amply documents, it is a defining feature of conservative politics at any moment. Wendell Willkie’s nomination in 1940 would not be the last time those on the right decried the tendency of “GOP elites to embrace whatever reforms liberal Democrats had come up with.” Nor was Kevin Phillips’s dismissal of conservative intellectuals three decades later as “too interested in maintaining respectability among liberals” the first. The unceasing nature of this strife is one of Continetti’s organizing themes. The right’s inability to forge a lasting settlement between these two elements and the consequent fragility of its coalition and impermanence of its victories is another. In his own words, his “framework is the endless competition and occasional collaboration between populism and elitism.” Some histories are about change, but continuity is the name of Continetti’s game.
Because it is, his account begins somewhere few readers might expect it to: at Warren Harding’s inauguration. American conservatism as most people understand it today is a product of the postwar era. By starting in 1921, Continetti accomplishes two things. First, he shows what conservatism looked like before it was obliterated by the asteroid that was the New Deal. Second, he draws the reader’s attention to the fact that even though it was superseded by a more dominant species, the older taxon survived the extinction event.
The conservatism of Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge “stood for a popular mix of untrammeled commerce, high tariffs, disarmament, foreign policy restraint, and devotion to” the nation’s constitutional foundations. What it wasn’t was adventurist or ambitious at home or abroad. “Normalcy” was the byword after the dislocations of Woodrow Wilson’s tenure. Not for the last time, the function of the GOP was to serve as oil to calm the waters after a period of progressive ascendance.
The Republican Party shattered on the rocks of the Depression. What survived of the wreckage was barely seaworthy to navigate a pond, let alone the turbulent waters of the 1930s. With no vessel to carry it, the right drifted. Conservatism in this period has all the characteristics of a fossil. Not an impressive one like a dinosaur, but one of the small ones, an ammonite or trilobite.
A “mix of nostalgia, melancholy, and pessimism became a constant temptation for the American Right,” one which proved too alluring for the group that came to be known as the Southern Agrarians. They railed against the depredations of industrial development, mass media, and their threat to a distinctly Southern culture. With its emphasis on preserving “ancient social patterns against the upheavals” of the modern age, agrarianism had more in common with European conservatism. But its refusal to acknowledge the main source of the uniqueness of Southern culture, the existence of slavery, made it inescapably American. The Agrarians were one of several groups critical of the New Deal which “opposed the fluidity, creative destruction, secularism, and individualism of modern society.”
Not every philosophical and intellectual avenue conservatism took in the 1930s was a dead end. But though it began showing some signs of brain activity, politically it remained as moribund as ever. Amidst its ongoing rout, however, conservatism was being remade in ways that would define it for decades. FDR’s expansion of the federal government “became the central topic of debate between conservatives and liberals,” something it arguably remains to this day. Unfortunately, in this crucible the right “adopted an adversarial and catastrophizing attitude toward government that it never quite shook off.” Congressional Republicans had made little headway in turning Americans against the New Deal, wrote a member of one anti-New Deal group in 1939. “Eight decades later, the situation had not changed,” Continetti notes drily. Whether ruefully as well, he does not say.
Conservatism on the eve of World War II was at its nadir, the province of intellectuals espousing a rebarbative flight into the past and politicians espousing equally unpalatable antagonism to the New Deal at home and isolationism abroad. Conservatism couldn’t get any lower. It had nowhere to go but up.
That eventually it would attain the heights of power, few would have imagined. The core of Continetti’s book is a 200 page narrative tracing the modern conservative movement from its emergence in the early 1950s to its triumph in the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Though he devotes ample space to political figures—Reagan, Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Dwight Eisenhower, Barry Goldwater—he focuses on the intellectuals who spent this period resurrecting and redefining conservatism in order to make it once more a viable force.
The two most important were discovered more or less straight out of college by the Chicago businessman Henry Regnery, who’d helped found the magazine Human Events in 1944 and in 1947 created the publishing house that still bears his name. In 1952, Regnery received a letter from an American graduate student at the University of St. Andrews asking if he’d be interested in publishing the student’s doctoral dissertation. After perusing the 450-page manuscript, Regnery decided he would be and duly did the next year.
The Conservative Mind was as idiosyncratic as its author, Russell Kirk, a “young fogey” from Michigan who fell in love with the South while studying at Duke. The book was an immediate sensation. More important, Kirk’s tome “gave conservatives an identity, an intellectual genealogy, and a point of view.” Without him, Continetti avers, “there would be no conservative movement.” But Kirk’s traditionalism was not the stuff on which to build a mass movement. Something less recondite and more palatable to other blocs on the right was needed.
Two years before Kirk’s book, Regnery had published God and Man at Yale by William F. Buckley, Jr. Buckley had just graduated from Yale, where one of his classmates was L. Brent Bozell, Jr., who himself became a prominent conservative figure (and husband to Buckley’s sister, Patricia).
Buckley’s “ability to see where the joints of the American Right lined up” was crucial to the success of his leadership. He is arguably the central figure of Continetti’s narrative, and in the arc of his career from enfant terrible to eminence grise one can trace the trajectory of postwar conservatism.
Buckley made many contributions to the conservative movement, but none was more decisive than his founding in 1955 of National Review, the most important American conservative publication of the second half of the 20th century. Its founders “envisioned themselves the leaders of an intellectual army that could compete on the same battlefield as the best troops of the academic Left.” The conservatism they championed is one few would associate it with today. For Buckley and his cohorts, conservatism was “the set of beliefs dominant” in the 1920s. Yet the new magazine’s credo was syncretic, molding libertarian opposition to big government, strong anti-communism, “elitism in education and culture,” antiunionism, and antipathy to the UN.
The act of definition is also one of exclusion. One of Buckley’s vital roles was deciding what would and would not belong to the conservative movement. He attacked the antisemitism of one-time Huey Long surrogate Gerald L. K. Smith. He also ostracized the Birchers and condemned Ayn Rand to the fringes.
This gatekeeping was a signal service, yet it didn’t go far enough. In attempting to enfold as many existing elements into the conservative movement as he could, Buckley let in Southern Agrarianism, which made its hostility to civil rights his magazine’s, and thereby associated conservatism with the forces of segregation. Buckley would repudiate his defense of the indefensible, but not before crippling “the argument for limited government,” a fundamental principle of conservatism, “by equating federal inactivity with the maintenance of white supremacy.” Thus, despite all he did for conservatism at this time, Buckley also harmed it in ways it still hasn’t recovered from.
Buckley, Kirk, and co. had put conservatism back on a sound intellectual footing. But it remained a political runt. That changed with the 1964 presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater. No one expected Goldwater to defeat Lyndon Johnson, least of all Goldwater. But the Arizona senator, who’d galvanized conservatives with the publication of Conscience of a Conservative (ghostwritten by Bozell) in 1960 decided to go through with it anyway. His campaign was a who’s who of future stars on the right: Milton Friedman was an economic adviser; William Rehnquist was its counsel; Kirk wrote some speeches; and a young Yale law prof named Robert Bork provided legal advice. About the only group not associated with it was the National Review masthead. Goldwater was duly crushed, but his campaign allowed the intellectual right to “make its presence felt in presidential politics for the first time since the Great Depression.”
Four years later Richard Nixon was elected. By the time he was forced to resign in 1974 the GOP had made inroads with several “sectors of the New Deal coalition, including Catholics, ethnic voters, and blue-collar workers.” But perhaps the biggest development over this period was the rightward drift of leftwing thinkers repelled by the social chaos of the period and a weakening of the Democratic Party’s resolve to combat the Soviets. Among these “neoconservatives,” as they would soon be known, were Norman Podhoretz and Irving Kristol.
There’s no growth without growing pains. Brent Bozell, who’d left Buckley’s magazine in 1966 to found his own, Triumph, railed against his brother-in-law’s endorsement of Nixon over Ronald Reagan and mourned “the death of the Constitution.” Bozell’s disaffection and the expulsion of the libertarian faction from the Young Americans for Freedom at its 1969 annual convention, writes Continetti, “reinforced the integral role of hawkish anticommunism in the self-understanding of the American Right.” It was also proof that Buckley’s circle was becoming part of the mainstream it “had ridiculed for so long.”
Conservative activism and organizing continued apace throughout the 1970s to supplement and challenge the new establishment. Richard Viguerie, who had transformed his direct-marketing company into a right-wing behemoth, described “the increasing number of political activists fighting lax divorce and abortion laws, the gay rights movement, ERA, school busing, tax increases,” and various other causes as the “New Right.” The New Right was as willing to challenge Buckley as it was the left. From their perspective, there was no difference. Buckley backed the Panama Canal Treaty. This put the one-time “enfant terrible of the Eisenhower era” on the same side as Jimmy Carter. “Buckley had mainstreamed American conservatism,” but as it became less philosophical and more political and partisan, “it was now flowing in directions he often would not follow.” The treaty was the subject of a debate on Buckley’s PBS program Firing Line. Buckley’s—and the treaty’s—chief opponent that night? Ronald Reagan.
Reagan’s landslide victory over Jimmy Carter and his two terms as president have been long regarded as not merely the triumph, but the apotheosis of modern conservatism. That Reagan should succeed where Goldwater failed was no shock. While the Arizonan was dour and pessimistic, the Californian was sunny and optimistic. Moreover, America was ready to embrace a conservative Republican in 1980 in a way it wasn’t in 1964. The right had grown and matured, and the country itself had moved to the right as it became fed up with the excesses of the left. It was, in a word, time.
Yet as Continetti shows, conservatives back then often did not see it that way. They didn’t care for Nixon’s overtures to China or his expansion of government, and they weren’t always fans of Reagan, either. Though he continued advocating conservative first principles, movement conservatives were rare among his staff. His primary confidante, Nancy Reagan, looked askance at the right. Hence Reagan’s presidency was filled with “tussles, regrets, and recriminations,” first over his economic polices, then later over his overtures to the Soviets during his second term.
No one was less pleased with the new dispensation than a conservative old guard which viewed the newly prominent neoconservatives as “interlopers.” These “paleoconservatives” indicted the neoconservatives with two of the oldest charges in the book: being soft on communism and soft on the New Deal. The paleocons weren’t necessarily wrong that the neocons cared “more about liberal democracy than conservative dogma,” says Continetti, “but the antagonism went deeper.” The neocons were comfortable with modern America and the paleocons hated it. They defended Lost Cause revanchism, “despised Lincoln, and rejected the natural rights philosophy of” the Founding. Most of all they couldn’t abide the country’s rising racial and ethnic diversity, its transformation into a service and information economy, and its global hegemony, which “made it a country that the paleoconservatives did not recognize.”
The recrudescence of immigration skepticism was not the only development in the 1980s that would play a significant role in conservatism after Reagan. The conservative legal movement, which originated in the 1970s, “took a quantum leap” with his reelection. Textualism and originalism became the watchwords for any aspiring lawyer with a conservative bent. Reagan’s nomination in 1986 of Antonin Scalia, a judge on the DC Circuit Court of Appeals who had helped found the Federalist Society while a law professor at the University of Chicago, was a sign of this new faction’s clout. The Senate’s rejection a year later of the nomination of Robert Bork, Scalia’s colleague on the DC Circuit Court and the leading legal mind on the right, was a sign of its limitations.
The end of the decade saw the advent of a new kind of conservative “who challenged regnant opinion through” incitement. It emerged from—where else?—college. But this new incarnation of the campus right was “more provocative, more combative, and more irresponsible” than its predecessors. Its avatars were Dartmouth students Dinesh D’Souza and Laura Ingraham, who used the Dartmouth Review to launch outrageous and often crudely stereotypical fusillades against the left. They “carried this model of confrontation and polarization into their professional careers.” In 1991, D’Souza expounded his critique of collegiate political correctness at book length in Illiberal Education. By this time Reagan was already out of office. His absence wasn’t the only reason Reaganism was decaying. The Soviet Union was on the verge of imploding. The pillars that held conservatism together were weakening. “In the coming decades, politics would be less about the distribution of wealth and more about the hierarchy of values. The culture war had begun.”
From Triumph to Trump
From the top there’s nowhere to go but down. So it would be easy to tell the story of American conservatism after Ronald Reagan as one of decline and decadence. Yet even before he departed the White House there was already “widespread angst on the right” as it ran “up against the limits of politics,” unable to roll back the government and locked out of a culture controlled by liberals. Nor was Reagan’s vice president and successor, George Herbert Walker Bush, anyone’s idea of Goldwater’s second coming.
Nonetheless, his presidency and Bill Clinton’s witnessed the consolidation of Reagan’s legacy. But it also saw the right lose what had been its “gravitational force”: anticommunism, “the one thing that united economic, religious, and national security conservatives.” The conservative movement “turned inward,” becoming “more southern, more religious, more nationalistic.”
Bush’s success in the Gulf War didn’t shield him from the attacks of paleoconservatives. The old Nixon hand Patrick Buchanan dipped more than a toe into the waters of antisemitism when he claimed that only those in thrall to Israel favored American intervention against Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Buchanan’s primary challenge to Bush in 1992 wasn’t victorious, but his strong showing in New Hampshire exposed cracks on the right.
By the time Clinton took the presidential oath, “Reagan’s true successor” had been revealed. It was not, contends Continetti, one man but rather “the conservative institutional and media superstructure” that had solidified during a dozen years of GOP occupancy of the White House. The complex of think tanks, activists, foundations, interest groups, and publications of all shape and sizes “had grown beyond reckoning.” Conservatism was on TV in the form of The McLaughlin Group. Above all, it was on the radio in the voice of Rush Limbaugh, whose “importance to the conservative movement cannot be overstated.”
Conservative, Inc. was even becoming a multi-generation affair. Irving Kristol’s son, Bill, teamed up with Norman Podhoretz’s son, John, and the journalist Fred Barnes to start The Weekly Standard. Kristol fils had served in the Bush White House as Dan Quayle’s chief of staff. His new magazine “became known for its maximalist vision of American foreign policy.” Kristol pushed for higher defense budgets and “the global promotion of American principles of freedom and democracy.”
1995, the year the Standard debuted, was also the year Republicans reclaimed the majority in the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. The new speaker was a bomb-throwing former history professor from Georgia, Newt Gingrich. His initial missteps and greater interest in being an ideas man than legislator undermined his effectiveness. Ironically, President Clinton wound up “having more of an impact” on 1990s conservatism than Gingrich. Clinton pushed through the treaty establishing a North American free-trade zone. He also “signed into law the greatest conservative domestic” policy of the century: welfare reform. There was a lot for conservatives to like in the Clinton presidency. “They never forgave him for it.”
Any prospect that the right would transition to a “theologically minded politics of domestic reform” under George Walker Bush, son of George H. W. Bush, was immolated in the ruins of the World Trade Center on 9/11. The “crusading internationalism of the Weekly Standard” would be the order of the next few years as America sought to crush the forces of Islamic terrorism and the so-called Axis of Evil.
The fissures in conservatism, patched by the cement of patriotism, couldn’t stay bound forever. They began fracturing again in Bush’s second term due to the debacles of Iraq and Hurricane Katrina. And old issues like immigration had only been ignored, they’d never gone away. Once it resurfaced, it “divided Bush from the populist grass roots.” Pat Buchanan, now a pariah from polite conservative company, told Fred Barnes in 2006 that if he ran for president, he’d do so on a platform of securing America’s borders, stopping the exportation of jobs, and bringing the troops home. “He spoke a decade too soon.”
By the time Barack Obama took office the country felt exhausted. Conservatism certainly was. Many on the right could barely contain their contempt for the junior senator from Illinois, whom they regarded as an exotic, even foreign influence who would undermine American institutions. That conservative elites like Bill Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, and David Brooks were willing to break bread with him at George Will’s house on the eve of his inauguration made them equally suspect in the eyes of the populist, talk radio right. But Obama was no Muslim, Kenyan communist. He was simply, in Continetti’s correct assessment, “a conventional academic liberal” with the tastes and beliefs of his urban, urbane milieu.
Establishment conservatism may have been downtrodden, but the grassroots continued to grow. The Obama years were the years of the Tea Party. These populists channeled the nation’s longstanding tradition of “‘folk libertarianism’: a widespread oppositional attitude” to all forms of authority.” It was against government spending and bailouts, foreign intervention, and immigration. The 2012 GOP ticket of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan seemed almost a caricature of the caricature of Republicans as plutocratic fat cats who wanted to cut taxes for the rich and entitlements for the poor.
The frustrated, put upon working class which made up an increasing share of the GOP was not going to hand the 2016 presidential nomination to a “next-in-line” candidate who offered more of the same, no matter how hard the donor class and establishment tried to foist Jeb Bush (son of Bush 41 and brother of Bush 43) onto the base. Instead, they turned to someone more attuned to their sensibilities: the billionaire real estate mogul and reality TV impresario, Donald Trump.
Trump was crass, vulgar, and delighted in his lack of a filter. He was a celebrity. What he was not, was a conservative. At least not as National Review defined it. But when its editors dedicated an issue to opposing him, many readers let them know in no uncertain terms that they were with him all the way. “What might have been a laudable stand for principle inadvertently revealed both the ineffectuality of opinion journalism and the widening gulf between conservative intellectuals and the movement they sought to lead.” Not that he needed them, with talk radio and the Fox News Channel in his corner. Moreover, he had figures with impeccable conservative credentials on his side, such as supply-siders Larry Kudlow and Steven Moore. Trump also tried to win over skeptics by teaming up with the Federalist Society and Heritage Foundation to release a list of potential Supreme Court nominees after Justice Scalia died.
Trump was not the candidate of the conservative establishment, but he was unmistakably a candidate of the right. Specifically, the New Right of the 1970s, which provided him his strongest institutional support. Phyllis Schlafly was an ardent devotee before her death in early 2016. Pat Buchanan and Jerry Falwell were fully behind him. Ten years later, Trump ran on the platform Buchanan had adumbrated to Fred Barnes: opposition to outsourcing and free trade, the Iraq War, and above all immigration. That he “chose illegal immigration as his main issue made him all the more polarizing, visceral, contentious, and spiteful.” Immigration had become a third rail of American politics. Trump didn’t just reach a tentative finger to it; he wrapped his arms around it. The charge powered him all the way to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., NW.
By winning, Trump “altered the direction not only of the country but of the American Right.” For all the establishment’s attempts to disown him, he was the authentic expression of an authentic strain of American conservatism, one which had lain long dormant and which many conservatives therefore did not recognize. That is the thrust of Continetti’s short treatment of the “viral president,” as he calls him. Trump, “the latest manifestation of a recurring antiestablishment spirit in America,” was the bearer of a conservatism that traced its genealogy to the 1920s. Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover were back in. There was one difference. “Trump was a populist demagogue.” Nothing new here, either. Joe McCarthy was back in, too. As Continetti puts it, in his marriage of Coolidge’s policies and McCarthy’s rabble-rousing, “Donald Trump was the return of a repressed memory.” One it’s not only conservatives who wish had stayed that way.
Anyone who conceives of conservatism as a postwar phenomenon “would be forced to conclude that by the spring of 2021,” the Buckley-Goldwater-Reagan variety “was at an impasse.” Continetti, however, knows this folk wisdom is incorrect. There’s more to the right than movement conservatism. Donald Trump would be inexplicable otherwise. Which is why he begins his story not with Buckley or Kirk, but with Warren Harding. “To understand the American Right in the third decade of the twenty-first century, you have to go back to the third decade of the twentieth.” Donald Trump’s brand of conservatism may seem alien, but that’s only because no one had seen it taking pride of place on the right in nearly a hundred years.
Trump’s authenticity is one of the main takeaways from Continetti’s account. A related one is that “there is not one American Right; there are several.” There have always been dissident traditions on the right. Even during movement conservatism’s long reign, its primacy never went unchallenged. This was true even during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the peak of postwar American conservatism. Reagan was a big part of the story, but he wasn’t the whole of it. Continetti insists that his larger-than-life presence “obscured the larger history of the American Right of which he was just one part.”
What alternative currents might be bubbling to the surface in the Trump era? Continetti focuses on one, postliberalism. As elucidated by writers and thinkers such as R. R. Reno, Adrian Vermeule, and Patrick Deneen, postliberal thought “revealed both the revulsion of religious conservatives at the direction of American society and the willingness of the rising generation of conservative intellectuals to abandon the ideas of political and economic freedom that had been so important to the movement since its beginnings.” Continetti is correct that postliberalism is “out of step with American politics.” But it’s hardly the first time a group of conservatives were self-consciously proud to be so.
The Right went to press before the fight over Florida’s parental rights in education bill occurred, but if Continetti were still writing he could’ve used Ron DeSantis’s fight with Disney as another example of the way Trump’s, like previous Republican presidencies, “catalyzed long-standing debates within American conservatism.” Parts of the GOP, once so friendly to big business, have become increasingly hostile to it. Some conservatives accused Florida Republicans of violating the party’s commitment to limited government when they passed a bill stripping Disney World of its self-governing authority in response to its opposition to the education bill. But others saw the move as necessary and long overdue retaliation against “woke” corporations that have becoming increasingly hostile to conservatives. As early as the late 1980s, Fred Barnes had written that since “we’re going to have big government anyway,” it might as well be conservative big government. Not for the first time, conservatism’s future may simply be a matter of doing now what it didn’t 30 years earlier.
One of Continetti’s strengths is the way he dusts off and bring back to the light these forgotten byways and ideas. He does the same for many figures who have been forgotten now, such as Albert Jay Nock, Michael Novak, Frank Meyer, James Burnham, and Peter Viereck. He also reminds the reader why those like Buckley and Kirk, who today may only be remembered as names, became prominent in the first place. I’d have appreciated pictures, though. There are none, and it would’ve been nice to put faces to names, especially with the many names that were new to me.
Another strong point is his emphasis on anti-communism as the glue that held conservatism together. So too is the case he makes that although Donald Trump wasn’t a movement conservative as that term is usually understood, he didn’t come from nowhere. He was the manifestation of a genuine tradition of conservatism, one that bubbles to the surface periodically but had mostly remained inactive as the dominant trend in American conservatism since the 1920s.
Perhaps the thing I liked most is how full the book is with facts and information that readers may not know. For example, I had no idea that Christian fundamentalism derives its name from The Fundamentals, a series of theological tracts published in the 1910s. Nor was I aware that Buckley and Bozell wrote a book defending Joseph McCarthy, or that Newt Gingrich attempted a preliminary version of the Contract with America in 1980.
This isn’t to say Continetti’s attempt to synthesize a century’s worth of history is flawless. He doesn’t pay sufficient attention to abortion and its central role in organizing and motivating the right over the last 50 years. He mentions Roe v. Wade only a couple of times, while Planned Parenthood v. Casey doesn’t appear at all. (Though if he’d been writing after the Supreme Court overturned Roe earlier this year he’d surely have spent more time on it.) Continetti opted for breadth over depth, a choice he amply justifies by squeezing so much into 400+ pages. But something is inevitably squeezed out, and it is unfortunate that a topic as essential as abortion (and with it the right’s long march to capture the judiciary) was shortchanged.
Nor does Continetti adequately address a basic contradiction at the heart of American conservatism: its innate liberalism. He alludes to this fundamental tension, that American conservatives are trying to preserve an essentially liberal order, but doesn’t really grapple with it.
Continetti was well-positioned to write this book. After spending a decade at the Weekly Standard, he founded the conservative website the Washington Free Beacon. He’s also Bill Kristol’s son-in law (which, like his paternity of the WFB, he only acknowledges once). He’s an insider’s insider. Yet he doesn’t write that way. Save some reminiscences about how he came to be involved in conservatism in the early 2000s, his account is detached, impersonal.
But not overly so. At least, not so much that he can’t furnish in the conclusion some tentative remarks about where he thinks conservatism should go. Studying its entire hundred-year history confirms, he asserts, “that its defeats and setbacks have been temporary.” Conservatism rises up to shield “the essential moderation of the American political system against liberal excess.” It always has and there is every reason to presume it always will. “The question then becomes what form that Right will take and whence it will originate.”
Like many of his predecessors, Continetti has a better grasp on what it shouldn’t be than what it should. Conservatives, he posits, need to realize “that mainstream acceptance of their ideas [is] the prerequisite for electoral success and lasting reform.” Once they do, they can “forge a new consensus, based on the particularly American idea of individual liberty exercised within a constitutional order, that addresses the challenges of our time.” Easier said than done! Incorporation of some elements of Trumpism, such as “a belief in secure borders and national sovereignty,” is inevitable. But, Continetti insists, conservatism cannot, must not be “anchored in Trump the man,” because if it is it “will face insurmountable obstacles in attaining policy coherence, government competence, and intellectual credibility.” However it happens, a “depersonalization of the Right” is a necessity. As it so often is, time may be the only solution. For now, Donald Trump looms large on the horizon. But his stature will diminish as we move further away from him. Just as Harding’s and Hoover’s have, and Ronald Reagan’s, too. The further away the past, the nearer the future.
Continetti is not the first conservative to look to conservatism’s past to seek its future, nor will he be the last. It is, after all, where they find what is most dear to them. “One cannot be an American patriot without reverence for the nation’s enabling documents,” nor can one “be an American conservative without regard for the American tradition of liberty those charters inaugurated.” Above all, a conservative cannot
abandon America. The preservation of the American idea of liberty and the familial, communal, religious, and political institutions that incarnate it 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.
Continetti completes his journey with this admonition. This job he performs well, if imperfectly. But after returning from his tour of its past, I can’t help feeling that if conservatism is truly to have a future, it will have to do some forgetting, too.