Matthew Continetti’s ‘The Right’ is a masterpiece on the last 100 years of American conservatism

Continetti (pictured) is a journalist, author, and resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He’s currently a contributing editor at the National Review, having formerly helped found The Washington Free Beacon. His articles and reviews have appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post. Photo credit: Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation


I recently read Matthew Continetti’s 2022 release, The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism. The author sets out to recount the story of how the American Right has changed and responded to events covering the past 100 years. Detailing matters from the Harding and Coolidge era of the 1920s to the populist Trump period of the 2020s, the book serves as a great reference for those interested in American history, the conservative movement, or political record. 

Continetti makes a conscious effort to ensure people understand two important distinctions. First, the Republican Party reflects much of the development on the Right, but the GOP only tells part of the story. The second distinction refers to Ronald Reagan, whose presence within the Right over the past 60 years can cloud any number of other events. Continetti gives due attention to Reagan but would like readers to remember that there were those who went before Reagan and his contemporaries who helped advance the cause. 

The book is sizable at about 460 pages including generous endnotes and a substantial bibliography. Following a generally chronological order, the reader joins the story of the movement in the 1920s as Warren Harding and his successor Calvin Coolidge work to scale back the efforts of President Woodrow Wilson and his global aspirations. Harding and Coolidge led the nation back to a traditional interest in ensuring American business could flourish. Their retreat from foreign policy reflected a recognition that America should play a humble and restrained role in international affairs, only acting when the direct interests of America were at play. Things like the League of Nations seemed counterintuitive to this adage. 

When the Depression hit in the 1930s, the GOP, under Herbert Hoover’s leadership, had already embraced a greater role in government. Hoover became synonymous with a conservative movement out of tune with the average citizen’s struggles, especially in comparison to FDR, who deserves acclaim as a positive force, but who often escapes any critical assessments, much like Reagan does on the Right. 

Many believe they owe much to these men’s accomplishments, but it never ceases to amaze what mythologies and legends can reinforce. Roosevelt’s electoral success throughout the 1930s and into the 1940s left the conservative movement moribund. Successive nominees were thumped in four consecutive elections that included the United States entering World War II and establishing its newfound role as a military power. When Thomas Dewey unexpectedly lost the 1948 election to Harry Truman, a president many Republicans believed fell short of the office, the party knew that it had to hold a serious post-mortem. FDR’s cure for the depression included the inception of several administrative programs that changed the social contract between Americans and their government. The conservative movement had little response. 

The flat-footed attempt to call FDR a socialist or a communist did not seem credible to most people. The only good news for conservatives occurred when the GOP took control of Congress in 1946 for two years, largely due to Truman’s unpopularity. As Continetti records, after 20 years in the political wilderness, the conservative movement wanted power, but finding a champion seemed elusive. As the party looked for a nominee in 1952 it seemed to come down to Robert Taft, the Ohio Senator, General Douglas MacArthur, or former Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Continetti’s analysis shines at this point. He acknowledges the struggle and dilemma that the movement faced. Gaining power seemed a non-negotiable priority. On the other hand, maintaining principles associated with limited government, a restrained foreign policy, and individual liberty meant that there would be an inevitable conflict with where the nation seemed to be settling. 

Once Eisenhower knew he would stand as a candidate, the die was cast. So impressive were Eisenhower’s credentials and respect that Truman, eligible for what would in all intents be a third term, gave little consideration to the idea. Ike won a resounding victory, bringing the U.S. Congress into Republican hands for a term and wielding great influence. Regretfully, he more or less absorbed the Roosevelt agenda, accepting the government’s greater role in individual lives. Differentiating Republicans and Democrats came down to foreign policy, an outcome many on the Right found unsatisfactory.

Continetti also speaks to the roles of Joseph McCarthy, William F. Buckley, and civil rights. These two men, along with the burgeoning desire of black Americans to claim their rightful place as equal partners in the American enterprise, takes up some space and allows the author to integrate the challenges McCarthy’s charges of communism within the ranks of America’s highest officials presented to the conservative movement.

At one point, Continetti relates an anecdote about Eisenhower sending Nixon on an errand to deal with McCarthy. The young Vice-President delivered a speech rebuking McCarthy, beginning the gradual decline of the Wisconsin senator’s influence within the Republican Party. 

Meanwhile, Buckley, founder of National Review, had to solidify his own ideas about civil rights for black Americans before he could neutralize efforts within the Right to embrace racism (John Birch Society). At first, Buckley and his followers defended states’ rights believing it best-expressed constitutionalism. Over time, Buckley changed course and recognized that advancing the tenets of a cohesive conservative message required an inclusive spirit. This could be reconciled with traditional institutional practices in family law, the application of criminal justice, and economic freedom. All of this laid the groundwork for conservatism’s move to the Sun Belt and into the hands of Barry Goldwater, then the former actor overseeing conservatism’s greatest triumphs.

Senator Goldwater’s capturing of the Republican nomination in 1964 and the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 bookend the two Nixon-Ford terms and Watergate. Nixon’s Southern strategy in 1968, often cited in liberal research, insists that Nixon’s campaign aimed to appeal to whites and divide America. Not surprisingly, Continetti points out the nuances of this interpretation while admitting that the white vote helped Nixon win. In fact, Nixon and Reagan won unprecedented triumphs, taking 49 states in their re-election campaigns, tallies never again replicated. No doubt, most liberals would find Continetti’s criticisms weak and lacking depth. Regardless, the party’s purpose was to win elections and exercise power, something it did regularly for a quarter of a century beginning with Nixon’s victories.

He dedicates a chapter to President Reagan and plainly gives him much credit, but does include some of the impatience the more vocal Right had for any Reagan accommodation with what the purists believed to be the enemy. Regardless of Reagan’s impressive achievements, there were still those who thought he should have done more. His and his successor’s agreements with the Soviets completed the eventual American victory in the Cold War. Even when the Reagan era ended with Bill Clinton’s ascension to the presidency in 1993, America had been so changed that Clinton could only tinker with expanding the government’s power and declared the end of the era of big government in his 1996 State of the Union speech. 

The last 20 years of the Right’s influence have included checkered results. George W. Bush spoke about a humbler foreign policy but never foresaw 9/11. Bush ended up nation-building, battling terrorism, and having a Congress that would often pass his initiatives. His idea of compassionate conservatism held some appeal, especially for the evangelical portion of the movement, but being caught up in foreign wars became an unexpected priority. Bush’s preoccupation with terrorism and then Iraq sowed the seeds of a new aversion to America’s role in the world. 

With communism defeated and the Soviet Union dissolved, Bush’s father and Bill Clinton pursued American dominance, but with the end goal of a New World Order. George W. Bush altered that goal, forcing America into defining enemies, like his description of the Axis of Evil (North Korea, Iran, and Iraq). These arrangements served until Bush left office, his approval underwater, and conservatism faced an existential crisis. 

The closing section of the book explains the rise of Donald Trump and his stomping of both Bushs’ visions, using terms like “America First” and reviving the isolationist strain in the party, last heard in the 1940s. Continetti gives Trump credit for advancing certain aspects of conservatism but sees Trump’s overall influence as populist. 

The president’s public policy and personal behaviour should be separated in the author’s mind. Trump’s hostile takeover of the GOP and claims to be conservative suffer at the whims of his undisciplined and personal interests. Continetti, however, does concede that many of Trump’s grievances and those of his admirers deserve a hearing and belong to the conservative movement, distinct from the methods Trump used to get there. Issues like immigration, abortion, and law enforcement remain part of the law and order Right in the age of progressive leniency. Whether or not the party can move beyond Trump and his peculiar antics remains the challenge. 

If you are searching for a definitive review of how the Right has emerged as a political force in America over the last century, this book offers a comprehensive history, complete with an excellent profile of references. What Continetti will have to address in his next work could be the dissolution of the Republican Party unless it can move past Donald Trump. The Trump loyalists threaten to resign the GOP to runner-up status. 

The next chapter in the story of the Right is ready to be written. Will it be the renewing of the Republican Party’s energy to win or the continued decline into second-rank status as the Right re-emerges in a new form? 

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