Great Antidote Extras: Matthew Continetti on the American Right

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Abraham Lincoln. Calvin Coolidge. Ronald Reagan. Richard Nixon. Pat Buchanan. Donald Trump. Sellgren and Continetti will help you sort of the conservatives from the libertarians from the populist and more. 
What does it mean to be a modern Republican? Great Antidote host Juliette Sellgren and Matthew Continetti cover that last 100 years at a quick pace. 

Matthew Continetti is a senior fellow and the Patrick and Charlene Neal Chair in American Prosperity at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism. Continetti is also a self-identified conservative and has spent most of his adult life in or very near conservative organizations. 

Some of the big questions Continetti and Sellgren discuss are: 

  • How have the different wings of the Republican party evolved over time?
  • Who are the most important thinkers in the history of Republicanism?
  • What are the major events that have changed American history that had especially large impacts on Republicanism?

Continetti’s first question from Sellgren, as always, is about what young people should know? 

Key Quote (lightly edited)
What people need to recognize is that Ecclesiastes is right. There is nothing new under the sun. Human beings are at root very similar over the long, expansive time and even place. Human nature is pretty similar over the thousands of years of recorded history. And so you have a lot of similar situations, a lot of precedent in history that needs to be studied. And when you study that, you learn a few things. One, we're not that special despite what we were told in elementary school. We may be all snowflakes, but we have ancestors who lived through similar experiences, much worse experiences than we've encountered. And two, they got through it and our generation, your generation, can get through it as well. So I'd say that'd be the most important thing to know about the universe… and the corollary, of course, is study history, study real history, study the recorded history, what happened and you'll realize that there's a lot that we can draw from. 
Sellgren and Continetti then jump into defining their terms: The Right, Conservatives, Republicans, and more. Darren Staloff’s recent episode on the American Founding came to my mind here as well. 

Key Quote (lightly edited)
What makes America special? Well, what makes America special is our founding documents, the principles of the Declaration of Independence, the institutions set up by the Constitution, federalism, checks and balances, rule of law, separation of powers. And what that means is that unlike European conservatives who defended the inherited institutions of the monarchy or the established church, or the hereditary aristocracy, American conservatives defend the established institutions of the Constitution, of small “r” republicanism, rule of law, equality before the law, all of these individual rights, individual freedoms that are in our constitution. That's what the American conservative is meant to defend, in my view…

The Republican Party is a political institution. It's not a philosophy. The Republican party reflects its membership. The Republican party has a storied history. It was the party of Abraham Lincoln. It stood for free soil, free men, free labor. It's the party of Calvin Coolidge, the party of Dwight Eisenhower, the party of Ronald Reagan. At the same time, it's the party of Richard Nixon and the party of Pat Buchanan and the party of Donald Trump. The Republican Party is a vehicle, it's a tool shed. And it is a mistake to think that Republicans, just because they belong to that party, are going to be conservative, much less believe in the special mission of American conservatism.
Continetti also talks about the role of WWII in the libertarian-conservative divide, the different waves of neoconservatism thinkers, the strain of populism that can compliment but also push against conservatism. Sellgren asks him why this project now? 

Key Quote (lightly edited) 
Beginning in 2012, I just became more and more aware of the estrangement between the conservativesI hung around, my friends, the kind of conservative policy wonk/ journalists/ intellectual types who live in the beltway and the rest of the right throughout the country. And as we were sitting here trying to think through how to approach new situations and paying attention to the power of ideas and trying to preserve the intellectual inheritance of this movement, the right and the rest of the country was taking a very anti-establishment, populous turn. They did not like the conservative intellectuals. They thought that we were responsible for everything that had gone wrong.

So I wanted to study, well, where, where did that gap emerge? Where did this great divide begin? And so the book is partly an exploration of that. And what I found though is that in truth the intellectuals were never as much as in control or influential as maybe I had thought, or as we had thought, that the right, because as you say, is so various, so factional. There had always been groups and elements and trends on the right that were opposed to the type of conservatism I believe in. And so I wanted to kind of tell that story as well.
Continetti talks about how a lot of thinkers treat modern republicanism as starting after WWII and ending with Reagan’s presidency. But he wanted to trace the movement further back and also bring it into the present. He also talks about how exceptional Reagan was starting around 25:35. Sellgren invites him to talk about some of his favorite figures that they haven’t mentioned yet and he points to Russel Kirk, Milton Friendman, and Harry Joffa. 

Sellgren asks for a few of the major historical events that matter to the story of the last 100 years of conservatism. Continetti talks about are the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the fall of Saigon, the Desert One rescue mission flop during the Carter adminstration, the fall of the Berlin Wall, 9/11, and the 2008-2009 finacial crisis. Continetti then turns to populism and Donald Trump. 

Key Quote (lightly edited)
But really the right today is focused on Donald Trump. And Trump's philosophy is not the same philosophy as expressed in the [Barry Goldwater’s] Conscience of a Conservative in 1960. It's a populist philosophy. And it's also a personalist philosophy. It's a philosophy that, as Trump said, and his convention speech in 2016, only he can fix things. So he's the guy, and if you say a bad word about him, all of a sudden you'll find yourself being called a RINO [republican in name only]. It has nothing to do with ideas or policies or principles. It just has to do with are you going to follow the leader where he takes you?...

Am I optimistic about the future? Well, I think the Right needs to rediscover its principles and its history, and needs to be aware that you know, in my view, Donald Trump may have made a compelling critique of the Right and of the Republican party and conservative elites in 2016 but now I don't see him advancing that critique or really advancing the aims of conservatism all that much. And so I think the Right is in a holding pattern for as long as Donald Trump is its leader, and I don't see any signs, I could be wrong, that he's gonna stop being its leader anytime soon. So I guess it's just kind of a waiting game and hoping that people use this time maybe to learn more about the Right and maybe appreciate freedom. That's the trend that disturbs me the most. For me, conservatism is freedom. It's the tradition of liberty in this country. That's what conservatives are meant to defend. 
Finally, what has Continetti changed his mind about? Immigration policy. Twice. When he was younger he had been less concerned about immigration, he became more hawkish, but has, more recently, become more appreciative of immigration and America’s ability to assimilate immigrants. 

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