Getting Conservative History Straight

Washington Post reached for superlatives last year in describing Matthew Continetti’s The Right. This voice of the establishment Left explained that Continetti, besides being an AEI senior fellow and a onetime distinguished editor of the Washington Free Beacon, may be the premier intellectual historian of the American Right. Continetti’s admirers found something exceptional in his analytic examination of his controversial subject. He spared no effort telling us a harsh truth: American conservatism is beset by right-wing extremists, like the hoi polloi who just “can’t be weaned away” from Donld Trump. This movement also includes other more conventional conservatives who are putting up with extremism in their ranks. Conservatives need vigilant gatekeepers, and Continetti believes he is up to the job.

According to the Post, “Continetti tells a story of conservatism that has often been marked by an elite inability or unwillingness to police extremism, and at times an active embrace of it.” Moreover, “in Continetti’s telling, those events partly represented long-festering tendencies inside the movement and the GOP. When racist, white supremacist and alt-right elements sought to violently overturn democracy, he writes, ‘all of the unreason and hatred that had been slowly growing in the body of the Right burst into the open.’”

Supposedly these telltale tendencies did not first emerge in the last few years. Repeatedly falling prey to its own extremism, ”the right’s noninterventionist streak during the lead-up to World War II too easily collapsed into Charles Lindbergh’s antisemitism and flirtation with Nazism. The anti-communism of the 1950s too easily shaded into support for Joe McCarthy’s witch hunts.” Continetti just can’t get certain facts straight. For example: Conservative anti-Communism did not collapse into “McCarthyite witch hunts.” Many of those whom the late Wisconsin senator accused of being Communist collaborators or unreliable government workers for security reasons, were exactly what McCarthy and congressmen of both parties stated they were. Not only the conservative researcher M. Stanton Evans but the more centrist historian Arthur Herman demonstrates that the investigations of McCarthy and his colleagues were usually something more than “witch hunts,” although these hearings were not always conducted as dispassionately as they might have been.

Further, there is a superabundance of scholarship by widely respected historians Wayne Cole and Justus Doenecke that proves that neither Nazi sympathy nor hatred for Jews was a mainstream sentiment in the America First movement. Although Lindbergh and his associates gravely underestimated the danger posed by Nazi Germany, Nazi ideology had nothing to do with their position. America Firster Hamilton Fish, the congressman from FDR’s district in upstate New York, was an early advocate of black civil rights; and another prominent America Firster John Borah, an Idaho U.S. Senator, was a left-of-center Progressive. Many members of America First, who opposed having the U.S. enter the European war between 1939 and 1941, came unmistakably out of the Left.

Those who were antiwar were understandably upset that the American government pulled the country into World War I, a bloodbath that ended in a grossly unjust peace treaty. These anti-interventionists mistakenly viewed Hitler’s romp across Europe as a repetition of the struggle among the European Great Powers that erupted in 1914. But I wouldn’t expect Continetti to delve very deeply into such matters. As the Post’s go-to authority on conservatism, Continetti may not have to worry about irksome historical details.

New York magazine loves Continetti’s scholarly insights almost as much as does the Post: “Continetti, after studying the intersection of conservative thought and politics over the last century, finds cranks and bigots were there all along, hardly powerless, and frequently working hand in hand with Buckley and other conservatives who had supposedly banished them.” It is easy to understand why Continetti has such fans. He tells the “opposition” exactly what it wants to hear. But he also receives from the conservative establishment (remarkably enough) equal honors. For several years Continetti occupied among the Fox news Allstars the position that had been held by his father-in-law Bill Kristol. This occurred after Bill had unequivocally joined the Left. Matt, who didn’t bother to change sides, is now basking in the exuberant approval of the liberal and conservative establishments alike.

If this historian of the Right was less fixated on his left flank, he might have raised some obvious questions while talking to the Washington Post. For example, he might have inquired whether anyone there was playing a similar gatekeeping role to the one he’d assumed for the Right. Does the leftist national press go after those on its left for being too extreme? Do the Post’s editors denounce its own left wing in language as abrasive as that which Continetti hurls at Trump and Trump’s supporters? It would also be fair to ask whether the Post would care about Continetti’s historical opinions if he didn’t devote such energy to kicking around the Right. There is a vast literature on the American Right, which the Post’s editorial board has certainly never praised as extravagantly as it has Continetti’s modest achievement. But then most self-described conservative historians of the American Right (and I can think of multitudes) don’t try to sound like the Post’s editorial page.

Finally, I would note that Continetti and his book easily fit the pattern that John O’Sullivan ascribed to organizations when this esteemed conservative journalist gave as his “first law”: “All organizations that are not actually right-wing over time become left wing.” O’Sullivan’s law, we may assume, describes authors and histories as well as other entities.

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About Paul Gottfried

Paul Edward Gottfried is the editor of Chronicles. An American paleoconservative philosopher, historian, and columnist, Gottfried is a former Horace Raffensperger Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, as well as a Guggenheim recipient.

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