Pat Buchanan was Breitbart Before Breitbart

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Timothy Stanley is a historian of the United States at Oxford University. He is the author of "Kennedy vs. Carter: The 1980 Battle for the Democratic Party's Soul" and most recently of "The Crusader: The Life and Tumultous Times of Pat Buchanan." He blogs on American politics for the London Daily Telegraph and has written for The Atlantic, Dissent, and National Review. His website is

Pat Buchanan’s dismissal from MSNBC is probably the best thing to happen to him since he was hired by MSNBC. For ten years, the pundit was the voice of populist conservatism on the network – sparring with Rachel Maddow or Chris Matthews over abortion, gay rights, war, taxes, and affirmative action. His career was brought to an end by the publication of his latest book, Suicide of a Superpower: Will America Survive to 2025?, released in November 2011. The book argues that America is breaking up under the pressure of demographic change—driven by immigration and multiculturalism. The liberal lobbying group Color of Change took offense at chapter titles like “The End of White America” and demanded Buchanan’s dismissal. On February 17, 2012, he announced that MSNBC had caved under pressure and he was no longer on its staff. Since then, it feels like he has never been off television.

In terms of raw publicity, MSNBC’s loss was my gain. They sacked Pat Buchanan on the exact same day that I launched a new biography of him—The Crusader: the Life and Tumultuous Times of Pat Buchanan. I wrote it partly to remind readers of how Buchanan came to achieve such a level of public prominence. Given how controversial he can be (this is the guy who said that U.S. foreign policy was being dictated by “the Israeli Defense Ministry and its Amen corner in the United States”, or that gays with AIDS “have declared war on nature, and now nature is exacting an awful retribution”) it can be hard to understand why MSNBC dared to give him a platform in the first place.

Buchanan’s authority as a commentator comes from his resume, which reads like a biography of American conservatism. After a stint as a journalist, be became a speechwriter for Richard Nixon and was by his side when he won the presidency in 1968. Buchanan defended his boss throughout the Watergate scandal and followed him into early retirement. In 1985, he was asked to serve as Reagan’s Director of Communications and held that job during Iran-Contra. His role as a rare cheerleader for the embattled president encouraged a Draft Buchanan movement for the 1988 election. Buchanan turned it down, as of yet unready for the burdens of a presidential campaign.

The end of the Cold War prompted Buchanan to re-evaluate his hitherto orthodox conservatism. He argued that the Republican Party should embrace a “New Nationalism” that would protect against foreign imports and reduce commitments overseas. In 1992, he entered the presidential primaries to protest incumbent George H.W. Bush’s tax increases. His 37 percent of the vote in New Hampshire was treated like a victory by the press and earned him a speech at the national convention. There, he declared that America was engaged in a “cultural war” for the “soul of America”—a bold statement of social conservatism that set the tone for the viciously partisan politics of the 1990s.

Buchanan evolved into the spokesman for a demographic that was hard pressed by the economic and cultural revolutions of the ‘90s. These were mostly blue-collar, religious men (of all political persuasions) who warmed to his message of protecting and preserving the values and industries of the 1950s. In the 1996 presidential race, he won New Hampshire and seemed to have sparked what he called a “peasant’s revolt.” The exit polls showed that his voters were poor, religious, pro-life, pro-gun, and pro-protectionism. “They call me names,” said Buchanan to his supporters on election night. “Somebody the other night called me a socialist. They call me the right. They can’t figure out where we are—left, right, New Deal. Where is that fella? Some strange creature from the ‘30s, no he’s ‘60s, the 1700s. We don’t know where he’s from!” That ability to tap into so many historical traditions—all of them culturally signified by “the common man” —was the secret to his success.

But Buchanan’s strength was also his weakness. He drew blue-collar votes because the blue-collar constituency was in crisis. But one of the symptoms of that crisis was the dwindling of its political power. Buchanan could never draw enough of his people to the polls to win in 1996. In 2000, he went independent in the hope of building a bipartisan coalition of anti-establishment voters. But his cultural conservatism alienated the Left and his economic unorthodoxy alienated the Right. Buchanan took just 0.4 percent of the national vote.

All of this history made Buchanan a natural pick for MSNBC. But not all politicians make good pundits. Perhaps Buchanan’s greatest legacy was the way that he helped transform conservative media. In the late 1970s, he began to argue that the only way that the Right could get a fair hearing on television was to ape the outrageousness of the Left. Recognizing that the modern media abhorred calm and reasoned debate, Buchanan urged his fellow conservatives to act up and act out. He started a show with liberal journalist Tom Braden called Crossfire that pitted the two men’s wits against each other. Buchanan was fond of calling Braden a “pointy-headed liberal” and a member of “the Volvo, white wine and cheese set.” The maverick right-winger had a reputation for talking over his “elitist” liberal guests. One victim was the priest-come-Democratic-congressman Fr. Robert F. Drinan. Time after time, Pat asked questions and then interrupted as Drinan tried to answer. Eventually, Drinan snapped, “Do you ever permit anybody to finish a sentence?” Buchanan replied, “Yes, you just finished one.”

Buchanan was the forerunner of Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck. Andrew Breitbart, the Tea Party rabble rouser who sadly passed away last week, was just one in a long line of militant conservatives to follow Buchanan. But none of them had Buchanan’s history or qualifications. As Chris Matthews said to me, “I wouldn’t compare Pat Buchanan with Glenn Beck and all those guys we have now, because Pat actually had brains. He went right back to Nixon, was there on the trip to China, and he had gravitas … With Pat, you’re arguing with a brilliant guy, not just a loudmouth celebrity.” And that was why he survived so long.

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