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Matthew Continetti may want a “viable” conservatism, but does he desire a winning conservatism?He seems more determined that the Republican Party and the conservative movement begin the difficult, but necessary, task of “untangling” themselves from Donald Trump rather than build a winning coalition.

Apparently, Matthew Continetti anticipated a Donald Trump without anticipating the Donald Trump. A young man of the Right, Mr. Continetti tells us that he has been “pondering the populist shift” within the Republican party for quite some time. Much of his early pondering was done from the vantage point of the staff of The Weekly Standard. It was while there that a barely thirty-something Continetti began to convert his ponderings into research for this book just as Barack Obama was about to begin his second term.

The fact that there was an Obama second term had led Mr. Continetti to ask himself why the GOP had failed to attract white, working-class voters in both significant and permanent numbers. During the near decade between Mr. Continetti’s ponderings and this book, he finally got an answer to his question.  Whether or not that answer was at all permanent still remained up in the air, but for the time being at least, that long-standing failure of the GOP had apparently come to an end.

Is Mr. Continetti pleased with this result? Yes… and no.  In other words, as of the publication of this book he is somewhere between not entirely pleased and not entirely displeased.

Mr. Continetti has also been writing from the vantage point of the conclusion of what he deems to have been a “hundred year war for American conservatism.” Whether the first century of such a war will be followed by a second century of the same is yet to be known. But given the more-than-occasional ferocity of the in-house battles detailed in this book, the likelihood of a sequel stretching over a lengthy course of time cannot be discounted. In fact, in some respects this book can be taken for the last shot in the first hundred-year war and the first shot in the second.

Mr. Continetti has chosen to open his history with the Republican ascendancy of the 1920s. Such a decision makes for a nice, neat century to explore and record. It also makes a good deal of sense, while at the same time making it possible for him to make a major point.

In a very real sense the history of the modern American Right is a history of its reaction to the rise of the modern American Left, which came in the form of a triple whammy of sorts, namely late-nineteenth century populism, followed by early-twentieth century socialism and progressivism.

Not until the 1920s was it certain that the Republican Party opposed not just the first two, but all three. Or had it truly decided to stand against the prewar progressive wave? For that matter, not until the 1930s was it certain that the Democratic party stood for—and was determined to build upon—the last of the three (and maybe two of the last three, at least in the minds of some of the conservatives under consideration in this book).

But Mr. Continetti is also determined to remind us that the story of the Right in the 1920s is not just the political story of the three Republican presidencies of Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover. It was also the heyday of libertarians on the order of H. L. Mencken and Albert J. Nock, neither of whom was exactly enamored with the American common man, otherwise defined by Mencken as the “booboosie.”

And there you have the beginning of the story that Mr. Continetti really wants to tell: the story of the tension within the conservative movement between its own intellectual elite and the masses, as well as the stories of whether, how, and/or if the Right should go about attracting the support of the masses, not to mention stories of Rightist attempts to exploit growing tensions between the Left elite and the masses.

In a very real sense, this is also a story that begins with Calvin Coolidge and a scribbler by the name of H. L. Mencken, as well as a story and ends with Donald Trump and a scribbler by the name of Matthew Continetti. A partial, if somewhat disguised, autobiography this book is not—and yet at moments is. How could it not be as the author injects himself and his opinions into the dramatic final few years of this hundred-year war?

To be sure, Mr. Continetti is no Mencken; nor does he claim to be. And Donald Trump is no Calvin Coolidge; nor has he claimed to be. And yet there is a link between the latter pair, a link that extends beyond the fact that each Republican president provides a convenient bookend to Mr. Continetti’s hundred-year war.

More than that, Mr. Trump seems to serve as the actual end point of Mr. Continetti’s ponderings, not to mention the temporary conclusion to his story of the long-running battles within the conservative movement, battles both between its elites and the masses and among its elites over how to deal with the masses.

Trump and Coolidge? Does Mr. Continetti really regard Donald Trump as the second coming of Calvin Coolidge? The notion seems preposterous on its face. And to our author it is—and yet it isn’t, at least not entirely. On the one hand, Trump represents a “return to the beliefs and practices” of the Republican Party of the 1920s (read Americanism, protectionism, immigration limits, tax cuts, and a version of isolationism), coupled with the “religious populism of William Jennings Bryan.”

On the other hand, there are “serious differences” between these two Republican presidents, differences that extend beyond Mr. Continetti’s concession that their policies “may have shared the same spirit.” Of course, there is the obvious difference that Coolidge was a “model of reticence and deportment,” while Mr. Trump was, shall we say… well let’s let the author say it: while Trump “was not.”

In addition, Coolidge was “distinctly American in philosophy and outlook,” while Mr. Trump “resembles national populist leaders” to be found in any number of other countries. And yet… and yet Mr. Trump is distinctly American in his own distinctly American way.

Lastly, Coolidge presided over a “normal” government in a “normal” time, while Mr. Trump was forever “outside the system,” even as president. Well, yes—and no.  Mr. Continetti sees Coolidge as a status-quo president and Mr. Trump as something other than that. And yet both sought to upend, or certainly establish limits on, the progressive status quo, whether it be the recently-established progressive status quo initiated by Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, or the entrenched progressive status quo of the administrative state of the twenty-first century.

To be sure, neither president qualifies as a member of what Mr. Continetti calls the “conservative movement.” There really was no such intellectual or political movement at the start of this hundred-year war, and Donald Trump had never been a movement conservative by anyone’s stretch of the imagination.

Nonetheless, both belong on and to the Right. At least each belonged there while each was president. The younger Coolidge was part of the pre-World War I progressive movement, and both the younger and older Trump were many things politically prior to his 2015 entry into the Republican race for president.

Most of this book deals with various battles within the larger conservative war, battles that Mr. Continetti contends were often more vicious than any seemingly lesser skirmishes between Right and Left. By his own estimation, the result is neither intellectual history, “strictly speaking,” nor political sociology. In fact, it is some of both plus more than either of the two.

But why the “Right,” rather than the “conservative movement”? The Right is shorter and catchier, but it also makes a point. Whittaker Chambers pointedly referred to himself as a “man of the right,” rather than a conservative. He did so not after rejecting communism and leaving the Communist Party, but only after becoming a man of deep religious faith (Quakerism) and finally and completely leaving, rejecting, and scorning any and all secular faiths. And yet Chambers made a point of urging conservatives not to roll back the New Deal.

Matthew Continetti, who is a convert to Judaism, may be making a similar declaration here. In any event, at the very least he seems to regard a commitment to religious faith, as well as a commitment to the principles of the American founding, as crucial to one’s association with the American Right (as opposed to the “throne and altar” European Right). Whether and to what degree those commitments are consistent with big-government progressivism seems to bedevil both Mr. Continetti and his subjects.

In the end, Mr. Continetti seems to define the Right simply in terms of one’s opposition to the Left. As such, much of the book details the reaction of those on the Right to programs and policies imposed by the Left. The story of this reaction is often a story of internal battles over what to keep and what to jettison among the legislative and bureaucratic “accomplishments” of everything from the New Deal to the Great Society and beyond.

There really was no “conservative movement” to speak of until there was an entrenched New Deal to oppose or trim or reform. And there was no conservative movement of lasting consequence until there was an eight-year Eisenhower administration that did little of any consequence to un-entrench the New Deal.

The key figures in this story are, not surprisingly, William F. Buckley, Russell Kirk, Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. Mr. Continetti accords each of the four a major role in his story.  In truth, the bulk of his version of this hundred year war is devoted to the few decades when this quartet was in their nearly simultaneous heyday.  At the same time, much more than cameo roles are given to fellow Rightists of that era, specifically James Burnham, Frank Meyer, Phyllis Schafly, and Pat Buchanan among not a few others.

But always the central focus is the matter of the elites and the masses, or the elites versus the masses, since these matters are always uppermost in Mr. Continetti’s mind. The question to which our author keeps returning is this: How does the American Right build a successful political coalition that is both populist (in the best sense of that controversial word) and principled (in the only sense of that crucial word)?

Along the way, Mr. Continetti makes it clear that he has no time for the “dishonesty” that was “characteristic” of a populist by the name of Joe McCarthy, who finally crashed and burned as a result of his investigations into the state of the U.S. Army. “In reality,” our author concludes, McCarthy’s “demagoguery pushed the political system to the limit.” Still, one wonders if a latter day populist-inspired exploration into the doings of the “woke” military of the 2020s would produce a different list of those who deserve to crash and burn.

At the time, one of McCarthy’s staunch defenders was William F. Buckley. If there was an original leader of the post-World War II “conservative movement” it surely was Buckley, rather than, say, Mr. Republican, Senator Robert Taft. Having been “socialized,” but not “domesticated” by his experience in the Army, the young Buckley was much like the still youngish Matthew Continetti. He was “neither an elitist nor a libertarian,” and yet he was “not quite a traditionalist either.”

“Acutely aware” of the disconnect between conservative intellectuals and political institutions, Buckley spent the 1950s building “counterinstitutions,” far from the least of which was National Review. If he had an intellectual mentor, it was probably the majoritarian, Wilmoore Kendall, who thought that the American public, while basically conservative, and certainly right of center, had been “led astray by a ruling elite.”

Mr. Continetti later returns to that very notion by giving a hearing to the ideas of the recently deceased Angelo Codevilla, whose 2010 book, The Ruling Class, contends that the Republican party has essentially served as the junior partner of the ruling class Democrats, both of whom stand athwart the “Country Party,” which is Codevilla’s term for the American working class, urban and rural. Mr. Continetti doesn’t disagree with that contention, but he doesn’t seem to want to fully embrace it either.

Again and again Mr. Continetti returns to hopeful hints of what’s to come along these lines. More than once this brings him back to the same William F. Buckley who once famously said that he would rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone book than by the Harvard faculty. In 1965, for example, Buckley supported the working-class backlash in his New York mayoral campaign, a campaign that “accidentally uncovered the future base of the Republican party.”

The 1970s soon proved to be a time of great tumult and equally great anticipation within the conservative movement. In the midst of the Watergate scandal and the electoral disasters that followed—and the disastrous Carter presidency that followed those disasters—came the rise of the neoconservatives, battles between neocons and paleocons, the rise of social conservatism, the growth of the Heritage Foundation, and a New Right that Paul Weyrich declared was determined to produce “change,” rather than “conserve.”

All of this proved to be a prelude to Ronald Reagan. Mr. Continetti does not hesitate to associate the word “populism” with Reagan. At the same time he concedes that Reagan essentially didn’t really try to reverse the New Deal or the Great Society, even as he often “harkened back” to Calvin Coolidge.

Not for nothing, the author concludes, did some of the president’s conservative critics deride him as a “right wing liberal.” Maybe it was Fred Barnes, then of the New Republic, later of The Weekly Standard, who put the best possible face on it all: “Since we’re going to have big government anyway, it makes more sense to have conservative big government.”

Mr. Continetti takes his story all the way to 2021, but the Barnes line probably captures the state of Matthew Continetti’s thinking as the first hundred-years war comes to an end. And if forced to choose, he would surely take the “sunny” populism of a Reagan over the “demagogic” populism of a Trump.

At the end of this hundred-years war, Mr. Continetti tells us that 2021 was “eerily similar” to 1921, even though the two parties had reversed themselves. Now it was Joe Biden who stood for “normalcy,” while Donald Trump was the Bryanite “outsider.” Really? The recent rush of the Democrats to the Left, despite their slim majorities, resembles anything but normalcy. It may be normalcy for the increasingly-dominant Left wing of the Democratic party, but it isn’t exactly what Warren Harding had in mind.

Mr. Continetti also concludes that, as of 2021, the Right found itself in the “same hole it had dug with Charles Lindbergh, Joe McCarthy, the John Birch Society, George Wallace, and Pat Buchanan.” More than that, the Right was “unable to get out of the hole.” Worse than that, “it did not want to.”

There you have it. Mr. Continetti ends his story of this long war not with a bang, but a whimper. Or does he? Having completed his hundred-year history, our author cannot content himself to let it go at that. In a concluding chapter titled “An American Conservatism,” Mr. Continetti seeks to point a way out of the “hole.”

Ever circumspect and often puckish, he cannot resist firing this parting shot: Many of America’s problems today are the “result of too much liberalism.” The question—and for Mr. Continetti is it an “open question”—is whether or not there is a “viable conservatism” to “resist” what liberalism has wrought.

But is resistance enough? Perhaps it’s time for conservatives to take the lead, while Democrats and the Left are reduced to junior party status. Perhaps it’s time to reverse Barack Obama’s arc of history by making—and winning—the case against an ever more powerful central government. Perhaps it’s time to make the case that government itself is not just a special interest, but the most powerful of all special interests. Perhaps it’s time for American conservatives and the Republican party to solidify its current hold on the American working class.

Mr. Continetti may want a “viable” conservatism, but does he desire a winning conservatism? That, too, is apparently an open question. As a second hundred-year internal conservative war is perhaps about to begin, he seems more determined that the Republican Party and the conservative movement begin the difficult, but necessary, task of “untangling” themselves from Donald Trump rather than build a winning coalition. Matthew Continetti may have fired his shot, but has he fired it in the wrong direction?

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The featured image is a photograph of “President Ronald Reagan Walking Along The White House Colonnade and Waving Goodbye, 1/20/1989,” and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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