Before Donald J. Trump, there was Patrick J. Buchanan, who ran for president three times as a champion of the white working class. He railed against globalization and unfair trade deals, and he pushed for a crack down on immigration. His rhetoric inflamed the grievances of voters that felt left behind by party elites.
He never came close to the presidency, but the issues he ran on are the ones that propelled Trump to the White House. Asked if he feels vindicated, Buchanan said:
“I was all for Trump. Do I feel my ideas appear to have prevailed? My enemies seem to think so,” he concluded with a wry laugh.
“The idea of economic nationalism, an end to globalism, putting America first in trade, securing the border, one nation, one people—I’m still a conservative Republican, but this is the new and enlarged agenda,” he said.
Buchanan loves Steve Bannon, the appointment that set the mainstream media’s hair on fire when Trump named the CEO of Breitbart News his White House senior counselor. “He did it and took the heat for it, which is the sign of a leader,” Buchanan said in an interview with The Daily Beast. Bannon “was called a lot worse names than me” and Trump stuck with him.
At Breitbart, Bannon made inroads to the populists and the nationalists and the America Firsters—the voters that flock to Trump’s rallies. “I bet Bannon is behind that patriotic rhetoric,” Buchanan said, “Our folks love that stuff.”
Full disclosure: I’ve known Buchanan since I covered him as a reporter for Newsweek when he was President Reagan’s communications director, and then spent many years jousting with him on The McLaughlin Group. This interview took place the day after the first of President-Elect Trump’s Thank You rallies, which Buchanan watched on television.
“Last night was wonderful,” he said. “I was laughing like the guys sitting behind him. He really let loose,” zinging the rivals he had vanquished, and the media that got it wrong. “It was like Truman holding up the newspaper,” Buchanan said, comparing Trump savoring his improbable victory to Truman’s 1948 upset win.
“He’s far more entertaining than Hillary. If she’d been elected, we’d be yawning,” Buchanan said. “He brings tremendous energy and ideas, and a great measure of self-confidence—and a tremendously loyal following that will stick with him.”
Trump’s appointments so far, “generals and Goldman Sachs,” Buchanan quipped, are not what you’d associate with a populist movement.
But so long as Trump stays free of the neo-cons, Buchanan is happy.
“This whole thing rests on the shoulders of Donald Trump, and he understands who is the girl who brought him to the dance.” He’s got to create those jobs and get rid of those trade deficits. Listen to him at the rally, Buchanan says, repeating Trump’s words: “We’re not globalists, we’re not citizens of the world. We pledge allegiance to the flag of the United State of America. We’re America Firsters.”
“This is valid nationalism and populism and the people respond to that. What broke (George W.) Bush was the foolish war and the consequences of that—and the whole neo-con agenda looking to have a war with Iran. Looking at Trump’s emerging foreign policy, I think I’m optimistic.” He noted that General James Mattis, Trump’s choice for Secretary of Defense, said he would keep the Iran nuclear deal. “That’s key,” Buchanan says.
Even as he delights in Trump’s victory, Buchanan concedes, “we are taking a bit of a risk with this guy. We don’t know him, and there are caution signs.” Two-thirds of voters said Trump didn’t have the temperament to be president, and yet he won enough votes to be elected president.
“They wanted something different,” says Buchanan, and it’s not a lot more complicated than that.
Asked if he identifies with the alt-right movement, he laughed, dismissing the self-identified alternative right as a generational aberration. “They’re much younger, they’re basically guys in their twenties and thirties. Some people I know walked out of it—they’re not into Sieg Heil, they’re not into this stuff.” He’s referring to an Alt-Right conference in Washington after Trump’s win last month where several adherents were seen giving the Nazi salute. “When they throw up the Sieg Heil, the media loves this stuff, they can’t get enough of it,” says Buchanan.
It has long been a default position for the right that the media inflame and exaggerate fringe elements that then tar the broader conservative movement. That argument broke out at Harvard after the election when the Clinton campaign accused the Trump campaign of dog-whistle politics that tapped into racial and ethnic fears.
“I’m supposed to be the dog and I’m not hearing that,” Buchanan said, “I’ve been fighting against globalism for thirty years.” He says the grievances that carried Trump to the White House are the same ones playing out in Europe, where nationalism continues to challenge the European Union. With the exception of Austria, which last weekend voted down a far-right party, what Buchanan calls “ethno-nationalism” is poised to roil governments in France, Germany and the Netherlands next year.
Trump’s base of support is the crowd that cheers him at his rallies, and going after the media is red meat. “The mainstream media is the principle adversary of the conservative movement and now the Trump administration,” says Buchanan, who recites a long history of resentment towards the liberal media, with few allies among the media.
“With Nixon we had nobody,” Buchanan says, citing the anti-Nixon sentiment of every big-name newspaper back in the day.
With the rise of Breitbart and an alternative conservative media, Trump has many more tools available to him, and is arguably in a stronger position with the rise of social media than the under-resourced traditional media. Buchanan’s point is that the same battle lines remain. He recalled President Obama’s first White House Correspondents dinner, when he looked out at the ballroom full of reporters and various Washington hangers-on and said he felt like he was talking to “my base.”
“Everybody laughed—they knew it was true,” says Buchanan. “Just in terms of beliefs, the national media, the folks at the White House Correspondents dinner, do they believe in border security and a moratorium on immigration?”
Buchanan doesn’t wait for an answer. “They’re just not on our side.”
The Access Hollywood tape that showed Trump boasting crudely about his sexual exploits jolted him, Buchanan admitted. “He was taking the faithful too far on this one.” But Trump quickly apologized, and the desire for change was so great that nothing could derail Trump.
The power of his ideas and the prejudices that he unleashed had their roots in Buchanan’s own failed campaigns, and in the decades of stagnant wages that Trump promises to reverse.