Interview with Matthew Continetti

The Buckley Program hosted Matthew Continetti for a seminar series from October 1st to October 15th. The seminar was titled, “Conservatism: Past and Present.”

Matthew Continetti is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where his work is focused on American political thought and history, with a particular focus on the development of the Republican Party and the American conservative movement in the 20th century. A prominent journalist, analyst, author, and intellectual historian of the right, Mr. Continetti was the founding editor and the editor-in-chief of The Washington Free Beacon. Previously, he was opinion editor at The Weekly Standard. Mr. Continetti is also a contributing editor at National Review and a columnist for Commentary Magazine.

Clay Skaggs: Two figures you talked about in your speech were Pat Buchanan and Sarah Palin. It seems like both of these figures appealed to both paleoconservatives and the Claremont school. Why do you think these figures weren’t able to capitalize on these movements, while Trump was able to? Do you think it was a difference in the figures themselves, or do you think there was a change in the right?

Matthew Continetti: I think it was a change in the right. Let’s take the case of Buchanan. He won the New Hampshire primary in 1996, quite unexpectedly, but in total he won just six contests. So, he didn’t make a great challenge to the eventual nominee in the 1996 primary, who was the establishment figure, a moderate conservative named Bob Dole. 

I think by the time you got to the 2016 election, 20 years later, the Republican Party had changed. Really since the turn of the 21st century, Republicans have been shedding college educated voters and losing them to the Democrats and replacing the college educated voters with voters who do not have a college education. That changed the character of the Republican Party. It made the Republican Party much more elitist, more socially conservative in a lot of ways, and more open to government in other ways. You had a larger population that would listen to appeals from figures like Donald Trump. 

There are also some other factors at work. One is that Donald Trump was an incredibly famous person going into the 2016 election. He’s been a part of our popular culture in the United States since the late 1980s. Being a celebrity does give you a certain advantage in politics. A lot depends on how you capitalize on that advantage. He was able to. One way was that Trump benefited from a billion dollars in earned media. That is basically free media coverage based on all of his controversies. What he grasped that many people didn’t was that, on the margin, he would end up attracting more people to his cause than he would repel through all of his controversies. That allowed him to capture the nomination in a way that Buchanan never could. 

One other difference is that, by 2016, the nature of social conservatism has changed quite a bit. Trump was very pro-life and he talked about that. The party itself had become pro-life. America had become more pro-life than it was in 1996. Gay marriage, on the other hand, was a settled issue, and Trump never really brought it up. In fact, he had Peter Thiel talk to the Republican National Convention in 2016. So, some of the social issues that had really alienated Buchanan from even Republican voters in the 1990s had changed in ways that I think benefited Trump in 2016.

CS: You said that the Republican party had become more open to government. Could you give some examples of that?

MC: Well, let’s take the issue of protectionism. Protectionism is a government program. It’s government interfering in the operations of the marketplace. NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, was initially conceptualized by Ronald Reagan, the conservative hero, and then negotiated by Reagan’s successor, Republican George H.W. Bush, before it was finally signed and ratified by Bill Clinton, a Democratic president who, at least in his policies, looks a lot like a Republican. 

Trump ran against NAFTA and the TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. This is an example of the role that leaders play. Trump, through force of personality, shifted Republican views on free trade and protectionism to a more pro-government stance. 

Let’s also take the issue of entitlements. It had been a dream of economic conservatives to privatize Social Security for decades. It was only George W. Bush, running in 2000, who touched the third rail of American politics which was Social Security reform. Actually, Clinton and Newt Gingrich had kind of flirted with the idea of Social Security reform that would have introduced personal accounts and free market mechanisms, but those negotiations were quashed as soon as Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky surfaced. 

Nonetheless, George W. Bush then takes it up in 2000. He wins in 2000, barely. He runs again in 2004 and wins the election. Even though he was still for private accounts and Social Security reform, he didn’t really campaign on that; that wasn’t the number one issue in the 2004 election. The number one issue in the 2004 election was 9-11 and the Iraq War. Nonetheless, Bush thought that he could use the political capital he earned in the reelection campaign to introduce personal accounts and Social Security reform. But even up to that point you could say that all Republicans were for some type of entitlement reform. Throughout the Obama presidency, Republicans were for changes to Medicare and Medicaid that would be quite radical in direction so as to preserve those programs in the long run, but would also change them in ways that would make them more free market. 

Well, Trump stopped all that. He said that tinkering with Social Security or Medicare was off limits. He didn’t campaign on entitlement reform, and he never brought it up during his four years as president or during his reelection. And now you don’t see Republicans bringing it up all that much. One of the reasons is because many of their voters are dependent in some ways on these programs.

CS: Another thing you talked about in your speech was this new alliance between the Claremont school and the paleoconservatives. It seemed like the main difference is that the Claremont school is more rooted in natural right, whereas the paleoconservatives are more rooted in historical tradition. Could you explain in a little more depth the ideological differences between these two groups?

MC: It’s the paleoconservatives who are obsessed with history and tradition, and it’s the Claremont school that is all about natural right and that all men are created equal. Paleoconservatives come out of battles fought in the conservative movement in the 1980s. They’re very much social traditionalist. I always like to say you can tell what type of conservative you are by how far you want to turn the clock back. So, if you want to just turn the clock back to 1968 you’re neoconservative. If you want to turn the clock back to 1932, you’re a National Review conservative. But, the paleoconservatives want to turn the clock back to 1860 antebellum America. They think Lincoln was a disaster. They hate Lincoln. It’s one of their main touchstones. 

They are also more isolationist. Buchanan’s campaign slogan was “America first” before it was Trump’s. And unlike Trump, Buchanan definitely knew what he meant when he was using the slogan of the opponents of American entry into World War II back in the late 1930s. So, the paleoconservatives are more socially traditionalist. Religion plays a big role for them, in particular the Christian religion. They are anti-Lincoln and anti-proposition. America, to them, is not based on any idea. America is a nation. We were settled, we’ve developed over time, and the threats to our nation, according to the paleoconservatives, are those things which dis-aggregate or erode the initial settling population and the culture of that initial population. That’s where we get our references today to America’s Anglo-Protestant culture. That’s something that’s really important to paleoconservatives. 

Claremont conservatives were founded in opposition to all these paleo ideas. Their founder, the political philosopher Harry Jaffa, believed that Lincoln understood the American experiment in ways that only a great classical philosopher could have and that he reset America on the basis of the proposition found in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal. The Claremont conservatives really believe in principles. They think American conservatives need to identify, articulate, and preserve the set of principles that, according to them, informed the American founding. It’s at the basis of their worldview. 

You can see that those two strands of thought are in opposition. Paleoconservatives and Claremont conservatives disagree about pretty fundamental things, namely, the Declaration of Independence and the role of Abraham Lincoln. My point in the lecture was that despite having such radically different beliefs, they were always opposed to the consensus conservatism you can find in Washington DC and New York. They ended up being aligned on specific public policy questions, even though their reasoning was different. 

These two groups, the paleoconservatives and the Claremont conservatives, were really the only groups of conservatives that supported Donald Trump during the Republican primary and who found themselves in positions of authority in his administration. They’re in charge. There were the ones on the margins of the conservative coalition and now they’re in the center. I think they’re trying to come up with some new synthesis to replace the old establishment that they overthrew. But this is very difficult, because at the end of the day, they have radically different ideas of what this country is about.

CS: In your lecture, you mentioned the instability in this new alliance. You said they don’t have big government to unite against, but do have the blob establishment to unite against. It seems like they’ve already pushed the blob to the side. You also mentioned how they are susceptible to those who are still optimistic about the American experiment because of their fatalism. If the old coalition wanted to come back into the GOP, how could they go about doing that?

MC: It has to involve producing elites who believe that America is not irreparable, that our government is not a foreign totalitarian regime, that we’re not in the middle of a cold civil war or on the cusp of a national divorce, and that our principles of liberty and equality are tied to specific institutions created by the Constitution. These institutions are worth preserving. When we say we’re American conservatives, we mean that we’re conserving the American tradition, which is a tradition of liberty. 

So, conservatives who believe in these things need to organize and they need to be ready to answer the questions that are posed by some of the more radical challenges coming from the paleoconservative school and the Claremont school. The most basic challenge is, “What does conservatism conserve? You know, you’re not fighting the fight. You just want to play by liberal rules.” This is a difficult question to answer, because it all depends on where your starting point is. 

By the standards of the postwar conservative movement, conservatism has achieved quite a lot, primarily in foreign policy. Conservatism was always unified by its opposition to communism and its belief that the Soviet Union was an evil empire. It was the conservative president, the hero of the conservative movement, Ronald Reagan, who in my view did the most to force the Soviet Union into a position of weakness. This is where they made the fatal mistake that I thank God for. They made the fatal mistake of liberalizing their economy under Gorbachev and, more importantly, their politics. That’s a mistake the Chinese have not made. That’s a huge achievement. 

On economics, it seems like the climate of opinion has shifted in recent years, but let’s remember how far we went in a free market direction. I think with the bill under discussion in Washington right now, the top income tax rate will be raised to 39%. That is a far cry from the rates that you had during the Eisenhower years or during the LBJ years. 

Then, look at the question of dependence. Welfare is bad, not because there were welfare cheats or welfare costs too much—both of those things were exaggerated—but because people shouldn’t be on welfare. People should be working. Having a job is actually the best engine of social mobility. If you give somebody a benefit, you should demand something in return. Those were the principles that informed the welfare reform of 1996, which was really an incredible achievement and worth defending. 

On the cultural questions, which is what motivates a lot of young people in particular, it’s a harder thing to explain. I was talking to a young person the other day, and he said that America today is not the America he was born into in 1998. And I said, “The America you were born into in 1998 wasn’t the America I was born into in 1981.” Things change, and being a conservative is navigating that change and trying to improve the things that are changing for the better and to mitigate the things that are changing for the worse. It’s utopian thinking to think that we could stop all change. 

It’s also an error of composition to think that all change is always bad. You have to add a realism to your conservatism. That has become very hard to communicate to people, because the digital life forces us all into the present. It also reinforces our worst biases. You’re always having your worst suspicions confirmed on social media. You’re always thinking that now is the worst time ever. When you are in the midst of an exchange on Twitter, you’re not really looking at the broad scope of things. Conservatives need to be wary of being ensnared in social media and the distortions that it causes to our public debate. Read a book. Read Russell Kirk’s Conservative Mind or read Capitalism and Freedom by Milton Friedman. I think that’ll be more worthwhile.

CS: You also talked about how social media has dissolved social bonds and has allowed conservative thought to skirt big media, which has typically acted as a sort of a filter for more populist tendencies. The world is becoming increasingly digital. How do you see this threat of the digital world being resolved with conservatives?

MC: We’re seeing the backlash just this past week in Washington, with both the right and left calling for regulation of Facebook for different reasons. They could, just like the paleoconservatives and the Claremont school, end up in the same place. We don’t really know how these antitrust battles will work out. We don’t know whether regulations will be imposed. It’s unlikely, as some of the more radical figures in the right say, that social media platforms will be nationalized or treated as public utilities. I don’t think that will happen. But I would not be surprised if antitrust action is taken under Joe Biden or maybe even a future Republican president. 

We have to deal with the repercussions of this new technology. It’s clearly the most disruptive technology since the printing press. We have about 500 years of catching up to do. But how we do it is a difficult question. I’m talking about how populism and social media go together, mainly because there’s no intermediary in social media. One of the roles that mainstream media or just regular media used to play was that of an editor. The editor would be the one who would control what was published and would often tell writers, “I’m not accepting that” or “You can’t say that.” In social media, you have none of that. It’s total disintermediation. You can just say what you want and it’s published instantly. I don’t know how we get around that other than some form of government regulation. But I also note that many figures now are going to the newsletter form. It’s also unmediated. You don’t really pay for editors on these newsletters, but I think it allows more reflection than a tweet or an angry Facebook post.

CS: Well, thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it. And I’m sure our readers will too.

MC: Great, thank you too.