In a recent television interview, leading neoconservative never-Trumper Bill Kristol scolded his erstwhile Weekly Standard employee Tucker Carlson for advocating for a reduced, merit-based immigration system. Kristol accused Tucker of being a full-blown ethnic nationalist, an identity that Kristol suggests was long latent in his acquaintance. “He always had a little touch of Pat Buchananism, I would say, paleoconservatism,” sniffed Kristol from his guest perch on CNBC.
What pricked my ears was not the fact that Kristol had chosen to side with the liberal establishment over pro-Trump Republicans on this score. That’s a predictable development, given where Kristol is coming from. More striking was the epithet he chose to hurl at Carlson, now the host of the highly-rated Fox News primetime show “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” namely that he long showed “touches of Buchananism,” and betrayed evidence of “paleoconservatism.” As a self-described paleoconservative and one of the last ones on Earth, I find this charge to be astonishing. How can Carlson be contaminated by a rightist ideology that for decades has been systematically purged from the conservative movement? How can he subscribe to a school that Kristol’s parents and their friends did everything in their power to remove from the conservative movement that they were largely responsible for reconstructing in the 1980s? How exactly did paleoconservatism, or what is sometimes called the “Old Right,” sneak back into the movement through a Fox News rockstar?
Needless to say, I am asking rhetorical questions. I see no evidence that Carlson is a paleoconservative, and to my knowledge he’s never invited any member of that persuasion onto his program. And I doubt he ever would. Why would he risk offending his fellow authorized conservatives by showcasing those who have been widely scorned as god-awful reactionaries? By now, paleocons (as they are sometimes called) have been tagged in National Review, the Weekly Standard, the New York Times, the New Republic, Commentary and multiple other venues as wing-nuts, duplicitous anti-Semites, self-hating Jews, and/or ethnic nationalists.
Of course, most of the surviving members of this fraternity whom I know are none of these things. They are mostly aging converts to Latin Mass Catholicism who are at war with the Protestant Reformation and other supposedly modernizing developments that occurred centuries ago. Whatever paleocons were when Kristol’s parents and their allies derailed and marginalized them is not what they are now. They are not even a shadow of the intellectual and political force they once were. About 10 years ago, I posted a “Paleo Epitaph” in which I made these points so starkly that I alienated most of my onetime companions in arms.
The paleocons’ moment came and went when their ally Pat Buchanan ran for the presidency—and lost. It’s been downhill for the Old Right ever since, although Kristol and his companions may still not perceive how thoroughly they prevailed. In this respect, Kristol reminds me of a 16th-century clergyman who, long after the Church waged a devastating crusade against Albigensian heretics in France and wiped them out, still imagined these troublemakers were coming back to corrupt the true faith. Lest Kristol have any doubts here, let me assure him that his guys beat mine decisively and irreversibly.
On another note, I can’t imagine the paleoconservatives whom I knew in the 1980s arguing against immigration in the manner of Carlson, Ann Coulter, or the American Greatness website. They might have agreed on the principle but they certainly would not have argued that it was the majority will. It’s not at all obvious that for most Americans restricting immigration is any overriding electoral issue. It seems that more voters support the Democrats than do the Republicans by several percentage points. And although admittedly Trump made immigration a major campaign issue, it’s not at all clear that everyone who voted for him prioritized that issue. (Nor did Trump win a majority of the popular vote in an election in which he ran against the most disliked Democratic presidential candidate in modern American electoral history.) So much for the nightly appeals of Fox News editorialists to the people’s will!
Bill Kristol does, however, stumble upon the true paleocon position, if we discount his tone of contempt. Paleoconservatives opposed immigration because they thought it would reduce the moral and cultural cohesion of American society. They also viewed such a course as an opportunity for the courts and public administration to get further involved in interpersonal relations. But they never made such arguments, to my knowledge, in the name of a questionable majority will. It was only with Buchanan’s bid for the presidency from the populist right in 1992 that paleocons began to tolerate, however reluctantly, appeals to “the people.” But most of the paleos I knew (like Russell Kirk) didn’t feel particularly comfortable listening to such tropes. Which brings me to my final point: While critics of amnesty and immigration often make cogent points, it would be nice if they omitted references to the “people’s will” and “Trump’s majority mandate.” I see no evidence that either exists as a basis for Tucker Carlson’s case.
Paul Gottfried is Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for twenty-five years. He is a Guggenheim recipient and a Yale PhD. He writes for many websites and scholarly journals and is the author of thirteen books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents. His books have been translated into multiple languages and seem to enjoy special success in Eastern Europe.