I’m Ezra Klein. This is “The Ezra Klein Show.”
In 2003, Matt Continetti walked through the doors of 1150 17th in Washington, D.C., this beautiful building there, and into the nerve center of elite American conservatism. That building housed, as he puts it, the frontal cortex of the American right, or at least did. It had the American Enterprise Institute, the most prestigious conservative think tank. It sprawled across that complex. A few floors down was “The Weekly Standard,” the neoconservative magazine co-founded by Bill Kristol and widely considered the most influential read in George W. Bush’s White House.
The Project For a New American Century, a small think tank that played a critical role in pushing the Iraq War, was just down the Hall. Continetti began as an editorial assistant at “The Weekly Standard,” but he quickly rose up the ranks. He became an editor there. He even married into the family, becoming Bill Kristol’s son-in-law. He wrote a book defending Sarah Palin from the media’s attacks, and became the founding editor of “The Washington Free Beacon,” a publication dedicated to what he called combat journalism. Which he explained very simply, quote “At the Beacon, we follow only one commandment. Do unto them.”
Continetti was straddling two conservative tendencies that were about to rip apart, the establishment conservatism of George W. Bush and Bill Kristol, and the populist conservatism of Spiro Agnew, and soon, Donald Trump. And rip apart they did. Today, the Right that Continetti joined, it barely exists. “The Weekly Standard” is gone. Kristol became a leading Never Trumper. Trump took over the Republican Party in part by weaponizing anger and disappointment at its establishment, and particularly at the Bush family. The policy ideas so dutifully churned out by the American Enterprise Institute for so many years have little purchase on the rising generation of populist right leaders. In many cases, they’re running against those ideas. Continetti writes that quote, “To define oneself as a conservative in the 2020s was to reject the ideas and practices of the establishment that 1150 17th Street had come to our present. I’ve spent the last decade thinking about this change.”
The product of Continetti’s decade of thinking and research isn’t a manifesto or an essay. It’s a history book, “In the Right: The 100 Year War for American Conservatism.” Continetti does something valuable. He takes seriously the populist history of conservatism, running from Joseph McCarthy to William F. Buckley Jr., to the John Birch Society, to Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew, to the Tea Party, and Sarah Palin, and Donald Trump, and beyond. He doesn’t treat the forces that produced Trumpism as somehow alien to the Republican Party. What’s aberrational is not a populist right, but the belief, so widespread before Donald Trump, that conservatism was what Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell and “The Weekly Standard” and the American Enterprise Institute wanted it to be, that that is where the energy and the values of the people who put Republicans in power really sat.
This conversation is the first in a series we’re calling the “Rising Right.” Over the next few weeks, we’re going to be having conversations with the people who are trying to harness the forces of Trump unleashed, and build a superstructure of ideas and policy and organization around them. But to see where they’re going, you have to take seriously where they come from, what their lineage is, which is why I wanted to start with Continetti and the history of right-wing politics that Republicans so often prefer not to tell.
As always, my email, if you have guest suggestions, reading recommendations, or feedback, is email@example.com.
Matt Continetti, welcome to the show.
Thank you for having me, Ezra. It’s a pleasure to be here.
So your book’s subtitle is “The 100 Year War for American Conservatism.” What is the war over, and who is it between?
Well, I think the war, like most wars, is over who’s in charge. And it’s between the various factions on the Right. So I think one reason I called my book “The Right” is that people tend to believe that American conservatism is one thing. And it’s not. And I try very hard in the book to show that American conservatism is a large coalition. And in fact, that coalition at times has included groups and figures who may not even call themselves conservative, but are nonetheless part of the Right.
And so the story I tell in the book is really the story of these groups squabbling for power and influence, to be at the center of things, not only the center of the Right, but also the center of American politics. And one lesson I drew from my research and writing is that the groups in charge of the Right at any given moment don’t tend to last there for long.
So as I read the book, one of the central threads of it is that there is a populist tendency on the Right that has always been there, has always been central to its grassroots, to the energy it generates, has threaded through it for a very, very long time, and that elite conservatives, and probably elite liberals, often like to write out of the story. So tell me about the populist tendency on the Right, this faction in the war for the Right. What unifies it across time and movements and politicians?
That’s an interesting way of framing it. I think populism is part of American politics in general. I think if you can go back to the founding of our country, you see these regular occurrences of populist energies, movements driven from below, challenging authority. What happens in the second half of the 20th century is that more and more of these populist moments are associated with the Right.
It’s important to understand that many of them are unified by a rejection of expert opinion and the authorities in charge. The American right is in an unusual condition. You need to have a revolution for there to be a Right. In the European context, revolutions come from below and challenge the established institutions of, say, monarchy, the church, the class system. And the European conservatives were those who defended those established institutions, often from the challenges from below.
What’s unusual about America is that the revolution in the eyes of conservatives was a success, and that revolution was the New Deal, and the change in the nature of American government, its size and scope, beginning with F.D.R. And so the American right, since the 1930s, has been on the outside of many institutions, trying to insinuate themselves back into control.
And being outsiders has lent it, I think, an identity with those populist movements which sprang up to challenge authority, which sprang up to say that the elites aren’t either recognizing important issues or are responding to them in the wrong way. And there’s a commonality of interest, often between the conservative elites and the populist grassroots, but it’s also very hard for the conservatives and the populists to sustain that unity of interest over a long period of time.
What is conservative about the populist right?
Well, this is exactly why I call it the book “The Right,” because there are many places where the populist right is not what you would call conservative. It stands against liberalism. It stands against modern liberalism, or progressivism. And in some cases, it stands against classical liberalism, even the liberalism, small L, that you would find in the American founding.
But what is conservative about it is the sense that the elites, the people in charge, are challenging established patterns of activity, inherited norms of behavior from above. And so the populist grassroots are defending their traditional practices or local byways against these challenges from above.
And that often puts them in alliance with the more mainstream American conservatives, who are self-consciously conservative, who trace their lineage back to the American founding, who you know, believe in the principles that are articulated in texts such as Barry Goldwater’s “Conscience of a Conservative.” so just like many factions of conservatives end up in the same place for different reasons — you know, traditionalists oppose big government because they think that it attacks the fabric of society, whereas libertarians would oppose big government because they think that it restricts economic freedom.
The conservatives and the populists end up in a similar place, because each group opposes liberalism, maybe for different reasons, and certainly because of different ideas. The intellectuals have ideas about the way the world works, and so they tend to oppose liberal ideas. The populists react to policy and react to changes in the culture. It’s less intellectual, more intuitive and instinctual.
So when you see these populist movements diverge from conservatism, you see them often leave many of the conservative ideas behind as well.
I want to bring a little bit of the blood of all this back into it, because we’re being a little intellectualized about it ourselves here. But from the liberal perspective, what is conservative about the populist right, what the populist right tends to want to conserve, is fairly clear — its power as it used to exist, status hierarchies as they used to exist, the way things were — Make America Great Again.
And in that way, there is a true conservative impulse. Just to get back there requires, often, tremendous amounts of change. It’s a revolutionary conservative impulse, a reactionary conservative impulse, but it is powered by something true, which is that America is a country that has had a lot of change in power relations, less so than some people would want, but much more than others anticipated.
And a lot of the energy in the coalition of the Right comes from people without so much, as you say, of a policy agenda. It comes from people who just want the changes to roll back, want things to feel as they did before. Is that unfair?
Well, I think we’re, to some degree, saying the same thing in different ways. I would say, though, that if you look at populist movements — I mean, let’s just look at “The New Right” — it’s really the second new right — over the course of my book, but it’s the new right of the 1970s. It’s not just nostalgia that’s driving it, this new right in the 1970s, associated with figures like Phyllis Schlafly, Paul Weyrich. It’s a response to policies from above.
It’s response to political changes — Schlafly, of course, associated with her crusade against the Equal Rights Amendment, right — responses to judges, and mandating busing across school districts in order to achieve a certain racial mixture in the schools. So there’s partly, yes, we want to get back. But it’s also — we don’t necessarily have to think of a lost horizon, some golden age we’ve departed.
In many cases, these changes are very recent, and so they are rebelling against a political change, usually made by bureaucrats and judges. And I think this also goes to the more recent new Right, the Trump populist right, which is — yes, it’s Make America Great Again. It’s just some generalized notion that we need to return to a stronger America.
But I do think Trump wouldn’t have succeeded in capturing the Republican nomination or winning the presidency in the general election if he hadn’t been responding to actual policy decisions and discontent that people felt toward the people in power at the time, the Obama administration. So I think you and I are saying basically the same thing, but we’re putting it a little bit differently.
We’re going to come back to Trump, because obviously, he puts the sharp point on all this in the modern era. And I want to talk to you about whether or not what he responds to is policy decisions, so much as the person of Barack Obama. And of course, there’s going to be a bit of both in it. But I want to keep us in the history for a minute, and I want to lay my cards in the conversation a bit on the table here.
So I thought the book was great. I thought it was really, really interesting, and a really remarkable work of scholarship, as I was telling you beforehand. The thing that I wonder about in it is this a 100 year war for American conservatism, or is it a 100 year dialectic of American conservatism, because even as I read the book, these threads, the establishment conservatives and the populist conservatives, are more intertwined, less at war.
I think it’s even true in some of you and your career at “The Free Beacon,” and others, where you were working on combat journalism. There’s always been an effort to weave these together. And so I want to get you to tell a bit of that story of conservatism, the part of it that we often ignore because we tell so much through the stories of the elites who win presidencies and lead movements. But let’s begin with the John Birch Society. Tell me about them. Who were they and what did they believe?
Well, the John Birch Society was a mass membership organization beginning in the late 1950s, and really —
How mass? How big were they?
Well, I mean, it’s hard to say, because another characteristic of it was that it was secret. It was a secret organization. But I think we could say that it was numbered in the millions. The quality of it, though, was its secrecy, and its top down structure. I’ve just been talking about how populists are against rule from above, but in the case of the Birchers, the organization was built very hierarchically.
And its founder, former candy baron Robert Welch, was also a conspiracy theorist. He believed that Eisenhower was a communist.
And the conspiracies got crazier from there. And it became a challenge for the early conservative movement in the post-war era to disentangle itself from the John Birch Society, because so many people on the Right belonged to it, or supported it, or thought — and this also has contemporary resonance — they thought that the threat from the left was more important and more concerning than anything that the Birchers may have believed.
So it became a very extended process of trying to disassociate the conservatism of, say, William F. Buckley Jr. and “The National Review,” the conservatism of Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican nominee, from the Birch Society. And it really didn’t happen until after the 1964 election.
But this is where, I think, this question of war versus dialectic becomes really potent, because you’re saying disassociate, or disentangle. And that is how we tell this story, that Bill Buckley and the “National Review” eventually published this article disavowing Welch. And they lock the Birchers out. But along the way, they actually do a lot to bring in the movement itself. And you write about this, I think, in a really perceptive way, in a way that foretells a lot of what comes in conservatism after.
You write, “Conservatism could attain neither elite validation nor nationwide success if it was associated with Birchism, but it also could not sustain itself if Birchism was excised. It would have no constituency.” And that question, of how do you hold the worst elements of this populist movement, this conspiratorial movement at bay, but still harness its energy, its shock troops, its voters — that line, not disentangling, but somehow absorbing, while maintaining some level of immune system, that seems to me to be the central project that Goldwater and Buckley were engaged in in this period.
I take a slightly different view. There is no question that Buckley didn’t want to be associated with the Birchers. Goldwater was kind of all over the place as a candidate when he accepts the Republican nomination. He famously says, at the Cow Palace in 1964 — let me remind you that extremism in defense of liberty is no vice, a kind of showing of the middle finger to the critics who were saying that the G.O.P. was too associated with the extremist Right like the John Birch Society.
The break with the Birchers doesn’t happen until after 1964. And I think it’s interesting to look at how it happened, and how in fact, conservatism didn’t actually grow until it was no longer associated with the Birchers. Remember, it’s — like, 1964 is not a conservative high point. The break with the Birchers happens for a couple of reasons.
One is that the Birchers in a way delegitimize themselves by coming out against the Vietnam War.
The other way that conservatives were able to disentangle themselves from the Birchers is that there is a change in leadership after the 1964 election, and that is Goldwater faded — I mean, he remained an icon of conservatives, but he wasn’t at the center of things after 1964. And instead, he was replaced by William F. Buckley Jr., who runs for mayor of New York City in 1965, gets his “Firing Line” television show the following year, is already a nationally syndicated columnist, the face of the American right.
And then Ronald Reagan, who was elected in 1966 — and both of those figures were not associated with the Birch Society, and were able to be both populist, that is, against their perceived liberal opponents in charge, while also having some type of connection to reality. And that’s when this movement starts taking off. So it is a dialectic in some ways. That is, the conservatives have been most successful when they’ve benefited from populist energy and votes.
But if conservatives don’t have the right people and the right ideas to put into place once they’re thrust into power, the thing falls apart very quickly.
Yeah. That, I think, is very true. Let’s talk about another player at this moment, or around the same time, which is Joe McCarthy, because he’s another one — I think we tell the story of him in terms of his fall now. At long last, sir, have you no decency? But that can skip over the length of his power. And you do a nice job tracing that in the book. Can you talk about how influential — what McCarthy meant to politics at the time when he was at his peak?
So Joseph McCarthy is important, actually, in the formation of the post-war conservative movement. What’s interesting about McCarthy is he was an engaged nationalist. He was an anti-communist overseas, in terms of American involvement overseas. But he also, of course, as we all know, was much more concerned about perceived communist subversion here in the government, infiltration of the executive branch in particular.
And what I found perhaps most interesting in my research, and perhaps what I was most surprised by, is when you go back and look at the early literature of the post-war conservative movement, the lionization of McCarthy is so striking. When McCarthy dies in 1957, “National Review,” the preeminent conservative journal, devotes an entire issue to him. And some of the articles and obituaries are hagiographic, talking about the importance of McCarthy in drawing a line, in showing that the issue of subversion was a real one.
And even in these encomium, they’ll say things that have echoes today. They’ll say, yeah, sure, we didn’t approve of all of his methods, maybe he went too far sometimes. But he had the right instincts. And I thought the resonances were clear. These early postwar figures on the Right, they were for fighting communism overseas, and they were very much for rooting out communism — what they thought was communism here at home.
The other significance of McCarthy is, I think somewhat even to the conservatives’ surprise, he was popular. His crusade, for its first few years, was gaining strength. He was a steamroller. And so now the post-war conservatives, they had a connection to an American public that just a few years earlier wrote them off as completely on the fringe. So yes, its significance can’t be understated.
One of the things I find interesting about this whole group of players in this moment is they feel very much like a spectrum to me. So you have the John Birch Society, which feels to me very much like a forerunner of QAnon, actually, but you have the John Birch Society saying that there is a huge conspiracy, all the way up to Eisenhower, all the way laced through the American government and all American institutions, full of communists.
Then you have McCarthy, a politician, who is making a more limited, but nevertheless similar claim. There is a fundamental subversion problem. As you note in the book, his thing of I have — what was it, 206 names here?
The number changes, so —
The number changes, exactly, of individuals in the American government who are actually communist agents. It’s BS. It’s not actually the number — as the number shifts all the time. But say, somebody like William F. Buckley, the founder of “National Review,” who plays a very key role in your book, because he plays a key role in the foundation of modern conservatism. I think watching him during this period, you see some of his genius for knitting in between — like, knowing where to draw the line, but not drawing it where I would draw it.
Buckley might ultimately try to lock out the top levels of the Birchers, but his second book is a defense of Joe McCarthy — as you say, a hagiographic defense of Joe McCarthy, and not on every sentence McCarthy has ever uttered, but in a way that really resonates to the way people defend Trump in this period, a kind of view that, well, he’s still saying what needs to be said, and at least he’s not getting cowed by the establishment.
And so Buckley, who I think later comes to personify this conservative establishment, he’s very, very strikingly capable of both harnessing and raising up the anti-establishment energies in early conservatism, with McCarthy, I think, being a really key example of that.
Right. One thing about living, such a long life and rich life as William F. Buckley did is that he changed, and things changed. America changed. So the young Buckley, the Buckley who appears on the scene in 1951, with his first book “God and Man at Yale,” an attack on his alma mater for being too Keynesian, and being too atheistic and materialistic. He was a controversial figure. He was somebody — he was the Ben Shapiro, maybe, of his day, because everyone was alternatively aghast or in love with his arguments and his rhetoric.
And he — as you say, he co-writes a book with his brother-in-law, Brent Bozell, called “McCarthy and his Enemies,” which is almost a legalistic book. It’s very long. It really gets in the weeds. It examines all of McCarthy’s charges. They can’t defend him on much.
But they eventually come to the conclusion at the very end of this book, echoing their mentor, Wilmoore Kendall, that McCarthy is important because McCarthy stood for drawing the line.
And he was representing the aspirations of the American people to keep the communists out, and so he needed to be defended on that basis, not the details. And I do think there is always a tendency on every political side to rally to your tribe and to say, well, you know, let’s not look at the details here, this or that person has the right enemies, and maybe has the right vector. Like, they’re moving in the right direction, even if they’re not 100 percent correct.
That was clearly at work with Buckley’s defense of McCarthy, whom, I should say, he later says discredited, or set back the anti-communist cause. But that wasn’t until many years later.
Yeah, you see in there something you see very often today. It’s much remarked that there is a pro-Trump movement, and an anti-Trump movement, and an anti-anti-Trump movement. And the anti-anti-McCarthy movement, which I don’t think is only where Buckley ends up — I think he’s also relatively pro-McCarthy for a lot of that period. But the anti-anti movement is often a very unifying and coalitionally helpful space for some of these players, because it allows you to put the focus on your enemies and not the problems of your friends.
But this also goes to this line, I think, you had about the Birchers, and that to me is a kind of constant tendency, which is looking for ways — that the conservative intellectuals are often looking for ways to harness what is activating the right-wing base in a way that is defensible in public, and at the top levels, and maybe governable.
So McCarthy is not entirely legitimate, but a much more legitimate way of thinking about communism in the government than Birchism is. I mean, he’s still a conspiracy theorist, but not as much as they are. And now when I see these different conservatives coming up with this “OK Groomer” stuff, that just seems to me to be a way they’re trying to mainstream the energy clearly unleashed by this idea that Democrats are pedophiles.
And it just has a very long history as a rhetorical move in conservatism, a way for the Manhattan Institute to get on board with something it wouldn’t otherwise be on board with, and make sure that something that clearly has a potency in politics can be channeled towards the end of right-wing power, even if whether or not it can ultimately be controlled is a very open question.
I might differ slightly with you here. I mean, just a few things — McCarthy comes before the Birch Society really takes off. And it may have been actually because of the experience with McCarthy that figures like Buckley and Goldwater were very much leery of the Birchers. Then I would say, too, just the difference between Birchism and QAnon, is, as I mentioned earlier, the Birch Society was extremely top down.
It was controlled. Membership was secret, and you had a certain agenda. And maybe you would let your flag fly with the bumper stickers or whatever, but it was contained and controlled. Where, of course, Q — it’s completely decentralized. It’s all over the place. There is no controlling authority. I mean, there was the originator of the conspiracy, but it’s moved way past that now.
Then I would say, too, with Buckley and Reagan, there was a sense that if conservatism became too associated with the conspiracy fringe, there would be no future for it, because it wouldn’t be able to attract mainstream American support. That doesn’t seem to be necessarily going on at the moment. When you think about conservative elites, intellectuals who would make that argument are now on the margins of the movement, and of the Right.
And I think the politicians, as you say, are more open than a Reagan was, or then other Republicans of that era were, to figuring out, how do we harness this energy? How do we play off of it? And of course, this is Trump, right? I mean, I know we want to talk about him later, but Trump has no problem with conspiracy theories. He kind of loves them, and he wants to amplify them. That is, I think, a difference from the post-war, Cold War conservatism that I write about in my book.
Let’s stay in this time period for a bit more. Tell me about the campaign of George Wallace.
Well, there were several.
Tell me about his role on the Right and in American politics in this period.
Well he’s central to it. Many of us think of George Wallace, we think appropriately of his segregationist, his racism. What we don’t spend so much time recalling is that by the late 1960s and into the 1970s, he had dropped the explicit defense of segregation, and had moved to a place where he was simply attacking the people in charge — so saying there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the parties, going after the pointy heads, as he called them.
And of course, he was a Democrat, but he didn’t always run for president as a Democrat. And yet, many of his biggest fans were also on the American right, and liked Wallace for his fighting spirit. He fights. He doesn’t like the liberals. It doesn’t matter if he’s a Democrat, doesn’t matter if he is for the welfare state. He doesn’t like the liberal professors. He knows that America just needs a strong guy in charge of everything, and we’d work it out. He’s our guy.
And so another real revelation, to me, anyway, during my research, was going back to, say, the old “National Reviews” and other conservative publications and finding that every time these magazines, these conservative journals, would criticize George Wallace, the next issue, there would be at least three or four letters — and they probably received many more — attacking the magazine, saying, you just don’t get it. You sissy intellectuals there at “National Review” just don’t understand what George Wallace stands for, and you know, at least he’s out there fighting the liberals.
And here, I just saw many of the same arguments that would crop up decades later. So Wallace presented another challenge to the mainstream conservatism of Buckley and Reagan, in that he was of the Right, but he was not a reader of, you know, Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek. He was the opposite of that. And yet, it was his loathing of liberal elites, again, his challenge of the post-New Deal structures of American government, that attracted many on the Right to his various campaigns.
And Wallace, of course, puts very squarely this question of how intertwined modern conservative populism, or right-wing populism, is with racism. And you say correctly that by the mid ‘60s, Wallace has sanitized his message a little bit. He’s against the institutions, the pointy heads, the elites. But what he was saying was also very clear. Everybody knew who George Wallace was. Everybody knew what he had been campaigning on at that point for years.
And Wallace figures out how to turn the language of outright racism into a somewhat broader tent language of populism. And you have a very interesting analysis of this in your book, where you talk about — and you’re talking about this actually much later, for the Tea Party, but I think it applies to something with Wallace, how oftentimes an anti-government appeal, like the famous Tea Party signs to keep government hands off your Medicare, off my Medicare, are actually about not giving the government’s money, my money, the benefits that should be going to me, to those people who don’t deserve them.
And the view that often unites the more racist right and the more establishment right is that they can both oppose government, but the more establishment right is doing it because they want smaller government or less interference, and the more racist right is doing it because they think government and elites are on the side of this changing America, on the side of giving their money to Black people, or affirmative action policies, or whatever it might be.
But Wallace is very, very important, it seems to me, because he figures out how to talk about that effectively on these two levels, how to sublimate some of that language into anti-elite language that can be more coalitionally effective.
Well, I think it’s important to slightly differentiate Wallace from the Tea Party because of this question of government, and that is Wallace had no problem with government, whereas the Tea Party, at least in its outset, was making an anti-government pitch. Which, as you say, may have been kind of misdirected, but for Wallace, he wouldn’t have gone after Medicare to begin with.
That’s one reason that Buckley takes such a hard line against Wallace in 1968, not only because he fears that Wallace’s strength in 1968 may prevent Nixon from winning the presidency, but also because Wallace stood for a welfare state right that Buckley would not countenance.
And this is also a great moment in “National Review,” where one of the significant senior editors of National Review, Frank Meyer, who did so much of the intellectual work of conservatism during this period, says that populism represented by George Wallace is antithetical to conservatism. And that conservatives think that liberals are a threat and they are right, in Meyer’s view — but he says there are also other threats.
And he’s clearly indicating the type of politics that Wallace represents. Once the ‘68 election happens, then you have thinkers like Kevin Phillips and Pat Buchanan, tacticians saying, well, in order to get Nixon re-elected, we have to figure out some way to peel off the Wallace vote, to unify the Wallace vote with the Nixon vote. And that becomes the strategy of law and order, attacking the professors, attacking the media, and kind of associating Nixon, who didn’t like the elite, anyway, for many reasons, with the type of anti-elite and againstism that Wallace represented.
So I want to hold on this analogy, though, for a second, because I think there’s more to it, actually, than you’re giving it credit for. Nixon helps get at this. It was — actually, of the sections in your book, I found Nixon most revelatory, because he feels to me like the most relevant example for where a lot of the Right is about to go.
But what Wallace understands, what Donald Trump understood watching the Tea Party — this is, I think, where I maybe have a different interpretation of the Tea Party than you do — and what Nixon understood watching George Wallace, was that there were multiple ways to establish right-wing credibility. One is to have a perfect “National Review” style voting record, right — low taxes, Friedmanite monetary policy, free trade, anti-communism, later on voucherizing Medicare, whatever it might be.
But what the Wallaces and the Nixons and the Trumps ultimately understood is that if you can harness these anti-liberal energies, if you can build this populist critique, it actually turns out that the base is not for Paul Ryan-esque conservatism. They like a lot of the welfare state. They want a lot of the welfare state. They want a government that helps, they just want it to help them. And they understand government as run by liberal elites as taking from them to help African Americans, to help immigrants, to help people who don’t deserve it.
Nixon ends up having this incredibly flexible domestic policy, even as both he, through anti-communism, and some of his direct appeals, and then outsourcing even more of the anti-elite and anti-establishment attacks to Spiro Agnew, he really manages to walk this line in both a pretty careful way, but an incredibly effective way. And he, like, wins reelection by a bazillion — by a bazillion points. So I mean, is there something to that in your view, this recognition that you can be a conservative by being conservative on policy in the way “The National Review” might have thought about it, but actually, there’s this thread that I feel like you keep tracking in the book all the way to the modern day, of those who understand that you can be right, like, extremely clearly on the Right, by having the right enemies and attacking the right institutions.
And that if you do that, you actually have a lot more room on policy, because it turns out that the base of the Republican Party is not Paul Ryan-ites and it’s not Friedmanites.
Yeah, very rich question and theme. And as you mentioned those names, it’s funny to me, because Wallace, Nixon and Trump are three figures whom the conservative intellectuals would reject as conservatives. And so it gets to this question of, what is the Republican Party as a major political institution?
What is the conservative movement as a group of various single issue activists who are aligned for different causes? And then what are the conservative intellectuals? And of course, of the three groups, the conservative intellectuals, who are for voucherizing Medicare or reading Milton Friedman, they’re the smallest. So you’re right to suggest that the conservative intellectuals always have to figure out, well, how do we fit into this picture of the Republican Party, of the Right, that is not necessarily on board with what we actually believe?
And that relationship becomes very agonized at times. And just to carry on with the example of Nixon, you have this extraordinary moment in 1971, where in the space of a few weeks Nixon announces that he will visit China and be a guest of Mao Zedong as a way of initiating American relationship with the People’s Republic of China, which horrifies the anti-communists on the Right and in the conservative movement.
And then he announces his new economic policy of severing the dollar’s tie to gold and imposing wage and price controls, which Milton Friedman would write in his memoir was worse than Watergate. Of course, Milton Friedman would say that. So what happens after is that some of the conservatives, they’re called the Manhattan 12, they meet together and they say we’re suspending support for Richard Nixon.
And yet when push came to shove, a little bit more than a year later in the election, almost of all of them kind of ended up supporting Nixon, because, here again, the alternative they viewed as far worse.
But that election to me is really — to go back to the word you used, rich, because I’m a liberal. I have different politics than you do on these things. And one of the things I think you can see in Nixon in ‘72, and you’ll remember the numbers by which he wins by. I don’t have them at hand, but Nixon is now known for Watergate. He’s a fundamental loser in American politics. He resigns in disgrace.
But just a little bit before that, in ‘72, he wins this unbelievable landslide victory, and he does so by figuring out how to merge some of the conservatism we’re talking about with this populist right that you write in the book — you quote “Buchanan,” Pat Buchanan here, “Convinced Nixon that the Wallace supporters were up for grabs. Nixon pursued these disaffected working class voters in what became known, somewhat misleadingly, as the Southern Strategy.
He thus brought into the Republican Party’s appeal and incorporated groups into his coalition that changed the nature of conservatism.” Can you talk a bit about that, and about the — before he fell, the success Nixon actually had with that strategy.
Sure. The reason I say it’s somewhat misleading to call it the Southern Strategy is that it was really aimed at Northern cities.
The transformation of the South was a long, long process, and actually took even decades after Nixon to be fully complete. But what they were looking at was Wallace’s surprising strength in the North, which had been visible even in the 1964 run that Wallace had.
This identifies for them, for the Nixon strategists, a group that came to be known as the hard hats, working class whites, primarily the descendants of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, who were in the North, and who were rejecting the direction of the Democratic Party as the Democratic Party was being torn apart over Vietnam, and over the post 1964 developments in the Civil Rights movement.
And so they target this group to bring them into the coalition, through the continuing appeal to law and order, through the attacks on the media, attacks on the professoriate and what’s going on with the students of that time. And they are successful. Nixon does win this extraordinary landslide in 1972, almost a mirror image of the 1964 landslide which went against the Republicans.
But you know, the interesting thing, Ezra, about that campaign, is that in many ways, I think it was less a judgment on Nixon and more of the public’s judgment on his opponent, George McGovern. And the way we can tell that is that Nixon had no coattails in that election. In fact, he lost ground in the Congress. So I think it’s always worth taking a look at some of these pivotal moments. Nixon was very successful in ‘72. A lot of that had to do with his opponent.
And so when he gets up and launches his ambitious agenda in 1973, I think he felt more of the public was behind him than perhaps actually was. And that, of course, became clear as Watergate unfolded.
One more thing about Nixon, though, to go back to where I began this, it’s almost now a trope for liberals to say that whatever Democrat is in office now is more conservative than that Richard Nixon was. And I don’t think it’s exactly true, but it is true that Nixon proposes a health care plan that is, I would say, more expansive than what the Affordable Care Act ultimately it.
It is true that he proposes what would have been functionally a basic income in this country, which we still do not have anything like today. It is true that he puts into place a lot of major environmental legislation. And one thing that I find interesting in him that I think is a little bit lost, when I read the histories of Nixon, Nixon goes from this politician who loses to J.F.K., who wins very, very narrowly against Humphrey.
And then against McGovern, goes on to this towering victory — that part of what seems to me to hold it together for him, just as it later holds it together somewhat for Trump, is that as much as some of his rhetoric, some of his behavior, codes quite far right, codes as populist right, that the policy leavens it, and that he also is able to show himself as trying to appeal, or answer, or address the more real material needs of some of these right-leaning, hard hat voters who don’t like Democrats for elite, or racial, or cultural or other reasons, but actually do want help.
And Nixon never forces them to choose between wanting help and not liking the left.
Yeah, Nixon, I situate him as a European conservative, not an American one. I mean, he’s of the American right, obviously. But if you look about his influences, they are European. He was obsessed with de Gaulle and Disraeli — so Disraeli, not a continental figure, but one of these 19th century conservatives who believed that in order to maintain social order, the government ought to pay attention to the material condition of the poor and of the working class, precisely to guard against revolts from below.
When I look at Nixon, I see a figure who’s very interested in stability. That’s how he viewed his job domestically, was to recreate the conditions of social stability in America that had been so disrupted in the late 1960s. And his guides for that were not the American conservatives, but the more European conservatives, which led to this embrace and expansion, as you say, of the welfare state, which got under the conservatives that I write about, their skin.
The joke among some conservatives was that they didn’t start supporting Nixon until Watergate, so frustrated were they with his domestic policy.
So Nixon, of course, ends in disgrace, so there’s not a lineage that people think back to with him. But as we’ve been talking about, I think there’s actually a lot more of interest in him to the modern political follower than people give credit for. But the Republican who ends up dominating all thinking about conservatism for the modern era is Reagan, who comes after Nixon.
And you have a really, I think, perceptive take on this, where you say that Reagan ends up — I’m paraphrasing you here — obscuring as much as he illuminates, that some things about him are so distinctive that it makes it hard to see what was really going on, because he so ends up dominating debates and the model for Republicans. Can you talk about the ways in which overanalyzing Reaganism, in your view, leads us astray in understanding the Right?
I’d be happy to. I mean, in some ways, that’s one of the dominant themes of my book. In taking in hundreds years, and whether it’s a war or dialectic or whatever, just examining the relationships among the different factions on the Right, I saw how unusual Ronald Reagan was, because he not only came out of the post-war, post-World War II conservative movement, but he was able to harness populism that was raging during the late 1970s.
He was able also to gain support from the neoconservatives who were moving to the Right in the late 1960s and 1970s. He had the religious right behind him, with the moral majority in 1980. Every group on the Right saw in Reagan things that they liked. And so he was an ecumenical figure in a way that really no other leader of the American right has been able to achieve.
And the other thing about him was the continuity of his views, stretching back to when he was a Cold War liberal. His view of American exceptionalism, of the stakes in the Cold War, of the importance of democracy, carry through until his last public speeches. So what I found was that by looking at him — and most stories about the American right begin at the end of World War II, and just either culminate in Reagan, or as a coda, they culminate with Barack Obama’s election in 2008.
You kind of get a distorted picture, because when you kind of widen the lens, you see that he was very unusual. His demeanor, even, was unusual. And this applies to Buckley, too. Most figures on the American right are actually not that charismatic, so focusing too much on Reagan distorts our view of the Right. And then pinning everything on Reagan also has led to a crimped intellectual conservatism, whereas you think, well, none of the problems facing America have changed since Reagan’s time.
The irony, of course, as your colleague Ross Douthat pointed out recently, is that, actually, some of the problems in America today are like the problems that faced America while Reagan rose. But I do think that focusing too much on him presents a distorted picture. So while you can’t deny his significance, and he does take up space in my history for sure. I wanted to portray him as just one character among many, rather than the central character of my story.
One of the things about truly talented politicians, of which there really aren’t that many, is that they’re able to do through personal appeal and through gesture and through representation what other politicians have to do very explicitly through policy, through direct group appeals, through picking fights.
And there’s a way in which I see Reagan and Obama as very similar in this respect, and as such, kind of tricky models within their two parties, because both of them were as politicians so personally charismatic and capable that they didn’t have to make some of the trade offs that their successors or predecessors did. Or even when they did make a trade off, it wasn’t seen as much, because people were willing to follow them there.
I mean, liberals love talking about all of Ronald Reagan’s deviations from conservative orthodoxy. And on the flip side, a lot of the ways that Obama signaled an openness to more culturally conservative ideas would be non-tenable for a Democratic politician that didn’t have his intuitive, super deep connection with the Democratic base. And so I think you often have in the aftermath of these politicians successors who come.
And you begin to see the seams in the coalition very quickly, because sort of like Hillary Clinton after Obama, or like H.W. Bush and then George W Bush after Reagan, and ultimately, Romney, I would say, after Reagan, they end up having to state whose side they’re on, as opposed to creating a side that other people want to be on.
I largely agree with that analysis. Another thing that Reagan and Obama share is that they were always much more personally popular than their policies, which drove their opponents mad, because they would say — oh, this personality is just so appealing. It’s hard to make inroads, even though the policy support wasn’t there. It’s interesting you bring up the post-Obama divisions in the Democratic party, because I think it’s a very real analogy.
And you think about the choice facing Democratic primary voters in 2016 between Sanders and between Clinton, very two distinct paths for the American left to go. In a way, you saw that in 1988, when there is real, you know, confusion about the future of the American right post-Reagan. And many people thought that Jack Kemp, the New York Congressman who had really originated, or rather popularized, the supply side political and economic ideas that infused Reagan’s presidency — there was a great belief that he would be Reagan’s successor.
And meanwhile, there were people telling Pat Buchanan, who wanted to take a more, let us say Nixonian approach, more conflictual, more polarizing, more focused on cultural difference, more economically nationalist. They were urging Buchanan to run. Buchanan doesn’t run in ‘88. He waits four years, in ‘92, against the person who does run and win both the Republican nomination and the presidency in 1988, George H.W. Bush.
And you’re exactly right. Bush is someone who was not a Reaganite before he became vice president, and who did kind of not quite capture the coalition in the same way that Reagan had. And all those tensions spill out over the course of Bush’s presidency, and then, of course, become very real, very distinct, during the presidency of H.W.‘s son, George W. Bush.
I’m glad you brought up the Bushes, because it seems to me that it’s the Reagan, Bush, Bush sequence that ends up creating a story of American conservatism that almost wipes out the populist impulse for a while, that H.W. Bush is a patrician. He doesn’t, I think, win without being Reagan’s vice president. But because he was Reagan’s vice president, it worked out for him.
George W. Bush is a more complicated story, but the three of them together end up creating, it seems to me, this moment where you can tell yourself — or the country gets told, that conservatism is this part of the lineage. And I think that then finds its narrow apotheosis in the rise of Paul Ryan and the candidacy of Mitt Romney in 2012. And like, having gone way too far in that direction, the party snaps all the way back with Donald Trump.
But I’m curious if that seems like a reasonable take to you, that this is this unusual period, this aberrant period, that both structures the way we look at the American right, but also is pretty distinctive for how weak the populist impulse is in its leadership.
Well, the only thing I’d add to that picture, which I do think is largely accurate, is the character of Newt Gingrich and the Republican revolution of 1994, which in many ways followed the pattern that we’ve been referring to throughout this conversation, of finding a way to harness the populist energies that were visible in the Perot candidacy of 1992 to the institutional Republican Party.
And so with the Contract with America in 1994, Gingrich, who had worked for a decade to reassert the Republicans as a force in the House of Representatives, he finds a bridge between his Republican allies in the Congress and the Perotistas, and the more populist forces that were visible in 1992. He harnesses them. And in the 1994 election, of course, the G.O.P. takes over the House for the first time in 40 years. They take back the Senate after they had lost it in 1986.
And so I think with Gingrich — and then with what happens with the conservative movement in the 1990s, you get some hints of where populism can go. And with the conservatives and Clinton, in particular, you see that there were many figures in those Republican Congresses who were attracted to far out conspiracy theories about Bill Clinton. That was always there.
And yet, they were overlaid by what had become at that point a conservative governing class in Congress, and then during the presidential administrations you mentioned, in the executive branch, who were carrying out policies that had been formulated in intellectual journals, in some cases, many decades before.
And I think probably another figure that it would be genuinely incomplete to not mention in this period is Limbaugh. Could you talk a bit about the media’s role here, because the media’s role in being the place that this populist expression of conservatism can emerge, can find force, can make itself heard to the more elite conservative governing class — and you’ve been in the media. I mean, this is your world.
So we’ve been talking here in terms of politicians, but the role of right-wing media in being the whip of the base strikes me as very, very hard to overstate.
And this is a relatively recent development. You know, Limbaugh goes nationwide in 1988, ‘89. Post Reagan, he becomes perhaps the most important figure in American conservatism. He has a huge audience. He is reflecting the Reagan vision, which draws from that movement conservatism I’ve been discussing, tracing its way back to Buckley, “National Review,” “Conscience of a Conservative.”
And he also becomes the model for an entire industry. And so he has so many imitators that talk radio becomes increasingly important to the way the Right presents itself and also thinks about itself. Not long after Rush really rises to prominence in 1996, you have the creation of Fox News Channel, which for its first four years was not really taking fire. It wasn’t until 1998 and the Monica Lewinsky scandal that Fox becomes the force that it is today.
And it has only grown in power since.
And it’s also 1998 where Matt Drudge discloses that “Newsweek” had spiked the story about Monica Lewinsky. And so there, you have the role of the internet as another means of conservative discourse. So the solution that the Right found, to the fact that so many of these dominant cultural institutions were run by liberals, was to create counter institutions.
And quite by accident, with the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, you birth talk radio. And then you have Fox News. And then you have, of course, the internet. By the time it gets to the last decade with the rise of social media, it is beyond any power to control, including conservative elites, including the Republican establishment, including right intellectuals.
To me, a really signal moment in this — it doesn’t get as much attention as containing the seeds of our era as I think it deserves — is late in George W. Bush’s presidency, he tries working with John McCain, working with Ted Kennedy, to do a big immigration reform bill, another play in compassionate conservatism. And this bill is killed in a pretty big, pretty humiliating defeat for the president by a conservative revolt driven by talk radio. Do you want to talk a bit about that episode?
I do, because I think it’s the most important episode in the development of national populism in the United States. I think that the populist revolt we’re living through now, and which expressed itself in the rise of Donald Trump, began in George W. Bush’s second term. And it was over this question of national identity and immigration, and how to treat illegal immigrants living in the United States.
And I was a journalist in D.C., along with you at the time, and my reporting always indicated that this plan had no chance. There was support for it in the Senate, but the House was never going to go for it. And the House Republicans were against doing anything to regularize the status of immigrants residing here illegally. And this became, I think, the focal issue for the elements on the Right who thought that the Republican establishment was selling them out.
And it continued to divide conservatives for the next 10 years, because when Mitt Romney, who we’ve mentioned, goes down to defeat in 2012, the G.O.P. conducts what was called the autopsy into why he lost. And the authors of the autopsy say it was because of Romney’s position on immigration. Well, this drives the conservative grassroots mad. No, they say, it’s not it. And you can’t force on us another Republican nominee who would be more pro-immigration, then certainly Romney was.
This, I think, makes the populist right willing to look outside the bounds of vetted candidates, of what you would expect from the traditional idea that the Republicans always nominate the next man in line. They want to look for solutions outside the political system. And this is what leads them to Trump, who of course, begins his campaign on illegal immigration.
Trump is maybe an interesting place for a synthesis of maybe our views on conservatism in this, over this long history, because I’ve been pushing this idea that conservatism is a dialectic, that it is this endless story of the conservative elites, politicians, media figures figuring out how to harness these energies, sanitize them just enough, while maintaining a lot of what makes them potent, and also agreeing, to some degree.
I mean, I think there was a genuine populist, genuine resentful dimension to Buckley, to Nixon, even more to Reagan than often gets credited for. But what Trump understands, I think, is the places where it really is a war, where there’s no dialectical endpoint to be had, because there actually is a fundamental disagreement between the party’s governing class and its base. And immigration is the center of that.
The governing class of the Republican Party tries again and again and again to push immigration reform. They do it in ‘07 under Bush, a number of them back the 2013 plan under Barack Obama. Marco Rubio famously goes on Sean Hannity’s show, and Hannity endorses it on Fox News, which he later takes back after there’s a huge revolt. And the bill ultimately fails.
And Trump, to me, really saw where the contradictions were. Maybe he felt them himself.
But he was able to look at where the two sides couldn’t exactly be reconciled, and that was among some other things, it was immigration. It was style, right? There were things Trump is willing to do in terms of being a fighter that the governing class of the Republican Party wouldn’t allow. And interestingly, I think by then, it was the Iraq War and the legacy of George W. Bush, and how much America was spending on foreign expansionism.
But he really saw, and was able to really shift the axis of the party, by making most salient the places in the party where there was no compromise to be had, where were the elites couldn’t absorb because they actually opposed. How does that interpretation of him strike you?
Well, I think, on immigration, really, he identified a big place where the voters were just against the people that they elected. And yet, as you point out, there was attempts again and again with Republicans to pass it. Trump decided to side with the bulk of the Republican voter. And then he did something very unique, which was he decided to tie it to national security and the dangers of international terrorism and ISIS, which were very much in the news in 2015 and 2016.
And so he used that issue, I think, to win the Republican nomination. But I think we have to distinguish between Trump’s run for the nomination and Trump’s run for the presidency. The fact remains that Trump did not win a majority of votes for the Republican nomination. He won a plurality. And he won a plurality because he was able to combine his loyal core supporters with enough offshoots of this multicandidate field, this divided field, that he kind of powered through these winner take all contests in the Republican Party.
And that allowed him to win the nomination. He did a similar thing when he wins the presidency through his electoral college victory, which is — he’s the most unpopular candidate of a major party in the history of Gallup polling, but he ran against the second most unpopular candidate of a major party in the history of Gallup polling. And he was the candidate of outsider and change in an election that usually favors the outsider and change, which is the election in an eighth year of a presidency.
And despite the distaste, he was able to kind of cobble through, again, an electoral college win with his core support, the Republican Party support that he attracted once he won the nomination, and then independents who were not willing to go for Clinton. So it’s more, I’d say, close run thing with Trump then sometimes people describe it. And then he’s very able to change the nature of the party on immigration, for sure, basically by bullying out all of the forces who are still for a comprehensive immigration reform.
That issue, for the time being in my view, is settled in Trump’s favor. With foreign policy, it’s a little bit more complicated. He does do a thing that I think was very important, which he repudiates George W. Bush’s presidency. He does it in a very dramatic fashion. He does it by defeating George W.‘s brother, Jeb, who was among the many candidates running in that 2016 primary. And he does it by embracing Pat Buchanan’s slogan from the 1990s, which was Charles Lindbergh’s slogan from the 1940s, America First.
And yet, his foreign policy is not so different from a traditional Republican foreign policy. I mean, he really — he ramps up the campaign against ISIS. He maintains our forces in Afghanistan, despite his personal qualms about it —
Although he does sign the deal with the Taliban that’s, like, the beginning of withdrawal.
Right, well, I’m referring to when he gets into office. But eventually, he does his peace deal with the Taliban. And he doesn’t leave NATO, even though he’s threatened to, and has a very complicated relationship with it.
So it is ironic to me, I think, that even though Trump has empowered this latest new right, even though Trump is the master of the Republican Party and the leader of the populist right in America, many of the policies that he was able successfully to implement, and there weren’t that many as president, were longstanding Republican, conservative priorities, whether it’s the tax reform, whether it’s the deregulation that he was able to accomplish, or whether it was his most lasting accomplishment, which was the conservative change in the judiciary.
So Trump becomes this figure who — yeah, maybe he understands it’s a war, but I think that dialectic you’ve been describing actually still continues at least at the outset. And now, as we enter the post-2020 right, that war, I think, has become much more pointed. I mean, Trump continues to challenge and attempt to expel whatever forces are opposed to him within the Republican Party.
Trump, and what Republicans are learning from him, is such an interesting and complicated topic to me, because you look at a lot of the rising Republicans — and Trump’s dominance of the party, it isn’t just personal. It is conceptual. Everybody is trying to extract Trumpism for themselves. And yet, if I described him to you, just in broad strokes — OK, in 2016, Republicans run a very unpopular, populist, outsider candidate, very divisive in the party and outside of it.
He gets a smaller vote share than the previous Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, but he wins despite losing the popular vote, by squeaking through an electoral college victory. Then, he’s unpopular for functionally his whole presidency. Under him Republicans lose a huge amount of seats in 2018. They lose the House. Democrats make gains across the country. Then, in 2020, Trump becomes one of the rare incumbents to lose reelection.
Republicans, under him, lose the Senate as well, giving Democrats a governing trifecta. You wouldn’t say, obviously, that the way the Republican Party should understand this experience is this person is a political mastermind, and we all need to figure out what he has figured out, and anybody who wants to run needs to run exactly like him. And yet, that very much seems to me to be the dominant theory among not all, but most of the 2024 aspirants who seem like they have a shot, like Ron DeSantis.
It’s very much the media theory of the case. It’s very strange. He’s this clear political genius on one level, clear political loser on another, has done a lot to humiliate the Republican Party. What are the lessons you think Republicans should learn from him, and what are the cautionary lessons you think they should learn from him? And do they currently have that mix right?
Well, that’s a great question. And I’ll be happy to talk about it for the next several hours — Trump. I think that there is much more agreement on the Right about Trump’s conceptual changes to the Republican Party than there is about his personal changes. And so it is fascinating that there are widespread agreements on Trump’s change of posture toward immigration, toward China, toward foreign intervention, toward — even in the trade pieces connected to the China piece, but this idea that we even have to move toward a strategic decoupling with China.
You do not hear echoes of Paul Ryan in today’s G.O.P. In fact, when Rick Scott, the Senator from Florida, recently released a policy agenda for Senate Republicans in the next Congress, he included entitlement reform. And everybody, including Mitch McConnell, was, like, ignore that piece of paper. There, on the policy level, Republicans are in almost total agreement that the policies that Trump pursued ought to be continued and ought to be reimposed if Republicans seek power.
The debate within the Right is really over matters of style and whether Trump is the person who can come back and lead the way. And here, I have to say I’m stumped. I don’t understand it, because I think the sequence of events that you lay out is empirically unfalsifiable. He didn’t win the popular vote. He lost the House. And he loses the presidency. Then, he loses the Senate for the Republicans.
I mean, it was his refusal to really get involved in the Georgia special elections that cost the Republicans the Senate majority, and with great effects for public policy. He’s impeached twice, which is something. I don’t quite understand it. And yet, he’s associated with winning, which is hard for me to understand. He did, however, achieve some goals that conservatives have wanted for a long time, in particular those three Supreme Court justices.
But I think the real debate now in the G.O.P. is whether to embrace a Trump comeback in 2024. And I do think, though, there are figures who are prepared to challenge him for the nomination even if he decides to run for it again.
I mean, I agree with that, but that’s why one of my questions about all of them is what lesson they’re learning, because sometimes I watch the people who seem to be coming up. And I’m thinking here of the DeSantises, the J.D. Vances, the Ted Cruzes — who’s obviously already been a national figure for some time. They all increasingly sound like him. In a strange way, I see it maybe — I don’t want to say the opposite of how you do, but it looks to me like the lesson they all took from Trump is stylistic, that you really need to be a fighter.
That, winner or loser, you always need to be a fighter. I mean, J.D. Vance watching him become what he is now, is the clearest path you could see in anybody like that, somebody who sounds like Paul Ryan becoming somebody who sounds like Donald Trump. But later on, you get your DeSantises, you get all these different people. And yet, there is an ambiguity in Trump as a policy figure that is underappreciated in my view.
As you say, conservatives, Republicans, House Republicans, were relatively successful in ultimately getting him to more or less do things that were aligned with what they wanted, except for maybe on immigration and trade. And the line on Trump is always, don’t listen to what he says, look at what he ultimately does. But Trump is very disengaged in what he ultimately does. And what he says is how most people understood him.
And I think there’s a real possibility that Trump’s stranger cocktail of, at least rhetorically pointing toward something that’s more Nixonian, more Wallace-ian, more conservative populist, whatever he was ultimately persuaded to do, it was important that in 2016 he was seen as the more moderate candidate of the two, and that his style actually was a hindrance, that people don’t want an apocalyptic, angry, cruel, bullying, weird, erratic figure at the top of the party.
And so there’s some interesting way where I think what the conservative establishment wants to do dialectically is grab his style and use it for their ends. But I do suspect that his ability to at least portray himself as more moderate, as more actually populist than a Mitt Romney, than a Paul Ryan were, was important. And it’s the part of his legacy that they want to throw out, but it really is a part of his legacy. I’m curious how you see that piece of it.
I guess I slightly disagree. I mean, you named the figures who are definitely aping the Trump style, even when in the case of, say, Ted Cruz, the substance is still different. I mean, Cruz has his own policy agenda, which is different from kind of the Trumpian Right’s. But there are other models as well. Mike Pence is not aping Trump’s style. Glenn Youngkin is not aping Trump’s style.
So I think one of the questions I have going into the 2024 election is, do Republican voters really want that style? And there’s a great chance that they do, that at the end of the day, they’re not even really interested in winning. What they’re interested in is just having someone on television every night, saying that liberals are the worst, and the media is corrupt, and on and on and on.
I do, however, think that there is a sense, though it’s sotto voce within the G.O.P., even among G.O.P. voters, that Trump’s moment has passed. Trump is too obsessed with 2020. And that it’s time to find someone who has the Trump policies and not the Trump personality, which is not a winner electorally. So I guess I slightly disagree. I think there is a little bit more openness to a non-Trumpy figure in the G.O.P. than people think. But look, I’ve been wrong before.
I think that is a great question to pose here at the end. So let me close this, and ask you what’s always my final question on the show, which is what are three books you’d recommend to the audience?
Well, I’m so happy you asked me this question, Ezra. And I’ve given it a lot of thought. And so I’m trying to represent different forms of conservatism in my answer. The first book is a collection of speeches by William F. Buckley Jr., entitled “Let Us Talk Of Many Things,” and it’s a collection of speeches from throughout his life and career. I think it provides a great introduction to Buckley’s ideas and to Buckley’s literary style, and to his sense of humor.
My second book is “Making It” by Norman Podhoretz. This is a book that Norman Podhoretz wrote when he was still a figure on the left. He was the editor of “Commentary” magazine, who had taken the magazine in a more radical direction, actually, when he became editor at the age of 30 in 1960. He wrote this autobiography about his career in the New York intellectual world. It’s published in 1967. It is harshly reviewed by many of his friends. It begins his journey toward the Right.
And in fact, in its final pages, you can see the beginnings of Norman Podhoretz’s version of neoconservatism. I also think it’s a great read, and it’s recently been republished by The New York Review of Books.
And my final book is another memoir, “The Prince of Darkness” by Robert D. Novak. Robert Novak was a long time reporter in Washington, D.C., and also a cable news personality who began moving to the Right, really, in the 1970s, and then became a fixture in conservative journalism.
I think “The Prince of Darkness” is an excellent introduction into American politics, into the history of the presidency, and also into some of the debates, especially the debates over the two Iraq wars that have engaged conservatives over the last half century.
And Matt Continetti, your book is “The Right: The 100 Year War for American Conservatism.” It packs a tremendous amount of history into one volume, and so people may very much want to pick it up. Thank you very much.
“The Ezra Klein Show” is produced by Annie Galvin, Jeff Geld and Roge Karma. Fact checking by Jenny Cases, Michelle Harris and Mary Marge Locker. Original music by Isaac Jones, mixing and engineering by Jeff Geld, audience strategy by Shannon Busta. Our executive producer is Irene Noguchi. Special thanks to Kristin Lin and Kristina Samulewski.