The Once and Future American
Patrick J. Buchanan was the prophet not of revanchist fantasy, as some would have it, but of an old yet ever-current American realism.
No man in America in the last century has been more thoroughly smeared and more thoroughly vindicated than Patrick J. Buchanan.
In the latest hit, the founding editor of The American Conservative and the prophet of American populism is set up as the villain in a review of Paul Gottfried’s new volume, A Paleoconservative Anthology. It is always a feat, and rarely a good one, for a review to overshadow the book it takes as its subject. Yet the Law & Liberty reviewer—Michael Lucchese, a former staffer to liberal GOP Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska—ventures far beyond Gottfried’s anthology, far beyond paleoconservatism altogether, into foundational questions on the American order and American tradition.
Buchanan, his advisor Samuel T. Francis, and other so-called paleoconservatives are taken by Lucchese to represent a politics of racial animus, populist drive, and reactionary nostalgia. This school of thought Lucchese pans as “Right-Wing Marxism,” apparently because he can think of no other term for a tradition with minimal awareness of material forces and the political power of class dynamics. The slander is familiar, but not yet worn out.
While Buchanan takes the most heat simply by virtue of his prominence, it is Francis towards whom Lucchese directs most of his criticism—and not without good reason. Francis, the viciously secular anthropologist of “middle American radicals,” was wrong about a great deal. America’s next revolution will not come from the middle, as Francis predicted, but from the same place it always comes from: the highly educated, downwardly mobile upper-middle classes of both coasts. And Francis—who held a Ph.D. in modern history—doomed his own project by severing the tradition he inherited from its Christian roots and attempting to conform it to the intellectual standards of his enemies.
These are not the battles Lucchese chooses. Instead, he sets the paleocons up against
twentieth-century conservatives such as Russell Kirk and William F. Buckley [who] built their movement on the idea of the American Founding. For them, conservative politics needed to be rooted in a reverential devotion to the Constitution, a healthy appreciation of the free market, and a vigorous anti-communism. And as Ronald Reagan’s stunning electoral successes proved, these ideas were immensely popular.
This is not just a gross oversimplification but an outright distortion. As Kirk’s former assistant attests to Chronicles’s C. Jay Engel, Lucchese is wrong not just in his conclusions but on the facts. Russell Kirk is not a counterpoint to Buchananite conservatism; he was the Michigan chair of Buchanan’s campaign! The backstop legalism to which Lucchese refers, moreover, did not overtake the conservative movement until nearly a full generation after Russell Kirk’s influence peaked. Kirk ended his life with very little faith in the schools of thought and action Lucchese tries to pin on him.
Such facts cannot be permitted to interfere with the standard myths and talking points of establishment conservatism, distilled here in a particularly careless and shallow illustration. I am, as it happens, in the middle-late stages of a book of my own on this very subject, so I will take the liberty of advertising by way of correcting the record.
The history of American conservatism has always been told as a story of unification. In the first years of the Cold War (the conventional narrative goes) religious and social traditionalists, individualists and anti-statists, anti-communists and national security hawks all came together against a common enemy. In fusionist institutions like National Review and Young Americans for Freedom, these disparate groups convened and quickly formed a cohesive philosophy. Their narrative became more refined as they melded more closely, banishing certain elements here and there, and reading their story backwards into a supposed history of American right-liberalism. This was, by the establishment’s own telling, the first time ever that an organized movement devoted to the preservation of this American way emerged.
There is a gaping hole in the history, of course: a cartoon version of the Founding—George Washington and Thomas Jefferson incanting Locke’s Second Treatise in a fateful Masonic ritual—and then static until 1955. If an actual dichotomy can be established here, it may be between those conservatives who have built their house on what Lucchese calls “the idea of the American Founding” and those who have built on the facts of the American Founding.
This is the great virtue of the best of the paleoconservative tradition: that it appreciates material and historical forces without falling into the kind of determinism that dominates the left. It will not treat a particular people in a particular time and place as an abstraction—or, worse, as a function of an abstraction. This is what the establishment has done: relegated the American people to a bit part in their own history, instruments or set dressing for the advent of a liberal epoch.
It is entirely forgotten in all of this that the Conservative Movement supplanted an older tradition—one whose virtues were broad and concrete and spanned both party and region. (Maybe the last clear illustration of the point is the alliance of Joseph McCarthy, a rough-and-tumble Midwestern Republican, with Robert F. Kennedy, an aristocratic Northeastern Democrat, to root out the communist threats of the early 1950s.)
This is not to say, of course, that everything in America before Hart-Celler and fusionism was hunky-dory, much less uniform. It is only to say that there was an old American consensus, whose defining features both provided for American greatness and set the U.S. firmly apart from the other nations of the world, that was displaced and then eroded by the arrival of what we now call intellectual conservatism.
What to call that tradition is a difficult question.
As a Catholic, I hesitate to claim “Americanism,” though it is the word employed by Joe McCarthy and other 20th century giants. Other words like “populism” capture some, but not all, of the contents and sense of what we mean to describe here. Inventions like “radical centrism,” “America First conservatism,” and “paleoconservatism” seem at once too narrow, too vague, and just a bit off base.
I have settled—when I cannot refer simply to “the American tradition“—on “realism“ (though this, too, is an imperfect choice). American realism is distinct from the European tradition of realpolitik, and it is broader than the attitudes on foreign policy it contains, to which specifically the term is most often applied today. It is a politics of prudence, established by practical men and founded in the Christian faith and principles they held dear.
In the 19th century, its economics were defined in opposition to the laissez-faire and free trade regimes of liberal Europe. This nationalist scheme of robust action—defined by trade protectionism, government spending on internal improvements, and other positive investments in growth and security—came to be known as the American School. In the first half of the 20th century, this school of thought fought off an attack from the other side, as German-Russian communism swept across two continents and crept into the edges of American consciousness.
It answers force with force, as when Senator McCarthy used a small congressional subcommittee to strike back against the Soviet infiltration of our Republic, or when heroic frontiersmen met Indian savagery in kind.
Its valuation of man’s natural liberty was corrupted by a parasite—the foreign, European ideology of “libertarianism,” carried to these shores in the wake of the Second World War. Its interest in peace through strength was turned to a cheap slogan by the infiltration of neoconservatism, which wrought untold destruction in distant corners of the globe. It grew in a profoundly religious society, and the death of public Christianity in America forced perhaps its most destructive crack-up.
In pockets, though, it survived. Patrick Buchanan was one of very few men who kept the old tradition alive in the decades between the Second World War and the collapse of the liberal order, though historical circumstance may have bounded his ambitions.
The opponents of the old tradition have always been very sure of themselves—endlessly pointing back to Reagan’s ’84 landslide while shutting their eyes to the record of ’72. Lucchese likewise reads too much into more recent election results, assuring his readers that establishment conservatism has nothing to fear from any realist renaissance.
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(I am reminded of a Never Trump event last spring at which uber-libertarian Katherine Mangu-Ward described herself to a mostly empty room as part of the “big round middle” of American politics.)
Since 1960—the last presidential election in which the two nominees both represented strains of the American tradition—things have indeed looked bleak. But the Democratic Party’s nomination of Joe Biden in 2020 suggested that many on the left at least still felt echoes of the old consensus. The unexpected rise of RFK Jr. will revive much deeper memories.
The class consciousness Lucchese so fears will be one major function of the reawakening, on both the right and the left. But the coming shakeup will no doubt be far broader, and the re-intrusion of historical force into American political life will bring far more dramatic changes than anything movement conservatism ever could produce.