Book Notes: Matthew Continetti’s The Right

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.

4 thoughts on “Book Notes: Matthew Continetti’s The Right

  1. I just came from my brother’s birthday party. It was beautiful, we drank beer and ate italian sandwiches and cake beneath a park canopy, mid nineties heat without much humidity, great gorgeous cumulous clouds hovering stacked high into the stratosphere above us in the Florida afternoon sky..

    We have an implicit agreement, a sort of truce, to not talk politics or religion at family gatherings. A truce we tend to initially keep, but always violate before the end. My brother has extreme Trump derangement syndrome. He and his wife are both lodged very solidly in the upper middle class, each drawing six figures working in upper management at software companies.

    Last year, we had an eviscerating conversation where I told him I was never getting vaccinated, and was taking ivermectin prophylactically.. He told me that hoped that when I got sick, that no hospital would take me. Since then, we have avoided speaking with each other at length.

    He and his wife and two children have been repeatedly vaccinated, yet have all since caught the dread coof multiple times. I never have. This past week they were on vacation in Hawaii, his wife was ill the whole week, with mild symptoms. Her relatives (her Austrian uncle in law teaches political science and sociology, his focus globalism, at the university of Hawaii) they went there to see, refused to see them while she tested positive, which she inevitably did every day..

    What’s sadly amusing in all this, is that my brother is in many ways viscerally economically “conservative.” His position in society demands it, and his ideology economically reflects that. He likes Mitt Romney and John McCain. He kneels before the altar of technocracy and “data.” But everything else in social terms is ethically up for grabs. He showed up today wearing a “love is love” t shirt with male male, male female, female female signs juxtaposed, as I suppose a deliberate provocation to me and our devout Catholic mother.

    I’m more or less anti-racist paleocon populist, in 19th century terms a copperhead state’s rights localist, subsidiarian Jacksonian and William Jennings Bryan anti speculation anti war anti cartel anti technocratic progressive, a radical pro life Traditional Catholic communitarian.. I cannot decide if I’m conservative, reactionary, or simply daft, since what I believe in, hope for, love and desire seems utterly, almost absurdly quixotic..

    Which is why my brother and I cannot talk to one another for more than twenty minutes without him storming off in a great huff. This afternoon he was ranting on about the perfidy and criminality of Trump, as usual, calling us all conspiracy theorists, almost without letting any of us get a word in edgewise. I did manage to ask him what he thought about this quote from this interesting 1974 profile ( https://www.washingtonian.com/1974/06/01/joe-biden-kitty-kelley-1974-profile-death-and-the-all-american-boy/ ) of Uncle Joe Biden:

    “He [Biden] defines politics as power. “And, whether you like it or not, young lady,” he says, leaning over his desk to shake a finger at me, “us cruddy politicians can take away that First Amendrnent of yours if we want to.”’

    Are we a country of laws and inviolable principles, that privileges individual liberty and human dignity before all else, or not? You say Donald Trump is a fascist, but now are willing to disregard the Bill of Rights simply because you hate him? Does Trump have 4th Amendment rights, or not? Do I have the 1st Amendment right to go to mass at Pascha during a pandemic, or not? Can I assert that sex is an essential, objective immutable biological reality fundamentally ordered toward the procreation of children and propagation of our species, or not?

    My brother did not answer my questions this afternoon. I don’t think he wants to, because he knows the answers. He knows he’s shot the pooch, and is trusting people he shouldn’t. His technocrats and their data are not trustworthy. He says he wants civil war, because those he imagines to be his enemies want to destroy our country. I tell him he has no idea what he is saying. He wants to conserve his wealth and position. I want to mercifully conserve the peace, and justly conserve our polity. I suppose that both of our impulses are conservative each in their way. I only suppose that my conservatism is the more radical.

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    1. William Jennings Bryan was a populist Democrat who in today’s political landscape would be competing in the same primaries as Donald Trump.

      Not something you’d probably considered, but that’s the reality of the situation.

      Conservativism as an intellectual and philosophical movement still has legs.

      But “conservativism in name only” as a power movement is just as illegitimate as liberalism in the same mode, and both are serving to drive many people to the conclusions they’re seeking, especially for personal stability reasons.

      I’ve seen a lot of people act like the power structure is so inviolable that it’s worth sacrificing everything to maintain it.

      Watching the power structure burn is for me satisfying in and of itself.

      As for family relations, know what the “INTJ Door Slam” is?

      What you’re dealing with is not new to me.

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  2. “… no reason to believe my judgment is necessarily superior …”

    This of course should be how you regard Continetti.

    Notoriously absent from this is the fact that “conservativism” as a power movement in America exists at odds with conservativism as an intellectual and philosophical movement.

    And so despite the Bill Kristol faction being on its way out of conservative thought, in part precisely because of its Boomer Era inability to think past the power structure to the problems of the present, we get this long form historiography that tries to paint this faction as being an inevitable outcome.

    6 January threatens Continetti not because what went on was a serious threat in and of itself, but because the structuralists within “conservativism” as a power movement demand respect for the power structures whether they deserve that consideration or not.

    Even if the 6 January “rioters” had brought gasoline and fire lighters, the destruction of a building would not have represented any significant threat to the “Constitutional order”.

    Like V pointed out in “V for Vendetta”, an idea is rather hard to kill.

    Hyperbole within American political thought is also rather hard to kill.

    6 January does, however, serve as a rather embarrassing memorandum of understanding from “like-minded opposition” that just because they’ve built up a power structure that allows them to negotiate individual conservative principles from a Vichy Post-Surrender Mindset, that doesn’t mean the conservatives who identify with the intellectual and philosophical movements have any patience for its continued existence.

    Rather than Continetti realising that the game his people in the Bill Kristol faction is over and that it’s high time to get behind the new emergent conservative influencers, he merely doubles down on his Boomer Era Fake Conservativism as a platform for Surrender Monkeyism.

    This is why you have such people on the Right as Vox Day welcoming the coming of Fluffy Pillows that will be used against the Boomer Era political class in ways that are entirely predictable. His views are not unique, isolated, or even all that rare, but instead represent the inevitable realisation that the last thing that people on the Right want is to be talked down to by people on the Right.

    As for what the Republican Party did to become “conservativism” as a power movement, we can talk about what it did in 1920s North Dakota, to the state government and to the farmers there, just as an introduction to how actions speak the truth louder than words.

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