Pat Buchanan has a new book out on President Richard Nixon, and veteran political analyst Joe Klein uses it as an occasion to make grand, and ultimately myopic, claims about Buchanan’s own importance. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Klein argues that Buchanan is “one of the most consequential conservatives of the past half-century. Indeed, he’s a reactionary who was also an avatar: the first Trumpist.” This is an accurate assessment: Buchanan’s mixture of “America First” isolationism, Christian tribalism, white identity politics, and autarkic economics prefigured Trumpism.
Yet Klein botches his analysis of both Buchanan and President Donald Trump by whitewashing Buchanan’s bigotry, presenting it as a form of trolling designed to enrage liberals. Just as bohemian artists loved to épater la bourgeoisie, Buchanan loves, by Klein’s account, to épater les bien pensants. Klein’s review begins:
Patrick J. Buchanan is a merry troglodyte, a naughty provocateur. He still calls homosexuality “sodomy,” just to get the goat of a community he will only reluctantly call “gay.” He writes that he wanted to be named ambassador to South Africa by President Ford so he could support the apartheid government.
In the last paragraph, Klein returns to the idea of Buchanan as a naughty pundit who loves to provoke educated snobs:
It is easy to be horrified by Buchanan’s gleeful excesses, but that is the reaction he’s hoping to elicit. Humorless upper-crust liberalism is the fattest of targets. Beneath the vitriol, though, 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?
The thrust of Klein’s argument is clear. We should dismiss Buchanan’s incendiary comments on race and sexuality as mere prankishness, and concentrate on his more lofty thoughts about “the limits of identity politics,” judicial activism, and trade policy. Or to use the famous distinction applied to Trump himself, Klein wants us to take Buchanan seriously but not literally. Unfortunately, as with Trump, if you don’t take Buchanan literally, you are not taking him seriously. Buchanan’s racist, sexist, and homophobic comments aren’t just for cable news entertainment, but at the heart of his ideology.
As Buchanan has made clear in his voluminous writing, he’s a deeply committed authoritarian with strongly hierarchal and anti-democratic views. In his autobiography Right From the Beginning (1988), he says that as a child, the heroes of his household were the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, the anti-communist demagogue Joesph McCarthy, and General Douglas MacArthur. Buchanan’s father taught him that these were “men who were fighters, men who waged war relentlessly against the true enemy.” Buchanan has never really left this creed behind, which explains why he now prefers the Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin to a liberal leader like Barack Obama.
By Klein’s account, Buchanan’s racial politics were a reaction to the supposed liberal excesses of the late 1960s:
Buchanan saw school busing to achieve racial integration as a domestic Vietnam. It was social engineering imposed by a liberal judiciary upon white ethnic communities — the Irish, Italians, Poles — who had nothing to do with slavery. Once again, the rich kids weren’t drafted to ride the buses. Buchanan advised Nixon that the administration’s position should be: “outlawing all segregation, but not requiring racial balance.” This line extends to affirmative action, which he calls “racial injustice.” These are the opening battles of Buchanan’s culture war. His case is primal and compelling. These issues are not merely about tribal racial prejudices; they are about class.
This is simply untrue. Buchanan opposed the civil rights movement long before bussing became an issue. In Right from the Beginning, Buchanan describes how in the early 1960s he wrote editorials slamming the civil rights movement based on documents provided by the FBI. Buchanan also argues that the segregated Washington he grew up in, where blacks were disenfranchised, was a better and more humane city than what it later became.
In a 1971 memo to Richard Nixon, Buchanan argued against integration not on the terms Klein describes—that it unfairly punished poor whites—but because Buchanan believed that blacks and Hispanics were genetically inferior to whites. Buchanan urged Nixon to read an article in the Atlantic Monthly by Richard Herrnstein (later a co-author of The Bell Curve). Buchanan wrote in his memo:
Basically, [Herrnstein’s article] demonstrates that heredity, rather than environment, determines intelligence—and that the more we proceed to provide everyone with a ‘good environment,’ surely the more heredity will become the dominant factor—in their intelligence, and thus in their success and social standing. It is almost the iron law of intelligence that is being propounded here—based on heredity. The importance of this article is difficult to understate. If correct, then all our efforts and expenditures not only for ‘compensatory education’ but to provide an ‘equal chance at the starting line’ are guaranteeing that we wind up with the intelligent ones coming in first. And every study we have shows blacks 15 IQ points below whites on the average.
Buchanan’s views on LGBT rights are similarly abhorrent. In a 1977 column, Buchanan wrote, “Homosexuality, then, is not some civil right. In a healthy society, it will be contained, segregated, controlled, and stigmatized, carrying both a legal and social sanction.” He’s maintained this position to the present, and indeed his admiration for Putin stems no small part from Putin’s homophobic policies.
The list of Buchanan’s unsavory political beliefs is considerably longer. (We haven’t even touched on his arguments that Britain should have made a deal with Nazi Germany that would have allowed Hitler to keep his European conquests.) It’s more efficient to codify his worldview to its core: He’s an authoritarian who wants to bring back the oppressive, discriminatory social hierarchies of his youth.
For a variety of reasons, Klein shies away from stating this obvious fact about Buchanan. Perhaps it’s a matter of Beltway collegiality—Buchanan is a famously charming green-room companion. Klein’s article also speaks to the inability of many liberal centrists to take right-wing extremism seriously as a coherent ideological foe. But more broadly, confronting the painful truth about Buchanan also means facing harsh facts about Trump’s America. If the prophet of Trumpism is a Franco-loving bigot, what does it say about the country where Trump could become leader of the Republican Party and win the White House?