December 30, 2022

Matthew Continetti

Author and journalist Matthew Continetti discusses the evolution and future of the American conservative movement. He examines how figures like William F. Buckley Jr., Ronald Reagan, Rush Limbaugh and Donald Trump led, shaped and changed the right.

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The American Conservative Movement and where it’s headed next…… 


Reagan: Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem. 


The election of Ronald Regan to the highest office in the land marked the biggest political victory of the Conservative movement. One of the movement’s leading luminaries was William F Buckley Jr, the creator of National Review and the host of Firing Line for 33 years


Buckley: Senator Goldwater is both a Republican and a conservative.


Over the years – conservatives have coalesced around certain ideas: anti-communism, free markets, and opposition to modern liberalism. 


Gingrich: He likes big government in Washington, we want to decentralize back to the states. 

And the movement has evolved.


Rush Limbaugh: This is the rebirth of a principled opposition.


It’s even changed to the point that it’s difficult to recognize


Trump: We fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore,”


These are all subjects of the definitive new book on American Conservatism by Matthew Continetti, 


Protesters Fight for Trump!


How did we get here – and where is Conservatism heading next?


Continetti on FL: For conservatives like me our beliefs are not always going to be reflected by the Republican Party any longer.  That doesn’t mean we abandon our beliefs.


This Week on Firing Line.


‘Firing Line’ with Margaret Hoover is made possible in part by: Robert Granieri, Charles R. Schwab, The Fairweather Foundation, Asness Family Foundation, The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation, The Center For The Study Of The International Economy Inc, Damon Button, Pritzker Military Foundation on behalf of the Pritzker Military Museum and Library, The Marc Haas Foundation, corporate funding is provided by Stephens Inc.


HOOVER  Matthew Continetti, welcome to Firing Line. 


CONTINETTI Thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here. 


HOOVER You are a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. And you have written a book about the modern American conservative movement. It’s entitled The Right: The Hundred Year War for American Conservatism. Now, it traces the conservative movement from the 1920s through President Biden’s inauguration. Will you start by briefly defining what it means to be a conservative now? 


CONTINETTI Well, it’s a hot topic. And I think one of the problems with the American right today, Margaret, is that no one is really clear on what a conservative is. That’s one of the reasons why I wrote the book. And I think the definition I’ve settled on is that an American conservative wants to conserve the political ideas and the political institutions of the American founding. And those are distinctively American institutions and ideas. And they preserve a wide latitude of individual freedom and freedom of civil society that I think is absent in other forms of conservatism elsewhere in the world. 


HOOVER You framed the book around a quote, “endless competition and occasional collaboration between populism and elitism” is what marks the movement. You know, where does this tension stand right now? 


CONTINETTI Conservatism has always been divided between its intellectuals, between its wordsmiths – the editors and writers and policy wonks – and the grass roots, the people who don’t reside in the Beltway, who don’t reside in New York City, the activists, the single-issue voters. There’s always been a tension between these two groups. And I think in today’s America, the right is predominantly populist. It’s anti-elitist, it’s anti-establishment. It’s anti expert opinion. And that means that conservative intellectuals are kind of pushed to the margins of a movement that they once defined and led. 




HOOVER So you do us a favor, I think, in the book, by placing the beginning, the foundation of the conservative movement, not where most people think, in response to the New Deal, but actually in the 1920s with Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge. 


CONTINETTI Right. Well, when I began the book in the 1920s, it was really in order to kind of explain how American conservativism came into being. Because for Presidents Harding and Coolidge, ‘conservatism’ wasn’t really a term that they used. FDR, with the 1932 election, his landslide victories, really amassed huge amounts of power to the federal government and to its regulatory agencies. Opponents of FDR, who normally had not thought of themselves as conservatives, began working against him and began being called conservatives and found that they eventually became accustomed to the term. And the textbook case that I mentioned in the book, of course, is Herbert Hoover, President Herbert Hoover, who never really thought of himself as a conservative. In his mind, he was an American individualist. But as the New Deal progressed, he saw himself being labeled a conservative more and more. And in fact, even after he left office, Hoover, as you are well aware, became more and more a critic of the New Deal, and more of a spokesman for the burgeoning American conservatism. 


HOOVER It’s true that Hoover was this advocate for these ideas as an anti-New Dealer. He was almost the most prominent sort of conservative voice in the American landscape until, you know, a series of conservative intellectuals began publishing and began coalescing in the 1950s around a bright, young new voice in William F Buckley Jr, who of course, was the host of this program originally. Can you talk about that role that William F Buckley Jr played at the founding of the movement as it begins to coalesce in the 1950s? 


CONTINETTI Well, it was absolutely instrumental. I mean, I often wonder whether there would have been a conservative movement without William Buckley, Jr. He quickly assumes a leadership role amidst this explosion of conservative intellectual activity that’s happening after World War Two. One thing that’s interesting is that he quickly begins defining his conservatism in opposition to the popular conservative president at the time, Dwight Eisenhower. Eisenhower did not try to roll back communism. For the conservatives like Buckley, it wasn’t enough to simply contain the Soviet Union. You had to roll back communism, defeat it. 




HOOVER My reading of the history based on, you know, your book and others is that conservatives didn’t feel that Eisenhower was a conservative. And so they sided with McCarthy, who was challenging the status quo. 


CONTINETTI Yes. I mean, that’s right. And, you know, McCarthy was a huge force in the Republican Party and in national politics. And the conservatives championed his cause. They believed that even if he was wrong about a lot of the details, even if he overreached in a lot of his investigations, he still had the grasp of the central idea of the time, which was that communism posed a threat both externally and internally inside the federal government. And Buckley was defending McCarthy pretty much right up until the end when McCarthy was censured by the U.S. Senate in the end of 1954. The issue of National Review that’s published after McCarthy’s death is filled with articles praising him, talking about his virtues, and really repeating this central line of argument, which is that no matter his faults, McCarthy understood the basic challenge of the time. It’s very similar language, I feel, to many conservatives who defend Donald Trump today. They’ll say, ‘Yes, yes, you know, his tweets are mean. Yes, he does things like take the documents to Mar a Lago. But Donald Trump understands the threat’I think, typically, today they’ll say from the ‘woke left’ – and therefore he deserves our support and admiration. After McCarthy is censured, the right in America is leaderless. And so they need to find new leaders. And that process takes off with the rise of Barry Goldwater, culminating in his nomination for the presidency in 1964. And in Goldwater, the Conservatives had a leader who was true and true conservative, but also, much more focused on the external threat of communism than the internal one. 




HOOVER I’m glad you mentioned Goldwater, because I want you to listen to Buckley’s tribute to Goldwater on the original Firing Line, after his death in 1998. Take a listen to this. 


BUCKLEY He was a considerable figure in America. A presidential candidate, of course, but a figure who, by espousing so forcefully conservative ideals, gave political America the sense that we hadn’t been entirely drowned by the New Deal. And, of course, Goldwater was unremitting in his opposition to communism, whose defeat he lived to see.




HOOVER Let me ask you about another aspect of the Goldwater legacy, and it’s that Goldwater announces that he won’t support the Civil Rights Act. The realignment of the South, away from the Democratic Party for the first time since the Civil War happened in that election, in 1964. And there is a criticism that I know you’re aware of from the left, that actually the conservative movement has—and this is the kindest assertion—is that it has provided safe haven for racism in the United States. And I wonder if, you know, how you reconcile this and whether there isn’t some truth to this. 


CONTINETTI Well, it’s a complicated topic. I think we have to look first at Goldwater. Goldwater was not a racist. He desegregated the Senate cafeteria. He was a founding member of the Arizona chapter of the NAACP. But he opposed the Civil Rights Act for constitutional reasons. It wasn’t out of cultural or racial reasons. That said, there were other people on the right who did oppose civil rights acts, including the acts under Eisenhower in the ‘50s, for those cultural and racial reasons. And I think there we can see a legacy of bigotry, a legacy that William F Buckley Jr eventually repudiated, but I think still has haunted the conservative movement to the present day. 




HOOVER The conservative movement in the nomination and the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 reaches its zenith. Right? This is a man who is philosophically aligned with Buckley. And there’s a fantastic clip of a Firing Line debate around the Panama Canal treaties. Take a look at this rare moment where the former governor debates on the opposite side of William F Buckley Jr. 


BUCKLEY Are you saying the communists invented patriotism in Panama?


BUCKLEY Yes. You really tried to say that. (laughter, applause)


CONTINETTI So, you can see in that clip, he and Buckley were friends. They had known each other for almost two decades at that point. And so he was a populist figure, but one who also had the same ideas and policies as the conservative elites. And, perhaps most importantly of all, Reagan was a personally attractive figure who took these ideas, really from the margins of political debate in the 1960s, to the center of power in Washington, D.C. after the 1980 election. 


HOOVER Was it Reagan’s unique political talents that created this moment of success for conservative intellectualism? Or was it also just the timing of Reagan’s presidency?


CONTINETTI I think what really contributed to that success was Reagan’s leadership for sure, but also the kind of infrastructure of conservatism that had been built up around him, what’s been described as the ‘conservative decision making loop’ where, you know, ideas are formulated at think tanks like the one where I work, they are publicized throughout conservative media, they’re picked up by Republican politicians, and then they’re turned into legislation by conservative congressmen, and signed into law by a conservative president. So we can see in Reagan’s presidency this decision making loop at almost its most effective. And you can look at economic policy and the supply side theories that informed Reagan’s tax bill in 1981. And you can also see it in law. And it’s really under Reagan’s presidency that the philosophy of constitutional originalism comes into its own and begins informing appointments at various levels of the federal court system, including the Supreme Court with the nomination of Antonin Scalia. So when I try to explain what made Reagan so effective, there’s no, you know, discounting his personal charisma, his communication skills, his sense of humor, but it’s also the fact that this broader infrastructure was really firing on all cylinders. And that continued, I think, into some of his successors, including, though President Clinton would probably deny it, President Clinton’s presidency, which in retrospect also featured several conservative victories. 




HOOVER I mean, you write on that front, quote, “On economics, crime and welfare, the Clinton presidency offered plenty for conservatives to like. They never forgave him for it.” 


CONTINETTI Well, I think a lot of it has to do, one, with the values that Clinton represented to the conservatives. He seemed to kind of exemplify the countercultural values that conservatives really define themselves against. But there was also no question that conservatives in the Clinton era were easily seduced by conspiracy theories about the Clintons. They were willing to embrace the worst about the Clintons, even if it had no basis in empirical fact. And this kind of personal animosity, I think, drove them not to recognize how good they had it after they won Congress in 1994. It’s Clinton’s presidency beginning in 1996 with the reform of America’s welfare system that begins to consolidate the Reagan years and advance the conservative movement. When you think about it, I mean, as you mentioned in that quote, Margaret, you have welfare reform, which is the first time we’ve abolished an entitlement at the federal level. You had a balanced budget for three years. Remember, we were talking about budget surpluses, right? Part of that deal was a cut in the capital gains tax. And then we also saw these massive reductions in crime. So I think in retrospect the conservatives, even while they should not admire Clinton personally, might begin to see some value in the Clintonite politics that gave them such victories in the 1990s. 




HOOVER Let me ask you about something else that happened in the 1990s. Conservative media began to emerge in a new way. And in 1992, William Buckley Jr invited Rush Limbaugh onto his original Firing Line. And you wrote about that interview in your book, you said, quote, “A visibly nervous Limbaugh appeared on Firing Line alongside his hero, William F Buckley Junior, whose presence symbolized the transference of ideological leadership from the magazine editor to the bombastic talk show host.” Here is Buckley and his introduction of Rush Limbaugh on Firing Line in 1992. Take a look. 


BUCKLEY His medium is opinion, and only the humorless are really offended. In this sense, it’s fair to say, I suppose, that he gets away with his scams as no one since Norman Lear got away with in his series All in the Family.


HOOVER So can you explain, Matthew, to the uninitiated, how relevant and significant Rush Limbaugh became to the conservative movement in the 1990s? 


CONTINETTI Well, I mean, Limbaugh is one of the most significant conservatives in American history. Here’s why. He was an entertainer first and foremost. He came out of the shock jock tradition.But he discovered that you could communicate political ideas in an entertaining format. And so he is able to kind of package conservative ideas that you would find in more intellectual journals in this very entertaining format, and thus broaden conservatism’s appeal, make it a mass market phenomenon. So you see in Rush Limbaugh what American conservatism would become. It would become a mass market, grassroots phenomenon where the borders of entertainment and intellectualism would become very gray and sometimes disappear entirely.




HOOVER Let me ask you about the Tea Party movement. Of course it emerges in the Obama years in the Obama presidency, growing out of populist anger, which you write about, at both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. It also brings forward some conspiratorial, extremist, and, frankly, racist elements to the forefront of our politics. And there are critics that argue that those elements, of course, were always stronger on the right than Republicans, at least mainstream Republicans, were willing to admit. But I wonder what your assessment is of the election of the first Black president and whether it brought to the surface some of the uglier impulses in American politics. 


CONTINETTI So while these impulses, instincts, thoughts are always there – I mean, this is a country of 300 million people – it was, I think, technology and communications changed during the Obama era that made us able to see all these things, and made it possible to mainstream some of these ideas. So you had the rise of these email chains where all sorts of conspiracies were being put forth about President Obama and where very scurrilous remarks were being made. And, you know, they would circulate via email. You had the rise of the birther smear, which certainly has a racial component to it, this idea that he couldn’t have been born in the United States. And that’s what you had with some figures on the right who became very popular during the Obama era, peddling ideas and arguments, theories that would never have made it through the editorial process that some of the established conservative journals. And that process of change, I think, has only accelerated in the years since Obama. 




HOOVER With the emergence of Donald Trump there was a real debate on the right about whether Trump was conservative in the vein of William F. Buckley, Jr. In January of 2016, his magazine, National Review, published an entire issue dedicated to eviscerating Donald Trump’s candidacy. And ultimately, as you write, it had no impact on Trump’s popularity. It spurred conservative backlash against the magazine itself. And so I wonder, how did the mainstream conservative pundit class wind up so out of touch with the base?


CONTINETTI Well, I think a few things are at work. It is true that by 2016, a kind of conservative governing and media class had been built up over the years in places like Washington, D.C. and New York City and their suburbs, which were just insulated from American society. This has been documented that the ‘super zips,’ these affluent areas with high levels of college degree attainment, just are different places than a lot of the American interior. They don’t understand the problems afflicting the Rust Belt. Well, Donald Trump did. He had a connection with the people who had lost out on globalization, the people who had been ignored by the Democratic and Republican elites. 




HOOVER I wonder, Matthew, when you look at the field of 2024 candidates, those who are quietly or not so quietly indicating their interest in entering the primary competition in 2024. People like Governor Ron DeSantis, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former Vice President Mike Pence, former Governor of South Carolina Nikki Haley. They have all been influenced by varying degrees by Trumpism. What does that say about the conservative movement in the 2024 nomination process? 


CONTINETTI Well, I think it’s a recognition of the nature of the Republican coalition. That coalition has changed over the last ten years. A lot of college degree holders have left the Republican Party, have become Independents or even Democrats. The percentage of Republicans who lack college degrees has exploded over the last ten years and even especially during the Trump years. So that means that the party is going to be more populist. It means that it’s going to be more anti-elitist. It’s going to be less concerned with limiting government, less concerned with the more traditional conservative issues, say, of entitlement reform, of addressing the problems with Social Security and Medicare. It’s going to want those benefits. So I think when you look at these candidates, you see them all recognize the fact that the future of the right, the future of the Republican Party, is going to be some uneasy, sometimes complimentary synthesis of Reagan conservatism and Trump populism. So that’s the future of the right I think for the foreseeable years. For conservatives like me, you know, our beliefs are not always going to be reflected by the Republican Party any longer. And that doesn’t mean we abandon our beliefs. It means we have to articulate them and find new ways to apply them to the challenges of our time, that eventually they might get another hearing. 




HOOVER Of course, one of the darkest moments in modern American history was January 6th, the sort of culminating event of the Trump presidency. Numerous candidates in the conservative movement who are running for office today support this notion that Trump won the election, this election lie that Trump continues to support. And I wonder how you account for that and how you think this set of conspiracy theories will shake out. 


CONTINETTI I think what happened after the election of 2020 illustrates to me the importance of leadership. Just everything that happened after Election Day 2020 is because Donald Trump refused to accept the results of the election. And we’re living with the consequences of that today. So it just shows you the impact one individual can have on our politics, on our society and on our history. 


HOOVER You write, “when you study conservatism’s past, you become convinced that it has a future.” Why are you so convinced and what is that future for you, Matt? 


CONTINETTI Well, I think we have to understand that, you know, conservatism as a set of ideas can exist independent of political reality. And for much of my history, conservatism was not in the political ascendancy. But I would say that the main reason I’m confident conservatism will have a future is that we’re always going to have progressivism in the left. And, if nothing else, the right is a response to the left. And the right tends to be elevated at times when the left overreaches. And so when the left goes too far, when, say, it creates an inflationary economy, or when its criminal justice policies lead to an uptick in crime, you’re going to see a revival of conservative principles in order to rein in the excesses of the left. And I think that’s why we can see that conservatism will have a future even as it tries to figure out its place in this new political universe dominated in many ways by the reality of Donald Trump’s populist movement. 


HOOVER Matthew Continetti, the book is “The Right: The Hundred Year War for American Conservatism.” Thank you for joining me, and thank you for your contribution.