Profile - Pat Buchanan: The only left-wing candidate

Bill Kauffman on the paradox of the Republican who threatens George W Bush and his millions

Bill Kauffman
Saturday 03 July 1999 23:02


s the Texas Governor, George W Bush, saunters to the Republican presidential nomination like a complacent country-clubber strolling up the 18th fairway, wishing to God he could have a good stiff drink or three in the club house, just like old times (but no: his days as a table-dancing, bimbo-banging scion are over, for he has become Compassionate Conservatism made flesh), a rude surprise awaits. That old hell-raiser Pat Buchanan is organising a revolt of the caddies. Last week Buchanan's aides hinted that if - when - Buchanan is denied the Grand Old Party nomination, he may bolt and run as the candidate of Ross Perot's populist Reform Party.

Bush Jnr has raised the astonishing sum of $36m from those corporations and investment bankers who seek to rent his services for the next quadrennium. No other Republican candidate has even a fraction of the Bush treasury, save the publishing heir Steve Forbes, who appears ready to expend tens of millions of dollars of the family wealth - whatever was not spent by his late father, Malcolm, in pursuit of leather-clad boys - in his own pursuit of Christian voters who believe the capital-gains tax to be un- biblical. The consultants who have lucked on to the Forbes gravy train seem to be enjoying themselves.

But, sooner or later, whether in the grey February of New Hampshire, site of the first presidential primary in 2000, a state whose licence plates read "Live Free or Die" and whose old Yankee residents mean it, or in November, as a renegade third-party candidate, Pat Buchanan and his populist band are going to block young Georgie's path to the presidency so recently occupied by his mediocre father. In best prep-school fashion, Bush will try to buy his way past the unruly townies. But this time, Roger Daltrey-like, the rabble are vowing that they won't get fooled again.

Patrick J Buchanan receives the worst press of any merican political figure since George Wallace, the southern firebrand of the 1960s. Wallace was crude, a poor white whom the educated Easterners of the press corps could feel superior to. But Buchanan is witty, engaging and smart 60-year- old; he is Washington-bred and Jesuit-educated. His father was an accountant who taught his sons to use their fists for fighting rather than gripping pencils. Young Pat learnt this lesson too well: he was suspended from Georgetown University for a year after brawling with police officers who had issued him with a traffic ticket. Buchanan has spent most of his adulthood in the Imperial City, charming even the liberals he has so expertly baited.

So why does Pat Buchanan bear the mark of the beast? Because he is the only major merican political figure to wake from the long Cold War nightmare and demand that his countrymen renounce empire. Buchanan is that rara avis in merican public life: a politician who has sat back, examined the evidence and changed his mind. He served as an adviser to two of the most internationalist presidents, Nixon and Reagan, and while he remains personally loyal to this dubious duo, his platform is a flat repudiation of their legacies.

He opposed the Gulf war. He denounced the recent war over Kosovo. He is for withdrawing US troops from Europe and Korea. He has called his voters "anti-imperialist and anti-interventionist, disbelievers in Pax mericana". His forthcoming book is titled Republic, Not n Empire, and the locution is instructive: he is the first merican politician to use the e-word since Senator William Fulbright (the one honourable Bill that rkansas has given the nation).

Buchanan is also the sole prominent politician (other than his kindred spirit, the ex-California governor and current Oakland mayor, Jerry Brown) who uses "capitalist" as an epithet. He speaks the language of the historically rooted merican left, the noble left of Eugene Debs and prairie populists, who dreamt of a farmer-labour coalition against the forces of finance. "One day," Buchanan recently prophesied to unemployed steelworkers in West Virginia, "merican workers will wake up and realise that their jobs [and] factory towns have been sacrificed - to save the bacon of the `investment community'. When they do, the day of reckoning will be at hand."

It is quite impossible to imagine a Clinton Democrat using such language. Why, that's, that's ... class warfare! Come, now: how about a federal retraining voucher instead? Just take a few computer courses and cram the kids into subsidised day-care and in no time at all you'll be a productive cog in the global economy. Lose that anger, pal: it'll eat you up inside. Here, have a healthy snack ... this is, by the way, a smoke-free environment.

There is no Left left in merica. Pat Buchanan is it. The Democratic Party has crucified workers on its cross of globalism, justifying every nail (Nafta, Gatt, the periodic bail-outs of Wall Street) as the inevitable and life-giving spikes of neo-liberalism. merican trade union bosses are terrified of Buchanan's appeal to their rank-and-file members. s well they ought to be: for 50 years the social democrats of the labour leadership have subordinated the interests of steelworkers and coal miners to the preferences of the chummy bipartisans of Washington.

Buchanan's programme is frankly - foolishly - protectionist, less out of a philosophical commitment to tariffs than out of a sentimental attachment to the embattled merica that exists far from the beachfront summer homes in which the bond traders and their anorexic partners are celebrating Independence Day by watching Wimbledon on TV and Merchant-Ivory snoozers on the VCR.

In its specifics, Buchanan's platform has a libertarian flavour - he would abolish far more federal agencies than the timorous Bush - but his rhetoric is fiercely communal: "I don't worship the market system. I don't worship at the altar of efficiency." His traditional Roman Catholic understanding of abortion and homosexuality offends and scandalises the yuppie liberals who run the Democratic Party (and who have battened on to the Wall Street boom). He has successfully courted evangelical Protestants: the Pope may be the ntichrist but Pat's their man. t the same time, however, the evangelical's fervour on abortion and homosexuality makes Buchanan seem limply latitudinarian.

Buchanan the polemicist has always been a good read, but many people who were initially unsympathetic were drawn to him during the Great Vilifications of the 1992 and 1996 presidential elections. mong the most shameful aspects of merican political life is the medicalisation of dissent, which received its fullest treatment from the liberal historian Richard Hofstadter in The Paranoid Style in merican Politics (1966). Hofstadter ascribed all dissent from the Cold War-Great Society consensus, whether on left or right, to mental illness. This was a gentler version of the Soviet strategy of committing dissidents to nuthouses, but the intent was the same: to strangle heterodoxy. The Hofstadterian diagnosis was revived in 1992, which in retrospect was an epochal election. Not because of the banal Bush and the crapulent Clinton, but for the electrifying presence of Buchanan, Jerry Brown and Ross Perot, who revived a politics of populism that was hostile to concentrated power in all its forms: corporate, governmental and cultural - in shorthand, Wall Street, Washington and Hollywood. When the potential appeal of this revolt against giantism became clear, each of the three insurgents was quickly psychoanalysed and pronounced "paranoid" or "crazy".

In 1996, running as the candidate of people who "feel alienated from Washington and the turbo-charged, two-tiered, go-go global economy", Buchanan stunned the pundits by defeating Bob Dole in the New Hampshire primary. few independent voices on the left praised him - an admiring Norman Mailer urged him to run as a radical Democrat - but the Republican hierarchs subjected Buchanan to a campaign of slander. fter all, the GOP has been the party of big business since its very first president, the melancholic railroad lawyer Lincoln.

Pat Buchanan was once told that he should take Gore Vidal as his running mate in a third-party presidential bid. The anti-imperialist right meets the anti-imperialist left. He laughed at the idea: nothing, he seemed to suggest, could be crazier. Yet today he praises Vidal's writing. In post-republic merica, the old straitjackets are being shed. Left and right give way to anti-imperialist and globalist. new Party of the People is aborning. Take your time on that 18th hole, George. Something's got into these caddies. They won't be carrying your bag next round.

Bill Kauffman's books include `merica First!: Its History, Culture and Politics'.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged in