What We Keep Getting Wrong About the Right
Trumpism wasn’t inevitable, but his dark vision of conservatism has been around a lot longer than he has.
Last summer, my friend Terry Dresbach, a prominent television and film costume designer, asked me how someone like me could be a conservative. She didn’t mean this as an insult. She admires Never Trump conservatives for their principled stand, but sincerely wonders why we didn’t see this coming. After all, she pointed out, the GOP was the party of the Southern strategy, Pat Buchanan, and Newt Gingrich. Wasn’t Donald Trump’s nomination just the inevitable conclusion to all of this?
I disagreed. As my political hero Ronald Reagan said, “I do not believe in a fate that will fall on us no matter what we do.” Indeed, it’s easy to imagine some scenarios where conservatism might have gone in a different direction. What if Colin Powell had run for president in 1996? What if Mitt Romney had defeated Barack Obama in 2012? What if 80,000 votes in three states had swung toward Hillary Clinton in 2016? Things didn’t have to turn out the way they did.
Terry studied conservatism her whole life, and saw only the inevitable emergence of a Trump; I observed it from the inside, and saw only the sunny side (before becoming disenchanted by the rise of Trump). How is it that so much of what we both thought about the right was wrong?
A new book by American Enterprise Institute senior fellow Matthew Continetti titled, The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism, helps shed light on that question.
During a recent discussion on my podcast, Continetti explained that most histories of the American right begin with opposition to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. But Continetti starts earlier, providing some much-needed context.
There are “a lot of similarities between the Republican Party in the 1920s and the Republican Party of the 2020s,” Continetti explained. “When you think about the [Republican] party’s reluctant attitude toward foreign intervention… opposition to immigration…[and] protectionism, you see many parallels between the GOP of that time and the GOP of our time.” This is to say that Trump didn’t completely transform the Republican Party. In some ways, he merely reverted it to its former self.
World War II and the ensuing Cold War forced the Republican Party to change. Isolationism and protectionism had been discredited, and a strong national defense—and strong international alliances—were obvious moves.
The Soviet Union served as the glue that held the conservative movement together. Winning this existential battle against an atheistic, imperialist, and Marxist regime made the various wings of the conservative movement willing to overlook their differences, put their pet issues on the back burner, and police their own ranks. A common culture, a mainstream media monopoly, and a post-war consensus helped create guardrails that ensured the game of American politics was mostly played between the 40-yard lines. And inspiring conservative leaders like Reagan emerged to defeat this existential enemy.
But once the threat and the leaders were no longer around, the incentives that animated its pre-Cold War state returned to tempt the GOP.
For those of us who grew up in the 1980s, the 1940s (nevermind the 1920s) seemed like ancient history. But it turns out the Reagan era was the anomaly, not the norm.
“I found that the Cold War conservatism, which shaped you and shaped me early in my life, was unusual in some respects,” Continetti told me. “We can see how in the conservatism in which you and I came of age—those elements that were more conspiratorial, that were fringier, that were more contemptuous of modern America—had been cabined off. But that’s no longer the case.”
Understanding this history is helpful. But my friend Terry wasn’t around in the pre-World War II era. She was forming her opinions about the GOP around the same time I was. It’s impossible to know what accounts for the discrepancy, but Continetti provides some insight into how the individuals and themes that animated Terry’s negative vision for the GOP—and my much more rosy one—were always present (and always in conflict). Continetti also describes how her vision began to slowly gain ground immediately following the Cold War.
As Reagan’s presidency was coming to an end, conservatives who didn’t trust George H.W. Bush as the successor to Reagan’s conservative presidency, went looking for “someone to go into the arena, and claim the mantle.” Two of the top contenders were the former Nixon speechwriter turned paleoconservative pundit Pat Buchanan (who opted not to run that year), and Rep. Jack Kemp (who ran, but floundered).
“They exemplify two tendencies within the American right,” Continetti said.
Kemp’s conservatism was inclusive and optimistic. Conversely, Buchanan, “had already seen that… the American Right would return to its pre-Cold War, pre-World War II ways, and [determined that] he was going to be the leader of that,” Continetti observed.
Kemp’s 1988 presidential campaign went nowhere. Finally, in 1996, Kemp was chosen as the running mate in Dole’s presidential race. And he got drubbed again. Sixteen years later, Kemp’s heir, Rep. Paul Ryan, suffered a similar fate as Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012. For whatever reason, leaders of this optimistic brand of conservatism were both denied “the electoral success that might have changed the nature of the American right.” Putting a fine point on it, Continetti summarized: “Ryan is in the Kemp tradition; Trump is in the Buchanan tradition.”
Of course, this is a complex story. We can probably throw in “What if George W. Bush hadn’t invaded Iraq?” as yet another unknowable scenario that would have changed the course of history. That decision discredited “compassionate conservatism,” neoconservative interventionism, and the Republican establishment itself—laying the groundwork for the rise of Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
The fact is, there has always been a struggle within conservatism between the dark side and the light side. Neither tendency has ever been completely vanquished. But for my entire life (until around 2016) the light side was in control.
The history of The Right suggests the GOP wasn’t destined to go wrong. But it was always going to be a temptation.