The Man Who Won the Republican Party Before Trump Did

cigaretteman

HR King
May 29, 2001
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By Nicole Hemmer
Ms. Hemmer is the author of “Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s.”
In May 1992, Pat Buchanan made his way to Smuggler’s Canyon along the U.S.-Mexico border, where migrants passed into the United States. A motley crowd had gathered for his news conference there: reporters still following his flagging campaign for president, Mexican migrants curious about the event (some of whom were running a pop-up refreshment stand to sell soda to Buchanan supporters), members of a far-right white-power group eager to hear a credible candidate make the case for sealing the border.
“I am calling attention to a national disgrace,” he told the crowd. “The failure of the national government of the United States to protect the borders of the United States from an illegal invasion that involves at least a million aliens a year.” Mr. Buchanan blamed that “illegal invasion” for a host of problems, ranging from drugs to the recent riots in Los Angeles. He called for a “Buchanan fence,” a trench and a barrier that would block migration from the south and become part of the infrastructure of what critics called Fortress America: a nation bound by impregnable barriers that kept out foreign people, foreign goods and foreign ideas.
By the time he arrived at Smuggler’s Canyon, it had been clear for months that Mr. Buchanan stood no chance of wresting the nomination from the sitting president, George H.W. Bush. But Mr. Buchanan was no longer aiming to win the presidency, if he ever was — he was aiming to win the party. He had long believed that “the greatest vacuum in American politics is to the right of Ronald Reagan,” that Reaganism’s days were numbered and that a new right was anxious to be born. He would be the midwife to that new right, a pessimistic, media-savvy, revolution-minded conservatism that took root in the 1990s.

And while the new conservatism Mr. Buchanan hashed out in the 1992 campaign never attracted the impressive majorities that Reagan and Bush had won in the 1980s, it nonetheless dislodged Reaganism as the core of the party in the decades that followed. In the process, the right learned that unpopular populist politics could win power even when they couldn’t win majorities. The election of Donald Trump in 2016 showed that a Buchananite politician could seize the presidency; his loss in 2020 showed how tenuous that hold on power could be. The question facing Republicans now is whether, having adopted the Buchanan model, they can rework it to win elections outright, or whether they will continue to rely on its vision of democracy without majorities — or worse, no democracy at all.
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The notion that the Republican Party would abandon Reaganism seemed absurd in the late 1980s. The wildly popular president left office with what was then the highest approval rating of any departing president since Gallup began tracking it under Harry Truman. For conservatives, Reagan wasn’t just popular — he had redeemed the Cold War conservative movement by blending it with optimism, charisma and an emotional defense of pluralistic democracy.
While that defense was often more rhetorical than real — Reagan backed authoritarian regimes as long as they were anti-Communist and dog-whistled about race throughout his presidency — it had genuine policy implications. He regularly emphasized the need for the free movement of people and goods, calling for a North American accord in his 1980 campaign that would lower the trade and migration borders between Mexico, Canada and the United States. He also spoke in stirring terms about the value of immigration and cultural pluralism. “I think it’s really closer to the truth to say that America has assimilated as much as her immigrants have,” he said at a naturalization ceremony in 1984. “It’s made for a delightful diversity, and it’s made us a stronger and a more vital nation.”
Yet even as he won back-to-back landslide elections — sweeping 44 states in 1980 and 49 in 1984 as he expanded the party to include the newly designated Reagan Democrats — his broad appeal lost him the support of some on the right. In 1982, Mr. Buchanan bemoaned “the transformation of Ronald Reagan from a pivotal and revolutionary figure in American politics into a traditional, middle-of-the-road pragmatic Republican president.” In fact, Mr. Buchanan was brought in as communications director for the Reagan White House in 1985 to appease a group that called itself the New Right, Reagan-skeptical conservatives who believed the president was too pragmatic and soft, particularly on social issues.
Mr. Buchanan’s skepticism remained throughout his years as communications director. He even toyed with the idea of running for president in 1988 to test his theory about the political vacuum to Reagan’s right. But he ultimately left the sideshow campaign to another Pat, the televangelist Pat Robertson. What Mr. Buchanan understood was that 1988 was too soon: Reagan’s star shone so brightly on the right that coming out against his policies, even while praising the man himself, would do little to win over conservatives.




But as he watched Bush win the nomination that would end in a third straight landslide win for Republicans, Mr. Buchanan delivered a diagnosis that would shape his own presidential campaigns in the years that followed. Writing about the future of the party for National Review in 1988, Mr. Buchanan concluded, “The Republican moment slipped by, I believe, when the G.O.P. refused to take up the challenge from the Left on its chosen battleground: the politics of class, culture, religion and race.” He would return in four years to take up that fight.
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When Mr. Buchanan announced his campaign for president in 1991, the world looked very different than it had just a few years earlier. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union brought the Cold War to a sudden end. The geopolitical reality that had governed American politics for nearly 50 years, and defined the Cold War conservative movement that Reagan had led, disappeared overnight. Mr. Buchanan grasped that a new conservatism — or rather, an old conservatism renovated for a new age — was possible.
Mr. Buchanan found a freedom in the end of the Cold War. For decades, that geopolitical battle had led to a widespread belief among Americans that the country had to actively engage with the world to halt the spread of Communism, had to embrace a more open and pluralistic society to model the righteousness of the West, had to affirmatively embrace ideas of democracy and freedom and, eventually, equality.
As the Cold War came to an end, Mr. Buchanan saw a chance to slip the bonds of those commitments. At the very moment democratic triumphalism was in full force and commentators were musing about the end of history, he began questioning whether democracy really was the best form of government. “The American press is infatuated to the point of intoxication with ‘democracy,’ ” he wrote in 1991. To make his point, he compared the Marine Corps and corporations like IBM to the federal government. “Only the last is run on democratic, not autocratic, principles. Yet, who would choose the last as the superior institution?”


 

cigaretteman

HR King
May 29, 2001
72,222
51,899
113
He harkened back to pre-Cold-War foreign policy as well. While Bush’s approval ratings soared to unprecedented heights during Operation Desert Storm in Iraq (they would only be surpassed by his son’s approval rating after the Sept. 11 attacks), Mr. Buchanan denounced the invasion and Bush’s plans to construct a “new world order.” His presidential campaign even borrowed the slogan “America First” from the anti-interventionist group that had opposed U.S. involvement in World War II, a provocative move given that the group had been tainted by its ties to antisemites like the aviator Charles Lindbergh.
Yet Mr. Buchanan’s retro politics was also thoroughly modern. He built his political reputation not through service but through media, a novel approach for a presidential candidate. In 1982, he debuted as a regular panelist on the new PBS series “The McLaughlin Group,” a shouty round-table show that eventually drew millions of viewers. That same year, he also became host of the show “Crossfire” on the fledgling cable news network CNN. The show pitted him against the liberal commentator Tom Braden for a weekly left-right brawl. It quickly became one of CNN’s highest-rated shows.

It was that Pat Buchanan, the feisty, anti-democratic, outrageous, race-baiting figure, that Americans came to know over the course of the 1980s and early 1990s. They got to know him not in the echo chamber of right-wing media but through mainstream political programming — the place, in fact, where modern right-wing punditry would be born in the 1990s. Some of today’s most notable right-wing voices became household names not on Fox News but on cable news outlets and political comedy shows like Bill Maher’s “Politically Incorrect.” (Glenn Beck and Tucker Carlson got their television start on CNN, Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter on MSNBC.)

But Mr. Buchanan was not content to be a television star. He wanted to be in the arena, to vie for power in the national spotlight of a presidential campaign. Routinely trading his host chair for the campaign trail, he helped construct the revolving door between punditry and the presidency that now characterizes Republican politics in the United States.
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In his efforts to fill the vacuum to the right of Reagan, Mr. Buchanan also borrowed directly from the far right. The New Right had drawn inspiration from the campaigns of the Alabama segregationist George Wallace; Mr. Buchanan now drew from the candidacy of David Duke, a former imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan who had become a national name for his efforts to win office in Louisiana. (Mr. Buchanan would disavow him during his 1996 campaign, removing a campaign adviser with ties to Mr. Duke.) After attempting to run as a Democrat for most of the 1980s, Mr. Duke became a Republican in the late 1980s. He then ran in — and won — a special election for a seat in the Louisiana House. (He would go on to lose a campaign for U.S. Senate in 1990, running as a Republican and winning 43 percent of the vote in the general election.)
Republican leaders denounced Mr. Duke during the special election campaign, which drew even Reagan out of retirement to make clear the former Klan leader did not have the party’s support. But while Republican elites scrambled to distance the party from Duke, Mr. Buchanan sought to learn from him. “David Duke walked into the political vacuum left when conservative Republicans in the Reagan years were intimidated into shucking off winning social issues so we might be able to pass moral muster with Ben Hooks and Coretta King,” he wrote, naming two Black civil rights leaders. That, he argued, was the wrong approach. Instead, the party should look at why Duke was so attractive to voters and work to appeal to his base.
It was a tricky maneuver. Mr. Buchanan seemed to want to mainstream the Klan leader’s issues without the baggage of the white hood, to win the extremist vote without attracting charges of extremism. As his visit to Smuggler’s Canyon in 1992 showed, that was not an easy task.

despite its losses, one of the most consequential in American history.
 

cigaretteman

HR King
May 29, 2001
72,222
51,899
113
There, mixed in with the crowd at the border for Mr. Buchanan’s news conference, was a group that made clear the cost of courting the Duke vote. Tom Metzger, a former Klan grand dragon and founder of the White Aryan Resistance, gathered with other white-power activists to support Mr. Buchanan’s anti-immigrant speech. The campaign quickly clarified to reporters that the white-power activists were not part of the event. But their presence served as a warning that Mr. Buchanan had little control over how much extremism he invited into the Republican Party. He was not siphoning off extremist ideas; he was opening a floodgate.
Mr. Metzger also served as a reminder of Mr. Buchanan’s own extremism. For years, Mr. Buchanan faced accusations of antisemitism: He wondered aloud whether people had really been gassed to death at the concentration camp at Treblinka, denounced efforts to round up fugitive Nazis and called Congress “Israeli-occupied territory.” In an early version of the Great Replacement Theory, he railed against nonwhite immigration as fundamentally anti-American, asking in 1990, “Does this First World nation wish to become a Third World country?”
There was more than enough on Mr. Buchanan’s record for reporters to expose his extremism and make clear the roots of his candidacy. Yet it seemed to some, like the Washington Post columnist David Broder, that journalists were going easy on Mr. Buchanan. “The press has treated his campaign lightly, presuming that it is just an interlude before he goes back on CNN’s ‘Crossfire’ and the speaking circuit. That’s a mistake,” he wrote in a piece comparing Mr. Buchanan to Mr. Wallace. “Like George Wallace,” he wrote, “he has a deadly knack for finding the most divisive issues in American life, including race, and a growing skill in exploiting them.” Too many journalists, Mr. Broder feared, believed Mr. Buchanan couldn’t be a crackpot because he was a colleague.

Though Mr. Buchanan lost in 1992, and again in 1996 and 2000, his ideas took root immediately. In reaction to his surprisingly strong showing in the 1992 New Hampshire primary, the Republican Party adapted its platform to call, for the first time, for “structures” on the border. California activists took note as well, and a year later, they began working on what would become Proposition 187, a harsh measure that would cut undocumented immigrants off from almost every nonemergency government service, including public education. And while Republican politicians like George W. Bush and John McCain attempted to tamp down that nativist streak in the party, it was the nativists who ultimately won.
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Mr. Buchanan’s style, too, became a central mode of politics, as politicians learned that headline-grabbing outrage could build a base far more easily than shoe-leather politicking could. Likewise, thinning the line between extremism and presidential politics, which had been considered a vice since the disastrous 1964 campaign of Barry Goldwater, slowly became a virtue: a way of expanding the base and injecting enthusiasm into a campaign.
Those dynamics are all at play in today’s Republican Party. Once the party of Ronald Reagan, it is now in thrall to the politics of Mr. Buchanan. Yet it is also at a crossroads. Buchananism was never truly popular. Neither was Trumpism: With Donald Trump, Republicans won power but not popularity — at least, not a popularity they could translate into clear electoral majorities. The simple solution would be to return to Reaganism, to reconstruct that big, if still exclusionary, tent and win huge majorities. But recent efforts to recreate Reaganism and establish a more inclusive Republican Party, like George W. Bush’s appeals to compassionate conservatism and Senator John McCain’s insistence on immigration reform, met fierce opposition from the party’s base.
So the party has instead tried to strike a tenuous balance, strengthening counter-majoritarian institutions, appealing to nonwhite men in an effort to bolster its numbers, and scouting for candidates who can speak with a Trumpian patois without the Trumpian excesses that drive more moderate voters away. It is a near-impossible balance to strike, and if it fails, it carries not only the threat of more pseudo-legal efforts to rewrite election outcomes but also the threat of escalating political violence. This is the path the party chose when it traded Reaganism for Buchananism, making Mr. Buchanan’s endless campaign for the presidency,