The Republican Party was torn asunder by a populist media personality running a nationalist campaign based on immigration restriction, protectionism, and an anti-internationalist foreign policy. Initially dismissed as a bigoted crank, this upstart presidential candidate managed to humiliate the GOP establishment, led by the Bush family.
This is not just a description of the 2016 elections. It also happened in 1992.
Unlike Donald Trump, Pat Buchanan didn’t win the nomination, but his protest candidacy garnered more than two million votes and intensified fractures in the party that led to defeat in the general election. Buchanan’s candidacy provides a crucial context for understanding not just the roots of Trumpism, but also it’s likely future—even, or especially, if Trump loses to Hillary Clinton in November.
One of the biggest mistakes pundits make about Trump is to treat him as a historical fluke: an outlier who, thanks to a large primary field and his own celebrity, managed to take over one of America’s two main political parties. This fatal error caused everyone from FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver to rival candidates to underestimate Trump when he entered the race last year. They believed his meteoric poll numbers would return to Earth, following the same trajectory as Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich in 2012.
Trump decisively won the nomination, yet many still treat him as an interloper who doesn’t represent, or have much in common with, the Grand Old Party—a sort of political Phoenix, the mythical bird that was self-generated with no parentage. Others, like columnist George Will, even flirted with the fantasy that Trump was some sort of deliberate subversive. “If Donald Trump were a Democratic mole placed in the Republican Party to disrupt things, how would his behavior be different?” he asked in July, and answered his own question: “I don’t think it would be.”
But Trump is neither a magical bird nor a false-flag candidate. He has a definite lineage within the Republican Party—and if Trump had ancestors, he’ll also have descendants.
To predict the future of Trumpism, it helps to understand why Buchanan and his peculiar brand of right-wing nationalist conservatism (called paleoconservatism) emerged in the late 1980s. American conservatism started splintering at the moment of its greatest political success, after the landslide election of Ronald Reagan in 1984, when all but one state went Republican.
Dissatisfaction with Reagan’s triumph emerged by a peculiar combination of success abroad and stalemate at home. By the late 1980s, it was becoming increasingly clear that the Cold War was drawing to a close as Mikhail Gorbachev’s reform policies deprived America of the foe of five decades. But while anti-communism succeeded beyond expectations, social conservatives like Buchanan couldn’t help but notice that on other fronts, America continued to be liberal: Democrats still controlled Congress and won the Senate in 1986, feminism and gay rights continued to advance, Martin Luther King’s birthday was made a national holiday, and mass immigration—both legal and undocumented—continued to dilute the demographic dominance of the white majority.
As the Wall Street Journal noted in a 1989 editorial, “anti-Communism has been the glue that held the conservative movement together.” Without the unifying threat of a supposedly global enemy, the right began to splinter. The division was first evident in the battle between the neoconservatives and paleoconservatives. The neoconservatives, many of them former Cold War liberals and as a group skewing Jewish, were internationalists: Even with the USSR on its deathbed, they wanted America to pursue global hegemony and push an agenda of democratization abroad. This internationalism went along with support for free trade and generous immigration policies. Although small in number, the neocons enjoyed ideological dominance thanks to their outsized role in publications like the Journal and think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation.
The paleoconservatives emerged in reaction to the neocon ascendency. Found in small magazines like Chronicles, Southern Partisan, and The Rockwell-Rothbard Report, the paleocons were a motley group made up of anti-war libertarians (Murray Rothbard, Lew Rockwell), Catholic reactionaries (Buchanan, Joseph Sobran) and southern nostalgists for white supremacy (Samuel T. Francis, Thomas Fleming). What united this sundry group was the belief that the “globalism” of the neocons had to be opposed by a new nationalism based on immigration restriction, trade protectionism, and a foreign policy that included withdrawing from many international alliances and agreements. Paleocons also believed that neocons were too deferential to liberal sensitivity on issues related to race, and were restricted by what Buchanan called “the limits of permissible dissent.” Or as Trump would put it, “We have to stop being so politically correct in this country.”
Pat Buchanan was Trump avant la lettre, a proto-Trump who developed in rudimentary form the political themes that would lead the real estate magnate to victory in 2016. In a 1992 speech to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council, Buchanan described undocumented immigration as an existential threat because “a nation that controls its own borders can scarcely call itself a nation any longer.” Twenty-four years later, Trump was warning that unless the immigration system was fixed, “We are not going to have a country anymore.” In his 1993 book Beautiful Losers, Samuel T. Francis, one of Buchanan’s key intellectual advisors, advocated a foreign policy stance that prefigures Trumpism: “Economic nationalism and the struggle to preserve national sovereignty and cultural identity are likely to be more important issues for Middle American nationalists than fighting communists, anti-American plug-uglies from the Third World, and international terrorists.” Buchanan even revived the old isolationist slogan “America First,” as Trump has done in 2016.
There were race and class dimensions to paleoconservatism as well. The paleos thought the future of the right wasn’t in the upscale suburbs. Nor did they think, as many establishment Republicans did, that the party needed to recruit more people of color. Rather, the palecons, especially Francis, argued that working class whites were an untapped electoral resource—one whose anger at decades of economic stagnation could be exploited by a political movement that argued that they were the forgotten Middle Americans, squeezed by the rich elite and the poor. In the words of National Review editor John T. Sullivan in 1991, the paleocons were pushing for a “newer and less conservative stress on recruiting the discontented and alienated in American society against institutions which are now seen as irredeemably corrupt.”
In retrospect, the terms of this battle, which raged through these publications into the early ’90s, foreshadowed the debate between the #NeverTrump faction and the alt-right in 2016: Neocons accused the paleos of being anti-Semites and cranks, while the paleos responded by saying the neos were establishment shills offering a politics indistinguishable from liberalism. (Interestingly, the very term alt-right emerged from the writings of leading paleo-con Paul Gottfried.)
The neocons won, thanks to their institutional advantage: a stranglehold on the large donors, think tanks, and major conservative media outlets. But the paleocon impulse never fully died, and could be seen flickering in the twenty-first century in the candidacy of Ron Paul (who was much shaped by paleocon fellow travelers Rothbard and Rockwell) and the Tea Party movement. As a much bigger celebrity than Buchanan or Paul, Trump was able to do an end run around such gatekeepers.
Trump has proven that paleoconservatism has a much bigger market than anyone would’ve predicted after Buchanan’s three failed presidential runs. Trump’s version of paleoconservatism, of course, is not identical to Buchanan’s. Trump is a far more secular figure, and while he accepts the GOP’s opposition to marriage equality, he shies away from overt homophobia (whereas Buchanan has described gays as “sodomites” who are “literally hell-bent on Satanism and suicide”). But Trump has similarly managed to intuit and exploit deep divisions among Republicans between an internationalist establishment and a deeply nationalist base. The fact that this structural divide still exists in the party, more than two decades since Buchanan’s 1992 campaign, makes clear that Trumpism is not a transitory phenomenon. Just as Trump picked up the core of Buchanan’s politics and put his own spin on it, a future Republican likely will do the same with Trump’s.