The Once and Future President
Postliberal political strategy from the man who invented "MAGA."
The legacy of a politician is ordinarily determined by a simple calculation: winners make an impact, and losers get left behind, or, in the words of Mitch McConnell, “winners make policy, losers go home.” However, this formula fails to account for candidates whose ideas outlive their unsuccessful campaigns.
Pat Buchanan exemplifies this phenomenon. Despite falling short of the White House in his three presidential bids, he helped to infuse “new” ideas into the conservative mainstream that eventually propelled Donald Trump to the Presidency. Buchanan is rightly viewed as a forerunner to Trump, but he also deserves recognition as a leader in his own right. The career of Pat Buchanan illuminates the ongoing transformation of the Republican Party and begs answers to the foundational questions of American political life.
Patrick Joseph Buchanan was born into a Catholic family of eleven in Washington, D.C. He attended Gonzaga College High School and then Georgetown University, where his near-expulsion led him to a job with a newspaper in St. Louis. However, Buchanan would not be away from Washington for long, eventually landing a job in the Nixon Administration. He returned to the executive branch again in 1985, this time to serve as White House Communications Director for the Reagan Administration. Outside of the West Wing, Buchanan frequently appeared on political television shows and wrote syndicated columns. He was, in every sense of the label, a Washington insider.
Thanks for reading The American Postliberal! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support our mission.
This political experience set Buchanan on the course of challenging George H.W. Bush in the 1992 Republican presidential primary, Buchanan positioned himself as an enemy of the Beltway political class. In the year leading up to his announcement, he strongly criticized the Gulf War, writing that the United States had “no legitimate vital interest in the Persian Gulf” that justified military intervention on behalf of Kuwait. Buchanan would continue as one of the few anti-war voices on the right through the 1990s and into the 2000s. He was joined by libertarians like Ron Paul in his opposition to President George W. Bush’s launching of the Iraq War—a heterodox position among mainstream conservatives at the time. Buchanan’s views on the “American empire” and Washington D.C.’s military adventurism are encapsulated in the closing words of his 1992 announcement speech, in which he compared his platform to that of George H.W. Bush:
He is yesterday and we are tomorrow. He is a globalist and we are nationalists. He believes in some Pax Universalis; we believe in the Old Republic. He would put American's wealth and power at the service of some vague New World Order; we will put America first.
In contrast to many other conservatives of the post-Reagan GOP, Buchanan’s 1992 campaign also placed a strong emphasis on social issues. After having been defeated by the elder President Bush, he delivered his most famous public address at the Republican National Convention, the so-called “culture war speech.” Near the conclusion of his remarks, Buchanan recalled a heartbreaking encounter on the campaign trail with a woman who had just lost her job in the working-class town of Groveton, New Hampshire. With this story in mind, he called on the Republican Party to forge an alliance with “conservatives of the heart,” the forgotten men and women who “don’t read Adam Smith or Edmund Burke” but who uphold the values at the core of the American way of life.
George H.W. Bush, of course, lost in November 1992, in part due to his unwillingness to listen to the forgotten men and women of America. Buchanan himself would stage two more presidential campaigns, with his 1996 bid coming the closest to success. Despite winning the crucial New Hampshire primary, he was not able to secure enough delegates in later contests to best Bob Dole. His 2000 campaign as the nominee of the Reform Party is remembered as little more than a historical footnote.
For a while, it seemed as if Buchanan’s platform—support for everyday Americans and traditional values, paired with opposition to foreign wars and globalism—would be confined to idiosyncratic newspaper columns and television appearances. The small government, pro-interventionist forces within the GOP of the 1980s and 1990s were strong enough to crowd out Buchanan’s insurgent bids. That all changed in 2015, when a New York billionaire with a knack for Twitter embraced many of these same ideas as his own. The Buchanan Brigades, marshaled under a new leader, were at last able to encamp at the White House.
Although it is easy to draw parallels between the 1992 and 2016 election cycles, Donald Trump is not simply a pastiche of Pat Buchanan. The two men appear to view the world quite differently on the grounds of first principles. Yet, they still arrive at oftentimes similar conclusions, and both have been resoundingly vindicated in their critiques of the institutional forces which claim to represent conservatives and the American people at large.
How, then, should the legacy of Pat Buchanan inform the future development of American political strategy? What prescriptions does he offer to solve the issues facing America today? Consider his impact on discourse surrounding three areas: foreign policy, culture, and demographics. Buchanan lays a roadmap for each of these areas that was, in turn, adhered to with some degree of fidelity during the Trump Administration.
The closest area of alignment between Buchanan theory and Trump practice is foreign policy. Trump, like Buchanan, criticized the Iraq War as a misguided, overpriced, and costly effort in nation-building. The 45th President also made it a priority to bring home troops from the Middle East, even if he was not able to oversee their withdrawal to completion. Despite his reputation for taking risks and confrontation, Trump himself was dovish enough to prevent hawkish holdovers from the Bush Administration from launching America into a new war during his four years in office.
On the cultural front, Trump’s social conservatism differs significantly from Buchanan’s. He entered the Oval Office with a rather ambiguous cultural agenda and did not oppose the Supreme Court’s 2015 legalization of same-sex marriage, atypical for Republicans at the time. However, Trump solidified his stance on social issues by 2020, strongly condemning the attacks against America’s history during that summer’s riots and upheaval. His Independence Day speech at the foot of Mount Rushmore that year mirrored aspects of Buchanan’s 1992 convention address and has proved one of the most memorable moments of Trump’s time in office.
On the question of demographic collapse, Buchanan’s book on the Second World War begins with a somber reflection:
All about us we can see clearly now that the West is passing away. In a single century, all the great houses of continental Europe fell. All the empires that ruled the world have vanished. Not one European nation, save Muslim Albania, has a birth rate that will enable it to survive through the century. As a share of world population, peoples of European ancestry have been shrinking for three generations … Having lost the will to rule, Western man seems to be losing the will to live as a unique civilization as he feverishly indulges in La Dolce Vita, with a yawning indifference as to who might inherit the Earth he once ruled.
The phenomenon which Buchanan observes has occurred not in secret but rather in broad daylight. In the United States, the problem of anemic birthrates is compounded by the current ruling class’s fundamentally unjust approach to immigration, which harms the American worker and weakens what remains of our cultural identity. Correcting this trend stands among the most urgent political tasks of our time.
President Trump’s desire to alleviate the humanitarian crisis at the border and reestablish sovereignty over our immigration system marked a partial adoption of Buchanan’s demographic outlook. However, there remains an opportunity to do more on the domestic front. Establishing a system of incentives to reward family formation and support the raising of children—as Trump has promised to do if awarded a second term—is the next logical step in ameliorating America’s demographic woes. In many ways, Buchanan and Trump can be viewed as precursors to American postliberalism. They have not been correct on every issue, but they have built a new generation of conservatives willing to break with the liberal paradigm. The question then becomes, who will pick up the mantle from both of them? Perhaps Republican leaders, like Senator J.D. Vance of Ohio, will ultimately realize this vision.
Though he is far less active today than at the height of his political career, Pat Buchanan remains an astute observer and an incisive critic. In a 2017 article for The American Conservative, he asked, “If advanced democracy has produced the disintegration of a nation that we see around us, what is the compelling case for it?”
For Buchanan, the answer is clear. He does not assess societies and regimes in the abstract. Like postliberals, his views are grounded in real human communities: families, neighborhoods, towns, and the Church. As we navigate toward American renewal, we ought to preserve these tangible things as our lodestar. Donald Trump’s presidency, and the American populist movement more broadly, reflects the reception of Buchanan’s legacy—an incomplete but still ongoing effort.