If you’re wondering how Donald Trump happened, all you have to do is let Pat Buchanan, the founding father of Republican insurrection, beguile you with a history no one else can tell.
It’s impossible to say exactly when the rehabilitation of Patrick Buchanan began, partly because his banishment from polite company was never total. MSNBC rather publicly fired him in 2012—over the protests of Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski—after the publication of Suicide of a Superpower, the latest, though by no means the shrillest, in the series of duck-and-cover, they’re-coming-for-us screeds he’s been writing since 1998. With chapter titles like “The Death of Christian America,” “The End of White America,” and “The White Party,” it sounded the alarm of demographic apocalypse, offering pungent observations such as: “U. S.-born Hispanics are far more likely to smoke, drink, abuse drugs, and become obese than foreign-born Hispanics.”
And yet two years later, there he was again on Morning Joe, serenaded with the Welcome Back, Kotter theme song. On camera, Buchanan plugged his new book, The Greatest Comeback, which tells how he helped Nixon get elected president, a three-year siege that raised a repeat loser from the dead. Buchanan is a vivid storyteller, and his account draws amply on his personal archive of briefing papers, letters, and notes. The book also illuminates the Nixon years’ atmosphere of cultural embattlement, a political mood that looks more relevant than ever in the Age of Donald Trump.
So do Buchanan’s three long-shot attempts, in 1992, 1996, and 2000, to become president himself. He never came close to winning, but each time he nagged at something, rubbed a nerve in just enough voters of a particular kind—what he called “peasants” and we call the white working class—to send ripples of panic through the Republican party. The echoes of Buchananism in Trump’s campaign were a pet theme during the election and its aftermath. But if anything, the debt has been understated. Put most simply, Buchanan begat Trumpism as his former ally William F. Buckley Jr. begat Reaganism. The also-ran of the Republican hard Right is the intellectual godfather of our current revolution.
It’s true that Trump found his own way, as early as 1987, to the America First platform he ran on almost thirty years later. But it was Buchanan who sounded, or brayed, the message we all now know by heart: anti-immigrant, anti-Europe, anti-Asia, anti-free-trade, anti more or less anything that inches America away from inches America away from the splendors of the 1950s.
It’s a curious fact of Buchanan’s political history that his crusades are remembered as other men’s defeats—George H. W. Bush’s in 1992 and Bob Dole’s in 1996. Both secured the Republican nomination, but only after Buchanan beat them up and exposed them as out-of-touch frontmen for the GOP elite. In ’92, amid a slumping economy, Buchanan railed against Japan’s “predatory trade policies” and an agreement with Mexico later called NAFTA. The United States, he suggested, should think about quitting the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. These heresies got him 37.5 percent of the vote in New Hampshire against the glass-jawed incumbent Bush. Four years later, declaring himself the tribune of “a conservativism that gives voice to the voiceless,” Buchanan won the state outright, beating Dole by a percentage point. Dole recovered in later primaries, but, like Bush, he staggered on rubbery legs to the finish line, where Bill Clinton was waiting.
Trump also belongs to the company of the Buchanan-scarred. The confrontation happened in 2000, when Buchanan, having become a pariah within the GOP, made a quixotic last stand on the Reform party ticket. Trump, even more quixotically, sought the Reform nomination, too, swaggering in with a book to promote and hot-air talk of the $100 million he would spend to get on the ticket and then to win “the whole megillah.” Before Buchanan smacked him down, Trump got in some preemptive sore-loser licks. “Look, he’s a Hitler lover,” he said. “I guess he’s an anti-Semite. He doesn’t like the blacks, he doesn’t like the gays.” For once affecting a statesman’s high detachment, Buchanan said only that the Reform party and the presidency weren’t for sale.
He remembers it all today, as he remembers much else in his half-century of national politics, as a quasi-joke. “Somebody said, ‘Pat, he called you a Nazi, a Hitlerite.’ I said, ‘With Trump, you have to realize, these are terms of endearment.’ ” Sitting in the living room of his big Georgian house in McLean, Virginia, just after the inauguration, Buchanan lets out a soft roar, his eyes disappearing into his still-meaty face. He turned seventy-eight in November, and the thousands of hours on the road, the layers of TV pancake, have wrinkled his pug features, while his hair has faded toward apricot and is thinning in back. But his laughter is alive and happy. And why not? He did in 2000 what sixteen Republicans couldn’t do in 2016, despite the best efforts of William Kristol, the halfhearted pushback of the Koch brothers, and the whole machinery of “Conservatism, Inc.” Not only that: The platform from which Buchanan once exuberantly ranted is now GOP doctrine and is fast becoming the law—or the multiplying illegalities—of the land.
Buchanan grew up in a giant family in northwest Washington, D. C., one of nine kids. He and three brothers, born in successive years, formed a posse of brawlers and street fighters, “the scourge of Washington’s Catholic community,” according to Maureen Dowd, who grew up hearing tales of “the latest Buchanan hooliganism.” Buchanan has written about it, too, with undisguised nostalgia, in his autobiography, Right from the Beginning. He is not a man for second thoughts, whether about the sucker punches he threw and absorbed or the cold-war religion he learned in parochial schools and at home. His father was a prosperous accountant who burned incense to the homegrown anti-communist martyrs Joe McCarthy and General Douglas MacArthur, and to the distant savior Generalissimo Franco. In Right from the Beginning, Buchanan fondly recalls how he and his schoolmates at Blessed Sacrament flung snowballs at the “Boston Blackie,” a bus that carried black cleaning women out to the leafy white suburbs, in 1950. Almost seventy years later, the man who disparaged Barack Obama’s celebrated speech about the Reverend Jeremiah Wright and the politics of race as”the same old con, the same old shakedown” may be no one’s ideal of a prophet or wise man, but he has quite possibly become, to quote David Brooks, “the most influential public intellectual in America today.”
Give Buchanan points for consistency, at least, and for self-effacement, conditioned by years as a backroom White House adjutant. “I heard from Trump during the primaries,” he says. “He called about columns of mine that he liked. But I did not hear from him in the fall election. And I’ve not talked to him since. I was delighted when he got in.”
“How can such a fanatic be so likable?”
In fact, Buchanan has been plugging Trump for months in the column he writes on Mondays and Thursdays for his website. Trump has his share of defenders—including a handful of intellectuals—but it’s safe to say that only Buchanan would defend the president’s directive about transgender access to bathrooms by citing Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical.
“How can such a fanatic be so likable?” Garry Wills, a Buchanan watcher since the 1968 campaign, has wondered. Wills, no pushover, isn’t alone. Michael Kinsley has Buchananitis. George Packer has it, too. “Pat Buchanan is a nativist, an isolationist, and an armed-to-the-teeth culture warrior,” he wrote in 2008, after interviewing Buchanan in McLean. “He’s also a very nice man and a wonderful raconteur.”
There is no deep mystery to Buchanan’s talent for disarming writers. He’s one of them—a lover of good prose and poetry, an observer with peeled eyes and keen ears, a pack-rat archivist of his own career whose voice and mind hum with bold ideas and clever arguments. And he’s one of the premier phrasemakers in modern American politics. Connoisseurs have their favorite campaign lines. Mine both come from 1996: The first was his mockery of Dole and the GOP regulars as “the bland leading the bland”; the second came after Buchanan got trounced in eight primaries on a single Tuesday and shouted, with a cackle, “We are going to fight until hell freezes over, and then we’re going to fight on the ice.”
The other thing writers like, and envy, is where Buchanan’s verbal gifts have taken him: into the thick of the political scrum. He has stumped through dozens of primaries, captivated a national political convention (in Houston, in 1992), and spent hours giving advice to great men who actually read what he wrote and listened to what he said.
Buchanan met his wife, Shelley, when they worked together on Nixon’s staff. Their pillared white house in McLean, next door to the CIA compound, is a homey museum of Buchanan’s career, with artifacts on open display: vintage replicas of pistols owned by his military heroes; a glass-fronted case with a pitchfork, souvenir of the 1996 campaign; and, in an alcove, photographs of Buchanan huddling in the White House with the three presidents he served—Nixon, Ford, and Reagan.
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It was in this living room that right-wing zealots gathered in January 1987 to anoint Buchanan their new leader, God’s honest heir to Goldwater and Reagan. “Let the bloodbath begin!” one of them shouted. Buchanan loves the sanguine talk, but his own idiom is quite often refined, even bookish. Only a man besotted with words, who has a feel for historical irony, could begin his testimony before the Senate Watergate Committee by saying, “You’re looking at the Buckminster Fuller of dirty tricks.” It was a bravura performance, and left Nixon giddy with the belief that Buchanan had dealt a “death blow” to the committee. He hadn’t, of course. But his quick-jab sparring with inquisitors like Senator Sam Ervin made Buchanan a star, and gave even the Nixon haters a villain they could enjoy, if not root for.
Buchanan revisits much of this history in his new book, Nixon’s White House Wars, his thirteenth and perhaps best timed. The wars he describes, in opulent detail, were waged against the media, much like the one we’re seeing now. Barely thirty, Buchanan was Nixon’s Stephen Bannon, the in-house ideologue and commando-in-chief who goaded Nixon into taking on “big media”— especially the TV networks, The New York Times, and The Washington Post—and then wrote the scripts for the attacks.
Buchanan likes journalists as much as they like him. He used to be one, and was good at it. A scholarship student at the Columbia School of Journalism, he was tutored by moonlighting Times editors and then got on the fast track at the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, a bastion of Midwest conservatism. His long postmortem on the trouncing of his early hero, Barry Goldwater, in the 1964 election was tough-minded and just. “The senator was vague, his analyses too simple, his proposals shallow,” Buchanan wrote, at age twenty-five. But, he added, the revolution was just beginning, and was bigger than the man who had led it. “The new conservatism antedated Goldwater, made him a national figure to rival Presidents, and will post-date him,” Buchanan predicted. “There is no sign the conservative movement will wither and die. It has lost the battle, not the war.”
The two had a history going back to the fifties.
Fourteen months later, Buchanan quit the Globe-Democrat and joined Nixon’s staff, with a big salary hike, from $9,000 to $13,500 (a little more than $100,000 today). The two had a history going back to the fifties, when Nixon was the vice-president and Buchanan was earning pocket money at the Burning Tree golf club. Assigned once to caddie for Nixon, Buchanan followed him into the bushes and unzipped next to him, against club rules. If Nixon minded, he didn’t say so.
Joining Nixon’s staff, in 1965, Buchanan knew exactly what his job was: to mend fences with the hardcore Right, including the ideologues at National Review. For them, Nixon had been the errand boy of Dwight Eisenhower, the moderate they despised for governing from the center and declining to roll back the New Deal.
Out in the country it looked different. Eisenhower was the hero of World War II who then got us out of Korea and kept us out of Armageddon with the Soviets. Nixon was his junior partner, the respectful non-com who had waited his turn.
Buchanan thrilled to something else—Nixon the hard-edged political fighter and GOP loyalist. Together they toured the country in advance of the crucial 1966 midterms, tirelessly helping candidates for the House and Senate, building up goodwill. Those surprised at Buchanan’s own adroit presidential campaigns, done on a shoestring, forgot his apprenticeship with Nixon, the pioneer technician of modern retail politics.
Nixon won in 1968, but just barely. He got only 43 percent of the vote and failed to carry either the House or the Senate, no thanks to George Wallace, the Alabama fire-breather, who won 13 percent and five states in the Electoral College—all defecting Democrats, but now Republicans in the making, if the party would fine-tune its message. The country was splitting at the seams over Vietnam and civil rights. The game, or war, was about “the sixties”: the protests, the culture clash, the polarization.
In 1968, the political experts were all looking in the wrong place, just as they would do in 2016. “The young, the antiwar groups, the mass demonstrations,” Buchanan remembers. But Nixon’s men picked up a different signal: The center was being ignored and was there for the grabbing. “You could carve off the conservative wing of the Democratic party, populist and conservative—Northern Catholics and Southern Protestants we called them then—and bring them into the Republican party of Goldwater and Nixon.” A few liberal Republicans would flee, but the GOP would “wind up with the larger half of the country.” Out of this came Nixon’s 1972 landslide, on a scale unthinkable today: 60 percent of the vote, forty-nine states.
To hear Buchanan sift through this, with his easy command of electoral numbers and voting trends, is to feel how thin and hollow our politics has become. “Northern Catholics” and “Southern Protestants” still exist in America, but you wouldn’t know it. They have been crowded into an undifferentiated blur—white and Christian, with no shadings. But Nixon’s men grew up in a denser geography of ethnic difference, full of prickles and thorns. They used terms like “lower-middle-class Irish Catholic”: Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s description of Buchanan, in a letter sent when both were working for Nixon. The two were ideological foes but, when it came to elites, of one suspicious mind.
Later accounts would cast all this as a politics of bitter polarization, the marshaling of resentments and grievances. And indeed it was, to a considerable extent—”the whole secret of politics—knowing who hates who,” as Kevin Phillips, a lawyer and the master strategist of Nixon’s new majority, summarized it at the time. Phillips was a prodigy who at fifteen had begun working out the intricacies of shifting voter allegiances going back to the nineteenth century. Even younger than Buchanan, he had gone on to work for Nixon’s 1968 campaign and in his administration. His 1969 book, The Emerging Republican Majority, elevated voter analysis into a rarefied art. “American voting patterns are a kaleidoscope of sociology, history, geography and economics,” Phillips wrote. “The threads are very tangled and complex, but they can be pulled apart.” Phillips unknotted those threads in formulations like this: “The sharpest Democratic losses of the 1960–68 period came among the Mormons and Southern-leaning traditional Democrats of the Interior Plateau.”
Phillips and Buchanan both became famous thanks to Garry Wills’s Nixon Agonistes, the great chronicle of the 1968 presidential campaign. Nixon’s “fresh batch of intellectuals” included Phillips, with his color-coded charts, “a dense little mosaic of colors and figures that seemed to divide the country not into states or counties, but almost by street”; and Buchanan, in his black overcoat, “with the collar wrapped up around his lumpy raw face,” his “briefing file on all current affairs,” and the fluent press statements he wrote for Nixon while reading up on the 1960 election in Theodore White’s The Making of the President.
The portrait—which Buchanan at one time could summon from memory—was a reward from Wills, National Review‘s most gifted writer. Buchanan had gotten him face-time with Nixon after Buckley, the magazine’s editor, and William Rusher, its publisher, came around on the candidate. “Rusher calls me,” Buchanan remembers, “and says, ‘We’re doing a big National Review takeout on Nixon. Garry Wills is gonna do it. And you gotta bring him in to see all the Nixon people.’ I said, ‘Bill, I can’t do it. We’re about to head into New Hampshire. I can’t give this guy all that time just for an article in National Review.‘ He implored and begged me, and Wills came in and talked to everybody. Then we got him time on the plane with Nixon.” The interview, one of the most memorable in Nixon Agonistes, was first published not in National Review but in this magazine.
For Wills, “Nixon’s main problem, I think, was his nose,” Buchanan recalls. He’s serious. Nixon’s ski-jump nose, beloved by caricaturists, was a staple of the period’s cornball humor. Even Nixon worked up good-sport one-liners. (“Bob Hope and I would make a great ad for Sun Valley.”) Wills, crammed beside him in a DC-3, under the dim overhead spotlight, was transfixed—not by the nose’s fabled length but by “its distressing width, accentuated by the depth of the ravine running down its center, and by its general fuzziness . . . the nose swings far out; then, underneath, it does not rejoin his face in a straight line, but curves far up again, leaving a large but partially screened space between nose and lip,” etc. On it went, Cyrano de Bergerac by way of the New Journalism.
Nixon was appalled. For two years he’d been trying to shed the loser’s image that haunted him after two election flops (for president in 1960 and governor of California in 1962), and here he was getting “kicked around” again—for his nose!—by a virtual nobody. Nixon never got over it, Buchanan says, still amazed and shaking with hilarity. “All during the campaign: ‘Remember, you brought him in, Buchanan.’ Near his death, he reminded me, ‘You were responsible!’ ” A wild hoot of laughter. “He would not let me forget it!”
It was Buchanan’s task to find a metaphor for Nixon’s “new majority,” which was useful shorthand for politicos talking shop but not for a public that needed poetry. A phrase had come to Buchanan during the heat of the 1968 campaign. With Nixon safely nominated in Miami, Buchanan and others went to the Democratic convention in Chicago. They stayed at the Hilton, on the nineteenth floor. “We had a suite,” Buchanan says, “and were invitin’ the journalists up. Norman Mailer walks in with José Torres, the boxer.”
Mailer, who would describe the conventions in Miami and the Siege of Chicago, another of the period’s great political books, was exactly Buchanan’s type: a writer with a muscular prose style who also used his fists. The two hit it off easily. “We’re drinkin’ and talkin’. We hear this commotion outside. We went to the window.” On the streets below, the police were advancing on some ten thousand demonstrators in Grant Park. “The cops were in a phalanx, all marching like they were in the inaugural parade, but not as many. And they came right down Balbo, across Michigan, right in front of our hotel. And these guys”—the police—”poured into that park and they were whalin’ on these people left and right.”
A federal commission would later conclude that the cops in Chicago had rioted. But Buchanan was on their side, and he was confident the new majority was, too. He sent a memo to Nixon urging him to visit Chicago and “stand with the great silent majority against the demonstrators.”
There it was: “silent majority,” a variation on the Depression-era “forgotten man,” with an important difference. The forgotten man, who would return in Trump’s inaugural address, was downtrodden, haunted, and hurting, a step away from the poorhouse. The silent majority were his more fortunate but equally anxious offspring, holding on to what they had in America’s affluent postwar society even as civil-rights protesters, antiwar radicals, left-wing professors, and Ivy League journalists all conspired to take it away or send it up in flames.
The phrase had gone into one of Nixon’s key speeches, given in November 1969 at the peak of the antiwar protests and carried by all three major networks. “And so tonight,” Nixon said, after outlining a strategy for getting out of the war by turning it over to the South Vietnamese, “to you, the great silent majority of my fellow Americans, I ask for your support.”
But the national audience didn’t hear Nixon alone. They also heard teams of analysts brought into the studio to dissect the speech. The memory still agitates Buchanan. “Sixty-seven percent of Americans, as I recall, looked to the major networks as the primary source of international and national news. Sixty-seven percent! And here are the guys describing what Nixon’s doing, and they’re all on the other side. And they’re all slantin’ it. We got a sense that they’re standing on our windpipe!”
“We have a right to fight against that power using our First Amendment rights, just as they do.”
The protocol was for someone on staff to call network executives and ask for better treatment. Nixon’s chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, instructed Buchanan to do it. But he had another idea. The administration should go public, meet the enemy—”the collective power of the national press,” as he now puts it—head-on. “What we had to do was say: They are as political and ideological as we are. They’ve got all this power, and there’s a tiny handful of them, and they didn’t get it democratically the way we did. And we have a right to fight against that power using our First Amendment rights, just as they do.”
Nixon agreed, and out of this came the most important speech in the modern history of the American media wars. Written by Buchanan, it was delivered ten days after Nixon’s “silent majority” address by Vice-President Spiro Agnew, himself a culture warrior itching to poke back at the liberal press, which had been ridiculing him since he was nominated. Unlike Nixon, who dismembered every draft, Agnew merely tinkered with them.
The result was a full-scale assault on the media—on its practices and habits, the “instant analysis and querulous criticism” that came between the president and the public. Most remarkable were Buchanan’s speculations on the network executives themselves, “a tiny, enclosed fraternity of privileged men elected by no one and enjoying a monopoly sanctioned and licensed by government.” What did Americans know about this coterie? “Little other than that they reflect an urbane and assured presence seemingly well-informed on every important matter.” They lived and worked in New York or Washington, D. C., Buchanan had Agnew say, where they basked “in their own provincialism, their own parochialism.”
The impact was tidal, especially after Buchanan expanded the attack, in a later Agnew speech, to newspapers. The Times, for one, would later hire Buchanan’s fellow speechwriter, William Safire, to be a columnist, and publish Buchanan on its new op-ed page. But the wars continued. The real trouble came, as always, not from enemies in the press but from disgruntled administration insiders—leakers. One such, Daniel Ellsberg, handed over seven thousand pages dealing with Vietnam, the Pentagon Papers.
A gut-fighter and loyalist, he had no moral qualms.
Nixon was incensed by the leak and wanted to retaliate with countersurveillance and dirty tricks. Buchanan was the first staff member approached to lead this campaign. A gut-fighter and loyalist, he had no moral qualms and sympathized with the ambition to punish the administration’s enemies. “But in the last analysis,” he explained in a memo turning down the offer, “the permanent discrediting of all these people, while good for the country, would not, it seems to me, be particularly helpful to the President, politically.” A better idea, he thought, was a “major public attack” on the Brookings Institution.
It was the wisest decision of Buchanan’s career. The man who took the job instead, Egil “Bud” Krogh, appears in a group photo hanging in Buchanan’s house—youngish men looking prematurely old in dark suits, foot soldiers caught in the wrong fight. Watergate felons. To Buchanan, they are comrades who took bullets for the cause. As I study the faces and signatures—Krogh, Dwight Chapin, Ed Morgan—Buchanan ticks off the jail time each received. His tone is that of a Normandy survivor back among the white crosses of the fallen.
Nixon got millions of votes in his long career, but he attracted few believers. Buchanan was one of those few, and he still is. His anger, all directed at the other side, is as fresh today as it was in 1974. “If I were a special assistant to the president and had taken these documents and given them to The New York Times, I would have been fired in disgrace and charged with a crime. But if I get secret documents as a journalist and I publish them, I’m a hero?”
Buchanan’s slogan, “America First—and Second, and Third,” coined in 1990, signaled that his was a politics of protest. So did another notorious eruption, his fiery oration at the Houston convention in 1992. “There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America,” he declared. “It is a cultural war.” At the time, this sounded like the bitter cry of intolerance. And it was, with its denunciations of “homosexual rights” and “radical feminism.” But when Buchanan said that the election was “about who we are” and “what we believe,” he was delivering a raw message, a shout from a distant shore, that even now many seem unable to hear. Our delicate moral antennae are attuned to the faintest dog whistle, but they filter out the deeper rumbles through which democracy makes its urgent claims.
Coarseness, never the meanest political vice, matters much less than we think. It is the lesson we learned in 2016. Buchanan has been imparting it for many years. Today, some remember the controversies over his denunciations of Israel and the Jewish lobby in the early 1990s. He was judged guilty of anti-Semitism by two of his heroes and allies, Buckley and Irving Kristol. But fewer remember what prompted the dispute. Buchanan was one of a small group of conservatives who opposed the first Iraq invasion—the event that set the GOP on the course that ended with the election of Donald Trump.
The real battle, as usual, was over history. Liberals said the cold war had been about the march toward a globalized civil society. But for Buchanan and others like him, it had been a war against godless communism. Their heroes weren’t diplomats and Davos attendees. They were brutalists, like McCarthy, MacArthur, and Franco. Wills was right: Buchanan is a fanatic, though he has his own term for it. “We are conservatives of the heart,” he says of paleo-conservative America Firsters like himself. “This is one reason the New World Order, the whole idea, is gonna come down. It doesn’t engage the heart. Who’s gonna put on a bayonet and charge for some Brussels bureaucrat?”
Well, many of us might, if the alternative is militant ethno-nationalism. But just asking the question got Buchanan exiled from his own party. So did his criticism of foreign aid, of billions spent on defense for “rich nations that refuse to defend themselves,” his scoffing at the “altruism” of the “guilt-and-pity crowd.” All this while others on the Right, exhuming the world-conquering optimism of an earlier time, invoked a “new universalism,” a “super-sovereign” banding of powers. (A confession: In 1999, The Wall Street Journal‘s op-ed page commissioned me to read him out of the GOP.)
Buchanan restated his argument, courageously, in The American Conservative, the magazine he helped found in 2002, when it was clear that George W. Bush was preparing the country for a second Iraq invasion. Buchanan wanted no part of it. A military-history buff, he cited dark precedents: “the Ottoman, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and German empires in World War I, the Japanese in World War II, the French and the British the morning after.” All were undone by hubris. The U. S. was next, and it wouldn’t end in Baghdad. “The neoconservatives who pine for a ‘World War IV,’ ” he warned more than a decade ago, would be itching soon for “short sharp wars on Syria and Iran.”
Buchanan had been expanding his case in books with grabby doomsday titles, each a renewed cry to take America back: The Great Betrayal, State of Emergency, The Death of the West, Day of Reckoning. Some verged on learned crackpottery. “Here is a difference between Patrick Buchanan and David Irving,” the historian John Lukacs wrote of Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War, the revisionist history that Buchanan published in the last year of George W. Bush’s presidency. Irving, the notorious Holocaust denier, “employs falsehoods; Buchanan employs half-truths. But, as Thomas Aquinas once put it, ‘a half-truth is more dangerous than a lie.’ ” The review ran in The American Conservative.
By this time, Buchanan had dropped off the grid of respectability. Running in 1996, he was compared to Huey Long and Mussolini, and the crowds at his events were likened to the goose-stepping mobs at Nuremberg rallies, presaging the epithets pinned on Trump’s legions of “deplorables.”
An exception, in 1992, was The Washington Post‘s Henry Allen, who traipsed through New Hampshire with Buchanan and found not simply race hatred but a warm nostalgia for an older time—the diner in Concord, for instance, that had a sign reading welcome back to the 50s along with 45 records and a cover torn from The Saturday Evening Post. Buchanan, Allen wrote, was “paying attention” to these voters. He talked to them, and they weighed what he had to say.
After Buchanan lost, as he almost always did, badly in most states, it all went away—the panic, the hilarity, the casual references to Nazism and fascism. He was sent back to the fringes, where he belonged, a harmless crank. At one point he joined a freemasonry of the outcast, dining once a month at a Hunan restaurant in Alexandria with Samuel Francis and Joseph Sobran, both columnists who’d been evicted from the respectable Right—Francis from The Washington Times for espousing white nationalism, Sobran from National Review for toe-in-the-water anti-Semitism, or “counter-Semitism,” as he called it. Both are now being resurrected as forerunners of the alt-right.
It took sixteen years to come true.
Buchanan’s last hurrah in electoral politics, his 2000 campaign on the Reform ticket, resulted in a ludicrous 450,000 votes in the general election, 2.4 million fewer than Ralph Nader got. But like the Confederate generals he reveres, he was defiant in retreat. “When the chickens come home to roost,” he predicted to The New York Times, “this whole coalition will be there for somebody. They’re going to think, ‘What ever happened to that guy back in 2000?’ There’s no doubt these issues can win.”
It took sixteen years to come true, the same interval that separated Barry Goldwater’s annihilation in 1964 from Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980. Even in the information age, movements need time. But Buchanan now has had the satisfaction of hearing his argument restated by a president, who has said, “I’m not representing the globe, I’m representing your country.”
In this delicious moment, Buchanan has found his sweet spot. For the first time since Nixon’s reelection, events have caught up with him. He asks Shelley to bring in a copy of The Financial Times. The headline says, trump puts protectionism at heart of u. s. economic policy. Buchanan chuckles. “A small victory.”
There are more these days. They arrive in the customized packages of news reports he awakens to each morning. He goes online to read Antiwar.com but is otherwise loyal to the print journalism whose influence he helped weaken. The five papers he reads daily include the Times and the Post, as well as the FT. “I wasn’t all that aware of Breitbart, to be honest,” he says. Also, “I don’t tweet.”
Revolutions scramble the present and cloud the future. But they throw new beams of clarity on the past. And the past is much on Buchanan’s mind, as his place in history grows larger and better defined. He’s been gathering up his voluminous papers. “Shelley holds on to all my correspondence. I’ve got boxes of them all over the place. Three years of papers on the Nixon comeback from January 1966 to January 1969 that no one else has copies of—and eight years of papers from the Nixon, Ford, and Reagan presidencies. Also clippings, papers, speeches, memos from my three presidential runs, and thirty-five years of columns, op-eds, speech notes.” He hasn’t chosen an archive yet. There’s still too much to do: proofs to correct for the new Nixon book, a promotional tour to complete.
All of a sudden, what Pat Buchanan thinks matters to just about everyone, NPR and Politico as well as Fox News. He has a good deal to say, but then he always did. The book that got him fired from MSNBC, Suicide of a Superpower, isn’t just a litany of provocations. It is a warning that the country is changing. “A rebellion is under way in America,” Buchanan wrote in 2011, “a radicalization of the working and middle class . . . a populist rage against a reigning establishment. But what explains the failure of the establishment to understand its countrymen?” Today, many others are asking this, too.
The final joke is that Buchanan knows as well as anyone that the good old times aren’t coming back. “I get my UN statistics, and the latest ones came in on these big wall charts,” he says. The writing, so to speak, is on the wall. Item: “Africa has 1.1 billion people. Will have 2 billion in 2050, and 4 billion in 2100.” Item: “There’s not a single country in Europe, save maybe Iceland, that will have a birthrate to enable its native born to survive and endure as the majority in those countries at the end of the century.” And America? “Texas, California, Hawaii, New Mexico,” he notes, are already majority nonwhite.
Just look at the seat of the Republic. “Trump got 4 percent of the vote in my hometown—4 percent! A Bolshevik would have done better than that when I was growing up!” Another burst of laughter. “I couldn’t believe it. California’s a state Richard Nixon won six times. The first time he went for the Senate, he set a state record. 1950. He won it six times, lost it for governor once. Reagan won it in four straight landslides.” Today, there is talk that California will secede from Trump’s America, from Buchanan’s. “Some of us,” he says, “are for it.”
And what of Trump’s early days in office?
“I’m very hopeful some of the things can be done, but I’m pessimistic about whether we can turn it around,” he says. For one thing, Trump’s reluctance to admit error is worrisome. “White Houses get in trouble when they don’t tell the truth about blunders and mistakes,” Buchanan wrote in an email. And while it’s paramount for presidents to stay on good terms with Congress—”a loyal majority is indispensable to get things done, and to cover your back”—Buchanan warned that Trump’s health-care bill would leave “millions of working-class folks who placed their trust in him out in the cold.” The silent majority knows what betrayal looks like, and if it happens again, Pat Buchanan will be there, ready to go one more round.
Read more at Esquire Magazine…