It carried more weight than most.
After the news arrived that Pat Buchanan is retiring from writing his syndicated column, Michael Brendan Dougherty wrote that only William F. Buckley rivals Buchanan as an intellectual star in the conservative movement of the last century. It is an assertion few would have made twenty-five years ago, when Pat was in the full heat of battle against a very Buckley-influenced conservative establishment, and it is too soon to say how it will stand up.
I know that recently Pat was working on a memoir, which, if completed with anything like the energy of his recent books, will be a major publishing and intellectual event, and an occasion for a real assessment. But he is 84, and nothing can be certain.
If we were to return to the millennium, Buchanan’s bid to challenge the Republican establishment through the Reform Party was floundering (not least because Ross Perot withdrew the support that had once seemed assured). An election Buchanan hoped to turn into a referendum on trade, immigration, and foreign policy—and the nearly identical views held on them by Bush and Gore—found the media and country polite but uninterested.
Since then, there has been a considerable shift in public mood. Buchanan’s books became a template for both American and European populist challenges to establishment conservatism; they sold well, and, more importantly, Buchanan’s ideas resonated enough among voters that Donald Trump was able to scoop them up and win the presidency. They remain vital inside the Republican party, though it is far from certain whether someone can run on some version of them, win, and (unlike Trump) transform them into accepted components of a sensible mainstream conservatism.
The equally likely alternative is that these views will remain a kind of lost cause, resonant among some intellectuals and much of the populace, but never institutionalized and still deemed “controversial” by the nation’s cultural and economic elites. As a columnist, Buchanan can count as an heir (as Dougherty mentions) Ann Coulter. I would add that Christopher Caldwell—the nation’s most seriously accomplished working conservative author and essayist—has roughly Buchananite sensibilities. So too does Tucker Carlson.
One cannot go today to a mainstream conservative event and not hear praise for Pat Buchanan. And yet, the country seems content to let its foreign policy remain steered by the same kind of assertive globalism that prompted the Iraq war. The southern border is far more open than it was in 2000. And we have moved rapidly from the legalization of gay marriage to the establishment’s acceptance of transgenderism, including actual mutilation for adolescents. It is hard to say Buchananism has made any real progress.
Buchanan was, by himself, without institutional backing or any kind of support staff, a veritable triple threat of public commentary: writing a regular, widely seen, syndicated newspaper column, starring in a succession of highly rated televised political talk shows, and publishing a book roughly every two years. He was enormously hard-working, and when I saw him most frequently—during segments of the 2000 presidential campaign—my instinct was always to give him space for rest (specifically, to read historical novels, which was his main relaxation), and not to impose anything on him that seemed like socializing. The Pat of the earlier GOP campaigns, when he used to drink with the press at the hotel bar, might have been more fun; Buchanan at 60 was conserving his energy. The man with the reputation as a rock ‘em sock ‘em intellectual brawler seemed to me a very private, hardworking intellectual, and I tried to act accordingly.
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His career seems to have lasted forever. I recall as a college student first seeing a somewhat chubby young man displaying absolute disdain and defiance before the Senate Watergate committee, eventually realizing he was one of the few in the Nixon White House who had nothing to fear because he had done nothing wrong. I didn’t pay much attention to him during the ’80s. But Buchanan emerged as a main topic of conversation when I was at the New York Post. He was almost always our most exciting, no-holds-barred syndicated columnist, and we all loved him. Then suddenly, out of the blue, he was taking positions at odds with the neoconservative Reaganism that still defined the Post editorial page (and my politics at the time), and it was shocking.
In the early 1990s, this caused all kinds of personal confusion. Buchanan opposed the first Iraq war, a stance that seemed wrong in its particulars, but right in foreseeing where the impulse for an American-run “new world order” would eventually lead. He picked fights with the Israel lobby, without the necessary subtleties and qualifications of Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer. He unapologetically took the conservative Catholic side in every controversy, including those where it seemed unnecessary to take any side at all. All of this made him the central bogeyman in the neoconservative circles in which I traveled. But for me and many others there grew, slowly during those years, the sense that Buchanan, despite some obvious rhetorical excesses, was pretty much right, and that all of my political and intellectual associates, including people whom I considered close friends and major mentors, were pretty much wrong. It was always an important tonic when someone who was clearly a conservative intellectual in good standing (like my former boss, National Interest editor Owen Harries) would ever so gently suggest that Buchanan’s views were worthy of being taken seriously, and that they were after all (wrote Harries) the views of our parents.
I think a major reassessment still lies before us, hopefully with a Buchanan memoir, or perhaps with a biographer able to work on a scale sufficient to master the subject. But I cannot say enough about what Buchanan managed to do in the ‘90s and after, creating almost single-handedly a counterpoint to an establishment conservatism that was not conserving anything, all the while subject to regular, orchestrated abuse from the most influential media organs in that establishment conservative world. It was abuse that, in my limited experience of his reaction, seemed to genuinely surprise him. Long may he run.