Patrick J. Buchanan stood beside a window in Chicago’s Conrad Hilton hotel during the 1968 Democratic convention and looked over the panorama of dissent raging below. At about two in the morning, the phone rang—it was Nixon. “Buchanan, what is happening there?”
“I said, ‘Listen’,” Buchanan recalls, then pantomimes how he stuck the phone out the hotel window. “All you could hear was ‘F-you Daley! F-you Daley!’”
“That’s what’s going on,” he told Nixon, and hung up. He smiled taking it in.
Later the police, tired of the verbal abuse being hurled at them, charged into the park and at the protestors, looking for a brawl. “The cops shouldn’t have done it,” says Buchanan, remembering the savage way they beat the demonstrators. “But the country saw the pictures of cops racing into the park. And the country was with the cops.”
The continental plates of America’s politics were grinding into new positions beneath Buchanan’s feet. That shift tilted ethnic whites and eventually Southern evangelicals into the Republican coalition, awarding the party five of the next six presidential elections, including two 49-state victories. In a phrase crafted by Buchanan, Nixon called it “the great silent majority.” Buchanan prefers to call it the New Majority.
In the generalizations of political history, Buchanan—as a wordsmith and veteran of two Republican White Houses—is lumped with the broad postwar conservative movement. Since the Cold War ended and that movement degenerated into a set of interlocking cliques, he has been identified more finely as a “paleoconservative.” The man who wrote incendiary editorials on Goldwater’s behalf for the St. Louis Globe Democrat, who attends Latin Mass regularly, and who injected the term “culture war” into the heart of political discourse is certainly a conservative. But that label is incomplete.
In media, he is the pioneer pundit. Sean Hannity and scores of others from all political backgrounds learned the trade from him. His three-hour radio show with Tom Braden evolved into a television program and later spawned “Crossfire” and “The McLaughlin Group.” But few other columnists or talking heads match his depth. If a cable news program is on in the background and you hear the words “Agincourt” or “the snows of Canossa,” it is Buchanan, inevitably, speaking them.
But he is not just a media figure, either. In that time of tumult before the 1968 election, National Review publisher Bill Rusher asked Pat, “Are you Nixon’s ambassador to the conservatives, or are you our ambassador to Nixon?” He replied, “I’m Nixon’s.” As a journalist, political operative, candidate, and thinker, Buchanan is above all a man of Nixon’s New Majority—something much broader and larger than the conservative movement has ever been.
He never captained that majority as a politician himself, though he aspired to in his campaigns for the presidency. But along the way Buchanan built a surprisingly durable estate as a journalist and author, defending the New Majority’s interests and cajoling Republicans to reconnect with them. On the one hand, his columns have the same energy and fire as once characterized reactionary luminaries like Westbrook Pegler at their anti-FDR finest—all joyous tub-thumping on behalf of Middle America, giving the impression of the merry warrior. In those columns, liberals are sparring partners, foils, and fools.
On the other hand, there is an elegiac quality to many of Buchanan’s books, which now fill an entire shelf. Although the books may be pegged to the political battles of the time they were published, when Buchanan writes between hard covers the spirit of German philosopher Oswald Spengler and American anti-communist James Burnham is in the work: Western civilization is exhausted, suicidal, and dying. Liberalism, now in the forms of multiculturalism, mass immigration, deindustrialization, and the sexual revolution, is the philosophy that justifies and celebrates the end of Western civilization.
If ever that seems overwrought, consider that the American culture he knew had been utterly erased. When explaining it himself, Buchanan points to the year his father was born, 1905. “Then the Western powers, the United States, and Japan ruled the whole world. Now all the empires are gone. The great armies and navies are gone. The countries have been reduced to their basic size, their birthrates beneath what is necessary to reproduce themselves, and they are subject to invasions of various kinds from the subjects of their former empires,” he says.
For Buchanan, the cultural changes are just as dramatic and unsettling. In his biography Right From The Beginning he recalls times in the 1960s when one of his brothers dumped stacks of Playboy he was supposed to deliver around Washington, D.C. into the dumpster. Another set a rack of girlie magazines on fire in a local store. This was commended by the their family and community as “Catholic action” in society. Half a century later, porn star Jenna Jameson is widely hailed as an entrepreneur and enthusiastically endorses the Republican candidate for president.
It wasn’t always clear to Buchanan that he would become a writer. He didn’t want to be an accountant like his father, nor enter the priesthood. But his father had versed him in what Buchanan calls all the “old conservative issues,” such as how America got into the Spanish-American War and World War I. On Saturdays at his father’s accounting office, the young Pat Buchanan read the anticommunist wordsmiths of his day, Westbrook Pegler and George Sokolsky. Both held flaming pens, revolted against the New Deal, supported Joe McCarthy, and wanted Robert A. Taft over Dwight Eisenhower as leader and symbol of the Republican Party. Although Pegler would later go to such extremes that even the John Birch Society threw him out, he was once so prominent that he was considered along with F.D.R. and Stalin for Time’s Man of the Year in 1942. These were conservatives before the conservative movement.
Their influence is still seen in the way Buchanan writes a column. Unlike the clever interludes of David Brooks or the verbal curlicues of Peggy Noonan that feel like being wrapped in a down blanket, a Buchanan column is like being doused with gasoline and threatened with a lit match. “I don’t know that it is a style,” he says on reflection, “I write and I cut, tightening and tightening and tightening it until it is pure dynamite, and then I send it out.” The “New Journalism” of the 1960s was almost insensible to him: “They were all into the perpendicular pronoun, ‘I’ and ‘me’. I don’t get into that,” he says.
Out of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, Buchanan had a few offers. He took one from the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, hoping to be seen by the Chicago Tribune and other major newspapers. Very quickly he ended up as an editorial writer for the conservative paper, and Buchanan’s short-fuse, big-bang editorials were recirculated by Human Events and the Manchester Union Leader. He wrote against unions and for Barry Goldwater—but also in favor of reforming Missouri’s penitentiary system. He edited columns by new conservatives like William F. Buckley Jr., whom he admired but from a distance.
After a few years, he wanted to get closer to the action—to be in politics. Running for office made no sense, as he was a Washington, D.C. native. So he looked at how well Jack Kennedy’s aides were doing, especially Ted Sorenson, whom Kennedy had called his “blood bank intellectual.”
“You’d see these pictures of this guy leaning over behind the president,” Buchanan says. “If I can’t be the president I could be the guy leaning over there.”
The man Buchanan cared to lean over was Richard Nixon, whom Buchanan successfully impressed at a party, mentioning that he wanted to be a part of whatever Nixon did in 1968. Nixon hired him to help with correspondence and other writing, but mainly they shared ideas and analysis, with Buchanan summarizing and interpreting the news and the mood of the country or working as an advance man.
What was happening in the country was obvious to them. The New Deal coalition that had been so powerful was cracking up. Ethnic whites and Southern evangelicals balked at the Great Society of Johnson and were disturbed by the social transformations around them. While many in the elite were sympathetic to student protestors, that Silent Majority feared and detested them. “Like FDR did with the malefactors of great wealth and the Wall Street crowd, you say that these people have declared themselves hostile to us. And by 1968 they were carrying flags and chanting ‘Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh’,” Buchanan recalls. Beating the left was easy then.
After the Nixon White House melted in scandal, Buchanan became the chief theorist of Nixon’s coalition, in his books Conservative Votes, Liberal Victories and The New Majority, which talked up the possibilities of realignment. To Buchanan, Republicans could become the party of Middle America, capture the bulk of the New Deal coalition, and leave Democrats with the detritus of Woodstock. “We were squares,” says Buchanan, “and happy.”
The thesis of Conservative Votes struck a chord that rings true to Buchanan even today. “We get our folks out and organized, we tell them what is going to be done, and they vote and go home,” he says. “But the forces in the city, and the forces in [Capitol] Hill, they don’t change and they work every day at maintaining what they want in terms of policy, so it becomes impossible to prevail.” Conservative votes could grant electoral victories, but the institutions of academia, the media, and the think-tank world were against them.
Buchanan never signed up to be in the conservative klatsch. The movement frankly bored him even as he was trying to bring it into the Nixon fold. “I was never in that,” he says now, recalling all the little organizations like Young Americans for Freedom or the Liberty Society. “In the conservative movement there is all this talking and meeting. I viewed a lot of it as just a waste of time. I learn more when I’m reading.”
He liked many of National Review’s writers, to be sure. But when Garry Wills asked him if they had any influence, he could recall none. “I was going to say Burnham, but when I read Suicide of the West I already agreed with it,” Buchanan says before quoting Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, “The heart has reasons that reason does not understand.” Years later he would tell the 1992 Republican convention that the party needed to reconnect with people who don’t read Adam Smith or Edmund Burke, but who remain “conservatives of the heart.” He could have been referring to a less tutored version of himself.
Unlike nearly every other self-consciously conservative writer in his time, Buchanan was unimpressed with political doctrine by itself. Ideological catechisms were only useful in defending the things you already knew you loved. This might explain how easily he threw away right-wing dogmas if he felt they at all threatened his country or the interests of the New Majority. In the course of his interview with TAC, Buchanan reminded me of the things he used to think: “Of course I admired Churchill,” “I was a militant Zionist,” “I was a free-trader.”
After the Nixon years, Buchanan needed to make a living and so he returned to column writing, eventually getting picked up by the New York Daily News. By the early ’80s he was doing three hours of radio an afternoon with Braden, followed by a television show. Then came “Crossfire” and “The McLaughlin Group.” And eventually, in 1985, a return trip to the White House as Reagan’s communications director, overseeing the speechwriters and writing a few speeches himself.
As he left the Reagan White House, Buchanan released his biography Right From the Beginning, which presented the story of Northwest D.C., Blessed Sacrament parish, and Gonzaga high school in the 1940s and ’50s as something just outside of Eden. Unlike so many others, Buchanan was not a convert to his faith or a political cause. In the book his family, schools, parish, and neighborhood are the crucible that form his character, tough but well loved. They gave him an education of the heart and the head.
But at the end of the biography, Buchanan suddenly opens onto the rest of the world with a chapter, “Democracy Is Not Enough,” which insists that the form of government matters not if America loses the ethos and culture in which he grew up. He proposes ten amendments for a new constitutional convention, beginning with placing the unborn under the protection of the law and preserving the right of states to impose the death penalty; he goes on to include a federal balanced budget requirement. These were “populist amendments,” Buchanan wrote, “designed to broaden the scope of human rights and restore the power of the people to shape their own society and destiny. They would diminish the power of unelected judges and enhance that of elected officials.” He reiterates that a constitutional convention would “reveal which of the two parties is populist, and which elitist.” For Buchanan, it was time to unleash the New Majority once more.
But his 1992 run for president and subsequent campaigns in 1996 and 2000 showed that if the New Majority still exists, Buchanan was not the one to lead it—although there were flashes of the prophetic author to come. In his speech to the Republican convention in Houston, Buchanan defined the culture war: for him, the culture was something more than the social issues, such as abortion, that would be talked up in a more pious way by Pat Robertson and Marilyn Quayle—culture was rather a nexus of society, authority, and institutions. His concluding image of cultural victory was the same that he’d seen motivate the New Majority in ’68—in this case, a scene of cops defending a convalescent home from rioters in Los Angeles. In those flames, the National Guard deployed—“force, rooted in justice, backed by courage”—and took the city back block by block.
In recent years another GOP troublemaker, Ron Paul, has used his bids for the party’s presidential nomination to develop institutions to carry on his ideas and even to elect a small cadre of young members of Congress. Buchanan did not do anything quite like that after the 1992 campaign. He maintained a very small organization, but it was merely the ’96 campaign in waiting. “I went up one time [to Capitol Hill] and talked to a congressman for forty minutes about trade and what it is doing to this country. He told me ‘Pat you make a convincing case. But leadership tells me we have to vote for this.’” Buchanan recalls. “I thought, ‘I’m not wasting my time with this.’”
“Did we make an effort? I have to say no. Maybe that is a failing. It is a failing of not being an officeholder. I’m not a politician really.” Some called for Buchanan to run for the Senate in Virginia, but he had no taste for the Hill. “I don’t know if I would have even lasted. There is an intellectual sterility to all this. You go to meetings and there is all this talking and babbling. It’s not in me.”
Buchanan had sensed that after the Cold War there would inevitably be a fight over foreign policy and to define the right. “It was an epochal event in history, and it seemed like it called for a little fresh thought,” he says, laughing. But after 20 years of that debate there is almost a sense of exasperation when he talks about America’s dependents in Europe and Asia—“It’s been two thirds of a century fellas, get over it”—or when Republican candidates rattle the drums about Russia: “The country has lost a third of its size, and will lose another 25 million more people, and the Far East. They are in a difficult position but they are not a threat to the United States. C’mon.”
But if the debate is to be joined, Buchanan will join it. He wrote a massive volume on the history of U.S. trade and foreign policy that would eventually be split into two different books. The first, The Great Betrayal, remains one of Buchanan’s favorites. The subtitle says everything about the ideological heresy Buchanan was committing to paper: “How American Sovereignty and Social Justice Are Being Sacrificed to the Gods of the Global Economy.”
In a sympathetic review, Peter Brimelow warned, “It is hard to read this book without wincing in anticipation of the carnage” that free traders would inflict on it. And libertarians did tear into it. Cato’s Brink Lindsay thought the book was smart politics but “shameful demagoguery.” To Lindsay, Buchanan was trying to argue at the same time that protectionism was historically consistent with American prosperity—that it was economically efficient—while at the same time arguing that we are not homo economicus, that the efficiency of the global market was a threat to the American way of life. These arguments were largely lost on the public because the book was announced right as the Lewinsky scandal erupted. Buchanan was put before reporters as the author of a new book on trade, but was asked questions about a blue dress.
Because the policy establishment in Washington is so set on free trade, Buchanan’s book remains one of the few popular historical works about trade policy published in the last half century. And Buchanan really did land crushing blows in his book. When politicians say that it doesn’t matter whether America makes potato chips or computer chips, Buchanan helpfully reminds us that potato chips don’t power smart missiles. Tariffs are not some profanation of the economic gods, as the hysterical reaction of the ideologues suggests, they are a tax policy with economic consequences similar to those of other taxes, like those on income or investment. Policies have beneficiaries, and Buchanan saw that America’s elite seemed to benefit from free trade and mass immigration while the core of the New Majority did not. “Sure you get cheap goods down at Wal-Mart,” Buchanan says now, “but they used to tell me that tennis shoes were cheap. They’re not so cheap anymore.”
The second half of his historical opus, A Republic, Not An Empire, toured the history of America’s expansion to continental proportions but warned against remaining an aggressive power beyond those borders. An obsession with saving the Third World, an attachment to outdated Cold War alliances, and an addiction to conflict were for Buchanan the signs of decay and inner weakness at America’s core.
The reaction to the book neatly foreshadowed the foreign-policy debates that would come after 9/11 and ahead of the second Iraq War. On one side were those like Christopher Hitchens who claimed that Buchanan had written a tract of “Catholic fundamentalism” and who repurposed the Know-Nothing language of Americanism to denounce it. To his immediate right were the Weekly Standard and the other partisans of America’s unipolar moment, variously accusing Buchanan of being a soft-hearted liberal, a Nazi sympathizer, and an ultramontane reactionary. Alongside Buchanan were a stalwart group of libertarian noninterventionists and a few admiring missives from The Nation and other left-liberals.
Buchanan would return to these themes in his books over the next decade. Where the Right Went Wrong expanded his charge on foreign policy by adding a distilled brief against neoconservatism. “They are imposters and opportunists,” he concluded. State of Emergency focused on mass immigration, but rather than emphasize as Lou Dobbs and other restrictionists did the way in which it lowered the wages of American workers, Buchanan’s view seemed more informed by the downfall of Rome. The presence of enormous blocks of foreigners meant decomposition for the host nation, or at least cleavage along lines of color, class, and language. Day of Recokoning returned to all these topics, updating them with the latest grim statistics. With these volumes, Buchanan surpassed the anti-New Dealers like Pegler who so inspired him, but who left few books to give us the flavor of the day.
And Buchanan went far beyond the pundits of his own day in his 2002 book Death of The West. There he put journalistic heft behind the decades-old intuitions of Oswald Spengler and James Burnham. United Nations population statistics coming in at the close of the 20th century demonstrated what they had sensed, that Western civilization itself was contracting. The Western powers, and Japan with them, were losing population and bound to shrink radically. They had not just given up their navies, they had given up on posterity altogether.
Buchanan’s title echoed Spengler’s Decline of the West, in which the German had theorized that civilizations have a predictable life cycle analogous to the seasons. In winter, democracy becomes the form of government, religion curdles into materialism, and the wealthy plunder their empire while fetishizing the barbarians beyond their borders. Burnham had similar intuitions in Suicide of the West—for him, liberalism wasn’t the cause of Western contraction, which had more to do with loss of religion, but it was the “typical verbal systematization of the process of Western contraction and withdrawal; liberalism motivates and justifies the contraction, and reconciles us to it.”
Buchanan indicted liberalism for just that. Western nations had lost their Christian faith; their nationalistic myths had been revised and were now objects of scorn to native and immigrant alike. With nothing to pass on but material comforts, Western people were no longer investing their capital and energies into posterity, they were enjoying their wealth today. There is a jagged edge at the bottom of such a thesis: for Spengler, the only power strong enough to overthrow the worship of money is blood and tribe.
Buchanan’s thesis was first denounced, then imitated—sometimes by the same individuals. Christopher Caldwell of the Weekly Standard initially criticized the “demographic alarum” in Death of the West. Less than a decade later, he would reiterate most of Buchanan’s themes in his own Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, which documented the demographic and cultural retreat of the continent’s old civilization in the face of a rising, intolerant Islam. The vehicle of this retreat was the same liberal and multicultural ideology that Buchanan—as well as Burnham, and more vaguely Spengler—had also condemned.
Death of the West was Buchanan’s biggest commercial success, an odd thing for such a gloomy book released on the heels of a 2000 presidential run that even some of Buchanan’s closest supporters would rather forget. But the Internet had returned political commentary to the days of Pegler and others firebrands, away from the prim editorializing of Maureen Dowd and David Brooks. “I have to credit Matt Drudge,” says Buchanan, with sincerity. As people watched their College Bowl Games, Drudge made Buchanan’s book his banner headline—“‘End of the World,’ says Buchanan.” Death of the West would be a 12-week New York Times bestseller. It was number 2 on Amazon.com before Buchanan had done his first television interview.
Buchanan is fondest of the books that were worst reviewed, and so it is no surprise that one of his dearest is Churchill, Hitler, and “The Unnecessary War.” He would stay up late reading new histories of the two great wars, find a paragraph that electrified him, then take to his computer to type a few pages, before returning to bed at 3 a.m. or later “to sleep like a baby.” Although reviews pummeled Buchanan for going back to World War II revisionism, the book’s thesis is something that fits into the broader theme of Buchanan’s work: not a reappraisal of fascism, but a despair over the civilization that formed us all which has been grievously, perhaps fatally, wounded by Europe’s two-act war.
In the opening pages, Buchanan uses lines from Percy Shelley’s “Ozymandias” to sum up the state of the world as the West’s empires collapsed: “Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare/ The lone and level sands stretch far away.” The book’s thesis had nothing to do with rehabilitating Hitler; it was about re-examining Churchill and finding out why the West was dying, why it had adopted ideologies of contraction and suicide. Spengler had attributed dissolution to a natural life cycle, Burnham to loss of faith. More jejune conservatives blamed decay on rival political parties, on improper “ideas” that have bad consequences, or subtle changes in philosophy. Buchanan blames war.
For it was the war begun in 1914 and the Paris peace conference of 1919 that destroyed the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian empires, and ushered onto the world stage Lenin, Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler. And it was the war begun in September 1939 that led to the slaughter of the Jews and tens of millions of Christians, the devastation of Europe, the Stalinization of half the continent, the fall of China to Maoist madness, and half a century of Cold War.
It is a thesis fit for a graduate of a Jesuit school: God curses murderers, and the men of the West spent the 20th century destroying each other with mustard gas, fire-bombs, gas chambers, and a splitting atom. The empires most responsible lost not just their navies and vassal states, they lost their will even to remain distinct nations. Their elites are all globalists.
Buchanan brought that same thesis home in Suicide of a Superpower. Provocatively, he opens his most recent book by comparing the United States to the Soviet Union. Like our Cold War foe, we are now a nation committed to a worldwide ideological revolution; we are an overstretched empire abroad and a nation with simmering class and racial anxieties at home, with no shared faith, history, or heroes. Can whatever is left of the nation survive even to 2025? “When I was young we had ferocious battles over politics, over Joe McCarthy being invited to the parish,” Buchanan says, “but after those ended we all believed the same things, had the same faith, revered the same men. It was one culture.”
Buchanan is returning in his writing to the time of the realignment, putting together a book on the years he spent with Nixon. “He was like a father to me for three years, and I want to introduce him to a generation and maybe two generations that never knew the guy,” says Buchanan. “He was not a bad man. He was a very good man and in a lot of ways, but he had these damn hangups.” The prospect of Buchanan writing a Nixon book is tantalizing to a large cadre of Nixonologists. Buchanan had been by the old man’s side during his rise to the highest office, and then at the downfall, testifying for five and a half hours before the Watergate committee. “I remember in March 1973, I was having lunch with Frank Rizzo [mayor of Philadelphia], and it was the day that [James] McCord said higher-ups were involved,” Buchanan recalls. Rizzo replied, “Why don’t you catch Teddy Kennedy in his underpants?” Buchanan shot back: “I think that may have been what we were trying to do.”
In a very real sense, the emergence of the New Majority that so excited and indeed defined Buchanan as a political thinker—and that made Republican victories so easy—turned out to be a sign of a fatal illness in the body of the Republic. The common faith had been broken. On one side was the New Majority, too silent and too preoccupied to combat what Burnham would have called the New Class of academics, media professionals, think tankers, and political machines. They were the other side, and they found their mandate for power in the ideology of liberalism.
This is why in the shelf of books Buchanan has written he slides so easily from defending the interests of the New Majority to warning of the death of civilization altogether, from Pegler to Spengler in the space of a paragraph. For Buchanan, the New Majority is the only force capable of preserving and passing on the traditions of the West in America as Buchanan knew them growing up. This is why he stands between the tub-thumping columnists for Middle America and the great declinists of the 20th century. Buchanan wants to communicate to his Middle American audience that the stakes are as great as intellectuals claimed. At the same time, Buchanan is a realist who recognizes that the declining ranks of the New Majority were never capable of carrying the full weight of the West.
“How do you bring us together culturally?,” he asks, then answers himself, “You don’t need Pat Buchanan, you need St. Paul.” It is a self-awareness rare in men who have run for president three times: “Look, I’m a right-wing troublemaker from Northwest that likes poetry.”
Michael Brendan Dougherty is TAC’s national correspondent.