The following is a transcript of Reactionary Minds’ interview with Matthew Continetti, author of the new book The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism. The transcript has been lightly edited for flow and clarity.
Aaron Ross Powell: I’m Aaron Ross Powell, and this is Reactionary Minds, a project of The UnPopulist. While both sides today have rather less respect for genuine political liberalism than they ought to, the ascension of far-right populism to the presidency, its near-total takeover of one of the two major parties and its continuing efforts to establish control of our institutions and culture make the American right the most severe and immediate threat to our republic and our freedoms.
However, just what the right is and what it means to be a conservative—if those are even the same thing—can be a bit slippery. The history of the American right and American conservatism is quite a bit more complicated, politically and ideologically, than many are aware. To help me tease out just what it means to be of the right, as well as the evolution of conservatism and conservative ideas, I'm joined by Matthew Continetti.
He's a resident fellow in social, cultural and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute and author of the new and genuinely excellent book The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism.
Aaron Ross Powell: I want to start with the title of your book. It's called The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism. Immediately, I think it raises a question, which is the relationship between what we call the right and what we call conservatism. Are those the same thing?
Matthew Continetti: Not necessarily. The book is called The Right, because I wanted to have a way to describe a very large category of thinkers and political figures and activists who are arrayed against the left. They might not agree on anything, but they do agree that they are against the left, against progressivism, against liberalism in some cases, against totalitarianism in other cases.
Within that broad category, I do think there's something called “American conservatism,” and in particular, there's something called the “American conservative movement,” which was a political formation that really came of age after the Second World War in the crucible of the Cold War. That is a small part of this much larger grouping called “the right.” I wanted to get at that in the title, and then I also discussed that briefly in the introduction to the book.
Aaron: That's interesting in light of one of the themes that I think comes through in the story that you tell over this hundred years of the conservative movement as not so much a unified ideology, but as a set of factions in this kind of sine wave of influence. Is there then something core, like a core ideological principle, that we can say defines it? Because you said the right exists in opposition to the left, sure. But for a conservative, when we look at this story of neocons and paleocons and reformicons and National Review, and you lump in the Ron Paulites and the populists and the Trumpists—all of that—and they're all under this conservative label, is there a core ideological position that says, “This is a conservative,” and unifies them above and beyond opposition to the left?
Matthew: Well, I do think for most of the figures who self-identify as American conservative, there is a perspective that's oriented toward the founder's Constitution. That is to say, American conservatives define themselves in opposition to basically the idea of American government that was born out of the New Deal after Franklin Roosevelt’s election, and there were precursors to Roosevelt in Woodrow Wilson's progressivism.
So you'll find all sorts of conservatives—whether they're Barry Goldwater, whether they're Ronald Reagan, William F. Buckley Jr., Ron Paul—who will look toward the founder's Constitution. They'll say that American government went astray beginning with Roosevelt and then much more so with Lyndon Johnson and the “Great Society,” and that the job of the American conservative is to, if not restore the founder's Constitution, keep its memory alive and preserve the written Constitution in our law and in our politics.
I think that's basically a commonality you can find. You can also say that many people who call themselves conservatives share certain temperamental characteristics. Typically, conservatives are more pessimistic about human nature. They might say “realistic.” They're more aware of the unintended consequences of government action. They tend to have a tragic view of life.
But that's not true for all figures on the American right or even the American conservative movement. You look at the two most important conservatives of the 20th century, Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley Jr.: Neither of them was a temperamental conservative. Reagan was sunny. Reagan believed that human beings left alone would reach their potential just naturally, and Buckley himself has said that he didn't share in the conservative dour outlook on the world. That was apparent in his life as well. He was adventuresome; he was humorous; he lived life to the fullest.
So I come back again and again to this idea of the importance of the Constitution as a fundament of the American conservative movement in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Aaron: You date—or at least you start—your history in the 1920s, which gives you the nice “hundred years” of the title. What happened in the 1920s? Because the Great Depression wasn't until the very tail end of that decade, and the opposition to the New Deal and so on wasn't until later. What happened in the 1920s that launched what you call the “conservative movement”?
Matthew: Sure. I begin in the 1920s mainly because I needed to give the reader a sense of what America and what American politics was like prior to the New Deal. If conservatives in the 1930s were saying that they lost something, we need to know what they lost. What they lost was the understanding of American politics that was present in the Harding, Coolidge and Hoover administrations—a little bit less so in Hoover.
The other reason I begin in the 1920s was that the 1920s was really when the Republican Party becomes associated with a rejection of progressivism. Prior to the 1920s, progressivism was basically in the air. It was in the water. Both parties were drinking from it; both parties were tempted by progressivism. Teddy Roosevelt, of course, was a progressive. He left the Republican Party [laughs] to run as a progressive in 1912.
The ideas of progressivism—the ideas that the federal government can be the agency of social mobility, of economic and moral uplift; that objective experts can apply their technical knowledge to solve public policy issues; a sense of historical progress; that things are moving in the direction of improved humanity—all those things really become rejected by the leaders of the Republican Party in the 1920s.
When Warren Harding runs for president, he is running against the Wilsonian legacy, the progressive legacy. He's standing for “normalcy,” or what he and his successor, Calvin Coolidge, called “Americanism.” They didn't think of themselves as conservative. They just thought of themselves as standing for what America was about. That meant a fidelity to the written Constitution; that meant a free-enterprise and laissez-faire approach to economics at home. That also meant nonintervention abroad and skepticism of collective security and of international organizations.
For those reasons, I thought it would be helpful to begin the story in the 1920s, just so readers got a sense of what things were like before the Great Depression, before FDR came in and really changed what Americans expected of their government.
Aaron: Did race and class and culture and religion play much of a role in the conservative or Republican identity back then? Because when I talk about that sine wave of rising and falling influence, that's been a dominant theme in conservatism, too—that reactionary element as well.
Matthew: Sure. Well, you can't tell the story of America without all of those four things I think you mentioned: race, class, religion and culture. That is American history. The Republican Party in the 1920s was still very much Lincoln's party. The Republicans thought of themselves as Lincolnians—that is, the extension of Lincoln's emancipation and crusade for political equality for all Americans.
So you would see the Republicans, for example, support the anti-lynching laws in the 1920s and fight with the Southern Democrats, who were against such things. On immigration, it was slightly different. The Republicans tended to be hostile to immigration in the 1920s. They stood for old-stock America, WASP America. So Harding and Coolidge basically supported the immigration restriction acts that ended immigration to the United States for basically 40 years.
Class? I would say the Republican Party was a pro-business party. It was the party of also the Midwestern small businessmen. Then, religion: It was a Protestant party. It was hostile to the Catholics, who made up the bulk of the Democratic Party and who were mainly associated with the cities, part of the urban base of the Democratic Party.
Aaron: Then how did the Great Depression and the New Deal change the nature of things?
Matthew: The Great Depression delegitimized the Republican economic policy. Hoover is an interesting figure. The presidential Hoover is different from the Hoover whom we remember after he left the presidency. Hoover is a remarkable figure. He was a brilliant engineer. He helped provide relief after the Great War, after World War I.
He's the secretary of commerce in the 1920s, very much more of a progressive in that administration, thinking that government and business can work together and really enrich America. As president, he's confronted with the Depression—the stock market crash and then, of course, the banking crisis, which is the real Great Depression and the real collapse of the American economy. He doesn't really know what to do. He's torn between the Harding-Coolidge instincts of, “Well, let everything settle,” and the more progressive instinct that he has, which is, “Well, the situation is so out of control that government needs to do something.” He intervenes somewhat; he tries to provide loans to businesses. He does try to provide some types of relief. He spends a little bit on deficits. On the other hand, there's such a stigma attached to that deficit spending in America at that time that he was also raising taxes. It doesn't work.
He loses, of course, to FDR in 1932—one of the most critical elections in American history. FDR comes in, and he basically says that he's going to try anything to stop this 25% unemployment. What that means is a huge expansion of the federal government's role in the economy, the cartelization of the American economy, huge numbers of new bureaucracies instituted. The federal government is going to become more involved in the everyday life of the individual American than ever before in American history.
There's a side debate about whether these measures worked, but there is no debate that FDR revolutionized the federal government's role in American life. Then Hoover becomes a critic of FDR. Hoover becomes one of the first conservatives, and here's a great letter that I quote from the book where he's like, "I think of myself as a 19th century liberal"—this is Hoover—"I stand for individual rights. I stand for individualism in the marketplace, low taxes, less government. But now I can't use that word to describe me, so I'm going to have to call myself a conservative."
And that's really where American conservatism is born—in opposition to the New Deal, in the sense that they're conserving the founder's Constitution and the founder's understanding of American political economy against FDR’s and the progressive revision.
Aaron: Is that then the source of this interesting tension that exists within the broader American right and conservatism, say, compared to European conservative and right movements, which is this classical liberalism within the right? Because liberalism historically was a movement of the left, in Europe, for liberation against the power structures of the monarchy and the class system and so on.
But in the U.S., you have liberals, in this sense, placing themselves within the conservative movement, even though liberalism exists in opposition to the right in general. How do we tease that out? It doesn't make a lot of sense outside of the U.S.
Matthew: Well, it's very confusing. Political nomenclature gets very complicated very quickly, but I think you're right. I think that for people like Hoover, for the Republican critics of the New Deal—the conservative Republican critics of the New Deal—there was a large part of what was understood to be classical liberalism in their philosophy. However, there was also part of the anti-Roosevelt coalition that was more like what you described as the European right, and here I point to the Southern agrarians and the Southern conservatives.
The Southern agrarians opposed FDR because he represented the forces of modernity. He represented the nationalization of American culture and political economy. He also represented a threat to the racial hierarchy of the American South. Beginning in the 1930s, you find this alliance between the Hoovers and other free market opponents of FDR and the Southern Democrats who don't like FDR because— they like FDR’s spending, but they don't like the sense of a big government, which they recognize could be a threat to their power in the South.
That blood-and-soil conservatism is very much present in the Southern Democrats, but less so in this group of basically pro-business, pro-market Republicans who are in the tradition of Harding and Coolidge, and who look toward the founder's Constitution and to Lincoln continually for inspiration. It's this amalgam of both groups. This, of course, sets the pattern for the rest of the century and beyond.
Aaron: That raises what seems to be another theme of tension within the conservative story that you tell, which is—and this previews Frank Meyer and the “fusionist” approach when it comes up later—this tension between liberty and authority within conservatism of, “We're pro-Constitution, we’re pro-free enterprise, pro-free markets and so on, and limited government,” but then constantly there's a rhetoric that runs through even the elite conservative intellectuals of, “We need authority either in the form of religion”—typically Christianity—”or in respect for institutions of authority.” They seem to blame societal breakdown on people basically not respecting institutions of authority.
What I'm wondering is how much some of that tension has to do with the rise of technocratic progressivism. Let me see if I can clarify, because this might be a bit confusing as a question.
I think in the introduction to the latest edition of Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind, he makes this frame—which happens a lot in conservative writings—which is basically that if we don't have enforced Christian values and these old ways and tradition, what we end up with is this rationalism—constructive, technocratic, like they're going to try to rebuild humanity in these ways that don't really work out in practice, like a top-down construction of culture and identity and so on, which is a very progressive view.
The alternative then is identity through tradition, Christianity, traditional power structures and so on, whereas it seems like there's almost a false dichotomy there. The third way is just freedom and autonomy and self-construction of identity and so on. That tension within conservatism of, “We need these external forms of authority”— does that rise up as a result of the progressive approach as a counter to that? In the absence of that, would we have seen the conservative movement be more “Frank Meyer” libertarian than it might have been?
Matthew: I think the American right prior to World War II was very much libertarian. The right thought of itself as individualist. It was anti-statist, it was constitutionalist, it was anti-interventionist because war is the health state.
You mentioned Russell Kirk. Russel Kirk's Conservative Mind first comes out in 1953. Kirk was tied to that Southern agrarian tradition that I talked about. He had a different understanding of what the right was. He had a European understanding of what the right was. I talk about in the book how he hardly discusses Madison or Jefferson. For him, the political tradition in the United States begins with John Adams and also includes John Calhoun.
Kirk and his remarkably successful book and his amazing literary career over the decades represent a traditionalist conservatism. He basically imports European conservatism to the United States and includes it with Southern conservatism, the agrarianism, in a new package. It very highly emphasizes order as opposed to freedom; virtue as opposed to liberty; very skeptical of capitalism; very skeptical of industry. That has to work with, and sometimes against, the American right coming out of World War II, which still retains a lot of its libertarianism, a lot of its classical liberalism, as we were discussing, but is also beginning to change its attitude toward foreign policy, because it is extremely anti-communist and wants to destroy the Soviet Union. It wants to roll back communism because of the threat it perceives from global communism.
This is the debate between freedom and virtue, liberty and order, that goes throughout the history of the American right. I would say this, though, that someone like Frank Meyer, while a libertarian, also thought that there needed to be a healthy dose of authority and order in people's private lives.
The way that I would think about it is this: For American conservatives after the Cold War, freedom was a political value. It was an economic value, but socially and culturally, America required institutions that could help prepare individuals for political and economic freedom. They wanted the authority respected within the social and cultural sphere because they believe that things like the American family, the neighborhood, the church, the school—all of these things went into preparing and equipping Americans to exercise freedom in the political and economic spheres.
So that's how they departed from libertarians after the Second World War, in addition to their different foreign policies. I'm not sure where that comes from. I think that's just a more general conservative attitude. You can actually see traces of it in Edmund Burke himself, going back to the 18th century. I think that's how we can distinguish between libertarians on one side of the American conservatives and then Russell Kirk and the traditionalists on the other side of the American conservatives.
Aaron: What do conservatives mean in this context by “virtue”? Because it does play a large role in a lot of conservative arguments, and it's often the thing, as you said, that's traded off against freedom. The argument goes something like this: The left wants all of this social freedom, which comes at the expense of virtue. If virtue declines, that's bad, so we need this authority, whether it's in the form of the government if you're one kind of conservative; it's in the form of social structures and hierarchies and so on, in traditional ways, in the form of the other. What is meant by virtue, or where is that idea coming from? How do you point to, “This is virtue,” versus, “This is not,” within the conservative tradition?
Matthew: Well, I think for most conservatives, it comes from religion. I think there's also a philosophical understanding of virtue that informs some of the more intellectual conservatives. But for most American conservatives, it's Christianity that tells them what is virtuous behavior, and for the Cold War conservative movement, Catholicism was hugely important.
You can look in the catechism. What is virtue? It's right there. It's spelled out, and I just make a note on this: That is a very important shift. The move of not all American Catholics, but a significant portion of them, into the conservative camp is a response to communism. Prior to the Second World War, many Catholics did not consider themselves part of the American right. If they did, they tended to be isolationists. They were pro-Irish, anti-British.
They come out of World War II, and the American Catholic community is extremely worried not only about the threat that communism poses to religion, but also to freedom, because many of the American Catholics trace their roots to countries that are now under the domination of Soviet power or under threat of Eurocommunism, Soviet communism. So that's a big move. It's a traditional conception of virtue, I guess, and what that means in the West is a biblical one.
Aaron: We've mentioned in passing Buckley and National Review. So I'd like to turn to them, because National Review is so just dominant in the history of what we tend to think of as 20th century American conservatism. Who was Buckley, and what was the motivation behind National Review?
Matthew: Well, William F. Buckley Jr., probably the most important, I'd say, journalist of the 20th century: He created the conservative intellectual movement in America, or at least turned it into a movement that was conservative intellectuals. He brought them all together. He was born in 1925. He's a scion of an oil family. His father was a wildcatter who had made his fortune in Mexico and in Latin America and then was run out of those countries when they had left-wing revolutions.
So William Buckley Sr. hated socialism, because he had experienced its threat to business firsthand. Buckley's a tyro. He grows up in this family; he has many, many siblings. He goes to Yale for an undergraduate degree after the war, where he becomes a campus celebrity in debate in the school paper. He graduates, briefly works for the CIA, and then he publishes a book, which is an attack on Yale for not being sufficiently Christian and free market: God and Man at Yale. And then God and Man at Yale establishes him in his mid-20s as this curiosity on the American intellectual scene.
He's denounced by leaders of the American Eastern establishment for having the audacity to write this book. He also recognizes, at this time in the early 1950s, that there are a bunch of critics of New Deal liberalism, critics of the containment policy that President Harry Truman announced against the Soviet Union, who want to have a restoration of the founder's Constitution, who want to have a rollback of the New Deal at home and of communism abroad.
He sees these figures out there, and he also sees that the conservative publications available at the time are kind of falling apart. One of them, H. L. Mencken's old magazine, The American Mercury, has become an antisemitic tract. The other, The Freeman, is falling apart internally because of disputes over the Cold War and the role of the state in the defense of America and the world. So what's required is a new publication to serve as the platform for all of these critics of the New Deal and of containment.
He begins with this idea of the National Weekly, and it ends up as the National Review, launched in late November 1955. The National Review becomes the bible of American conservatism, I'd say up until 2016.
Aaron: When you say the bible of national conservatism, I guess—or of American conservatism; national conservatism is later—
Matthew: Of conservatives of American … yeah. [Laughs.]
Aaron: The bible for who? Who is the audience of National Review? Because, again, American conservatism is a very wildly fractious movement. Who is it talking to, and how much is your average, say, Republican voter being informed by the National Review?
Matthew: Well, at that time, they were not. At that time, the Republican Party was run by figures like Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and Nelson Rockefeller, the governor of New York, who Buckley's group were critical of. They disliked them. Buckley was the leader of what were called Buckleyites, mainly young people who thought that there should be a clear choice between the two parties—that the Republican Party should not be New Deal lite. It should stand for conservative principles.
The National Review was pitched toward elites, the type of people who would read a biweekly magazine of politics and literature, but it was very popular among young people. Buckley became the spokesman for a rising generation of conservative that was for the free market at home and hardline anti-Communist abroad. There are others who are associated with it, and it really bursts onto the scene in 1960, when Buckley's brother-in-law and a one-time senior editor at National Review, Brent Bozell, ghostwrites a book for Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona called The Conscience of a Conservative.
Then The Conscience of a Conservative reaches a much vaster audience than National Review while reflecting National Review's ideas. And then Goldwater, of course, becomes a Republican nominee in 1964 and introduces postwar American conservatism, Cold War conservatism, into the political mainstream. I guess that's who he's leading, that's who he's inspiring, when we talk about Buckley.
Aaron: What was it then about this message, the National Review message—given a broader voice by Goldwater—that didn't work? Because Goldwater lost, and it wasn't until Reagan that we had a nationally successful person embodying a lot of this. What was it at the time in the '60s that didn't at all resonate?
Matthew: Well, Goldwater was successfully portrayed as an extremist by Lyndon Johnson, the incumbent Democratic president. His views were not mainstream. A lot had to happen for American conservative ideas to be taken seriously. And Goldwater kind of played into the caricature when he would talk about tactical nukes, or he would talk about his line in his acceptance speech where he says, “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.”
Then, of course, there was Goldwater's position on civil rights, which also can't be ignored, where he was against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, despite the fact that it was Republican votes that made the act law, and despite the fact, too, that the Republican platform in 1964 supported the Civil Rights Act.
It was a weird situation where the party was nominating someone who had voted against it, the Civil Rights Act, but who was committing himself to enforcing it if he were president. But that, too, was outside the mainstream. All of that was responsible for Goldwater's stunning landslide loss.
However, the conservative movement at the time took solace in the loss. They were kind of upset, obviously, but they also saw that, "Hey, we had come pretty far," and the joke among conservatives was always, “Well, 27 million people can't be wrong,” because that's how many votes Goldwater got. Not many, but that's a lot. They viewed the Goldwater campaign as a floor, not a ceiling. It was a place from which they could build. It wasn't the apogee of their movement. That would come later.
Aaron: Let me ask about the civil rights movement and the National Review and conservative elite response to it, because there's a very striking passage in your book where you're talking about a speech that Buckley gave in 1965 to I think it's the New York Police, Catholic Police Organization, where he's talking about the different treatment in the press between a civil rights activist who was murdered and a policeman in Mississippi who was killed.
It seemed like this got to a view of the state of civil rights in the United States that is indicative of, I think, a certain way of conservatism at least at the time—overprivileging authority versus, say, rights or justice. But maybe I'm misreading it. What he says is that basically, the killing of this police officer and the different treatment is—so this is the quote: He says, "It is no accident at all that the police should be despised in an age infatuated with revolution and ideology." That was really striking because it seemed to me that there might be other reasons besides infatuation with ideology and revolution that the civil rights movement might be upset with in the way that police were behaving in Mississippi in 1965.
Matthew: You think? [Laughs.] I don't think that police officer was killed by civil rights activists, though.
Aaron: No, not the specific death of this police officer, but he's talking about dislike of the police and talking about Mississippi 1965 and blaming it on infatuation with ideology. Was the conservative movement with Buckley and then Goldwater equipped to wrestle with the real issues of the civil rights movement? Because this attitude seems kind of out of touch.
Matthew: Well, not to the police in the audience, who really liked that part of the speech. It then, of course, was attacked by The New York Times, and that begins giving Buckley the idea that he might want to run for mayor of New York in 1965.
A couple of things: I do think we have to distinguish between Goldwater and Buckley. Goldwater was very much pro-integration. In his private life, he was not a racist by any means. He supported the desegregation of the Senate cafeteria. He was a member of the Arizona NAACP. His opposition to the Civil Rights Act was on the basis that he could find no constitutional authorization for its involvement in public accommodations and in education. Now, look, I think he was wrong, but it wasn't a racial argument he was making; it was a constitutional one.
Buckley, though, did make cultural arguments against civil rights throughout the 1950s, kind of in the 1960s, though less so. And so I think that's one difference. In this speech, in particular, there are a few things that I think are interesting that we can observe. One is support for law and order, which is a conservative trope to this day. Another is an attack on the media, which is a conservative trope to this day.
Then two, a sense of audience. Buckley's speaking to these cops; these cops tend to come from white working-class backgrounds, and they really like his message, and yet he's William F. Buckley Jr. He's this weird pseudo-aristocratic figure with the unidentifiable accent and the large vocabulary with multisyllabic words.
I don't know if I'm answering your question directly. I would say again, you're right to point to the importance that authority plays among American conservatives, but it's a sense that you need a certain baseline of order in order to enjoy freedom. That baseline of order involves personal safety, and so that has made conservatives pro-police.
Buckley's being, in my view, supercilious in this speech, and he claimed that he wasn't diminishing the death of—I think the civil rights activist's name was Viola Liuzzo. But, yes, it's not a move that Buckley would've made even 10 years later, I think.
Aaron: I want to jump ahead a bit, because your book is 500 pages long, covers 100 years, and it's incredibly fast-moving history, even at 500 pages. There's a lot of fascinating stuff in the book, and I recommend to listeners to check it out, but I want to jump ahead to populism and Trumpism and what happened.
So what happened? Because we had, as you said, National Review as the bible of American conservatism. But then in 2016, National Review publishes its anti-Trump issue, where they come out against him, and the years since have basically been a repudiation of that issue, as far as the conservative movement is concerned. What happened?
Matthew: Well, it's a long story, but I think it starts with the end of the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union disintegrates itself in the end of 1991, the binding glue of Cold War conservatism vanishes with it, and the opposition to communism, to the Soviet Union, had really kept the American conservative movement together throughout the Cold War.
Now that it's gone, there's a debate that begins in the 1990s over what direction the American right should take, and there are figures, such as Patrick Buchanan, who say that in this post-Cold War world, the American right needs to go back to its original understanding of itself. It needs to go back to the right of the 1920s and the 1930s. It needs to be pro-free enterprise within the borders of the United States, but protectionist with regard to the global economy. It needs to be restrictionist toward immigration, and it needs to stop intervening overseas—the “America First” principles.
Buchanan is introducing all of this in the early 1990s. You also have other populist figures like Ross Perot on the chessboard, as well, who are voicing somewhat similar claims but in different ways, and who are very popular among Republican voters and the grassroots of the party.
This debate goes on for really 20 years, 25 years or so. Over time, the conservative elites, the ones who are anti-Buchanan, who are anti-Perot—the ones who want to maintain or expand on what Cold War conservatism meant, including global markets, global use of American force in order to uphold world order, open immigration—or at least a large-scale legal immigration to the United States. They are continually under assault.
I think the real break point happens in George W. Bush's second term. George W. Bush tries to enact the comprehensive immigration reform that includes an amnesty for illegal immigrants who have been in the country for some time, and the grassroots of the Republican Party revolts, and the bill goes nowhere. The war in Iraq, launched in 2003—the second war in Iraq—does not go well in George W. Bush's second term. He doesn't begin to change his strategy until his final two years in office.
You see as early as 2008, with the rise of Ron Paul, that among young people on the right in particular, there is a renewed resistance to American intervention, to the idea of America as the guarantor of global security. Then at the end of George W. Bush's term is the financial crisis, another global economic event that delegitimizes the economic policies of the incumbent Republican administration.
As a result of those three things, after 2008, the American right is extremely anti-elitist. It's suspicious of both Democrats and Republicans, it is populist, it is nationalist, it's in that Buchananite mold, and that lays the groundwork for Trump's rise in 2015 and 2016.
Aaron: With all that said, then, is there a way to fix things? Because it seems like the Republican Party is in a fairly dire place right now. I think for liberals, but also for people who care about a lot of what we think of as traditional conservative or intellectual conservative values, Trumpism is not a good change in the American conservative movement. Is there a way to get us back to something that looks more like the conservatism of Goldwater or Reagan, and less of the “paleo,” Buchananite, Bircher and so on that seems to have taken over?
Matthew: Well, I do think that when you look at the history over the span of 100 years, it does suggest that the Cold War conservatism of Goldwater, Buckley and Reagan may have been something of an aberration—that the baseline condition of the American right is something that is protectionist, anti-immigrant and hostile toward overseas entanglements. I will say that another problem with changing the current direction of the Republican Party is that from a political perspective, Republicans think things are going pretty well for them right now.
They almost won the presidency in 2020. They picked up over a dozen House seats in 2020. They think that they're due for a really good election this year, so they're not really feeling any cost or consequence for taking this new direction. They're looking at these polls that show that Hispanic Americans are now splitting their vote on the generic ballot between the two parties. I think that's a reason to be skeptical that there's going to be any major change in the Republican Party for the time being.
I do think that events matter and leadership matters. Right now, the party continues to be dominated by the figure of Trump, and until that changes, there's really no, I think, prospect of a renewed conservatism in the vision, say, of Ronald Reagan. Reagan conservatives are still there in the Republican Party, but they are now part of a coalition, the majority of which is Trump conservative.
Aaron: If American conservatism has something to offer of value in governing, which is a part of the argument of your book—that these ideas have value, have brought value—but you're talking to an electorate and especially a younger electorate that is very turned off by what they see as American conservatism right now, whether that's Trumpism or everything adjacent to it—the hard turn to the culture war and so on—what's the fundamental message of American conservatism for convincing the next generation of voters to either come back to it or to have an appreciation for it as a possible path forward?
Matthew: Look, I think events matter more than ideas in shaping the political attitudes of a generation. From my perspective, an American conservatism that doesn't prioritize freedom is not worth supporting. I think that American conservatism is distinct because of its adjectival description—it's American.
What that means is that, as I've been saying, it looks to the American founding for inspiration. It doesn't look toward any royalty or any aristocracy or any blood-and-soil. It's the American founding, those principles, and then the political architecture of the Constitution as a way to secure the goods mentioned in the preamble, among which is the blessings of liberty. That's what I think American conservatism is meant to defend—that understanding of politics and the political tradition that emanates from it.
That has changed and been modified over time, as any tradition will be. All I can say is that conservatives need to keep making the case for freedom and need to keep making the case for constitutionalism and for individual rights and liberty—and also, the case for those cultural and social institutions that, as I said, help equip people to exercise their liberty responsibly. If they don't have that sense of responsibility, if they haven't been molded to make the right choices, to understand the world in which they operate, then liberty can turn easily into license.
I think that's the job of an American conservative. It's a hard job. [Laughs.] Conservative intellectuals have never really been in the majority. We tend to make our arguments in small magazines, and every now and then, we have a very popular spokesperson.
Then when you're really lucky, you find an inspirational leader who comes at a time when the public is open to alternatives. That was Reagan in 1980, because, as I say, the events of that time—the stagflation, the hostage crisis, the Soviets running amok in Afghanistan—made people and young people very open to what Reagan represented. The events of our time, I think, are souring a lot of young people on everything—on America, on the Constitution, on liberty and free speech. I think maybe we need to target our arguments there, but it's not going to be easy.
Aaron: Thank you for listening to Reactionary Minds, a project of The UnPopulist. If you want to learn more about the rise of illiberalism and the need to defend a free society, check out theunpopulist.substack.com.
The above is a transcript of Reactionary Minds’ interview with Matthew Continetti, author of the new book The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism.