Continetti considers the future of the Republican Party
The AEI senior fellow joined JI’s podcast to discuss the party’s history and the changes it saw under former President Donald Trump
On this week’s episode of Jewish Insider’s podcast, co-hosts Rich Goldberg and Jarrod Bernstein are joined by author and journalist Matthew Continetti, whose most recent book, The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism, discusses the history of conservatism in America. Continetti, the founder and former editor of the Washington Free Beacon, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. During the conversation, Continetti touched upon former President Donald Trump, American conservatism and where the Republican Party stands today.
Below are excerpts from the discussion.
On the indictment of former President Donald Trump by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg for falsifying records during the 2016 presidential election: Pretty much every conservative, every Republican, viewed the Bragg indictment over the payments to Stormy Daniels as a reach, as a pretty weak case by a clearly political prosecutor in New York City, and so Republicans and conservatives rallied around Trump; he saw a boost in the polls, he saw a lot of fundraising, and that kind of carried him through the spring. So with this indictment [the federal documents case brought by Special Counsel Jack Smith alleging mishandling of classified documents and obstruction of justice], the players are different. Jack Smith is a career prosecutor, special counsel, is coming [with] federal charges, and anyone who reads the indictment with an open mind and closely, sees that it contains a lot of evidence, including recordings of Trump himself, and that the documents in question were of a fairly serious nature. So while there was an initial rallying behind Trump, you’ve seen recently a few Republicans begin to create some space between themselves and the former president. I’m thinking of Nikki Haley, former Vice President Mike Pence, Senator Tim Scott. These are Trump’s rivals in the race for the Republican nomination. They’re beginning to say that the charges against him are pretty serious. Now, they also talk about a politicized Justice Department, some say that they’d be inclined to pardon Trump, but it’s a slightly different reaction than what we saw with New York. And, in fact, it may be that the Republicans have become more open to criticizing Trump over the federal indictment in the months ahead. We just don’t know.
On the history of American political culture and Donald Trump: There is a long-standing suspicion of central authority in the American political tradition in our American political culture. Americans don’t like intrusive government, especially the intrusive federal government. You can look at conservative criticism of the FBI, stretching back, basically, ever since J. Edgar Hoover left the job of FBI director, and you can see conservatives opposing the FBI’s behavior, or the ATS behavior, during the Waco standoff. You can see it over the Ruby Ridge incident. You can see it over the Elian Gonzalez incident [in] 2000. I mean there’s many, many examples. Media, distrust of media, I mean that’s ancient history for the conservatives. William F. Buckley Jr. kind of throws shade on media bias in the editorial that launched the National Review in 1955. Conservative media criticism became much more pronounced after Barry Goldwater lost the 1964 presidential election. You know, in 1992, when George H.W. Bush was running for election, there were bumper stickers that said, ‘Annoy the media, vote Bush.’ So we found in 2012, Newt Gingrich kind of was at the back of the pack in the primary polls, but shot toward the top when he started lambasting the media to anchors’ faces at Republican debates… So these are kind of longer trends, but what Trump does, and that makes him unique is, he wants to delegitimize every competing institution and tell his supporters that the only place they can put their trust in is Donald Trump. And so he has kind of exploited these long-running tendencies and exacerbated them in order to increase his personal power over the conservative movement and the Republican Party.
On the Republican Party today: I think the first thing to do is to distinguish between real politics, like we see in institutions and elections and campaigns, and then the intellectual debates that increasingly take place online… If you just look at the Republican Party today, say, you see it dominated by the attitudes and positions associated with MAGA [Make America Great Again] with Donald Trump. Populist, which is to say, anti-liberal elite, anti-expert, kind of what we call, “folk libertarian,” you know, “get the government off our backs, but also don’t mess up with the benefits that we’ve been promised.” You see a real preference for cultural battles over economic policy, so a real interest in fighting the culture war in all its dimensions, you know, Bud Light boycott, Target boycott, taking precedence over say, getting into the details of how Republicans will fight inflation. There’s the “America First” sentiment, the idea that America should not be going overseas looking for fights, especially in Europe, that we should restrain ourselves in supporting Ukraine. Just look at the Republican Party, I mean, that Ukraine position, it’s basically 50/50 now, you know, at best, which is not where it was, would have been 10 years ago. And then socially conservative, you know. So, that’s kind of what the Republican Party looks like now, and it’s to the degree that there’s another camp; it’s one that is kind of the remnants of, kind of Bush Republicanism: leery of culture war, wanting to stress the economy and more inclined to support America’s role as a global leader.
On Israel and the Republican Party: Israel is a unifying force on the right today, but I worry whether that consensus is endangered. There’s no question that Republican members are going to support Israel, they’re going to support further assistance to Israel, they’re going to support Israel when it has to take operations against Hamas or against its adversary Iran, but I wonder about the future of the relationship for a couple of reasons. The first reason is just personal. So Trump, I don’t think has forgiven [Israeli Prime Minister] Bibi [Netanyahu] for making a congratulatory call to [President] Joe Biden after the 2020 election, and with Trump, everything is personal. And so if Trump were to get back into the White House, and if Bibi were the prime minister in 2025, I don’t know how that relationship would be affected. Another reason I think about the relationship is [the] changing nature of the Republican coalition. Republicans are becoming less churched than they had been in the past, still heavily influenced by evangelical Christianity, which in the main is very supportive of Israel, but Trump has brought in new constituencies into the Republican Party that just say they’re Christian, but they don’t really belong to church, they probably don’t go to church all that often. The religiosity might not be there, and if it’s not there, then that means that connection to Israel might not be there either. And also, there’s some changing dynamics within the evangelical Christian community, within the religious community, that I’ve noticed seem to be pushing that community toward a more pro-Palestinian stance. It’s still very minor at this point, but it could develop further. But in the main, I continue to see the Republican Party as basically the party of defending Israel and supporting Israel, especially when Israel’s threatened.
Bonus lightning round: Favorite Yiddish word or phrase? “One of my favorite Yiddish words is schlemiel.” Favorite Jewish or Israeli food? “You know what? It’s shakshuka. My original, my gut answer was just hummus, but that’s stupid, but then as I thought about it for a second, shakshuka I can have for breakfast every day.” Favorite conservative thinker or writer, living or dead? “I’ll say the two that have been the most influential to me are Irving Kristol and Charles Krauthammer. And so, oftentimes when I’m speaking to 20-year-olds, I tell them to buy a copy of Irving Kristol’s book, The Neoconservative Persuasion, and a copy of Krauthammer’s book, Things That Matter. But they’re the two thinkers who probably are most influential on me.” Favorite living Democrat today who is still active? “ I like [Rep.] Seth Moulton (D-MA), I think he’s pretty serious about national security. I like [Reps.] Abigail Spanberger (D-VA) and Elissa Slotkin (D-MI), they both seem to me to be pretty responsible liberals on national security. So who else? [Rep.] Jake Auchincloss (D-MA), he had a good piece on Ukraine recently. I think there are a bunch. [Rep.] Colin Allred (D-TX) is going to challenge Ted Cruz in 2024, I think he might give Ted a little bit of a race. I mean, I still expect Cruz to win, but because of the changing demographics in Texas, because of the fact that it’s likely Trump will overshadow the election in some way and I also think Colin already is a talent, I think he could do pretty well.”