Pat Buchanan's Brave New World

From the Weekly Standard:

It’s springtime for Pat Buchanan.

Once a respected voice on the right, erstwhile presidential candidate, and omnipresent talking head, Pat Buchanan has in recent years languished in obscurity, so it would be easy to dismiss him as a bitter, disappointed figure skulking at the fringes since being effectively and appropriately cast out of the conservative movement for his chronic flirtation with anti-Semitism. But it is difficult to deny his influence on a strain of right-wing politics that, until recently, has lain dormant.

Indeed, Buchanan was pushing his nationalist, nativist, anti-globalist politics while Donald Trump was still trolling the New York tabloids, stalking Playboy models, and donating to Democrats. But with Trump’s rise, Buchananism is getting a second wind, and with a bizarre twist: Pat Buchanan has grown disgusted with democracy itself.

This isn’t entirely new. Buchanan’s animus toward the “democracy worshippers of the West” is something he has been nursing for years, but in a recent column, he made his position explicit, along with his admiration for authoritarian strong men like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. “The title the Ayatollah bestowed upon us, ‘The Great Satan,’ is not altogether undeserved,” he wrote (emphasis added).

As columnist Anne Applebaum asked, “Who else on the American Right now openly hates America?”

Buchanan’s column is not a dispassionate work of analysis; it is a panegyric to the new class of autocrats like Orbán who are in the process of snuffing out their countries’ democratic institutions. Like other authoritarians, Orbán is impatient with impediments like the rule of law and an independent judiciary; he vilifies and harasses what is left of the independent media and is suffocating those aspects of civil society he finds uncongenial to his vision of a shining one-party future. Under Orbán, even grade-school textbooks have been recruited to advance his agenda. Eighth-grade students in Hungary read, for example, “It can be problematic for different cultures to coexist.”

For Buchanan, this, rather than democracy, follows the new arc of history. “Why are autocrats like Orbán rising and liberal democrats failing in Europe?” Buchanan asks. “The autocrats have plugged into the most powerful currents running in this new century: tribalism and nationalism.”

By contrast, he argues, “The democracy worshippers of the West cannot compete with the authoritarians in meeting the crisis of our time because they do not see what is happening to the West as a crisis.” This echoes something Buchanan wrote earlier this year: “Recall. Donald Trump was not elected because he promised to make America more democratic, but to ‘make America great again’.” In his passion for “greatness,” Buchanan shares Trump’s affinity for strong men, matched with his disdain for democratic norms, especially as they have played out in this country.

Paradoxically, Buchanan represents a strain of rightist politics that claims the mantle of patriotism while nursing a deep-seated dislike for America itself—both its ideals and its reality. Buchanan’s view of American culture has long been critical, of course, but now it veers toward the starkly dystopian. “Consider what else the ‘world’s oldest democracy’ has lately had on offer,” he writes, before presenting a parade of horribles. Why, he asks, should other countries embrace “a system that produced so poisoned a politics and so polluted a culture?”

Our democracy boasts of a First Amendment freedom of speech and press that protects blasphemy, pornography, filthy language and the burning of the American flag. We stand for a guaranteed right of women to abort their children and of homosexuals to marry. We offer the world a freedom of religion that prohibits the teaching of our cradle faith and its moral code in our public schools.

And it doesn’t stop there. Buchanan argues that we’re witnessing the failure of liberal democracy itself. As a result, there are things such as “the preservation of a unique people and nation that are too important to be left to temporary majorities to decide.”

He also resurrects older tropes. “Democracy lacks content,” he writes. “As a political system, it does not engage the heart.” This is an odd thing to say given the number of Americans who have been willing to die to uphold democratic values, but it underlies the alienation of nationalists or populists who yearn for “men of action.” Democracy bores and disappoints Buchanan; autocrats like Orbán make his heart beat faster.

This, of course, is a threat liberal democracy has faced in the past: It can seem dull and anodyne when compared to the more romantic and manly ideologies of nationalist or totalitarian blood-and-soil. To its critics, values like modesty, prudence, tolerance, pluralism, and a concern for constitutionalism seem weak and etiolated excuses for failure to grasp the bright shining future offered by the strong and determined. In this view, winning is what matters, not the norms that have long governed American democracy.

A word of caution: Contra much of the rhetoric on the political left, there is no reason to believe that America faces a threat of incipient fascism or that Buchanan speaks for anything other than a minority of conservatives, but attention must be paid. It turns out that respect for constitutional norms and liberal democracy may be more fragile than many of us imagined.

A new study by the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group found that nearly half of the Obama voters who switched their allegiance to Trump in 2016 “favored a strong, unencumbered leader and declined to endorse democracy as the best form of government.” (Full disclosure: I am a member of the Democracy Fund’s advisory committee.) The poll also found that the highest levels of support for authoritarian leadership “come from those who are disaffected, disengaged from politics, deeply distrustful of experts, culturally conservative, and have negative views toward racial minorities.” In particular, the study found that fully 31 percent of cultural conservatives now favor a “strong leader” who “does not have to bother with Congress or elections,” and 22 percent believe that “democracy is not always preferable.”

Pat Buchanan can work with this. And unfortunately, he’s ready for another close-up.

Originally published: