For many years, millions of Americans across the political spectrum have been asking: What is going on with the Republican Party? The answers, to the extent they can be determined, are caught up with the party’s relationship with the conservative movement and developments on the broader political Right. Matthew Continetti explores these questions in his monumental study The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism, recently released in paperback.
Continetti, who was a co-founder of the online newspaper the Washington Free Beacon and is currently a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, has been a conservative movement insider for two decades. He joined the now-defunct Weekly Standard magazine in 2003 when it was at the zenith of its influence inside the George W. Bush administration and the conservative movement; the magazine’s longtime editor-in-chief, William Kristol, is now Continetti’s father-in-law.
In this podcast discussion, Continetti talks about the principal themes of The Right, including the proliferation of different varieties of politics that have appeared in right-wing intellectual and activist circles over the past century, the ongoing struggle for influence between the libertarian and traditionalist factions of conservatism, and the tensions between populist outsiders and governing-minded insiders. He analyzes the present political moment and the intellectual attempt to “reverse-engineer” Donald Trump’s impulses and instincts into a coherent ideology through institutions like the Claremont Institute and Hillsdale College as well as the National Conservative movement. Continetti also describes the reasoning behind his decision to begin his account with the 1920s, the end of the Cold War’s impact on the conservative movement, and the reasons why he thinks the political center-right and its institutions are following the same pattern of decline that the center-left underwent a decade ago.
Matthew Continetti: There is no real hub of intellectual activity on the Right that is then translated into actual policy. There are attempts — I mean, the Heritage Foundation, you can see them trying to do that. Otherwise, I think people are just trying to wait out this storm, but it doesn’t seem to show any signs of passing.
Geoff Kabaservice: Hello! I’m Geoff Kabaservice from the Niskanen Center. Welcome to the Vital Center Podcast, where we try to sort through the problems of the muddled, moderate majority of Americans, drawing upon history, biography, and current events. I’m delighted to be joined today by Matthew Continetti. He is a senior fellow and the Patrick and Charlene Neal Chair in American Prosperity at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. He’s a prominent journalist, analyst, and historian.
He’s a contributing editor at National Review and a columnist at Commentary, and he has written for a wide variety of national publications. He co-founded the Washington Free Beacon online newspaper and was editor-in-chief there from 2012 to 2019. Prior to that, he was opinion editor and held a variety of other positions at The Weekly Standard from 2003 to 2011. Welcome, Matt!
Matthew Continetti: Thanks for having me.
Geoff Kabaservice: Thank you for being here. I should add that Matt is also the author of three books, the most recent of which is The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism. It’s a big, sweeping, significant account of conservatism in America written from the standpoint of a conservative movement insider, but with a historian’s objectivity. It’s a great book. It was published in hardcover last year, but a paperback edition has recently been issued with a new afterword. So, first of all, congratulations, Matt, for having written The Right, and for the wide attention that your book has drawn both in hardcover and now in paperback.
Matthew Continetti: Well, thank you very much. It’s been gratifying to see that so many people are interested in the history of conservatism and the GOP. I can understand why. It’s a hot topic these days, and indeed that’s one reason I ended up writing the book — current events kept drawing me back into the history of the right. And so I’m happy to share that knowledge that I gained with audiences, whether through the book or through podcasts like these.
Geoff Kabaservice: Well, thank you. I’m a big believer that history can help us answer the critical existential questions: Where are we? And where are we going? Let me begin with the obvious question that many other interviewers have posed to you already. What is this century-long war for American conservatism, as you see it, and what have the contending sides been?
Matthew Continetti: Well, that’s a great question. The book is framed as a century-long struggle for influence on the right-wing spectrum of American politics. And I think it’d be reductive to say that there were only two competing factions. One of the threads I follow in the book is just how many different proliferating varieties of conservative politics (or right-wing politics) there are in America. But I think you can collapse a lot of different groups into a couple of binaries.
The first would be figures on the Right who privilege the concept of individual freedom, and believe that individual freedom means the unity of political freedom and economic freedom — so, figures who draw from nineteenth-century laissez-faire economic traditions, people who are known in the twentieth century and today as libertarians of various stripes. You have them on one hand, and on the other hand you have conservative/right thinkers who, rather than privilege freedom, situate it in a constellation of other values, the foremost of which is tradition, authority. And these are the more traditionalist thinkers who themselves can kind of trace a genealogy back to the nineteenth century — and indeed the eighteenth century with Edmund Burke’s criticism of the French Revolution.
The libertarians and the traditionalists have been present throughout this hundred years I describe. And they have been competing for influence over not only intellectual groups but also the Republican Party as an institution.
And the other binary that is important to my story is between grassroots activists and politicians who tend to draw on age-old populist tropes in American politics, who view themselves as outsiders, who are suspicious of elites, and who oftentimes are drawn to the darker aspects of populism such as conspiracy theories and demagogy. And then intellectual elites themselves, who are writers and thinkers, who are trying to draw some type of connection between ideas, institutions, and policies, and who need the votes that the populists inspire in order to be placed into positions where they can enact their ideas. So those would be the two main, I think, forms of battle that I describe in The Right.
Geoff Kabaservice: It seemed to me in reading your book that there was maybe a refinement on that last binary of more establishment conservatives versus populists. And that was that the “establishment” conservatives, if you can call them that — that’s a loaded term — were interested in governing. That meant putting forward coherent policies. It meant building up national majorities to approve of their programs, and it meant some level of intellectual respectability as well. And those were not concerns of the opposing populist side, who tended to be anti-establishment, anti-authoritarian, maybe even nihilist in their desire for a complete break with the past and a fresh start. Does that sound more or less accurate?
Matthew Continetti: I think another way to characterize it would be to say that the conservative intellectuals were interested in basically playing by the rules of twentieth-century American politics and media, and so they did care about respectability. They did care about being able to go toe-to-toe with the best minds on the Left. They did care about persuasion of the middle that has decided elections in the United States in order to reinforce their governing majorities.
Whereas the outsiders, the populists, they were much more interested always in changing the rules or even substituting a new set of rules for the ones that we have had over the last hundred years. And so that gave them a radical touch that was missing from many of the intellectuals.
Now I should say this… As you know, Geoff, this is a history, and so there’s a process of change. And many of the individuals who came to be seen as kind of the mainstream right in the second half of the twentieth century, or really even the final quarter of the twentieth century, had started off oftentimes in a place where they were known as radicals. But because they grew in age and in stature and also in experience, they came to view politics in a way in which gradual change delivered through the mechanisms of the federal government was the right approach to effecting conservative reforms.
Geoff Kabaservice: Matt, you also draw a distinction between, obviously, the Right and the Republican Party, which at various points have overlapped but not always. And you draw another distinction between conservatives (or “movement conservatives”) on the one hand versus “the Right” on the other. Can you talk to me about that latter distinction?
Matthew Continetti: I thought it was important to talk about how one, as you say, the conservative movement and the Republican Party are not synonymous. And in fact the main objective of the conservative movement coming out of the World War II years was reclaiming (in their minds) the GOP as a conservative political institution. But then as I was doing my research, I wanted to say that the conservative movement — as I understand it, as I joined it — was just one potential form of conservative politics in America. And in fact, there’s a broader spectrum that is “the Right” which would disagree with this mainstream American conservatism.
So what the conservatives found in the second half of the twentieth century is that not only were they fighting the Left, they were also engaged in internal fights on the right from what you might call capital-L Libertarians on one hand, who felt that the mainstream conservative movement was far too supportive of the military-industrial complex or was far too conjoined to organized religion and its moral codes. And on the other hand, you had the capital-T Traditionalists who felt that that mainstream right was basically pagan because it didn’t say that virtue was the ultimate aim of society and therefore government had to be the instrument of inculcating virtue in the people — the sole instrument.
And so those groups, the Libertarians and the Traditionalists, I put on the Right more broadly, as well as groups that went even further than those coherent and (in my view) legitimate intellectual perspectives into more extremist right-wing politics. I want to say that they belong to the Right, to the degree that they opposed the Left. But they’re not, in my view, the conservative movement, which came together self-consciously in the years after World War II.
Geoff Kabaservice: This is not a personal memoir, I should say. This is a history largely focused on intellectuals and activists. Nonetheless, I am fascinated by your own perspective that you have come to on the Right based on your own experiences and decades of work in the conservative movement — and also by the way you began the book, which was with your walking into the office building at 1150 17th Street Northwest here in Washington, D.C. just after your 22nd birthday to begin work as an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.
And you describe how that address on 17th Street was in many ways the intellectual command post of the American Right at that time. It housed not only the Standard, which in many ways was the publication with the greatest sway over the George W. Bush White House, but also the American Enterprise Institute, which was then the Right’s premier think tank, and the Project for a New American Century, which is a smaller, more neoconservative think tank, but incredibly influential at that time in the foreign policy field. And nearby were other simpatico conservative institutions like the Ethics and Public Policy Center, the D.C. branch of the Hoover Institution, and publications like Public Interest and Policy Review.
And since the day you set foot in the 17th Street building, you write, “The conservative movement has been for me more than an abstraction. It has been my life.” And yet that conservative intellectual hub is gone now, and the center of gravity on the Right is somewhere entirely different from the place where you grew up, so to speak.
Matthew Continetti: Yes, that’s right. And in fact, the building that I talk about, 1150 17th Street, that structure, the physical structure was demolished in 2016, literally. And indeed — and I’m not sure I include this in the book — on election night 2016, as Donald Trump was being declared the winner of the presidential election, a fire broke out in the ruin of the building that was once there at 1150 17th Street. There is now a new building that is being constructed after many years. But I did take that as a metaphor.
Geoff Kabaservice: I congratulate you for not calling your book Fire in the Ruins.
Matthew Continetti: Yeah, right. I guess to some degree, those intellectuals are still around. I mean, not all of them; many have died, many don’t consider themselves part of the Right any longer. The publication where I worked, The Weekly Standard, no longer exists. The Public Interest, which was just a block away, it closed in 2005. Policy Review no longer exists. So it is a different milieu.
Now, I should say, I joined The Weekly Standard as a Collegiate Network journalism fellow. The Collegiate Network is part of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, ISI, which William F. Buckley Jr., the founder of National Review and, to my mind, the founder of postwar conservatism — he was the first president of ISI. So I did find my way to Washington through conservative institutions, conservative movement institutions.
But even in the years in which I worked at the Standard, there was a slight remove from movement conservatism, and even a willingness to criticize the Republican Party, that you don’t see much appetite for on the Right today. Even, I would say, emotionally and attitudinally, the Right has kind of changed.
My first book was called The K Street Gang, and it was the story of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandals that I said would bring down the House Congressional Republican majority — and it did in 2006. I published that book, and it annoyed some people. It certainly annoyed some of the people I wrote about. But I would say that it was treated among the Right more broadly as, “Okay, this is a fair criticism.” I don’t think you have that anymore at a time when our politics, in my view, have become very tribal, that any criticism of your own side is considered a betrayal. I lament that change. I think it’s an unhealthy change.
Geoff Kabaservice: Where would you locate the intellectual hub of the Right at the current time?
Matthew Continetti: Well, I’m not sure there is one, to be frank. I would say that right now the American Right derives most of its direction and energy from the person of former president Donald Trump. Most of the institutions on the Right (with several exceptions including the institution where I work) are more or less directed or oriented around him and his politics, his grievances. And there’s been an attempt, beginning with Trump’s rise, to reverse-engineer his impulses and instincts into a coherent ideology that could even be a governing ideology if Trump weren’t always stepping on his own feet.
And so you’ve seen the rise of places like the Claremont Institute, Hillsdale College. There are new groups like American Moment for younger, Trumpier people. American Compass is not quite Trump-aligned, but it is interested in reshaping economic policy on the right in a more statist direction. So those would be the places where I think a lot of activity is happening. Of course, the National Conservative movement kind of grew out of those institutions and has built up its own series of conferences that are widely covered by media. I mean, there’s a lot of energy there. And yet I don’t actually think it’s necessarily reflected or refracted through actual Republican voters and politicians.
You’ll see a J. D. Vance, for example, the senator from Ohio, who is clearly very much in the vanguard of trying to reshape conservatism in a Trump mold. But Vance is really an outlier. Marco Rubio is kind of doing something similar, but he doesn’t share Vance’s foreign policy. Josh Hawley is doing something else, but he’s very interested right now in manliness, which is not really a political project, it’s more of a cultural thing. Interestingly enough, the new senator from Hawley’s state of Missouri, Eric Schmidt – I think he’s pretty smart, and what I’m seeing is him kind of tiptoeing in a Vance-like direction, but doing it in a very, I’d say, clever fashion. Because he’s still able to retain a lot of support from the pre-Trump Right, if you’d call it that.
But really that’s, what? I named four or five senators out of 49? And then the House, I mean, there’s none of that in the House. The House is very much what you’d expect from Republicans in terms of economic policy or social policy, budget policy, as we saw, in terms of trying to impose austerity. And yet it is all also very Trumpy in its affect.
So what that leads me to conclude is that there is no real hub of intellectual activity on the Right that is then translated into actual policy. There are attempts. I mean, the Heritage Foundation, which was kind of at sea during the Trump years, has now made the decision to align itself with the Trump Right, with National Conservatism, and use that as a means of having a say in the shape of the next Republican administration. Now, that’s a big bet, and a lot has to go right for that bet to work out. But you can see them trying to do that. Otherwise, I think people are just kind of relying on their own skills, their own wits, and trying to wait out this storm, but it doesn’t seem to show any signs of passing.
Geoff Kabaservice: It does not indeed. It seemed to me, from reading you back in 2015 to 2016, that you didn’t have any particular illusions that Trump was going to pivot toward presidential behavior if he got in office, or that he was going to move back in a direction of a recognizable Buckleyite, Reaganite kind of conservatism. And I wonder if there might’ve been some hint of the genesis of your book on the Right in the long piece you wrote in the Free Beacon in October 2016 entitled “Crisis of the Conservative Intellectual.” Among other quotes from that piece, you wrote, “The triumph of populism has left conservatism marooned, confused, uncertain, depressed, anxious, searching for a tradition, for a program, for viability. We might have to return to the beginning to understand where we have ended up.”
Matthew Continetti: Right. I used a lot of adjectives in that period of my writing. I use fewer now. I think that you’re right. That piece, which I wrote right on the eve of the election or right around that time, was the result of a lot of reading and a lot of studying. So the genesis of my book really began after the 2012 election, Geoff. I was a conservative who was a little bit surprised at the speed with which the election was called for Barack Obama. I had kind of thought that if Romney didn’t win — and I wasn’t convinced he was going to win — if he didn’t win, it would still be close. And it wasn’t. And many people whom I trusted had said that not only would it be close, but that Romney would win.
And so after 2012, I began really kind of trying to figure out what was going on with the Republican Party. The first thing that I found, as I was covering the debates over the GOP “autopsy” document, the RNC-produced document which said that the Republican Party needed to embrace comprehensive immigration reform, moderate its positions on social issues if it was to have any future, as well as the debate over comprehensive immigration reform — what I found was that there was a real gap between what people inside Washington D.C. were thinking and what Republican voters outside Washington D.C. were feeling. So I noticed that.
And then I kept recalling the words of a Breitbart reporter named Matthew Boyle to me, on the eve of the 2012 election, at a moment where I was saying, “Well, I still think Romney has a shot because of the independent voters.” Matt Boyle, he called it. He said, “No way. Romney’s going to lose, and then in 2016 an outsider is going to become the Republican nominee.” Now, at that time, the outsider on Matt Boyle’s mind was Rand Paul. But of course, as soon as Trump appeared in 2015, Boyle became a supporter of Donald Trump’s, as did Breitbart.
So putting those two things in my head, I said, “I don’t understand the Republican Party like I thought I did. I have to really go back and read the history.” And so I started reading a lot of the foundational intellectuals around National Review. I had read some of them earlier, but not others and not as seriously. And then, beginning in 2016, was the first time I taught a course on the history of conservatism.
Geoff Kabaservice: Where did you teach that?
Matthew Continetti: That was through a nonprofit I worked for called the Hertog Foundation, in our Hertog Political Studies Program. So I taught a weeklong course in the summer of 2016 on conservatism. That was the beginning of me kind of assembling the material, teaching it, thinking about it seriously. And so, yes, by the election of 2016, I was definitely kind of set that in order to understand the present and the future of the conservative movement, I would have to go back to the past. So this book was a long time in the making, because it took about seven years for it to actually be produced.
Geoff Kabaservice: Well, it has that kind of depth to it. Before we return to the book, can you tell me something about yourself? Where did you grow up? Where were you educated? How did you come to some of the political positions that you have held?
Matthew Continetti: Sure. Well, I grew up in Fairfax County, Virginia, right outside the Beltway. It was not a very political household. My father was a car dealer. That was the business that my immigrant great-grandfather entered into when he came to America at the first decades of the twentieth century, so that was kind of the family business. And my mother was a school teacher. They’re both retired now. So it wasn’t a political family, but it was a very news family, like interested in the news, interested in public affairs. So we always had the local news station on, on the radio, when we would drive around in the car. And on Saturday nights, for whatever reason — this is when I was growing up as a kid — they’d have The McLaughlin Group on, and they’d have the other local show, Inside Washington, on. And through those shows is where I learned the names Fred Barnes and Charles Krauthammer. Krauthammer in particular, even before I really considered myself political, I would also be reading him in the local paper, the Washington Post, and he became very important to my intellectual formation at a pretty early age.
So I went to public schools, and then I went to Columbia University for my undergraduate education. I majored in history. And at Columbia is when I became more political and more conservative. I’ve always been, for lack of a better word, a hawk. I kind of came of age at the moment when America won the Cold War. Some of my earliest memories were of our victory in Desert Storm. I was about ten years old, so I was watching every second of it, living through it, absorbing it. So I’ve always had that kind of internationalist, engaged bent to my belief system. But of course, as you know, foreign policy is weird. There are plenty of Democrats who are internationalists, interventionists and such.
So it wasn’t until college where that kind of foreign policy, which had always been part of my perspective, was married to a concern with constitutionalism, rule of law, a belief that the most meaningful institutions are not government institutions but family, the community, the church. That all happened in college. And, really, it’s ironic because it happened through my deep reading of the great works of Western literature, which you have to do at Columbia; we have the Core Curriculum at Columbia. So it just shows you a very conservative lesson, which is the rule of unintended consequences. Columbia assigns these books. They don’t know that Matt Continetti, at age nineteen, is going to start reading The Republic and by the end of it say, “Oh, I think I’m a philosophical conservative.” But that’s essentially what happened.
And then I was interested in writing and journalism. I discovered National Review when I was a junior in college — pretty late, actually — but I just ate it all up. And then I started reading this writer — I started reading him in The Atlantic — named David Brooks, and I said, “What this guy’s doing is what I want to do.” Then I learned he worked for a smaller publication called The Weekly Standard, and I said, “Okay, if that’s where he works, I want to work there.” And then I showed up — and he quit and left two weeks later to join the New York Times! But we’re still friends, we’re still friends.
Geoff Kabaservice: That’s good. Were you impacted by the 9/11 terrorist attacks?
Matthew Continetti: Oh, yes, yeah. I mean, like I say, that idea that America needs to be strong, and needs to be aware that the world is a dangerous place, and needs to be ready to use force to defend itself — that was already in my mind prior to 9/11, but it was certainly confirmed by 9/11. I had something of a front-row seat for 9/11. I was the resident advisor to about 35 first-year Columbia students, and we were on the 13th floor of the John Jay dormitory. The southward-facing windows of that dorm had views of the Twin Towers, and so we saw it all happen in real time.
And, of course, the F-16s patrolling Manhattan, the pillar of smoke that rose from Ground Zero for months after the attack — all of this reinforced my already-ingrained view that America needs to be engaged in the world and be prepared to face down the threats the world presents. And also America needs to stand for something in the world: stand for American ideals and principles like freedom, like constitutionalism, democracy. And so as I discovered The Weekly Standard by reading David Brooks, I also found that I, as the kids say, vibed with the more general worldview of the publication — and still do.
Geoff Kabaservice: So The Weekly Standard was launched, I want to say, in September 1995. Its leaders included Bill Kristol, who was the son of Irving Kristol, one of the original neoconservatives. And it included people like, as you say, David Brooks, and Fred Barnes, and I think John Podhoretz then. I believe it also got its original funding from Rupert Murdoch. But something interesting about The Weekly Standard, in retrospect, is that its alumni have moved in so many different directions. Someone like Brooks, I would say, is no longer really a conservative. Most of the people on the Standard at the time of its dissolution became The Bulwark, which is now a leading organ of Never Trumpism. And then you have people like Christopher Caldwell, who is at Claremont now. What would account for these very different ideological journeys, would you say?
Matthew Continetti: It’s a great question. And you left out Tucker Carlson…
Geoff Kabaservice: Oh yeah, that’s right.
Matthew Continetti: …who was a staff writer from 1995 to 2000, and of course needs no description, I think, from me for your audience. But you’re right, they did go in many different directions. I think a few things account for it. I would say I think the first is the eclecticism of the editorial staff. One thing that I loved about The Weekly Standard, why I worked there for eight and a half years, was it was an extremely collegial group of writers and editors who didn’t always agree and were able to express their views.
There was kind of an understanding that if a writer had a view that was the total opposite, say, of the editors, they might best express that view in another publication. And so, for example, Christopher Caldwell, before I arrived, had very much opposed NATO’s intervention in Kosovo in 1999, but he didn’t really write about that for the Standard. He was focused on his other work at that time, really involving Islamic immigration, Muslim immigration to Europe. And that was the case… I mean, David Brooks, for example, he wasn’t really all-in on the Clinton impeachment. Again, this happened before I arrived, but he had that view on television or elsewhere, and he wrote other stuff.
So it was a very eclectic group, but all of whom got along and liked differences of opinions, could disagree civilly. That was always the case. So I think that’s reason number one why they might end up going in different directions once they left the magazine or once the magazine closed, as it did in 2018.
I do think another reason is just politics is different now, that the world and America and the Republican Party and the Right are just different. The magazine was started in 1995 in order to, basically, the editors kind of liked to say, guide the Republican Revolution, which was the coming to power of Republicans in the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years under Newt Gingrich. And then it became very involved in the Clinton impeachment, as I said. When I showed up, of course, the Iraq War was in its third month, and the idea of regime change in Iraq was something that the editors had supported for years, I think beginning in ‘97. So that was something that they were very much invested in.
But I’d say beginning in 2010, with the rise of the Tea Party — and obviously, I’m sure we’ll talk about Sarah Palin — but we saw some glimmers of that. I saw some glimmers of that, of what I’m about to describe, already with Sarah Palin. But between 2008 and 2010, things began to change. And the type of politics that The Weekly Standard stood for, which was a very engaged, internationalist foreign policy combined with a very character-based, moralistic domestic policy — that politics just became kind of unattached from what was happening out on the ground with the rise of the Tea Party, Palin — a very kind of anti-elitist (often anti-intellectual) Right. And then the divide, which I’ve spoken about, became more pronounced over time. And so the type of publication that these writers and editors had worked for almost couldn’t happen today, in many ways, because the issues are different, certainly the personality is different. When you have an entire party structured around one man, your feelings about that one man are going to send you in one direction, and if you have a different feeling you’re going to go in a very different direction. I think those would be the two reasons that all of these different writers have ended up in so many different places.
Geoff Kabaservice: Your book The Right does end up with Trump, and in some sense seems to be pointing towards Trump from the very beginning. But it seems to me that your book is just different from a lot of other surveys of conservatism over the past century that have appeared both on the Left and on the Right. What was it that seemed to you unsatisfactory about the histories that you had read that made you want to take your own angle?
Matthew Continetti: Well, a few things. I’m a generalist. I’m an amateur historian, though I guess having written a book makes me a historian. But I wanted to present the story of the American Right in the 20th and 21st centuries in the full and round. And what I found with other surveys of my subject, they all had cutoff dates. The canonical text in my field is George Nash’s The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945. Now, Nash has updated his book several times, but in truth the bulk of the narrative ends in 1972, because it was his Ph.D. that he was working on at Harvard. And a lot has happened since 1972. Another book by another very talented historian, Patrick Allitt, called The Conservatives — that basically ends in 2000. And so that’s 50 or 20 years that I had to provide readers with an up-to-date synopsis or narrative, really. That was one thing. On the Left, of course, you’ve gone from famine to feast, right?
Geoff Kabaservice: Mm-hmm.
Matthew Continetti: Alan Brinkley, who I took a course with at Columbia, the great American historian, said in the early ‘90s that the liberal historians weren’t paying attention to conservative history and not taking conservatives seriously enough. And since he wrote that for, I think, the American Historical Review, there has been just this efflorescence of scholarly work. As a conservative I sometimes say maybe that’s not all a good thing. Because a lot of the work tends to focus on institutions on one hand, so you get a lot of work about how big donors have shaped politics. The work also tends to go on the grassroots level. There have been very good books about Orange County, for example, and the Republican Party. So you have the institutions, you have the grassroots.
What I wanted to do was tell the story of how the intellectuals connected to politics. I have a love of old journalism, and I had just spent all these years reading the back issues of all these intellectual journals — primarily on the Right, but others like The New Republic kind of on the center-left. And I wanted to show the readers how these intellectuals influenced politics, or reacted to it. And so it’s not necessarily an institutional history and it’s not really a sociology of the Right. My book is more the story about groups of writers and how they respond to, interact with, influence political figures — mainly presidents. That’s how the book is more or less divided.
And so I think that combination of one, telling the story in the full and round, and two, telling it from an interesting perspective or an unusual perspective that kind of looks at how the intellectuals, the policy wonks, the writers were interacting with the politics — I think that’s what makes my book unique from the others.
Geoff Kabaservice: Most intellectual histories of the conservative movement start with the foundation of National Review by William F. Buckley Jr. in 1955. And they follow what is called “the wilderness narrative,” which is that the Right was absolutely devastated, politically unpopular, intellectually bankrupt at that point. You, by contrast, choose to start your narrative in the 1920s. Why?
Matthew Continetti: Well, I arrived at the 1920s for a couple reasons. The first is when I say “full and round,” I did want to give readers an understanding of what preceded the wilderness narrative. Because sometimes when you read these books, it’s like, oh, history started in 1955 with the founding of National Review, or maybe in 1948 with Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences, something like that. What I wanted to show is that you can’t really understand the conservative movement without understanding the Right’s situation under FDR in the New Deal. And you can’t understand the Right’s situation under FDR in the New Deal without understanding the decade prior to the New Deal. And so that’s why I ended up with 1920 — really March 1921, Warren Harding’s inaugural — as my starting point, because I wanted to use the ‘20s just to kind of lay out what conservatives thought the world ought to be.
And then what they thought ought to be was rudely interrupted by the Great Depression and the rise of FDR and the New Deal. And they spent much of the 1930s — that was the actual wilderness in a way, right? — they spent the 1930s completely marginalized. And it was only through a series of accidents — forging alliances with the conservative Southern Democrats, FDR’s overreach with the Supreme Court in 1937, and then finally, after FDR, the way in which the American public reacted to victory in war and to Harry Truman’s presidency — that enabled the conservative movement to come out from under FDR’s shadow.
But he’s still kind of the arch-villain in the imagination of the American Right. And even when we say… You hear on the Right all the time today “the administrative state,” right? Well, that’s code for the New Deal bureaucracy. That’s what they want to get rid of. And so I needed to communicate that ideal by kind of illustrating what life was like — or what America was like, what American politics were like — prior to the Depression and New Deal.
Geoff Kabaservice: A number of pundits have drawn a parallel between Donald Trump’s administration and that pre-New Deal, pre-Cold War kind of conservatism characterized by the Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge presidencies. In what ways does that seem to you persuasive or off the mark?
Matthew Continetti: I’m one of those pundits. I see a few similarities in terms of policy. The first is that the Republican Party of the ‘20s, of course, was restrictive on immigration. It signed into law the bills essentially ending immigration to America for about 40 years. The GOP in those days was protectionist. They wanted the tariff — there was another parallel with Trump. And the Republican Party of the 1920s was non-interventionist, extremely suspicious of foreign entanglements, wanted to avoid a repeat of the Great War experience. They didn’t know that there was going to be another world war. They downsized the military. They thought that basically, as Coolidge put it once, “the business of America is business,” right? That’s what we have to focus on. In those three ways, I do detect similarities between the GOP of the 1920s and where the GOP seems to be headed today.
There are differences, of course. Coolidge in particular was a strong believer in American exceptionalism, in the sense of America having some type of special Providence that blessed it. That didn’t mean necessarily involvement throughout the world, but it did have an idea that American political institutions were very important and needed to be preserved. The centrality of religion… Protestantism was something that was very big in the 1920s and has a very — I don’t know how to say it — a scattered relationship to the Right today. I mean, there’s no doubt today that evangelical Christians, evangelical Protestants — a different flavor of Protestantism than Coolidge — are perhaps the biggest constituency within the GOP. But what that means is, I think, slightly different or greatly different today than back then. That’s how I’d kind of characterize the relationship between the two epochs.
Geoff Kabaservice: And of course presidents like Coolidge and Harding thought that they were in the American tradition and represented “the establishment,” as we would now call it. Whereas Trump is much more self-consciously an outsider and lacks their confidence, I think, as well.
Matthew Continetti: Well, that’s a great point. I mean, the idea of “normalcy,” which was Harding’s coinage — he and his crew called themselves “normalcy men.” They thought that they just stood for the status quo. The word “conservative” was not used in American politics at that time, or it was in some contexts but it was not the name of a self-conscious political movement as it came to be. And I mentioned in the book that one of my favorite finds was this letter that Herbert Hoover was writing to a friend in the middle of, I think it was FDR’s first term, where he said, “People keep calling me conservative, but I’ve always thought myself as a liberal. But if they want to call me a conservative, I guess I’m just going to have to be that.” And so it’s really in the 1930s where the ideas and attitudes of the Harding-Coolidge Republicans are recast as conservatism, in a new alliance with the conservative Southern Democrats who had their own reasons for opposing the enlargement of the federal government.
Geoff Kabaservice: It does seem to me that your book is like some other accounts of the intellectual conservative movement in that William F. Buckley Jr. is still its central figure. In many ways, he is irresistible, not just because of his importance but because his emotional and intellectual roots do go back to that 1920s era. He was involved with the America First movement of isolationism, from which proceed a lot of other conservative trends. He worked with Joe McCarthy in the early 1950s. And his career took him all the way through being an intellectual rebel against the established order to being an insider himself and kind of an establishment man later on — and eventually the object against which the New Right of the 1970s would rebel.
Matthew Continetti: Mm-hmm.
Geoff Kabaservice: But tell me why you think Buckley is such an important figure in the history that you’re telling.
Matthew Continetti: Well, there’s a famous George Will quote that “With no Buckley, there would be no National Review magazine; with no National Review magazine, there would be no Barry Goldwater; with no Barry Goldwater, there would be no Ronald Reagan; and with no Ronald Reagan, there would be no American victory in the Cold War. Hence William F. Buckley Jr. won the Cold War.” George Will said that in the ‘90s as a way to celebrate Buckley. Buckley liked it, he liked that compliment. But I mean, obviously it’s an exaggeration, but it does kind of get to some kernel of truth, I think, which is that there’s no way of telling this story without Buckley and the Buckley family. And indeed, having done some work just recently on William F. Buckley Sr., who was the subject of a recent biography, you begin to see how the Buckley family was so important to American conservatism, in some ways like the Kennedy family was to American liberalism.
But Buckley, as you say, through his father, who was this fascinating figure — a Texan who lived in Mexico, was involved in the Mexican Revolution, an oil man, made a fortune, much of it taken away in Mexico when the revolutionary government came to power but then made another fortune in Venezuela, and also owned an energy services company that had worldwide activity and was very profitable, very suspicious of central government — very much an Old Right figure in the Harding-Coolidge ways. Active in America First — Buckley’s first boat was called “Sweet Isolation.” Buckley was too young, really, to be totally involved in America First, but he certainly supported it because his father did. But then coming out of the war, it’s interesting… Buckley’s personal experiences really kind of influenced the direction he would take the Right.
He had somewhat adopted as a youth his father’s attitudes on Jews and African-Americans. And his experience in the Army, William F. Buckley Jr’s., was where he realized that those attitudes were wrong. And so throughout his career, very early on as a journalist, he did not want anything to do with anti-Semitism. Even though, as you well know, he continued to support the status quo in the South and opposed the Civil Rights Acts and much else of the civil rights movement in the ‘50s and ‘60s, he was never a full-on racist, you might say. There were certainly moments in that work in the 1950s that I do think come close to the line, or maybe even cross it. But he had never met a black person before being in the Army. And so that really changed, I think, his personal attitudes. And so he tried to move the Right away from some of its worst instincts through his journalism, through his activism, and then also through his stature as the designated spokesman, you might say, of American conservatism for much of the second half of the twentieth century.
Geoff Kabaservice: You raise an interesting point, which is that part of the reason that Buckley became such a big celebrity was that he would go into these debating formats with liberals who were unused to debating their ideas. There’s that great quote by Buckley, which I hope is not apocryphal: “Liberals claim to want to give a hearing to other views, but then are shocked and offended to discover that there are other views.”
Matthew Continetti: That’s right. So even though he was not an intellectual… I mean, he was interested in ideas, but he really was a debater. I think you’re absolutely right. That’s what he was, that’s what he did in college, and he was excellent at it. And so he was ready to debate at the level of concepts, which many others on the Right aren’t. Even to this day, they’re just not interested in doing that. And especially today, it’s much easier to avoid that because you just narrowcast and you just say what you think and who cares what other people say.
But because Buckley was a debater, and because also it seems to me that the structure of media and communications in the mid-twentieth century almost selected for debate — kind of pushed the two sides to encounter each other in sometimes explosive ways, like in 1968 between Buckley and Gore Vidal — that, I think, did a few things. One, it meant that Buckley’s interest in steering the Right away from the swamps, from the cesspools, was helped because he was so prominent. But two, it also meant that if you could present conservative ideas coherently and effectively, they would gain stature among the broader public.
And so you had this kind of two-pronged shift in American politics beginning in the late ‘60s, where as the population was moving to the right, the spokesmen for intellectual conservatism were also gaining prominence. And there was the assumption for about 40 years that those two groups were basically in accord. And I think one conclusion I’ve drawn from my work is that that might have been something of an exaggeration. There were definite sympathies and harmonies, but then over time the base started going in a direction that many of the intellectuals didn’t notice, or they didn’t want to follow.
Geoff Kabaservice: I was struck by your analysis of the fusionism that comes out of National Review and Frank Meyer’s synthesis in your observation that anti-communism was probably the most important part of that three-legged stool, the one more responsible than any others for keeping the contradictions contained. I think Buckley’s own personality and his sole ownership of National Review had something to do with that too. But it is clear that we’re now in an era where you have, on the one hand, the NatCons, the National Conservatives, who are sort of the heirs to the traditionalists and the religious element of conservatism who now want nothing to do with the libertarians — or the Freedom Cons, as they’ve now taken to calling themselves. And it would seem to me that a movement that is more united than divided is going to be a stronger movement.
Matthew Continetti: I think that’s fair to say. It goes back to what we were talking about how there’s really no center of the movement any longer, in space or in concept. Just on the role of anti-communism, it was definitely something that I would say both sides could agree on. At the same time, there were people who still dissented from the National Review line. And your point about Buckley being the sole owner and “the final decider,” to paraphrase George W. Bush, was very important as well.
The absence of communism from American political discourse has hurt the Right. And I think if there’s one big inflection in my book, it’s probably after the defeat of the Soviet Union, the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Reagan’s election is also a big part. That’s where I think I kind of start getting into the meat of things a little bit more than in the earlier half. But with no Soviet Union, the Right is kind of running on fumes for a while there. And it’s right after the fall of the Soviet Union that Patrick Buchanan, the former Nixon aide and extremely prominent conservative journalist in the ‘80s, launches his first presidential campaign challenging George H. W. Bush. And so it’s as though that pre-World War II Right was just waiting to come back — and it has.
Geoff Kabaservice: I agree. Buckley promulgated this idea of himself as the pope of conservatism, with the ability to excommunicate different factions. And he was very proud that he had, as he saw it, succeeded in marginalizing Ayn Rand and the objectivists from the conservative movement; obviously the anti-Semites who were so prevalent in the Old Right; but also the John Birch Society, which was this sort of voluptuously paranoid organization whose conspiracy theories harken to today’s QAnon.
Now, obviously, you point out that Buckley was not wholly successful in excommunicating these organizations. But I was a little bit taken aback by an observation you made, which was that the John Birch Society presented the Right with a dilemma. You write, “Conservatism could neither retain elite validation nor nationwide success if it was associated with Birchism. But it also could not sustain itself if Birchism was excised. It would have no constituency.” That seems a rather extreme view of things, does it not?
Matthew Continetti: Well, I think what I’m saying there is people forget just how popular the John Birch Society was at that time. And for a publication like National Review to have come out forcefully from Day One and said, “Not only is Robert Welch a nutcase but everybody who agrees with him has no part in this movement” — I mean, National Review, which always had a deficit, that deficit would’ve exploded because there were a lot of Birchers who subscribed to National Review.
That was the case with Goldwater too. What got Goldwater into trouble was that even though on a theoretical level he understood that… A lot of things got Barry Goldwater into trouble; he’s one of my favorite subjects in this book. But in this case, he theoretically knew that the Birchers were a big liability if you wanted to convince 50-plus-1 percent of the American people to back you. And yet he also knew that if he denounced the Birchers on liberal airwaves, they would come after him and he would lose support that way.
And so it tied him into knots on some of these talk shows. You see the transcripts because he’s trying to say that, oh, he disagrees with them, but there are a lot of extremists too… And he talks about… He goes, “There are extremists in government right now.” It ended up tying him in knots. I mean, it led to his famous line, at his acceptance address in 1964, that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” — a direct rebuke to his rival Nelson Rockefeller, who had spent the previous speech denouncing extremism in the Republican Party.
So I do think it’s a bind. Others were able to navigate it much more easily. And I think one of Reagan’s skills was that somehow he could transcend the Bircher right without completely driving it to abandon him. Because in that first primary as governor, when Reagan ran for the Republican nomination, he faced two opponents. One was a liberal Republican in the Rockefeller mold…
Geoff Kabaservice: George Christopher.
Matthew Continetti: Yeah. Well, you know this well, I’m telling you, this is the subject of your work, right? But he also faced a right-wing opponent who thought that Reagan was a squish — Ronald Reagan a squish! But he was able to kind of, as I say, transcend that. He defeated that right-wing opponent, and yet the Right still thought that he was their guy. It’s a hard dance. And as we see today, again and again, not everyone can perform it.
Geoff Kabaservice: I was struck by your observation that Reagan, as you put it, “injected the populist rebellion of the late 1970s with his peculiar qualities.” And that in turn warped conservative intellectuals’ perception of politics because they were always looking out for the next Reagan, and they were too quick to ignore or discount or assume victory over national populism when it manifested itself in people like first Pat Buchanan, then Ron Paul, Sarah Palin, and eventually Donald Trump.
Matthew Continetti: Yes. I do think that’s another theme of the book, or argument of the book: that somehow conservative intellectuals and even historians who write about the history of the Right from any perspective, their perspective is warped by the Reagan distortion field. You kind of end up seeing everything through him: his presidency, his legacy, but also kind of his character. And by character, I don’t even mean the personal character, but I mean more his affect, the way he performed in politics. And it’s very unique, it’s very novel, and it’s very contingent.
Reagan ran for president in ’68 as a favorite son. He tested the waters. That was a very brief episode at the convention in ’68. Then he ran again in ’76, challenging the incumbent president. He lost. By the time you got to 1980, people like Buckley thought that Reagan was done. Buckley was worried in 1980 that Reagan was too old. Irving Kristol wanted Jack Kemp, the Buffalo Congressman, to run. He thought Reagan was washed up.
Reagan didn’t feel that he was washed up. He ran, and the history is very different as a result. But the fact that Reagan was somehow able to infuse populism with an optimism — a forward-looking orientation, a belief in dynamism and growth — was very important. And I think, as you say, it kind of made many conservatives, myself included, simply assume that that was the only form populism could take because, well, that was Reaganite populism.
Geoff Kabaservice: You know, Matt, it pains me to have a book this rich, with the proverbial cast of thousands, compressed into little more than an hour-long discussion. And I would just urge people to read the book and appreciate for themselves all the real dimensions of this book and your arguments. But I must ask then, as a last question: What happens next, from your perspective both as a journalist and as a historian who’s surveyed this field?
I was struck by your observation in the book that “One of the functions of conservatism is to defend the essential moderation of the American political system, partly against liberal excess as well as populist excess.” And I was also struck by the conclusion of your paperback that “Although times, people, and movement changes, human nature does not, nor do the timeless truths of the American founding,” and that “American conservatism exists to remind the world of these facts and to apply those truths prudentially and moderately to the problems of the moment.” But you add, “If some on the New Right no longer want to call themselves conservative, if they no longer want to be part of the tradition of liberty, then conservatives must let them go.” Do you think that is likely to happen?
Matthew Continetti: Well, I think it’s likely to happen that I’ll let them go. But where they’re going to go — that’s a different question, and one that concerns me. Or who will be left with behind with me? That’s something else entirely.
I feel as though we’re headed into uncharted and dangerous waters, and so it’d be foolish of me to try to make any predictions. I will say this… What seems to be happening on the Right is similar to what happened on the Left beginning in 2016 or 2015, 2014. You could even trace it to 2011 with Occupy Wall Street. The center-left was basically emptied out over about ten years between 2011 and 2020. And you see this with Bernie Sanders and the Squad. And now, when I’m looking at developments in other democracies — Israel, Europe — and then I look at what’s happening in America, I see a similar process taking place on the Right, where the center-right is slowly being emptied out and the figures, the institutions are headed elsewhere. And I lament this development.
I don’t know what to do about it. I think the only thing intellectuals can do is restate the arguments for the importance of constitutionalism, rule of law, individual rights, liberal democracy. And so I’ve recently been thinking a lot about what a small-D democratic conservatism means. It would mean a conservative approach dedicated to what Reagan called “the infrastructure of democracy,” which is not just elections but all the institutions necessary to make a democracy thrive and function. And that seems to me to be the main project for a serious conservatism. And I’m happy to be at a place that will let me work on it for the foreseeable future.
Geoff Kabaservice: Well, Matt Continetti, thanks so much for returning to the beginning to help us understand where we have ended up. And congratulations again on the publication of the paperback edition of The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism.
Matthew Continetti: Thank you so much.
Geoff Kabaservice: And thank you all for listening to the Vital Center Podcast. Please subscribe and rate us on your preferred podcasting platform. And if you have any questions, comments, or other responses, please include them along with your rating or send us an email at email@example.com.
Thanks as always to our technical director, Kristie Eshelman, our sound engineer, Ray Ingenieri, and the Niskanen Center in Washington, D.C.