Right-Wing Populist

Pat Buchanan's presidential campaign is testing a political potentiality that could have a future in downsizing America

Patrick J. Buchanan—iconoclastic pundit, former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Reagan, challenger to George Bush in 1992, and self-styled rabble-rouser—is not going to win the Republican nomination in 1996, much less the presidency. Though political observers were surprised by the early excitement his campaign generated Buchanan has spent much of the past six months in a distant second place, behind Senator Bob Dole, in polls measuring Republican preferences), he seems unlikely at this juncture to win even one state in the nominating race. Presidential politics, however, has always been about more than simply winning elections: of all the candidates running this time on either side, Buchanan has the most potential to change our politics. His campaign is testing the viability of hard-right-wing populism, which, given the unchecked erosion of middle-class wages and living standards, may be the shape of politics to come.

It is one of the ironies of American political history that the vanquished in presidential campaigns often end up altering our politics more than the victors. Barry Goldwater may have carried only six states in 1964, but by stamping his brand of Sunbelt conservatism on the Republican Party, he changed it and eventually the country, causing a regional realignment. George McGovern lost in a landslide in 1972, but some of his campaign aides—including Gary Hart and Bill Clinton—ended up playing a strong role in Democratic politics for more than two decades. George Wallace carried only a handful of presidential primaries in his runs within the Democratic Party, and his independent candidacy, in 1968, never had a chance. Yet it can be argued persuasively that Wallace's populist appeals to middle-class resentment through veiled references to race, and his constant attacks on big government and the media, provided the model for much of American politics in the decades that followed.

The candidate himself and the media tout Buchanan's current campaign as a crusade for the soul of Republican conservatism, and it is that. What Buchanan really seeks to do, however, is to follow in the footsteps of Wallace—along with those of William Jennings Bryan, Huey Long, and Mary ("Raise Less Corn and More Hell") Lease—by reviving populism on a national scale. Buchanan's hope is to unite the disparate and often contradictory forces that constitute what is left of populism—under the banner, no less, of the Republican Party, the traditional home of those established interests that populism has usually fought. Given populism's customary distrust of the eastern establishment—including the media—and its roots in a kind of agrarian Protestantism, it is also no small irony that the candidate who hopes to assemble this coalition is a well-known member of the media establishment and an observant Catholic. Michael Kazin, the author of the recent The Populist Persuasion, calls Buchanan's candidacy "the culmination of 100 years of populism."

Populism has had a dappled history in its century or so of incarnations: the same movements that have sought to organize "the people" against "the special interests" have often used raw racial and nativist demagoguery to do so. And the populist label is a mutable one, applied to everyone from Tom Watson to Joseph McCarthy to H. Ross Perot. Yet populism can be loosely defined, with help from Kazin, as a powerful mass movement, somewhat out of the political mainstream, grounded in typically American language that characterizes politics as a struggle between ordinary people and a self-serving, undemocratic elite. That means that populism is by definition in flux; anyone who convincingly appropriates the jargon ("special interests"), the enemies list (distant government, the media, intellectuals, the eastern establishment), and the enthusiasm for conspiracy theories (to explain how power got taken from "the people") tends to appropriate the movement.

Over the past century populism has moved from its southern agrarian roots through the labor insurgencies of the Progressive era, the Prohibition movement, the "Share-the-Wealth" movements of the 1930s, and the white backlash of the past thirty years. For most of its history populism was loosely linked to the Democratic Party, the traditional home of the working classes, and party rhetoric and policy reflected that state of affairs. Yet, as Thomas and Mary Edsall pointed out in the May, 1991, Atlantic Monthly, the increasing identification of the Democratic Party with the race and rights revolutions of the 1960s—and with big government supported by high taxes—allowed it to be increasingly portrayed as a defender not only of the status quo but also of cultural if not economic elites. Today the most obvious heirs to the populist tradition are either loosely allied with the Republicans (Pat Robertson, with his religious fundamentalism) or are the sort who would have been targets of populism a century ago (Ross Perot, the modern equivalent of J. P. Morgan or Andrew Carnegie). In a world in which government is portrayed as the real enemy of "the people," the populist impulse has begun to gravitate to the Republican Party and to people populism once despised.

There are portents of Buchanan in previous Republican presidential candidacies, though one has to go back a while to find some of them. His "America First" foreign policy isn't far from the views of prominent midwestern Republicans from 1920 to 1952: Senator Robert Taft, after all, opposed the NATO treaty, and Senator Arthur Vandenberg was an isolationist for much of his political life. Buchanan's opposition to most civil-rights legislation—including (on constitutional grounds) the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964—recalls Barry Goldwater. And Buchanan's onetime boss, Ronald Reagan, certainly portrayed himself as an outsider who would return Washington and the federal government to "the people."

Tempermentally and rhetorically, however, Buchanan is anything but a typical Republican. Instead he clearly falls into the populist tradition—which is why he often sounds more like an old-time Democrat on the hustings than any current member of that party, including the incumbent. "I've been waiting my whole life for someone running for President to talk about the Fortune 500 as the enemy," the reporter Tom Carson, of the liberal Village Voice, told Buchanan, "and when Ifinally get my wish, it turns out to be you." On the stump Buchanan says, "We've seen the real income of men who work with their hands, tools, and machines decline. The Dow Jones average went up about twenty percent in six months; the real income of American workers went down two-point-three percent." That's not the kind of talk one hears from Clinton, much less from Bob Dole, Phil Gramm, Newt Gingrich, or even Rush Limbaugh. They all supported the North American Free Trade Agreement; Buchanan joined Perot and Jesse Jackson in opposing it. Dole, Gramm, and Gingrich tend to downplay social issues; Buchanan wears his social conservatism and opposition to abortion as a badge of honor. From his class-warfare protectionist rhetoric to his nativist isolationism, from his constant dark barbs thrown at Wall Street and the establishment to his well-publicized indulgence in ugly, quite possibly anti-Semitic talk, Buchanan has less in common with the personas of the genial Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan than with those of Father Charles Coughlin and Tom Watson, who, it has been said, "talked like the thrust of a Bowie knife." When Buchanan announces that he will "take America back for the things we believe in," or says "I want to say today to all the globalists up there in Tokyo and New York and Paris, when I raise my hand to take that oath of office, your new world order comes crashing down," his style isn't much different.

It's no surprise that there are constituencies for such rhetoric in an era when voters feel increasingly alienated from politics and government. Those who have observed the enthusiastic reception Buchanan has gotten at prayer breakfasts, or at rallies held at the barricaded doors of closed New Hampshire factories, or at the United We Stand convention in Dallas last August, where he drew the loudest cheers, know that he is striking chords among diverse audiences. Though Buchanan lacks the fundraising apparatus of the more conventional party candidates, such as Dole, Gramm, and Lamar Alexander, he does possess tactical advantages. He alone mounted a primary challenge to George Bush in 1992—which gave him a chance to hone his message and his organization. The current field of Washington insiders—Dole, Gramm, Richard Lugar, even Alexander, who served significant stints in Washington—gives Buchanan rhetorical traction. And because Buchanan is a media celebrity, he is better known than anyone else in the field except Dole. Buchanan made a point of his celebrity when he announced his presidential candidacy in 1991, bragging, "No other American has spent as many hundreds of hours debating the great questions of our day, on national television." Buchanan's membership in the fraternity of pundits has also given him a kind of respectability that might elude someone like George Wallace, not to mention immunity from the negative coverage he might attract for some of his more inflammatory statements.

Certainly Buchanan has written and said some things that if uttered by Alexander, Dole, or Clinton would be considered political suicide. At one point Buchanan seemed to blame only Jewish commentators (Abe Rosenthal, Charles Krauthammer, Richard Perle, and Henry Kissinger) for helping to precipitate the Gulf War—one of several observations that led his fellow conservative William F. Buckley to conclude in a celebrated 1991 essay in the National Review that Buchanan may well have occasionally crossed the line into anti-Semitism. Yet Buchanan's attacks are only part of a much greater belligerence he has always displayed toward his enemies; this is a pundit who wears his insensitivities on his sleeve. Buchanan vehemently opposed the establishment of a national holiday for Martin Luther King Jr., once described Adolf Hitler as "an individual of great courage . . . extraordinary gifts," called the old apartheid regime in South Africa "an outpost of Western empire and Western civilization," and described AIDS as the "retribution" of nature against those "who have declared war" upon it.

It may be that Buchanan has been saying such things for so long that his Washington media friends no longer hear them, or that the "private sweetness" described by those who know him overcomes his public belligerence in their eyes. What is apparent, however, is that Buchanan's stridency doesn't sit well when he moves beyond his populist cadre or inside-the-Beltway talk shows to speak to a broader national audience. When he addressed such an audience—in prime time, at the 1992 Republican National Convention—he used the occasion to describe Hillary Clinton as a radical feminist who had no place in "God's country," called Al Gore an "environmental extremist" who would put "insects, rats, and birds ahead of families, workers, and jobs," and explained how the military might be forced to liberate urban America, block by block. The speech is widely regarded as having launched a tremendous backlash against the convention which discredited the Republican Party and helped to elect Clinton.

Another novel aspect of Buchanan's candidacy is its religious dimension. The rural populists of a century ago had something of an anti-Catholic animus, fueled by their belief that recent Catholic immigrants were responsible for the machine politics of the urban North. More important, no serious Republican presidential contender has ever been Catholic. (Alexander Haig, who is Catholic, did seek the party's nomination, in 1988.) Virtually everyone who writes about Buchanan, including himself, talks about his strong roots in the deeply religious and traditional Catholic enclaves of midcentury Washington, D.C.:he comes from a family of eleven, was raised in Blessed Sacrament parish, attended Gonzaga High School, run by Jesuits, and Georgetown University, as a day student. It was in this close-knit community that Buchanan was "born and bred a brawler," as one writer put it, and came to see himself, and others like him, as perpetual outsiders in the then largely WASPworld of elite Washington. Thus the identification with fellow Catholic Joseph McCarthy, who was admired, Buchanan once wrote, "because for four years he was daily kicking the living hell out of people most Americans concluded ought to have the living hell kicked out of them."

A generation ago that strong cultural and religious identification would have made it impossible for Buchanan to prosper in the Republican Party. Urban Catholics had always been a key part of the old Democratic coalition—a trend that peaked in 1960. Though Buchanan supported Nixon over John F. Kennedy, Catholics gave the Democrat 78 percent of their votes—the highest proportion ever. Yet since that election Catholics have been slowly drifting away from the Democratic Party, disinclined to support its cultural liberalism. Whereas the meaningful religious dividing line in American politics was until recently between Catholic Democrats and Protestant Republicans, today it is between those who are deeply religious (and tend to be Republican) and those who are not. That shift has allowed Buchanan to try to lay claim to the leadership of a fundamentalist, essentially Protestant movement in politics that several decades earlier would have opposed him because of his religion.

Yet for all the focus in the media on Buchanan—he even made the cover of Time in November—he remains a very long way from the nomination and still faces enormous hurdles. It has been the dream of populists for a century that the various elements of "the disenfranchised" could somehow be persuaded to see beyond their own narrow societal interests and join with others similarly situated. Yet putting together a coalition of economic, social-issue, and disaffected western populists would seem to be terribly difficult in our atomized culture. Perot, for example, attracts economic populists with his anti-free-trade and anti-immigration views, but his appeal is to secular voters; he made a somewhat poor showing among fundamentalists in 1992. Conversely, Pat Robertson might attract some of those fundamentalist voters—as he did in 1988, when he finished a surprise second in the Iowa caucuses, ahead of George Bush—but his appeal to other groups is limited. How Buchanan could appeal to each of these factions, much less merge them, is hard to imagine.

More important, most of Buchanan's potential voters are not traditional Republicans; many, in fact, pride themselves on their independent status. "Buchanan has a vote," says the Republican pollster Ed Goeas. "The question is whether it's a Republican vote." Although Democratic primaries often attract disaffected voters who support a protest candidate, Republican primaries have never yet done so. This is the party, after all, that since 1948 has always nominated someone running at or near the top of national polls a year before the election. The Republican Party may be changing demographically, but it still tends to be dominated in the primaries by its traditional Main Street, suburban-country-club constituency, which has been staunchly internationalist and free-trade for the past half century. Even the new wave of Gingrich-inspired Republican freshmen march far more to this tune than to anything sung by Buchanan. To win primaries, Buchanan will have to persuade many of his potential supporters to register as Republicans for the first time, or at least to vote in a Republican primary open to independents. It is impossible to find a reputable political analyst who thinks that Buchanan could actually pull off this hostile takeover of the Republican Party.

That's why some of his admirers, among them Howard Phillips, the conservative chairman of the U.S. Taxpayers Alliance, say that Buchanan can maximize his impact only by running as an independent candidate in the general election. They argue, somewhat persuasively, that "outsiders" rarely fare well in political parties, which are, after all, establishment institutions. Self-styled populists have made the strongest impact on our politics by running for President as independents and then enjoying the winner's courtship of their constituencies—Nixon of Wallace supporters, Republicans and Democrats of the Perot vote. The analyst Kevin Phillips estimates that if Buchanan were to run against a moderate Republican as an independent in 1996 (and assuming Perot does not), he might draw somewhere between six and twelve percent—quite a respectable showing by historical standards.

Unlike many of his populist predecessors, however, Buchanan so far has seemed strongly disinclined to bolt his party and go it alone. He has always had a fierce sense of loyalty, but it goes beyond even that. His 1988 autobiography, Right From the Beginning, is a revealing 300-plus-page recital of a lifetime of fights: Buchanan recounts with joy every childhood acquaintance he decked (there were quite a few)and every brawl he joined. In fact, what's remarkable about Buchanan's autobiography is that although most books about politicians make short work of childhood to get to the politics, Buchanan's book has a terrible time leaving home. All candidates seem to have an emblematic story that they like to tell or that gets told by others: Dole's is about his war wound; Clinton's is about standing up as a teenager to his abusive stepfather. Buchanan's seems to be about, of all things, the time he as a college student got into a fight with some policemen. He was expelled from Georgetown because of the incident, but through his father's intercession he was allowed to return the following year.

All the fights in Buchanan's book have this vaguely adolescent quality: Pat brawls; Pat gets into trouble; Pat gets bailed out in the end by Dad or his surrogate, because he really didn't mean it. His supposed belligerence notwithstanding, the policemen story is the exception that proves the rule: Buchanan seems to duck meaningful confrontations—or at least confrontations that might have consequences. He professes a love of fighting but he never served in the military. Peggy Noonan, in her book What I Saw at the Revolution, relates that she was struck by how sweet and uncombative Buchanan was amid all the infighting he encountered in his role as communications director for Reagan. "Pat spent half his time in the [Reagan] White House trying to dodge fights, which wasn't easy," she wrote. If Buchanan is "the pit bull of the American right," as George Will has described him, he has a peculiar ability to avoid biting grown-ups—except those policemen.

There is nothing wrong, of course, with choosing your fights, though doing so is a bit odd for a figure who makes truculence his calling card. But it does tell us why the Buchanan campaign may in the end not change American politics or the Republican Party nearly as much as it has the potential to do. Because populism is an anti-establishment movement that whips up passions, it can be dangerous to its practitioners: a true populist has to alienate powerful people at the top, which is one reason why so many populist leaders have ended up in disgrace. Pat Buchanan has shown himself to be a man who likes to go back to his comfortable suburban-Washington home at the end of the day to write his columns, read poetry, and hobnob with his friends in the establishment worlds of politics and the media. There's nothing wrong with loving friends and home so much you can never leave them. But if your home is the corridor of power known as Washington, D.C., the current focus of populist resentment in America, it's hard to do that and also become the tribune of the disenfranchised and the angry.