Les Droites en Amérique

"Independence (Squire Jack Porter)" (1858), an oil on paperboard by Frank Blackwell Mayer, located in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. As a self-sufficient landholder and businessman, ​“Squire Jack” embodied an independent and enduring spirit that, by the 1850s, had become an American ideal, celebrated by painters and writers alike.

Sometime around 1954, a little-known French historian suddenly rose to scholarly fame, less than two years after completing his doctorate. René Remond—then only 36—had spent the better part of his life in Christian youth groups, resisting the Nazi occupation, and surveying the ideological make-up of the French Right since 1815. That year, the post-revolutionary European empire that Napoleon had formulated as the heir to the Enlightenment ideals of 1789 came to an end at Waterloo, opening the way for fifteen years of constitutional monarchy under the so-called Second Restoration.

The underlying tectonics of the French Right on the eve of Rémond’s newfound distinction were not coincidental either. By early 1954, the country’s pre-Gaullist bloc of parties had formed roughly one-third of the 17 governments that served under Vincent Auriol’s eight-year presidency, but had not yet succeeded in replacing him at the top echelon with one of its own. Four years before he went on to dissolve the executive and legislative powers in the heat of the Algerian war by calling for General De Gaulle’s return, the former reconstruction minister René Coty finally led the Right to presidential victory in late 1953, after no less than thirteen electoral runoffs. By mid-January 1954, the Right finally readied to wrestle control of the wobbly Fourth Republic from the left-wing heirs to the Front Populaire coalition of the ‘30s, which remained uncontested among broad swathes of the popular mind for securing such social victories as annual paid leave and the 35-hour work week.

The work that propelled Rémond’s career achieved the rare feat of investigating the present predicament of his object of study through the prism of its tumultuous past. In Les Droites en France (1954), the author breaks down what could have seemed to the lay reader like a rather cohesive political family—the Right—into three distinct undercurrents. The first of these, the ‘Légitimistes,’ were reactionaries who were not at peace with the French Revolution of 1789 and who sought to turn the clock back to the absolutist Ancien Régime. A more moderate breed of royalists, the ‘Orléanistes,’ meanwhile, championed constitutional monarchy and borrowed their name from the house they ultimately succeeded in enthroning from 1830 to 1848 under Louis-Philippe I. They could, by the way, pass as ‘classical liberals’ in the Anglo-American context. Finally, the ‘Bonapartistes’ fused a penchant for strongmen—such as Napoleon I and his nephew Napoleon III—with a populist streak, always looking to ground their favoured authoritarian regime in the widest measure of public support.

When it was published, Rémond’s 323-page monograph proved an instant sensation among both historians and political scientists. It underwent no less than four revisions up to the time of the author’s death in 2007. The first revision followed De Gaulle’s ushering in of the Fifth Republic, the second revision came amidst the crisis of May 1968, the next one accompanied the right’s landslide defeat by François Mitterand in 1980, while a slight emendation of the entire thesis was released in 2005. To this day, the book remains among the few towering works of social science that all educated Frenchmen can claim to have at least a surface-level grasp of.

Rémond’s classic is a fitting—if somewhat ambitious—standard by which to measure Matthew Continetti’s latest book, The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism (2022). Granted, beneath the thematic parallels lie differences of substance. Rémond worked to build bridges between his discipline and political science, yet he remained at his core a methodical historian, often embroiled in scientific controversies between the field’s schools of his time—Lucien Febvre and Marc Bloch’s Annales on one side, and its challengers out of Nanterre and SciencesPo on the other. Continetti’s journalism, meanwhile, surely lies on the highbrow side: he styles himself as an “intellectual historian” and is not altogether devoid of historical acumen—such as when he likens Trumpism to the inter-war conservatism of Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover. Yet, his work lacks the historiographic rigour that distinguished Rémond. The journalist’s regular contributions to National Review, Commentary, and the Washington Free Beacon hew not to the long span of history, but to the week’s news cycle. Furthermore, whereas Rémond had cast his eye on the potential of ideas to shape power via his portrait of 19th-century French politics, Continetti is almost exclusively interested in the former, to the exclusion of the grassroots energy that has helped achieve the Right’s greatest policy wins of the past generation, not least Dobbs v. Jackson. Yet some of the questions both these authors grappled with echo each other’s; namely, what debates have shaped the French and American Right internally? What unifying goals have motioned it forward?

Continetti revisits—and to some extent critiques—the classic sketch of the American Right’s internal composition, outlined famously by George Nash in his seminal book, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 (1976). The post-war conservative movement, per this sketch, came together in the early ‘50s as a tripartite alliance—not unlike Rémond’s mapping of the French Right in that respect, although the American Right’s internal boundaries aligned with policy views whereas the French Right’s currents cohered around particular leaders. In America, economic liberals, Cold War anti-Communist hawks, and religious traditionalists fusioned—per Frank Meyer’s famous term—under the single banner of ‘conservatism’. They then succeeded in dislodging their liberal opponents from a pre-existing partisan vehicle—Abraham Lincoln’s Grand Old Party (GOP)—through Barry Goldwater’s presidential bid in 1964. Notably, these three strains did not merely agree to gloss over their differences in the interest of defeating communism abroad and liberalism at home. In Continetti’s book, one learns about the many instances where one component of this fusion supplied the indispensable support for the success of another, in addition to examples of the inverse scenario: that of intra-right strife. Continetti’s highest merit, however, lies in superimposing, on top of that trite three-way split, an overlapping fracture between conservatism’s ‘elitist’ and ‘populist’ impulses. In an arresting conclusion, he writes that “what began in the 20th century as an elite-driven defence of the classical liberal principles enshrined in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence ended up, in the first quarter of the twenty-first century, as a furious reaction against elites of all stripes.”

Yet this balancing act between conservatism’s appeal to the common man and its intrinsic aversion to mob rule could, in parts of Continetti’s account, obscure more than clarify. Moreover, another fracture lurks beneath that isn’t exhaustively explained by the elitist vs. populist dichotomy. On one side of that fracture lie the old-style classical liberals, who abhorred from the start—despite some policy congruence—Trump’s national-populism, and who have since been reaffirmed in their views by the former President’s role in contesting the 2020 election. On the other side lie the intellectual post-liberals—led by Deneen, Ahmari, Pecknold, Pappin, and Vermeule—who, despite harboring some of the same objections to his character, view Trump’s populism overall as a healthy corrective to the smug excesses of a self-satisfied liberal elite, and who have called on conservatives—contra the demands of classical liberalism—to wield state power in furtherance of conservative aims. Reading Continetti’s account, one learns that this other debate has, in fact, been a constant throughout the movement’s history. The term ‘classical liberals,’ as it happens, is just another name for the proponents of American exceptionalism that have dotted the conservative landscape since the movement’s birth. As George Will argued in The Conservative Sensibility (2019), that side’s defence of America’s regime of ordered liberty makes it liberal in the classical sense, in opposition to the throne-and-altar conservatism that prevails in Europe. The post-liberals, meanwhile, propound an American version of that same European conservatism. For them, America does not simply represent the idea of equal natural rights and the proper outlines of constitutional government. Instead, it is those things coupled with a robust defence of the American people against the excesses of liberalism.

Which of these conflicting understandings of conservatism ends up rising above the other is a question being answered, as of this writing, in scores of GOP primaries across the U.S. leading up to November’s midterms. The side merging Trumpian populism in rhetoric with intellectual post-liberalism has real momentum going for it, as the results in south Texas and South Carolina attest. But to hold any pretence of carrying the wider public’s support, Continetti argues the pro-Trump camp ought to reject the cult of personality and the former President’s conspiratorial refusal to acknowledge his defeat in November 2020.

This predicament is not devoid of parallels with the landscape that Rémond surveyed when he published the first edition of Les Droites en France (1954). Largely discredited in the immediate post-war period for its association with the collaborationist Vichy regime, the French Right seemed in utter tatters in the mid-‘50s. Yet, a few signs of hope remained, which Rémond highlighted in the introduction to the book’s first edition, titled “From Vichy to Pinay.” Antoine Pinay, the liberal centrist who had previously stood out for opposing Vichy, had been elected prime minister two years prior, placing ‘Orleanism’ at the front and centre of French politics. Furthermore, René Coty was a few months away from becoming president, thus ending an uninterrupted streak of left-wing rule that had begun in 1945. And unbeknown to most, when the Fourth Republic ultimately collapsed under the strain of the Algerian conflict, ungovernability, and institutional inertia, De Gaulle stood ready to return and rekindle the system from the ground up. Be it under Trump or one of his right-centrist opponents, conservatives can likewise claim a bright future.

Jorge González-Gallarza (@JorgeGGallarza) is the co-host of the “Uncommon Decency” podcast on Europe (@UnDecencyPod) and an associate researcher at Fundación Civismo (Madrid).