Patrick J. Buchanan has been a constant presence for many decades, often on the periphery of our vision of news and views, but never quite absent. In thousands of columns, hundreds of TV and radio appearances, and periodically in the very real world of White House policies and politics, the irascible but oddly congenial hard-core conservative pursued a variety of extremist opinions. But now that Buchanan has put down his pen as a writer after just over 60 years of scribbling, it’s a good time to recognize his evil influence and unholy prescience.
To put it plainly, Pat Buchanan was the living link between the nativist, isolationist, and protectionist paleoconservative tradition in GOP politics —which most observers thought had died in the 1950s — and the MAGA conservatism associated with Donald Trump. Both these strains of right-wing thought substituted nativism and economic nationalism for the free-market ideology that prevailed in the last half of the twentieth century, combined with an aggressive traditionalism on cultural matters and heavy-handed appeals to white racist fears of a more diverse nation. This “blood and soil” politics provided an American version of the authoritarian movements that wreaked so much damage in Europe and beyond.
Buchanan first burst onto the national scene as a conservative op-ed scribbler and then as Richard Nixon’s most reactionary speechwriter. He was one of Nixon’s most loyal factotums to the bitter end, and when Ronald Reagan was elected, he moved back to the White House. But from the very beginning, Buchanan incessantly supported the idea Republicans should repudiate not just the moderate GOP of the Dewey-Eisenhower-Rockefeller era but the entire post–World War II bipartisan legacy of mild liberal internationalism at home and abroad.
In 1992, he went very public and very rogue when he challenged George H.W. Bush’s renomination soon after Poppy scandalized conservatives by repudiating a “no new taxes” pledge. He then threw a scare into the Republican Establishment by running a close second in New Hampshire before folding his tent in exchange for a 1992 prime-time Republican-convention speaking gig in which he called for a “cultural war … a struggle for the soul of America.” Four years later, he ran an insurgent primary campaign against Bob Dole, attacking the GOP front-runner and the Establishment for their free-trade economic policies and anachronistic defense hawk positions. Buchanan upset Dole in New Hampshire, but the Establishment eventually prevailed.
By 2000, when he was 62, Buchanan was in the political wilderness, pursuing a worthless Reform Party nomination and only mattering in the presidential contest when a decent number of old people in Palm Brach County, Florida, accidentally voted for Buchanan thanks to a flawed ballot design.
More recently, Buchanan hasn’t moved much, but the Republican Party has definitely moved in his direction. And a lot of that has been owing to Buchanan’s unacknowledged protégé, Trump. As the veteran political observer Jeff Greenfield noted at the time, Trump ate Buchanan’s lunch:
Go back to it now and what’s striking is how much [Buchanan’s] message, delivered on December 10, 1991, in Concord [New Hampshire) offered a remarkable preview not so much of that year’s race, but of what would drive the appeal of Donald Trump in 2016.
Buchanan warned that the United States was losing its stature as the first among nations amid challenges to American economic dominance, a softening of our identity and a growing fondness for multinational institutions. “We must not trade in our sovereignty for a cushioned seat at the head table of anyone’s new world order,” he warned. He questioned whether America should really keep paying for its allies’ defense. He railed against the effects of globalization, proclaiming that “our Western heritage is going to be handed down to future generations, not dumped onto some landfill called multiculturalism.” He called for “a new patriotism, where Americans begin to put the needs of Americans first.” He called for “a new nationalism.”
Buchanan endorsed Trump’s 2016 candidacy, of course. The 45th president’s inaugural address deploring the “American carnage” of a weak and decadent country echoed themes Buchanan had been voicing throughout his career.
The scarier Buchanan legacies don’t involve old-school American protectionism or isolationism but an attraction to very un-American authoritarian traditions. He was an inveterate fan of the lethal dictators Francisco Franco and Augusto Pinochet. While not in any respect a defender of Nazism, Buchanan spent a lot of time defending individual Nazis accused of crimes agains humanity. His ideological heirs have made connections with culturally reactionary regimes in Poland and Hungary. He likely has admirers in Russia as well.
The Buchanan legacy is one of a deeply reactionary point of view that quite recently looked to be a thing of the past but now seems prophetic. He may have statues built to him if the right-wing authoritarians he admires gain power in America or elsewhere.