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Buchanan's surefire flop.
Home Bound
by Franklin Foer

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Post date 07.11.02 | Issue date 07.22.02 Email this article.  E-mail this article

It can't be a good omen for Pat Buchanan. The man who will now carry the pitchfork for his "America First" peasant populism is a European aristocrat. Taki Theodoracopulos (or Taki, as he signs his byline), scion to a Greek shipping fortune, will fund and contribute essays to Buchananism's new house organ, The American Conservative (TAC), a Washington-based biweekly set to launch this September. It is, to say the least, an odd match. While Buchanan venerates the working class, Taki is an unabashed yacht-owning, nightclub-going social snob with homes in the Swiss Alps, London, and Manhattan's Upper East Side. While Buchanan rails against the fraying of God-fearing, law-abiding, traditional American culture, Taki was convicted in 1984 for smuggling cocaine. His most penetrating meditation on American cultural decay was a 1982 essay in The American Spectator titled, "Why American Women are Lousy Lovers."

Still, this unlikely pair is bound by a common goal: to rescue American conservatism from the false gods of internationalism, immigration, free trade, and Zionism. And Buchanan's disastrous 2000 presidential run notwithstanding, as recently as one year ago there was reason to believe such a mission might elicit popular support. After all, in his quest to woo Hispanics, George W. Bush floated a blanket amnesty for Mexican immigrants--an idea that sparked a sharply negative reaction from the conservative grassroots. He called fast-track trade authority a top priority and declared himself "committed to pursuing open trade at every opportunity," despite evidence that the American right was souring on free trade. He reneged on campaign promises to pull U.S. troops from Bosnia and Kosovo. And against conservative orthodoxy, he embraced the spirit of multiculturalism, hardly lifting a finger to undo affirmative action and apparently practicing it himself, packing his Cabinet with minority appointments. In short, the most corporate president in recent history seemed the perfect foil for the anti-corporate conservatism Buchanan had been preaching for years.

And at first glance, September 11 seemed to add fuel to Buchanan's critique. What better evidence for Fortress America than the spectacle of visa-finagling foreigners blowing up lower Manhattan? Buchanan wrote a quickie book, The Death of the West, about the swarthy menace; and across Europe his brand of nativism began harvesting votes in record number. But over time it has become clear that on this side of the Atlantic, 9/11 hasn't boosted the isolationist right; it has extinguished it. Instead of America Firstism, September 11 has produced a war on terrorism that has virtually ended conservative qualms about expending blood and treasure abroad. And as a corollary, it has produced an unprecedented eruption of conservative and evangelical support for Israel. The conservative establishment has co-opted post-9/11 fears of Muslim immigration, and Bush has covered his protectionist flank on trade. In short, Buchanan and his rich friends couldn't have chosen a worse time to start a journal of the isolationist right.


TAC thinks conservative support for the war on terrorism is hollow; indeed it plans to make the issue its raison d'etre. According to Scott McConnell--a former editorial-page editor of the New York Post, an heir to the Avon cosmetics fortune, and TAC's third proprietor--"Garden-variety conservatives pretend that the movement speaks with one voice on foreign policy. But foreign policy represents a significant fissure among conservatives. [TAC] will challenge the orthodoxy." It would be more accurate to say it used to represent a significant fissure among conservatives. In late-'90s debates over the Balkans, for instance, a growing number of congressional Republicans broke from the internationalism of GOP elders like Bob Dole and George H.W. Bush and echoed Buchanan's 1999 critique of America's "utopian crusades for global democracy." One year later Tom DeLay delivered a speech at a Washington think tank decrying Clintonite foreign policy as "social work." And Trent Lott took to CNN to accuse the president of neglecting diplomacy, urging him to "give peace a chance" in Kosovo. Even some normally hawkish neoconservatives like Charles Krauthammer condemned the Balkan interventions as "a colossal waste--and drain." A poll in late 1999 taken by Mark Penn showed that 57 percent of Republicans considered the United States "too engaged in the world's problems."

Buchanan has continued that line of argument. Then, he argued the United States had no right to interfere in Balkan tribal feuds. Now he writes, "Where does Bush get the right to identify and punish every [terrorist] aggressor? Who believes any president can lift the `dark threat' of aggression and terror from all mankind?" But no one on the right is listening anymore. A "CBS News" poll from last month shows that 94 percent of Republicans approve of the president's handling of the war. If anything, the conservative critics of Bill Clinton's foreign policy--Krauthammer and DeLay among them--are demanding that Bush intervene more aggressively to root out global terrorism, starting with Yasir Arafat.

The Buchananite critique has fallen flat for three reasons. First, the Clinton administration justified its interventions as humanitarian necessities. In the war on terror, by contrast, Bush hasn't needed to appeal to altruism. He has employed the rhetoric of national interest--fulfilling the Buchananite criteria for intervention. And, in the process, he reestablished the connection between national security and the hawkish internationalism that defined conservatism during the cold war. Second, Bush has preempted charges of Wilsonian internationalism by obsessively guarding against encroachments on national sovereignty--yanking the United States out of the Kyoto agreement on global warming, raising objections to the International Criminal Court, and ditching the anti-ballistic missiles treaty. Thirdly, the Buchananites have shot themselves in the foot by blaming September 11 on America's "indiscriminate support for Israel" (McConnell's words in the New York Press last fall) and pining for the days "when America was loved by Arabs" (Taki's words, also in the Press). TAC's supporters have the misfortune to be espousing anti-Zionism at the very moment the conservative rank and file, driven by evangelicals, views Israel as America's kindred spirit in the battle against terrorism and radical Islam. According to the most recent batch of polling, 64 percent of Republicans say they actively sympathize with Israel--as opposed to 38 percent of Democrats. And 83 percent of Republicans applaud Bush's aggressively pro-Ariel Sharon policy on the Middle East.


The rest of the political landscape is equally inhospitable to Buchananism. Trade--an issue on which Beltway conservatives and grassroots conservatives genuinely were out of step--has lost much of its salience now that national security, not economics, dominates foreign policy debates. With Senate Democrats adding the Dayton-Craig labor protections to trade promotion authority, Bush has threatened to veto the legislation altogether, leaving the Buchananites nothing to shout about in the short term. And when the administration has tinkered with trade policy, it has done so in Buchananite ways--raising tariffs on domestic steel, supporting a farm bill loaded with subsidies for U.S. agriculture, and generally proving that Karl Rove is far too in touch with electoral reality to leave Bush vulnerable to protectionist attack.

Bush and the conservative mainstream have also masterfully preempted the anti-immigration backlash Buchanan would like to foment. Although Bush still talks about tolerance for Muslims and even tried to restore food-stamp benefits to legal aliens, he has endorsed a major overhaul of the border patrol, tougher enforcement of student visas, and a fingerprinting system that amounts to racial profiling. Similarly, pro-immigration magazines like The Weekly Standard and National Review have turned racial profiling and a tougher visa system into crusades, leaving Buchanan and his allies little room to accuse the conservative establishment of sacrificing American security for political correctness and cheap labor. When McConnell told me that the American right considers immigration a "verboten issue," he sounded as if he hadn't touched the stack of magazines by his bed for months.

The way the Buchananites see it, they're still battling the neocons--the largely Jewish group of former leftists who migrated right after the Vietnam War. But the neocons are no longer a wing of the conservative movement; they are the conservative movement. Supply-side economics, Israel, welfare reform, vouchers--all the old neocon pet causes have become enshrined in conservative conventional wisdom. As Norman Podhoretz triumphantly declared in The New York Times in 2000, "The time has come to drop the prefix and simply call ourselves conservatives." This presents a huge problem for the Buchananites: There's no constituency on the right--not evangelicals, not gun nuts, not libertarians--who wants to send the neocons back to City College or who even remembers they came from there. It's a fact McConnell seems to acknowledge when he lumps together National Review, FOX NEWS, and George W. Bush as the "neoconservative orthodoxy." There's barely anyone left on the right to embrace TAC.


There is, however, one group that shares the Buchananite docket of suspicions--of Wall Street, capitalism, Zionism, American power: the anti-globalization left. Indeed, Buchanan has fitfully wooed them. He marched in the streets at the 1999 Seattle protests of the World Trade Organization, and he has spoken at labor rallies against free trade. During his 2000 presidential bid, he said he hoped to turn the Reform Party into the "Peace Party." Some of his aidesde-camp have gone further, taking Buchananism to its logical left-wing conclusions. Justin Raimondo, an adviser to Buchanan's 1996 campaign and a historian of the old right, runs The site posts screeds against American interventionism that complain about "empire" and "increased military spending." And by lifting the language of the left, he has acquired an audience on the left: The Nation's Alexander Cockburn has published a column on the site, and Salon and alternative newsweeklies plug his work. For his part, Raimondo is unabashed about his ideological transformation. Last month he wrote on his site, "The only voices of dissent are heard, today, on the Left. ... This is where all the vitality, the rebelliousness, the willingness to challenge the rules and strictures of an increasingly narrow and controlled national discourse has resided."

And Raimondo is not the only one trying his hand at far-left/far-right synergy. On the University of California, San Diego, campus, David Duke's supporters have distributed flyers on "Israeli genocide." Lefty Pacifica Radio broadcasts right-wingers who rail against elites, including recordings of the late conspiracy theorist Anthony Sutton. Thomas Fleming, the editor of the paleocon Chronicles, told me, "I agree with environmentalists on chain stores, fast food, and the Americanization of Europe. I don't even bother calling myself a conservative anymore." Over the course of the '90s the anti-globalization critique that started on the right with Buchanan's 1992 and 1996 presidential runs migrated left. And 9/11, which has forever linked opposition to globalization to opposition to the war on terrorism, was the final straw. The Buchananites may not want to admit it, but in the post-9/11 era, as during the cold war, the prominent critiques of American internationalism will come from the left. TAC contributor Sam Francis says he has already privately advised the new magazine "to forget about the social issues" that divide them from their anti-globalization comrades on the left. Announcing the magazine in a New York Press column, Taki wrote: "Our motto for the magazine is that we are traditional conservatives mugged by the neocons." He'd be better off trying something different: closer to, say, "Workers of the world, unite!"

Franklin Foer is an associate editor at TNR.

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