Pitchfork Politics

Pitchfork Politics


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From The Economist
A pioneer of Trump-style populism wonders if it can succeed in today’s America

BEFORE Donald Trump, there was Patrick Buchanan. More than two decades before Mr Trump kicked over the Republican tea table, Mr Buchanan, a former speechwriter and White House aide to Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, launched his own revolt against Republican grandees. He made bids for the Republican presidential nomination in 1992 and 1996, the first of which challenged a sitting president, George H.W. Bush. Like his billionaire successor, Mr Buchanan ran against free trade and called for restrictions on immigration. As early as 1991 he called for a fence on the border with Mexico (talk of a “great, great” wall would have to wait for Mr Trump).

On foreign policy, the end of the cold war turned him into a non-interventionist. Mr Buchanan—who in 1972 accompanied Nixon on his trip to Maoist China—now concluded that America should shun foreign entanglements and defend only vital national interests. In January 1991 Mr Buchanan found himself speaking in New Hampshire during the American-led operation to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait, which he opposed. Stepping from the podium, he was given a message: America had just started bombing Baghdad. There goes my non-interventionist line, he recalls telling the watching governor of New Hampshire, Judd Gregg: it is “all over once the bombs begin to drop”. Mr Bush’s approval ratings rose to 90%. Yet by the time of the 1992 election the president was not saved by victory in the Gulf.

Timing matters—a political lesson that Mr Buchanan learned early. He was one of the first aides to describe a new voter coalition that Nixon might assemble. This would unite business bosses with doctrinaire conservatives, southern whites, socially conservative Roman Catholics and middle Americans who liked such government safety nets as pensions for the old, but despised Democrats for seeming to condone social unrest—whether race riots, campus radicals or flag-burning protesters opposed to the war in Vietnam. In a memo of 1968 Mr Buchanan spoke of a “silent majority” to be won. Nixon made the phrase his own.

Today Mr Trump calls his own supporters a “silent majority”, though his borrowing comes with a twist. In the late 1960s Nixon asked the “great silent majority” for their support. In 2015 the businessman assumes he has already sealed the deal. Printed signs handed out at his rallies declare: “The silent majority stands with Trump”. Asked about the slogan’s Nixonian overtones by the Washington Post, Mr Trump denied the connection, scoffing: “Nah. Nobody remembers that.”

Speaking in his home in northern Virginia, Mr Buchanan does not grumble about Mr Trump’s swiping of his phrase. He is too interested in a new question of political timing. As a candidate, he was less successful than as an adviser. His high point was his win in the 1996 New Hampshire primary, after a populist surge that saw him declare: “The peasants are coming with pitchforks.” A full-size silver pitchfork (a gift from campaign aides) hangs in his wood-panelled study, alongside a souvenir mug that asks: “What would Nixon Do?”

Back in the 1990s moderate Republicans agreed that Candidate Buchanan was doomed by his ferocious opposition to abortion, homosexuality and feminism: in 1992 he told his party’s national convention that America faced a “cultural war”. He also caused alarm with intemperate talk about Israel’s clout in Washington. Today, though, he argues that his timing was off when it came to three big issues: immigration, globalisation and non-interventionism. “Those issues are mature now,” says Mr Buchanan, rattling off statistics on undocumented immigrants in America (their numbers have more than tripled since 1991) and factory closures since such pacts as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed. At 77, Mr Buchanan writes newspaper columns and is a frequent public speaker. He reports that people “constantly” voice the same complaint to him: “This isn’t the country I grew up in.” He lists reasons why he thinks they are right: immigrants have reached even small communities, factory jobs have vanished and interventionist wars launched by George W. Bush left Americans “with ashes in our mouths”.

Mr Buchanan was called a fringe candidate, a protectionist and an isolationist in the style of the America First Committee, which argued against declaring war on Nazi Germany. Now today’s frontrunner, Mr Trump, echoes his scorn for free-trade pacts and nation-building overseas, and praises Vladimir Putin (Mr Buchanan has long admired the Russian president’s ethno-nationalism). Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, Mr Trump’s big rival on the hard right, recently said: “I believe in an “America first” foreign policy.”

The silent majority, outnumbered

Yet Mr Buchanan cannot conceal a thought that grieves him. Evidence to support his beliefs is, to him, now irrefutable. But if he was early in the 1990s, demographic and cultural shifts now make it too late to rally the conservative majorities that elected Nixon or Reagan. If given $100 to bet on the Republican nomination, Mr Buchanan would put at least $40 on Mr Trump and at least $30 on Mr Cruz, whom he compares to an earlier “down-the-line” conservative, Barry Goldwater (who lost the 1964 presidential election by a landslide). If he were Mr Trump, he would attack Hillary Clinton over free trade in rustbelt states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan that are key to winning the White House. He would tell voters that “she and her husband” backed NAFTA and deals that “sent your jobs overseas”. No other Republican has Mr Trump’s potential to win some blue-collar Democrats, he says: “It is hard to see how Cruz, for example, takes Ohio.” For all that, he thinks the odds probably favour Mrs Clinton to win the election. Either way he sees a country “at war with itself ideologically and politically, culturally”, triggering a measure of foreign policy “paralysis”. If even half-right, it is a bleak prediction: America first nationalism, in a divided America.

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