How Pat Buchanan Conquered America
Reliving the 1990s in the 2012 GOP race
You've gotta love Pat Buchanan, the columnist-turned-candidate who told one reporter on the campaign trail in 1992 that many people take an instant dislike to him because "it saves time," and gleefully posed in a black cowboy hat, proclaiming, "I'm the bad guy."
Unless you think Buchanan is a dangerous, hateful, racist monster, that is. The progressive watchdog group Color of Change certainly doesn't love the guy. In January the advocacy organization demanded that MSNBC, the mostly left-leaning cable network where Buchanan had been a regular commentator for a decade, fire him. MSNBC president Phil Griffin complied, saying, "I don't think the ideas…put forth [in Buchanan's new book, Suicide of a Superpower] are appropriate for the national dialogue, much less on MSNBC." After he was sacked, the former presidential candidate turned fighting Irishman, complaining in his syndicated column that MSNBC had given in to those who "brand as racists and anti-Semites any writer who dares to venture outside the narrow corral in which they seek to confine debate." While "prattling about their love of dissent and devotion to the First Amendment," he growled, "they seek systematically to silence and censor dissent."
As Oxford University historian Timothy Stanley explains in his insightful biography The Crusader: The Life and Tumultuous Times of Pat Buchanan, Pitchfork Pat is enough of a jolly polemical gut fighter to mostly laugh off insults and attacks. But when he feels punched by a friend, he gets hurt and punches right back.
Buchanan is the last of a dying breed of old-school right-wingers. Yet current American political culture owes an astonishing amount to this Irish Catholic son of D.C.'s Georgetown neighborhood, even as he fades into disgraced bestsellerdom. Notions such as the "silent majority," liberal media bias, and the modern culture war all sprang, more or less fully formed, from the head of this former Nixon and Reagan aide, as did a Republican critique of "vulture capitalism."
In fact, pretty much everything that constitutes modern-day Fox News can be traced to Buchanan, although Fox's own fighting Irishman, Bill O'Reilly, is both less intellectual and less independent-minded than the prototype. Fox thoroughly embodies what Buchanan knew the right wing required back in the Nixon era. "They need a daily plateful of dissent, action, excitement and drama, which it is fair to say are not conservative long suits," he wrote. How things have changed.
The 2012 presidential race also has Buchanan's fingerprints all over it. Both Ron Paul and Rick Santorum carry variations on Buchananite themes. By digging deeply into the crusader's three runs for president—in 1992 and 1996 as a Republican and in 2000 on a third-party ticket—Stanley sheds light on the bewildering patchwork of principle and personality driving 2012 Republican politics. And by highlighting the subtle, slow-motion ways in which Buchanan has shaped the party—and the ways he hasn't—Stanley's account offers hope for a more sensible GOP.
Pat Buchanan was Richard Nixon's liaison to the conservative movement and Ronald Reagan's second-term attempt to keep that movement mollified. In between, he played columnist and polemicist. After Reagan, the party shifted in ways Buchanan didn't like, moving further away from his vision of a GOP that was populist, rugged, noninterventionist, and protectionist. So Buchanan in 1992 and 1996 ran radical insurgent primary campaigns for Republicans disgusted with their party's leaders and mainstream, rooted largely in opposition to America's overseas adventures.
Less remembered is Buchanan's 2000 run under the soiled flag of Ross Perot's Reform Party, which brought his political career to an end with a paltry 0.4 percent of the national vote. Thanks to Palm Beach County's notorious "butterfly ballot," the coda of Buchanan's political career was an odd cameo in the Florida vote-counting controversy that resulted in George W. Bush's victory. Even Buchanan's own staff admitted that the votes he received in that heavily Jewish area were mostly mistakes by people who meant to punch the chad next to Al Gore's name, which happened to be adjacent to his. As Stanley mordantly puts it, "Few [campaigns] have ended so ignominiously—denying that its voters even existed."
Off the stump, Buchanan went back to being an irascible public voice for his version of populism, writing books like The Death of the West (2001) and State of Emergency: The Third World Invasion and Conquest of America (2006). He became a full-time tribalist of the sort that has no real place in respectable society. Since Suicide of a Superpower contains little that Buchanan has not already said, the only wonder is that it took so long for MSNBC to can him. But Stanley's book is a history of a failed politician, not the story of a successful media figure. (Buchanan's longtime partner on that pioneering left-vs.-right shout fest Crossfire, Michael Kinsley, is never mentioned, for instance.)
To fully understand the degree to which Buchananism is shaping the GOP today, you must know what he's selling in Suicide, a sour notebook dump on his hoary themes that lacks any sign of the witty, human Pat. (How many different people need to be quoted saying they believe religion is necessary for a healthy culture? How many different nations' declining native birthrates have to be charted?) Buchanan first lamented at length the fact that this country, along with the rest of the world, is getting less white and European more than a decade ago in Death of the West. He noted the pointless and ruinous expense of our overreaching foreign policy (another topic discussed at length here) in A Republic Not an Empire (1999).
Buchanan has added nothing but some newer numbers to the "death of the white West" stuff. As in his earlier book, his laments focus on nationality and ethnicity: He is outraged that the dominant culture of America has turned against his God and his preferred traditional behavior and morality. He is also unhappy that current trends in immigration and reproduction mean America will by the end of this century no longer be dominated by whites of European descent. Yet it is those same Americans of European descent who he thinks have already laid this once-great nation low by listening to European Marxists and having too many kids out of wedlock (or aborting them).
Buchanan frequently equates this de-Europeanization of America with descending to "Third World" status. Since the Third World is generally defined by levels of wealth, amenities, and social or governmental stability, as opposed to ethnicity, the hidden premise—never baldly stated—is that no one of non-European descent could build, value, or maintain the ways of life that make America and Europe part of the First World. But everything Buchanan posits as wrong with America, aside from ethnic balance itself, has nothing to do with ethnic balance per se.
When he wrote Death of the West, Buchanan was still a third-party warrior speaking for the nation as a whole, but in Suicide he makes a more partisan political argument: The only way for the Republican Party to revive and ensure its continued fortunes—since it will never get the Hispanic and black votes—is to get even more of the white vote. Lots of tedious demographic data and vote percentages clog the book as he chases this questionable idea around. By the end even Buchanan admits his side has lost these fights over culture and race. He concedes that you "can't go home again" and that "in the end there was nothing we could do" and that it will be more or less OK anyway (even if the rest of the country suffers the unspeakable fate of turning into Los Angeles).
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).