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The “likelihood is far greater that this unhappy family is headed for an acrimonious coexistence,” he writes, which isn’t ideal but well short of civilizational collapse. Yet America, and the world, would be less acrimonious if people stopped advocating Buchananite tribalism. Buchanan tiptoes around the unpleasantness wafting from his own stances; at one point, he even claims that mixing too many cultures in one nation is dangerous precisely because it rouses ugly and possibly violent xenophobia. Really, Pat? A big problem with diversity is it brings out the worst in bigots?
Nowadays no one but Buchanan says things like this—in best-selling books, anyway. Buchanan makes sure you know that the likes of Jimmy Carter and even Bill Clinton once said things about race and culture that would be verboten today. Most people understand that mores about race have changed since, say, 1954. Buchanan reminds his readers that a lot has changed since 1992 as well. No GOP candidate on the trail today would ever dare to be that much of a Pitchfork Pat. Yet Buchanan’s shadow still falls heavily on the 2012 campaign trail, most prominently on Ron Paul and his opposite-side insurgent Rick Santorum.
In 1992 the paleoconservative crowd saw Buchanan and Paul as nearly interchangeable. Paul aborted a planned noninterventionist Republican run that year when Buchanan announced his, and he took a ceremonial role on Buchanan’s economic advisory committee. But the Ron Paul who rose to national prominence in 2007 has almost nothing in common with the GOP’s 1990s runner-up.
Buchanan made the National Endowment for the Arts the centerpiece of his 1992 Southern campaign; Paul mocks his fellow Republicans for going after such easy and inexpensive targets when bigger issues of empire and monetary policy loom. Buchanan announced that he intended to “chase the purveyors of sex and violence back beneath the rocks whence they came.” Ron Paul is willing to let anyone enjoy whatever entertainment he chooses. Buchanan said, “We are going to put back into its rightful place the true God of the Bible.” Ron Paul is too reticent to even discuss his own Protestant religion out loud, much less impose it as president. Buchanan in 1992 was the first presidential candidate to call for a border wall; now they all do except Paul, who condemned the proposal as essentially un-American in several primary debates.
Where the two men still overlap is in their committed noninterventionism, which suggests a lot about where the GOP cutting edge might be. Like Paul, Buchanan in 1992 dominated the independent and Democratic crossover vote. Both had campaigns powered by true believers and openly delighted in how much the establishment hated them.
Right now, Paul’s people seem to be maneuvering for what Buchanan squeezed out of the Bush team in 1992: a prominent speaking slot, televised, at the Republican National Convention. It’s less of a prize now than it once was, and not just because of 24-hour cable political chatter. Buchanan was channeling the secret heart of the Republican rank and file with his notorious declaration of a culture war. Paul, if he gets a similar chance, will be speaking a largely alien truth to establishment GOP power. A Paul convention speech probably won’t shape the tone of the general election in nearly the same way.
That Ron Paul has been able to claim similar political space and similar voter loyalty—although Buchanan racked up more total votes, higher percentages, and four actual state wins in 1996—is a positive sign for where the future of the GOP might lie. That’s because, in ways Buchanan himself muddies with his race talk and protectionism, a big part of the GOP’s present is notably Buchananesque.
Take Rick Santorum. (Please!) His candidacy is an almost eerily pure instantiation of Buchanan’s culture war speech: angry at elites who think the typical GOP voter is an idiot, obsessed with private sexual behavior, tough on immigration, and openly contemptuous of the notion that government should just leave people alone. Santorum rejects Buchanan’s foreign policy, of course, and trade issues don’t move American politics the way they could in the 1990s, despite occasional jabs at China for manipulating its currency (read: selling us goods too cheaply) from both union Democrats and foreigner-baiting Republicans.
Buchanan’s style is also reflected in the Tea Party, especially its “peasants with pitchforks” feel. Sarah Palin—who sported a “Buchanan for President” button when she met him while mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, in 2000, though she later denied being an acolyte—was very much a Buchananite in her populist appeal. Santorum lacks that joyously ferocious Buchanan combativeness, which Palin shares. Santorum is this cycle’s warm-milk substitute for the bracing whisky of Mama Grizzly. The Buchananisms all around us suggest there may be real cultural and political payoff in running the kind of insurgent campaign he excelled at, even if you fail at first.
Buchanan was never much of a Goldwater guy. In spirit, despite the theological differences, he was a harbinger of the evangelical New Right that arose after Nixon, which Stanley aptly sums up as representing “a subtle shift in conservative priorities, from the pursuit of total liberty to the pursuit of righteousness.” This is where Rick Santorum has planted his flag: Every victory he wins is a victory for the Moral Majority/Christian Coalition brand of Republicanism. But this emphasis may not be a wise one: More and more, American attitudes and actions are moving away from those traditional values, particularly on Santorum’s pet issues of marriage and sex.
Richard Nixon knew something his staff street fighter didn’t. “The American people were not as conservative as Buchanan thought,” Stanley writes. That was true then, and it will only get truer, as Buchanan himself glumly recognizes today. The fate of Rick Santorum as a GOP candidate is likely to vividly illustrate the ways voters are moving away from Buchanan.
You can’t save America with religion and birthrates. The dismal debt and imperial overreach Buchanan still harps on can be halted, not by a party of angry tribalist traditionalists but by a party of libertarians willing to meaningfully rethink government’s size and purpose.
The real significance of campaigns often remain veiled for decades. Reagan’s 1980 campaign was the final flower of Barry Goldwater’s 1964 run, for instance. But maybe Santorum 2012 can be read as the realization of Buchanan 1996. If that pattern holds, the Ron Paul tendency would be positioned to win over the GOP sometime in 2028. Let’s hope the country can hold on until then.
Senior Editor Brian Doherty is the author of Radicals for Capitalism (PublicAffairs) and Ron Paul's Revolution: The Man and the Movement He Inspired (Broadside).
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