• U.S.


5 minute read
Michael Kinsley

IT GOES WITHOUT SAYING THAT LIBERALS ARE AT FAULT FOR nearly everything that is wrong with the world today, from welfare to your cat’s fur balls. But you would think that liberals could not be blamed for Pat Buchanan. Yet some conservatives have even tried to pin the rise of this fiery right-winger on liberals. They note that Buchanan bases some of his screwy ideas on the work of an obscure economist, whose name he picked up from an article by the liberal journalist James Fallows. They observe that Buchanan’s concerns about layoffs and middle-class insecurity (though not his proposed solutions) match those of Labor Secretary Robert Reich.

It won’t wash. Although the roots of Buchananism as a political philosophy are varied–from Theodore Roosevelt to Catholic theology to the America First movement of the 1930s–the roots of Buchananism as a popular phenomenon lie much closer to home. Republican politicians who are looking for someone to blame for this spoiler in their midst should look in the mirror. Buchanan’s populist demagoguery, his fatuous targeting of so-called elites, his pandering to white middle-class self-pity, his scapegoating of minority and outsider groups–all these are familiar themes of Republican rhetoric of recent years.

The Weekly Standard, the Washington magazine that styles itself the official voice of the Republican revolution, has an overheated editorial in its March 4 issue titled “The Buchanan Challenge.” Buchananism, the editors declare, is a corrosive anti-institutional populism that threatens to undo the gains of 1994 and trap the G.O.P. in an anti-American, anti-capitalist swamp.

Anti-institutional populism, it seems, is a bad thing when it threatens the Republican triumph of 1994. But was it “corrosive” in the years leading up to 1994? If any Republican said so, I never heard it. Systematic inculcation of popular hatred for “government,” for “bureaucrats,” for “Washington,” for “Congress,” for “elites” was an overt–and brilliantly successful–part of Speaker Newt Gingrich’s Long March strategy for taking over the House. More generally, it became a reflexive part of the Republican political language. Sitting on cnn’s Crossfire for six years, most of them opposite Pat Buchanan, I heard this stuff night after night, and not just from Pat. No Republican ever interrupted another Republican’s diatribe against the institutions of government with the warning, “Let’s not be anti-institutional here.”

It’s good to know that the keepers of the conservative flame now consider it “anti-American” to target scapegoats and misuse patriotism for cheap political advantage. They’re right. But do they by any chance remember the sneery majoritarianism of George Bush’s campaign of 1988–the one all about saluting the flag and prison furloughs? Maybe they even remember back to 1968 and 1972, when Pat Buchanan helped Richard Nixon start this fine Republican tradition.

To be sure, Buchanan’s “anti-institutional” demagoguery represents a break from the Republican boiler plate of recent years in three ways. First, Buchanan targets the institutions of both Washington and Wall Street, whereas earlier Republican demagoguery restricted itself to attacking Washington. But you can’t expect populism, once unleashed, to forever avoid its traditional (and, to many minds, logically more compelling) target. Second, Buchanan has turned up the heat. His blame game is more pointed and angry. But if you’ve been doing your best to keep popular resentments at a high simmer, your indignation is suspect when someone decides to go for a roiling boil.

Third, the approved version of Republican anti-institutional populism had its heyday when Democrats controlled the Congress, and it reached its zenith in 1993 and 1994 when Democrats controlled both Congress and the White House. Now that Republicans control Congress, they are perhaps beginning to regret some of their cheap shots at Congress as an institution. And perhaps a few more farsighted Republicans, anticipating (until recently) a certain recapture of the White House as well, have decided it’s not such a wonderful thing to have the entire country reflexively loathing “Washington.” Too late, too late.

It is delicious to hear Rush Limbaugh, of all people, explaining that Pat Buchanan is not a “Republican” at all–he’s a “populist.” And Rush evidently means this to be a criticism! Buchanan’s populist demagoguery, deplorable as it is, has had the healthy effect of separating the Republicans from the populists, and of exposing the Republican Party’s own populism as a sham. When institutions they and their traditional business allies control are at stake, it is suddenly “anti-American” to be “anti-institutional.”

Last year in these pages some fool (well, it was me) predicted that the populist fever would dissipate now that the Republicans had gained control of Congress. The theory was that a popular anger built largely on amorphous complaints would be satisfied by largely symbolic solutions. The illusion of unhappiness would be addressed by the illusion of change. The Republican leadership must have thought so too, but they and I were wrong. The genie won’t go back into the bottle. Pat Buchanan, now tearing apart the Republican Party, is the genie’s revenge.

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