Before Bannon, there was Buchanan.
They’re the true believers, the keepers of the flame. Two pugilistic Irish Catholics with radical and often objectionable ideas that drive establishment Republicans up the wall.
“I never met the fellow,” Buchanan said when I floated the idea of comparing him to Bannon, the populist avatar in the Trump White House. “We come from different backgrounds and experiences,” he said, perhaps alluding to Bannon’s stint in Hollywood and his messy personal life. But then Buchanan relented, giving the go-ahead to “analogizing his situation to mine in the early seventies, sure.”
Buchanan understood the changing pulse of America, what he called “the silent majority,” when he helped Richard Nixon rebuild his political career after a devastating loss to John F. Kennedy. Once inside the White House, as Nixon’s speechwriter and top advisor, Buchanan had a direct line to the president.
“What do they want now, Buchanan?” Nixon would say when faced with complaints from conservatives. “He (Nixon) said there’s a rule in politics: You give the nuts 20 percent of what they want. I left the room thinking I was one of the 20 percent,” Buchanan says with a laugh.
Nixon relied on Buchanan’s rhetorical firepower to light up the base just as President Trump keeps Bannon close by in the West Wing to keep the Goldman Sachs alumnae at bay and to keep alive the anti-globalization economic nationalism that got him elected.
After a period of media speculation last month that Bannon was on the way out, a casualty of the New York globalists in the West Wing, Bannon has had his resurgence and is evidently back in the good graces of his mercurial boss.
Trump’s 100-day rally in Harrisburg, Penn. was vintage Bannon, hammering hard on the Washington elites and doubling down on jobs and trade and his promise to build a wall on the Mexican border. “They’re doing the right thing keeping Bannon there because he understands the full range of issues, and it’s not just populism—it’s trade and immigration and staying out of foreign wars,” Buchanan says.
Buchanan’s big concern now? “Don’t get us into another war. That’s my real apprehension,” he told the Daily Beast. “A major war would consume the Trump administration, just as it did (George W.) Bush.”
Nixon was a progressive Republican who looked to Buchanan to navigate the new political reality of Goldwater conservatism taking over the GOP, and the country moving right, with segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace getting up to 21 percent in the polls. Anti-war protesters battled the police and “America love it or leave it” workers in hard hats, exposing a cultural divide in urban America that Buchanan turned into political gold much the way Donald Trump found his sweet spot in blue-collar rural America.
Bringing working class Northern Catholics together with Southern Protestants on a racially charged law-and-order, message carried Nixon to a 49-state reelection victory in 1972 with over 60 percent of the vote. Hard to believe today, but “Tricky Dick” was one of our most popular presidents.
Buchanan dealt with Nixon principally thru memos, all of which he has squirreled away in the basement of his McLean, Virginia home, and which form the basis of his new book, “Nixon’s White House Wars,” in which he repeats his oft-stated belief that, “The Watergate break-in was Mickey Mouse. If he (Nixon) had handled it correctly, he would have rolled right through it.”
There was illegal activity, though, and Nixon didn’t tell the truth about what he knew and, of course, he taped himself. The week before Alexander Butterfield, a White House aide, testified about the existence of the taping system, “I sent him (Nixon) a memo telling him to burn the tapes. Burn them and fire (Special Prosecutor) Archibald Cox before he gets too big. There would have been a firestorm, but it would have been the last firestorm.” Nixon ran Buchanan’s advice by White House chief of staff Al Haig, who told him not to do it. It would have been obstruction of justice.
Today, Bannon is up against what Buchanan calls “Wall Street Journal conservatives. They’re not upset by trade and factories moving out of the country, and those are the things that really catch Middle America by the gut.” The Goldman Sachs alums, Jared Kushner, the son-in-law, “and Ivanka doesn’t look like an economic nationalist,” he adds with a laugh. Buchanan likes Wilbur Ross at Commerce’s hard line on trade, the issue he says elected Trump.
Buchanan was named White House Communications Director after Reagan’s landslide victory in 1984. “Reagan was one of us,” he says, a movement conservative, so the battles were mainly with a State Department headed by George Schultz, a traditionalist and an internationalist. “They were very against me, but I had the President with me,” he recalls.
The only time Reagan got upset with the media is if Human Events or the National Review criticized him, says Buchanan. “He always thought of himself as the great leader of the movement. It was real and natural.”
On Buchanan’s watch, Reagan made the cover of Fortune as the ideal chief executive, a master delegator. Soon after, the Iran-Contra scandal broke, undermining the magazine’s thesis and turning it into a punch line. “I never felt he was a great corporate executive, he was more of an inspirational leader—you get the guy below him to run things,” says Buchanan.
Buchanan left four months into the scandal as a new team headed by former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker took over in the White House. The political needs of a president evolve over time, but for now, Trump needs what Bannon brings, which is a visceral feel for the new politics popping all over the world. That’s what sold voters on Trump, and they’re still hanging onto his words.
These are the same America First issues Buchanan ran on in the nineties—border wall, immigration, and economic nationalism. “That’s what carried him through those industrial states, and if he changes, the old blue wall will be back,” says Buchanan. In the end, Trump has to deliver with factories coming back, jobs coming back, and new jobs in manufacturing—a re-industrialization of America, easy rhetorically and almost certain to prove impossible in reality.