A surprising conservative look at the history of the right

Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump at an event in 1990.
Photo: Bei/Shutterstock

The conservative intelligentsia greeted the rise of Donald Trump with disgust that follows a well-worn script. It laments how the once grand standards of the conservative movement have fallen into a sorry state. Where William F. Buckley had excluded cranks and fanatics from the party, his heirs now invited them.

That was the line from Matthew Continetti, editor of the Washington Free beacon, offered. “By banning anti-Semites, Birchers and anti-American reactionaries from his pages,” he wrote in 2016, National Review had once “determined which conservative arguments were legitimate and which were not,” rendering “quirky, conspiratorial, bigoted” conservatives “powerless.”

And it’s the interpretation I expected The right, Continetti’s New History of American Conservatism. Instead, after studying the intersection of conservative thought and politics over the past century, Continetti finds that there have always been cranks and bigots who were hardly powerless, often working hand-in-hand with Buckley and other conservatives they purportedly had banned. “Trump was no extraterrestrial invader of American conservatism,” he writes, “in combining Coolidge’s political views with McCarthy’s rabble-rousing, Donald Trump was the return of a repressed memory.”

Photo: Basic Books

Continetti exaggerates how “repressed” this memory was, but let’s put that aside for now and appreciate how heretical and surprising his book turned out to be. Continetti is not a moderator. He is the author of The Pursuit of Sarah Palinand once inaugurated his cutting-up partisan organ with one manifest Call for “combat journalism”. But instead of producing yet another gold-embossed portrait of a legend he’s polished in the past, Continetti debunks it instead.

William F. Buckley, he concedes, harbored a “distrust of the democratic process,” resisted even Eisenhower’s lukewarm support for civil rights, and believed that “efforts to improve the lives of black people led America down the path to serfdom.” . Along with the vast majority of conservative intellectuals, Buckley defended Joe McCarthy, whose lies they saw as a useful bludgeon against the liberal establishment.

In fact, Continetti discovered a lot of apostasy. Among the conclusions that the right is generally reluctant to admit, but which he notes, are the following:

  • Until well into the 1920s, conservatives believed in “social Darwinism,” a creed that saw the free market as a tool, like natural selection, to separate the fit from the unfit. (When Barack Obama used the term to describe laissez-faire extremism a decade ago, conservatives threw a fit.)
  • There is an inherent “contradiction” between the conservative belief in equality and limited government.
  • The American public generally rejects the belief held by critics of the New Deal that what’s good for business is good for everyone.
  • The American right often adopts a disastrous view of government not found elsewhere in conservative parties.
  • American liberals and even many socialists were at odds with the right not over the merits of communism, which many of them opposed, but over McCarthyism, which conservatives supported. Moreover, conservatives tend to falsely deny “every difference between American liberalism and European totalitarianism.”
  • George Wallace (whom modern conservatives have treated as alien to their movement) was a right-wing man who had much in common with the conservatives and received important support from them.

Continetti tries to write a story about how Donald Trump came about, but he pulls together the threads of American conservatism that make Trump’s rise explainable, if not inevitable. He synthesizes the plutocratic, populist and racist currents on the right to show elements of a movement unable to come to terms with the political compromises inherent in a multiracial democratic capitalist state.

While he dismisses the right’s traditional rosy view of Buckley and the 1950s as the birthpoint of a serious Republican party, he instead defers that point a decade later. In Continetti’s narrative, the 1960s, not the 1950s, is when the conservative movement got serious. The neoconservatives are the heroes of its history, transforming the Republican Party into a responsible governing power.

This part of Continetti’s argument is based on a smug account that contains at least some important elements of truth. Unlike the paleoconservatives National Review Rejecting civil rights and the New Deal, the neoconservatives treated both as a fait accompli. Their critique of big government was at least a little more specific and empirical. And the timing of its emergence in the late 1960s coincides with the rise of the Republican Party to a majority from Nixon to Reagan.

The neoconservatives, Continetti argues, seized leadership of the party and pushed it to its peak, only for their rule to collapse with the failure of the Iraq war. (Continetti believes the war would have been successful if conservatives had seen through the occupation instead of losing patience with it.) This opened the door for the unbuilt elements of the right, lurking in the shadows all along, to regain the upper hand .

Continetti’s argument leads him to glorify the heroes in his story. The neoconservatives are apparently devoid of any racial motivation, and their racial policies are merely a reaction to leftist hyperbole. One of the heroes in his account is Edward Banfield, who argued in 1970 that the only source of the urban crisis was “contemporary” blacks. Incredibly, Continetti treats this argument as “an obstinate scholar whose research was unassailable but anathema to liberals.” The conservative claim that racism is gone is still hard to believe today; The idea that blacks only blamed themselves in 1970, as if five years of de jure equality had overcome centuries of accumulated social and economic disadvantage, is absurd.

Continetti also treats Ronald Reagan as a true saint, a man “extremely sensitive to allegations of racism.” He admits that Reagan shared racist quips with Richard Nixon in the 1970s — in parts of the White House tapes uncovered in 2019, Reagan mocked African diplomats as “monkeys” for Nixon — but Continetti dismisses it as unique: “That’s saying it that historians have found only one instance in which he made a bigoted remark,” he argues. (It would be quite coincidental if Reagan’s only private racist diatribe happened when it happened to be secretly recorded by Nixon’s secret White House tape system!)

He also ignores Reagan’s oft-used denunciations of a “welfare queen” or “straight young bucks” with food stamps, as well as the habitual racism of another of his protagonists, Rush Limbaugh, whom he praises.

His carefree handling of racism in the party is uncomfortable next to his harsh judgment of anti-Semitism. Continetti recounts at length numerous anti-Semitic insults perpetrated by various paleoconservatives, leaving the strange impression that prejudice against Jews is pervasive among the Republican elite, while prejudice against blacks is rare.

He presents the rise of the supply side within the party – orchestrated by neocon maestro Irving Kristol – as evidence of the party’s seriousness in domestic politics. (Even right-wing economists have conceded that the supply side consisted of charlatans and crackpots.) He gullibly quotes Reagan boasting about his economic program that “those who have least will gain most” without noting that, in fact, those those who had the most won the most.

There are dissonant facts that flash through Continetti’s story without him stopping to consider the challenge they pose to his thesis. If the neocons were the force that maintained responsible mainstream governance within the party before Trump’s madness got the better of them, why did the towering neocon Norman Podhoretz attack Reagan from the right and then support Trump? Why did neoconservatives (including Continetti) introduce and rally behind the populist Sarah Palin?

Here lies the major flaw in his thesis: while acknowledging the racist and authoritarian tendencies within the party, he seeks to cram them all into a single faction and acquit the rest of the party, even though they have worked hand in hand for decades.

Continetti’s argument becomes increasingly confused as his historical narrative approaches the present. Still, it offers a lot of value and honesty. A clear reassessment of the neoconservatives and the Reagan-era party is expected from another author. Meanwhile, Continetti has provided some invigorating honesty about the origins and true nature of the conservative movement.

https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2022/04/a-surprising-conservative-look-at-the-history-of-the-right.html A surprising conservative look at the history of the right

Laura Coffey

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