Icons of Radical Right-Wing Populism: Pat Buchanan, the Political Horse Whisperer

Pat Buchanan speaks while being interviewed by SiriusXM’s Tim Farley about his latest book, “The Greatest Comeback”. (Photo by Kris Connor/Getty Images for SiriusXM)

Much has been written about Steve Bannon’s influence on the worldview and policies of Donald Trump.  Much less about the man who David Brooks, columnist for the New York Times, a few years ago characterized as “the most influential public intellectual in America today”. The reference is to Pat Buchanan, the perennial thorn in the side of the GOP, which until recently he considered the “stupid party.” By now, Pat Buchanan has largely faded from public view; but his influence continues to prevail, most significantly in Donald Trump who, to a large extent, is the perfect incarnation of Buchananism.

Buchananism represents a comprehensive and internally cohesive radical right-wing populist doctrine that consists of three core elements: isolationism, protectionism and nativism. Its genealogy reaches far back into American revolutionary history, all the way back to the founding of the American republic. At the time, the young nation had a choice between two visions. One was Thomas Jefferson’s bucolic vision of a small-scale republic with independent producers centered upon the figure of the yeoman farmer; the other Alexander Hamilton’s vision of a republic capable of taking on Europe’s great powers on their own terms. As anyone familiar with nineteenth-century American history knows, Hamilton’s vision handily won. Yet it never managed to completely eradicate the Jeffersonian vision. It would pop up on occasion, particularly when the Hamiltonian course of action did not go well.

This was the case in the late 1880s, when an economic depression together with pressures by economic and financial monopolies left farmers in the South and Mid-West in despair, provoking a populist revolt.   The populist moment was lost with the defeat of William Jennings Bryan in the election of 1896. Yet once again, the populist impulse did not become entirely squelched. It continued to pop up throughout the twentieth century, most notably with the Presidential campaign of Ross Perot in 1992, the most successful third-party candidacy since Teddy Roosevelt’s “Bull Moose” candidacy in 1912.

Ross Perot had broad appeal. It was strongest, however, “with secular, blue-collar, often rural voters who were turned off by Bill Clinton’s perceived liberalism and George H.W. Bush’s elitism”. From this, the author of these lines written in 2013, Sean Trende, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, concluded that the best way for the GOP to regain the presidency in 2016 was to abandon “some of its more pro-corporate stances.” Instead, the GOP would have to be “more ‘America first’ on trade, immigration and foreign policy; less pro-Wall Street and big business in its rhetoric; more Main Street/populist on economics.”

This was pure Buchaninism in spirit. Pat Buchanan had always promoted himself as the “voice of the voiceless” and the champion of the forgotten working-class whites — victims of a politics that increasingly centered on identity politics and minority rights. Buchanan exposed his views most famously in his aggressive 1992 address to the Republican National Convention in Houston, which arguably cost the GOP the presidential election. At the time, Buchanan charged that the country was in the midst of an all-out “culture war” for the soul of America “as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.”  This was a “religious war” that pitted the GOP against a Democratic Party “that supported abortion, radical feminism and the ‘homosexual rights movement’.”

In his speech, Buchanan anticipated a number of the highly contentious issues at the center of the cultural battles that would dominate the public debate in the years to come. Thus he decried the “amoral idea that that gay and lesbian couples should have the same standing in law as married men and women” while endorsing voluntary school prayer and the GOP’s commitment to “right-to-life.”  Taken together, the speech amounted to a last-ditch effort to stem the tide of the inexorable advance of what Emory professor Gary Laderman, a decade later, would call “the process of dechristianization” – or the declining authority of Christianity – in American public life. Another decade later, polls impressively confirmed Laderman’s prediction: In a 2015 Pew survey roughly two thirds of respondents agreed with the statement that gays and lesbians “have a constitutional right to get married and have their marriage recognized by law”.

For Buchanan, 1992 marked a turning point. The GOP deemed his speech so incendiary and divisive, they banned him from their 1996 convention. In response, Buchanan bolted from the GOP, throwing in his lot with Perot’s Reform Party. Unlike Perot, however, Buchanan’s presidential campaigns failed to appeal to a large enough number of voters to make a difference. And yet. A loser at the polls, Pat Buchanan understood perhaps better than anyone in the GOP the tectonic changes that were underway in the American electorate.

Buchanan belongs to that rare breed on the American right who have been characterized as “paleoconservatives.” The moniker evokes images of dinosaurs about to go extinct. Against all expectations, they more than survived. Ironically, in the new century, paleoconservatism has become the new ‘sexy’ – at least on the right. This has a lot to do with the politics of nostalgia, which has been sweeping across advanced liberal democracies in recent years, evoking images of a bygone age of ethnic homogeneity, solidary community, and economic wellbeing. With the election of Donald Trump and his own form of white nationalist politics, these have become the mainstays of American politics.

More than thirty years ago, one of Buchanan’s paleoconservative fellow travelers, the late Samuel Francis – a conservative columnist who was dropped by The Washington Times for promoting white nationalism – predicted what was going to happen a few decades later. Sooner or later, he wrote, “as the globalist elites seek to drag the country into conflicts and global commitments, preside over the economic pastoralization of the United States, manage the delegitimization of our own culture, and the dispossession of our people, and disregard or diminish our national interests and national sovereignty, a nationalist reaction is almost inevitable and will probably assume populist form when it arrives”.

And it did. The election of Donald Trump in 2016 marked the apogee of a development that had been in the making for decades; the culmination of a wave of widespread popular resentment that started with the Bush (senior) administration and crested with eight years of Obama. Trump’s election marked the repudiation of the central pillars of traditional Republican creed – “military adventurism, immigration multiculturalism, and trade globalism” – each one associated with the GOP establishment and the Bush presidencies, each one anathema to Buchananism.

Buchanan’s isolationist position struck at the heart of the opponents on the right he most despised – the neoconservatives who never missed an opportunity for American military intervention. For Buchanan, this was a fatal error. In his view, America’s national interest “encompasses only the physical integrity and economic well-being of our nation. Ideological policies, based on a vision of how the world ‘should’ be are at best a distraction, at worst an invitation to disaster”. It is for this reason that Buchanan vehemently objected to American intervention against Saddam Hussein in Iraq and, a decade late, against American intervention in Syria. For Bush, America was first and foremost a republic and not an empire – a clear repudiation of the Hamiltonian vision.

Again, this is nothing new. American populists, even those on the radical right, have traditionally been viscerally opposed to meddling in foreign affairs. Take, for instance, Tom Watson, the staunch Jeffersonian from Georgia and arguably one of the most important populists in American history.  Watson was not only opposed to the 1898 Spanish-American War, but also to American involvement in World War I. In fact, Watson’s anti-draft crusade of 1917 proved so effective, at least in the South, that it provoked the Wilson administration to repress his publications as well as his followers.

Isolationism certainly was part of Buchanan’s appeal, but nothing compared to his verbal assault on the establishment’s promotion of free trade. Buchanan vehemently objected the embrace of neoliberalism – particularly with respect to international free trade – by the Republican establishment. Instead, he promoted an ‘America First’ policy, which, he argued, had guided American foreign policy for most of its history. As Buchanan put it in 2008, protectionism “is the structuring of trade policy to protect the national sovereignty, ensure economic self-reliance and ‘prosper America first’.” It was the policy of the Republican Party from Abraham Lincoln to Calvin Coolidge. America began that era in 1860 with one-half of Britain’s production and ended it producing more than all of Europe put together. Is this a record to be ashamed of?”

Buchanan’s answer was obvious, as was his proposed solution: raise tariffs – the “taxes that made America great”. Buchanan’s rationale:  “Great nations,” he wrote in 2008, “do not have trade partners. They have trade competitors and rivals. Trade surpluses are superior to trade deficits. Tariffs on foreign goods are preferable to taxes on U.S. producers. Manufacturing, not finance, is the muscle of the nation.” As a great nation, Buchanan supposed, the U.S. should impose tariffs on its European competitors, but particularly on China, its most threatening rival. Threatening particularly because “the 20th century’s greatest creditor nation” had come to rely, if not outright depend on China’s huge reserves “to pay for booster shots for its sick economy”. Way before the trade wars under Trump, Buchanan charged that China had achieved its position by taking advantage of the goodwill and naivité of the United States. According the Buchanan, the accumulation of China’s massive reserves was the result of blatant cheating – by “devaluing its currency 45 percent in 1994, slashing the prices of exports in half and making imports twice as expensive. As America threw open her market and invited China to come in and capture it, China had erected a Great Wall around her own”. And successive American administration stood by watching impassively as America’s industry was being hollowed out.

Hardly surprising, Buchanan vehemently opposed the NAFTA treaty, but not necessarily for the reasons one might suppose (what Ross Perot would famously call the “giant sucking sound”). For Buchanan, NAFTA “was about more than trade. NAFTA is the chosen field upon which the defiant forces of a new patriotism have elected to fight America’s foreign policy elite for control of the national destiny”. In the end, NAFTA won – and increasingly came to symbolize the hollowing out of American industries forced to shut down because of competition, outsourcing and delocalization to lower-wage countries. Those left paying the cost for this global economic transition were American blue-collar workers, betrayed by “transnational elites” who could care less about their lot. In a rhetoric reminiscent of the famous preamble of the Populist platform of 1892, Buchanan charged in his 1998 book The Great Betrayal that free trade was turning America into two nations – “an elite of professionals ‘prospering beyond their dreams,’ and a mass of workers suffering ‘middle-class anxiety, downsized hopes, and vanished dreams’.” Two decades later, the latter would massively vote for Donald Trump.

What attracted lower-class voters to Donald Trump was to a large extent his unabashed adoption of nativism. Once again, nativism has a long history in the United States, going all the way back before the American Revolution  With the anti-Catholic ‘Know Nothings’ in the 1840s, nativism became closely entangled with populism, even if the populists of the 1890s went to great lengths to disassociate themselves from nativist sentiments. Ironically enough, American nineteenth-century nativism was primarily targeting Catholic immigrants, particularly if they happened to come from Ireland, fleeing poverty if not starvation. Irish immigrant were not only despised because they were Catholics (and as such, as Samuel Morse would put it , instruments of a “foreign conspiracy against the liberties of the United States”) but also because they were considered, by white Protestant Americans, as racially inferior – with cartoons depicting Irish immigrants as apes.

Despite his (and Steve Bannon’s) Irish Catholic heritage, Pat Buchanan has been America’s most notorious nativist – at least among the few on the far right who are actually being taken seriously. He has always believed that American should come first – the slogan with which he campaigned as early as 1992. Putting America first meant above all to preserve America’s Judeo-Christian values and the country’s “Western heritage” so it could “be handed down to future generations and not dumped into some landfill called multiculturalism”. Some fifteen years later, Buchanan provided a book-length nativist manifesto with the suggestive title, State of Emergency: The Third World Invasion and Conquest of America. It was both a challenge to the supporters of unbridled immigration and a reaffirmation of a central ethno-nationalist creed, namely that what constitutes a nation is loyalty to a “kinfolk” based on “shared ties of blood, soil, and memory”. Maurice Barrès, the famous nineteenth-century French author of la terre et les morts who exercised an enormous influence on the course of European radical right-wing populism, could not have put it any more succinctly.

Once again, Buchanan had his fingers on the pulse of the time when he evoked the specter of Islam.  Charging Muslim migrants in Europe with adhering “to a faith historically hostile to Christianity”, he warned of a “threatened war of civilizations” at the very “heart of post-Christian Europe” that would pit a Muslim “5th column” against an increasingly “secularized, sex-saturated European culture”. As far as the United States was concerned, the most pressing issue was not Islam but unrestricted immigration reflected primarily in what he characterized as “an invasion from the south.”  If elected, Buchanan vowed he would not only severely restrict immigration, but “defend America’s borders, if necessary with American troops”.

By now, Pat Buchanan has retired from a public life dedicated to ‘making America the greatest country in the world’. Buchanan might have retired, but his influence is stronger than ever – on an American president who lacks even the minimum it takes to fill that position and on a Republican Party which has finally become the very same “stupid party”, Pat Buchanan once despised. As seen from the above analysis, Buchanan’s form of nativism furrowed a rich seam of historical anti-catholic and anti-immigration sentiment in the US. By equivocating and endorsing that there are ‘good guys on both sides’, the 45th president has only emboldened nativist voices. Recent denunciations of racism and xenophobia by the president therefore ring hollow – especially given his reticence to endorse greater gun regulation after recent radical right shootings. One can only posit that this reticence is not a price worth paying in order to ‘keep America great’.

Professor Hans-Georg Betz is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Adjunct Professor of Political Science, University of Zurich. See his profile here.

© Hans-Gerog Betz. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).