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There may be no more iconic moment in Donald Trump’s entire presidential campaign than his February 2016 debate showdown with Jeb Bush. The debate, held in Greenville, South Carolina just days before a crucial primary, was rigged against Trump from the start. While polls showed Trump with a big lead, the actual crowd in Greenville was full of movement conservative die-hards nostalgic for George W. Bush. Jeb Bush thought he could use the memory of his brother as a secret weapon to turn the tide, win the state, and save his flailing campaign. It did not go as planned:
For eight years, Republicans had danced awkwardly around the Iraq War, so obviously a national calamity, out of dogmatic loyalty to their last president and to the idea of interventionism itself.
But Donald Trump broke the taboo. He called Iraq what it was, an idiotic near-criminal disaster, and didn’t back down even as a crowd of the people he was trying to win over booed and heckled.
Seven years on, the battle has been almost won. In 2020, Republicans celebrated Donald Trump as the first president in forty years not to start a war on his watch. They praised him for negotiating an end to Afghanistan, and avoiding new quagmires in Syria or Iran. On Ukraine, it is Republicans rather than Democrats who question the wisdom of spending hundreds of billions of dollars with no strategic endgame on a war that never needed to happen and serves no U.S. interests.
By making the Republican Party turn against interventionism and forever wars, Donald Trump changed the country for the better. And when he did so, he was channeling one very specific man: Pat Buchanan.
Last Friday, Buchanan announced he is retiring the political column he has written since the days of Barry Goldwater. It is the final end of a public political career that has spanned a half century of decline in the country Buchanan loved so much and fought so hard to save. And if Buchanan can’t boast that he actually did save the country, he at least has the satisfaction of seeing ideas that once made him an outcast from his own party rise to become the dominant worldview within it. Without Buchanan, there would be no Trump. For that matter, without Buchanan, there would be no Revolver.
Of all the people who might be deemed a forerunner of Donald Trump and his political revolution, Pat Buchanan has by far the most worthy claim.
Consider this article from 2015, published just as Trump’s presidential campaign was taking off:
Mr. Trump revels in controversy. But as he assails illegal immigration as an “invasion” and refers to Mexicans en masse as “Jose,” his critics are accusing him of taking controversy a step too far. They say Mr. Trump is speaking in code, using xenophobic images like those or anti-Semitic references to excite bigots without alienating mainstream voters.
[Trump frequently offers] direct and sometimes harsh mockery of foreigners, using his derision to cultivate support for his immigration and trade policies. “I’ll build that security fence, and we’ll close it, and we’ll say, ‘Listen Jose, you’re not coming in this time!’ ” he shouted to applause from an almost entirely white audience at a rally in Waterloo, Iowa three weeks ago.
Okay, you probably already guessed the twist: That’s not Trump at all, but a write-up of Buchanan’s presidential campaign twenty-six years ago. All that’s missing is the promise to make Mexico pay for the fence. Buchanan didn’t just share Trump’s views, but his talent for colorful language that drove the regime berserk; a quarter-century before “Crooked Hillary,” China’s Deng Xiaoping was a “chain-smoking Communist dwarf.”
Donald Trump won the presidency by appealing to the Silent Majority, but Buchanan is the one who literally coined the term working as a speechwriter for Richard Nixon. And throughout his career, Buchanan tried his best to speak for that quiet mass of beleaguered American humanity.
Our resolve is to put America First, to make America First again, and to keep America First. For 50 years, we have liberated, defended, and aided nations all over the world. It was the right and just thing to do. But, now, we must begin to look out for the forgotten Americans right here in the United States. Our great manufacturing base needs to be re-tooled and restored; our economy needs to be revived; our society needs to be healed; and our people need to become one again.
So Buchanan wrote in 1992, during his primary challenge against George H.W. Bush. In the same pamphlet, Buchanan foreshadowed the GOP’s growing realization that toppling the tyranny of woke civil rights quotas is the only way to keep America a powerful, rich, or desirable country.
Equal justice for All. If discrimination is wrong when practiced against black men and women, it is wrong when practiced against any man or woman. All quotas in federal agencies and programs will be abolished — and the ideas of excellence and merit will be restored.
Put up a fence, send illegals home, America-first trade policy, an end to foreign interventionism, no more wokeness: It was all there, 20 years ahead of Trump. But tragically, the message went unheeded. Buchanan was the intellectual son of accountant, not a billionaire real estate tycoon with three decades’ experience as a TV star. Buchanan had the ideas, but Trump had the money, the star power, the meme magic. Buchanan’s 1992 campaign was the last credible primary challenge to an incumbent president, but nothing more. His 1996 campaign might have worked against a more divided field, but against an establishment firmly united around Bob Dole, Buchanan won just four states and 20% of the primary vote.
But Buchanan never deviated or retooled his message just for the sake of popularity. Instead, he willingly endured more than a decade as the Republican Party’s Cassandra.
“In half a lifetime, many Americans have seen their God dethroned, their heroes defiled, their culture polluted, their values assaulted, their country invaded, and themselves demonized as extremists and bigots for holding on to beliefs Americans have held for generations.” Buchanan wrote that, not in 2020 or 2015, but in 2002.
In his 1999 book A Republic, Not an Empire Buchanan correctly predicted the exact outcome that America’s already-growing meddling in the Middle East would produce: A terrorist attack masterminded by the followers of Osama bin Laden. After the very attack his anticipated occurred, while the rest of the world fixated on the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and nation building, Buchanan saw earlier than anyone the disaster that would follow.
“We should provide some economic and humanitarian aid, but we should not have any troop presence there,” Buchanan said in December 2001, long before the word “quagmire” was on anyone’s lips. In 2003, Buchanan bravely denounced the newly-unleashed Iraq War. The war, he said, was not in America’s interests, and was almost wholly the work of an obsessive cabal of warlike neoconservatives who had hijacked conservatism.
Buchanan’s positions during the late 90s and early 2000s opened him to almost unprecedented character assassination. In a shameful display of “cancel culture” before the term ever existed, the Republican establishment steadily drove Buchanan out of the GOP and out of the public square through distortions of his rhetoric and warped lies about his personal character. In 1999, John McCain led a coordinated denunciation of Buchanan over his contention in A Republic, Not an Empire that America’s involvement in World War 2 had been avoidable and was not in the country’s interests. In 2003, David Frum labeled Buchanan as among the worst of the “unpatriotic conservatives” for his opposition to the Iraq disaster.
Virtually no Republicans stood up to defend Buchanan’s patriotism, honor, or basic dignity. By 2008, Republicans were citing the Anti-Defamation League to attack Barack Obama by linking him to Pat Buchanan.
But through all of the attacks, Buchanan never wavered. As he and his co-editors wrote in 2002, at the launch of his once-dissident magazine The American Conservative:
[T]here is a great, often unarticulated discomfort in the ranks of many who considered themselves conservative during the past few decades. A friend of ours recently told of an encounter with one of his colleagues. “You’re a conservative,” the colleague said — “so you must agree with Paul Wolfowitz that we should attack Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and all those places.”
Well, no. Not all conservatives do agree that the United States should engage — for reasons that hardly touch America’s own vital interests — in an open-ended war against much of the Arab and Muslim world.
A variant of that conversation might be had about immigration — an issue around which genuine debate erupted for a brief time in mid 1990’s — only to be extinguished by the regnant factions of the conservative Establishment. “So you’re a conservative” that conversation would run. “You must believe that ‘there shall be open borders’ as the Wall Street Journal editorial page habitually puts it.
Well, again, no. We believe that America has gained and still does from new immigrants. But we also, after two decades of intense immigration, believe that the nation needs a slowdown to assimilate those already here.
We are told — by some of the more powerful voices on the Right — that these debates are over. … [but] we will be different. … We will question the benefits and point to the pitfalls of the global free trade economy; we will free the immigration debate from the prison to which it has been consigned. And we will discuss, frequently, America’s role in the world, turning a critical eye on those who want to cast aside every relevant American foreign policy tradition — from Robert Taft-style isolationism to prudent Dwight Eisenhower-style internationalism, in favor of go it alone militarism, where America threatens and bombs one nation after another, while the world looks on in increasing horror.
In the end, all of Buchanan’s warnings came true: Middle America became a hollowed-out, deindustrialized area wracked with blight and drug overdoses. America’s foreign adventures wasted trillions and achieved nothing. The tidal wave of foreign immigration resulted not in rainbow-like harmony but endless struggles between different identity groups. And all of this culminated in crushing defeat for the Bush-era Republican party that embraced all of these trends. It would only return to the White House in 2016 behind a candidate who finally did what Buchanan had begged the party to do a quarter-century before: Actually reach out to middle America and seek the support of America’s Silent Majority.
“My friends, these people are our people,” Buchanan said in 1992. “They don’t read Adam Smith or Edmund Burke, but they come from the same schoolyards and the same playgrounds and towns as we come from. They share our beliefs and convictions, our hopes and our dreams. They are the conservatives of the heart. They are our people. And we need to reconnect with them. We need to let them know we know how bad they’re hurting. They don’t expect miracles of us, but they need to know we care.”
Sadly, it took twenty-four years for the GOP to field a candidate who did.
Just like Trump, Buchanan’s America-first nationalism exposed him to hysterical hatred. Just like Trump, the press dragged David Duke onto the public stage just to demand that Buchanan disavow him (Do you disavow? DO YOU DISAVOW??).
But to his enduring credit, Buchanan refused to play by the press’s rigged rules. Decades before the term entered American politics, Buchanan was “based”: He said what he really thought, fearlessly. He charted his own political course and was never intimidated by who it offended or what it got him deplatformed from. In an America that was constantly breeding new sacred cows, Buchanan butchered them with glee.
It is heartbreaking to imagine the America that might have been had Pat Buchanan succeeded in his 1996 campaign. It would be an America where the border crisis was solved a generation ago, and the calculated slow-motion replacement of heritage Americans was arrested. It would be an America spared the trillion-dollar calamities of the Afghan and Iraq wars, by virtue of a new restrained foreign policy that kept America out of conflicts that had no bearing on its well-being. It would likely be an America with amicable relations with Russia, instead of pointlessly hostile ones. And, just for good measure, it would be an America without the rotten Bush and Clinton political dynasties.
For America, it is a road not taken. But unlike most Cassandras, Pat Buchanan had the good fortune to live long enough for the public to acknowledge his greatness, whether they knew is or not.
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