Matthew Continetti is the author of the new book The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism, an extensively researched and reported history of the conservative movement in America. Chris DeMuth is a former president of the American Enterprise Institute and currently a fellow at the Hudson Institute. In this conversation, DeMuth states that national conservatives (or “NatCons”) “are conservatives who have been mugged by reality. We have come away with a sense of how to recover from the horrors taking America down.” Continetti counters —in a typically conservative argument— that there is no need for NatCons to break away from the traditional movement, since they’re all in the same boat and agree on most of the important issues of the day. The elephant in the room in this debate is former president Donald Trump. What he says and does in the next year or two will be crucial toward determining the future direction of the conservative movement. Continetti and DeMuth agree on that.

Recorded on May 14, 2022

To view the full transcript of this episode, read below:

Peter Robinson: Two of the nation's most influential conservatives and congenial gentlemen recently got into a scrap. One published an essay announcing that he had decided he become a national conservative. The other wrote a letter to the editor questioning his friend's judgment and explaining that he intended to remain a conservative without national or any other adjective, just a plain conservative. Today, they're here to duke it out. Christopher DeMuth and Matt Continetti, on Uncommon Knowledge now. Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I'm Peter Robinson. We're filming today at the offices of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. Now a fellow at the Hudson Institute, Christopher DeMuth is a graduate of Harvard University and the University of Chicago Law School. He served in the administrations of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. And from 1986 to 2008, Mr. DeMuth served as president of the American Enterprise Institute. He is widely regarded, and I so regard him, as one of the most influential conservatives of the last five decades. Now, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, Matthew Continetti is a graduate of Columbia University. He served on the staff of the weekly standard, founded and edited the Washington Free Beacon, and now serves as a contributor to National Review. Mr. Continetti is the author of several books, the most recent published this very spring, "The Right: The Hundred Year War for American Conservatism." Matt is widely regarded, and I so regard him, as one of the most influential conservatives of the last decade and a half. Chris, Matt, welcome. All right, here's the dispute. Let's set it up. Two quotations, Christopher DeMuth in the Wall Street Journal late last year in an article headlined "Why America Needs National Conservatism". NatCons, that is national conservatives. "Natcons are conservatives who have been mugged by reality. We have come away with a sense of how to recover from the horrors taking America down." Matthew Continetti in a letter to the editor, just a couple of days later, "Christopher DeMuth's "Why America Needs National Conservatism" was so fascinating I read it twice. And the second time I conducted an experiment. I removed the adjective national, wherever it modified conservatism and found that it didn't make much difference to his case. I'll take my conservatism without modification." All right. Let's begin with some definitions here. Christopher DeMuth, the most urbane and sophisticated man any of us have met. What is this raw crude thing, national conservatism?

Christopher DeMuth: Without acknowledging that it is raw and crude, but agreeing that it is young and feisty and finding its way, it is a new species of conservatism that is attempting to refresh, rekindle the various conservatism that were influential in the past, in the last half of the 20th century. Traditional social conservatism, libertarianism, Neoconservatism in two subsequent formulations to try to bring, as we regard it, conservatism up to date to a dramatically new set of challenges and problems that we face in the 2020s. Some, if I can go on?

Peter Robinson: Of course.

Christopher DeMuth: Some of the new developments I would say are strictly demographic, technological, things such as social media, that did not exist back in those days that have transformed our politics. But many of them are political and ideological, in particular, the emergence of what is often called wokeism, which is a kind of a class based Marxist form of left wing thinking that has become increasingly influential. It is now an important part of the democratic party, both nationally and in states and cities around the country. And that has infused corporations, major sports leagues, entertainment, the media to a degree that was mildly anticipated 50 years ago, but has gone beyond what anybody could have imagined. National conservatives believe that the conservatism's, the different species documented in Matt's book had become in say after 2008, two formulaic and complacent and Washington centric, and had not noticed important things that were happening out in the hinterlands, had not noticed the increasing self-confidence and authoritarian tendencies in the media and corporate elites. We're unhappy. Looking back, we're unhappy that conservatives in Washington kept saying we are for limited government, but the government was becoming more and more unlimited with every passing year, often with the acquiescence of conservatives who are actually in power. We talked on about the importance of free trade. And of course we will retrain all the people that are hurt by free trade. But nobody was doing any retraining of the people that were hurt by free trade. And as many corporations became global, that is markets became larger than nations. The nation was national prerogatives were shriveling and foreign adversaries were using trade deliberately to our disadvantage. I won't go on, but borders were being opened. The world was changing and just saying, I'm for a balanced budget amendment, as the debt goes up, trillions of dollars year after year after year, a bunch of us thought, let's not just keep repeating some of these mantras that we got really good at in the 2000s. We need to think back to first principles underlying our conservativism and come up with solutions that are different than those that were called for in the past, because the times and the challenges have changed.

Peter Robinson: So Matthew, Chris and his fellow national conservatives wish to write the next chapter in the book that you just completed, in "The Right." And that chapter is entitled wake up, rethink, fight back. Well, fine with you?

Matthew Continetti: There's a lot of rethinking that's part of the history of American conservatism over the last hundred years, from the first waves of the neo-conservatives that Chris mentioned to the compassionate conservatism we associate with George W. Bush, to the reform conservatism that was associated with the American Enterprise Institute among other places beginning in the second half of the Bush era. I see national conservatism as kind of the latest attempt to reformulate conservatism for a new era. What I'm struck by is the departures in some ways from the post-war conservative movement of the last 65 years. And in particular, it's on this question of limited government. The national conservatives, it seems to me are much more open toward using the power of the state in particular to subvert these cultural institutions, which have been taken over by this woke left. And so this is making many people on the right uncomfortable because it's a new position for conservatives to be in, to advocate the use of government power, not simply for fiscal policy or social policy, but in fact to take on these cultural institutions. Well, I will say one thing just to kind of preface this discussion. I think it's important. And I try to do this in the book, Peter, to distinguish between the Republican party, the conservative movement and the conservative intellectual movement. In fact, all three are slightly different. And I totally agree with the idea that the Republican party had become quite complacent beginning in the first decade of the 21st century and was relying on kind of old dogma and repeating mantras. At the same time though, I do think, and Chris supervised a lot of it. There was a continuous attempt, I think, in many quarters among the intellectuals to come up with policies that would address these new concerns. The problem was that there was no longer a connection between the policies being formulated in the beltway and the larger conservative grassroots movement in the country.

Peter Robinson: That's a current moment. Let's step back a decade or two, or possibly three, two, what went wrong? We have, you're a touch young, but brother DeMuth and I both remember the Reagan years, the 1980s, and those things seem to be working pretty well in those years. Matt writes in his new book, "The Right" "opposition to the Soviet union and to the spread of communism unified conservatives." Chris spoke a moment about ago about social conservatives, economic conservatives, internationals, all that, all that defense conservatives. "William F. Buckley Jr. referred to anti-communism as the harnessing bias of the movement. By the end of 1991, the Soviet union was gone, The Right never settled on a strategy for the post-Cold War world." That's what went wrong. The Soviet union went defunct. Explain that.

Matthew Continetti: Well, I mean, it was a critical moment in the history of humanity. It was a huge turning point and it left many things unsettled. I mean, think about it.

Peter Robinson: And a victory pretty particularly for American conservatism.

Matthew Continetti: Which had always identified itself as an anti communist force. And from the very beginning, American conservatives distinguishing themselves from liberal anti-communists by being for rollback instead of containment. And that summed up in Ronald Reagan's strategy for the Cold War, you told Richard Allen, right? My strategy is we win, they lose and we won. The question then is what comes next? And there was a series of attempts to re-coalesce the right around new challengers, some internal, others external. In 1992 convention, we have Patrick Buchanan talking about the culture war, right? Maybe that would be how we're going to conceive of ourselves on the right. After 9/11, Islamic terrorism, I think many people on the right felt that would be the unifying concern. Now we hear a lot of people discussing the people's Republic of China, the Chinese communist party, as the new kind of external threat that could get all of these various groups together on the right. I don't think any quite matches the Soviet threat, the way in which communism triggered conservatives for its atheism, for its central economic planning and bureaucratic control, and then of course, just for the tremendous threat opposed to democratic societies around the world.

Peter Robinson: And Chris, and you don't think, I mean, the argument would be fellows, okay, this is all lovely little intramural argument among the 200 of us who are, well you're a conservative intellectual, would be conservative intellectual, but this it's all intramural. China's coming. We're all going to have a great big, bad enemy and a half century long fight against a... Conservatism will be revived by the reemergence of a truly vicious mortal enemy. So relax. And Matt says, nah, I'm not so sure.

Christopher DeMuth: It's a new enemy, but America is a new and different place than it was. And it was not, I agree that the threat of Soviet communism was critical to the cohesion of the conservative movement, but that wasn't all, there was a lot more going on. William Buckley sat at the knees of Albert J. Knock, the original libertarian as a boy, but he came to national prominence with God and man at Yale, that was not a libertarian manifesto. Social conservatism and the idea of individual and group freedom were part of conservatism from the beginning. In my view, what has changed most of all is not that the old Soviet union has been replaced by a sort of a Russian dictatorship with a lot of the old trappings of the Soviet union and by a racialist aggressive ideological communism in China. But that the world has changed. Markets are global. And the sense of patriotism in America has become radically attenuated. We have many businesses that do business in China that are much more attentive to the Chinese than to Americans, that work with the Chinese defense establishment, but wouldn't think of working with the American defense establishment, which is merely gonna be a required to come to the aid of their headquarters if we're attacked, but they'll work with the enemies and not with us, that's a different kind of a world. It calls for a different kind of response. Will we mobilize a response? You can see straws in the wind. I think many of us were delighted when "Top Gun: Maverick" came out last week and it turned out that Maverick's fighter jacket had had the flags of Taiwan and Japan restored to the back. They'd taken them out in the trailers to try to appease the Chinese communists. So things could be changing. I'm not optimistic. I believe that the ideology that the nation does not matter that there are these high ideals that we graduates of Yale and Harvard who are actually citizens of the planet are attached to. I think that that is a very, very deep problem. And I don't think that we're just gonna be able to rally around the flag because the flag isn't there the way it used to be.

Peter Robinson: All right. I'm still on state for a moment or two, these recent few decades. Cold War ends, Iraq-Afghanistan do not go well, right? 20 year engagement in Afghanistan, untold billions, trillions of dollars spent for what? Iraq is not, you could argue that it's of some use and that there's a somewhat democratic government. Nevertheless, the cost to us of the Iraq adventure was enormous. The left in this country, this is the point you've made, the left in this country deserves a moment of mention here. Let me quote the journalist Kevin Drum writing last year. And this is a blog post he put up summarizing an enormous amount of polling data. And here's what Drum writes. Drum is not a man of the right, by the way, as you well know. "The obvious conclusion is that over the past two decades, Democrats have moved left, far more than Republicans have moved right. I've made this point many times before, and I wanna make it again more loudly. It is not conservatives who have turned American politics into a culture war battle. It is liberals. And this shouldn't come as a surprise. Progressives have been bragging publicly about pushing the democratic party leftward since at least 2004, and they have succeeded." So when you have conservatives on the defensive, Chris said, talking about balanced budget amendments, when that has become clearly just irrelevant, just being ignored. You have the courts being used over and over and over again to enact the social agenda of the left. Most recently, when Justice Kennedy nominated by a Republican, somehow discovers a right to gay marriage in the constitution. Gay marriage is a separate, but it's in the constitution. So that is something that the... We do need a new conservatism because the left has moved so far to the left and conservatism is still swatting away the flies and dozing.

Matthew Continetti: Well, I think it's-

Peter Robinson: You'd agree with that characterization, roughly.

Christopher DeMuth: I emphatically agree that the big change in American politics is not that we've somehow become polarized across the board. I think that our major liberal party has moved sharply to the left and the conservative party, certainly under Donald Trump adopted some policies that were very different from what conservatives would've supported in the past, although it was mostly mainstream, tax reduction, deregulation, conservative justices to the Supreme Court. And I think in national conservatism, we're trying to formulate some more aggressive policies. But I wanna point out that the wokeness phenomenon has offended many people who are not national conservatives, are not conservatives of any Stripe, some good old fashioned liberals, many just suburban people who aren't particularly political are horrified at what the Democrats are doing to the protection of public safety in the cities, to the education of school children, to the conduct of national sports leagues. So it's not just conservatism that is reacting. I would say that national conservatism's response embraces and wants to work with all of these people, including people who are old fashioned classical liberals, but we've got an agenda that is distinctive of our own.

Peter Robinson: In most of this book, "The Right: The Hundred Year War for The Right" in most of this book for the right, the right is up against, of course the Soviet union abroad no longer exists, a democratic party, which is still fundamentally the party of Franklin Roosevelt. And in the last couple of decades is the party of John Kennedy. So you've got a kind of patriotic, pragmatic expansion of the state to the extent of social security, civil rights, then the great society. And then along comes in your, it's just almost in your final chapter, this new phenomenon on the left to which conservatism should respond, how.

Matthew Continetti: Well, I think it's, first, it's a generational phenomenon. I think the radicalism we see on the left appeared in the 1930s, it appeared in the 1960s, it appeared briefly in the early 1990s and late 1980s, over the spats over the Western cannon at Stanford university, for example.

Peter Robinson :Hey hey, ho ho. Western civ has got to go.

Matthew Continetti: And so it seems to be anyway, to be about a 30 year recurring phenomenon. So it's not as though conservatives have never dealt with the radical left before. A couple changes. The first is it hasn't been the party of JFK for some time, Peter.

Peter Robinson: LBJ.

Matthew Continetti: Or LBJ. 1972, of course, George McGovern, the Senator from South Dakota becomes a democratic nominee. The McGovernites slowly take over the party. Now that's a decades long process, really meaning involving the ending of the Southern democratic party. But you had the left, the anti-war left, the culturally progressive left in a kind of a seat in the democratic party for some time. The other thing that happened, I think is Barack Obama. Barack Obama saw it as his self-assigned mission to change America, to set America as he put it on a new foundation, to take us down a few notches on the world stage. We weren't number one. Time that we had to learn to play as just one of a crowd. And this had the effect of moving the democratic party to the left, but also making the right very concerned about the direction of this country and the perpetuation of its traditions. Then one other thing happened I should mention too, the phenomenon that we're currently experiencing as wokeism isn't to some degree, a response to President Trump. While these radical tendencies have always been there on the progressive left, I do think Trump's presidency amplified and accelerated them to the point that we now have to consider taking the type of measures that national conservatives are thinking of in order to somehow reestablish a fair playing field in the culture. So it's a dynamic process, but I guess my fundamental point would be is that, we've seen these these fights before and the right has often won in many cases.

Peter Robinson: No, Barack Obama, no AOC.

Matthew Continetti: No Barack Obama, no Donald Trump, no AOC. That is the trend.

Peter Robinson: All right. All right. Listen, so again, let me ask a large question about conservatism itself. Two quotations, Notre Dame political scientist, Patrick Deneen. Liberalism has failed. And he's speaking here of classical liberalism, the kind of liberalism that we would associate with the declaration and the constitution. "Liberalism has failed not because it fell short, but because it was true to itself. It has failed because it has succeeded. The founders failed to foresee that their atomistic philosophy would act as a solvent on our civic institutions." Too much emphasis on the individual undermines church, school, all kinds of associations. And we can't live that way. Quotation number two, George Will. "The proper question for conservatives: What do you seek to conserve? The proper answer: We seek to conserve the American Founding." Do you, I put it to you, Dr. DeMuth, that national conservatism properly understood must seek to conserve the American Founding, not to refound the nation. You have to reject Patrick Deneen and his whole school of thought, is that fair?

Christopher DeMuth: No.

Peter Robinson: Take notes, Continetti. This is a big opening he's giving you.

Christopher DeMuth: No, I believe that national conservative is a... Our conservatism is based upon the nation. That is the thing that is actually most distinctive. And it is not just a reaction to the efforts on the left to relinquish sovereignty in borders, move legal authority from representative nations to international bureaucracies, like the World Health Organization and so forth. And as part of our nationalism, we revere the American Founding. We emphasize the American Founding. We have a somewhat different interpretation of aspects of the American Founding. We do not believe that America is a cradle nation, that America is defined by an idea. We actually believe that America is defined by hundreds of years of tradition and incremental changes and adaptation to new conflicts. And we believe it goes back hundreds of years before that, to the emergence of Anglo-American common law, which was incorporated pretty thoroughly into the American constitutional order. There is an interesting question, which I sort of have a blind spot. I listen to this and you can listen to Patrick Deneen talking about liberalism and there are others in the national conservative movement who will say the liberalism of the past contain the seeds of its own destruction.

Peter Robinson: Yes, that's Deneen's.

Christopher DeMuth: And others will say the liberalism of the past has simply emphasized the individual over the community at a time when community structures and religious space-

Peter Robinson: Could be taken for granted.

Christopher DeMuth: You could take them for granted.

Peter Robinson: Yes.

Christopher DeMuth: But we can't take them for granted anymore so we have to ship back and forth. They're interesting arguments. I don't care about them that much because Patrick Deneen would agree wholeheartedly with me that we need to put more emphasis on the values of community, of faith, of how the individual actually just doesn't kind of float down from heaven, but emerges from family and society, and is in a way an interpretation of society. That's not all there is to it. I wanna protect the right of the individual to go off on his or her own. But we need some rebalancing. If I can add one more, one point. There's this tension in the Founding between the declaration and the constitution.

Peter Robinson: Yes.

Christopher DeMuth: And those of us who are Americans, and we see how Abraham Lincoln reinserted the declaration and combined it with the constitution, that's actually part of our lived tradition. We think about things in that way, but that does not make us a cradle nation. The preamble to the constitution has this wonderful language, which is a big part of my political police. But the constitution, but the decoration is mainly a bill of particulars against the stuff that king George was doing.

Peter Robinson: Yes, yes.

Christopher DeMuth: Parliament was not resistant said, we're not gonna do any of that anymore. It was in the tradition of the Magna Carta. It was not John Locke, it wasn't this abstract theorizing. It was one thing after another. The civil war, it was not actually a speech at Gettysburg. It was a fight in which hundreds of thousands of people died. It was an act and it was followed by specific positive law in the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to say, we're defined by an idea, we're defined by our deeds, we're defined by the things we did, from our forebearers to the founders, down to the present day. And that is nationhood at its best. Are there bad parts of nationhood? You bet. But we're emphatically, we're emphatically of the view that adherence to the constitution, the preservation of the constitution against many threats from the left is central part of what we're about.

Peter Robinson: You will say, all right, all right, all right. Yes, the declaration of independence, because it's part of the history of this nation. And I would say, oh, no, no, the declaration of independence, because it is the font of the history of this nation. And there, you would say, no, you go too far.

Christopher DeMuth: I would not. I would...

Peter Robinson: Come in, Matthew.

Christopher DeMuth: Well, I would disagree with you if you say the preamble to the cons... The preamble to the declaration is the font of America. I would disagree with that. I would say it's important, but I would say-

Peter Robinson: It gives expression to ideas that it already been worked out.

Christopher DeMuth: You know what I care about? I care about trial by jury.

Peter Robinson: Yep.

Christopher DeMuth: I care about due process, the separation of prosecution from the enactment of laws.

Matthew Continetti: Of course, it's hard to separate these things.

Christopher DeMuth: That's where our freedoms actually come from.

Matthew Continetti: Right. I mean, but it's also hard to separate out the rhetoric of the American political tradition from the deeds of it, from the reality of it. It's not really an either or choice between the creed and the culture, to use the terms that Samuel Huntington used in his 2004 book, "Who Are We." It's a, both and proposition to use Lincoln's term. It's the war. It's the 600,000 dead. It's the amendments that followed it, but it is also the Gettysburg address. And I think we need to take a more, I know it's a trendy word, I hope it's not too woke for this table, inclusive approach to the American political.

Peter Robinson: Get the hell outta here.

Matthew Continetti: That combines both the propositions, as well as the institutions. A couple things on nationhood and then Deneen. First, nations are not actually that distinctive. There are many of them, there are plenty of nations. There are more nations all the time. What's distinctive about this one is the cradle aspect of it, right? And the fact that it has a particular Founding, that was a product of not only specific items of rebuke, but also rational thought in how this constitution would give sovereignty to the people and allow that sovereignty to express itself in a way that produced ordered Liberty, right? So I think we have to always recognize as conservatives, what makes America indeed exceptional? And I think that's been part of the American conservative tradition throughout the hundred years I talk about in the book. And finally, the Deneen dispute, the Deneen Will dispute does manifest itself in foreign policy in particular. And I have noticed a emerging divide within the national conservative movement in recent months over its approach to foreign policy, where you have one camp, who like Chris, is a vocal defender of the rights of the Ukraine and Taiwan against foreign domination, and precisely because they are independent nations. But there are others within this movement who are not so sympathetic to Ukraine or to Taiwan. And in fact, it get very different approach precisely because the ideas of individual Liberty, individual rights, what we consider classical liberalism does not matter to them. So I think that's one tension to watch in the coming years as national conservatism develops, is what is its approach to foreign policy, and how does that approach either reflect or reject the principles of the American Founding.

Peter Robinson: DeMuth?

Christopher DeMuth: Yes.

Peter Robinson: Continetti and I are fine with national conservatism, as long as it means you.

Christopher DeMuth: Let me-

Peter Robinson: Hold on.

Christopher DeMuth: Can I respond?

Peter Robinson: No, not just yet. You're gonna have to put it on pause for a moment. Go ahead. Go ahead. You're the father of us all Chris, Of course, go ahead.

Christopher DeMuth: Let me just take one point that Matthew made, where I've got a different view.

Peter Robinson: Please. That's what I'm trying... It seems so elusive to me a succinct definition, but go ahead.

Christopher DeMuth: One of the things that he and I disagreed with in that little exchange in the Wall Street Journal is whether the national part of national conservatism makes any difference or whether it's just sort of circles it. And I think that this different view, my difference here is an illustration of that. There are lots and lots of nations in the world. And we begin with the idea that differences among, that nations are a reflection of particular cultural, linguistic, religious, historical circumstances, and their differences should be respected. And those of us in America who were trained on John Locke and Thomas Jefferson should pause a little bit before we say the whole world has to obey our views. That's not quite the, it's not quite as bad as the Chinese saying, everybody has to follow. But there is this excessive abstractionism to it. What I like about national, one of the things I most like about nationalism and why I think it is particularly pertinent to the circumstances of conservatism, conservatives in America today is that Conservatism, it's not a solution. It's a process. It's something that you pursue. You try to figure out how can we be an effective nation, this poly God nation, huge with layered sovereignties of different nations. How can we be an effective nation? Are we an effective nation today? Do we even have the means to help out the Ukraines and Taiwans of the world? I mean, we can give speeches about it. I'm an old fashioned New York con, I think we should, can we do it? The last time I looked, we're broke. The point of nationalism for Americans is that it encourages unromantic self knowledge. That's what I am for. Do I think America's an exceptional nation? Sure. And I really mean that, we certainly have an exceptional past. Are we exceptional today? I actually don't know, but I don't want to try to answer any problems by saying I believe, or I don't believe America is exceptional. What I want to ask is, is America an effective nation? Do we have sufficient bonds of loyalty and a sense of common destiny that we can act together in the face of challenges foreign and domestic. It's a different kind of a question. And I think that that is the one that should be central to us.

Peter Robinson: Do you wanna have a little rejoinder? I'd like to move on to... I've got something, I think quite clever.

Matthew Continetti: Go ahead.

Peter Robinson: All right. I have clips of two or three conservative presidents, just brief clips. I guess, fundamentally I'd like you to grade them.

[Video: Ronald Reagan]: In a speech I gave 25 years ago, I told a story that I think bear is repeating. Two friends of mine were talking to a refugee from communist Cuba. He had escaped from Castro, and as he told his story of his horrible experiences, one of my friends turned to the other and said, we don't know how lucky we are. And the Cuban stopped and said, how lucky you are? I had some place to escape to. Well, no, America's freedom does not belong to just one nation. We're custodians of freedom for the world.

Matthew Continetti: A plus, I mean the gold standard, but at the same time, something of an exception in the history of American conservatism. Very few politicians were able to frame the language of freedom and also its institutional and cultural supports in the way that Ronald Reagan did.

Peter Robinson: He was our hero, Chris, when we were both young men in this town, but are you still gonna give him-

Christopher DeMuth: We worked for him.

Peter Robinson: Are we still gonna give him a high grade? That was pretty internationalist language there. It was certainly exceptionalist language.

Christopher DeMuth: It was exceptionalist language. And it was part of anti communist language in a world that... There are millions of people that want to come to America in circumstances that do not involve the existential threat of communism. I do not believe that Ronald Reagan would be an open borders if he were here today. That implies that he recognizes the existence of constraint. He recognized that there are constraints upon action, even of a nation as rich and prosperous as we are. So there are high ideals. I'm for pursuing those ideals within a budget and within a sense of constraint.

Peter Robinson: Matthew, you write in "The Right" while we're on Ronald Reagan. "Reagan's unique personality and the extraordinary success of his presidency obscured the larger history of the American right of which he was just one part." Explain. You're both hard men to please. You argue in effect that Reagan was just a little too good for conservatives?

Matthew Continetti: Well, maybe we didn't quite appreciate how unique his gifts were. Also his constancy over time. If you look at Ronald Reagan's first kind of public statement of his political views, they come in a Hedda Hopper Hollywood gossip column in 1947, after Reagan testifies as part of his job as president of the screen actor's Guild about communist infiltration in Hollywood. He talks about the dignity of the individual, freedom, American exceptionalism, all in one brief answer to Hedda Hopper in 1947, the same things he's talking about when he leaves office in the farewell address in 1989. Somehow Reagan's belief system, which I think formed as a child under the influence of both of his parents, was in tune with American conservatism after the Second World War and into the Cold War. We forget Ronald Reagan voted for FDR four times. He didn't become a Republican until.

Peter Robinson: And supported Harry Truman in '52.

Matthew Continetti: Yes. He didn't become a Republican until he was 51 years old. And so when I look at the history of the right, and I think about Ronald Reagan's importance in that period, the Cold War, it seems to me that Reagan is actually more of the exception in the history of the right than the rule. That if you look at the period on the right that preceded Ronald Reagan, that preceded the Cold War, many of its political tonalities and also its policy positions resemble the right after him, the right we're living today, and I'll just name three. The right before Reagan was very skeptical of foreign intervention. Defined itself against Wilsonianism and the legacy of World War I opposed American entry into World War II. We see similar things on the right today. The right prior to the Cold War, prior to Ronald Reagan was protectionist, believed in insulating America from global economic competition. We see that of course on the right today, the Trump, right, the tariff man, right. And then the right prior to Ronald Reagan, prior to the Cold War was restrictionist in its attitude toward immigration, of course, responsible for basically closing America to immigration for about 40 years. And now we're seeing on the right today, a steadfast opposition to illegal immigration for sure, and securing the border, but also the beginnings of some conversations about how to reform the legal immigration system. So when I look at that history, I see Ronald Reagan as more of the exception than the rule.

Christopher DeMuth: Let me make one point about Reagan. He was a great man. He was one of our greatest presidents. He came along at just the right time. And I pulled up my wife and family and moved here from a job that I loved the day after he was shot, because I could not, not work for this man. So I've got very deep abiding admiration for him. But let me just make this point. He was a great politician and it's important for us-

Peter Robinson: Overlooked.

Christopher DeMuth: It's important for us to recognize, to extol the job of the politician, which we are, we usually make fun of, and we can't stand because they're always compromising, they're doing this and that. But he was a great politician. And part of being a great politician is to obscure the terrible trade offs that are involved in life and that are involved in state craft. And he was a master of doing that. He would take these ideals and to make these ideals resonate is part of great national leadership, but it is not the only thing. And I want to go back to my point that in particular actions, he often recognized constraints. Actual deployment of force abroad in his eight years, two time, Lebanon and weekend down in Grenada. He negotiated de facto tariffs on the Japanese. He appeared in front of the working class guys at the Harley Davidson factory extolling American manufacturing and keeping the foreigners out. So he was a very effective practical politician. We can look at these words and be enthusiastic about them, but we have to recognize that Ronald Reagan too, he was making compromises every day of the week. And he was very good at keeping the rhetoric at a very high level, which was important, but it's not the only thing.

Peter Robinson: The second inaugural address of George W. Bush.

[Video: George W. Bush] We are led by events and common sense to one conclusion. The survival of Liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of Liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.

Peter Robinson: Matthew?

Matthew Continetti: So as a piece of rhetoric, very high grade. As an example of conservative rhetoric, not so much. There are two propositions. The first in that we heard was to say that the success of freedom in the United States depends on the success of freedom overseas. If anything, I think the opposite is more true, to say the best hope for freedom overseas is the freedom here. The second statement that he was making was about the expansion of Liberty abroad and that, while part of Reagan's rhetoric as well, had a very different approach to operationalizing it, as Chris kind of alluded to in the previous answer, the most important thing to know about George W. Bush was he hated what he called small ball. He was the co-owner of the Rangers, loved baseball. He always wanted to go for the grand slam and he went for the grand slam in his second term. And the result was the fracturing of the American right on war, on immigration, and then with the financial crisis on the bailouts and the approach to political economy.

Peter Robinson: Chris?

Christopher DeMuth: I think his essential argument there is correct in the words that we listened to. If the world around us becomes hostile to freedom, if there are more and more unfree countries in the world, that is bad for the survival and prosperity of freedom within America. I think that that is true. That leaves two important questions unanswered. First is, what do we mean by freedom? It all depends on what freedom, and I'm not trying to be obscure or fancy or evasive, but the modern definition of freedom certainly on the left is untraveled unconstrained, individual autonomy. It is summarized by Justice Kennedy's dictum that we all can define our own meaning of the universe and what modern progressivism adds to it is if somebody defines their own meaning of the universe, everybody else has to get out of the way and help that happen. And the second is how does America best guarantee the survival of a productive freedom around the world? And we have a long experience to trying to impose our ideas of a constitutional order on nations with no such traditions, for the sorts of things we want them to-

Peter Robinson: The idea of invading Iraq with a massive force on the theory that we could turn that country into democracy was?

Christopher DeMuth: I would say that on the day of the invasion, that was not the theory.

Peter Robinson: That's the problem. It became once the original theory was proven.

Christopher DeMuth: It was very serious mission creep in my view. And you can see the problems, I'm not just complaining or trying to complicate things. The idea of expanding freedom abroad eventually had our insisting on women's freedom courses being taught at Iraqi and Afghanistan universities. I think still today it involves flying gay pride flags above embassies in deeply Christian African nations. Is this helping to promote freedom around the globe? I don't think so.

Peter Robinson: Donald Trump.

[Video: Donald Trump] The fundamental question of our time is whether the west has the will to survive. Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders? Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it? We can have the largest economies and the most lethal weapons anywhere on earth, but if we do not have strong families and strong values, then we will be weak and we will not survive.

Matthew Continetti: Best speech of Trump's presidency, the Warsaw speech, praised actually by some of his critics during the 2016 campaign. Of course, a speech like that, which his very talented speech writers wrote for Donald Trump was not the be all and then all of the Trump presidency. And if I think Trump's trajectory could have been very different, had he kind of stuck to that script that he laid out in Warsaw and not been just.

Peter Robinson: You could build a whole administration on that.

Matthew Continetti: Not being distracted by what people were talking about on MSNBC that morning.

Peter Robinson: Right. Chris?

Christopher DeMuth: I agree with Matthew. I thought it was the... There were three or four, but I thought that the Warsaw speech was the best. I agree with what he says here. I wish he'd stuck with it as a quibble, since we're intellectuals, we have to quibble with things. There's a little too much emphasis on will. Donald Trump is a very willful individual. And I think he emphasizes the element of will a little bit too much. There's also political artfulness, there is the construction of coalitions. There's a lot more to the success of the American project and the defense of Western civilization than will.

Peter Robinson: Okay. Now final questions here. For my benefit, I want to nail this down. I want to understand what national conservatism is and if it can be made acceptable to brother Continetti here. So let me quote a little bit further from Matthew's letter to the editor in response to your piece in the journal. And the question here is the extent to which what troubled Matthew about your piece were matters of substance, or whether it's just tone, whether it's somehow or other, you were playing a trombone and he's playing a clarinet, and you're both actually playing from the same sheet of music. You just don't quite like the sound of what the other man is doing. I can't quite, this is all right. This is you, Matthew. "What struck me most about Mr. DeMuth essay was its incongruity with speeches delivered at the recent national conservatism conference." This was a conference, there been a number of them. Now this was a conference in Orlando. And you, Chris in signing on to national conservatism are signing on a movement. There are a lot of people who have associated themselves with national conservatism, including our friend Joram Hazony. All right. "At that conference, speakers proposed a government directed industrial policy." That's substantive. "And held up Hungary as some sort of model for America. I'll take my conservatism without modification, constitutionalist, market oriented and unapologetically American." Do you wanna stand by all of that after listening to his explications here today?

Matthew Continetti: I do. Chris, of course wrote a letter to the editor in response to the editor.

Peter Robinson: Then we've been in infinite regression.

Matthew Continetti: It's like almost a blog like, but I do. I think that American conservative thought is distinctly American and we are part of a tradition that reflects the totality of the American political tradition, the creed, as well as the culture, the declaration, as well as the constitution, and also a political economy that favors freedom and individual liberties.

Peter Robinson: So what would you say to Chris here? I'll set it up for you. Chris, Chris, you're a brilliant man. We all owe you a great deal.

Christopher DeMuth: Thank you.

Peter Robinson: This national conservatism it's unnecessary and a little bit troublesome. Here's why you should come home to simple unended conservatism and the reasons are.

Matthew Continetti: Well, I mean, I wouldn't necessarily put... People are free to have their opinions, Peter.

Peter Robinson: Even DeMuth?

Matthew Continetti: Of course, more than anyone. But what struck me about Chris's essay in the journal was that I didn't disagree with any of it. So that's why I didn't quite-

Peter Robinson: But there's still bits that you don't like.

Matthew Continetti: I do think that nationalism has been part of the American conservative tradition. This is why I tried to separate the American conservative tradition from the Republican party over the last 20 years, right? The Republican party over the last 20 years pre-Trump was not necessarily nationalist. That's different from conservatism. And there are people that both of us knew and admired such as and Norman who claimed nationalism as part of the conservative tradition. William F. Buckley Jr. somewhat uncomfortable with the word nationalism. But the distinctions sometimes people draw between patriotism and nationalism can be very gray and permeable. So I was just struck by how reasonable the essay sounded in contrast to some of the speeches that I heard, where I saw advocates of people, advocates rather of turning away from the American tradition, turning away from a political economy of individualism and Liberty, and rethinking our constitutional norms. And there, I simply say not for me.

Peter Robinson: Reverse, persuade him to become a national conservative.

Christopher DeMuth: I think that the... First of all, Peter, as you said, it is a movement, it's a big movement. And there have been people at our conferences that I agreed with and disagreed with on. I think in Orlando, one speaker wanted to break up big tech and I have a background in antitrust and breaking up IBM, breaking up AT&T. Some of these things don't end up going so well. So I'm a skeptic, but am I opposed to it? Do I think-

Peter Robinson: You appreciate the impulse.

Christopher DeMuth: I'm glad they give that talk. For as long as these firms have monopolies, I'm for the common carrier obligation. And I have a long history of writing against the government common carrier obligation when it came to the interstate commerce commission. But I would be in favor of such obligations in the case of big corporations that are obviously trying to skew American political debate and with some considerable success. So the transpacific trade agreement.

Peter Robinson: Yes, yes.

Christopher DeMuth: That Trump dumped, I was so happy when he dumped it. Because I actually was looking at what that was doing. And it was replicating the European Union. If you looked at the... There was some pro free trade in it, but you know what it was doing, harmonize taxes, harmonize labor regulations, harmonize environmental regulation. It was a government policy cartel. Good riddance.

Matthew Continetti: I think there were problems with the way that many trade agreements had been ridden in recent decades. They're not necessarily opening up markets, but they're, to what Chris is saying, they're regularizing things. However, in the case of the TPP, to simply abandon it without an alternative, I think left us strategically vulnerable to China. And that we have to remember that sometimes trade can be an ally of diplomacy and military partnerships. That's in fact why the right to some degree changed it's-

Peter Robinson: I never thought I'd find yourself thinking that DeMuth was the hothead.

Matthew Continetti: It changed its view on free trade during the Cold War. So that to me was the mistake. I think there's a way to use trade to further our interests against China.

Peter Robinson: Here's another one. I'm just sort of a few practical problems and the hope that this will help me grasp the differences in tone or in substance between the two of you. Actually, this is more open ended than that. Google, a majority of its profits come from outside this country. Likewise Facebook, likewise, any number of other tech companies. Why should the executives running those companies whose job Milton Friedman would tell us is to enrich their shareholders, why should they feel any loyalty to the United States of America?

Christopher DeMuth: Because they are Americans.

Matthew Continetti: I mean, again, here, there's not much of a difference between me and Chris, especially when we consider the challenge of China. We have to think through these things. Now, what that means is we should find a way to help or to not make the perfect the enemy of the good in our attitudes toward tech and Silicon valley. The fact is they are American companies. Their employees might not act like it. Their CEOs might not act like it, but they are American companies. And it's better to have them be American companies than Chinese companies. And of course China has its alternatives. And so I think some means of approach with Silicon Valley needs to be found that can retain their status as our national champions, while also rejecting the insinuation of China, Chinese business practices and politics into their internal machinery.

Peter Robinson: Okay, cut, Sorry, go ahead.

Christopher DeMuth: A lot of this discussion has been foreign policy based. Let me take a domestic example that I can see does illustrate a division between traditional conservatives and national conservatives. And it involves the use of government in the marketplace in a sense. And it illustrates the very different moral ecology in which the corporation operates today, from what it did in the day of Michael Nova. And that is the governor DeSantis and the Florida legislature passing legislation that says in our schools in Florida, we're not gonna teach kindergartners and first grades. We're not gonna teach little children about gender optionality and transgender possibilities. We're just not gonna do that to young people. And Walt Disney, a company that built its brand on trying to keep all of us young well beyond third grade and enjoy the innocence of childhood condemned that measure and took active steps to oppose it. And the governor and the legislature withdrew some of their tax privileges at Disney World. Okay, now that's activist government trying to stand up for the culture and I'm not trying to categorize people, but DeSantis was criticized, that was disproportionate. If you disagree with Disney, you should give a speech. You shouldn't be using the power of the government to punish your political adversaries. Let me tell you, every national conservative cheered DeSantis on, that's exactly what we have in mind. The privileges that they had were provided by the state. And if a company is going to act with the ideological foolishness of attaching itself to transgender teaching of little children, that the government should just give a speech, but not try to react to it and should not try to withdraw some of the privileges that were given to Disney long ago. And to show that the government will be an active part of these debates and take action, not just talk. I think that that's different. And I think that there are some traditional conservatives that said that was a bad thing to do. So I'm just trying to take one little point that shows you a difference between us.

Peter Robinson: Matthew, listen to this. This struck me coming into this as the keynote of national conservatism, and I'm not sure that anything I've heard today dissuades me. Chris may think I'm being crude here or missing something. And of course, he'll correct me because Chris doesn't hesitate to correct me. But here is a passage from Chris's essay. "When the American left was liberal and reformist, conservatives played our customary role as moderators of change. But today's woke progressivism isn't reformist. It seeks to turn the world upside down. When the leftward party in a two party system is seized by such radicalism, the conservative instinct for moderation is futile. National conservatives recognize that in today's politics, the excesses are of the essence. We must shift to opposing revolution." That's what I take still after this conversation, as the animating impulse of national conservatism, we must fight back. Do you sign on? Do you take that as-

Matthew Continetti: I'm all for fighting back against the left. The question is, is it done prudently? Is it done on the right ground? Is it done in a way that it won't alienate the middle of the country, everyday normal Americans who decide elections? I mean, this is the critical question. I also think that DeSantis example is an interesting one. DeSantis removed privileges that had been given to Disney already. And in some of his other squabbles with corporations, it's about tax privileges that the government of Florida had already granted. In a way, DeSantis is just furthering an Antichronist agenda that has been long part of the American right. In fact, even libertarians might think, oh, maybe these companies shouldn't deserve these privileges. That's why I think that DeSantis program is actually a point of contact between national conservatism and unmodified conservatism. I think there are ways in which both sides can actually support that agenda and that politician. So I think we're with the two sides part company is when differences in, okay, are we going to go from removing privileges to active punishment, the punitive nature, right? Or in the different, are we going to put our energies behind politicians who have concrete proposals for these issues? Or are we going to support politicians who have an apocalyptic or in some cases, even conspiratorial worldview. That's where I think the critical differences are.

Peter Robinson: Gentlemen, last question. Last question. Christopher DeMuth, Matthew Continetti, you both found yourselves drawn to conservative politics when you were undergraduates. Actually I think in your case, it was Republican politics. You started out as a squish. As a matter of fact, you started out-

Christopher DeMuth: I started as a liberal Democrat.

Peter Robinson: Oh, you started as a liberal Democrat.

Christopher DeMuth: Yeah. Yes.

Peter Robinson: Oh, you've submerged that piece of the biography. All right. Here's the question. AEI is running its summer intern program right now, bright kids from impressive institutions in their 20s. Why does it matter? Not why does America matter? Why does American conservatists matter enough for you and you to have dedicated your professional lives to it? Why does conservatism matter? Chris?

Christopher DeMuth: I have dedicated my career to it because of an abiding love of my country and the blessings that completely unearned have been just showered upon me since I was a child. And they were showered upon many other people that I live with. And I've always thought instinctively that these blessings can't, they're not manna from heaven. They're actually the result, they're the artifact of human action. We build the institutions that give us these things. God's blessings are things that we have to work to protect and build. And so there's great work to do. You can't take it for granted. And in my view, the risks that we're facing, I'm not apocalyptic, but I think the risks we're facing are pretty dire. I think that they're more threatening than those America was facing in the late 1960s when I first got into politics. And I think that the young generation and the national conservatives are disproportionately quite young and from a very different historical, from a different personal background. I think that they are concerned. And as somebody who's kind of at the other end of the career trajectory, I'm just thrilled to be working with them as they formulate their own ideas of what we need to do going forward.

Peter Robinson: Matthew Continetti, you are the author of the book on American conservatism. Why does it matter?

Matthew Continetti: Well, it matters because America matters and America traditions matter, and the American tradition of freedom matters. I became a conservative while reading the great texts of Western thought and as part of my college curriculum. And what struck me was that from the insights into human fallenness and the limits of our knowledge that I was picking up from the Greeks and the Bible. And then later on, I read Adam Smith and Edmund Burke and the Federalist papers. And I see how those insights that I had read in the ancients and in the Bible were being applied to modern politics and to modern political economy. And this is the tradition that I think American conservatives seek to preserve, this tradition of freedom. And it's a very fragile thing, as Chris said. It's also a very rare thing, as we heard from Ronald Reagan earlier in the program. And that I think is what we need to defend and save for the next generation.

Peter Robinson: Christopher DeMuth and Matt Continetti, author most recently of "The Right. Thank you. For Uncommon Knowledge, the Hoover Institution and Fox Nation, filming today here at the offices of the American enterprise Institute in Washington. I'm Peter Robinson.

overlay image