How Conservatives Forged the MAGA Right

September 11, 2022 Topic: Politics Region: Americas Tags: PoliticsGOPRepublican PartyMAGADonald TrumpBook Review

How Conservatives Forged the MAGA Right

In The Right, Matthew Continetti offers a sweeping and flawed history of modern conservatism.

Continetti makes no argument about the underlying unity of interests on the Right, beyond opposition to the Left. Had he done so, Continetti may have been able to make larger claims about the Right and about America. The Right is best understood as opposed to the Left’s belief in reducing inequalities on the basis that inequalities are either natural or ineradicable—and perhaps even good. This shared assumption, and the political and intellectual efforts to resist challenges to various hierarchies, define the Right. Recognizing this would have let Continetti make more sense of the disparate American Right—both its values and the way it coalesces into coalitions. This understanding would also have allowed Continetti to dig into the peculiar hierarchies and privileges wending through American history that give the American Right its character. For example, business above workers, natural-born citizens above immigrants, (often Protestant) Christianity above secularism or other faiths, Jacksonian masculinity above other expressions of gender, the United States above the rest, and, inevitably, white above black. Of course, not everyone on the Right has faith in the same hierarchies. Unpacking these differences would have helped Continetti explain the intra-right conflicts he details.

Without a robust organizing concept of the Right, Continetti trips over the Right’s problem with racism. For instance, he claims the “Republicans of the 1920s were caught” between “their belief in equality and their belief in limited government. This contradiction would ensnare the Right for ages.” Even within conservatism, the idea that equality is a conservative principle has been deeply controversial, and the suggestion that 1920s Republicans believed in anything like modern equality is far-fetched. And suppose we take it at face value, the Right has always chosen limited government over equality. Continetti laments personal racism and the Right’s frequent inability to “discuss families, culture, crime, educational and financial attainment, and personal agency without tripping over the color line.” Again and again, Continetti assesses men who slipped into racist views, whether William F. Buckley, Jr. writers for National Review, Richard Weaver, the Southern Agrarians, James Kilpatrick, George Wallace, paleoconservatives, Charles Murray in The Bell Curve, or Dinesh D’Souza. But without recognizing the historic place of whiteness in American society, Continetti is unable to explain just why the Right is so often preoccupied with defending racially controversial issues. Instead, we hear how Jack Kemp’s drive to win black and Hispanic voters failed to “capture the imagination of white voters.” Please.

ELSEWHERE, CONTINETTI argues “the conflation of arguments against government expansion with defenses of white supremacy limited the reach of conservatism.” It’s true “States’ rights” and to a lesser extent “federalism” are suspect today as the slogans of segregationists. But Continetti’s claim contradicts a mountain of scholarship that has found activists—from Atlanta, to Boston, to Detroit, to Southern California—reached for anti-government, private property arguments in their opposition to desegregation as race facilitated the breakup of the New Deal coalition. In this respect, while the tortured history of racism in America has perhaps limited the attractiveness of conservatism, it has also been a motivating force. The truth is that conservative ideology has always appealed to a relatively small band of insurgents. Many voters are motivated by partisanship and deep-seated if inchoate beliefs—not by ideology. Ideas may have consequences, but they don’t motivate mass coalitions. Continetti argues that “the Right has toggled between elite-driven strategy in both content and constituencies and a populist strategy that meets normal people where they are and is driven by their ambitions, anxieties, and animosities.” In framing the Right as “elites” and “populists,” though, Continetti too often cabins off the conservative elite and ascribes the Right’s worst tendencies to “populism” and extremism. His ideal is a Right with the electoral strength of everyday voters disciplined by wise elites. Continetti doesn’t dwell overlong on when and how conservative elites have abetted “populists,” or consider the ramifications of an elite movement reliant on morally dubious populists.

Following Nixon’s implosion, Continetti writes knowledgeably and sympathetically about the neoconservatives and the mainstreaming of conservative ideas, including supply-side economics, as well as the emergence of a populist-driven New Right. Continetti deftly moves beyond the conservative ascent to its breakdown post-Reagan. No clear successor to Reagan emerged—neither George Bush, Pat Buchanan, nor Jack Kemp united the Right, although Continetti highlights Buchanan’s melding of Old Right ideas with popular enthusiasm. Continetti describes the “third generation” of conservative activism characterized by Dinesh D’Souza, and the creation of a conservative ecosystem that rivaled the liberal-dominated mainstream all the while isolating conservatives intellectually and professionally in right-wing silos. After the Cold War, the Right desperately sought a unifying force, and it trained its fire explicitly on domestic liberals. Continetti highlights Rush Limbaugh, whose “importance to the conservative movement cannot be overstated.” Bill Bennett said Rush was doing to culture what Reagan had done to the political movement. At the height of this search, Continetti cites Christopher Caldwell to the effect that “Monica Lewinsky became a substitute for anti-Communism.” The Right failed to convict Bill Clinton, but conservative media thrived. “Populist” energies intensified in the form of the Sarah Palin vice-presidential campaign, the Birther Movement, and anti-immigration and anti-interventionist sentiment (although Continetti never mentions QAnon). Continetti identifies how the Iraq War destroyed the credibility of conservative elite guardrails. By 2016, Continetti has set the stage well for Donald Trump not only to win “folk libertarian,” populist support over the likes of Jeb Bush, pointing out how New Right organizations were the first to align with Trump, but also how Trump assiduously won over conservative bodies like the National Rifle Association, the pro-life movement, the Federalist Society, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and supply-side economists. In doing so, Trump “disestablished the postwar conservatism of Buckley and Goldwater, of Irving Kristol and Ronald Reagan, William Kristol and George W. Bush.”

NOW, THE MAGA Right resembles the GOP of the 1920s, this time out of power. Instead of confidently defending American institutions, it is anxious and apocalyptic. It is closer to the “populism” of William Jennings Bryan, “who rallied under one banner all those who felt excluded from or dispossessed by the economic, social, and cultural powers of his time.” Continetti concludes, “The job of a conservative is to remember.” He is too much of a self-conscious heir of the conservative movement to be truly critical. He warbles, “over the past century, conservatism has risen up to defend the essential moderation of the American political system against liberal excess. Conservatism has been there to save liberalism from weakness, woolly-headedness, and radicalism.” He neglects to mention how much the conservative movement allowed the extremism of broader Right—by allying with it, justifying, and fostering the apocalyptic anti-liberalism that fuels it. Continetti credulously buys conservative claims when he argues a movement built in opposition of liberalism and that made its bones by demonizing liberalism has, somehow, been liberalism’s savior.

A thorough reading of academic scholarship about the broader Right would have helped Continetti place conservatism within it more than the hagiographic histories he cites. Continetti is also too much of a conservative to imagine an alternative to MAGA as anything but a return to the golden era of movement conservatism with some Trumpist concessions. He calls for the usual balderdash—a return to the principles of anti-statism, constitutionalism, patriotism, and antisocialism, never mind that on the Right these have largely been obstructive values. Compare Continetti with Garry Wills, the conservative wunderkind turned wide-ranging cultural critic. He learned directly from the chief theorists and practitioners of conservatism. His conservative conscience—the product of living experience—let him skewer the contradictions of conservatism and the Right. As self-appointed heir, Continetti can only defend conservatism’s entombed traditions.

Joshua Tait is a historian of American conservatism. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Image: Reuters.