Pat the Bully
Buchanan's new magazine has a funny way of giving peace a chance.
The most intriguing item in the debut number of the American Conservative, the new biweekly magazine co-edited by Patrick Buchanan and "Taki," is an advertisement on Page 25 for something called the America First Party. "We salute Pat Buchanan and The American Conservative!" the ad declares in blue type alongside iconography borrowed from "liberty" movements of decades past: a calligraphy-ed and parchment-y "We the People" superimposed over the Statue of Liberty, itself superimposed over the Stars and Stripes. "Our party members were honored to 'ride to the sound of the guns' with you in battles past," the ad avows, evidently unaware Pat is now a peacenik.
Buchanan, it appears, intends to lead his latest charge in print. There are precedents for this sort of personality-driven political crusade. The Luce magazines all but manufactured the Republican candidacy of Wendell Willkie for president in 1940. Henry A. Wallace launched his third-party run in 1948 from the editorship of the NewRepublic. And now we have a journal whose stated worldview is "Buchananite—well disposed to the web of ideas that drew millions of voters during three Buchanan presidential bids."
Each of those bids—in 1992, 1996, and 2000—was, of course, a dismal flop. The first, which awarded Buchanan center stage at the GOP nominating convention in Houston, gleefully heralding a "religious war," almost certainly helped elect Bill Clinton. The next two likewise did the GOP more harm than good (remember Bob Dole's humiliation in New Hampshire?). All three were exercises in nostalgia.
So, by and large, is the American Conservative. Like so many isolationists, Buchanan revels in the copybook of world history. His calls for peace, however, come in cadences that are strangely martial and at times Kipling-esque. In his column—presumably a regular feature of the magazine—he reminds us that hubris undid "the Ottoman, Russian Austro-Hungarian, and German empires in World War I, the Japanese in World War II, the French and the British the morning after." Guess who's next: "We will soon launch an imperial war on Iraq with all the 'On-to-Berlin!' bravado with which French poilus and British Tommies marched in August 1914." Once Saddam falls, he warns, "the neoconservatives who pine for a 'World War IV' " will push for "short sharp wars on Syria and Iran. Already Israel is tugging at our sleeve, reminding us not to forget Libya."
Does this anti-imperialist argument sound familiar? It should. It's the same one the anti-war left is making. Which raises a question: Why did Buchanan miss the opportunity to revive an "Old Right/New Left" alliance of the kind that arose during the mid-1960s, when right-wing thinkers such as Murray Rothbard and Leonard Liggio found common cause with the radical leftist William Appleman Williams, all of them alarmed by what Williams called the "centralized and consolidated" state that was flexing its oversized muscles in Vietnam? It seemed eccentric at the time, but this fusion gave new élan to the libertarian right and its long-standing critiques of the garrison state and "Wall Street socialism."
This sensibility informs the one really lively piece in the American Conservative, "Why I Am No Longer a Conservative," by Kevin Phillips, who excoriates "the rise of Wall Street and its outliers," along with the "fashionability of greed [that] has created another reenactment of the Gilded Age: the resurgent popularity of survival of the fittest, laissez-faire, worship of markets." Phillips' attack on "Washington tax consultants, lawyers and lobbyists" reflects an authentic populism, and an encompassing editorial enterprise might look across the spectrum for other writers—from Michael Lind to William Greider—who might raise equally tough questions about the state of democracy at home. But for the moment Phillips stands alone. His disdain for "triumphalist Pentagon saber-rattling" doesn't quite mesh with columnist Taki's boast that his father, a Greek shipping magnate, "built the largest American flagged vessel, National Defender, during the late Fifties, and … named one of his ships General Patton."
For all its newfound pacifism, the "Buchananite" worldview remains a bully's, more authoritarian than libertarian, its favorite targets minorities, the poor, and the weak. "My take on immigration is simple," the immigrant Taki explains. "We are a predominantly white society rooted in Christianity," but if our borders stay open "we will be Brazil in no time." (Isn't Brazil "rooted in Christianity," too?) In a rhapsodic review of Michelle Malkin's Invasion: How America Still Welcomes Terrorists, Criminals, and Other Foreign Menaces to Our Shores, Peter Brimelow (of Alien Nation fame) welcomes Malkin to the tiny brave chorus who dare take on "the Wall Street Journal editorial page, the Great Khan of the conservative establishment." There is no explicit race-baiting in the first issue, just an unsigned editorial note attacking "race hucksters" who complained when the Philadelphia Daily News "printed the mug shots of 15 suspects wanted for murder," none of them white.
Buchanan himself at least squares off against a Goliath, neoconservatism, which he calls "the dominant, nay, the only American conservatism worth talking about." His claim that the neoconservatives have single-handedly transformed the GOP into the "War Party" is dubious, however. The Bush administration, to be sure, features key neoconservative players, including Paul Wolfowitz, the mastermind of the impending Iraq invasion. But you can't pin Iraq on the neocons alone. Bush and Dick Cheney, both hawks, come out of the GOP's Southwestern Goldwater-Reagan wing, whose bellicosity Buchanan seems to have forgotten. For much of his political life Buchanan has been a cheerleader for American intervention. Long ago he wrote impassioned pro-Barry-Goldwater editorials in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, even as Goldwater mused about using tactical nukes in Vietnam. A decade ago Buchanan praised the U.S. troops that "liberated" Grenada and crowed that "the Red Army was run out of Afghanistan by U.S. weapons."
These recent episodes no longer interest Buchanan, who in his own books (some of which are pretty good) is more mythographer than historian. His mission, to restore conservatism to its "paleo" origins, seems less an act of rebellion than of nostalgia, even of archaism. The lead editorial "We Take Our Stand" echoes I'll Take My Stand, the anti-New-Deal manifesto written by the Southern Agrarians in 1930 and, more dimly, the famous "Publisher's Statement" that appeared in the first issue of National Review wherein the 29-year-old William F. Buckley Jr. promised readers a magazine that "stands athwart history, yelling Stop." But stopping history isn't what Buchanan has in mind. He wants to wind back the clock. That's not quixotic. It's sentimental. And when it comes to sentiment, as Buchanan should know by now, the liberals always win.
Sam Tanenhaus is the editor of the New York Times Book Review and the author of The Death of Conservatism.