Why the GOP has a history of attracting populist views

If history is any guide, Republicans are poised to retake control of the House of Representatives after this year's midterm elections. But a battle is underway within the GOP about its beliefs and its future. Matthew Continetti, author of the new book, "The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism," joins Amna Nawaz to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As those key Republican primary elections are taking place across the country, a battle is under way within the GOP about its beliefs and its future.

    Amna Nawaz has that.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The Republican Party has long been the political party of choice for conservatives.

    But as Matthew Continetti explains in his new book, "The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism," the GOP has also historically attracted those with populist views, similar to what we're seeing today.

    Matt Continetti joins me now.

    Welcome to the "NewsHour." Thanks for being here.

    Matthew Continetti, Author, "The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism": Thank you for having me.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, the book takes a much longer view than a lot of people who look at conservatism these days. Starts in the 1920s, tracking the evolution of conservatism to today.

    Why do you describe this as a war? What have you seen?

  • Matthew Continetti:

    Well, a war is a way of describing really a struggle for dominance between two main groups, intellectual elites on one hand, and then the populist grassroots on the other.

    And what I found in my 100-year study is that there have been times where these two groups, the elites and the populists, have cooperated, but, more often, there have been times where they're in conflict, where the conservative intellectuals, the conservative movement wanted one thing, and the populists wanted another thing, usually when it comes to the question of who should be the leader of this movement and of this party.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We're in that struggle right now too?

  • Matthew Continetti:

    Of course, yes.

    We have been going through this struggle in many ways since 1992 over which direction the Republican Party should take. Should it be more nationalist? Should it be more globalist or more open to global engagement? But, certainly since 2015 and the rise of Donald Trump, that struggle has been tilted toward, I think, the populist side.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You write about how, obviously, anti-communism was an early sort of organizing principle, right? If you said you were conservative, that was a strong part of your identity.

    That went away with the Cold War. So, what — what are the organizing principles today?

    when someone says, "I'm conservative," what does that mean?

  • Matthew Continetti:

    Well, it could mean many things, precisely because that glue that anti-communism provided the movement no longer exists.

    So, when I look at the right today, and you ask someone, you're a conservative, what does that mean, I think one unifying factor would be opposition to political correctness, opposition to the so-called woke ideology, especially when it manifests itself in cultural institutions.

    That seems to be a binding commitment that many people on the right hold today.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What about the potential overturning of Roe, right?

    Opposition to abortion rights has also been a core organizing principle. It's a 50-year fight conservatives could be winning. Does that does that take away an organizing principle?

  • Matthew Continetti:

    Well, I think it would actually vindicate those on the right who have said that working through institutions could produce results.

    So, if Roe v. Wade is overturned by the end of this Supreme Court term, that would actually be a win for the more establishment forces, who are able to say to the populists, look, we took 50 years. We had victories, we had setbacks, but we worked our way through the courts, through the judicial process, through organizations like the Federalist Society, and we finally came out with a win, overturning Roe v. Wade.

    That, I think, would be a powerful tool for the more intellectual elite conservatives to use to reorient the movement more in their direction, as opposed to the grassroots populist side.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But it does take away one of those kinds of rallying cries, right, that this is why we need to back our candidates because of this particular fight.

    And some of the other rallying cries we have seen gaining ground often now include a lot more of those sort of dangerous and ugly messages that used to be on the fringes, and are now kind of finding their way more into the mainstream, some of these even really dangerous like white supremacist ideas, like we saw linked to the alleged shooter in Buffalo.

    There's really been no meaningful effort from leadership to condemn these kinds of things, though. So, why not?

  • Matthew Continetti:

    It was very important for the conservative movement coming out of World War II to really define the parameters of conservatism, for William F. Buckley Jr., the leader of the postwar conservative movement, to say, antisemites can't be a part of my conservatism. Conspiracy theorists can't be a part of my conservatism. Anarchists can't be a part of my conservatism.

    In the new era, in the social media era, gatekeepers like William F. Buckley Jr. no longer exist. And so it's incumbent on people to police their own institutions. And some conservatives have done a better job than others at that.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But we're not seeing that kind of gatekeeping even from leadership.

  • Matthew Continetti:


  • Amna Nawaz:


  • Matthew Continetti:

    Well, I think there's a problem. There's a tribal instinct that kicks in…

  • Amna Nawaz:


  • Matthew Continetti:

    … especially these days, that when Republicans or conservatives see the liberals in the media or in politics saying one thing, they instantly want to be against it.

    And there's a rallying behind the opposing idea. And you see that playing out now with discussions over culpability for this awful act in Buffalo.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    When you talk about the populist movement kind of gaining ground, the largest conservative conference is going to be hosted in Hungary, right, with Viktor Orban as their keynote speaker, who is an ally of Vladimir Putin.

    What does that say to you about where that conservative center of gravity is right now? And does it alarm you?

  • Matthew Continetti:

    It does.

    It's important to me as an American conservative that we put the American in conservatism, that we have reference to the American founding, to the ideals not always worked out in practice of that founding, and to the political institutions embodied in the Constitution, the rule of law, the free market, and civil society.

    When I see elements of the right look to European continental models of governance, I become very concerned, precisely because there's an un-Americanness to them, and that they look away from American traditions, American politics. That's where I think the future of conservatism ought to lie, with the United States.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That's where you think it ought to lie.

    But, based on what you have seen right now, with some of these more extremist forces, misinformation campaigns, you say in your book what a lot of conservatives will not say out loud, that Joe Biden won the 2020 election.

    Are you concerned conservatism is being overtaken by extremism here?

  • Matthew Continetti:

    I wouldn't have written the book if I wasn't so concerned.

    I do think there are some signs of hope. If we had been having this conversation in may of 2014, neither of us would have said that Donald Trump would be the Republican nominee in 2016 or the president. Or, if we had said that, we'd be very rich, because we could have won money on the betting markets.

    So what that tells me is that politics changes, and changes quickly.A new Republican leader could reorient the movement in, I think, a more positive, forward-looking, agenda-driven direction.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The book is "The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism."

    The author is Matt Continetti.

    Thank you so much for being here.

  • Matthew Continetti:

    Thank you.

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