When Pat Buchanan’s new book, The Great Betrayal, appeared in April, the hysteria that greeted it was entirely predictable. Not only does Mr, Buchanan challenge the free trade orthodoxy that is dominant among economists and policymakers in both political parties, but he also makes clear that the economic nationalism he champions is only a part of a much deeper challenge to the American power structure. His “new nationalism” is thus a bit more than a deviation from economic orthodoxy, and the hysteria that greeted the book was a bit more than the outrage that the guardians of orthodoxy always experience whenever their pet dogmas are found to have made a mess on the living room floor. Especially disturbing to Mr. Buchanan’s conservative critics is that this maverick journalist still refuses to shut up and go away and that his views are beginning to blossom into a full-scale political movement with a vision of the nation and its identity radically at odds with that of the chieftains of the “mainstream right.” What drove the paranoia about Pat this time was not so much fear of the consequences of his ideas as the grim realization that he and his ideas just might be on the eve of actually having consequences.
The main attack from the right on Mr. Buchanan’s book appeared in National Review (April 20), with something like a book review by Wall Street Journal editor Robert Bartley, followed by a kind of review-essay by the magazine’s Washington reporter, Ramesh Ponnuru, followed yet again by a largely sympathetic analysis of the Buchanan political phenomenon by the magazine’s ex-editor, John O’Sullivan. The issue sported a cover photograph of Mr. Buchanan during the 1996 Arizona primary wearing a black cowboy hat, holding aloft a hunting rifle, and emitting the irrepressible grin that seems to gloat over the anticipated pleasure of blowing the heads off his adversaries. Although the magazine “tactically” endorsed Mr. Buchanan’s presidential efforts in 1992, National Review is now edited by Mr. O’Sullivan’s successor, Richard Lowry, who makes no secret of his opposition to Mr. Buchanan and his ideas on trade policy, limiting immigration, or an “America First” foreign policy. Devoting the cover story of the magazine to an attack on Buchanan may therefore be read as a declaration of principle by Mr. Lowry as well as a declaration of war against “Buchananism” by the magazine itself, despite the presence of Mr. O’Sullivan’s friendly piece.
The kindest thing to say about Mr. Ponnuru’s “reporting” is that it is mostly wrong. Devoted mainly to misleading or inaccurate characterizations of Mr. Buchanan’s columns opposing the Persian Gulf War, the article sedulously searches out what its author imagines are elementary contradictions and bloopers in Mr. Buchanan’s thinking. Seeking to discredit Mr. Buchanan’s case against NATO expansion, Mr. Ponnuru smirks that “In the old days, he thought the Soviets would interpret conciliatory moves as weakness; we could help Kremlin doves only by shooting down hawks. Now that Russia is weaker, it’s imperative not to provoke her nationalists by expanding NATO.” Mr. Ponnuru evidently thinks he’s got Mr. Buchanan by the tonsils. Someone needs to explain to him that even though Russian communists and Russian nationalists live in the same country, the former were our enemies whom it was appropriate not to conciliate while the latter are not (at least yet) our enemies, whom it is appropriate not to antagonize by needless threats like an expanded NATO. To those of Mr. Ponnuru’s strategic genius, of course, the distinction between enemy and non-enemy is meaningless. What is meaningful is whether Russia and other countries on the global-democratic hit list do what we tell them. That mentality has been a main target of Buchanan and other paleoconservatives ever since the Gulf War, but Mr. Ponnuru still misses the point.
Mr. Ponnuru’s piece is perhaps the magazine’s concession to old-time Buchanan-bashers who can’t forgive him for his wisecrack about the “amen corner” at the time of the Gulf War mass neurosis, but the magazine’s piece de resistance is Mr. Bartley’s “review,” over which old-timers as well as newcomers to Buchanan-bashery will smack their lips. Entitled “The Great Betrayal,” the review is less a consideration of the merits of the book (in Mr. Bartley’s mind, it has none) than a protracted accusation that Buchanan himself is the real traitor—to American conservatism.
Mr. Bartley has long been one of the main spokesmen for a version of neoconservatism that glories in unrestricted free trade, virtually unlimited immigration, and equally unlimited foreign military intervention for the purpose of “spreading democracy,” During the Gulf War, his editorial page hectored the Bush administration not to stop in Kuwait but to go on to Baghdad, overthrow the regime, and establish a “MacArthur regency” that would dispense the lollipops of American democracy, capitalism, and Hollywood culture. Yet Mr. Bartley is no chauvinist. Indeed, in his review, he makes sport with a quotation attributed to him by National Review editor Peter Brimelow (and cited by Mr. Buchanan) that “The nation-state is finished.” Mr. Bartley claims Mr. Brimelow “put this hyperbolic phrase in my mouth” and that “it bears only a passing resemblance to my views.” I have no doubt that Mr. Brimelow quoted him correctly, and the resemblance between the quotation and his views is more than passing.
Mr. Bartley commences his review by recalling that “the initial manifesto of National Review famously declared that its posture would be that it ‘stands athwart history, yelling stop,'” a posture which he believes was justified by the collapse of Soviet communism. He then rehearses the various elements in the “conservative coalition” that National Review built, and the triumph of that coalition in the presidency of Ronald Reagan. But now appears Pat Buchanan and his call to renounce free trade, internationalism, open immigration, and the global economy. We can see how far Mr. Buchanan has strayed by the fact that he quotes approvingly from John Sweeney of the AFL-CIO on the need for an increase in American wages. Indeed, pronounces Mr. Bartley, “Politically, it’s difficult to see what Mr. Buchanan’s platform has to do with conservatism, except perhaps in the sense that Mr. Sweeney’s AFL-CIO is the most reactionary force in American politics today.”
But nowhere in his book does Mr. Buchanan support the labor union hierarchy that Mr. Bartley so fears. What he does support are the interests of American workers (which the unions sometimes make noises about representing) against those of both foreign competitors and domestic free trade ideologues and the corporate elites, foreign and domestic, that sponsor them. The distinction between supporting unions and supporting the interests of their members sails quite happily past Mr. Bartley’s head.
Moreover, Mr. Bartley’s characterization of the “conservative coalition” bears little resemblance to what that movement actually thought and advocated. It’s true that the coalition was supportive of free trade, but trade policy was never much of an issue for it at all. It’s also true that the coalition was generally internationalist, but mainly because of its anticommunism, seeing in the Soviet Union a global menace that ultimately threatened American national security. The old “conservative coalition” never supported the kind of mindless and bellicose internationalism that Mr. Bartley and most neoconservatives advocate: a perpetual crusade to carry the torch of “American democracy” to every nook and cranny of the planet (complete, one might add, with the much-dreaded labor unions that Mr. Bartley’s neoconservative social-democrat allies admire).
Nor does Mr. Bartley understand conservatism today. “In our time,” he writes, “smaller government is the essence of what we call conservatism.” That is simply not true. Conservatism is a defense of a particular way of communal life (what Mr. Buchanan calls “a moral community [that] must share values higher than economic interest”), and while the leviathan state today is certainly one of the main enemies of the American way of life, it is not the only enemy, nor is denying the state the authority to perform its legitimate functions an effective means of conserving our way of life. Restrictions on immigration and protection of national economic interests are governmental measures that can help conserve the national way of life. Moreover, the test of what is and is not “big [i.e., illegitimate] government” in the American way of life is not the ideology of classical liberalism or “anarcho-capitalism” but the U.S. Constitution, which explicitly authorizes federal regulation of foreign commerce and implicitly authorizes immigration control. Neither action lies beyond the legitimate scope of the federal government, and therefore neither constitutes “big government.”
Yet despite Mr. Bartley’s historical illiteracy, his tactic is a clever one. Previous attacks on Pat Buchanan came mainly from neoconservatives who never voiced any interest in the ideal of “standing athwart history and yelling stop” but who denounced him precisely because he was too much a conservative of the old school. But by associating himself with the old conservatism, Mr. Bartley is trying to deny that label to Buchanan and indeed to claim that Buchanan himself is the defector. While the neocons attack Buchanan for being “too far to the right,” Mr. Bartley attacks him for having nothing to do with the right.
But this dog won’t hunt. Quite aside from his misunderstanding of what the old “conservative coalition” believed, Mr. Bartley’s rhetoric and beliefs betray his allegiances, which, in a word, are to liberalism. It is no accident that Mr. Bartley’s editorial page (and most “mainstream” conservatives) in the last several years have devoted themselves to defending virtually every major trade and foreign policy proposal advanced by the Clinton administration. The Journal (and for that matter. National Review) has supported Clinton on NAFTA, the World Trade Organization, and sending American troops to Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia. They support Bill Clinton today on NATO expansion, and Mr. Bartley has pushed for an immigration policy all but indistinguishable from that of Clinton, Ted Kennedy, and the National Lawyers Guild. Yet here he squats, squealing that the real traitor to conservatism is Pat Buchanan.
As for where Mr. Bartley stands, he makes his posture entirely clear. Denouncing Mr. Buchanan’s “thumping the drum for a kind of tribal solidarity in the name of ‘sovereignty,'” he writes: “We globalists view this as a rejection of modernity. Mr. Buchanan proposes to stand athwart not only the march of Communism, but also powerful trends driven by the information revolution. . . . Attempts to dam up change bear heavy costs.” In short, after affirming the need for conservatives to stand athwart history and cry “stop,” Mr. Bartley proceeds to excommunicate Mr. Buchanan for standing athwart history and (eek!) “rejecting modernity.” Is it surprising that Mr. Bartley’s flawed account of the old “conservative coalition” conveniently omitted Russell Kirk, M.E. Bradford, Richard Weaver, and other conservative thinkers whose ideas centered precisely on the rejection of modernity? He does try to conscript Whittaker Chambers, but Chambers was perhaps the most radically anti-modernist of all.
That it is a fairly conventional liberalism to which Mr. Bartley subscribes and which he has confused with conservatism is clear not only in his rejection of the nation-state and its “tribal solidarity'” and in his affirmation of political and cultural universalism, but also from his reliance on the very code words and epithets by which the left has always sought to deny legitimacy to the right. Buchanan is aligned with “reactionary forces”; historical trends of which Mr. Bartley approves are irresistible; any ideas that question their irresistibility are simply dismissed with sneers as irrationalism and the product of ignorance. This is precisely the way that Arthur Schlesinger and John Kenneth Galbraith used to write about William F. Buckley. If we hear their voices echoed in Mr. Bartley’s mouth, that is no accident.
On one matter, Mr. Bartley is partly right. The New Nationalism that Mr. Buchanan advocates is not identical to the old conservatism, for the very clear reason that the anti-communism of the old conservatism is now irrelevant. It is irrelevant not because communism has ceased to flourish, but because it is no longer located in the Soviet Union. Communism does indeed flourish, in the premises and assumptions that Mr. Bartley and his neoconservative allies at the journal and National Review harbor, and the utopianism and universalism that creep out of those premises and assumptions are indistinguishable from what that great free-trader Karl Marx himself believed was the inevitable future of mankind. When the nation-state is abolished and “we globalists” have excommunicated everyone who resists the march of the New World Order that has replaced it, we will see whether Mr. Buchanan might have had a point after all. Until then, those American conservatives who still reject modernity and want to conserve their nation and its way of life can find no better reason for rejecting what the modern “conservative coalition” now offers than what Mr. Bartley and National Review have revealed about where the mainstream in which they swim will carry us.
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