Saturday, March 03, 2012

A Prophet of Lost Causes

Ordinarily, I am suspicious of biographies which are written while the subject is still alive. Time is often essential to clarify a person's place in history. Yet Timothy Stanley's biography of Pat Buchanan, titled The Crusader, is a worthy exception, for two reasons. First, and sadly, most of Buchanan's work is behind him. He may write a few more books yet--including, one hopes, his memoirs--but Pat and the paleo-conservatives seem to be cursed to wander in the political wilderness for the foreseeable future.

The second reason relates to the way Americans incorporate out knowledge of history into the narrative through which we practice politics. That narrative paints one side as the forces of good and the other of evil. Buchanan is ignored because he ill fits into the rigid dogma of left and right as diametrically opposed forces. That's unfortunate, because he has much to teach us.

After two brief chapters on Buchanan's early life, the first part of the book deals with the man as a mostly loyal Republican. Probably the most curious aspect of Buchanan's early policies was his hawkishness. In 1970, "Pat sent another memo to [President Nixon] saying that he should hit the antiwar protesters more... What the masses wanted [Buchanan] said, was a 'fighting president' not a 'professional president.'" Stanley also captures Buchanan at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, where he watched Mayor Daley's police throttle protesters from atop a balcony with the writer Norman Mailer. To the latter's shouts of "Pigs! Fascists!" Buchanan returned, "Hey, you've missed one!"

In the second part of the book, we see Buchanan assert himself against a wayward party. Believing that the Republicans had lost their way, he ran against the incumbent George H. W. Bush in 1992, which set the stage for a more serious, but likewise abortive, attempt to secure the nomination in 1996. The disastrous Reform Party run in 2000 is recounted as well. Ever the populist, Pat longed for a return to the social cohesion of the 1950's, perceived or real. To that end, he denounced NAFTA and argued for a tariff to protect manufacturing jobs. Whether or not Buchanan's policies would have helped is a matter of debate; what is irrefutable is that fewer and fewer Americans now work in the manufacturing sector.

In 1991, Pat added a new phrase to the political lexicon: vulture capitalism. In Stanley's summation: "Socialism was dumb, but unfettered capitalism was evil... At the center of the family was a gainfully employed father." Conservatism exists to protect the family; ergo, it had a duty to restrain corporatist forces that threatened to tear families apart.

Stanley highlights other better known aspects of his political philosophy. We see Pat as an accused racist and anti-Semite for his restrictionist views on immigration and his charges that the U.S. was conducting its foreign policy at the behest of the Israel lobby. The author reminds us that there are other sides to Pat, too.

The Crusader can make for a somber read, as when Pat says: "Mr. Dole put the interest of the big banks--Citibank, Chase Manhatten, Goldman Sachs--ahead of the American people." Truly, the Republic has been rotting for quite some time.

Most depressing of all is how little Pat's influence seems to be felt in today's Republican party, the party of war and vulture capitalism. The best that can be said is that some of Buchanan's positions are shared by libertarians such as Ron Paul. Having been banned from MSNBC for heresy against the secular orthodoxy, Buchanan's influence is likely to diminish even further. One suspects that Pat understands; for as Frederick D. Wilhelmsen observed, "Christendom is honor and the fatherland and man with his back to the wall. It is the glory of lost causes and the splendor of certain defeat."

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