History and Historiography

A New History of the Old Right

By Marcus Wither, Reason

In the American right, populism has always been lurking in the shadows.

The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism, by Matthew Continetti, Basic Books, 480 pages, $32

Unlike most accounts of the American conservative movement, Matthew Continetti’s The Right begins in the 1920s, when two Republican presidents returned the country to normalcy after World War I. The ideals of that era’s Republicans were not so different from those espoused by former President Donald Trump today: They believed in cutting taxes, restricting immigration, and protecting American industry through tariffs. But there was one fundamental difference: Presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge rejected the populism of their age. They aimed to preserve American institutions. Trump is more like William Jennings Bryan, riding the coattails of discontent. He represents a time, Continetti argues, when an increasingly apocalyptic conservative movement “no longer viewed core American institutions as worth defending.”

Continetti has worked in many of the most important conservative institutions. As such, he should be praised for addressing the darker side of his movement, a side that many other conservatives have been hesitant to confront. Continetti puts the tension between populism and elitism at the heart of the conflict over conservatism. The result is a much more nuanced and satisfying portrait of the American right than is offered by most other journalists and historians.

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