Ballot Box

Auf Wiedersehen, Pat

Leading figures in the GOP have been doing their utmost to persuade Pat Buchanan to stay in their party. George W. has sent goodwill emissaries. Republican National Chairman Jim Nicholson has been begging for a meeting. According to a New York Times story, the Republicans are near to giving up hope of changing Buchanan’s mind. This is the wrong attitude entirely. For moral and tactical reasons, conservatives should be cheering the prospect that the bum might throw himself out.

Since Buchanan first ran for president in 1992, the press has largely treated him as a legitimate candidate rather than an extremist canker on American politics, á la David Duke or Louis Farrakhan. Part of the explanation for this is that he’s one of us. Though few journalists have any sympathy for Buchanan’s views, some find it hard to reconcile evidence of his bigotry with the friendly guy they know. For those covering his campaigns, there are other disincentives. Once you brand him an anti-Semite, a racist, and a fascist, it’s not much fun riding around New Hampshire with him in a minivan. What’s more, there is a dimension of self-conscious theatricality to Buchanan’s performances that makes his views easier to dismiss. He’ll uncork a zinger about not buying any more chopsticks until the Chinese quit dumping cheap imports, and then cackle at his no-no. You can write this kind of thing off as just Buchanan tomfooling around and building his brand for TV, rather than dyed-in-the-wool bigotry. 

Yet the bigotry is there all right. You can follow its regular eruptions through his career, from Buchanan’s 1972 memo to Richard Nixon suggesting that he link a primary opponent with “New York Jewish money,” to the now infamous 1977 column I excavated some years ago from the archives of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat in which Buchanan offers qualified praise for Hitler, to dozens of subsequent utterances that mitigate fascism and cast aspersions on nonwhites. Buchanan is our Zhirinkovsky, our Jean-Marie Le Pen.

His prejudice is not the genteel country club variety that may linger in patches elsewhere in the GOP. People who know him say he gives no sign of disliking Jews or blacks in person. His variety of bigotry is far stranger, and in its way much more alarming. Buchanan is a kind of fascist fellow traveler, who dabbles in an anachronistic style of populist demagoguery that points to cosmopolitan Jews, and to a lesser extent nonwhite immigrants, as the source of the country’s problems. In 1999, pro-fascism is such a bizarre stance that it’s almost easier to believe Buchanan isn’t saying what he seems to be saying than to recognize his views for what they are.

The charge that Buchanan is an anti-Semite often begins with his penchant for defending accused Nazi war criminals. While this might seem an eccentric crusade, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with it. Indeed, the urge to defend the rights of deeply unpopular people is admirable. Buchanan claimed a measure of vindication when John Demjanjuk, who was accused of being “Ivan the Terrible,” a sadistic killer at Treblinka, had his conviction overturned by the Israeli Supreme Court. But the problem was never Buchanan’s taking on the case of accused Nazis per se. It was that in defending them, he tried to cast doubt on the Holocaust itself. In one of his columns about Demjanjuk, Buchanan asserted that Jews couldn’t have been gassed to death at Treblinka. This isn’t just an erroneous view. It’s a staple of the literature of Holocaust denial. Since I wrote about this in the New Republic in 1990, more information has emerged about Buchanan’s bizarre argument–a specious comparison of the gas chambers at Treblinka and an accident in which schoolchildren survived inhaling diesel exhaust fumes in an underground tunnel. An article posted on the Web by Jamie McCarthy demonstrates persuasively that Buchanan borrowed the analogy from the newsletter of a Holocaust-denying group that calls itself the German American Information and Education Association.

If dabbling in Holocaust denial doesn’t convict Buchanan of anti-Semitism on its own, it makes a powerful case in combination with the many things he has said and written pointing to Jews as a surreptitious, sinister force in American life. The fuss about Buchanan first started in 1990 when he blamed Jewish neoconservatives of dragging the country toward the Gulf War. In a similar vein in his 1996 campaign, Buchanan would hint that Jews were to blame for much else, sarcastically enunciating the name of Ruth Bader Ginsburg when complaining about the Supreme Court. Or he would attack “New York bankers,” often singling out the firm of “Goldman Sachs” (but never Bear Stearns or Salomon Smith Barney). Or he might complain about the globalist economic policies of Robert Rubin and Alan Greenspan–not those of Lloyd Bentsen and Bill Clinton. In Buchanan’s neo-1930s protectionism and isolationism, it isn’t hard to hear the echoes of the radio priest Father Coughlin, who associated Jewish bankers with rapacious capitalism.

I expected that Buchanan, who took a lot of grief for using this code in 1996, would be more circumspect this time around. Not a chance. His new book, A Republic Not an Empire, makes his complaints against the Jews more explicit than ever. A brief for isolationism, the book includes a pocket history of “Jewish Influence” in U.S. foreign policy from 1917 to the present. Buchanan, who blamed Jews for dragging America into the Gulf War, thinks they also pushed us into World War II–mistakenly! His words echo those of Charles Lindburgh, a leader of the America First Committee, who Buchanan thinks was unfairly labeled an anti-Semite for warning the country about Jewish influence in Hollywood and the media. Buchanan, whose campaign Web site sports an “America First” logo, echoes Lindbergh when he decries “the growing domination of U.S. foreign policy by ethnic groups and media elites able to focus public attention and incite public hysteria.” Instead of agitating for entry into a specific war, he thinks these “ethnic groups” and the “media elites” (read Jews) are pushing us toward general policies of interventionism and internationalism.

Of course, Buchanan’s bigotry isn’t limited to Jews. In the Nixon administration, he wrote memos arguing against integration. He stayed on in the White House after Nixon resigned in hopes that Gerald Ford might nominate him ambassador to South Africa, a position that would allow him help forestall what he once called the “idiotic” idea of one-man, one-vote. One of Buchanan’s most famous lines is about how “Zulus” just wouldn’t fit in in Virginia, but he has said far more explicit things about America being a “white” nation. In a 1997 column, he defends flying the Confederate flag over the South Carolina capitol because the Civil War “did not begin over slavery.” (He says the people’s symbols shouldn’t be chosen by “elites” and “modernists”–I wonder whom he could mean.) Buchanan doesn’t welcome Hispanics any more than Zulus. He says in his book that we should spin off Puerto Rico as an independent country because most people on the island don’t speak English. But as David Broder notes in a Washington Post column, Buchanan would like to offer U.S. statehood to Canadians, including Francophone Quebecois, who happen to be white.

The more you learn about Buchanan’s views, the more the question becomes why Republicans have tolerated a semi-fascist in their midst for so long. Saying good riddance to Pat makes political sense, too. If, as seems likely, he bolts and mounts a third-party campaign, the GOP would do well to depict him as a hater from the fringe and not merely a conservative who refused to compromise. According to one recent poll, Buchanan gets 16 percent of the vote in a three-way matchup with Bush and Gore. Would that many people support Buchanan if they knew what he really thought? I don’t think so. But perhaps the Republicans do.