John C. Calhoun was intelligent, public-spirited, and forthright. But he lacked a virtue that his age and our own both...
Populism’s Prophet: A Chat with Pat Buchanan
Liberal commentators and many conservatives were shocked when an outspoken populist defied the Republican Party establishment and won a devoted following on the right with his attacks on free trade, foreign military interventionism, and insecure borders. This presidential contender had never before held elective office, and critics denounced him as an extremist. But this isn’t the tale of Donald J. Trump—it’s the story of Patrick J. Buchanan, whose campaigns in 1992, 1996, and 1999–2000 previewed the direction conservatism would take some twenty-five years later. As a former Nixon and Reagan staffer, a longtime syndicated columnist, and a bestselling author, Buchanan has been for more than five decades a prophet and exponent of what is now called national conservatism. In this interview with the young libertarian writer Atilla Sulker, conducted in July, Mr. Buchanan reflects on his experiences and applies the wisdom he’s gleaned as he looks ahead at the reconfiguration of American politics in the wake of the “woke” cultural insurgency and the impending crack-up of the Democratic Party’s progressive coalition. —ed.
Atilla Sulker: You’ve had a very distinguished career—working as a speechwriter and assistant to President Nixon, and as White House communications director under President Reagan. Which one of these very interesting jobs did you enjoy the most?
Pat Buchanan: I couldn’t say which I enjoyed the most, but I spent far more time with and was far closer to President Nixon, whom I joined in January 1966, three years before he was elected. That’s the presidency about which I’ve written two books. Reagan was historic. I was at Geneva with him and I was at the Reykjavík Summit. I think it would be hard to pick or choose, but I think—since I’ve written the two books about him—I would say I’m much closer to Richard Nixon.
AS: In the Nixon Era, there were a number of other very politically ambitious people involved in the administration. People who instantly come to mind are Henry Kissinger, Don Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney. What was it like to interact with some of these people?
PB: I didn’t interact that much with Cheney and Rumsfeld when they were with Nixon. They were not in the White House until Gerald Ford came in and I was on my way out.
The interactions with Dr. Kissinger—I had an interaction with him on the plane coming home from Shanghai when I felt the communiqué with communist China was horribly written from the standpoint of the United States. And I said so and told him so on the plane, had a little bit of a personal confrontation. But I’d prefer not to go into a lot of stories and anecdotes about Henry. He and I were contentious because I was a hawk on Vietnam and a conservative—and concerned about our political coalition with the conservatives. And Henry was much more tuned in to the Harvard background he had and to that crowd, and to Georgetown. So we had some disagreements, but that’s ancient history now.
AS: Looking at the Reagan years—Jack Matlock, in his book Reagan and Gorbachev, recounts the 1985 Geneva Summit with the Soviets. You took over the position of White House communications director not long after David Gergen’s departure. What was going through your mind during those initial negotiations with Gorbachev and what made you more of a hardliner than Secretary of State George Shultz and some of the more pro-negotiation people in the National Security Council?
PB: Well, I was a hardliner before I came into the Reagan White House. And the Geneva Summit came out of the blue, pretty early in my two years there. When I went to Geneva, I basically agreed that we ought to go—Ronald Reagan wanted to talk to Gorbachev. And he had told me once, when I first went in with him, that he had wanted to talk with a Soviet leader, but, he said, “Pat, they keep dying on me.”
Brezhnev had died. Chernenko had died. Andropov had died. And now we had Gorbachev, and the president was anxious to speak with him. And I was in favor of the summit with the president, and I thought it went very well. I wasn’t at the house where they talked, but the president came back to the house after he met with Gorbachev at the first gathering. And he came back, and he had his arm in a sling as though he’d been beaten up by Gorbachev, and we all laughed at it because it was a joke.
But we thought it [the summit] had gone off successfully, and when we flew home I felt that Reagan had come off far better than Gorbachev, because with that meeting at the house, where it was very cold, Reagan came down the steps in his suit coat and helped Gorbachev out of the car, and Gorbachev got out and he had on this big old overcoat and hat. And so Reagan sort of looked like the superior host for the affair, and he came off very well.
I was with him also at Reykjavík—which was a far more dramatic summit—which was called in 1986 on a few days’ notice. I was there with him at Hofdi House on that final day and flew home with the president after the thing blew up.
AS: While we’re on the Reagan years, another hardliner in the administration was your old colleague Richard Perle. In a 2007 documentary, he visited you at your house and interviewed you about the state of the Iraq War then, and he tried to convince you it was going well. In response, you called his foreign policy “neo-Comintern.” How did people like you and Perle diverge on foreign policy after the collapse of the Soviet Union?
PB: Well, I remember after it was over—the Cold War, when we knew it was over and the Soviet Empire was breaking up in Eastern Europe, and the countries were becoming free and independent of communist control and Soviet control, and the Soviet Union was breaking apart—at that point I said that this is an epochal event: that the Cold War, which had basically dominated my political and public career for thirty years, was over. And if the Russians are going home, we should go home, and NATO should be turned over to the Europeans, and they should now begin to defend themselves, since it was not the Soviets [anymore], it was Russia, and they had lost an entire empire—six nation-states in Central and Eastern Europe, and they had lost fourteen republics to independence—that it was simply not a Cold War situation anymore. We did not need permanent American troops defending nations that ought to be defending themselves in Europe.
So many of my friends wanted to basically—which they succeeded in doing—make America what they called the exceptional nation. They wanted a “new world order.” They wanted the United States and Great Britain to—you know, they bought into the theory that this was the end of history. That democratic capitalism was the wave of the future and the United States should basically lead the world to that destiny. And to me, what the victory in the Cold War meant was we should return to a traditional American foreign policy of America First.
And so that’s what caused—one of the motivations that drove me to running against George H. W. Bush for the Republican nomination in 1991.
AS: You brought up democratic capitalism. I want to ask you a little bit about that while we’re on the topic. What do you make of this sort of Ayn Rand conception of capitalism, this hyper-individualism, and how do you distinguish it from a more traditionalist free-market economic order?
PB: Well, Ayn Rand [had] an ultra-libertarian view of the world and of society and of how the world ought to work. I don’t share it at all. I’m much more of a traditionalist. I’ve got the social doctrines of the Catholic Church, where we are basically a community—people look after one another, and we’ve got obligations to each other. We are a community that works together rather than this hyper-individualism.
Family, community, country, neighborhood, church, and all these things are important to me. And they’re not to some of those who worship at the altar of unvarnished or uninhibited capitalism. So I was never of that tribe. And I’ve always had some sympathy for unions and collective action on the part of people to make society more just and equitable. That always had an appeal to me, and it really affected me when I traveled the country back in 1990 and 1991, seeing all these factories and companies shutting down and moving abroad, jobs being lost, people being laid off, families going through hellish conditions.
And I went back and studied and found that the nineteenth-century Republican policy of protectionism and making America first—making America great, putting our country first, and basically Americans depending upon one another for the necessities of life—was far more important and far more correct than depending upon foreign countries like Japan then or China now [for] the needs of our national life.
The economy ought to be structured to bring people together and to bring people to trust one another and to rely upon one another. Again, the idea of individualism or these corporate institutions that have no allegiance or loyalty to anything but the bottom line, that never appealed to me.
AS: There’s a book called The Politics of Individualism by Lawrence Kohl in which the author describes the societal views of the two political parties during the Jacksonian Era, the Democrats and the Whigs. The Democrats tended to be less in favor of government and more traditionalist, whereas the Whigs were more individualistic and favored an active government. What you just said sounds a lot like what Jacksonian Democrats were saying against the Whigs. Do you see Andrew Jackson as sort of an ideological predecessor to paleoconservatives and people like yourself?
PB: Well, Jackson was Scotch-Irish, I believe, and my father’s family is from Mississippi, and he [Jackson] was the hero to those folks in those years. He was the victor of the Battle of New Orleans. He was the greatest soldier in American history. He was the father of Jacksonian democracy. His war with the Second National Bank of the United States I found fascinating.
And I think the idea of Jackson as an individual, as a soldier, as one who put his country first and spent his whole life trying to protect, expand, and grow the United States and prevent its disruption—a lot of these aspects of him had great appeal to me. And I think if you asked about a president I admired, he’d be right up near the top.
AS: Do you think President Trump is similar to Andrew Jackson?
PB: Well, I just think they’re different men. Jackson was first and foremost a soldier and a fighter. But they’ve got the idea of putting the country first and looking out at foreign countries and foreign lands as challengers, rivals, and adversaries. I think that aspect, that vision, pretty much informs Trump’s vision of the world as well.
AS: I want to transition to the current political scene. Many millennials and people in Generation Z support these things like the managerial state, the toppling of statues, transgenderism, as if they were nothing. What I’ve noticed is that only a small percentage of them are actually on the far left. The rest are peer-pressured by this small group of leftists into supporting these things. They’ll get called out for not being “woke,” for not being with the current cultural trends. Why do you think genuine critical thinking is so hard to find in young people nowadays?
PB: Well, I think a lot of this—I’ve written an awful lot about it—is a product of the 1960s. I think this revolution—sexual, cultural, racial, and many other ways—has captured a significant slice of America’s young. And the teachers in the public schools and in the colleges and in the universities were converted to this way of thinking. And I’ve written about it in Death of the West and in Suicide of a Superpower, how all the institutions that transmit ideas and culture—from the media, to Hollywood, to the universities, the academy, the public schools—they’ve been converted to this way of thinking.
And what you’ve got is basically an ideology or political religion which is in its early stages of conquest and is extraordinarily militant and intolerant. And I think people are simply going along with what they see as the revolution and the future. And I think we’re going to have a difficult time getting through it. My book Suicide of a Superpower—the subtitle is Will America Survive to 2025? And I just took that year as sort of a projected year in the future when I thought the country could very well come close to coming apart. And I think if you take a look at that—along the lines of race and culture and morality and ethnicity and geography and various other factors—America is ceasing to be really one nation and one people. And we’re becoming sort of a conglomerate, a combination, an empire, rather than a people and a nation.
And I think that’s happening rather rapidly, and the sharpening of the divisions are between the traditionalists—I remember growing up, America was a good country and a great country, and we’re proud to be a part of it, and we should continue it, and it was overall the greatest experiment in the history of man, and we were fortunate to be part of it—and those who now are coming to believe, or at least are acting on a belief, that America was born in sin and crime and hatred and genocide. And so they’re coming to hate the society and the country as it is and how it was constructed. Their whole idea is basically to convert it to this new ideology, this new way of thinking, which is much more fair and just. It’s a movement with religious aspects to it, in terms of the fanaticism and the zealotry.
AS: A few months back I was at an event for Charlie Kirk’s “Culture War” tour. He used a lot of generic conservative talking points from people like Ben Shapiro and the Daily Wire. Yet he did not even once mention the culture war in his speech. This is the guy welcoming drag queens into the conservative movement. Why is he using a term that you popularized without once mentioning what you talked about in your now famous speech?
PB: [Laughs.] He may be on the other side in the culture war, if he believes [in] this type of what I believe is abhorrent behavior! In terms of homosexuality, et cetera, I hold to a traditional view on that. But again, this goes back to the acceptance of and the embrace of homosexual activity, gay marriage, and the rest of it. That’s the result of a conversion to a new way of thinking about morality. And at root, what it says is that basically all sexual morality that is consensual and above a certain age is morally good or morally neutral, and no one should impose his or her views on society in this regard.
But I think when you get to a situation where you have no religious basis for your community, and no moral basis of the community upon which all agree, and you disagree on the most basic things, you don’t have a country anymore—you have more of a mall of people of different beliefs, different cultures, and the rest of it.
If you take conservatism to where you celebrate transgender sexual activity, quite frankly you’re simply not in the same movement I was in. Or you don’t believe the same things I believe. And you may call yourself a conservative and you may be regarded as a leader of the conservatives, and I realize that’s out there [laughs], but that’s not me!
AS: I remember at one point in his speech, Kirk said something along the lines of “us conservatives preserve traditions and values that we care about.” But I guess we care about different traditions and values.
PB: You know, one thing that I’ve been against is the idea that it’s all about economic man, and that the economy and the structure of the economy is all-important, in the redistribution of material goods and the rest of it. My belief has always been, on that aspect, that the economy is of course vitally important, but the economy is subordinate to the nation. And what is important is the nation and the people and the country. And what are the economic rules and regulations you want that make that stronger, more united, and more one nation and one people, and thus relying upon one another. So there are differences there.
AS: Nowadays, many neocons like Bill Kristol and Carly Fiorina are rooting for Joe Biden. Several Bush 43 alumni are as well. These are the same people who are always afraid of scrutinizing the left. What does this tell you about this ilk in the Republican Party?
PB: Let me say this. All the anti-Trump groups, their hope is that they’re going to help bring down Trump and elect Joe Biden. And they could bring a Democratic Senate. And then they believe history is going to record they did a wonderful thing and they will inherit the earth. I think they’re sorely mistaken.
I think if they’re responsible for destroying this presidency or ending this presidency, [then] the remnant, if you will, the Republicans and conservatives who stood and fought afoot, that went down to defeat with Trump—they [Never Trumpers] will never be able to bring those folks [the remnant] around to their own point of view. So I think that their role now is essentially destructive. And the transfer of authority and power to Joe Biden and his party—which is now increasingly dominated by a radical left, almost neo-Marxist party culturally—I think that’s something that they’re going to have to answer for, if they’re successful. But I don’t think anyone’s going to stand up and congratulate them as America’s heroes.
AS: In many ways, Trump has already gutted the establishment GOP. People like Bill Kristol are still out there, but they only hold so much relevance. We see people like Tucker Carlson significantly rising in ratings. People are talking about a 2024 presidential bid with him. The way I see it, there’s a decent chance the GOP could die within the next few years. Do you think there’s a chance that a real conservative party could rise out of the ashes?
PB: Well, as I’ve written in my book, I believe demography is destiny. And if Texas goes the way of California demographically, it will go the way of California politically. I do think that this revolution that we’re going through right now—social, cultural—is very strong. It’s captured a far larger share of America’s young than it did when I was writing statements for Richard Nixon about the Columbia takeover in April of 1968. It has converted an enormous slice of the country. Trump won, but he had nothing like the landslides we put together in 1972 and 1980 and 1984 and even in 1988. And so demographically the great silent majority is passing on—and a lot of it has already passed on. And a significant slice of the younger generation is, as you described it earlier, caught up with being “woke” and is temporarily, I think, on the other side.
So where does it all go? I wonder if a traditionalist conservative party, such as the kind that I would like to see, can gain a national majority again. But I do think this: I think the Democratic Party is going to come apart. That coalition is going to come apart because what holds it basically together is really, as someone described, the Democratic Party is a coalition of warring tribes held together by their common anticipation of common plunder. They want to get their piece of action out of it. And I don’t know that they can all satisfy each other. And so I wonder—a new political configuration could come about. But as for a Pat Buchanan party being a national, dominant party, or Donald Trump being a majority party, I think the best shot at maintaining that, of course, would be a Trump victory.
But I do think that if Trump loses, there will be an enormous remnant of the country which will be so profoundly dissatisfied with where we’re going that it could in effect politically kind of split off. Whether it could create a new majority party, I’m not sure. I do think if Trump lost this election, the 2022 off-year election would be a wipeout of the Democrats and Biden, because I’m really not sure they can hold that whole thing together.
Atilla Sulker is a writer for Townhall.com, the Epoch Times, the Washington Examiner, and the Mises Institute, and runs an enterprise focused on novel K–5 education solutions.
Founded in 1957 by the great Russell Kirk, Modern Age is the forum for stimulating debate and discussion of the most important ideas of concern to conservatives of all stripes. It plays a vital role in these contentious, confusing times by applying timeless principles to the specific conditions and crises of our age—to what Kirk, in the inaugural issue, called “the great moral and social and political and economic and literary questions of the hour.”
Get the Collegiate Experience You Hunger For
Your time at college is too important to get a shallow education in which viewpoints are shut out and rigorous discussion is shut down.
Explore intellectual conservatism
Join a vibrant community of students and scholars
Defend your principles
Join the ISI community. Membership is free.