Acton Institute Powerblog

The Right look at American conservatism deserves your attention

(Image credit: Associated Press)

In his new book, Matthew Continetti details the 100-year history of the battles between the “Right” and conservatives, between populism and neoconservatism. In short, there were more than a few Donald Trumps before 2016, and Conservatism Inc. isn’t dead yet.

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In January of 1992, the libertarian theorist Murray Rothbard published an untimely reflection in the traditionalist journal Chronicles. The conservative and Republican elite had effectively scuttled former Klansman David Duke’s bid to become governor of Louisiana. In the long term, though, appeals to color-blind morality and the appearance of respectability were a losing game. The fortunes of the right, Rothbard argued, rested on aggressive populism that would directly challenge existing norms and institutions. The vanguard of this strategy would be composed of rebels willing to defy good manners and conventional wisdom, not tweedy intellectuals like mainstream libertarians or wishy-washy patricians like then-President George H.W. Bush.

More than 30 years later, it’s easy to read Rothbard’s essay as prefiguring Donald Trump. During the 2016 campaign, Trump’s rhetoric echoed the populist agenda Rothbard proposed—including its appeal to “America First.” In office, Trump governed in a more familiar manner. But he realized the possibility that Rothbard merely described and Pat Buchanan later attempted without success: an electorally efficient coalition that combined support from habitual Republicans with successful appeals to downwardly mobile white voters with loose connections to any party or the political system more generally.

Rothbard was looking backward as well as forward, though. A section of the essay was a defense of Joseph McCarthy. On many issues, Rothbard pointed out, McCarthy was a moderate, even liberal Republican. His offense against convention—“norms,” as we would say today—lay in his style. “The fascinating, the exciting thing about Joe McCarthy,” Rothbard wrote, was his “willingness and ability to reach out, to short-circuit the power elite: liberals, centrists, the media, the intellectuals, the Pentagon, Rockefeller Republicans, and reach out and whip up the masses directly.” The right-wing populist strategy Rothbard recommended was not really new. It was the revival of an old struggle against a corrupt, unsuccessful, effectively if not intentionally anti-American establishment.

Matthew Continetti’s The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism is a history of that struggle. Rejecting stylized accounts of a cohesive movement that emerged after World War II, Continetti depicts a dialectic between enthusiastic but dangerous populists, whom he dubs “the Right,” and the prudent restrainers he describes as “conservatives” in the proper sense. Although he tries to be fair to both cohorts, Continetti does not deny that his heart is with the conservatives. Like many other fixtures of Washington think tanks and journalism, Continetti treats Trump’s success where the likes of Buchanan, Wallace, and McCarthy failed as a rude awakening from a gilded dream.

One of the ironies of this account is how closely it follows a cyclical pattern that continues today. As Continetti suggests without quite asserting, the history of the American right is a sort of perpetual motion machine through which anti-establishment rage generates a counter-establishment, that then succumbs to the same tendencies that generated it in the first place.

Continetti begins the story in 1920, when Warren Harding promised a “return to normalcy” after the political, economic, and cultural upheavals associated with the First World War. This was the last moment, he argues, when the forerunners of modern conservatism could regard themselves as guardians of an existing regime rather than insurgents. For that very reason, ironically, the term “conservative” was not frequently used. Instead, figures like Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover presented themselves as advocates of simple Americanism.

That untroubled identification with a stable national identity and constitutional order became impossible after 1932. The huge majorities won by Franklin Roosevelt led opponents, whether on partisan or ideological grounds, to worry that the nature of the country had somehow changed for the worse. That disillusionment turned into rage in 1940, when the GOP nominated Wendell Willkie to oppose FDR’s bid for an unprecedented third term. Phyllis Schlafly would coin the phrase “a choice not an echo” in her 1964 polemic against Nelson Rockefeller. But her premise that the Republican Party was run by elitist moderates who deplored their actual voters and had no real intention of overturning the disastrous status quo dates to 1940.

World War II postponed the reckoning by granting Roosevelt a moral halo he has enjoyed ever since, leading to yet another reelection (assisted by a blackout on media reports of his bad health). But it reemerged in 1948, when many hoped Douglas MacArthur would challenge the moderate Thomas Dewey, and with even greater strength in 1952, when the Republican convention chose the politically flexible Dwight Eisenhower over Robert Taft, whose skepticism of international alliances and the New Deal was appealing to traditional Republicans but couldn’t outweigh his unexciting personality. At each stage, populists charged that they were robbed of victory by weakness, treachery, and fraud. The script hasn’t really changed.

The outpouring of support for McCarthy in the early 1950s was partly the result of right-wing populists’ thwarted aspirations of the previous decade. As with Trump, McCarthy’s deviations from factual accuracy, political responsibility, and good taste were defended on the grounds that he was willing to fight where other figures merely cowered. Also like Trump, the party establishment boosted him as long as they found him useful, only challenging his methods when they began to threaten their own interests. Although he believed McCarthy ultimately went too far in alleging Communist subversion of the armed forces, Eisenhower campaigned for McCarthy in 1952, suppressing a defense of his own aide George Marshall.

Intellectuals played an ambiguous role in these developments. The so-called Old Right of the 1930s was skeptical of electoral politics, which figures like Albert Jay Nock and H.L. Mencken saw as inevitably hostile to individual freedom and cultural excellence. Yet the popularity of such figures as Father Coughlin and Charles Lindbergh indicated there was a mass market for anti-establishment politics that sounded culturally traditionalist themes. After the disaster of Roosevelt’s four terms, the perennial challenge for the right was to find surrogates who could attract genuine popular support while pursuing a more coherent agenda.

Of course, intellectuals differed among themselves about what that agenda should be. Some emphasized economic libertarianism at home, others anti-Communist foreign policy, others the restoration of religious authority in matters of personal conduct. Although its centrality has been exaggerated by critics, skepticism about the civil rights agenda embraced by an increasingly bipartisan Washington consensus was also part of the mix. Although few leaders of the postwar intellectual right embraced white supremacy per se, almost all regarded nationalized civil rights enforcement as a threat to American institutions of separated powers, local control, and associational freedom, while simultaneously reflecting and promoting dangerous trends of social decay.

Continetti does a good job surveying debates about these issues, which he rightly places at the intersection of theory and practice. But he acknowledges that none really squared the circle of ideological sophistication and political efficacy. Goldwater’s position on racial issues, for example, was notoriously rickety. While he personally supported integration and limited civil rights measures, he regarded the 1964 Civil Rights Act as unconstitutional and accurately predicted it would lead to affirmative action and intrusive oversight of private enterprises. For many of his supporters, though, that fact of his opposition was more important than his justification—or the less coercive policies he preferred. Although his 1964 campaign is remembered as an electoral disaster, Goldwater performed considerably better than Alf Landon, who won just two states in 1936. That was partly because Goldwater found support in the South that had evaded Republicans before the national Democrat Party adopted new civil rights after the Second World War.

Indeed, the sociological character of the postwar right was more important than its conceptual one. Associated with a kind of Yankee asceticism in the 1920s, by the 1970s it was clear that the social foundation of the right lay between the Appalachians and the Rockies and among the lower middle classes. That posed a problem for intellectuals and high-level organizers, who were almost by definition college educated, geographically concentrated in coastal cities, and disproportionately Jewish or Catholic (including many highbrow converts). While they claimed to speak for the interests and beliefs of ordinary people, members of the conservative elite often had more in common with their liberal or progressive opponents than with the right whose dispositions they purported to share.

The loose sutures between the populist body and intellectual head of what had become known as movement conservatism produced recurring waves of rebellion, consolidation, and disillusionment. William F. Buckley, the movement’s avatar, got his start as a McCarthyite. After the founding of National Review in 1955, he became a leader of the counter-establishment that helped Goldwater secure the GOP nomination where Taft had failed. In the Nixon years, though, Buckley and his libertarian-inflected conservatism seemed genteel and passé. It was challenged by a “New Right” that hoped to unify the “white ethnics” of the Midwest with the religious conservatives of the South in a populist alliance against secularism, feminism, and other expressions of cultural liberalism. Buckley rode out the storm, helping to craft the new coalition that brought Reagan victory. But other conservatives of the previous era, not least Goldwater himself, drifted away from what they saw as bullying, even authoritarian philistinism.

It’s in this unsettled period that Continetti finds the closest thing that his book offers to heroes. Initially anti-Communist Democrats, so-called neoconservatives drifted toward the Republican Party in the 1970s. They brought with them an optimistic interpretation of 20th-century history that included qualified admiration for Franklin Roosevelt, affiliations with elite institutions that the likes of Buckley had rejected decades earlier, and technocratic skills that, in principle, better suited them for the development and implementation of public policy than the more philosophical orientation of their predecessors. Despite their intellectual credentials, neoconservatives also claimed they were closer to the opinions of most Americans than pseudo-populists who still dreamed of overturning the New Deal. On paper, theirs was a commonsense conservatism that could satisfy much of the right while effectively channeling into stable institutions.

Yet the neoconservative project ended in apparent failure. Despite charges that they had been coopted by liberalism, this was not the result of a fundamental disagreement on most issues. In fact, neoconservatives were hardly less outspoken on questions of crime, sexual morality, and rejection of the “adversary culture” than so-called paleocons. They did believe that elements of the welfare state were here to stay, in contrast to libertarians like Rothbard. On the other hand, sophisticated populists like Sam Francis believed the same thing. If the results of the Reagan administration were any indication, so did most voters.

The divide was deeper when it came to foreign policy and matters of national identity. Although they understood that it could not be fully restored, paleocons invoked pre–WWII “Americanism”—including the presumption of Anglo-Protestant hegemony. Neoconservatives, by contrast, embraced the more recent ideal of the melting pot. As a result, they were nonchalant about immigration compared to the populist base. Even worse, by paleoconservative standards, was the aspiration to extend these principles beyond the borders of the United States. In the paleos’ view, the Cold War had been necessary to defend American and perhaps broader Western interests—but not a crusade to make the world safe for democracy.

Anxiety about these universalist, almost crusading tendencies were justified by the disaster in Iraq. While Continetti is broadly sympathetic to the neoconservative persuasion, he admits that the “freedom agenda” pursued by George W. Bush was an act of extraordinary hubris that squandered many of the economic and political advantages won by the defeat of the Soviet Union. In this case, populists could plausibly reclaim the mantle of prudence and restraint, while the ostensibly responsible elites were accused of the most dangerous enthusiasm, leading to yet a round of second thoughts, political conversions, and ideological purges that continues to this day.

The relationship between conservatives and the right is not so clear as Continetti depicts it, then. The dialectic does not depend only on populists’ ability to generate the political energy intellectuals need to implement their plans—a subordinate role they understandably reject. It also involves frequently shifting conceptions of moderation and extremism, preservation and change. For all the rhetorical excess and personal instability that encouraged comparisons to Joe McCarthy and other demagogues, Donald Trump, like McCarthy, was closer to the center of public opinion on many issues than his more theoretically consistent predecessors, including an attitude toward the welfare state that was more similar to Irving Kristol’s than to Murray Rothbard’s.

Like insurgencies of the past, Trump’s influence is already leading to the coalescence of a new counter-establishment, based on its own myth of populist legitimacy and institutional betrayal. If the historical pattern holds, though, it will soon enough be challenged by upstarts who will accuse it of becoming merely “conservative,” forgetting its principles, abandoning its supporters, and conceding victory to the left. Who knows what alternatives those challengers will propose? The war for American conservatism continues.

Samuel Goldman

Samuel Goldman is an associate professor of political science at George Washington University, where he is also executive director of the John L. Loeb, Jr. Institute for Religious Freedom and director of the Politics & Values Program. His most recent book, After Nationalism: Being American in a Divided Age was published by University of Pennsylvania Press in spring 2021. Goldman received his Ph.D. from Harvard, and taught at Harvard and Princeton before coming to GW. In addition to academic work, his writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is also an affiliate scholar for the Acton Institute.