“Republics exist only on tenure of being agitated.”
If anything might have transformed the presidential election of 2004 from a dull ritual of mass democracy into an interesting and perhaps even meaningful act of civic decision, it would have been the presence of Patrick J. Buchanan, whose wit and sharp conservative intelligence enlivened the elections of 1992, 1996, and 2000. Despite his absence as a candidate this year, Mr. Buchanan rides again in his most recent book, Where the Right Went Wrong, a work obviously crafted for the current election and—supposedly—for future ones as well.
“Supposedly” is appropriate because the book’s real message is directed at the conservative base of the Republican Party and what it can and should do to recover the party and its cause after this election. Toward the end of his book, Buchanan tells us, after recounting and analyzing what is wrong with the Bush administration,
A crunch is coming, and a civil war is going to break out inside the Republican Party along the old trench lines of the Goldwater-Rockefeller wars of the 1960s, a war for the heart and soul and future of the party for the new century.
There is no indication that Mr. Buchanan intends to be a contestant in that battle, but, if there is a flaw in his book, it is his belief that there will be such a battle at all.
What is wrong with the right is a question that he answers fairly simply—neoconservatism—and there is little reason to doubt that he is largely correct. The Old Right, he tells us in the beginning of his book, is defunct. “Conservatism, as taught by twentieth-century leaders like Robert Taft, Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, and Jesse Helms[,] is dead,” and its death was not a natural one. The neocons murdered it.
Buchanan’s documentation of this argument is ample. He describes in some detail how what representative neoconservatives—Norman Podhoretz, Irving Kristol, Bill Kristol, Richard Perle—say and write blatantly contradicts Old Right conservatism, and why most of what they say is simply bunk. Buchanan generally avoids the easier neoconservative targets such as David Frum and John Podhoretz (though he is probably the only writer anywhere who has ever quoted Tod Lindberg) and, instead, confronts what pass for neoconservatism’s heavy lifters. Thus, the senior Kristol, who is as heavy a lifter as the neocons possess, wrote in 2003 that “the United States will always feel obliged to defend, if possible, a democratic nation under attack from nondemocratic forces, external or internal,” and that this is why “it was in our national interest to come to the defense of France and Britain in World War II” and why we should “defend Israel today.” Buchanan’s deconstruction of this tissue of inanities is savage:
Not until eighteen months after the fall of France did we declare war on Hitler and not until after Hitler had declared war on us. America did not go to war to defend democracy. We went to war to exact retribution from a Japanese empire that had attacked us in our sleep at Pearl Harbor. Kristol is parroting liberal myths.
In the Cold War we welcomed as allies Chiang Kai-shek, President Diem, Salazar, Franco, Somoza, the shah, Suharto, Sygman Rhee, Park Chung Hee and the Korean generals, Greek colonels, militarists in Brazil, Argentina, and Turkey, President Marcos, and General Pinochet—because these autocrats proved more reliable friends and allies than democratists like Nehru, Olaf Palme, Willy Brandt, and Pierre Trudeau. When it comes to wars that threaten us, hot or cold, ideology be damned, we Americans are at one with Nietzsche: “A state, it is the coldest of all cold monsters.”
The pontifications of the godfather of neoconservatism are simply wrong (indeed, they are illiterate) in historical fact and irrelevant to serious discussion of foreign policy and national interests.
Buchanan sustains his polemic throughout the book, closely examining the buckets of evidence for neoconservative premeditation of the war on Iraq, from their obsession with Israeli goals as understood in the Likud Party to their ideological Wilsonianism that seeks global hegemony for the United States for the ostensible purpose of imposing “democracy” all over the world. Thus, Charles Krauthammer openly advocates a “new universalism” that would absorb the United States into a “super-sovereign entity” that would be “economically, culturally, and politically hegemonic in the world” and would include Europe and Japan along with the United States. Norman Podhoretz demands that we launch what he calls “World War IV” against virtually every Arabic state on the planet. Michael Ledeen writes: “We do not want stability in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and even Saudi Arabia; we want things to change. The real issue is not whether, but how to destabilize.” Whatever the merits of the claims that these targeted states—or some of them—possess or are trying to acquire “weapons of mass destruction,” we can easily understand why they might want them and feel tempted to use them against a country whose foreign policy is in the hands of these nuts. When they hear the word neoconservative, they would be well advised to reach for their nukes.
Buchanan’s account of neoconservatism and its derailment of Old Right conservatism is not confined to foreign policy. He also offers chapters analyzing neoconservative defections on cultural conservatism and in trade policy. In the latter case particularly, most neoconservatives (like the Wilsonians they are) are ideological free traders, in contrast to most Republicans, who espoused economic nationalism up to the 1950’s or even later; yet the main culprit here is less neoconservatism per se than the multinational corporations that demand globalization to bolster their own interests and to undermine wages for American labor. As Buchanan acknowledges, “the character of corporate America, the exchequer of the GOP, has changed” from a force supporting economic nationalism to one pushing its own global interests at the nation’s expense. Unfortunately, he says little about immigration policy, though he does repeat from his previous book, Death of the West, his warnings about the demographic implosion of the white West and endorses both a moratorium on legal immigration and putting troops on the Mexican border to control the illegal kind.
Finally, Buchanan surveys the history of the Supreme Court and its role in destroying American federalism, as well as the traditional cultural and moral fabric of American society. Though his account of such decisions as Brown v. Board of Education and others is excellent, he curiously never mentions what is undoubtedly the most far-reaching judicial usurpation of all: the Incorporation Doctrine and its application to the process of gutting states’ rights and local autonomy. In place of the usual litany from conservatives of the 57 constitutional amendments they claim they want to enact to correct every folly the Court inflicts, Buchanan wisely proposes relying on constitutional provisions for limiting the appellate jurisdiction of the courts and urges governors simply to refuse to enforce or obey the Court’s illicit decisions. They, after all, have taken oaths to uphold and defend their state constitutions, too.
Buchanan also shows how the neoconservative mafia has managed to seize control of the Republican Party and the organizational infrastructure of the American right, though he might have gone into somewhat more detail on the latter issue. Though massive documentation exists describing the process by which neoconservatives undermined the Old Right in the Reagan administration and in think tanks, magazines, and conservative groups around the same time, most of this sordid story has never been told in detail. “Neoconservatives,” Buchanan writes,
captured the foundations, think tanks, and opinion journals of the Right and were allowed to redefine conservatism. Their agenda—open borders, amnesty for illegal aliens, free trade, an orderly retreat in the culture wars, “Big Government Conservatism,” and Wilsonian interventions to reshape the world in America’s image—was embraced by Republican leaders as the new conservative agenda.
And the man who has embraced neoconservatism the most warmly has been George W. Bush. The amnesty for illegal immigrants proposed last January and the disastrous war with Iraq are the principal fruits of this union.
Given the line of analysis that he pursues in the book, Buchanan’s conclusions about the Republican Party simply do not follow. Despite being billed by its publishers and some critics as “an attack on President Bush,” Where the Right Went Wrong is, in fact, an endorsement of the incumbent President and a plea for his reelection. Buchanan’s argument here is twofold: First, Bush is better than John Kerry, and, since the next president will appoint new Supreme Court justices who will control the future of the Court for a generation, it is critical that Bush be the man who appoints them. Second, the Republican Party—not some hypothetical third party—is the only vehicle by which a serious right can recover its position and power. I find neither reason compelling.
George W. Bush may or may not be “better” than John Kerry, but there is little reason to think that any Supreme Court justices Bush might appoint in the next four years will be superior to the disastrous ones Republican presidents have given us in the past—Earl Warren and William Brennan (appointed by Dwight Eisenhower), Harry Blackmun (Richard Nixon), John Paul Stevens (Gerald Ford), Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy (Ronald Reagan), and David Souter (George H.W. Bush). Without these particular justices, the “judicial dictatorship” of which Buchanan rightly complains could never have occurred—a fact of which he is entirely aware and which he discusses frankly. Yet his answer, insofar as he offers one, is that the lower-court judges Bush has appointed so far have been conservatives, and this augurs well for the high court in the second term. Granted that they are, however, there is no particular reason to assume such appointments will continue into a second term, when Bush no longer needs to woo the political right and when key personnel in the Justice Department and the White House are likely to change. Unfortunately, the Republican track record on the Supreme Court has for so long been one of political expediency that conservatives cannot count on what a Republican administration will do.
The other reason Buchanan offers seems more persuasive at first glance. He is quite right in saying that no serious third party of the right exists in this country and that there probably is not going to be one. The political oligarchy has simply contrived to make it too difficult for alternative parties to gain the needed funding and ballot access that would make a serious third party possible. Another and deeper reason that such a party cannot develop, however, is that the American right as it exists today does not really want one. What it wants is the party it has, and something like the soft, smiley-face conservatism the party now offers.
The real task of conservative counterrevolutionaries today is not so much to create a new party as a practical political vehicle but to begin rebuilding (not recapturing) an infrastructure of journals, publishing houses, organizations, websites, and think tanks that can make a start at recovering what neoconservatives stole in the 1980’s (rather, more precisely and to be entirely fair, what the Old Right either allowed or actually invited them to steal). Buchanan quotes his old friend Richard Whalen in the aftermath of Watergate as saying that what conservatives needed to do was “go back to the catacombs.” That is exactly where they went, and, six years later, after constructing an impressive labyrinth of ideological and propaganda caverns, they had themselves a new president. That is what the real right needs to do again. There are signs—in this magazine and others—that it is beginning to do it.
If the kind of right that Pat Buchanan and most other real conservatives want is going to survive, it has to get out of, and away from, the Republican Party. Whatever conservatives remain within the party today have no discernible influence on its leadership, and, if that leadership is reconfirmed this month, it will have even less reason to pay them attention than it had in the administration’s first term. There already has been a struggle for the heart and soul and future of the Republican Party, and the man who led that struggle for the right—through no fault or flaw of his own—lost. If the heart and soul of the party are going to survive, they need to ditch the political cadaver in which they are now trapped and start building a new body to animate. The long march toward creating one needs to begin now.
[Where the Right Went Wrong: How Neoconservatives Subverted the Reagan Revolution and Hijacked the Bush Presidency, by Patrick J. Buchanan (New York: St. Martin’s Press) 264 pp., $24.95]
From the November 2004 issue of Chronicles.