The Right: The Hundred Year War for American Conservatism by Matthew Continetti is a wonderful book. The 400-page history of American conservatism offers the suspense of an excellent mystery novel and contains not a single boring or confusing paragraph.
Continetti possesses the rare gift of knowing how to transmit a politician’s or thinker’s essence in a few sentences that make that person instantly memorable. The Right mentions pretty much everybody who said or did anything of importance to US conservatism in a century, which means that there is an extraordinary number of people discussed in the book. Still, Continetti’s gift for characterization is such that an individual mentioned briefly 200 pages earlier is still completely vivid in the reader’s mind when talked about later.
There are many different philosophical strands in US conservatism. Continetti explains how they differ, intertwine, and develop over time in a clear, easy to understand way. If anybody still taught the history of conservative thought except a single professor in Appalachia (and thank him for that), The Right would be the perfect textbook for those courses.
Among all the varieties of US conservatism, Continetti has his favorite. It also happens to be the least favorite of mine but, as I said earlier today, I don’t admire my ideological clones. I admire talented people who write great books. Continetti has been a conservative a lot longer than I have, and I have no reason to believe my judgment is necessarily superior.
The conservatism that Continetti favors is that of Bill Clinton and George W Bush. It’s clearly hard for him to understand why so many people on the Right would reject Bush’s “idealism” and the open-border globalism he shared with Clinton and Reagan. He does try, though. He gives a very intelligent, reasonable evaluation of Trump’s successful policies and seems to understand that there’s no way there will ever be massive support for a Bush-like Republican again.
Continetti’s sensibilities are, ultimately, those of a very educated guy who married into an establishment family. He likes the establishment and has a visceral dislike of populism. I’m the exact opposite, so it’s hard for me to understand why Continetti was as traumatized as he was by January 6. Continetti says it was a threat to the constitutional order but, try as I might, I don’t see how a couple of hours of mildly rowdy behavior by a bunch of unarmed selfie-takers can threaten anything. We have, at this very moment, actual political forces that have declared their disgust with the Constitution because it doesn’t cater to their snowflakery. We have seen successful efforts to find in the Constitution imaginary rights that couldn’t have possibly been in there at the time of writing. We experience the effects of the creation of a parallel constitution that substitutes equality with discrimination (see The Age of Entitlement by Christopher Caldwell). We have seen our civil rights trampled during COVID and BLM riots. Against this background, I find it impossible to summon any feeling of annoyance or even just interest in Jan 6.
Thankfully, 1/6 occupies only a couple of pages in an otherwise great book.
Among the tome’s other faults is that Continetti tends vastly to exaggerate the importance of his wife’s father and grandfather (Bill and Irving Kristol, respectively.) His idolization of the deeply beloved relatives gets quite funny at times, but love of family is a deeply conservative trait, so I wouldn’t necessarily blame Continetti for this.
Leaving aside these insignificant flaws, the greatest achievement of The Right is that it shows that conservatism has a very solid, serious intellectual tradition which is fascinating and very valuable. There are many people – and I was one of them – who never see anything but a caricature of conservatives as bigoted, stupid, hate-filled hoodlums. If you are an immigrant, for example, there’s quite literally nowhere to hear anything else. Continetti is clearly afraid that the 1/6 footage would help spread that propaganda even more but he shouldn’t worry. There’s nowhere for it to spread because it’s already conquered everything it could.
I’m reading a lot of conservative books these days, and The Right is one of the best I’ve come across. Among recent books, it’s only second to Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed which I discussed on this blog a couple of years ago. Continetti does not like Deneen and does share his disappointment with classical liberalism but both volumes are remarkably intelligent and well-written.