In his book The Right, American journalist Matthew Continetti examines “the hundred-year war for American conservatism.” That intellectual history of the American right begins in the 1920s, a decade of unfettered trade, high tariffs, disarmament, foreign policy restraint and constitutional devotion, and spans all the way to the red caps of the MAGA movement – passing through the Republican reaction to Roosevelt and the New Deal, the anti-communist glue and Eisenhower’s cultural rearmament, the chameleonic Nixon, the spring of Reagan and the autumn of the Bushes.
Continetti wrote The Right during the pandemic, but he started working on the book in 2012, the year he founded the right-wing online publication The Washington Free Beacon and began to notice an evident divergence between the conservatives in his circle and the Republican voters across the country. It is no secret that this gap was already an abyss when Donald Trump took office in 2016.
The book shows that that plot twist is not so surprising once you find the invisible thread of American populism beyond the Tea Party, a thread that goes through figures like Joe McCarthy, Pat Buchanan or George Wallace, and it reads like a compendium of the ideas and publications – an essential source of research – that forged the American right. The movement has never been monolithic; rather “there are various groups, various strains of conservatism that are always kind of arguing with one another and hoping to be the predominant strain,” says the author in an interview at the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank, where he works as a senior fellow.
Question. The book starts in 2003. You were a young conservative journalist who landed in the now extinct The Weekly Standard, the very heart of neoconservatism in Washington. Twenty years later, you have witnessed a huge shift to the right. Do you miss those days, perhaps less confrontational?
Answer. I don’t want to be nostalgic. I think that’s a danger of conservatism. But I think a couple things. For one, the media of the time thought the disagreements had to be a little bit more civil. That is to say, there was no Twitter 20 years ago, and I find that in Twitter it’s hard to have a civil disagreement; Twitter disagreements very often just collapse into ad hominem insults. I also think that, 20 years ago, the anti-intellectualism which we see on the right today was not as pronounced. Young people are completely unaware of the history of American conservatism. They associate American conservatism with talk radio and Tucker Carlson on the Fox News Channel and Trump. One of the reasons I wrote this book was to show that the history is much, much broader and deeper than that.
Q. That kind of anti-intellectualism is as old as, at least, as historian Richard Hofstadter (1916-1970).
A. Yes, of course. And sometimes it sits on the right and sometimes on the left. Populism has always had skepticism toward experts and elites. And that’s sometimes healthy, but I think in the last 10 years [it has escalated]. I don’t think that development has been to the benefit of either conservatism or the Republican Party.
Q. Do you think today’s polarization is unprecedented?
A. America has been very closely divided, basically since 1992 [with Bill] Clinton. I think that our disagreements, again, because of our media, have become so much more hostile. I mean, we have seen a rise in political violence. That is different, that is new.
Q. You wrote a book about how the journalistic establishment shot down Sarah Palin’s aspirations. That did not work with Trump.
A. I don’t know if it didn’t work with Trump. You know, Donald Trump never rose above 50% popularity throughout his presidency; he never won the popular vote in both of his elections. One of the points of my book on Sarah Palin was that the media is composed primarily of people who come up through the American credentialing system, and [...] it’s as though a Martian has landed on this planet. Something similar happened with Trump. People just couldn’t understand what Trump’s appeal was. I’m no defender of Donald Trump, but no, he’s not a Russian agent (that was on the cover of New York Magazine during his presidency).
Q. In the book, you say that Trump changed the Republican Party, but also the Democratic Party.
A. What’s remarkable about him is he [did it] in the space of one term. I think to some degree, we are still living in the Trump era, even though he’s not president. Reagan did a similar thing, in a much more positive sense and constructive sense, better for the country. But Trump changed the nature of the Republican Party. And then he also had this kind of effect on the Democrats. I don’t know if we would have had the rise of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the squad. They were a reaction to Trump. And even as we move further away from the Trump years, both extremes are losing, [as we saw] in this most recent election.
Q. Will the Trump era end soon?
A. I want it to end. But I don’t know. We see the polls and have been very surprised at the speed with which Governor [Ron] DeSantis has ascended to the top spot for Republicans. I think he is probably the best chance there is for the party to turn the page on the Trump era and to preserve some of the issues, some of the sensibility of the Trump presidency that made it a success in bringing the Republicans a new set of voters [while] holding the Republican base together. He has also demonstrated his executive competence. I think he’s much more strategic in the fights that he picks.
Q. His fame outside of Florida was born with the pandemic. In what other ways has the coronavirus changed American politics?
A. I don’t know that we would have had the riots in America in the summer of 2020 had it not been for the pandemic. We had for months been told to stay in our homes, not to go to school, to isolate, and then the only single permitted activity was racial protest. I think when that collided with the obviously horrific image of George Floyd being killed, that set off this moment. And one of the consequences of that uprising was the spread of a racial justice sentiment throughout our major cultural and social institutions.
Q. Don’t you see a positive thing in that sort of racial consciousness?
A. Well, there’s raising consciousness and then there’s injecting our institutions with a left-wing ideology that I do not agree with. And then they’re saying that America is fundamentally a racist country.
Q. It isn’t?
A. I don’t think we’re a racist country at all. So just to continue on 2020. I think the most significant event of 2020 was Donald Trump’s reaction to his loss. We would live in a very different country today if Donald Trump had simply accepted the fact that he lost an election and acted like any other incumbent president who has lost an election.
Q. How can there still be 147 Republican members of Congress who believe in voter fraud?
A. I think the Republican Party is going to be paying for January 6 for some time. It clearly had played a role in the election of 2022, and they’ll have to find some way to break that association if they want to win in 2024. When I see Donald Trump say that a priority of his second term would be releasing the prisoners [of the Capitol attack], I say to myself, “you lost it.”
Q. Do you share the theory that we are on the verge of a civil war?
A. Americans are too lazy for that. That’s not to say there won’t be more political violence again, which I’m very worried about. But I don’t see us having a civil war or a national breakup or anything like that. In fact, one lesson from the recent elections is: Americans want to have some stability. They want some normalcy.
Q. Will the links that prominent conservative ideologues like Steve Bannon have established with leaders of the European extreme right, such as Viktor Orbán, last?
A. I don’t know what that’s about. I don’t know what lessons Hungary and one of Vladimir Putin’s only friends in Europe really have for America. I’m a conservative because I think there’s something exceptional about the United States, and its founding documents and its political tradition. And that is not applicable to the United States.