In a surprisingly thoughtful and sympathetic review for the New York Times, columnist Joe Klein argues that the triumph of Donald Trump is really the triumph of Pat Buchanan’s fifty-year career in journalism, punditry, and scholarship.
This observation isn’t strikingly original–it was pretty clear to anyone with a passing familiarity of Buchanan’s work–but it’s refreshing to see it from someone outside of the conservative movement or populist-nationalist Right.
I’ve long found Buchanan’s ideas–and his place in the conservative movement–fascinating, even though they were not doctrinaire, Reaganite Republicanism, and definitely not the neo-conservatism prevalent during my political coming-of-age during the George W. Bush years. Buchanan’s isolationist and protectionist views are at odds with the modern mainstream Republican Party, which espouses internationalism and trade liberalization, but that’s why Buchanan is so valuable; he offers a voice that needs to be heard and taken seriously.
Along with former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, Buchanan did more to add intellectual heft to Trumpism than any other public conservative figure. But where Gingrich’s writings about Trump’s campaign helped explain the candidate’s positions indigestible, understandable ways, Buchanan’s entire career helped create the ideas that made Trump successful. They just needed the right conditions and the right messenger.
Klein sums up Buchanan’s legacy in his review of Nixon’s White House Wars: The Battles That Made and Broke a President and Divided America Forever:
“…Buchanan has spent his career raising important questions that our
society has never seemed willing to discuss forthrightly. What should be
the limits of identity politics? In a democracy, should courts or
legislatures decide basic policies like abortion, busing and campaign
finance? Should we trade the higher prices that will come from
protectionism for the increased stability that might come from keeping
more blue-collar jobs at home?”
I have long believed the orthodoxy on trade liberalization, and still believe that free(r) trade between honest partners can be mutually beneficial. That said, Buchanan’s work has prompted much soul-searching of my basic economic assumptions. Is social stability really worth saving a few bucks on a toaster? Could tariffs provide an alternative to the onerous, invasive income tax? I don’t know, but these questions are worthy of much more thought and discussion than the current bipartisan consensus suggests.
A brief coda: if you want to experience a depressing sensation of “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” pick up a used copy of Buchanan’s Conservative Votes, Liberal Victories: Why the Right Has Failed. Published in the 1970s, it rather depressingly demonstrates how President Richard Nixon and other Republicans abdicated their sweeping mandate for reform, instead, throwing sops to the Establishment (and progressive) media and Washington institutions–which persisted in hating Nixon. Let’s hope that President Trump–who faced the same vitriol from the press and political establishment, and who ran the 1972 Nixon playbook practically verbatim–doesn’t fall into the same trap.