The Republican Party, from a certain perspective, is in tatters. It is trapped in a dysfunctional relationship with Donald Trump, who, although he ended his term in disgrace and remains obsessed with relitigating the 2020 election, still commands the loyalty of many Republican voters and poses a grave threat to any politician who crosses him. Meanwhile, many of the intellectual networks that powered conservative governments in the past have died off, been rendered irrelevant, or defected to the Democrats; there is a sense that the Trump-era GOP, while it may have a durable electoral base among middle-American whites, is incapable of appealing to any significant faction of professional-class elites.
And yet. Biden’s approval ratings keep falling. Polls show the Republicans leading on a generic congressional ballot and suggest an even split in a potential Biden-Trump rematch in 2024. Voters have more faith in the Republicans on the top issue, the economy, as well as on inflation, immigration, crime, and foreign policy. They think the President is well-meaning but clueless. A March poll from the Wall Street Journal found that 50 per cent of voters agreed that “Joe Biden tries to do the right thing”, but only 39 per cent agreed that he is “focused on the issues that are most important to me”; a February Washington Post poll found that 54 per cent believed Biden lacked the “mental sharpness it takes to serve effectively as president”. Thanks to Biden, the GOP, far from being “dead”, could be gearing up for its strongest election cycle in a decade.
What to make of the paradox that the Republicans appear politically strong but remain completely toxic among those who by and large govern the country? A new book by Matthew Continetti, The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism, does not address itself directly to this question, but it does suggest an answer: this is the consequence of Trump’s destruction and discrediting of the conservative intellectual and policy elite.
Continetti could be fairly described as conservative royalty. A senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the most respectable of the right-of-centre DC think tanks, he was a long-time employee of The Weekly Standard during its run as the house journal of the Bush administration. He is also the son-in-law of Bill Kristol, neoconservative founder of the Standard and The Bulwark and perhaps the most prominent Trump-era defector to the Democratic Party. Continetti’s perspective is that of a consummate insider, one tied by professional and familial bonds to the Beltway intellectual establishment that was all but obliterated by the 2016 election. He is, as a result, better attuned than most to the role of elites in the conservative ecosystem, as well as to the limits of their power.
The book is a work of history rather than a commentary on current events, and Continetti refrains from splashy arguments. But his framing of the American Right over the past century has obvious implications for the present day. Broadly speaking, his narrative is one of the “endless competition and occasional collaboration between populism and elitism”. Conservatism, in his telling, “has toggled between an elite-driven strategy in both content and constituencies and a populist strategy that meets normal people where they are and is driven by their ambitions, anxieties, and animosities”. Only a synthesis of the two is capable of anything other than fleeting victories — elite-driven politics fails at the ballot-box, populism fails at governing — yet such a synthesis has been difficult to come by, which explains the “tenuous” and “fragile” nature of Republican successes.
Since FDR’s expansion and reorganisation of the American state in the Thirties, conservatism has always been a minority faction in the American elite, which tends toward welfare-state, social-reforming liberalism with occasional forays into radicalism. The broad middle of the social spectrum is more conservative, or at the very least more suspicious of elite liberalism and its various improving crusades. As a political project, post-war conservatism, embodied by figures such as National Review founder William F. Buckley, was an attempt to harness this popular, anti-liberal political energy for electoral purposes, with the implicit understanding that the elites would do the actual governing, softening the edges of populist anxieties (which often shade into bigotry and conspiracism), while translating them into a viable political programme.
For liberals, of course, this relationship looks like the cynical manipulation of the electorate’s base instincts, and at times it can be exactly that. But, as conservatives like Continetti would point out, it serves an important political function. A liberal governing class ruling over a conservative populace is not an inherently stable political arrangement. When persuasion fails — and people can only be persuaded of so much — there will always be a temptation to coerce, cajole, or mislead. Sometimes, as in the case of desegregating the South in the Sixties, coercion may be justified in the name of a higher moral purpose. But the language of “moral clarity” (not to mention technocratic expertise) can also be used to disqualify legitimate criticism of unpopular or wrong-headed fads.
Plus, in a democracy, the people get a vote. You can only ignore their preferences for so long without incurring a backlash. As Eric Kaufmann argues, the rise of populism in the West is in large part the result of conservative elites colluding with liberals to remove immigration restriction from the policy debate at a time when a large portion of the population felt very strongly about it. This did not make the issue go away, however, and the glaring mismatch between popular demand for the policy and its conspicuous lack of supply in the political system provided the opening for political entrepreneurs such as Trump. But the point can be stated more generally: Conservative elites mediate between their voters and a wider American elite, ideally acting as a check on the excesses of both. When they fail in this role, as they did in the years prior to 2016, the entire system becomes vulnerable to outside disruption.
Where does that leave conservatism today? Continetti is pessimistic about Trump’s effect on the Right — he has shattered elite conservatism as an independent force and made the party’s brand toxic to the professional class, whose buy-in was critical to Reagan’s victories and relative effectiveness once in office. He notes, despairingly, that the rise of cable news and social media may have simply eliminated the ability of any conservative elite to perform their gatekeeping and mediating function — constantly at risk of being outflanked by Fox News and Twitter influencers, their options may be to join the populists, join the Democrats, or fade into irrelevance.
Not mentioned, though relevant, is the fact that the radicalisation of the liberal establishment over the past decade has made the old role of conservative elites less tenable. If they represent the interests of their base, they risk forfeiting their status and respectability among their fellow elites. But if they capitulate to each new progressive taboo as it is erected, they forfeit their credibility with the people they are supposed to represent, making themselves superfluous. Few on the Left or the populist Right are likely to shed a tear over this outcome, but absent any group able to effectively translate popular demands into the language of professional-class respectability, the two sides will lose their ability to talk to one another, and American politics will descend further down the road of all-out, zero-sum warfare.
The turning point, at least in the medium-term, will be the 2024 presidential primary. Whoever wins the party’s nomination will be in a strong position to win the presidency, and perhaps to enjoy at least a few years of unified control of the government. A Trump victory would not herald the “end of democracy in America”, but it would be a disaster for the country — four more years of chaos, mutual enmity, and partisan radicalisation in which political disputes are subordinated to the private whims and grievances of one man.
But there is a reason, beyond the Electoral College, why Republicans are in good political position, despite these obvious problems: many Americans, including some of the professional elites now solidly in the Democratic camp, are deeply uncomfortable with the direction that liberalism has taken since 2016, as seen in the rising numbers of “anti-woke” liberal intellectuals and in the emergence of at least rhetorically law-and-order Democratic politicians such as New York mayor Eric Adams. As Continetti notes, an earlier wave of elite defectors from a radicalised Left — the neoconservatives — infused conservatism in the Seventies and Eighties with a previously lacking cultural cachet and intellectual sophistication. They were able to appeal to the mainstream with plausible accounts of what had gone wrong with the Great Society and how to fix it.
There is no guarantee that a non-Trump candidate in 2024 could pull off such a trick, but they could, perhaps, establish facts on the ground to start clawing the party back from the Trumpian abyss, and start rebuilding an elite and professional class constituency. There would still be culture war, and much of the stupidity that makes contemporary American politics so unbearable. But it might be the best chance to finally leave the grim disputes of the present behind.